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In 1886, five years after the end of the First Boer War, British imperial interests in Southern Africa were reignited by the discovery of a large amount of gold in the Transvaal Republic, close to the Boer capital of Pretoria. The city of Johannesburg sprung up almost overnight as foreign prospectors flocked to the Transvaal in the hope of making their fortune. These uitlanders, a large proportion of whom were British, soon outnumbered the region’s Boer population. As these uitlanders became more settled, they began to expect greater rights and political, social, and economic control over their lives. In turn, the Boers sought to contain their influence through means such as lengthy residential qualifying periods before voting rights were obtained and the imposition of taxes on the gold industry and the introduction of licensing and tariffs. One such tax was that on dynamite, a commodity in increasing demand as miners were required to blast deeper and deeper. A box of dynamite costing five pounds came with a tax of five shillings. Not only did the British consider this tax exorbitant, but the Transvaal President, Paul Kruger, gave monopoly rights for the manufacture of dynamite to a non-British branch of the Nobel Company. The dynamite tax and the perceived continued restrictions on the rights of the uitlanders was a casus belli for Britain.
The growing tension between the British Cape Colony and the Transvaal government came to a head in 1895 when the British botched an attempt to take the town of Johannesburg by force and effectively end the control of the Transvaal government. The failure resulted in uniting the Transvaal Boers behind President Kruger and, in 1897, a military pact against British imperialism was signed between the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The Cape Colony Governor, Sir Alfred Milner, along with other senior British politicians favoured war and the annexation of the Boer republics, believing the Boers would be easily defeated.
The day before this cartoon was published in Punch, Milner had met with Kruger and the President of the Orange Free State, Marthinus Steyn, at Bloemfontein to discuss the deteriorating situation. Inspired by a limerick from Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense (1846), Tenniel’s cartoon suggests the Milner may only have the power of ‘moral suasion’, an appeal to the President’s morality in regards to the rights of the uitlanders, to change the mind of Kruger, depicted here as the ‘wily old cow’. In reality, Kruger had no intention of granting any meaningful concessions and negotiations soon broke down. The Second Boer War officially began in October 1899.