On this day in 1899… Kruger’s Ultimatum

Despite the ‘head in the sand’ attitude adopted in London, Kruger’s belligerence had been pushing Southern Africa  towards war for years. The much-delayed Boer ultimatum was finally sent to the British Colonial Office early on 10 October, 1899. Written by Reitz, it was verbose as ever, but nevertheless a remarkable communication – essentially a declaration of war. Giving a hint that the war Kruger was blindly embarking upon had nothing to do with independence and everything to do with building an Afrikaner empire in southern Africa, the ultimatum declared that the Transvaal was acting ‘in the interest not only of this Republic, but also of all South Africa’.[i] The demands of the ultimatum were so outrageous that its authors must have known the British could never agree to them. One commentator declared that it would have been ‘rejected with scorn by Montenegro’[ii]—thus it was more a declaration of war than a true ultimatum. Among various other demands, the Transvaal called for the British to withdraw any troops who had arrived in southern Africa after 1 June and to turn around those troop ships currently en route.

HM Government’s man on the ground, Lord Milner, immediately contacted President Steyn who confirmed that the Orange Free State would also be declaring war on Great Britain. On the face of it, Steyn was committing his nation to war so as to defend the Transvaal’s right to implement far harsher franchise rules than the Orange Free State itself. If the true objective had been to defend the Transvaal from some sort of mythical British invasion, then the greatest service the Orange Free State could have done their kinsmen was to have declared neutrality. The easiest and most logical route to the Transvaal was through the Orange Free State and, had the British been denied this, they could only have attacked through the mountains that formed the Natalian border.[iii] This area, described by one reporter as ‘rocky bewildering chains of hills and mountains’ within which the ‘deep-dented interlacing of spruits are so many natural fortified positions waiting to be occupied’[iv] was perfect for defence. And while the Transvaal Boers occupied such impregnable sites, Orange Free State unofficial ‘volunteers’ could always have independently made their way into the Transvaal to assist in repelling any British invasion.[v] All the while, of course, the British would also still have had to guard against a sudden intervention by the Orange Free State Government.

This would have been the logical course of action had the object of the war really been to protect the ZAR from invasion, but of course it wasn’t. In reality, and as Steyn announced to his own burghers on 11 October 1899, the Orange Free State was going to war to challenge Britain’s position as the ‘Paramount Power’ in South Africa.[vi]

Never a man to use one word when 50 would do, Reitz went even further in one of his trademark rants:

‘Brother Afrikaners! The Great Day is at hand! The God of our fathers will be with us in our struggles … Has the British Government been a blessing or a curse to his sub-continent? Brother Afrikaners! I repeat, the day is at hand on which great deeds are expected of us! WAR has broken out! What is it to be? A wasted and enslaved South Africa, or—a Free, United South Africa?’[vii]

In an utterly bizarre interview published in the French newspaper, the Echo de Paris, Reitz even tried to whip up support to turn the conflict into something approaching a world war:

‘Great Britain is most gloriously isolated, and the British Empire itself runs considerable risk of being vanquished. France and Russia have never had a finer chance to get rid of a troublesome enemy. Does France mean to allow this opportunity—the last she will ever have, perhaps—to pass without taking her revenge on the British? No! I am sure you will not, for such conduct would be nothing less than criminal. It would mean your destruction. Make a bold attempt for Egypt then, and extend your possessions in Tripoli. Fight, I say, even at the very improbable risk of being beaten. Follow our example. As for Russia, anyone can see that it is in her interest to incite India to rebellion.’[viii]

Count Adalbert Graf Sternberg, the Austrian war correspondent, travelled to both Pretoria and Bloemfontein in December of 1899, in a quest to ‘discover the ultimate objects of the Boers’—something historians have argued about ever since. The count came away with no definitive answer: no two seemed to share the same idea but many wanted a United States of South Africa in some form—and this was certainly what the popular press in the republics was calling for. Others in the Transvaal wanted to nationalize the goldfields, feeling that they had in some way been cheated out of them. Sternberg spent a good deal of time with Kruger, a man he appears to have admired. Tellingly, he reported that ‘Kruger himself only wanted Natal, with the port of Durban’[ix]—suggesting some of his circle wanted more.

Sternberg also spent time with President Steyn, describing him as ‘a fine man, a European with a clever, striking face … a model of sincerity and candour, and a Boer president par excellence’.[x] Steyn admitted to the count that the Orange Free State had always enjoyed good relations with Great Britain and that ‘the present state of affairs’ was ‘quite artificial’. During their meeting, Steyn told the count that his nation was poor and that:

‘…their first object was the annexation of the diamond fields. This war made possible the attainment of their wishes, and before their eyes hovered the possibility of re-establishing the old frontiers, so that Kimberley would belong to the Free State.’

Though the OFS had certainly claimed the diamond fields (as had the Transvaal), they had never been within the frontiers of the Free State. Styen was quite simply embarking on a war of territorial expansion.

Steyn went on to explain to the count that the Afrikaner movement embraced everyone in South Africa, that the centre of the movement was in Cape Town, and that the colony was far more hostile to the English than the Orange Free State itself. He believed that the war would ‘strengthen the loose organization of the Afrikander Bond, and he had no doubt of the final result’. Sternberg left the meeting with his own ideas as to why Kruger had dragged the Orange Free State into the war, when strategically—and as already mentioned—a neutral Orange Free State would have been far more useful. The count was convinced that Kruger believed that the war—even if lost—would serve to unite the Afrikaners of South Africa: ‘a conquered Free State, over which the horrors of war had passed, would remain true to the Boer cause until the last drop of blood had been spilt.’[xi]

It is instructive that Count Sternberg is mentioned by General Ben Viljoen in his Reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War. Viljoen criticizes the count’s memoirs for all manner of things, such as ‘extraordinary tales’ about ‘the galloping and trotting feats of the Basuto ponies’ and claims that the closest Sternberg came to action was when his cigars were stolen by a German ambulance man.[xii] What General Viljoen does not do, however, is contradict or challenge any of the comments the count made about the Boer war aims and objectives.

Writing in 1905, Leo Amery sums up the confused war aims of the Boers rather well:

‘The more sanguine ‘young Afrikanders’ and enthusiastic fanatics like Mr Reitz thought that the time had already come for the final expulsion of the British Power from South Africa and the creation of the great Afrikander Republic, and their sentiments were freely expressed in the Republican Press.’[xiii]

Only slightly less ambitious, states Amery, were the dreams of Kruger, who was determined to win an outlet to the sea and, if possible, annex Natal, Mafeking, and Bechuanaland. Similarly, the leaders of the Orange Free State considered Kimberley and Griqualand West as:

‘…definitely Free State territory, while the more forward spirits among them insisted that the invaded districts south of the Orange River should, on the conclusion of peace, be allowed to decide for themselves whether they would remain British territory or not.’[xiv]

Given that all loyalists had quickly been driven out and non-whites would have been denied any say in the matter, this was only ever going to be a formality.

Sir William Dunn, who served as the consul-general of the Orange Free State in London offered his own view:

‘While the [Jameson] Raid undoubtedly hastened the outbreak in hostilities, the Dutch had, long before that date, been doing all they could to undermine British supremacy in South Africa, and were simply biding their time until they saw their way clear to striking an effective blow.’[xv]

Though he never seemed able to make up his mind about whether he had plunged his country into war for the sake of independence or conquest,[xvi] Steyn twice—first in November 1899 at the height of republican success and again in February 1900—openly called for the Cape Colony to become another Boer republic.[xvii] Furthermore, it is known that this idea was again discussed and formally agreed to at a council of war held at Waterval later in the war.[xviii] The aim of creating an Afrikaans-dominated South Africa was also the subject of letters between senior republicans: de Wet, for example, wrote to Commandant Badenhorst saying:

‘It is certain that the ways of the Lord are mysterious, but from it all it appears to me that the day of a united South Africa is not far off.’[xix]

At the other end of the spectrum was Dr Leyds, Kruger’s man in Europe who claimed that the republics would be satisfied with just a payment of their war expenses and recognition of full sovereign status.[xx]

And yet, despite Leyds being something of a lone voice, it is his slightly more palatable objectives that have always been seized upon by most modern writers. The common modern view is that the Boer War was caused by the gold-bugs or the British, or that it was somehow ‘Milner’s War’. The fact that, even today, relatively intelligent and well educated people still trot out this claim speaks volumes about the power of propaganda and wishful thinking. When you read about the outbursts and dreams of Kruger, Reitz, and Steyn, the reasonable and clear demands of the British being rejected out of hand, and the opaque, mysterious and ever-changing nature of the counter proposals from the Kruger gang, is hard to ignore their culpability. Seemingly much more interested in being permitted to snatch Swaziland than to resolve the franchise issue, at no point during four months of negotiations did Kruger, Reitz, or Smuts make a genuine, clear and sincere offer which would have secured peace in the Transvaal; instead, their intention throughout the months of talks appears to have been to obfuscate and procrastinate.

It is always worth remembering that the Transvaal of 1899 had an even more restricted franchise than the South Africa of the Apartheid era. Given that pretty much the whole world agreed that the latter was wrong, it that interesting that so many commentators fall over themselves to defend Kruger’s right to preside over an even more exclusive and odious regime. One is left wondering why it is that they dismiss the genuine grievances of the uitlanders so readily. Overall, it is difficult to disagree with the assessment of George Gibson, regimental historian of the Imperial Light Horse:

‘The Transvaal Republic went to war rather than concede a measure of reform in favour of the uitlanders, and had no sooner declared war that it openly avowed that the object of the war was not so much the maintenance of the Transvaal franchise in its existing form, as the destruction of British power in South Africa.’[xxi]

No less a man than Commandant-General Joubert admitted that the war was caused by Kruger’s ‘blind obstinacy’[xxii] and said that all it would have taken to avoid it was for the Transvaal to adopt a five-year franchise law.[xxiii] When Joubert received the order to invade Natal, he initially refused, pointing out to Kruger’s cronies that, by so doing, all chance of foreign intervention or mediation would be gone. He received a strongly worded telegram from Kruger, and—unfortunately for all concerned—backed down.[xxiv] One Free State burgher remembered that:

‘The Transvaalers were also spoiling for a fight, and, from what I saw in Pretoria during the few weeks that preceded the ultimatum, I feel sure that the Boers would in any case have insisted on a rupture.’[xxv]

As it was, such was the enthusiasm for war in the Transvaal that forces did not even wait for their 36-hour ultimatum to lapse before commencing hostilities. A Natalian civilian train was seized by Boer forces at Harrismith several hours before the deadline had expired,[xxvi] leaving no doubt that the republicans had no interest whatsoever in peace. The captured train would later be used to ferry troops, guns, and supplies during the siege of Ladysmith.

The stark contrast in the relative states of preparedness of the two sides was illustrated in the first couple of days of the war. After the capture of the train at Harrismith, Boer forces pushed over the border into Natal at various points. At De Jager’s Drift, and demonstrating their cavalier disregard of the accepted rules of war the invaders used two civilians to distract the five officers of the Natal Mounted Police who were stationed at the crossing. While they were chatting, a group of 30 armed Boers rode up and demanded that the mounted policemen surrender. Such was the lack of readiness for war on the British side that no one had even informed the NMP post that war had been declared.

Kruger’s apologists have always sought to excuse the Boer ultimatum, the declaration of war, and the invasion by claiming that the British were preparing their own ultimatum. It is indeed true that Chamberlain was drafting another proposal when Kruger’s ultimatum arrived, but the new convention being drawn up in London cannot reasonably be considered an ultimatum. It was a list of seven provisions, relating to such things as the franchise laws, the end of religious discrimination against non-Protestants, and the independence of the Transvaal’s courts of justice.[xxvii] Also, as John Stephens wrote in Fuelling the Empire:

‘…in return the British Government would fully guarantee the Transvaal against any attack on its independence, whether from any British dominion or from the territory of any foreign country … nothing in the draft seemed in any way to suggest a desire by Britain to annex the Transvaal. Also, from the draft form of the document it does not appear to be an ultimatum, since no sanction is included should the reaction from the Transvaal not be favourable.’[xxviii]

For reasons known only to themselves many writers are blind to the Transvaal’s aggressive nature. Pakenham’s (woeful) history of the conflict, for example, would leave one believing that the Boer War was actually ‘Milner’s War’. This is a gross exaggeration. None other than the leader of the Afrikaner Bond, Jan Hofmeyr, admitted that the ‘High Commissioner would much prefer to gain concessions and settlement without war, but will not shrink from war if object cannot otherwise be obtained’.[xxix] Milner was undoubtedly a hard-nosed diplomat, and resolute in his aim to gain fair rights for the uitlanders. His steely determination to drag Kruger’s corrupt oligarchy into the modern, democratic, age—and not shrink from the Transvaal’s challenge to British supremacy—certainly hastened the start of hostilities but it was by no means the root cause of the problems in South Africa. These stemmed directly from the desire of a group of influential Transvaal Afrikaners (and their supporters in the Orange Free State and the Cape Colony) to establish their ever-expanding republic as the pre-eminent power in the subcontinent. This was incompatible with the fact that the British Empire held this position, and could hardly have been expected simply to relinquish it. Tensions had been rising throughout the 1890s and, as we have seen, the Transvaal had been building her forces and indulging in intrigue, propaganda, espionage, and war by proxy for years prior to the Jameson Raid or Milner’s arrival on the scene. As long as the Transvaal was run by men whose oft-repeated ambition was to build an Afrikaans empire, war would come to South Africa sooner or later. As one contemporary observer stated,

‘Of course the war could have been avoided. Of course, it would have been quite possible [for Britain] to voluntarily retire from the Cape and allow South Africa to become entirely Dutch. In the same way we could give up governing India and hand it over to Russia and confine our expenses and our energies to Great Britain, the water supply, the development of national cookery, and the propagation of cabbages.’[xxx]

One of the inner circle of the Orange Free State leadership wrote a very telling letter on 25 September, betraying fears that the Boers might be denied their war by an eleventh-hour British climb-down:

‘The only thing that we are now afraid of is that Chamberlain, with his admitted fitfulness of temper, will cheat us out of the war, and consequently the opportunity of annexing the Cape Colony and Natal and forming the Republican United States of South Africa.’[xxxi]

Austrian traveller and war correspondent, Count Sternberg, offered his opinion on where the culpability lay in his catchily-titled book, Meine Erlebnisse und Erfahrungen im Boerenkriege:

‘There can be no doubt that England was long-suffering; and that, as far as this war is concerned, she was justified in the eyes of God and man. The Boers base their arguments on the right of the landlord to do what he likes in his own house. The foreigner is a lawless stranger. Their laws are the unalterable precepts of Calvin, founded on the Psalms of Holy Writ, and all other views are heretical.’[xxxii]

Though appealing to those of a rabidly anti-British persuasion, disregarding the Bogus Conspiracy and all of Kruger’s scheming, dreaming and intransigence to absolve his gang of all responsibility is to ignore the simple reality that both sides wanted to dominate southern Africa. While Milner certainly played a significant part in bringing matters to a head, overall policy was made in London, not Cape Town, and Salisbury personally approved every communication before it was sent to Pretoria.[xxxiii] Salisbury and Milner can only really be accused of starting a war in that they refused to bow to Kruger and were unwilling to surrender British power and prestige in southern Africa.

In the cast of culpable characters there were empire-builders, idealists and patriots like Smuts, Reitz, Steyn, Leyds, Jameson, and Rhodes, ambitious born-again Jingoes like Chamberlain, rabble-rousing London newspaper editors, trouble-making Afrikaner Bond members, exasperated Johannesburg uitlanders, meddling emissaries from Germany, Russia and France, ill-educated, uncompromising and extremist backveldt Boers, and anti-Semitic, head-in-the-sand generals like Sir William Butler. But if one was to identify the main culprit, it would undoubtedly be the president of the Transvaal. As Andrew Roberts asserts, ‘the two obstinate bearded old patriarchs, Salisbury and Kruger, both knew that this struggle was actually about ultimate regional paramountcy, about showing who was ‘Boss’ in South Africa’.[xxxiv] From start to finish, Kruger had been resolutely determined that he would become the Boss and that his nation would replace Great Britain as the pre-eminent power in southern Africa.

The Boer War was not Milner’s War—it was Kruger’s War


[i] C.9530, No.53

[ii]Farrelly, p. 222

[iii]Stott, p. 34

[iv]Burleigh, The Natal Campaign, p. 119

[v]Sternberg & Henderson, p. 92

[vi] Cd.43, p. 139

[vii] Cd.43, p. 191

[viii]Farrelly, p. 227

[ix]Sternberg & Henderson, p. 88

[x]Ibid, p. 86

[xi]Ibid, p. 93

[xii]Viljoen, My Reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War, p. 273

[xiii]Amery, Vol.3, p. 68

[xiv]Ibid, p. 69

[xv]Farrelly, p. 215

[xvi] Amery, Vol.3, p. 69

[xvii]Scholtz, p. 87

[xviii]Ibid, p. 133

[xix]Ibid, p. 86

[xx]Amery, Vol.3, p. 69

[xxi]Gibson, p. 16

[xxii]Nasson, p. 36

[xxiii] Pakenham, p. 104

[xxiv] Abercrombie, p. 137

[xxv] Commando, p. 15

[xxvi]Stott, p. 32

[xxvii]Porter p. 375

[xxviii] Stephens, p. 264

[xxix]Cook, p. 231

[xxx]Creswicke, Vol.3, p. 15

[xxxi]Amery, Vol.2, p. 380

[xxxii]Sternberg & Henderson, p. 21

[xxxiii] Roberts, p. 732

[xxxiv]Ibid, p. 732

1 Comment

  • Chris Posted November 11, 2018 7:52 am

    Hi Chris ,
    It is always easy to get people to do what they WANT TO
    It is also always easy to slot what YOU want to do into the what THEY want to do
    A cursory look into the government machinery and “economics” of the ZAR and OVS
    Will quickly show that the BOERS were INCAPABALE of running the mines as well as a “modern” industrail economy
    The question to ask then is — WHO would fill the gap ?
    CLEARLY NOT the Boers ! ( or the British )

    Perhaps you could write a blog post on the actions / intentions of FOREIGN players in the politics and future plans for the ZAR
    South Africa

    Ask Damian to assist

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