Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Alphabet of Alternate History: B

Guest post by Dale Cozort.

Dale Cozort returns with another edition of The Alphabet of Alternate History. If you haven't read it already, check out the letter A.

Belgium doesn’t end up with the Congo. The saga of how Belgium ended up with a huge African empire while stronger European countries like Germany and arguably Italy ended up with relative scraps is an unlikely one. It would probably be rather easy to short-circuit the process either before Leopold developed his personal kingdom there or in the aftermath of the revelations about how bad conditions there got. I could see Leopold’s empire being divided among the European powers, though exactly who would get what is an issue. France, Germany and possibly Britain might get a chunk.

Boer Republics survive. Here is a challenge for you: Make the Boer Republics survive as independent states. That probably means that they somehow have to avoid the second Boer War, because if they fought the British empire single-handed they would lose.

What actually happened: The fundamental problem of Boer Republics was that one of them (Transvaal) was sitting on one of the biggest gold deposits in the world at a time when Britain had a strong presence in South Africa and imperialism was at its strongest. The gold discoveries drew in tens of thousands of prospectors from all over the world, and eventually they outnumbered the Transvaal Boer heads of household by roughly two to one.

The Boers attempted to maintain political control of their republic by imposing long residency requirements before the newcomers could become citizens. They also imposed high taxes on the gold and used the money to buy modern rifles and artillery.

The gold miners and the people who lived off of them weren’t happy with either the lack of political representation or the taxes. Some of them organized a revolt. In 1895, a group of wealthy British imperialists organized a considerable unofficial force of Rhodesian policemen and other British citizens to come to the rescue when the revolt happened--600 men equipped with Maxim guns and several artillery pieces. The plotters among the gold miners got cold feet and tried to cool things off, but Jameson, the leader of the unofficial expedition, went ahead with his part of the plot, a lightning-fast mini-invasion of the Transvaal that attempted to push the gold miners to go ahead with the revolt they had been planning.

The so-called Jameson raid was a fiasco. The Boers killed quite a few of the raiders and captured the rest, along with documents linking them to prominent British citizens and officials. The gold miners sat on their hands. The subsequent trials and other fallout, including a telegram from the German Kaiser congratulating the Boers on their victory poisoned the atmosphere between the Boers and the British and made war close to inevitable.

For the next four years, the two sides prepared for war. In 1899, the British sent an ultimatum requiring the Transvaal Boers to give gold-miners full voting rights. That would have turned power over to the predominantly British newcomers around the gold mines. The Boers felt that war was inevitable eventually, and after a period of fruitless negotiations gave the British an ultimatum of their own to move their troops away from Transvaal’s borders, then struck first when that ultimatum was ignored.

What might have happened: The Jameson Raid was almost postponed when the plotters inside the Transvaal got cold feet. If it had been postponed for long, the Rhodesian policemen who made up a large portion of the Jameson force would have probably been recalled to Rhodesia, where a serious revolt of the Matabele and Shona people was encouraged by the absence of so many policemen.

That might postpone the war a bit, with the Brits trying a Jameson raid type covert operation a couple of years later, after the Matebele War ended. The Jameson Raid and especially the Kaiser telegram brought issues to a head a little earlier than they probably otherwise would have come to a boil. Let’s say we delay the onset of war by a couple of years. Does that make any difference? Suppressing the Boxer Rebellion (1901) would have probably distracted the Brits for a while. That gets us to maybe 1902. If you could postpone matters until tensions in Europe ramped up on the way to World War I, then maybe the war could have been avoided. If World War I went as it did historically, the Brits would have a lot of their capacity for imperialism knocked out of them. That still means that the Boer republics would have to somehow avoid war for at least another eight to ten years until the war clouds in Europe got thick enough to distract the Brits.

Even if the Boers avoided war, they still had the same main problem: They were outnumbered by British citizens in the Transvaal and by a large margin. Even without war, the Brits would probably eventually gain political power and might well vote to become part of British South Africa, which makes postponing the Jameson Raid a dead-end.

What if the discovery of the large gold mines around Johannesburg had been postponed? Historically they were discovered in 1886, and exploited mainly by outsiders of British origin, who by 1896 had a male population outnumbering the Boers 60,000 to 30,000, though those figures are guesses since there was no census in the Transvaal until 1904, after the Boer War (technically the Second Boer War). Let’s move the discovery forward maybe fifteen years to 1901. Does that help, or do the Boers still get overwhelmed? My guess is that they would still be overwhelmed, though if World War I happened on schedule it would take the steam out of British imperialism early enough that a war to annex the Boer Republics would be less likely.

Of course we can’t ignore the impact of not having one of the biggest gold finds ever on the world between 1886 and 1901. The world of the late 1800s took gold seriously, with the major currencies backed by it. The South Africa gold discoveries allowed economies to expand and helped them deal with the nearly forgotten “Long Depression” of 1873 to 1896. And now we’re getting into economics, deep in “My Eyes Glaze Over” territory for most people, even most historians, so I’ll stop.

* * *

Dale Cozort is a novelist, editor of Point of Divergence, the alternate history APA, and a long-term Chicago area fan and writer. Check out his websiteblogFacebook and Twitter profiles.


  1. No, don't ignore the economics. "History" is so often "Military History" because we want to know who won and who was in control, and similarly "Alternate History" is "Alternate Military History" because most of our points of divergence and butterflies are changing those battles and having somebody else win.

    History is the study of past human activities and economics is, arguably, the most important activity because it is what lets us all live our lives as rich or poor and is usually the reason why the wars happened in the first place. Alternate timelines, however, usually assume that cities and nations had the same populations decades after the PoD as they did in the original timeline, or the same areas are the economic engines, even though the PoD might have drastically changed economic futures and this patterns of trade and migration. At best many stories give lip service to these changes by transplanting a famous figure or two into the new environment but they rarely alter the economic or population "environment".

    For example, say Henry Clay won the 1844 election and started his American System of infrastructure projects and a new national bank, and never annexes Texas and thus never gains the Southwest. When the Panic of 1847 comes along, Americans now have a backup source of jobs, industries supplying the projects stay strong and stable with many secondary and tertiary (indirect) jobs so the economy doesn't shrink by 20% like it did OTL. The recession is short and mild, perhaps even non-existent out side the international finance and trade communities.

    How does that affect migration to California during the gold rush two years later? Would 50,000-60,000 Americans still have gone to California in 1849? OTL, of the ones who went some were businessmen looking to make it big on the secondary economy surrounding the needs of the prospectors, but the bulk were people who had nothing to loose after 2 years of what was then one of the worst recessions in the USA ever.

    The businessmen may still go, as would the more adventurous workers, but the average person who has had a stable job & income and knows that they can fall back to railroad or canal work (or the secondary industries) if they need to? Probably not. American migration to California. And plenty of those adventurous types might instead chose to stay in the USA and go to Oregon Territory instead.

    American migration to California might be halved, or even quartered, and that would drastically change what California would look like a few decades or a century later.

    There's not enough of that in AH.

    1. Dale here. In theory, you're right. The economic impact of PoDs does often get ignored and it really is a key to getting the alternate history anywhere close to realistic. There are two problems, though: (1) Getting even professional economists to agree on what caused what in real history is difficult--example: the many theories on what caused the great depression. For a non-professional and for something that didn't actually happen, figuring out the economic impact becomes very difficult and not very accessible or interesting to most people. (2) Economics ripples out and impacts individuals, which impacts politics and the timing and detailed course of technology development. For example, if the South African gold discovery I mentioned hadn't happened, would it have had an impact on whether Edison's DC system or Tesla/Westinghouse's AC system won out? A DC victory would have huge and unpredictable impacts on subsequent history. How would a presumably deeper/longer depression have impacted the timing of automobile developments? Would Henry Ford and internal combustion engines still have won out? Some thing are pretty heavily determined by the technology. Others are contingent on what was invented in what order and once the technology has gone far enough down a path, other, possibly superior options aren't realistic anymore because their advantage isn't enough to overcome the advantages of mass production, existing infrastructure, etc.

      So even if you find and understand the one true economic theory, you still have a huge mass of details that may or may not be vital and may or may not be determined by the flow of history. And, even if you could sort all of this out, how many people, even avid amateur historians, could follow your logic?

    2. Dale again: All that being said, I did a lot of economic analysis for my sort-of Alternate History Snapshot series. I have people flying between Snapshots, which you can think of as vaguely like alternate timelines and settling in Snapshots at various technological levels. I did a delicate balancing act there. I tried to include enough of the economic analysis that if you look for it and try to reconstruct my thinking you can. At the same time, I had to work very hard not to include so much that the story bogged down or became inaccessible to people who weren't really hard-core alternate history/economics geeks.