'I am wholly preoccupied with the war between England and the Transvaal,' Tsar Nicholas wrote to his sister at the outbreak of the Boer War. 'Every day I read the news in the British newspapers from the first to the last line . . . I cannot conceal my joy at . . . yesterday's news that during General White's sally two full British battalions and a mountain battery were captured by the Boers!'
Britain's hold on South Africa was significant for the Russians partly because the route to India lay via the Cape, and as Governors of the Cape were only too aware, Russia had its own designs on India. Indeed, in 1875 when Lord Carnarvon attempted to create a South African Confederation he justified his scheme by the need to defend British interests from Russian ambitions. In 1879 the British feared that Russia might take advantage of the Zulu War and strike in Central Asia - or even send arms to the Zulus. The young Jan Smuts, conscious of this Russian interest, advised his Boer colleagues on the eve of war to prevail on the Russians to foment an anti-British rising in India. In fact, Kruger, thinking along similar lines, had already sent the Russian émigré financier Benzion Aaron to represent the Transvaal at Nicholas's coronation in 1896 - a singularly ignorant move since, as the authors of this book point out, Aaron was a Jew and the Tsar would have regarded the choice of such an emissary as an insult. Nonetheless, the Tsar grasped the larger point and quickly established diplomatic relations with the Transvaal.
LRB 16 July 1998 | PDF Download