Molteno, John Charles (DNB01)
MOLTENO, Sir JOHN CHARLES (1814–1886), South African statesman, the son of John Molteno, deputy controller of the legacy office, Somerset House, and of Caroline Bower, his wife, was born on 5 June 1814 in his father's house in London. The family was of Milanese extraction, but had long been domiciled in England. Losing his father at an early age, he was educated at Ewell, and after a short experience in the office of a city shipbroker he sailed for South Africa in 1831 to take up duties in the public library at Cape Town. In 1837, when twenty-three years of age, he started a commercial business of his own, and was for the next ten years engaged in a spirited endeavour to open up new markets for colonial produce ; but a succession of adverse circumstances proved fatal, and in 1841 he abandoned his Cape Town business and devoted himself to developing the wool trade on a property which he had acquired in Beaufort West. From this date till 1852 he lived an isolated life in the great Karoo, forming an intimate ac- quaintance with the life and characteristics of the frontier colonists, especially those of Dutch blood.
He took part as a burgher and commandant in the Kaffir war of 1846, and formed a strong opinion of the unsuitability of British troops and British regular officers for such warfare. The dictatorial tone adopted towards the colonists, together with the incapacity displayed by the queen's officers, was a strong factor in determining his future attitude towards the intervention of the home government in military matters.
In 1852 he returned to mercantile pursuits, and founded the firm of Alport & Co., which he combined with a large banking business, and he rapidly grew to be one of the wealthiest and most influential citizens in the Beaufort district. In 1854 representative institutions were introduced in the Cape Colony, and Molteno became the first member for Beaufort in the legislative assembly, and by his skill in debate and profound knowledge of the needs of the country soon raised himself to the front rank. During the governorship of Sir George Grey [q. v. Suppl.] he was generally found in sympathy and support with him, but on the appointment of Sir Philip Wodehouse [q. v. Suppl.] in 1862 he was driven into a strong policy of opposition. The leading cry among Cape politicians was for responsible government, and for many years Molteno took the foremost place in the battle. When, with the approval of the secretary of the colonies, Lord Kimberley, it was conceded in 1872 by Sir Henry Barkly [q. v. Suppl.], the new governor, Molteno was by common consent designated as the first Cape premier.
The first years of his administration were marked by great prosperity, by a vast increase in railroad communication, and by the rehabilitation of the colonial finances. The acquisition of the diamond fields had a considerable share in this, but the main credit may fairly be attributed to the administrative and financial capacity of Molteno, and to the confidence that he inspired.
This peaceful epoch was not of long duration. Lord Carnarvon was resolved to force on his policy of South African confederation. Molteno was not opposed to confederation in itself, but insisted that it must come gradually from within and not from without, and that at the present time it would impose unduly onerous burdens on the Cape Colony. Lord Carnarvon was unfortunate in his choice of James Anthony Froude[q. v. Suppl.] the historian, whom he sent out as an unofficial representative of the home government in 1875.
Failing to obtain Molteno's assistance, Froude started an unconstitutional agitation throughout South Africa which, by stirring up the race antagonism between English and Dutch, sowed the seeds of future calamities. Molteno and his colleagues procured the rejection of a scheme for a conference on the subject of confederation, and the Cape parliament refused to allow him even to discuss the subject with the home government when he was in England during the following year.
In April 1877 Sir Henry Bartle Edward Frere [q. v.] succeeded Sir Henry Barkly at the Cape. He came out as the special exponent of Lord Carnarvon's views, and it was not long before he came into conflict with Molteno. The latter was a thorough-going exponent of colonial rights, and prepared to insist on them to their fullest extent. Sir Bartle had no experience of self-governing colonies. It would have been difficult under any circumstances for the two to work in harmony ; Frere's preconceived notions on confederation and native policy rendered it impossible. The war with the Galekas in 1877-8 brought matters to a crisis. The governor contended that the commander-in-chief at the Cape was the only person who could command the colonial troops; Molteno insisted that, though the governor, as such, had power over the colonial forces, it could only be exercised with and by the advice of his responsible ministers. The ministers were unyielding, and on 6 Feb. 1878 Frere took the strong step of dismissing them, under circumstances which showed little consideration for Molteno's long services.
Molteno had reckoned on the support of his parliamentary majority, which had never failed him hitherto, but in the debate which followed his dismissal the legislative assembly supported his successor, (Sir) Gordon Sprigg. Deeply chagrined, and feeling helpless before Sir Bartle Frere's policy, to which he was opposed in every respect, he retired from public life. In 1881, after Frere's recall, Molteno entered for a short time Mr. Scanlen's administration as colonial secretary, but in August 1882 he finally withdrew from politics, receiving the decoration of a K.C.M.G., and followed by widely expressed appreciations of his past services. After a short sojourn in England he returned to the Cape and died at Claremont on 1 Sept. 1886.
Sir John Molteno was a man of commanding presence and of great physical strength. In private life he was of most simple and unostentatious habits. He was thoroughly representative of the early English settlers at the Cape, and enjoyed the full confidence of the Dutch. His ideas were formed before the days of imperialism, and the interests of the Cape ranked first with him, but in his efforts to secure the annexation of Damaraland he showed better statesmanship than Lord Carnarvon.
There is a bust photograph of Molteno, about life size, in the houses of parliament, Cape Town.
He was three times married: first, to Maria Hewitson; secondly, in 1841, to Elizabeth Maria, a daughter of Hercules Crosse Jarvis, by whom he left issue; thirdly, to Sobella Maria, the daughter of Major Blenkins, C.B., who survived him, and by whom he left issue.
[Life and Times of Sir John Molteno by his son, Percy A. Molteno (1899). and the authorities there quoted; Martineau's Life of Sir Bartle Frera.]