Thomas Charles Scanlen

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Thomas Charles Scanlen
Prime Minister Thomas C Scanlen.jpg
Prime Minister of the Cape Colony
In office
9 May 1881 – 12 May 1884
Monarch Victoria
Governor Hercules Robinson
Preceded by John Gordon Sprigg
Succeeded by Thomas Upington
Personal details
Born (1834-07-09)9 July 1834
Albany, Cape Colony
Died 15 December 1912(1912-12-15) (aged 78)
Salisbury, BSAC Rhodesia
Nationality British
Spouse(s) Emma Thackwray,
Sarah Ann Dennison
Occupation Politician

Thomas Charles Scanlen (9 July 1834 – 15 December 1912) was a politician and administrator of the Cape Colony.

He was briefly Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, from 1881 to 1884, during an especially turbulent period in the Cape's history. He was also the Cape's first locally-born Prime Minister.

Early life[edit]

Scanlen was born 9 July 1834 on Longford Farm in the district of Albany in the Cape Colony. His family were of Irish ancestry, and had arrived in the eastern Cape among the 1820 Settlers. In 1845 his family moved from Grahamstown to Cradock, Cape Colony. Here he married Emma Thackwray on 1855, and the couple had several children.

Early political career[edit]

Scanlen's father Charles was elected as parliamentary representative for Cradock in 1856. Thomas succeeded his father as representative of Cradock in 1870, and was to serve in the Cape Parliament for a total of 26 years.

The Scanlen Ministry (1881-1884)[edit]

Scanlen preparing to take over the troubled Cape Government. Cape Lantern cartoon. 1881.
Scanlen falls into opposition. Cape Lantern cartoon. 1884.


The Cape Colony (dark pink) and neighbouring states, on the eve of the Confederation Wars and before the loss of Basutoland in 1881.

In 1881, the unpopular and unelected government of Prime Minister John Gordon Sprigg fell, amidst the widespread unrest and frontier wars resulting from the British Colonial Office's disastrous attempt to enforce a confederation system on southern Africa. The British Governor Henry Bartle Frere had just been recalled to London in 1880 to face charges of misconduct and, deprived of its principle backer, the Sprigg ministry collapsed. In the political vacuum, the Cape's first Prime Minister John Molteno was invited to come out of retirement to take over government, however he declined, and instead suggested Scanlen as a sufficiently qualified leader to form a government.[1][2]

In the charged atmosphere of the time, powerful political factions were squaring off, however none could command an absolute majority alone. Scanlen was therefore quickly accepted as a "safe" compromise candidate who was politically neutral and could be accepted by all. He was also prudent and astute by nature, and in the context of the ruinous military and economic situation, all factions accepted the need for a technocrat government.

Consequently, on 9 May 1881, Thomas Scanlen was appointed as the 3rd Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, and the first locally born person to hold this position.

The Scanlen government soon came to be known as "The Humdrum Ministry", as it was primarily concerned with damage-control and restoring normality to the country, after the disastrous Sprigg government.

Initial challenges[edit]

At its accession, Scanlen's new government confronted two full-blown wars and a string of smaller conflicts, all caused by Frere's recently failed confederation scheme. The first Anglo-Boer war saw the British lose control of the Transvaal. The Basuto Gun War began to die down after the Cape government negotiated a peace treaty in 1881, and Scanlen's government succeeded in getting the British to assume responsibility for Basutoland, however it was never more to be a part of the Cape Colony. Because of this, in years to come, it was eventually to become the independent state of Lesotho, separate from the rest of South Africa.[3] Other legacy issues were the breakaway of the Transkei, the German invasion of neighbouring South West Africa, and the newly inflamed tension between British and Boer citizens of the Cape.

Serious financial problems also faced the Scanlen government from its onset, and at the time this issue dwarfed all others in urgency and importance. The massive confederation wars had sapped the Colony's resources, accruing a debt of over 16 million (mostly from military spending) and seeing the Cape's exports peter off. In addition, the subsequent withdrawal of the Imperial garrisons reduced local demand for goods and infrastructure.[4]

In spite of these challenges, Scanlen's government began gradually to make headway. He led a movement to return to the highly successful and locally-oriented development policies of the Cape's first ministry. For this purpose, he re-appointed John X. Merriman as his Commissioner of Public Works, and Molteno himself briefly came out of retirement to assist Scanlen in forming his cabinet and to advise him as Colonial Secretary. The country's economy slowly began to revive and the diamond industry started to recover. Although the effects were only gradually felt in the years to come, economic recovery had begun.[5]

The rise of Afrikaner nationalism[edit]

By the time of Scanlen's ministry, the earlier grievances between the eastern and western halves of the Cape Colony had mostly been appeased. However, Frere's failed Confederation scheme and the First Boer War had led to these tensions merely being replaced by friction between the English and Afrikaans speaking populations of the Cape.

The newly founded Afrikaner Bond held its first congress in 1882 at Graaf Reinet, and went on to secure a significant degree of parliamentary control. Signs of the increasing cultural assertiveness of the Cape Afrikaners swiftly followed during Scanlen's tenure, included the first introduction of the Dutch language into the House of Assembly.

Under intense pressure from the Afrikaner Bond on the issue of de-annexing Basutoland, Scanlen was compelled to resign in May 1884. He was replaced as Premier by Thomas Upington a political ally of the Bond. [6]

Later life[edit]

Scanlen continued to serve as leader of the parliamentary opposition until 1889 but his personal life suffered. In 1888 his second wife, Sarah Ann Dennison, left him and moved to England with their child. Of the ten children he fathered in his marriages, only four survived to adulthood.

In 1895, he moved to Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe) where he started a legal practice. He went on to become legal adviser to Cecil Rhodes's Chartered Company, for which he acted as Administrator on several occasions, and acting Public Prosecutor.[7][8]

Scanlen died on 15 December 1912 in Salisbury, Rhodesia.


  1. ^ G.M. Theal: History of South Africa, from 1873 to 1884. Twelve eventful years. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. Vol.II, p.70.
  2. ^ P. A. Molteno: The life and times of Sir John Charles Molteno, Comprising a History of Representative Institutions and Responsible Government at the Cape. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1900
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Basil T. Hone: The First Son of South Africa to be Premier: Thomas Charles Scanlen. Oldwick, New Jersey: Longford Press, 1993. ISBN 0-9635572-5-4
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^

Further reading[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Charles Scanlen
Representative of Cradock, Eastern Cape
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Sir John Gordon Sprigg
Prime Minister of Cape Colony
Succeeded by
Thomas Upington