The Kruger household on Church Street, Pretoria, offered genial hospitality to all who called, friends and strangers alike, even after Paul Kruger became president of the Transvaal in 1883. During the day, the front door was kept wide open; there were no sentries posted there. To each visitor, Kruger extended his huge hand in welcome. From the kitchen, his wife, Gezina, provided an endless flow of coffee, rusks and other delicacies.
The house had been built by Charles Clark, an English-speaking builder who had settled in Pretoria during President Burgers’ tenure in office and whom Kruger liked to describe as his tame Englishman. It was set back no more than six feet from the street but was largely concealed by tall shade trees. Along the front ran a wide stoep, or veranda, where much business was conducted. Inside was a large reception room furnished with settees, armchairs, two round tables and a collection of upright chairs. Volksraad committee meetings were sometimes held there. There was also a dining room, a bedroom, and a small private study. The back stoep was used to store biltong - dried meat. And in the back garden, Kruger kept cows.
Kruger’s routine was to rise at daybreak, unlock the front door, and then retire to his private study to read a chapter from the Bible by the light of a paraffin lamp or tallow candle. After early morning coffee, in summer he would sit on the stoep, smoking his pipe, ready to receive his first callers; in winter, he remained in the reception room, with a large Bible placed nearby. At mealtimes, he said grace twice, speaking in High Dutch and at length. Women not wearing bonnets were required to place serviettes over their heads. Gezina was never seen without a bonnet. Partial to milk, Kruger always kept a bowl of milk and bread beside him. On a state visit to Germany in 1884, he insisted on toasting the Kaiser’s health in milk.
He seldom read the morning papers, preferring to rely on a summary prepared for him by his aide, Dr Willem Leyds, a young attorney he recruited from Holland in 1884. After meeting his executive council, he presided over the Volksraad, dressed in an old frock-coat with a broad green sash of office bound over his shoulder. Debates in the Volksraad were often heated. Members were accustomed to expressing their views with great vehemence, gesticulating wildly and thumping the table. Kruger participated in similar manner, famous for his ‘bellowing’ and ‘buffalo rushes’.
‘On the first occasion upon which I visited the Raad,’ wrote Captain Francis Younghusband, a special correspondent for the London Times,
I saw Mr Kruger, almost before the original speaker had finished, rise and roar in his deep big voice at the meeting, and almost break the table with his violent thumps upon it. I thought that something very important must be under debate, but was told that they were merely debating whether some minor official’s salary should be cut down or increased! Mr Kruger is always emphatic upon whatever subject he speaks. But when he wishes to really enforce a point he comes round to his great stock argument that the independence of the country would be endangered if what he wishes is not agreed to.
Kruger was usually successful in getting his own way through the use of such histrionics. Describing his official encounters with Kruger, in a tone of affectionate exasperation, General Nicolaas Smit, the hero of Majuba, recalled:
I do stand up to him, I know he is wrong and I tell him so; but first he argues with me, and if that is no good he gets in a rage and jumps around the room roaring at me like a wild beast . . . and if I do not give in then he fetches out the Bible and . . . quotes that to help him out. And if all that fails, he takes my hand and cries like a child and begs and prays me to give in . . . who can resist a man like that?
Kruger’s ambitions for the Transvaal were modest. The government depended for revenue on a pastoral economy and a small gold-mining industry in the Lydenburg district of the eastern Transvaal, and its finances remained precarious. Short of funds, Kruger was persuaded by an enterprising Hungarian adventurer, Hugo Nellmapius, that a useful method for the state to raise money was to sell monopoly concessions to independent businessmen. Nellmapius had arrived in the eastern Transvaal in 1873, at the age of twenty-six, to try his hand at gold prospecting. Trained as a civil engineer, he had a working knowledge of the use of dynamite, introduced large-scale mining operations to the eastern Transvaal and set up a transport business along a new road he constructed to the sea at Delagoa Bay. Settling in Pretoria in 1878, he purchased a farm at Hatherley on the Pienaar’s River, ten miles east of the capital, struck up a warm friendship with Kruger, financed a new house for him on his Church Street property, and looked around for business opportunities.
In September 1881, Nellmapius set out his plan for monopoly concessions in a four-page document he submitted to Kruger’s executive council. He proposed only a small beginning, but the idea he put forward, once it took hold, was to have momentous consequences.
What the Transvaal needed, he said, was its own industries to produce basic products such as clothing, blankets, leather, flour and sugar, protected by high tariff walls to ensure their viability. What was lacking was entrepreneurial initiative. Any new enterprise involved high risk. But the government could overcome this by offering ‘privileges, patents, monopolies, bonuses et cetera’.
As a start, Nellmapius asked for two monopolies, one for distilling liquor from local grain and other raw materials, the other for producing sugar from beets and maize. Since the cost of building and operating a factory would be at least £100,000, he said, his concession would have to last for at least fifteen years. In return, he was prepared to make an annual contribution to the Treasury of £1,000, paid in advance. Nellmapius’ scheme for a fifteen-year liquor concession was duly approved by the executive council and the Volksraad. Once a contract was signed in October 1881, he took on as partners two other entrepreneurs, Sammy Marks and his brother-in-law, Isaac Lewis, and launched a company with a capital of £100,000 to manage the project - ‘De Eerste Fabrieken’ (The First Factory). Construction began on his farm at Hatherley.
In view of Kruger’s abhorrence of liquor, it was ironic that the Transvaal’s first factory was built to produce it. He nevertheless agreed to preside over the opening ceremony in 1883. While other guests indulged in champagne and sampled the distillery’s first output - a rough, fiery gin - Kruger sipped milk. He remarked that although he himself disliked liquor, he did not regard its production as a sin. ‘Drink is a gift from God,’ he said, ‘given to man for moderate consumption, and in that there is no sin.’ He could well understand, he said, that a drink after a hard day’s work could be refreshing and invigorating. What was reprehensible was drunkenness. He spoke of the factory as ‘De Volks-Hoop’ - the people’s hope - providing employment for burghers and encouragement for agricultural producers. A large poster decorating one of the walls read: ‘A Concession Policy is the Making of the Country’.
Of more concern to Kruger was how to protect the Boer character of the Transvaal from foreign influence. He proposed restrictions on immigration ‘in order to prevent the Boer nationality from being stifled’, but recognised that, with only a limited pool of trained manpower available amongst Transvaalers, foreign recruitment was unavoidable. His solution was to appeal for immigrants from Holland. ‘I apprehend the least danger from an invasion from Holland,’ he said. Addressing a huge crowd in Amsterdam during a European tour in 1884, he declared: ‘We have kept our own language, the language of the Netherlands people, who have fought eighty years for faith and freedom. Our people in the wilderness have kept their language and faith through every storm. Our whole struggle is bound up with this.’ Over the course of the next fifteen years, more than 5,000 Dutch immigrants arrived in the Transvaal, reinforcing the ranks of civil servants and teachers.
Kruger also used his immense authority to promote the Calvinist concept of national calling and destiny. To celebrate the return of the Transvaal’s independence in 1881, he organised a four-day ‘festival of thanksgiving’ at Paardekraal, where the year before burghers had vowed to defend the unity of the Volk and re-establish their republic. Speaking before a crowd of 12,000 Boers on the first day, 13 December, Kruger reminded them of the early struggle of the voortrekkers and of how each time God had guided them onward. The Great Trek, he said, was like the journey of the Israelites of the Old Testament leaving Egypt to escape the Pharaoh’s yoke, and he cited it as evidence that God had summoned the Boers on a similar mission to establish a promised land in southern Africa. They were thus a chosen people.
The last day of the festival, 16 December, was used for the same purpose. It marked the forty-third anniversary of the Boer victory at Blood River in 1838 when a commando of 468 trekkers, three Englishmen and sixty blacks faced some 10,000 Zulu warriors. In a battle lasting two hours, three trekkers were slightly wounded and none killed, but 3,000 Zulus lay dead. For Kruger, the victory at Blood River was a miracle demonstrating God’s support for the Boers and their special mission in Africa. Just as 16 December 1838 had been a turning point in the lives of the trekkers, said Kruger, so now 16 December 1881 was the beginning ‘of still greater salvation’.
The festival at Paardekraal became a five-yearly event, presided over by Kruger, with ever greater emphasis being placed on the significance of the Blood River victory - Dingaan’s Day, as it was called. The Transvaal government appointed a Dutch teacher to seek out survivors and record their memories. What became especially important was a pledge said to have been made by members of the commando a few days before the battle occurred that, if God granted them a victory, they would build a memorial church in his honour and commemorate the anniversary as a day of thanksgiving for ever more.
In his report of the battle, the commando leader, Andries Pretorius, did indeed refer to the covenant and, three years later, together with local people, he erected a church building at the Boer encampment at Pietermaritzburg in Natal. From 1861, however, the building was no longer used as a place of worship, but for commercial purposes. It became in turn a wagonmaker’s shop, a mineral water factory, a tea room, a blacksmith’s workshop, a school and, eventually, a woolshed. Nor, apparently, did most members of the commando take the covenant seriously. The covenant, in fact, fell rapidly into oblivion.
But facing the menace of British imperialism in the 1880s, Kruger and other prominent Afrikaners in the Transvaal sought to fortify morale by reviving public awareness of the covenant. Kruger argued that the setbacks the Boers had endured - from the British annexation of Natal in 1843 to the British annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 - were God’s chastisements for their failure to honour their vow. The Boer victory in 1881 was a sign of God’s continuing commitment.
Having regained independence, however, Kruger was allowed little respite from the attention of foreigners. In 1885, news arrived in Pretoria of a major gold discovery on the eastern border of the Transvaal. The editor of the Pretoria Press, Leo Weinthal, recorded Kruger’s reaction. After remaining silent, lost in thought, Kruger remarked, with Old Testament fervour:
Do not talk to me of gold, the element which brings more dissension, misfortune and unexpected plagues in its trails than benefits. Pray to God, as I am doing, that the curse connected with its coming may not overshadow our dear land just after it has come again to us and our children. Pray and implore Him who has stood by us that He will continue to do so, for I tell you today that every ounce of gold taken from the bowels of our soil will yet have to be weighed up with rivers of tears.
The first ‘payable’ gold discoveries in the Transvaal had been made in the early 1870s near the eastern escarpment, where the great Transvaal plateau breaks and drops away to the lowveld and the coast. Alluvial gold was found in the Lydenburg district in 1872 and at Pilgrim’s Rest in the valley of the Blyde River in 1873. Diggers poured in from Delagoa Bay, the nearest port, traversing a stretch of wild, disease-ridden bushland to get there.
Further finds were made in 1882 in De Kaap, ‘fever country’ close to Swaziland. In 1883, a French prospector, August Robert, otherwise known as French Bob, struck the Pioneer Reef there. In June 1884, a Natal prospector, Graham Barber, reported a significant gold-bearing reef in the De Kaap valley; a small village known as Barberton sprang up nearby. New reefs were subsequently reported almost daily, prompting a rush of fortune-seekers from all over the world. Then, in 1885, a former Yorkshire coal miner, Edwin Bray struck ‘Bray’s Golden Quarry’, part of the fabulously rich Sheba Reef. The first 13,000 tons of ore yielded 50,000 ounces of gold.
Barberton rapidly turned into a boom town, becoming the largest centre of population in the Transvaal. Thousands of claims were pegged; new companies were launched by the score, and millions of share certificates were sold. From dawn until late at night, the Barberton stock exchange was the scene of frantic activity. Investors in Britain scrambled to buy Barberton gold shares - kaffirs, as they were called. The £1 shares of Sheba Company rose to £105.
Kimberley’s diamond contingent took an early interest in the De Kaap goldfields, sending out scouts and making periodic visits. Beit travelled there in 1884, accompanied by Jules Porges. ‘Beit’s energy when inspecting shafts and drives was really astonishing,’ wrote Jim Taylor, his Barberton agent. ‘From early dawn until dark he would ride and walk over the rougher country without showing signs of fatigue.’ Beit plunged in with enthusiasm, buying shares in the French Bob Company and in Kimberley Imperial Company, becoming chairman of both.
The young doctor Hans Sauer visited the goldfields during the course of a long hunting trip and toyed with the idea of giving up medicine for a more adventurous occupation. He arrived in Barberton amid a wave of excitement about the gold levels in the newly discovered Kimberley Imperial mine. ‘Everyone on the Field was busy pegging out claims, and I did likewise.’
His dreams of a prospector’s life, however, were soon dashed by the results of a poker game he played with Dr Jameson in Lydenburg:
He was the dealer and gave me two kings. I bought three cards, amongst which he gave me two more kings, so that I had four of a kind in my hand. He also kept two and bought three more. With the four kings in my hand I bragged up to £800, which represented all my cash resources at the time. Jameson kept raising me until I was forced to put in my wagon and oxen, guns and outfit, and finally a pair of top-boots. Upon which he ‘saw me’ and beat me with a straight flush. I rose from the table broke to the wide world. Jameson kindly returned me the top-boots and my surgical instruments.
The Barberton boom soon turned to bust. Most companies never produced so much as an ounce of gold; many were straight swindles, set up to lure investors with bogus prospectuses. Though there were exceptionally rich pockets of gold scattered about the Barberton field, only five mines proved to be viable.
From his own investigations, Beit’s agent, Jim Taylor, soon concluded that apart from such properties as Bray’s Golden Quarry and the Sheba, Barberton was ‘a flop’. Beit and Jules Porges hurried back to Barberton and sold out in time to avoid the worst of the crash, though not without loss.
Many others were ruined. Hundreds of fortune-seekers who had arrived with hope and enthusiasm trudged back penniless to Pretoria and Cape Town, some in rags. London investors lost huge sums. After such a disastrous debut on world markets, South African gold shares were viewed with deep distrust.
Then in 1886, an itinerant English prospector, George Harrison, who had worked in the goldfields of Australia as well as the eastern Transvaal, stumbled across a gold-bearing rocky outcrop on a farm called Langlaagte - Long Shallow Valley. Together with a colleague, George Walker, a former Lancashire coal miner, Harrison had been heading on foot to Barberton when he was offered work building a cottage on Langlaagte for a Boer widow, Petronella Oosthuizen. In April, Harrison and Walker signed a contract with the Oosthuizen family permitting them to prospect for gold. In May, Harrison hurried to Pretoria to secure a prospecting licence, taking with him a sample of gold-bearing rock which he showed to President Kruger. He was duly named the ‘zoeker’ - the discoverer - of the find and awarded a free claim. But Harrison decided to move on, selling his claim for £10. Beneath lay the richest gold field ever discovered.