by The Chamberlain Highbury Trust

The Chamberlain Highbury Trust is undertaking the restoration and interpretation of Highbury, Joseph Chamberlain’s Birmingham home.  The story of Birmingham’s most famous politician is a complex one and the Trust is in the initial stages of an assesment of his policies as Colonial Secretary

Joseph Chamberlain’s philosophy of Empire

JosephChamberlain, a successful industrialist, believed that the British government should invest in the countries of the British empire in order to develop their economies and stimulate empire wide trade and profits, and that this would lead to a federation or a commonwealth of the empire. He thought that by developing public works especially railways, natural resources could be developed and that a wider range of commercial enterprises could be undertaken. He also encouraged diversification of crops where reliance on a single crop could damage a country’s economy. He moved away from a belief in free trade, which the Conservative party continued to adhere to, as he thought this left Britain vulnerable to the great powers such as USA and Germany seeking access to markets in Britain. He wanted tariff reform which ‘was the economic consolidation of the Empire through the establishment of preferential tariffs between the mother country and the colonies,’ Peter Marsh Chamberlain Litany p. 59.                                                                                                                                                                                                               

His policies were contrary to those of the Exchequer which believed in minimal investment unless there was strategic need, and thought that the colonies themselves would raise funds for development.  Joseph Chamberlain’s investment in a sisal plantation in Andros in 1891 wasmotivated by profits and his interest in development in the Empire, although his family’s experience was in finding markets for metal manufactures. The scheme failed and was abandoned in 1897.  

Chamberlain several times sanctioned the use of force against insurrection especially in China, the West African colonies and South Africa, thereby ensuring the continuation and expansion of British rule.   The Boer War, ‘Joe’s War’, initially supported by the British people, left Britain seriously in debt, the Boers deeply embittered and the native population still disenfranchised.  He displayed equal firmness against other colonial powers to assert Britain’s spheres of influence with no regard for the subject people. He had a belief in white supremacy and did not think that indigenous black populations would ever be fit to rule.  But in the colonies where a white population were dominant such as Canada and Australia he encouraged federation.                                                                                                                                                 

Chamberlain’s statements on Empire:

‘The greatness and importance of the distinction reserved for the Anglo-Saxon race, that proud, persistent, self asserting and resolute stock which no change of climate or condition can alter, which is infallibly bound to be the predominant force in the future history and civilisation of the world’ [speech in Toronto 30 December 1887]

‘Is there any man in his senses who believes the crowded population of these islands could exist for a single day if we were cut adrift from the great dependencies which now look to us for protection and which are the natural markets for our trade?’ [speech to London Chamber of Commerce, May 1888]

 ‘It is not enough to occupy certain great spaces of the world unless you are willing to develop them’ [speech to Birmingham Jewellers’ and Silversmiths’ Association April 1895]                                                     

 ‘I am told on every hand that Imperial federation is a vain and empty dream  … dreams of that kind have somehow or other an unaccountable way of being realised in their time’ [ speech at celebration of completion of Durban to Johannesburg railway  November 1895]       

 ‘Young man you will live to see the time when a railroad will be built through that country [Sudan] to the great lakes, The Transvaal and the Cape’ [comment to American reporter when Kitchener entered Khartoum in 1898]

How others saw Chamberlain:

‘As for Papa his name is never out of the papers’ [Hilda Chamberlain to Neville Chamberlain, letter, November 1895]

Chamberlain ‘was consulted, encouraged, abused and applauded from every quarter of the globe. There is a very prevalent notion that he is the Government [chief civil servant to Colonial Office, January 1900]

Chamberlain ‘was incomparably the most live, sparkling, insurgent, compulsive figure in British affairs’ [Winston Churchill]

‘The culminating passion of his life was the empire; and here his accomplishment was more equivocal. His ideal of a maritime federation of states drawn together by trade, and, where possible, by military and naval cooperation and imperial institutions, to fortify their collective international position was attractive but possibly chimerical….. His most substantial contributions to the Empire were threefold: the expansion of Nigeria, improvement of tropical medicine, cultivating the empire’s undeveloped estates,’ [Peter Marsh Entrepreneur p.670]

Extent of the British Empire in late nineteenth century and the countries in the remit of the Colonial Secretary:

Europe: Gibraltar: Malta; Cyprus

The Americas: self governing colonies of Canada and Newfoundland; British Honduras; Bahamas; Bermuda; Barbados; Jamaica; Leeward Islands; Windward Islands; Trinidad and Tobago; British Guiana; Falkland Islands

Africa:  St HelenaThe Gambia; Sierra Leone; Gold Coast, Lagos ( Lagos Colony and S. Nigeria Protectorate became S. Nigeria in 1906, and S. Nigeria combined with N. Nigeria  Protectorate to become Nigeria in 1914); British Cameroons (added 1901);  Bechuanaland,  (southern part annexed to Cape Colony 1895); Zululand (incorporated into Natal 1897); Zanzibar; Egypt (‘veiled protectorate’); Anglo-Egyptian Sudan; East African Protectorate (becomes Kenya Colony in 1920); Uganda; British Somaliland; Rhodesia (formed from Matabeleland by conquest by Cecil Rhodes and administered by the British South African Company); Cape Colony and Natal (in 1900 during  2nd Boer War the Boer states of Transvaal [the S.African Republic] and the Orange Free State annexed to Britain, and Federation of S. Africa formed in 1910)

India: India and Burma (not in colonial secretary’s remit, administered by the India Office); Ceylon; Seychelles; Mauritius

Australasia : Victoria,  New South Wales, Western Australia, Queensland, S. Australia, Tasmania (self governing colonies united as Federation of Australia 1901); New Zealand; Malay States; Singapore and Straits States (administered with India); Hong Kong; Sarawak; Brunei; British N. Borneo;  Papua  New Guinea

Islands in the Pacific: Western Pacific Islands including Samoa (British interests ceded to Germany in 1898)

The British Empire reached its greatest extent in 1922

Chamberlain and the position of Colonial Secretary

Joseph Chamberlain became Colonial Secretary in Lord Salisbury’s government in June 1895. This government was a coalition of the Conservatives with the Liberal Unionists. The Liberal Unionists, in the minority, were led by Chamberlain. The Colonial Secretaryship was a high office of State responsible for the whole of the British Empire, except for India. The Empire comprised 50 million people and covered one third of the world. Chamberlain’s previous Cabinet posts were President of the Board of Trade 1880-85 and President of the Local Government Board 1886. In 1886 he had asked Gladstone for the post of Colonial Secretary, but Gladstone had rebuffed Chamberlain’s request for an office as a secretary of state.  Achieving the position in 1895 was therefore the fulfilment of a long standing ambition on Chamberlain’s part

Lord Salisbury held the posts of Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary and he and Chamberlain collaborated well together. After Salisbury resigned on July 11 1902, there was some discussion of Chamberlain becoming PM but he preferred to stay as Colonial Secretary and Arthur Balfour, leader of the Conservative Party, became Prime Minister.

The colonial secretaries preceding and following Chamberlain, the Marquess of Ripon (1892-5) and Alfred Lyttelton (1903-5) held office for short periods and had much less  impact than Chamberlain.

Territorial Disputes and expansion during Chamberlain’s period as Colonial Secretary

1895 Dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana over the colony’s western boundary. This territory thought to have gold. President Cleveland threatened war with Britain unless the dispute be submitted to purely American commission of Arbitration.  American issues not in Chamberlain’s remit but he was more familiar with the United States than Salisbury. Chamberlain talked to Olney, American Secretary of State for War in 1896 in USA.  1899 Agreement that land long settled as British was to be exempt from arbitration.

1895 Chamberlain sanctioned military expedition against the Ashanti in the God Coast to exploit gold. Instituted programme of railway building there and in Lagos and Sierra Leone.  1897-8 West Africa and French encroachments on territories of Royal Niger Company chaired by Sir George Goldie.  A Paris conference was convened over colonial influence on the Niger. Chamberlain commissioned an armed force under Capt. Lugard to occupy the territories Britain claimed, concluded June 1898 with concessions by the French giving British control of the Niger River and territories that became Nigeria.

1895-99 South Africa prior to the 2nd Boer War

Chamberlain wished to further British interests in S. Africa and the motives here were political rather than economic.  He wanted to see  Cape Colony and Natal which were under the British which had a white elective legislature, the Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State and the black protectorates of Bechuanaland, Swaziland and Zululand and the lands to the North (East African Protectorate) combined into a federation.  Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape and chairman of the British S. African Company which had been given a British government charter in 1889, demanded the transfer to the company of the Bechuanaland  Protectorate in order to build a railway from Mafeking (in the Transvaal) to Bulawayo (in Rhodesia) along the border of the Transvaal and Bechuanaland. Paul Kruger, President of the Boer republic of the Transvaal, refused to allow Cape goods to travel without penalties. By November 1895 Chamberlain granted Rhodes a Bechuanaland corridor policed by the company and Kruger had to climb down. Many British immigrants and other nationalities had flocked to the gold mines in the Transvaal discovered in 1886, at Johannesburg, where they paid taxes but had no representation.  They were known as the Uitlanders.  They were threatening to revolt,  a situation Rhodes  exploited and  he commissioned his associate Dr Jameson   to lead a rebel force from Bechuanaland into the Transvaal to aid and arm the Uitlanders and to install  British administration.                                                                                                                                       

The raid took place on December 29 1895 but Jameson was quickly captured and imprisoned. The news reached Chamberlain at Highbury, his immediate reaction was‘if this succeeds it could ruin me.’  Without knowing theoutcome he quickly repudiated the raid in the British and southern Africa press.  Peter Marsh considers this action established him as ‘the leading force in Imperial politics for the rest of the century.’

There is controversy as to whether Chamberlain was complicit in this plot and there was a  Select Committees of enquiry which eventually cleared Chamberlain in 1897.  However Peter Marsh considers he ‘made himself an accessory to the plot.’      

  Kruger formed an alliance with the Orange Free State. In 1899 the British demanded that voting rights be given to the 60,000 foreigners connected with the Johannesburg gold mines. In speech at Highbury Chamberlainsaid ‘The issues of peace and war are in the hands of President Kruger and his advisers …Will he speak the necessary words? The sands are running down in the glass. The situation is too fraught with danger, it is too strained for any postponement to be tolerated.’ Kruger refused and demanded the British troops massing on the border of the Transvaal be withdrawn by 11 October and when they were not withdrawn he declared war.        

1898 Revolt in Sierra Leone against the hut tax which was meant to raise money for investment, Chamberlain ordered it  put down with force. The cost of the military action was greater than revenues from the tax.

 1898 August, treaty with Germany giving Britain exclusive rights in Delagoa Bay from where railway ran in Laurenco Marques to the Transvaal in return for agreement on the partitioning of Portuguese empire should it fail. German concessions re their interests in the Transvaal achieved by acknowledging their interests in Samoa

1898 under Salisbury’s direction as ForeignSecretary battle of Omdurman in August concluded Kitchener’s re-conquest of the Sudan.

 Anglo-French convention of March 1899 secured the watershed between Nile and Congo basin as the boundary between British and French spheres of influence

1899 October-1902 May   Boer War                                

 The Boers first invaded Natal and won important battles. They besieged Ladysmith and Mafeking, the British brought in new commanders Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener. Ladysmith and Mafeking relieved and Pretoria gained.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Not now underestimating the Boers the British brought in 450,000 troops, including force of 30,000 from the self governing colonies (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Cape and Natal)  the first time they were used,  against the Boers who waged guerrilla warfare which lasted 18 months. To weaken their resolve the British army commanders destroyed farms and established camps where 200,000 Boer women and children were imprisoned in insanitary conditions resulting in very high death rates.  Chamberlain was reluctant to interfere between military and civilian responsibilities but when appraised of the situation in the camps in the autumn of 1901 ordered measures that drastically reduced the death rate. The Boers conceded defeat on 31 May 1902 at Vereeniging.  The Boer states incorporated into British Empire, £30m granted for reparations. Franchise was not extended to native population or British Indians.                                        

1900 August Chamberlain family attacked for war profiteering by Lloyd George: ’family federation of companies manufacturing metal supplies and munitions for the armed services to fight a war brought on by the senior member of the family, the Colonial Secretary’ Peter Marsh Entrepreneur   p. 503 

1902 Nov- 1903 March Chamberlain, accompanied by Mary Chamberlain, toured S. Africa. In Birmingham a banquet and torch lit procession to Highbury to mark their departure. They travelled via Egypt, East African Protectorate, and Zanzibar, and, in S. Africa reinforced a message of reconciliation. Chamberlain met Boer leaders but had little empathy with his former foes . 

 1900 treaty with Portugal ensured that country’s neutrality in return for Britain’s guarantee of its empire .     

1900  In September Chamberlain supports a joint mission with Germany against the Boxer Uprising in China to safeguard extensive British trading interests. Germany agrees to ‘Open Door ‘policy in order to continue trade along lucrative British sphere of influence along the Yangtze river.                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Imperial Investment

Chamberlain was against flogging and campaigned for it to be outlawed in the Empire

1902 Pacific Cable laid between Canada and Australia

1896 Chamberlain sponsored the Colonial Nursing Association, to improve health of white colonial administrators, Mary Chamberlain on its committee.   

1898 Chamberlain appointed a Royal Commission to investigate the decline of the sugar industry in the West Indies. Gave direct financial aid, establishment of Department of Agriculture for the West Indies to encourage cultivation of new fruit crops; encouragement of peasant land ownership; subsidised steamship service. Did not consider the indigenous population would ever have the aptitude to rule themselves.

1898 Development policy in Ceylon to promote investment of revenues in public works and diversify crops especially rice and reduce reliance on tea production       

1900 Chamberlain secured the first ever loan on American market through offices of Pierpont Morgan

1900 Chamberlain promotes Colonial Stock Act. Britain’s dependencies could obtain capital to improve basic systems of communication, ransport and land utilisation      

JC encouraged Royal Society to study tropical diseases. 1898 London School of Tropical Medicine funded by the Treasury and funds raised by Chamberlain

Chamberlain encourages Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew to extend its work in tropical agriculture and to find alternate areas in the Empire to grow cotton and reduce the dependence on USA cotton.  The Director, Thiselton-Dyer appointed botanical advisor to the Colonial Secretary 1902

1901 Commonwealth Act federating the Australian colonies  

Colonial Conferences:

1896 Chamberlain wasthe honorary President of Chambers of Commerce of the Empire. A reception on 13 June 1896 at Imperial Institute for 2,800 delegates attending the London Conference was given by Joseph and Mary Chamberlain which Royalty attended. Colonies would not abandon high protection but offered Britain less steep tariff barriers.

1897 Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Conference of Colonial Premiers. The events included a visit to Birmingham, a state reception at Buckingham Palace, a regatta, and party  organised by Mary in hired house  and  attended by the Duke and Duchess of York, crowds too great for Prince of Wales to attend.                                                                                                                                                          

1902 Coronation of Edward VII; Colonial Conference with premiers of self-governing colonies in June Discussions between Chamberlain and the Canadian premier Laurier over preferential tariffs between the two countries

JC’s achievements in Birmingham whilst Colonial Secretary

Founding of Birmingham University 1897 onwards                                                                                                                                                                                                           

1900 December regulation of the drinks trade; magistrates given greater powers with regard to licences

1902 Promoted the foundation of Bishopric for Birmingham 

Highbury during Chamberlain’s period as Colonial Secretary

In spite of the fact that Chamberlain had to spend large parts of his time in London Highbury remained his power base and whilst at Highbury for occasional weekends when the House was sitting and during the Parliamentary recesses he could keep in touch with the colonial office and Lord Salisbury by post or special courier. Here he wrote significant speeches which he annually delivered to the Birmingham Liberal Unionist Association in May or June and to his constituents at the August Garden Party held in the grounds of Highbury. In these speeches of 1899 he displayed a hardening of attitude to the Boer Republics, in June he said of President Kruger he was ‘a menace to British interests and a serious danger to our position as the paramount power in South Africa’ whilst in August he spoke of wanting ‘to secure conditions which once for all shall establish which is the paramount Power in South Africa.’  The Boer War started two months later in October.  He outlined his ideas for the terms of peace to the Birmingham Liberal Unionists in 1902 ‘if we do not take every chance in our power to keep British trade in British hands…we shall deserve the disasters which infallibly shall come upon us.’   After his resignation in 1903 it was at Highbury that he wrote the speeches on Tariff Reform, the cause that was to occupy the remainder of his political career.


Jackie Grobler ‘Visiting South Africa’ in Joseph Chamberlain Man, Politician and Icon (West Midlands History, Summer, 2014)

Diana Whitehill Laing Mistress of Herself (Massachusetts, 1965)

Peter T. Marsh Joseph Chamberlain Entrepreneur in Politics (New Haven 1994)

Peter T. Marsh The Chamberlain Litany (2010)

Enoch Powell  Joseph Chamberlain (1977)