Talk about a life trajectory. From a farm in southern Africa to a statue in Parliament Square in London.
Jan Christiaan Smuts was born in 1870 to a family of sturdy Calvinist Afrikaner farmers in Cape Colony (in the territory of the modern state of South Africa).
Southern Africa was technically under the control of the British, the British having acquired the coastal area of southern Africa as a colony in the early nineteenth century. When many—but not all—of the Boers trekked northward to found two independent "Boer Republics," the British bid them a happy goodbye, until gold and diamonds were discovered in the two territories in the late nineteenth century.
Thereafter, the British carried out many machinations to expand their control of southern Africa to the Boer republics, and they invaded with large-scale military forces twice (the second one being the invasion [1899-1902] that started the conflict we call "the Boer War").
Smuts's early life was a farm life, but within the close community of the mostly Dutch Afrikaner population and the intermingled black Africans who lived on and around his farm and his town. Smuts did not remain on the farm, however, excelled at his studies in southern African schools, and continued, with a scholarship, to Britain, to study law at Cambridge University, from 1891 to 1893, taking time to pass the bar exam in 1894. Turning down an offer for a fellowship at Cambridge, the brilliant Smuts—who garnered academic prize after academic prize at Cambridge--returned home to practice law.
Back in the Cape Colony, he practiced law for a short time, but his real interests were history, politics, literature, and journalism. Indeed, this breadth undoubtedly helped him when he met Cecil Rhodes, the head of de Beers Diamond Company and in many ways the architect of British South Africa. Rhodes admired the young man and hired Smuts to be his personal legal advisor, in 1895. Smuts apparently became an enthusiastic believer in the British imperial mission, Rhodes style. But when Rhodes sponsored a famous filibustering expedition to invade the Boer Republics in late 1895, Smuts quit his job converted from pro-British politics to pro-Afrikaner politics.
Hence, when British military forces invaded the Boer Republics (Transvaal and the Orange Free State) in 1899, Smuts joined the Boer forces from the outset. He served at several different levels of command and was involved in a series of momentous military, political, and diplomatic decisions. Indeed, it was Smuts, who—at the age of thirty-two—negotiated both among the Afrikaner factions and with the British to end the war.
In spite of British humiliation connected with the protracted, costly conflict, the Afrikaners lost. Yet Smuts joined Afrikaner political forces which eventually gained a great deal of autonomy for the Afrikaners, who formed the majority of the white population. (The apartheid laws came after the Second World War, in 1948. Previously, there had been much de facto segregation, as with many colonial societies, but the complexities of the multi-racial country and the double politics of British Empire/South African Union had not produced any social regime as ironclad as apartheid.)
With the establishment of the South African Union, Smuts served at the cabinet level in several important posts, and when World War I broke out, he formed Defense Forces for the whole of the country, eventually leading two major campaigns against the Germans in Southwest Africa and East Africa. Indeed, he was called to London to serve on the Imperial War Cabinet in 1917—perhaps the crucial point of time in the war where the British were concerned.
Hence, this multi-talented intellectual and man of action remained in Europe as the war ended and served in many capacities at the Peace Conference. He was intimately involved with the discussions of the League of Nations. Smuts's personal philosophy had to do with creating "wholes" out of pieces, and the League appealed to him. Eventually, he would become the most important architect of the League's structure, even though he was disappointed in the end with the League's weakness.
But Smuts was also called on for other issues, including a really important interlude having to do with Hungary. More on this mission in the next installment.