Sir John Charles Molteno snr.


Sir John Charles Molteno was born in London to an Anglo-Italian family. He emigrated to the Cape in 1831.

He worked for a while as a library assistant. Early on he displayed an entrepreneurial inclination and at age 23 he started Molteno and Co. The company traded wine and wool to the West Indies and Mauritius. In 1841 he attempted the first shipment of fruit overseas. It was dried fruit as there was no refrigeration at the time. Sadly the ship was wrecked in a storm which almost bankrupted Molteno. He offloaded the business and invested rather in a piece of land in the Karoo and a number of Saxon Merino sheep.

He returned to Cape Town to marry his first wife who was the mixed-race daughter of a colleague of his from the mercantile business. They settled in Beaufort West but sadly she died in childbirth. A bereaved Molteno joined a Boer Comando in order to fight in the 1846 Amatola war.

Molteno returned to Cape Town in the 1860s and moved into a house in Claremont. While in Cape Town he stood as a member of parliament, However, he was not in favour of the British government still overseeing the affairs at the Cape. He was contemptuous of the incompetence and injustice of British rule. His appointment marked the beginning of his long battle to make the executive accountable and responsible. His push for responsible government got traction and the movement eventually dominated Cape politics.

Over the years his Responsible government movement grew, and eventually dominated parliament and Cape politics. Eventually, after much struggle, the British governor was recalled and the government of the Cape colony came under local control for the first time. Molteno agreed to become the first prime minister of the colony in 1872. He set about re-organising state finances. He abolished “House Tax” (Act 11 of 1872) and used revenue from taxes from the diamond and ostrich feather industries to pay off the debts of the administration. He oversaw investment in railways, telegraph systems, and infrastructure in the agricultural sector, notably irrigation projects. The economy recovered and became prosperous helped by exports. In 1874 he established a system of grants to build libraries in towns and villages.

When the government in Britain changed it became pro-imperialist. This direction was led by Lord Carnarvon and aimed to bring Southern Africa into the British empire. There was an attempt to force the states into a confederation. There was resistance and the relationship between Molteno and the Colonial office deteriorated. However, the government at the Cape was dissolved and Henry Bartle Frere was installed as governor despite the fact that he knew very little about life in Southern Africa. This arrangement collapsed. It also caused a trail of destruction and long-running wars and conflicts with many local tribes. and eventually led to the First Boer War. Frere was recalled to London and charged with misconduct.

Molteno was asked several times to form a new government which he declined as he was in his late 60s. He chose rather to retire from public life.

 Molteno was unusually tall and powerfully built. He acquired the nickname the “Lion of Beaufort”, though his British opponents reputedly called him “Beaufort Boer” Molteno was married three times, and widowed twice. He had 19 children in total and 38 grandchildren. In 1882 he was knighted by Queen Victoria having three times previously turned down a knighthood.



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