Though the Transvaal’s Boers accepted British rule in 1877 without resistance, Boer resentment at the arbitrary annexation of their republic ran deep. The Transvaal had been founded by trekboers determined to break away from British control and to regulate their own affairs. One of their principal grievances in the Cape Colony had been what they called gelykstelling, the social levelling between whites and blacks which they claimed that Britain supported. The constitution they drew up in 1858 declared: ‘The people are not prepared to allow any equality of the non-white with the white inhabitants, either in Church or State.’ Now British rule had been imposed on them once more, uninvited and unwanted, bringing the same agenda of reform.

The key figure in organising resistance was Paul Kruger. A legendary commando leader, tall and broad-shouldered, Kruger epitomised the stubborn, resilient and resourceful character of the trekboers. Born in 1825 on a farm at Bulhoek on the northern frontier of the Cape Colony, he had been taught the Bible but otherwise his formal education had been limited to a course of instruction, lasting three months, given by an itinerant tutor in a schoolroom built of grass and reeds. He became instead a master of the frontier crafts - an expert hunter, horseman and guerrilla fighter. At the age of ten, he trekked northwards with his family joining an emigrant group led by Hendrik Potgieter, a wealthy frontier farmer overtly hostile to British rule. Six months later, he witnessed the battle of Vegkop where 4,000 Ndebele warriors stormed Potgieter’s laager, a fortress of fifty wagons drawn up in squares, chained together and secured with leather thongs. Along with his family, he followed Potgieter’s group to Natalia, experiencing the shock of the murder in 1838 of Piet Retief’s party at the hands of the Zulu king Dingane and the subsequent massacre of trekker families at Weenen by Zulu impis. Returning to the highveld, Kruger participated in Potgieter’s expedition against the Ndebele chief, Mzilikazi, in the Magaliesberg area of the western Transvaal. And it was there, at the foot of the Magaliesberg hills, that he and his father Caspar decided to settle.

In accordance with Boer tradition, on reaching the age of sixteen, Paul Kruger was entitled to choose two 6,000-acre farms, one for grazing and one for growing crops. His main residence became his farm at Waterkloof near Rustenburg, but he also spent much time hunting, making many narrow escapes. At the age of twenty, while hunting rhinoceros along the Steelpoort River, near Sekhukhune’s capital, his heavy old four-pounder elephant gun blew up in his hand. Bleeding profusely, he treated the wound with turpentine and cut away the remnants of his thumb with a jack-knife. When gangrene set in, he tried an old Boer remedy, plunging his hand into the warm stomach of a goat. The wound took six months to heal.

His first wife and their baby died of fever. His second wife, Gezina, whom he married in 1847, bore him nine sons and seven daughters. For a period of twenty years, he mixed farming with fighting, taking part in nine major campaigns against African chiefdoms, rising to the rank of the Transvaal’s commandant-general. In 1852 he participated in the commando raid on the Kwena stronghold at Kolobeng when David Livingstone’s house was destroyed, along with his medical equipment and library. Away at the time, Livingstone accused the Magaliesberg Boers of atrocities; they accused him of supplying arms and ammunition to the Kwena.

Kruger also featured increasingly in the Transvaal’s political affairs. He was present at the signing of the Sand River Convention in 1852 when the British government recognised the Transvaal’s independence, and participated as a member of the commission set up to devise a Transvaal constitution. He helped to resolve factional disputes between the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and to negotiate a settlement between the Basotho king, Moshoeshoe, and the Free State. He retired as commandant-general in 1873, a respected elder commonly referred to as Oom Paul - Uncle Paul - and went to live in a new homestead built on his farm at Boekenhoutfontein.

His guide throughout his life, he maintained, was God and the Bible. He never read any book other than the Bible, knowing much of it by heart. He was convinced of the literal truth of biblical texts and constantly referred to them when making decisions and in everyday life. To Kruger, the earth was flat because of what the Bible said. So sure was he that the earth was flat that when an American traveller was introduced to him as being on a voyage around the world, Kruger retorted: ‘You don’t mean round the world . . . It is impossible! You mean in the world.’ In many ways, he resembled a seventeenth-century zealot rather than a nineteenth-century politician.

He belonged to the ‘Dopper’ Church, the Gereformeerde Kerk van Suid-Afrika, the smallest and most conservative of the Dutch Reformed churches in southern Africa, whose members saw themselves as closer to God than other groups and believed they possessed a special understanding of God’s purpose. They were known as Doppers, it was said, because they believed in extinguishing the light of the Enlightenment, the Dutch word domper meaning an extinguisher.

Kruger himself played a leading role in breaking away from the Transvaal’s main church, the Nederduits Hervormde Kerk, to establish the Dopper Church. Together with a few like-minded colleagues, he recruited a new minister from the Christelike Afgescheiden Gerformeerde Kerk in Holland, a splinter group which had seceded from the state church in 1834, rejecting its liberal theology and its evangelical emphasis on personal devotion and experience. Shortly after the minister’s arrival in the Transvaal in 1858, Kruger joined other dissidents in denouncing the Nederduits Hervormde Kerk as a ‘deluded’ and ‘false’ church and left.

The core of Dopper theology, based almost exclusively on the Old Testament, was the Calvinist conception of the sovereignty of God in every aspect of life and acceptance of the Bible as the only source of belief and practice. Its followers preached a gospel of an omnipotent God who intervened directly in the lives of individuals and communities; they upheld the doctrine of predestination; and they believed in the notion of the Elect, of a people chosen by God. They exerted strict control over the moral behaviour of their members; to fail God knowingly was to leave oneself and one’s nation liable to punishment. To be certain that only God’s pure word was heard, they forbade the singing of hymns; the Psalms were considered proper texts but the rest were ‘man-made’. They also rejected the use of church organs and frivolities such as dancing. Their manner of dress was unique: objecting to long coats, men wore short jackets and broad-brimmed hats with wide trousers pinched up at the back; women always wore hoods or bonnets with their hair behind their ears. Outside their own circles, the term ‘Dopper’ was synonymous with extreme conservatism and uncouth manners.

When the liberal Cape predikant Thomas Burgers was elected as the Transvaal’s president in 1872, a group of Doppers was so appalled that a ‘Godless’ person had become head of state that they decided to emigrate, choosing Damaraland and Ovamboland in south-west Africa as suitable destinations. Kruger was asked to lead the exodus, but declined. Many subsequently perished trying to cross the Kalahari desert in what was later called the Thirstland Trek. Among the victims was Kruger’s stepmother.

When Burgers decided to go to war with Sekhukhune in 1876, he asked Kruger to come out of retirement to join the expedition. But Kruger refused. ‘I cannot lead the commando if you come,’ Kruger replied, according to his memoirs, ‘for, with your merry evenings in laager and your Sunday dances, the enemy will even shoot me behind the wall, for God’s blessing will not rest on your expedition.’

Kruger blamed the failure of the Pedi campaign and all the other ills affecting the Transvaal on Burgers’ leadership, using customary biblical references:

How is this regression to be explained? The word of God gives us the key to it. Look to the case of Israel; if the people have a devout King, everything is prosperous; but under an ungodly ruler the land goes backward and all the people must suffer thereby. Read Leviticus 26 with attention and see how literally its words have been fulfilled. In the days of the voortrekkers, a handful of people put thousands of Kaffirs to flight . . . But see how when Burgers is President - he knows no Sabbath; he rides through every part of the country on Sundays; of Church and religion he knows nothing (Leviticus 26.17).

With similar fervour, Kruger attacked the coming of the British, telling Shepstone that he would never consent to annexation. ‘I was bound by my oath to uphold the independence of the Republic.’

From the outset of their dealings with him, the British underestimated Kruger. They regarded him as an uneducated, ill-mannered backveld peasant steeped in bigotry - a takhaar, to use the Afrikaans word. They were particularly struck by his ugliness, mentioning it so often that it became shorthand for his whole personality, and, indeed, his objectives. In middle age, his face had coarsened; baggy pouches had begun to appear under his eyes; his nose had broadened; his mouth seemed set in grim disapproval; his hair, parted on the left and neatly slicked down, was turning grey. His broad shoulders showed a slight sag. His Dopper dress - a short-cut black jacket, baggy trousers and black hat - gave him a rather quaint appearance. His body and clothes reeked of the odour of Magaliesberg tobacco, a weed so potent that younger men blanched when he offered them his pouch. Added to this was his habit, so disagreeable to the English, of spitting profusely.

In one of the first descriptions of Kruger sent by British officials from Pretoria, Shepstone’s legal adviser, W. Morcom, wrote in February 1877: ‘Paul Kruger is an elderly man, decidedly ugly, with a countenance denoting extreme obstinacy, and also great cruelty.’ He went on:

His conduct at the public luncheon on Tuesday was as the Belgian consul described it ‘gigantically horrible’. His dirty wooden pipe was visible, for it stuck out of his breast pocket; his scanty hair was in such a condition of greasiness that it lay in streaks across his head, the drops of rancid cocoanut oil gathering at the ends of each streak of hair, and thus rendering necessary the use of the pocket comb during lunch. The napkin was turned to strange use during lunch.

A more perceptive assessment was made by Sir Bartle Frere, the new high commissioner in southern Africa: ‘I am assured by those who know him well that he is a very shrewd fellow who veils under an assumed clownish manner and affectation of ignorance, considerable ability, that he has great natural eloquence and powers of persuasion.’ Frere concluded, however: ‘There is nothing in what is visible to a stranger to indicate a possible regenerator of the Transvaal.’

Kruger’s first tactic was to try to persuade the British government to hold a plebiscite testing Shepstone’s claim that a majority of whites favoured annexation. In May 1877 he set off for England at the head of a three-man delegation, travelling by coach to Bloemfontein, then to Kimberley, then to Worcester where he boarded a train for the first time in his life for the journey to Cape Town. The sea voyage to Plymouth took twenty-six days.

His meetings with Carnarvon at the Colonial Office were cordial but fruitless. ‘I should only be misleading you,’ Carnarvon told him at their first encounter in July, ‘if I were to hold out to you the slightest expectation that the policy which has been adopted could now be altered, or that the annexation of the Transvaal could be undone.’ At their second encounter, when Kruger pressed the case for a plebiscite, Carnarvon replied that it was ‘impossible’ and would call into question ‘the act which Sir Theophilus Shepstone did with the sanction of the Queen and in her Name’. At their third encounter, the same barren exchange was repeated. Outside their formal sessions, Carnarvon invited Kruger and his associates to lunch at his family seat at Highclere near Newbury. Kruger was in a grumpy mood and only cheered up when he was shown the horses and stables.

By the time he returned to the Transvaal in November, the groundswell of Boer opposition to British rule had gained considerable momentum. Britain’s action in annexing the Transvaal had united a collection of squabbling Boer factions, hitherto preoccupied with church and family, in a common cause to defeat the British. Kruger himself, having spent several months at ‘enemy’ headquarters, was initially suspected of succumbing to British bribes and had to manoeuvre deftly to gain leadership of the resistance. In January 1878, accompanied by an escort of armed horsemen, Kruger rode into the centre of Pretoria to address a mass meeting. The mood was rebellious. When Kruger related how Carnarvon had told him that he had no intention of revoking annexation, one old Boer warrior, Henning Pretorius, rose to declare, ‘Rather than submit to the English, I will give my blood for the country.’ But Kruger called for patience. He proposed that delegates should gather support for a petition asking Carnarvon to ‘restore us our country’ with the warning that it was ‘the last means to obtain our end by peaceable means’. In a letter to Melmoth Osborn written from Boekenhoutfontein he pledged: ‘In case the majority should be for annexation I have openly stated that I am prepared to stoop under and obey the authority of the Queen of England.’ He expressed his hope for a peaceful outcome. Although there was popular agitation for action, he said, ‘it appears to me that I shall succeed to convince my countrymen to reach their independence by a peaceful course’. By April 1878, Kruger’s supporters had collected 157 petitions with more than 7,000 signatures; a total of 587 were in favour of annexation; 6,591 were against.

Armed with this result, Kruger made a second trip to London in June 1878. His discussions with the new colonial secretary, Sir Michael Hicks Beach, however, were just as fruitless as they had been with Carnarvon. The most the British were willing to offer him was a form of self-rule similar to that enjoyed by the Cape Colony. Kruger later described the offer to his supporters. ‘I will try to explain to you what this self-government, in my opinion, means. They say to you, “First put your head quietly in the noose, so that I can hang you up: then you may kick your legs about as much as you please!” That is what they call self-government.’

The highlight of Kruger’s second visit to London came when an Englishman presented him with a gold ring engraved with the words: ‘Take courage, your cause is just and must triumph in the end.’ Kruger wore the ring for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile the wave of anger over Britain’s annexation of the Transvaal spread further afield to the Boer communities of the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony, stimulating old grievances. In the Free State there was lingering resentment over the way the British had intervened in 1868 to annex Basutoland in response to Moshoeshoe’s plea for help, just as it was about to be overrun by their own commandos; there had been further outrage when the British snatched the diamond fields of Griqualand from its grasp in 1871. The Free State now found itself surrounded by British-run territories, imperilling its own independence. Members of the Volksraad spoke up in favour of returning the Transvaal to Boer rule.

In the Cape, it gave a huge boost to a nascent cultural and political movement led by Boer intellectuals calling themselves Afrikaners. In Paarl, a small market town thirty-five miles from Cape Town, a Dutch Reformed Church minister, Stephanus du Toit, joined several associates in 1875 to found a society named Die Genootskap Van Regte Afrikaners - the Fellowship of True Afrikaners - dedicated to promoting the use of Afrikaans, a colloquial language commonly used in Boer farming communities throughout southern Africa. It had diverged from Dutch over the years, changing vowel sounds, adopting simplified syntax and incorporating loan words from languages that were spoken by slaves in the Cape in the seventeenth century - Malay, Portuguese creole and Khoikhoi. It was the language used between masters and servants and amongst the poorer sections of the Boer community. Upper and middle-class Boers, particularly those living in the western Cape, spoke ‘High Dutch’, the language of the church and the Bible, and regarded theZuid-Afrikaansche taal with disdain, dismissing it as Hotnotstaal, a ‘Hottentot’ language, or a kombuistaal - a kitchen language. They also used English to a considerable extent, the only official language of the Colony and thus the language of commerce, law, administration and - increasingly - culture.

What Du Toit and his colleagues feared and resented most was the growing cultural domination of the British colonial regime, aided and abetted by Boers themselves. In a lecture given in 1876, the chief justice, Sir Henry de Villiers, described Afrikaans as being ‘poor in the number of its words, weak in its inflections, wanting in accuracy of meaning and incapable of expressing ideas connected with the higher spheres of thought’. The energy of colonists, he said, would be far better spent in appropriating English, ‘that rich and glorious language’, that ultimately would become ‘the language of South Africa’. Du Toit argued that a mother tongue was a person’s most precious possession: ‘The language of a nation expresses the character of that nation. Deprive a nation of the vehicle of its thoughts and you deprive it of the wisdom of its ancestors.’ He wanted to develop Afrikaans as a landstaal - a national language.

To spell out this message, in 1876 Du Toit launched Di Afrikaanse Patriot, the first newspaper to use an early form of Afrikaans. The following year he was the main author of a history entitled Die Geskiedenis van Ons Land in die Taal van Ons Volk - The History of Our Land in the Language of Our People. It was the first book to treat all Afrikaners, dispersed as they were among British colonies and independent republics, as a distinct people, occupying a distinct fatherland; and it linked them to a common destiny endowed by God: to rule over southern Africa and civilise its heathen inhabitants.

The book marked the beginning of a new historiography that would eventually take hold of Afrikanerdom, portraying Afrikaners as a valiant nation wrongfully oppressed by decades of British rule. On page one, it stated: ‘In this way we can see that the English have been scoundrels from the earliest times.’ In what was to become a standard interpretation of Afrikaner history, one episode after another from the past was cited as evidence of British oppression, starting from the moment the British took possession of the Cape in 1806. The exodus of emigrant farmers from the Cape in the 1830s now became known as the Great Trek, a defiant gesture against imperial Britain on behalf of the Boer nation. The emigrants were now called voortrekkers, pioneers endowed with heroic qualities, steadfast in their determination to protect Afrikaner freedom and solidarity, guided by a deeply religious sense of purpose, and courageously heading into the unknown interior only to find the British in relentless pursuit. In their quest for supremacy, the British had annexed the first Boer state, the Republic of Natalia; then they had seized the diamond fields of the Free State.

Such ideas had limited circulation. A leading Cape Afrikaner editor, Jan Hofmeyr, wrote in 1876 that ‘the men of the Patriot were waging a hopeless battle’. But Britain’s annexation of the Transvaal, riding roughshod over the pleas of its Boer inhabitants, seemed to confirm their validity and gave them new impetus. ‘The annexation of the Transvaal has had its good side,’ wrote Jan Hofmeyr. ‘It has taught the people of South Africa that blood is thicker than water. It has filled the Africanders, otherwise grovelling in the mud of materialism, with a national glow of sympathy for their brothers across the Vaal, which we look upon as one of the most hopeful signs of the future.’

What the British action had set in motion were the stirrings of a nationalist movement.

The trouble mounting for the British in the Transvaal was aggravated by a weak and incompetent administration there. Shepstone was given few staff and limited funds for reviving it from bankruptcy. When congratulating Shepstone on annexation in a despatch from London in May 1877, Carnarvon reminded him of the need for fiscal restraint:

I know that you must somehow have the means to pay your way and to carry on Govt. effectively, and no economy would be so unwise as one which would involve a real risk of misrule and of fresh disorder: but I need not remind you how very desirable it is not to come upon Imperial assistance in point of money more than is necessary. Your object must be to bear in mind these two opposite considerations - effective government and economy.

What made matters infinitely worse was that Shepstone turned out to be, in the words of an official report, ‘an execrably bad manager’. He soon used up a grant of £100,000 in paying out large sums to burghers who lodged claims against the state, many of them bogus. After but six months of British rule the financial affairs of the Transvaal were in such a state of chaos that years afterwards Treasury officials were still vainly trying to discover in what manner and to what ends Shepstone had spent much of his money. ‘A colony that had been annexed because it was bankrupt was permitted to sink into a still more inexcusable bankruptcy,’ wrote the eminent historian Cornelis de Kiewiet.

British officials conceded meanwhile that there was ‘no visible government’, nor any form of representation. The Volksraad building was used as an English club. To compound Shepstone’s difficulties, a campaign launched in 1878 to force Sekhukhune into submission ended in stalemate. Shepstone became so unpopular with Transvaalers that in August 1878 Frere asked for him to be recalled and replaced by another official.

Thus, on his return home in December 1878, after an absence of six months, Kruger found the Boer mood even more belligerent. At a meeting at Wonderfontein in the Potchefstroom district on 10 January 1879, a crowd of several thousand burghers turned up to listen to Kruger give an account of his travels. Many there favoured war. ‘Mr Kruger,’ one burgher declared, ‘We have been talking long enough; you must now let us shoot the English.’ But Kruger argued that the time was not yet ripe; for one thing, there was a serious shortage of arms and ammunition.

Twelve days later, British forces in neighbouring Zululand suffered a catastrophic military defeat.

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