42

THE BITTER END

Given safe passage by the British high command, Boer leaders from the two republican governments gathered at Klerksdorp in south-west Transvaal on 9 April 1902, to review the war situation and to decide whether to open negotiations. The British military provided them with a large tent for the occasion. Among those present were Marthinus Steyn, president of the Orange Free State, Schalk Burger, the acting president of the Transvaal and four Boer generals - Botha, Smuts, De Wet and De la Rey - whom the British had spent months trying in vain to capture. Two days later, ten representatives boarded a special train for Pretoria, taking with them a peace plan to present to Kitchener.

Meeting at Kitchener’s headquarters at Melrose House on 12 April, they proposed seven points intended to lead to an ‘enduring treaty of friendship’. These included a commercial union with adjoining British territories; votes for uitlanders; equal language rights in schools; and a mutual amnesty. Schalk Burger opened the proceedings; Steyn followed, making clear that he did not accept Britain’s annexation of Boer territory. ‘Must I understand from what you say that you wish to retain your independence?’ asked Kitchener with astonishment. ‘Yes,’ Steyn replied, ‘the people must not lose their self-respect.’ Kitchener knew that the Boer peace plan would never be accepted but, keen for negotiations to continue, he forwarded the proposals to London.

On 14 April, Milner joined the talks. As before, he was hostile to the idea of negotiating with the Boers. ‘Personally,’ he told Chamberlain, ‘I distrust all negotiations. This feeling is shared I believe by all our friends in South Africa. But as public feeling at home evidently favours negotiations one must do the best we can.’ What he wanted was an unconditional surrender that would give him a free hand to dictate the post-war reconstruction of South Africa. He was also distrustful of Kitchener, resenting his willingness to look for compromise. Kitchener, he complained, was ‘extremely adroit in his management of negotiations, but he does not care what he gives away’.

While rejecting the Boer peace plan, the British government put forward its own proposals, requiring the Boers to accept the surrender of their independence. The Boer delegates replied that they had no constitutional authority to negotiate on the basis of surrendering their independence, and they asked for an armistice to enable them to consult with their commandos. To Milner’s disgust, Kitchener agreed to a series of local armistices - in his words, a ‘go-slow’. In his diary for 17 April, Milner wrote: ‘I think it a very bad arrangement . . . Very tired & not a little disgusted to bed.’

On 15 May, sixty delegates elected by the bittereinder commandos - thirty from the Transvaal and thirty from the Free State - assembled at Vereeniging, a village on the Vaal River, to decide the fate of their republics. They were deeply divided. The Transvaal delegates were desperate for an end to the war. Botha described the plight of the Transvaal’s farming community. In the hundred miles between Vereeniging and Ermelo, he said, there were no cattle, only thirty-six goats and horses that were too weak to move; women were trekking about in a pitiable condition. Moreover, Africans were beginning to act more aggressively towards Boers; in one incident, Boer farmers had been massacred by Zulus in Vryheid. Even worse, the Boers themselves were becoming ever more divided. A growing number were joining the British side as National Scouts. ‘If we continue the war, it may be that the Afrikaners against us will outnumber our own men.’ There was a danger that in the end Boer fighters would come to be regarded as little more than bandits by their own people. Peace was essential to prevent the Boers from sliding into irreparable ruin. If the war continued, it would end in a defeat so overwhelming that the Boers would have no chance of salvaging anything in negotiations. ‘We have heard much talk about fighting “to the bitter end”. But what is “the bitter end”? Is it to come when all of us are banished or in our graves? Or does it mean the time when the nation has fought until it can never rise again?’

Schalk Burger put similar arguments: ‘Can we let the people be annihilated for the sake of honour and fame for ourselves?’ De la Rey echoed Botha’s words: ‘Fight to the bitter end, it is said. But has not the bitter end come?’ He advised:

I think each one must decide for himself. It must be borne in mind that everything - cattle, goods, money, man, woman and child - has been sacrificed. In my division many people go almost naked. There are men and women who wear nothing more than plain skins on the naked body. Is this not the bitter end?

The Free State delegates, however, were in favour of continuing the war. Foremost among them were De Wet and Steyn. De Wet refused to countenance the surrender of Boer independence. The Free State burghers, he said, were as well able to fight on now as they had been a year before. Harking back to a previous occasion when the volk appeared to be in mortal danger, he urged delegates: ‘Let us again renew our covenant with God.’ Steyn was equally adamant, but, in rapidly declining health, he was forced to withdraw from the deliberations.

At the end of the second day, Frank Reitz, the Transvaal’s state secretary, suggested a compromise. He proposed that, provided the republics could keep their independence, they should be prepared to surrender control of foreign relations; agree to internal self-government under British auspices; cede control of Swaziland; and give up the Witwatersrand and its goldfields - ‘that cancer in our country’, as Botha described it. Armed with this plan, a five-man commission - Botha, De La Rey, De Wet, Smuts and General Barry Hertzog, a former Free State judge - travelled to Pretoria hoping to gain British approval.

The plan, presented to Milner and Kitchener at Melrose House on 19 May, was given short shrift. ‘Grant it,’ said Kitchener, ‘and before a year is over we shall be at war again.’ For day after day, the British and the Boers haggled over the terms the British demanded, the Boers striving to hang on to a semblance of independence. The exchanges were further complicated by disputes between Milner and Kitchener. Milner wanted terms that would leave Boer leaders humiliated and destroy their credibility; Kitchener sought terms that would assist post-war reconciliation.

The British made several concessions. Contrary to Milner’s previous insistence, they agreed that Cape Afrikaner rebels would be dealt with leniently (they were disenfranchised for five years). More crucially, the British gave way over the issue of black political rights. On the eve of the war, Chamberlain had used Boer maltreatment of blacks and Coloureds as a pretext for intervention. ‘The treatment of the natives [in the Transvaal] has been disgraceful,’ he told parliament in October 1899, ‘it has been brutal; it has been unworthy of a civilized Power.’ Both Chamberlain and Milner had declared that the claims of the African and Coloured communities for political rights would be considered sympathetically. ‘We cannot consent to purchase a shameful peace by leaving the Coloured population in the position in which they stood before the war,’ said Chamberlain. He had been equally insistent on the need for some form of African representation, similar to the franchise available to the Cape’s black elite. But in order to assuage Boer opinion, the British backed down. The priority now was postwar reconciliation between the two white groups.

In their original draft proposals, the British had indicated that blacks would be accorded some form of representation after the introduction of self-government. ‘The Franchise will not be given to Natives until after the Introduction of Self-Government.’ But Smuts re-wrote the clause to read: ‘The question of granting the Franchise to Natives will not be decided until after the introduction of self-government’. The British accepted this amendment. It meant that the white electorates of the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony would be left to decide themselves whether to enfranchise the black population. Given that the republics had never allowed blacks to vote, it was a foregone conclusion, as both sides acknowledged, that blacks would be excluded. As Milner remarked in a private letter: ‘You have only to sacrifice “the nigger” absolutely and the game is easy.’

A more contentious issue concerned war debts. Boer leaders wanted funds to compensate burghers whose property they had commandeered for war purposes; otherwise promissory notes they had issued to their followers would not be honoured. Payment of these debts, Botha argued, would ‘strengthen our hands by enabling us honourably to terminate this matter’. The British government initially offered a sum of £1 million; Botha asked for £3 million to allow for full compensation. Kitchener openly supported Botha’s request and agreed ‘that the honour of every officer is affected by these documents’. It was a matter, he told Brodrick, that was ‘vital to peace’.

Milner, however, obdurately refused to consider paying ‘every debt incurred by every officer of both armies for the purpose of fighting us’ and appealed to Chamberlain to back him. He described the Boer request as ‘detestable’, ‘preposterous’, and ‘an audacious try-on’ and claimed his position was being undermined by Kitchener. Kitchener, he said, ‘does not always support me even in the presence of Boers’. And he made clear his distaste for the whole business of negotiation. ‘My own conviction is that Boers are done for, and that if the assembly at Vereeniging breaks up without peace they will surrender left and right. The men here are either anxious to upset negotiations or bluffing, in reliance on our weakness, probably the latter.’

Chamberlain was unimpressed. ‘I do not think a mere question of money should prevent termination of war, which costs more than a million a week . . . There should be some argument more cogent than money cost to justify risking a failure on this point. Can you supply it, and would you go so far as to wreck agreement at this stage upon this one question?’

On 27 May 1902, the British cabinet met to decide the final terms to be offered to the Boers. Henceforth, they would be required to acknowledge King Edward VII ‘as their lawful sovereign’. The Transvaal and the Orange River Colony would be run first by a British military administration, then by a civil administration, then by self-government ‘as soon as circumstances permit it’. The terms were presented to the ten Boer leaders in Pretoria on 28 May. They were told there would be no further discussion and given three days in which to give their answer, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Returning to Vereeniging, they first showed the peace terms to Steyn. Steyn denounced them as a gross betrayal of the Boer cause. ‘You have sold out the volk for £3 million,’ he told them. Amongst the sixty delegates, the arguments raged back and forth once more. The burden of persuading them to surrender rested largely on Botha. Other Transvaalers supported him. De la Rey told delegates that if there was salvation for the volk in continuing to fight, he would go along, and if a grave were being dug for the volk he would get into it. But there was a real chance that the nation would be driven to surrendering en masse, bringing the war to an end in dishonour and disgrace.

Smuts added his own weight. The bittereinders had fought bravely and were prepared to sacrifice everything for the independence of the volk, he said; but there was no longer a reasonable chance of success:

We have moved to stand fast to the bitter end; but let us be men and acknowledge that the end has now come and it was more bitter than we thought it would be. For death itself would be sweeter than the step we must now take . . . No one shall ever convince me that this unparalleled sacrifice that the [Afrikaner] nation has laid upon the altar of freedom will be in vain . . .

However, he went on, independence was not the highest value in the struggle for survival. ‘We must not sacrifice the Afrikaansche volk on the altar of independence.’ Once the chance of maintaining independence had gone, it was the duty to stop the fight. ‘We must not run the risk of sacrificing our nation and its future to a mere idea which can no longer be realized.’

The Free Staters remained adamant. ‘I shall never put hand on a piece of paper in which I sacrifice my people’s independence,’ Steyn declared. But he was too ill to continue to participate. After the first day of deliberation, he resigned as president, handing over office to De Wet and parting with some cautionary words of advice:

If the Transvaalers should decide to make peace and if you should find it futile to resist any further - then give in. We cannot continue the war with a handful of Free Staters. So we are not to blame. We have fulfilled to the letter our agreement with the sister Republic. Without the Transvaal it would be folly for us to continue the struggle on our own.

To avoid a disastrous split, De Wet decided to go along with the Transvaalers. Just after 2 p.m. on Saturday 31 May, the vote was taken: fifty-four delegates agreed to surrender; six voted ‘no’.

‘How great was the emotion,’ wrote the Reverend ‘Vader’ Kestell, who had served as chaplain to Boer commandos. ‘I saw the lips quiver of men who had never trembled before a foe. I saw tears brimming in eyes that had been dry when they had seen their dearest laid in the grave.’

When Smuts explained the peace terms to his own commando, a burgher cried out: ‘Jan Smuts, you have betrayed us.’

In Kipling’s memorable phrase, the war gave Britain ‘no end of a lesson’. It had been provoked by Britain - by a handful of politicians and officials - on the assumption of an easy military victory over a group of backward peasant farmers - a ‘tea-time’ war that would be ‘over by Christmas’. But it had turned into a campaign of humiliating reverses and setbacks, and it had been won only through the deployment of 450,000 imperial troops and the use of scorched-earth tactics. The cost to the British military was 22,000 dead, two-thirds of them from disease and illness. The cost to the British exchequer - originally estimated at £10 million - was £217 million. When it was finally over - after two and a half years - it was not so much a sense of victory that the British felt as a sense of relief. As Kipling wrote:

Me an’ my trusty friend’ave’ad,
As you might say, a war,
But seein what both parties done
Before’e owned defeat,
I ain’t more proud of’avin won
Than I am pleased with Piet.

When Boer leaders gathered at Kitchener’s headquarters at Melrose House in Pretoria on 31 May 1902 to sign the peace agreement, Kitchener shook their hands, declaring: ‘We are good friends now.’ For Milner, however, the war was unfinished business. He later told the journalist H. Spenser Wilkinson: ‘It has changed its character: it is no longer war with bullets, but war it still is. It is quite true we hold the winning cards, but it is not true we have won the game, and we cannot afford to lose a single trick.’

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