Smuts, Jan Christian (Christiaan)

views updated May 23 2018


(b. Bovenplaats near Riebeeck West, Cape Colony (now South Africa), 24 May 1870; d. Irene, near Pretoria, South Africa, 11 September 1950),

lawyer, politician, general, prime minister, scientist, philosopher.

Smuts was a South African statesman, an idealist philosopher, and a botanist who coined the word holism. Smuts enjoyed respect in the South African scientific community as one of the world’s leading experts on savanna grass. One type, Digitaria smutsii, was named in his honor. His botanical library was the largest in the country, and Smuts participated in various botanical expeditions. He also took personal interest in who should be hired in the biological sciences at the South African universities, in the social and economic welfare of botany professors, in generating research funds, and in supervising scientific publications.

He grew up in the district of Swartland, known for its fertility, beautiful scenery, vineyards, traditional Dutch country life, and its conservative and largely religious population of farmers. His interest in the agricultural sciences and religious views emerged in this context. He participated in Rudolf Marloth’s flora expeditions and read Asa Gray’s work while he was a student at Victoria College in Stellenbosch, where he ranked first in the class.

In 1891 he went to study for the Law Tripos at Christ’s College, Cambridge University, where he wrote a

small treatise titled “Law, a Liberal Study.” To Smuts legal rights were a result of a gradual evolutionary liberation from the biological realm, hence the word liberal in the title. He placed civil rights on a Darwinian ladder with inanimate nature at one end of the scale of nature, and human society at the other, sanctioned by an all-embracing divine law given by God. He argued that there was a governing principle or natural law behind the evolutionary development of civil rights. Civic law evolved from the primitive family to the modern state by analogy with the growth of a human being, and civil rights gradually progressed historically toward more and more respect for individual freedom and greater unity within humanity. Through the rest of his life Smuts modified and elaborated on this student thesis.

He entered the Middle Temple University Research Society with an honorary grant in 1894, which he used, to everybody’s surprise, to write a book about Walt Whitman (published posthumously). Here he explored the biological evolution of Whitman’s personality, since he believed his mental evolution had reached the highest possible development, a point of evolution that only men but no women or nonwhites could reach.

Smuts returned to Cape Town in 1895 where he started to practice as a lawyer, and he soon became involved in politics as an admirer of Cecil Rhodes. Smuts followed the reasoning from his student thesis, and argued that native Africans and Indians should be placed socially within the natural hierarchy of evolution, which placed white men at the top of the ladder followed by white women, Asians, and Africans at the bottom. As state attorney and general of the Transvaal Army he was first a nationalist believing in separation from Britain, while his political views shifted with World War I toward a defense of the British Empire as a union of states and protectorates. Smuts was devoted to uniting the Orange Free State, Transvaal, Natal, and the Cape Province under the British Crown, a vision he helped to realize with Louis Botha with the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

Inspired by the unification of his country, Smuts wrote a book titled Holism and Evolution (1926). Here he expanded his Whitman thesis to the entire biological realm, arguing that the ontogeny of a human being should be extended to a phylogeny of the living world. These were ideas held by many scientists of the period, most notable by the German evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel. The book was a blend of science and philosophy, leading to a new vision of a global ecology based on the human ability to experience a greater harmonious “whole” in nature. By analogy to the growth of a human being, Smuts argued that only white men had reached the stage of grown-ups who understood how everything was connected. They were thus most suited to organize and govern aspects of the whole; as the whole city of Pretoria, the whole Cape Town Province, the whole Union of South Africa, the whole British Empire, or the whole world through the League of Nation. The book was a public success, and the new word holism became a catchword in debates between idealists such as Smuts and mechanist biologists and philosophers of the 1930s. Smuts was hailed as a moral and political example to follow among the idealists, who secured the election of him as Fellow of the Royal Society, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, chancellor of Cambridge University, among various other prizes and honors.

As prime minister (1919–1924, 1939–1948), Smuts became known for his gradualist politics toward South African peoples based on their imagined levels of evolutionary development. He had many encounters with Mahatma Gandhi, and the two men clashed over the social and legal status of Asian minorities and the constant flow of immigrants from India to South Africa, which Smuts tried to impede. Smuts’s racist views were, at his time, a moderate position because he thought natives in the far future, at least theoretically, could evolve into higher or more advanced levels. Business leaders in the mining companies thought it was a good idea to help native evolution on its way by employing them in the industry, and were thus some of Smuts’s most important allies.

As a statesman-philosopher Smuts tried to place his country’s civic constitution on a scientific basis. In this effort he was guided by South African ecologists such as John William Bews and John Phillips, who provided him with updates on the latest scientific advances through correspondence and friendship. Two aspects of their ecological research were particularly important to Smuts’s politics of holism: the gradual ascendancy of human personalities from native Africans to white people of the Nordic kind, and the holistically informed notion of an ecological biotic community. Smuts transformed ecological research into a policy of racial gradualism meant to respect local ways of life by separating different communities. He tried to morally sanctify and promote this racial policy as author of the 1945 preamble of the United Nations Charter about human rights.



Holism and Evolution. London: Macmillan, 1926.

Africa and Some World Problems. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930

Greater South Africa: Plans for a Better World: The Speeches of General the Right Honorable J. C. Smuts. Johannesburg: Truth Legion, 1940.

Selections from the Smuts Papers, vols. 1–4, edited by William Keith Hancock and Jean van der Poel. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Selections from the Smuts Papers, vols. 5–7, edited by Jean van der Poel. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Walt Whitman: A Study in the Evolution of Personality. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1973.


Anker, Peder. Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Hancock, William Keith. Smuts: The Sanguine Years 1870–1919. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1962

———. Smuts: The Fields of Force 1919–1950. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Peder Anker

Jan Christian Smuts

views updated May 18 2018

Jan Christian Smuts

The South African soldier, statesman, and philosopher Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950) was one of the founders of the Union of South Africa and an architect of the League of Nations and of the United Nations.

Jan Smuts the second son of Jacobus Abraham Smuts, a prosperous farmer and a member of the Cape Legislative Assembly, was born on May 24, 1870, on a farm in the Malmesbury district of the Cape Colony (Cape Province). He began his formal education at the age of 12, when he entered a boarding school at Riebeek West. Although he was shy and physically weak, Smuts possessed a great zeal for learning. Four years later he entered Victoria College at Stellenbosch and there compiled a brilliant academic record. While a student at Stellenbosch, Smuts met Sybella Margaretha Krige, whom he later married. In 1891 Smuts won the Ebden scholarship and went to Christ's College, Cambridge, to study law.

Early Career

In 1895 Smuts returned to South Africa, settled at Cape Town, and was admitted to the bar. Because of his reserved ways, however, he was not immediately successful; consequently, he developed an interest in journalism and politics. In politics he was initially attracted to Cecil Rhodes, who was prime minister at that time. After the Jameson Raid was made and Rhodes's part in it became known, Smuts repudiated Rhodes. He moved to Johannesburg and resumed the practice of law.

In Johannesburg, Smuts quickly won the recognition of Paul Kruger, the president of Transvaal, and in 1898 Smuts was appointed state attorney of the republic. He became attached to the Boer cause and, when the Boer War began, published a propaganda pamphlet in 1899 entitled A Century of Wrong. During the war Smuts discovered that he was a natural fighter, and he became a leader of one of the most successful of the Boers' guerrilla bands. At the end of the war, in 1902, Smuts participated in the peace negotiations at Vereeniging.

Smuts-Botha Government

After the war Smuts returned to Pretoria, Transvaal, and once again practiced law. A few years later he reentered politics. In 1904 Smuts joined Louis Botha to launch a political party, Het Volk (The People). The party's aim was to work for responsible government. The following year Smuts was sent to England to carry his party's demands directly to Henry Campbell-Bannerman's new Liberal government. When the British prime minister approved of the Het Volk request, not only did the Boer Republic regain its self-government but also Smuts regained his British sympathies.

For the 15-year period from 1904 to 1919, the Smuts-Botha combination was the great fact of South African politics. These two former Boer generals collaborated to produce qualities needed for political leadership. Smuts was a scholar and a reformer in politics who combined vision and ambition; he remained the source of ideas and the power behind the scenes. In 1906, when Transvaal was granted responsible government, he supported Botha for the premiership of the republic, and he himself became colonial secretary and minister of education. Later, when his great dream of the Union of South Africa became a reality in 1910, Smuts worked hard to have Botha accepted as the first premier of South Africa. He himself accepted the portfolios of mines, defense, and interior. Botha and Smuts merged their Het Volk party with other provincial parties and formed the South African party.

World War I

At the outbreak of World War I, the South African Parliament voted to enter the hostilities on Britain's side. Some of the Boers, however, disapproved of this policy and revolted. Smuts participated in the suppression of this rebellion. Afterward Botha and Smuts resumed their campaign against the Germans in Southwest Africa. The campaign was a striking success, and once again Smuts was hailed as a brilliant soldier. In 1916 he accepted the command of the imperial forces in East Africa and was commissioned a lieutenant general in the British army. The following year, at Botha's request, he proceeded to England as the South African representative to the forthcoming Imperial Conference. The British prime minister, David Lloyd George, offered Smuts a position in the British War Cabinet.

By the end of the war Smuts had acquired his great reputation as a soldier and statesman. He published an influential pamphlet in December 1918 entitled. The League of Nations: A Practical Suggestion, and he played an important role at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. A champion of a lenient peace, he was greatly disillusioned by the Versailles settlement.

Premiership and World War II

When Botha died in August 1919, Smuts became prime minister of South Africa. In 1924, however, he was defeated, and he then began a long period of opposition. During these years his fame as a scholar continued to grow. In 1925 Smuts wrote Holism and Evolution, a philosophical work in which he offered an explanation of the unitary character of all things. Smuts was reconciled with his old opponent Gen. James Hertzog in 1933. A year later they formed a fusion party, the United South African National party. Smuts served until 1939 as minister of justice. Upon the outbreak of World War II, Hertzog wanted to declare South Africa neutral. Smuts opposed this idea, and in September 1939 he was called to the premiership. As during World War I, he displayed qualities that marked him as a war leader of the first order. At the end of the war, Smuts went to San Francisco and helped to create the United Nations.

In May 1950 Smuts suffered a heart attack. He died on September 11.

Further Reading

The best biography of Smuts is W. Keith Hancock, Smuts (2 vols., 1962-1968), superbly written and rich in primary material. F.S. Crafford, Jan Smuts: A Biography (1943), is a useful study. Other biographies include René Kraus, Old Master: The Life of Jan Christian Smuts (1944), and, by Smuts's son, Jan C. Smuts, Jan Christian Smuts: A Biography (1952). The Smuts-Botha collaboration is well depicted in Basil Williams, Botha, Smuts and South Africa (1946). Alan Paton's recent biography of Jan Hofmeyr, Hofmeyr (1964; abridged 1965 edition entitled South African Tragedy), is particularly important for the last period of Smuts's career. For general background see Eric A. Walker, A History of South Africa (1928; 3d ed. 1957).

Additional Sources

Beukes, Piet, The romantic Smuts: women and love in his life, Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1992.

Cameron, Trewhella, Jan Smuts: an illustrated biography, Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1994.

Friedman, Bernard, Smuts: a reappraisal, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1976.

Ingham, Kenneth, Jan Christian Smuts: the conscience of a South African, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Meiring, Piet, Smuts the patriot, Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1975. □

Smuts, Jan Christian

views updated May 29 2018

Smuts, Jan Christian (1870–1950). South African soldier, diplomat, statesman, and scholar. Having trained as a lawyer in England, Smuts, an Afrikaner, fought against the British in the second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902). He became one of the main architects of the unification of South Africa within the British empire, but under Afrikaner leadership (1910). During the First World War he commanded British troops in east Africa before serving with distinction in Lloyd George's war cabinet (1916–19) and in the peace negotiations in Versailles, when he was a vigorous protagonist of the League of Nations. He was not so successful as prime minister of the Union of South Africa (1919–24 and 1939–48) because his attachment to the British empire and Commonwealth angered the Afrikaners, who also resented his intervention in the Second World War. Although critical of the apartheid policy introduced after 1948 he always believed that whites should continue to govern the country.

Kenneth Ingham