Letter to the Editor – Milner, The UWI and Caribbean Freedom

By Alan Cobley, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Professor of South African History, The University of the West Indies

Early Life and Career:

Alfred Milner was born in Germany of German-British ancestry and attended Balliol College Oxford, where he won several prizes and graduated with First Class Honours. He was elected a fellow of New College, Oxford in 1877. He trained initially as a lawyer, then worked for a time as a writer on the Pall Mall Gazette. His writing was most notable for his strongly imperialist views, which marked him out in his own words as a ‘British race patriot’. He was a leading exponent of the social Darwinist thinking of the period who believed that as a ‘superior race’ the British had a moral right, and even a moral responsibility, to rule other peoples. According to E.T. Stokes, Milner was also an admirer of Bismarck, who ‘believed in the efficacy of a planned society, conceived and ordered by the scientific intelligence’ (Stokes 1969). He ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1885 before taking a job as private Secretary to an MP, George Goschen – who became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1887. Goschen was instrumental in getting him his first overseas posting as under-secretary of Finance in the British administration of Egypt from 1889 to 1892, during which time he was credited with several reforms that helped to put the colony on a sounder administrative footing. He returned to England and served as chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue from 1892 to 1897.

Milner and the South African War of 1899-1902:

Several years of growing tension between the Boers of the South African Republic led by President Kruger and British imperial interests in South Africa over control of the gold mines on the Witwatersrand had culminated in the abortive Jameson Raid at the end of 1895. The Raid had been secretly sponsored by mine magnate and then Prime Minister of the Cape Colony Cecil Rhodes to wrest control of the Witwatersrand from the Boers and install a pro-British administration there. After the failure of the raid, relations between the British and the Boers in South Africa were poor, and the government in London was concerned that the British would lose influence in the region. Against this background, Milner was appointed as Governor of the Cape and British High Commissioner for Southern Africa in May 1897 with a mandate to restore and consolidate British imperial influence in Southern Africa (Worden: 28).

Since Milner considered the British a superior race to the Boers (Afrikaners), it was unacceptable to him that the British on the Witwatersrand should be under Boer control. He was even more concerned that access to the wealth of the gold mining industry might be lost to the British Empire: he wrote at the time that he considered this ‘the weakest link in the imperial chain’. After President Kruger was overwhelmingly re-elected as president in February 1898, Milner was convinced that the only way to ensure British dominance in the region was war with the Boers. In May 1899, after negotiations with Kruger broke down over Milner’s demands for extended political rights for the ‘Uitlanders’ (British settlers) in the Transvaal, he sent a telegram to the Colonial Secretary in London asserting that ‘the case for intervention is overwhelming … thousands of British subjects [are being] kept permanently in the position of helots’ (Thompson: 140). Eventually, Kruger was goaded into declaring war against Britain on 11 October 1899: he hoped for a swift victory before British military reinforcements could arrive.  A bitter and bloody war ensued – The South African War of 1899-1902 – which the British won eventually by deploying overwhelming military force against the Boers. This included conducting a scorched earth policy and rounding up tens of thousands of Boer and African civilians into the world’s first concentration camps in order to cut off their supply lines. Even at the time, this naked display of imperialism by the British in South Africa was seen as shocking: it informed the writing of JA Hobson’s famous book ‘Imperialism: A Study’ published in 1902.

Any hope that a British victory might lead to African political equality in South Africa after the war was explicitly rejected by Milner. In November 1899, shortly after the outbreak of war, he wrote:

The ultimate end is a self-governing white Community, supported by well-treated and justly governed black labour from Cape Town to the Zambesi (Quoted in Thompson: 144).

In fact, the Secretary for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain initially favoured including African enfranchisement as one of the pre-conditions for the return of self-government to the Boers after the war. However, Milner explicitly opposed the idea of political equality for blacks and proposed instead that they be represented in the legislature by white nominees.

According to TRH Davenport, Milner also told Chamberlain in a memorandum in December 1901,

that the blacks should not be forced to change their ways or to work for whites, but that the whites should teach them “habits of regular and skilled labour” and keep them severely away from strong drink. He placed blacks low on the Great Chain of Being, as people to be “well-treated” and “justly governed” (Davenport 1991: 207).

In the event Article 8 of The Treaty of Vereeniging (31 May 1902) that ended the war (signed by Milner and Chamberlain on behalf of the British Government) stipulated that ‘The question of granting the franchise to natives will not be decided until after the introduction of self-government.’ As Leonard Thompson notes this was ‘a momentous decision’ as it handed the power to the local white population to decide whether to enfranchise their black fellow subjects: ‘it was a foregone conclusion that they would exclude the Blacks, since the republics had never allowed Blacks to vote’ (Thompson: 144).  Subsequently, this decision to allow the continuation of the racist status quo was confirmed by the terms of the Act of Union – passed in the British Houses of Parliament – that established the Union of South Africa in 1910. It meant that the black majority was permanently excluded from equal political rights in the Union of South Africa – except for about 15,000 Africans in the Cape Province who were already on the voters’ roll – and it established the political conditions for the development of a comprehensive segregation system in South Africa in the years that followed.

Milner and Post-War Reconstruction in South Africa to 1905:

After the war, Milner, by now elevated to the peerage for his service to the Empire, continued as High Commissioner for South Africa and was also sworn in as Governor of the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony respectively. He set about the task of post-war reconstruction in South Africa, with the specific purpose of consolidating the two British colonies of the Cape and Natal and the two former Boer republics into a single, unitary state from the Cape to the Limpopo. This was not merely a matter of administrative convenience: he believed this was necessary to promote the interests of the British Empire – which he saw as synonymous with the interests of industrial capitalism in the region, and he worked closely with the major mining houses to cater for their needs. He believed that societies could be engineered through careful planning: the approach he adopted to reconstruction gave full rein to this rigid and autocratic thinking.  To assist him he recruited a dozen young Oxford graduates from England – a group dubbed ‘Milner’s Kindergarten’ by Cape Prime Minister John X Merriman. Among the policies implemented during this period were the establishment of a South African Customs Union, the creation of the Central South African Railways and the further development of the South African Constabulary as a central police force.


One of the critical needs was to get the gold mines back in production after a hiatus during the war. To meet the immediate labour shortage, Milner negotiated a Treaty with the Portuguese Government in Mozambique in 1901 to supply cheap black labour to the mines. Between 1903 and 1907 about 60 per cent of the labour force on the mines was provided by Mozambique. In another effort to supplement the labour supply, Milner sanctioned the temporary importation of Chinese indentured labour under an agreement with the Chinese government between 1904 and 1907.While these interventions met the initial needs, The Chamber of Mines lobbied for a longer term solution to the labour issue. Milner’s response was the establishment of the Transvaal Labour Commission of 1904, which argued that the systematic exploitation of cheap black labour was key to the future profitability of the gold mining industry. Its recommendations would lay the long-term foundations of the cheap black labour system on which South Africa’s modern, avowedly racist, industrial economy was built in the twentieth century. 

Native Policy

As already noted, Milner had blocked the granting of equal political rights to Africans, and believed that the onus was on the ‘superior’ white race to ensure they were ‘well treated and justly governed’. After the war he established the South African Native Affairs Commission under the Chairmanship of Sir Godfrey Lagden in 1903 to determine the answer to the so-called ‘Native Question’ in South Africa in light of this philosophy. After hearing evidence and receiving submissions from ‘native experts’ across South Africa, The Lagden Commission report published in 1905 proposed a comprehensive solution to the ‘native problem’ that would secure the permanent position of whites in the country in a position of dominance. It included proposals for the territorial segregation of land ownership on racial lines, and supported the establishment of a system of ‘native locations’ in urban areas to segregate white from black in urban areas. The Report would become the blueprint for a comprehensive segregation system in South Africa after the Union was formed in 1910. Eventually the system of territorial segregation proposed by Lagden was enacted by the Natives Land Act of 1913, while the system of urban segregation proposed by the Report was embodied in the Natives (Urban Areas) Act of 1923. After 1948, these two pieces of legislation, together with the principle of political segregation that Milner had helped defend, became the founding pillars of the apartheid system.

Anglicisation Policy:

Given his conviction about the racial superiority of the British over all other races, including the Boers, it was not surprising that Milner’s long-term plan for the development of South Africa included an anglicisation policy. The centre-piece of this was a plan to promote British immigration:

On the political side, I attach the greatest importance of all to the increase of the British population… If, ten years hence, there are three men of British race to two of Dutch, the country will be safe and prosperous. If there are three of Dutch and two of British, we shall have perpetual difficulty (Quoted by Beinart: 73).

Though there was significant white immigration into South Africa in these years, the goal of swamping the Boers numerically was never achieved. In any event, as several historians have pointed out, Milner was misled by his own ‘race patriotism’ into assuming that most British immigrants would place their British identity over their class position. In practice, British mineworkers who were imported to work on the mines soon demonstrated that they often had very different interests to the British mine owners who employed them.

The other aspect of Milner’s anglicisation policy was an attempt to undermine Dutch (Boer) culture and promote English culture in its place.  This included the promotion of English over Dutch in  administrative and judicial settings, and the banning of Dutch language instruction from government schools,  the establishment of a number of ‘Milner Schools’ modeled after the English public schools system, and even the importation of Scottish Calvinist clerics in an attempt to dilute the ‘Dutch’ element in the Dutch Reformed Church. Far from consolidating British control, this ham-fisted effort at cultural imperialism only succeeded in provoking an aggressive and highly reactionary Afrikaner nationalist cultural movement among the Boers – which would ultimately be the well-spring of apartheid ideology.

Milner’s Later Career:

After stepping down as High Commissioner in 1905, Milner returned to England and moved into the private sector. Having proved himself a strong proponent of mining interests while in South Africa, he became chairman of the Rio Tinto Mining Company in 1906. He also served on the Board of the Joint Stock Bank in London, and held several other directorships. On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, he returned to the public service and was given responsibility for organising food and mine production, both of which had declined under wartime conditions. He was appointed by Prime Minister Lloyd-George to the five-man War Cabinet in December 1916. In 1918 he became Secretary of State for War, and presided over the Army Council during the last months of the war. At the end of the war, he was appointed as Secretary for the Colonies, and attended the Paris Peace Conference in that capacity.

One of Milner’s most notable contributions in this period was as chief author of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which committed Britain to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, at a time when Britain was also committed to assisting the cause of Arab nationalism. As Colonial Secretary he helped draft the terms that led to the establishment of Palestine as a British territory under the ‘Mandates’ system of the League of Nations in 1922. Much of the subsequent history of conflict in the Middle East between Arabs and Jews was rooted in these contradictory British interventions in the region.

Milner and West Indian Nationalism

One of the critical legacies of the First World War for Caribbean societies was that many former soldiers and sailors from the region who served during the war returned to the Caribbean with a greatly heightened sense of West Indian nationalism, and a determination to fight for the causes of equality and self-determination at home. Examples include Captain Arthur Cipriani and Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler in Trinidad and Tobago, Norman Manley in Jamaica, and Clennell Wickham in Barbados. Colonial authorities were alerted to this dangerously heightened consciousness following the mutiny of members of the British West Indies Regiment in Taranto, Italy in December 2018. As plans were laid to repatriate West Indian soldiers and sailors in early 1919, a worried official in the Colonial Office warned in an internal memo: ‘Nothing we can do will alter the fact that the black man has begun to think and feel himself as good as the white.’ Milner wrote to Colonial Governors throughout the West Indies in his capacity as Secretary of State for the Colonies to warn them of this imminent threat to colonial order in the Caribbean. He recommended the stockpiling of weapons and ammunition, as well as the mobilization of local military forces to meet the ships carrying the returnees. He also asked the Royal Navy to send HMS Devonshire to Jamaican waters, and for a second ship to be put on stand-by, so that the Navy would be available to intervene in the event that trouble broke out. Although there were some disturbances in different parts of the British West Indies, these measures largely contained the immediate challenge to the colonial authorities posed by the returning servicemen. However, in the longer run, they could do nothing to prevent the propagation of the spirit of West Indian nationalism across the region over the next two decades.

Milner and Tropical Agriculture:

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, there was a serious shortage of trained scientific officers in the areas of agriculture, veterinary services and medicine in the colonies, especially in the tropics. As Secretary of State to the Colonies, Milner established several committees to investigate these shortages and to propose remedies. Among these committees was a West Indian Tropical Agricultural College Committee established in 1919 which proposed the establishment of a College to ‘create a body of British expert agriculturalists versed in tropical conditions’. After consulting with colonial governors in the West Indies, Milner decided to locate the College in Trinidad because it had the most developed steamship communications. The College, initially named the West Indian Agricultural College was formally established on August 30 1921. It was renamed the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture (ICTA) in 1923 – in part to aid in fund-raising in England (Brereton: 6-15). Milner had resigned as Secretary for the Colonies in 1921, but was asked by the Colonial Office in 1922 to chair a Committee to develop a proposal for an agricultural probationers’ scheme to fund students attending the ICTA. Based on the Milner Committee’s recommendations, a colonial agricultural scholarship scheme was introduced in 1925. The scheme required two years of postgraduate training – the first at the Cambridge School of Agriculture, where the students studied crop husbandry and plant breeding, and the second at the ICTA in Trinidad, where the students focused on the practice and economics of tropical crop production. By the time the ICTA closed in 1961, it had produced over 1500 graduates. According to Hodge,

The ‘Trinidad Mafia’, as N.W. Simmonds referred to them, was enormously influential in the development of tropical agricultural research; virtually every British agricultural officer posted to the colonies from 1924 until independence was trained in Trinidad, and by the postwar years the majority of senior positions in colonial agriculture departments were occupied by ICTA grads (Hodge: 99).

Milner died in England on 13 May 1925 shortly after returning from a trip to South Africa. The reported cause of death was sleeping sickness.

‘Milner’s Credo’:

After Milner’s death a document dubbed ‘Milner’s Credo’ was found among his papers, and was published to great public acclaim in the Times of July 27, 1925. It was published subsequently as a pamphlet. It read, in part:

I am a Nationalist and not a cosmopolitan … A Nationalist is not a man who necessarily thinks his nation better than others, or is unwilling to learn from others. He does think that his duty is to his own nation and its development. He believes that this is the law of human progress, that the competition between nations, each seeking its maximum development, is the Divine Order of the world, the law of life and progress… I am a British (indeed primarily an English) Nationalist. If I am also an Imperialist, it is because the destiny of the English race, owing to its insular position and long supremacy at sea, has been to strike roots in different parts of the world. I am an Imperialist and not a Little Englander because I am a British Race Patriot … The British State must follow the race, must comprehend it, wherever it settles in appreciable numbers as an independent community. If the swarms constantly being thrown off by the parent hive are lost to the State, the State is irreparably weakened. We cannot afford to part with so much of our best blood. We have already parted with much of it, to form the millions of another separate but fortunately friendly State. We cannot suffer a repetition of the process.


Alfred Lord Milner was the archetypal British imperialist. As a “British race patriot’ he believed in the primacy of the British race, and that competition between races/nations was part of the natural order ordained by God. He also believed in the global efficacy of British imperial power. In his career as a colonial administrator, he sought to apply this philosophy in a ‘scientific’ manner, and to re-engineer colonial societies according to its dictates. In South Africa during the period of reconstruction after the South African War he was in a position to give free rein to his views on race and order, and he actively promoted the creation of a society and economy based on his notions of racial hierarchy, in which he considered Africans to be below whites in the global racial pecking order. Several of the most important features of segregation and apartheid in South Africa during the twentieth century bore the imprint of his thinking and took shape under his leadership, including the systems of territorial segregation and urban segregation, the denial of equal legal and political rights to Africans, and the propagation of the cheap black labour system that would underpin the racist capitalist system in that country for the rest of the century.

In light of his contribution to the establishment of the Imperial School of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad, as well as the design of the associated scholarship scheme, the imperial authorities to decided to memorialise him after his death in 1925 through the naming of the hall of residence at the ICTA ‘Milner Hall’ . When this name was adopted in 1927, the authorities were explicitly honouring a man who was celebrated at that time – as the result of the publication of his ‘credo’ – as the exemplary British Imperialist. After the ICTA was closed in 1961, and the University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus was established on the site in 1962, the Campus also inherited Milner Hall, apparently without interrogating the reasons for its name.


One of the features of free, democratic societies that set them apart from authoritarian and/or totalitarian societies is that our values are determined through discourse and a striving for consensus. This should also be true of who we decide to honour through our public memorials. In reviewing the place of public memorials that honour and celebrate particular individuals in our society, it is also reasonable that we should reflect from time to time on whether these memorials continue to be appropriate.  Ideally, however, this review should be conducted in a way that builds a consensus on the way forward. It seems to me that two questions must be asked. Firstly, what are the real historical facts concerning the contribution to our society of the individual so honoured? Secondly, what values are we seeking to uphold if we choose to continue honouring that individual?

Alfred Milner had an instrumental role in establishing the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad in 1921, and thereafter in proposing the scholarship scheme that facilitated the attendance of students at the college. He therefore played a role in laying the historical foundations for the St Augustine campus, and it is right and proper that this should be acknowledged in the history of our institution. However, it also seems clear, with the benefit of an informed historical perspective, that none of this was done with the interests of the people of the West Indies primarily in mind. Milner’s commitment throughout his career was to the promotion of the interests of the British (or more specifically, English) race and its empire, cast in explicitly racist terms. He expressed no interest in serving the interests or meeting the concerns of the indigenous people of the colonies that Britain controlled. Even in the scheme to promote tropical agriculture that led to the formation of the ICTA, his focus was on the potential benefits to the imperial economy of a revitalised tropical agriculture sector rather than on uplifting the colonies and their people. As we have also seen, he took steps while serving as Secretary for the Colonies to try to suppress the rising tide of West Indian nationalism in the colonial Caribbean after the First World War.

The racist and imperialist world view of Alfred Milner, as laid out in his ‘Credo’, as exhibited in his material contribution to the creation of the segregation system in South Africa, and as seen in his hostility to the self-determination of West Indian peoples after the First World War, amounts to the very antithesis of what The University of the West Indies stands for today. The purpose of our University as expressed in our Mission statement is, fundamentally, the progressive development of our Caribbean, its peoples and societies.  Given this purpose, The University cannot continue to honour and celebrate Viscount Milner – a man philosophically opposed to our values – in the naming of one of its Halls. What message would we be sending to our students, and to the wider communities we serve, if, in the face of the facts outlined above, we continued to baulk at removing this vestige of colonialism from our University, and continued to honour his name?  As we celebrate our seventieth year as ‘A Light Arising From The West’, the time has surely come to consign Lord Milner to the history of colonialism where he belongs, and to find a name for this Hall that more properly reflects the values, hopes and aspirations of Caribbean people.



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