Binns, Henry (DNB01)

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BINNS, Sir HENRY (1837–1899), third prime minister of Natal, son of Henry Binns of Sunderland and Croydon, a quaker, was born at Sunderland, Durham, on 27 June 1837, and educated at Ackworth from 1847 to 1852, and then at York. In 1858 he migrated with some relatives to Natal, arriving on 14 Sept., and thus he was connected with Natal almost from its first existence as a separate colony. He decided to devote himself to agriculture, and bought a property called Umhlanga at Riet River, near Phoenix, in Victoria county, which in 1860 he turned into a sugar estate. Subsequently he amalgamated his estate with those of his relative, Robert Acutt, and a friend, and in 1868 returned to England to float the Umhlanga Valley Sugar Estate Company, of which he became the general manager, only retiring finally in 1892.

Binns did not enter public life till comparatively late. In 1879 he was selected by Sir Garnet (now Viscount) Wolseley as a nominee member of the legislative council under the Crown Colony system of government. In 1883 the elective element was introduced into the council, and he became member for Victoria county, for which he sat without interruption till his death. At the close of 1887 Binns was appointed one of three delegates from Natal to the conference which assembled at Bloemfontein from 30 Jan. to 18 Feb. 1888, on the question of a South African customs union. At this time only a partial union was inaugurated, which Natal did not join. In 1890 he was one of three delegates who arranged for the extension of the Natal government railway to Harrismith in the Orange Free State. In December 1893 he was sent on a mission to India respecting the question of Indian coolie labour for the sugar estates, and the return of labourers to their native country on the expiration of their indentures.

Originally opposed to the idea of self-government for Natal, Binns was so far reconciled to the idea by 1893 that he acquiesced in Sir John Robinson's policy directed to introducing the reform; but he declined to join the first ministry under the new constitution, and so became a sort of leader of the opposition, whose duty it was, as far as possible, to support the ministry. It was a curious application of the form rather than the full spirit of the constitution of the mother country. In 1897, after the successive retirements of Sir John Robinson and Henry Escombe [q. v. Suppl.], Binns was appointed prime minister. He took office on 5 Oct. 1897 as colonial secretary and minister of agriculture, but soon resigned the latter portfolio. He threw himself into the work of his position with remarkable energy. The discontent of the Natal civil service was successfully met. An extradition treaty with the South African republic was concluded on 20 Nov. 1897. It was his idea to offer a given monthly supply of coal for the use of her Majesty's fleet, as a contribution from Natal to mark the queen's year of jubilee. His first session of parliament began on 24 Nov. 1897, and was chiefly occupied with the incorporation of Zululand. He then turned his attention to the one subject on which his mind was particularly bent — the entrance of Natal into the South African customs union. In May 1898 a conference on the subject was held at Cape Town, at which he was the chief delegate from Natal. A convention was settled, in compliance with which Binns, on 20 May, introduced a resolution in favour of the union into the Natal parliament. The policy was bitterly opposed, and it took all Binns's energy and determination to carry the enabling bill through the assembly. It was read a third time in the assembly on 30 June, and its success was thus assured. On 6 July his health failed so completely that he could not enter the house for the remainder of the session. He spent some time on the Berea, and seemed better on his return to Pietermaritzburg in December 1898. In January 1899 he attended the postal conference at Cape Town. He was present at the opening of the Natal parliament on 11 May, but he soon became ill again, and died on 6 June 1899. The assembly adjourned for the rest of the week. His body lay in state at the vestibule of the House of Assembly and was buried on 7 June at the military cemetery, Pietermaritzburg.

Binns's political life was marked by his courage and persistence. He was a pungent speaker, who rarely wasted words — a good critic of finance. He was a sound business man, and his name will always be connected with the building up of the sugar industry in Natal; he was a director of the Natal Bank and of the Durban Telephone and Tramways Companies. He was also a captain of mounted rifles. Hewasmade K.C.M.G. in 1898.

Binns married in 1861 his cousin Clara, daughter of John Acutt of Riverton, who survived him. He had one son.

[The Natal Times, 6 June, 1899; Natal Mercury, 7 June 1899; African Review, 10 June 1899; private information.]

C. A. H.