As talk of the possibility of war swirled around southern Africa, a group of Cape intermediaries strove assiduously to ward off the prospect. In April, the Cape’s chief justice, Sir Henry de Villiers, travelled to Pretoria hoping to persuade Kruger to grant reforms and to broach the idea of a face-to-face meeting with Milner. The Cape’s prime minister, William Schreiner, held talks with Milner, offering his good offices, and wrote to Smuts, making clear his support for franchise reform. The Afrikaner Bond leader, Jan Hofmeyr, urged Milner to meet Kruger on neutral ground in Bloemfontein. In May, De Villiers returned from Pretoria, reporting that Smuts and Reitz were willing ‘to work for a liberal franchise’ and were in favour of a summit meeting. In Bloemfontein, President Steyn duly offered to host the meeting.
Milner described the plan for a meeting as ‘a good stroke of business on the part of the enemy’. It had already produced one effect, he said, ‘that of mollifying the British press a bit and relaxing for the moment, unfortunately as I think, the screw upon the enemy’. He expected little to come of it. ‘If I do go,’ he told Conyngham Greene, ‘it will be simply because the home Government do not wish to be accused of having refused any chance of arranging matters.’ He was quick to make clear the demands he would make at the meeting: full enfranchisement of the uitlanders after five years’ residence; modification of the oath of allegiance; and at least seven seats at once for the Rand in the Volksraad. He was confident that this time the British government would intervene ‘if Kruger does not grant large reforms’. In a letter to the governor of Natal on 8 May, he remarked: ‘Perhaps it would be best if Kruger hardened his heart and the smash came.’ Britain, he said, should be prepared to fight rather than accept ‘a piffling measure’ of reform.
The great thing now, in this intervening breathing space before the bomb bursts, is for us to stiffen the wobblers. I know perfectly well that as soon as it becomes evident that H.M.G. means business, we shall have the usual outcry . . . that there is nothing to fight about, that a race war would be too awful, etc. It is under cover of these bogeys that Kruger and Co. have kept up their game so long. Once you convince the wobblers . . . that the British Government is resolute, the whole force of the peace-at-any price party will be directed to getting the Transvaal to give in. Sir H. de Villiers is decidedly on that tack already, and with a little more pushing, Schreiner will follow suit.
In London, Chamberlain welcomed the idea of a meeting. It was important, he said, to explore this option ‘before exerting pressure in any other way’. He told Milner: ‘In view of the momentous consequences of an actual breach with the Transvaal, public opinion will expect us to make every effort to avoid it.’ He regretted, however, that it would mean postponing publication of the Blue Book.
In Pretoria, Kruger was pessimistic about the outcome. According to Smuts, ‘The President thinks, so far as I can gauge his feeling, that war is unavoidable or will soon become so - not because there is any cause, but because the enemy is brazen enough not to wait for a cause.’
Smuts himself was becoming increasingly belligerent. In a letter to Hofmeyr on 10 May, he wrote:
If England should venture into the ring without a formally good excuse, her cause in South Africa would be finished. And then the sooner the better; as we for our part are quite prepared to meet her. Our people throughout South Africa must be baptized with the baptism of blood and fire before they can be admitted among the other great peoples of the world. Of the outcome I have no doubt. Either we shall be exterminated or we shall fight our way out; and when I think of the great fighting qualities that our people possess, I cannot see why we should be exterminated.
Hofmeyr was unimpressed by such bravado. ‘Cherish no illusions about the Colony,’ he replied on 15 May, ‘you must not expect that Colonial Afrikaners will rush en masse to arms if hostilities break out - especially as most of them know nothing about the bearing of arms.’
The train carrying Kruger and his entourage steamed into Bloemfontein on 30 May 1899. During the journey across the winter landscape of the Orange Free State, Kruger had remained unusually taciturn. His oculist, Dr Guillaume Heymans, noticed that his eyes were noticeably swollen. Officials in the welcoming party on the platform at Bloemfontein commented on how much he had aged.
On their way from the railway station, Kruger cupped his ear to listen to Steyn’s candid advice. ‘Much will depend on your attitude,’ Steyn told him. ‘You must make concessions on the franchise issue, Your Honour. Franchise after a residence of fourteen years is in conflict with the first principles of a republican and democratic government. The Free State expects you to concede, and will give you full support should you do so. Should you not give in on this issue, you will lose all sympathy and all your friends.’
Kruger replied that he had come to resolve all the troubles he faced with Britain. ‘I am prepared to do anything,’ he replied, ‘but they must not touch my independence. They must be reasonable in their demands as I have my people and my Volksraad to reckon with.’
Milner’s train arrived later in the day. He stepped down briskly, an elegant figure dressed in a morning suit and grey top hat, outwardly polite and affable, but in reality, an imperial predator. In a letter to his wife, Smuts remarked: ‘Milner is as sweet as honey,’ but added, ‘there is something in his very intelligent eyes that tells me that he is a very dangerous man’ - ‘more dangerous than Rhodes . . . a second Bartle Frere’.
The proceedings opened the next day in an oak-panelled chamber next to the railway station. At Milner’s insistence, only he and Kruger were involved in the discussions. When Chamberlain suggested that Schreiner should be included - ‘He wants peace and will try for a settlement’ - Milner blocked the idea. He also refused to allow either Hofmeyr or Steyn to play a role. Everything was confined to a series of straight exchanges between Milner and Kruger. A venerated Free State politician, Abraham Fischer, sat between them, acting as interpreter. No agenda was agreed in advance.
Kruger wanted the discussions to cover a range of disputes. Milner’s intention was to focus on a single issue: the franchise. Milner had no particular interest in the welfare of the uitlander population. Indeed, he was often disparaging about the merits of democracy. But he saw the franchise issue as the means to ‘break the mould’ of Transvaal politics, to wrest the Transvaal from Boer control. What he wanted was ‘immediate and substantial’ representation for the uitlanders. If Kruger rejected what appeared to be a reasonable demand, then the franchise issue could be used as a suitablecasus belli.
From the outset, Milner took the initiative. The main cause of tension between Britain and the Transvaal, he said, was the Transvaal’s refusal to grant adequate voting rights to uitlanders. If that issue could be settled, then it would bring about ‘a better state of feeling all round’ and enable other issues to be resolved. ‘I do not want to swamp the old population,’ he said, ‘but it is perfectly possible to give the new population an immediate voice in the legislation, and yet to leave the old burghers in such a position that they cannot possibly be swamped.’ He proposed that the full franchise should be given immediately to every foreigner who had been resident in the Transvaal for five years and that seven new constituencies should be established to accord them representation in the Volksraad.
Kruger replied that Milner’s proposal would mean, in effect, handing over his country to foreigners. ‘Our enfranchised burghers are probably about 30,000, and the newcomers may be from 60,000 to 70,000 and if we give them the franchise tomorrow we may as well give up the Republic.’ It would be ‘worse than annexation’, he said, ‘and the burghers would not agree to it’. He wanted to know what concessions he might gain in return that might help him appease his burghers. ‘I must tell them that something has been given to me, if I give in to something.’ But Milner dismissed this as a ‘sort of Kaffir bargain’.
On the third day of their discussions, Kruger presented Milner with a ‘complete Reform Bill’, worked out in detail. Milner reported to London that he must have had it ‘in his pocket all the time’. It provided for a sliding scale varying from two to seven years’ residence for citizens applying for the full franchise. Uitlanders who had settled in the Transvaal before 1890 could obtain the franchise after two years; settlers of two or more years’ standing after five; the rest, after seven years. Kruger also offered to create five new seats in the Volksraad for gold-mining districts.
Milner admitted in private that the deal on offer was a ‘great advance’. Abraham Fischer commented that Kruger had conceded far more than anyone had expected. The gap between Kruger’s proposals and Milner’s demands was now relatively narrow: seven years for the franchise instead of five; five seats in the Volksraad against seven. But the offer nevertheless failed to meet Milner’s objective of achieving an ‘immediate’ enfranchisement of a substantial number of uitlanders and Milner had no intention of negotiating over the matter. What he wanted was Kruger’s capitulation. He raised a host of objections.
On Sunday, 4 June, Milner cabled to Chamberlain warning that although he had been ‘studiously conciliatory’, the conference seemed likely to fail. Chamberlain was swift to reply: ‘I hope you will not break off hastily. Boers do not understand quick decisions but prefer to waste a lot of time over a bargain without coming to terms. I am by no means convinced that the President . . . has made his last offer, and you should be very patient and admit a good deal of haggling before you finally abandon the game.’
But Chamberlain’s telegram arrived too late to prevent Milner from terminating the proceedings. Though Kruger was willing to continue discussions, Milner regarded them as a waste of time. ‘My principal aim at the Conference,’ he explained later to Chamberlain, ‘was not to fight out the various points of difference between the Governments, but, by arriving at a settlement on the Uitlander question, which went to the root of many of those differences, to pave the way for the settlement of all.’ But the only settlement Milner had in mind was a victory for British supremacy. As Kruger kept repeating in his last encounter with Milner on 5 June: ‘It is our country you want.’
Even before the failure of the Bloemfontein conference, Milner was preparing for the next phase of his campaign. What was required, he told Selborne a fortnight before the conference opened, was a diplomatic offensive backed up by a show of military force. One week later, explaining in more detail what he had in mind, he proposed that an ‘overwhelming’ force - 10,000 men or more - should be sent out at once to Natal and that Laing’s Nek on the Transvaal frontier should be occupied to frustrate a Boer attack. The defence of Kimberley and Ladysmith also needed to be organised. With this forward position assured, he wrote, ‘we should have a means of pressure which would be irresistible’:
My view is that (1) absolute downright determination plus a large temporary increase of force will ensure a climb down. It is 20 to 1. And (2) that, if it didn’t, and there was a fight, it would be better to fight now than 5 or 10 years hence when the Transvaal, unless the Uitlanders can be taken in, in considerable numbers, will be stronger and more hostile than ever.
Unless the right military precautions were taken ‘before the crash’, the British might find themselves involved in ‘not only a biggish war, but much civil dissension afterwards’.
Milner also began to agitate for the removal of General Butler as commander of British forces, describing him as ‘a violent Krugerite’. ‘He does not and cannot sympathise with my policy,’ said Milner, and he had failed to realise ‘the intense gravity of the situation’. For his part, Butler told the War Office in London that he believed that ‘war would be the greatest calamity that ever occurred in South Africa’. He was soon obliged to resign.
Adding to the gathering storm, Chamberlain went ahead with publication of his Blue Book, detailing in 243 pages ‘the complaints of British subjects’ in the Transvaal and incorporating Milner’s ‘helot’ despatch. Smuts was infuriated by Milner’s overt hostility towards the Transvaal: ‘The situation is being forced from the outside in order by an armed conflict to forestall or defeat the work of time,’ he wrote in a letter to John Merriman. ‘I have great hope that within a few years all just causes of complaint will have disappeared altogether and it fills me with savage indignation to think that the work of those who are spending their . . . lifeblood for South Africa is to be undone in a moment by academic nobodies who fancy themselves great imperial statesmen.’
With the help of intermediaries from the Cape and the Orange Free State - Hofmeyr, Schreiner, Steyn and Fischer - Smuts sought to persuade Kruger and his executive council that further concessions on the franchise would have to be made to secure a settlement. The outcome was that in July the Volksraad accepted a new franchise law similar to the ‘Reform Bill’ that Kruger had presented to Milner in Bloemfontein, but with some additional concessions. It provided for a seven-year retrospective franchise and six uitlander seats.
Schreiner, on behalf of the Cape government, declared the new franchise arrangement to be ‘adequate, satisfactory, and such as should secure a peaceful settlement’. Chamberlain, too, was impressed, telling both Milner and the London Times on 18 July that he now saw an end to the crisis.
If Kruger has really given seven years’ retrospective franchise [he told Milner] . . . I congratulate you on a great victory . . . No one would dream of fighting over two years in a qualification period. We ought to accept this as a basis for settlement and make the most of it. Kruger, we should assume, has conceded in principle what we asked for, viz. immediate substantial representation.
Milner was aghast at such euphoria. ‘Very bad day indeed,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘Telegram from S of S [Secretary of State] this morning showing great change for worse in attitude of Government.’ He regarded the new franchise arrangements as a sham designed to ‘bamboozle’ the British public. It was full of ‘traps’ and ‘pitfalls’. Kruger’s government, he insisted, could not be trusted. It would never agree to make changes that would put at risk Afrikaner control:
No scheme adopted by [Transvaal] Government of its own accord will be calculated to carry out object we have in view [he told Chamberlain]. By one means or another administration will retain power to obstruct enfranchisement of obnoxious Uitlanders, whilst facilitating admission of its own friends or enfranchising them, though without regular qualification, under special cause. Arrangements as to new seats, as to registration, as to method of presidential election, all leave room for any amount of juggling to make measure a sham.
He suggested that a joint commission of inquiry should be set up to examine the franchise issue.
In London, Selborne was equally alarmed by Chamberlain’s apparent readiness to settle for the new franchise and moved smartly to steer him towards Milner’s position. ‘There was a movement in a certain impulsive quarter to assume, even to pretend, that we had now secured all we wanted,’ Selborne told Milner. ‘We got over that and back on the old right tack in 24 hours.’
In the House of Commons on 20 July, Chamberlain was duly far more cautious about the merits of the new franchise law, pointing out some of the ‘pitfalls’ that Milner had identified. Encouraged by Milner, Chamberlain also began to widen the scope of British demands. Milner argued that Kruger’s manoeuvres over the franchise issue were tantamount to a challenge to British supremacy. What was at stake was not just the question of the franchise but the wider issue of British supremacy. ‘Franchise and every other question have merged in one big issue: is British paramountcy to be vindicated or let slide?’ he asked. In a telegram to Chamberlain on the eve of a parliamentary debate on South Africa on 28 July, Milner said he hoped that the debate would ‘bring out wider aspects of questions which have been lost sight of in the long wrangle over details of franchise Bill. It is practical assertion of British supremacy in forcing [the Transvaal] to move in direction of equal rights and genuine self-government which is real issue.’
In his address to the House of Commons, Chamberlain accordingly raised the stakes, making clear that the fundamental aim of Britain’s policy in southern Africa was to enforce its supremacy. ‘A race antagonism’ between Boers and British had developed in the Transvaal, he said. It had spread into neighbouring states, threatening the peace and prosperity of the region and endangering ‘our position as the paramount power in South Africa’. The problem was discussed sometimes as if it were a question of petty reform - ‘a matter of two years’ difference in the qualification for the franchise’. But it was nothing of the kind. ‘It is the power and authority of the British Empire. It is the position of Great Britain in South Africa. It is the question of our predominance and how it is to be interpreted, and it is the question of peace throughout the whole of South Africa.’ Although the Transvaal’s new franchise law was generally considered to be a great advance, it needed to be carefully examined by a joint inquiry, he said. He acknowledged that this meant Britain intervening in the internal affairs of the Transvaal but claimed it had the right to do so both because of its obligation to protect British subjects and because of its position ‘as suzerain Power’. In a comment to Lord Selborne, Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, put the issue more succinctly: ‘The real point to be made to South Africa is that we, not the Dutch, are Boss.’
From many quarters, Kruger was urged to accept the British demand for a joint inquiry. Both the Dutch and German governments warned Pretoria against rejection. A rejection was likely to precipitate a British ultimatum and a resort to war. Kruger’s Cape friends - Hofmeyr, Schreiner and De Villiers - all pleaded with him to avoid war at all costs, even if it meant compromising Transvaal’s independence.
I know the strong views which you hold as to your duty to preserve the independence of your Republic [wrote De Villiers], but a patriot should also be prudent and he should even be prepared to surrender part of his independence if by that means alone he can prevent the loss of the whole . . .
The question no longer is: ‘What right has the British Government to make its demands?’ but ‘What concessions on your part will preserve the peace?’ Whether a war should become a war of races or not, it can only end in a destruction of your Republic. The issue of war or peace is in your hands . . .
Kruger’s reply was adamant:
I am sworn to uphold the independence of my country, and I have the very best reason for believing that Chamberlain and Milner are determined to rob me of that independence. Can you give me the assurance that if I consider all their demands, others will not be sprung upon me which no self-respecting President could for a moment entertain? If we are to lose our independence, let it be taken from us by force, but do not ask me to be a consenting party. I am sorry that you think war can end only in the destruction of the Republic, but do you not believe that there is a power above greater than that of England which will see that right and justice will prevail?
In a cable to President Steyn, he said it was ‘impossible’ for him to comply with the request for a joint inquiry. ‘It would be equivalent to a destruction of our independence.’ Steyn concurred, but urged Kruger to make an additional concession on the franchise - a five-years’ retrospective franchise, along the lines demanded by Milner at Bloemfontein.
Just when a collision seemed inevitable, Kruger offered a package of measures that went even further than Milner’s demands at Bloemfontein: a five years’ retrospective franchise and a total of ten seats for mining areas - one quarter of the total seats in the Volksraad. There were, however, two conditions: Britain would have to agree to drop its claim to suzerainty and to refrain from further interference in the Transvaal’s internal affairs.
Milner dismissed the offer as merely another ‘manoeuvre’, an ‘unsatisfactory compromise’ that would result in ‘nothing but confusion’. It showed, he said, ‘their absolute determination not to admit our claim to have a voice in their affairs as the Paramount Power in South Africa’. He told Chamberlain: ‘They will collapse if we don’t weaken, or rather if we go on steadily turning the screw.’ Further turns of the screw would bring the required result. If they did not, then force should be used. The prospect of war did not daunt him. He assumed it would be a short affair, culminating in the removal of Kruger’s government within a matter of months.
Chamberlain’s reaction was initially more favourable. Kruger’s proposals, he said, appeared to promise ‘a complete climb down’. He told Salisbury: ‘I really am sanguine that the crisis is over.’ On further consideration, however, prompted by Milner, Chamberlain began to have doubts. He foresaw difficulties in getting Kruger to adhere to commitments over the franchise that he had made only under duress. ‘If there is a climb down,’ Milner warned, ‘it will almost exceed the wit of man to prevent their cheating us.’
In this final tussle, what was really at stake, as both sides well knew, was not the issue of the franchise. The franchise was little more than a device to terminate Boer control. As Milner put it in a letter to a government official on 7 August: ‘They want to squeeze the newcomers into the existing mould. I want them to burst it.’ The British were using the franchise as a pretext to advance the case for British intervention. In his analysis of the crisis, made the day before war finally broke out, the Liberal opposition leader, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, observed:
If you ask me my own opinion, I hold this ‘franchise’ movement as the biggest hypocrisy in the whole fraud. It was designed in order that:
a. Kruger, seeing the real drift of it, might refuse it, and supply a direct ground of quarrel;
b. If he accepted it, it would mean that not being able to get in by the front door they would get the area gate opened and get possession in this way of the country;
c. The innocent Briton would be gulled by the flavour of legality and of civilised progress in the word ‘franchise’ . . . the Outlander does not care about it and would not use it if he might.
The franchise issue, then, was a means to a larger end: to establish British supremacy. The conditions that Kruger set out in his offer directly challenged the notion of British supremacy. Chamberlain believed that the threat of war and war preparations might be sufficient to force Kruger into a final capitulation. But if Kruger refused to acknowledge British supremacy, then Chamberlain was prepared to resort to war.
In an official government minute written on 26 August, Chamberlain expressed his impatience:
It is clear that we cannot go on negotiating for ever and we must try to bring matters to a head. The next step in military preparations is so important and so costly that I hesitate to incur the expense . . . so long as there seems a fair chance of a satisfactory settlement. But I dread above all the continued whittling away of differences until we have no casus belli left, although the Boers may claim a partial diplomatic victory and be as disagreeable and intractable in the future as in the past.
At a rally in Birmingham two days later, he aimed to stir up public opinion:
Mr Kruger procrastinates in his replies. He dribbles out reforms like water from a squeezed sponge and either accompanies his offers with conditions which he knows to be impossible or he refuses to allow us to make a satisfactory investigation of the nature and the character of those reforms . . . The sands are running down in the glass.
What was needed, he said, was to establish ‘once and for all’ who was the ‘paramount power in South Africa’.
On August 28, the British government sent a Formal Note to the Transvaal accepting the franchise concessions but refusing to abandon its claims to suzerainty or the right to intervene in the Transvaal’s affairs. Smuts gave his verdict in a memorandum on 4 September:
If at Bloemfontein last June there was still a hope of a peaceful solution, honourable to both sides, the last months have taught us that this hope is idle . . . the enemy is determined that this country shall either be conquered or be brought by diplomatic means to the position practically of a British colony.
He was now convinced that war was inevitable. It was, he wrote, bound to be a long and bloody war. ‘South Africa is on the eve of a terrible blood bath, from which our people will emerge either as an exhausted remnant, wood-cutters and water-carriers for a hated race, or as victors, founders of a United South Africa, of one of the great empires [rijken] of the world . . . an Afrikaner republic . . . stretching from Table Bay to the Zambesi.’