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Tolkien Studies 2.1 (2005) 225-229

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The Birthplace of J. R. R. Tolkien

J R. R. Tolkien was not born in South Africa. That nation did not exist in 1892. The town of his birth, Bloemfontein, was the capital of an independent country, the Republic of the Orange Free State. A number of biographical studies, including the The Tolkien Family Album, do not make the distinction. This is misleading because it ignores the historical and social background of his earliest home. His parents' presence in Bloemfontein was part of an epic as grand as any in Middle-earth. The story of southern Africa in the nineteenth century is a tale of expansionism and rivalry by the British and German imperial powers, greed for the wealth of newly-discovered diamonds and gold, and stubborn resistance by pioneers determined to preserve their own way of life. These potent factors led to armed skirmishes that erupted into war. The Tolkien family came to Bloemfontein during a period of great tension, midway through the twenty-year interval between the first Boer War in 1880-81 and the second Boer War that began in 1899.

The Union of South Africa came into existence only in 1910, formed from four previously separate entities. Two of these, the Cape of Good Hope and Natal, had been self-governing British colonies. The other two, the Transvaal Republic and the Republic of the Orange Free State, had been independent countries, commonly called the "Boer Republics" because they were founded and inhabited by the original European group in southern Africa. These people were the descendants of Dutch and Huguenot settlers who came to the Cape in the 1600's. They were farmers ("Boers") and during nearly two hundred years of isolation their language became distinct from its European roots. They called themselves Afrikaners and their language Afrikaans.

The Boer's isolation ended in the early 1800s, when the British took over the Cape as part of their global strategy after the Napoleonic wars. Within a few years there was a mass emigration of Boers who hated the new British laws. About 12,000 people set out walking northward in family groups, hauling their goods in ox-wagons and herding their livestock. These "Voortrekkers" settled north of the Orange and Vaal Rivers and by mid-century the British government in the Cape recognized their new Republics. But the new countries were not allowed to develop [End Page 225] in peace. The German Empire claimed South West Africa, including a long extension that reached eastward towards the Transvaal. The British established a new colony, Rhodesia, adjourning the northern border of the Transvaal. Diamonds were discovered in the 1870s and gold in the 1880s. Many foreigners (mainly British) were drawn by the prospect of wealth and entered the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. They were not welcome. As "uitlanders" they were subject to high tax rates and naturalization was very difficult.

The Tolkien family were "uitlanders" in Bloemfontein and their circumstances were determined by the turbulence of the times. Bloemfontein was a frontier settlement. Its population was only about 2,000 in 1890, but it was the closest political center to the diamond diggings at Kimberley and it was the most important town on the rail line that linked Cape Town to the gold fields at Johannesburg.1 Arthur Tolkien's employer, The Bank of Africa, was a British company that came to Bloemfontein as a competitor to the locally founded National Bank of the Orange Free State. Native Free Staters would have seen Arthur as an agent for the expansion of the British Empire, a "finger of the claw of Mordor" (TT, III, x, 185). The last year of Arthur's life was a time of great friction between the Boer Republics and the "uitlanders." Cecil Rhodes, who was Prime Minister of the Cape Province, and Jameson, who was the administrator of Rhodesia, plotted with Englishmen in the gold fields to overthrow the Transvaal Republic. No wonder it was impossible for Arthur to leave his bank for a long overseas visit...