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James Sivewright

1848 - 1916

James Sivewright was born in Fochabers, Elginshire, Scotland on December 10, 1848, to "Old William" Sivewright and his wife Jane Shand.

Sivewright won a bursary in 1862 from Milne's Institute at Fochabers to attend the University of Aberdeen, and after obtaining his Master of Arts degree in 1866 he taught for three years at a school in Blackheath, England. Throughout his life, Sivewright maintained that whatever success he had attained was due to parental upbringing and the Scottish education system.

Sivewright's lifelong devotion to telegraphy began in 1869 when he won first place in Great Britain's telegraphy examination, and he spent the following eight years in English telegraphy ambitiously advancing through promotions. His mastery of telegraphy prompted the Postmaster General at the time to seek his co-authorship in the definitive Textbook in Telegraphy published in 1876.

At the Cape Colony's request for a telegraphic expert, Sivewright journeyed to South Africa in April 1877 to examine and report on Cape telegraphy. From 1877 to 1881 he organized and developed the telegraphic systems of the Cape Colony, Natal, the Transvaal, and the Orange Free State, and became General manager of Telegraphs of all but the Free State. Sivewright was not only appointed C.M.G. for constructing telegraphic communications during the Zulu War of 1879 but was also the only non-combatant to receive the South African Medal with three clasps. Through the medium of the South African Philosophical Society which he co-founded with his friend J.X. Merriman, he proposed the first comprehensive scheme for an overland telegraph across Africa. This plan (1878) was the precursor to Cecil John Rhode's Cape to Cairo telegraphic project. Sivewright remained in colonial telegraphy until 1885 when his office was abolished by retrenchment. An esteemed disciplinarian, he was personally acquainted with every telegraph officer. His outstanding telegraphic career, which provided him with working knowledge of South Africa and important politicians, formed the foundation for his entry into Cape politics.

On August 11, 1887 he joined the Cape Town branch of the Afrikanerbond. His rapid political rise was reflected in the link he provided between J.H. Hofmeyr and Cecil Rhodes on the one hand and the Transvaal and the Cape Colony on the other. The former is best illustrated by Sivewright's aid in securing Bond support for Rhodes's British South Africa Company Charter (1889), his premiership (from 1890), and the Glen Grey Bill (1894). Acting as Rhodes's right-hand man, he consolidated the Leask and Rudd Concession granted by Lobengula and in 1890 drew up the Pioneer Column contract between the young British entrepreneur Frank Johnson and Rhodes. The bridge Sivewright provided between the Cape Colony and the Transvaal is best exemplified by the 1891 Sivewright Agreement which gave the Cape Government Railways a virtual two-year transport monopoly with the booming gold-fields of Johannesburg.

The concession he gained from the Transvaal Volksraad to supply Johannesburg with water and gas street lights were facilitated by his prior friendship with President Paul Kruger. These two syndicates were subsequently purchased by B. Barnato and soon amalgamated with Sivewright's land speculations. His affiliation with Barnato was further strengthened when he (Sivewright) became a director of the Johnannesburg Consolidated and Investment Company. Throughout his life he maintained financial investments in South Africa.

His political career began as the Bond member for Griqualand East in 1888, and he became commissioner for Crown Lands and Public Works in the first Rhodes Ministry of 1890. His first major accomplishment was to secure Orange Free State approval on March 28, 1891 for the Cape Government railway's extension north from Bloemfontien to the Vaal River. The celebrated Sivewright Agreement followed (December 10, 1891), for which he was created K.C.M.G. Following his diplomatic achievement, Sivewright was appointed Officer Commanding the Cape Town Highlanders until 1894.

The day before Sivewright and Rhodes sailed for England on October 5, 1892, Sivewright authorized a contract which gave his friends J.D. Logan of Matjiesfontien, a catering monopoly on the Cape Government railways for approximately fifteen years. The ministers Merriman, James Rose Innes, and J.W. Sauer, who had generally objected to Sivewright's financial and political activities throughout the first Rhodes ministry, now objected to the Logan Contract in particular. The contract was declared not in the public interest and was cancelled, with Logan eventually receiving £5,000 in damages; the following year he received virtually the same contract. Rhodes could not work out a compromise following Sivewright's return in April 1893, so the ministry was dissolved. The Logan Contract was more badly constructed and processed than the result of any unethical behaviour.

It is doubtful whether the Logan Contract was the prime reason for the break-up of the ministry. It was the catalytic excuse rather than the central reason for the dissolution of the 'Ministry of All the Talents'. Sivewright's pragmatic expediency and social success made him and his wife personae non gratae with both the protesting ministers and their wives. The matter became rather personal. Rhodes and Sivewright may have conspired to plant the Logan Contract the day before their departure. That Rhodes had not been happy with the ministry before the Logan Contract was evident in his negotiations with Sir Gordon Sprigg, whom he had asked to join him in a more harmonious ministry, but Sprigg had refused.

Sivewright's political role was that of unofficial railway diplomat until the Jameson Raid (1895 - 96), when he became Commissioner of Crown Lands and Public Works in the Sprigg ministry. Sent to Republics to restore confidence in the Cape Colony, Sivewright was only superficially successful since the true rapproachment was beyond his means. With the resignation of T.N.G. te Water, the strongest Bond member of the Sprigg ministry, and the apparent intransigence of the Republics over the railway matters in particular and anti-English policy in general. Sivewright uncomfortably moved further into the Pro-Rhodes Progressive Party.

At the climax of the Bond-Progressive struggle for political power in 1898, Sivewright won a seat as a Progressive in Stellenbosch. Just after he sailed for England in late December 1898, one of his political agents was convicted of attempting to bribe a voter. Sivewright was unseated and required to stand again. Since he did not return from England for the special election, he was defeated.

Politically, Sivewright remained in England to gain a respite from Cape politics and to gauge English public opinion towards the Transvaal. He believed that the only way to mend strained relations between the Transvaal and England was to get President Kruger and the High Commissioner Alfred Milner together, and for both to pursue a policy of time and patience. After an interview with Joseph Chamberlain on May 4, 1899 Sivewright's cabled negotiations with Hofmeyr were the first step in bringing about the Bloemfontein Conference (June 1899).

There were also financial reasons behind Sivewright's decision to remain in England. He became the British representative for the South African Supply and Cold Storage Company. With branches throughout South Africa the Afrikanerbond-dominated cold storage company secured the meat contract for the British army for most of the second Anglo-Boer War (1899 - 1902). During the war Sivewright financed two philanthropic activities which included sending a fully-staffed ambulance to the Transvaal, and offering the Hottentots Holland properties to the British medical authorities.

During his time in South Africa, Sivewright was the first President (1891) of the Mountain Club of South Africa. Although not what one might term an active mountaineer, he had a great love for the mountains. As the Commissioner of Crown Lands he was instrumental in seeing certain Rights of Way were preserved for the public. In 1897 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Club and elected a life member. The Gold Badge of the Club was awarded to members who had significantly furthered the cause of mountaineering and the Objects of the Club in several aspects over a significant period of time. It was his "interest and many kindnesses meted out to individual members and the Club at large" that gained the club's respect.

In the last period of his life Sivewright invested his money in Great Britain and Ecuador and had some contacts with Cuba. He also, in 1913, came out to Canada with Rudolph Feilding (9th Earl of Denbigh), Lady Marjorie Feilding, Major Frank Johnson, Herbert Latilla, and several local consultants and engineers, and climbed Big Interior Mountain on central Vancouver Island to inspect the Ptarmigan Mine. Sivewright was one of the members of a small group of investors who had purchased the copper/gold claim.

Owing to excessive worry, rheumatism, and alcoholism Sir James Sivewright died prematurely on September 10, 1916 at the age of sixty-seven. He is buried on the highest point, overlooking the beautiful Scottish countryside of his Tulliallan estate.

Travers-Jackson, G.S.F. Obituary. The Annual of the Mountain Club of South Africa. (1917) (20) p. 98.

"The Stainless Knight." Cape Argus [Cape Town, South Africa] (September 12, 1916) p. 7.

"Ptarmigan Gold Copper." Alberni Advocate. [Alberni, B.C.] (September 28, 1913) p. 1.

"British Capital in Island Mine." Daily British Colonist. [Victoria, B.C.] (September 16, 1913) p. 14.

"Daring Exploits on Island Mountain." Daily British Colonist. [Victoria, B.C.] (September 25, 1913) p. 11.

Wilburn, Kenneth. "James Sivewright." Dictionary of South African Biography. Vol. IV. Tafelberg Uitgewers, Ltd. Cape Town, South Africa. 1982. p. 572-574.


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