Jan Christian Smuts was born on a farm near Riebeeck West in the Cape Colony. His ancestors were mainly Dutch, with a small admixture of French and German but no English, though he was born a British subject. Until he went to school at the age of 12, Smuts lived the life of a South African farm boy, taking his share in the work of the farm, learning from nature, and developing a life-long love of the land. Many years later, when asked by an American botanist why he, a general, should be an authority on grasses, Smuts replied, “But my dear lady, I am only a general in my spare time.”
At 16 he went to Victoria College (subsequently the University of Stellenbosch), where he studied science and arts and obtained first-class honours in both. At Stellenbosch he fell in love with a fellow student, Isie Krige, whom he later married and who remained a source of strength through the stresses and strains of an eventful life.
In 1891 he obtained a scholarship and entered Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he read law and was generally recognized as one of the most brilliant law students Cambridge had had. He was the first ever to take both parts of the law tripos examinations in the same year, and in both he came first. From Cambridge he went to London, where he came first in the Inns of Court honours examination and was awarded two prizes. It seemed clear that a distinguished academic career lay ahead of him; nevertheless, Smuts wanted to return to South Africa.
Apart from law he read widely in philosophy, poetry, and science, and it was at this time that he first read the poems of Walt Whitman. Many years later he compared the effect that Whitman had on him to St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. Whitman’s conception of natural man liberated him, he believed, from the sense of sin induced by a strict Calvinist upbringing. Before he left England he wrote a book about Whitman but failed to find a publisher.
Returning to Cape Town in 1895, Smuts was at once drawn into politics. At first he supported Cecil Rhodes,