Review: Jan Christian Smuts, A Biography

 J.C. Smuts, Heinemann and Cassell, 1952, 568 pages, 3 of 5 stars

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 4.04.57 PMJan Smuts’ son clearly portrays the brilliance of his father in this hagiographic biography.

Smuts (1870-1950) was a renaissance man. As soldier, at the age of 31 he was General of the Boers during the Second Boer War and later commanded Allied troops against German East Africa. As statesman he was prime minister of South Africa (his terms separated by 15 years!) and helped found the League of Nations. As author he wrote Holism and Evolution that no doubt colored his view of other-colored people.

During the Boer War in South Africa Smuts would used his rifle to kill Brits by day then rummage through his saddle bag and read his Greek New Testament by night. The British in turn put a monstrous price on his head, forcing upon him numerous narrow escapes. England “won” the war, felt guilty, paid millions of pounds in compensation and ended up giving South Africa an independent republic a few years later.

Smuts was Afrikaans but thought in English. His son paints his father as a moderate, separate from the Afrikaans “bitter-enders” and willing to work with the English. To the dismay of many, he and Botha were behind the 3000-carat Cullinan diamond as a gift to the English king. He was given the US Order of Merit and honorary degrees from 27 universities.

This was book was published in the heyday of apartheid, meaning all modern day politically correct speech is absent. The most alarming chapter was “The Native Problem”, where even back then Smuts said blacks could see “the days of emancipation approaching.” Everyone knew apartheid wouldn’t last.

Contrary to modern thought, Smuts most likely was not a Christian, though he was handy with his Bible and believed Jesus to be a remarkably gifted man. His son wrote of his father: “Whether he believed in God depends on the implications of the question. He certainly did not believe in a supernatural being in the form of a man…but he did believe in some deity” (292).

As a young man Smuts had studied and mastered Darwin and became a convert to his concept of evolution (336). Thus, it shouldn’t surprise us that he said: “The Bushman, like the Australian Aborigine, [is] a freak survival from some primitive age. We have never accorded this small evolutionary enigma an equal status” (305). He believed the facial bones of blacks pointed to Neanderthals.

At other times, however, he spoke positively of blacks, calling them “the only happy human I have come across” (307).

Regarding gun control, there is much alarm among Afrikaners these days. Bravo. But they must remember they were the first ones to initiative such measures. Smuts writes: “We must prohibit non-Europeans from possessing firearms, or the training in their use. Manufacturing industry, wealth and education must be kept in white hands” (306).

In sum, Smuts should be admired for his brilliance and accomplishments, while chastised for his foolish acceptance of Darwinian evolution and the even more foolish system of apartheid that flowed from it.

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