Bloemfontein Conference: A determined path to war (?)

I avoid Facebook like the plague, but a friend drew my attention to this recent article which was apparently posted on a Boer War FB group:


The ZAR franchise issue was the central issue between Britain and the northern Boer Republic but it was not the real reason for the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) which was political power.

The failure of the Bloemfontein Conference in the middle of 1899 (31 May-5 June) meant the path to war was a very short one.

British High Commissioner, Alfred Milner, was the ill-suited representative who ensured peace had no chance. Certainly he radiated sartorial elegance next to the crumpled figure of the aging ZAR (Transvaal) president, Paul Kruger. Yet clothes do not make the man and it was Oom Paul who approached the conference in a more conciliatory fashion than his tormentor. Kruger genuinely wanted peace but not any price; Milner sought confrontation and got his war.

I cannot imagine someone like Sir George Grey, a mid century Cape Governor, even remotely allowing this conference to drift to war like this later successor.

Unfortunately, for the Boers, they had a troika of arch-imperialists (Salisbury, Chamberlain and Milner) determined to ‘put them in their place.’ In some respects I agree with historians like GH Le May and JS Marais who believe it was Milner who was the chief culprit for the war. After all, Milner’s comment, to the interpreter Abraham Fischer, that “no matter what Kruger concedes I won’t be satisfied, I will ask for more,” was hardly conducive to finding a settlement.

However, it could also be argued he was merely the stalking horse for his political masters.

Clearly, regional power was the reason for the British intransigence, at the Conference, because it is hard to believe the franchise was such an insurmountable problem. Originally a 14 year qualification was required for Uitlanders to vote in ZAR elections (outsiders who had rushed into the Transvaal for the mining boom).

Kruger’s acquiescence to reduce this to seven years, before the Bloemfontein Conference, was hardly the sign of a reluctant negotiator. As Chamberlain wanted a five year qualification rule, straight away, a ready compromise was clearly discernible, to the reasonable person, of six years.

Even after the abrupt end of their meeting in the Orange Free State, Kruger then agreed to the five year proviso, (August, 1899) but with some conditions added that deserved more than contemptuous dismissal. These included a request not to interfere any further in Transvaal affairs, arbitration of unresolved disputes and Britain relinquishing suzerainty over the ZAR.

At any time Colonial Secretary Chamberlain or PM Salisbury could have ordered Milner back to the negotiating table if there had been a real will to do so.

Instead, Milner’s behaviour throughout was the antithesis of diplomacy and he continued the politicking of Rhodes who had been disgraced by the Jameson Raid. Chamberlain’s career also should have ended over that fiasco, in which he had assisted Rhodes, the Cape PM, to obtain a departure point in Bechuanaland from which the attempted coup against the ZAR would take place.

Instead of learning a lesson, Chamberlain was, to preside over more destabilising tactics and allowed Milner to whip up the mob over the Edgar incident, encourage a second petition on grievances and then send out his infamous, Helot Telegram (May 1899). What a contrast to Sir William Butler who was acting High Commissioner when the Edgar incident occurred (Milner was on leave in London). Butler wisely realised a handful of Uitlander trouble makers were responsible for the sound and fury show and advised they be ignored.

However, Milner did not want ‘a period of peace and calm,’ as argued for by Butler, so it has to be asked whether he was the puppet master or the puppet?

Also Salisbury told Lord Rothschild, in September 1899, that he disapproved of any more contact with Kruger’s Government after a cabinet minister, the Duke of Devonshire, had contacted the ZAR, through Rothschild’s bank. The British PM also ignored an approach by the Transvaal’s representative, in London, to his private secretary.

Chamberlain, meanwhile, was saying that while a war would be ‘deplorable’ it would ‘put things on a sound basis for the future.’ Well, how did that turn out?

Kruger may have been unwise not to heed Devonshire’s ‘nod and wink to him’ that the British Government would not make any more demands if he didn’t make an issue of challenging Britain’s supreme power (suzerainty).

However, by then, Kruger probably thought the game was not worth the candle. Whether on internal or external policies Britain was showing a penchant to keep moving the goalposts; that the London Convention of 1884 really meant nothing; and that Britain would interfere whenever it suited them. Trust had already been lost with the earlier annexation of the OFS diamond fields, as an example of Britain annexing territory, after freely giving it to that smaller republic in 1854.

The Anglo-Boer conflict is a clear example of an unnecessary war provoked by aggressive diplomacy to ensure British power remained paramount in the region.

The Bloemfontein Conference, and the aftermath, was a tragedy writ large.


There’s a lot of nonsense written about the Boer War (yes, I’m looking at you, Pakenham and Pretorius), but this one-sided rubbish is some of the worst I’ve seen. It is a shame that those who are so desperate to defend Kruger’s regime – one even more disgustingly undemocratic than the later Apartheid-regime, let us never forget – have to resort to telling blatant lies to defend their preferred fiction.

It is interesting that the writer of this self-pitying piece felt it important to state that Milner was well dressed (while Kruger looked like a sack of shit tied in the middle), but did not trouble himself to explain that the tensions caused by the denying the Uitlanders the franchise were entirely Kruger’s fault in the first place; so Christ alone knows why anyone should admire him for pretending to fix an issue which he had caused in the first place. It would be like trumpeting the later Apartheid government for finally, (begrudgingly and under diplomatic pressure), pretending they were going to extend the franchise to people who had long deserved it… but only on certain, ever-changing, conditions (like being allowed to annex Swaziland, for example).

Also not mentioned in the article is that Kruger’s corrupt gaggle had been openly boasting about building an ‘Afrikaans Empire from the Zambesi to the Cape’ since the early 1880s, or that he had pushed the Orange Free State for 10 years to sign an offensive alliance against the British. Equally the author of this piece does not feel the need to mention that the Transvaal had been aggressively expanding in every direction since the First Boer War, snatching great tracts of land from Zulus, the Swazis and in Bechuanaland. Of course, admitting such things does not support the fiction of the Boer being the poor, innocent victims, so he simply left this inconvenient reality out.
And nor does he think that the work of Kruger’s busy, and well-funded, secret service is worth a mention – for some reason, he glosses over all their gun-running and rabble rousing, and, surprise, surprise, the farcically botched, false-flag operation of the Bogus Conspiracy is not touched on at all. I wonder why?

Leaving out all this background to the Conference is clearly done to present the fiction that Britain was desperate for any excuse to pick a fight with Kruger. The reality is, however, that Kruger was the one responsible for ramping up the tensions in the region: it was his regime which was planning for war, and openly boasting of driving the British into the sea.

Such important omissions are bad enough, but unfortunately, the author of this piece is clearly so desperate that he resorts to telling outright lies to support his ‘case’. Kruger did not arrive at the conference ‘genuinely wanting peace’. Rather than discussing the ill-treatment of the Uitlanders with anything approaching conciliation, instead Kruger showed that reaching a compromise on the franchise was the furthest thing from his mind, unveiling a long list of things he wanted to talk about first:

‘President Kruger, in accordance with his custom, began on a number of side issues, instead of going straight to the point, thus employing the method, known to most of us who have had dealings with mistrustful and ignorant peasants. He raised among others the following questions: (1) Swaziland, which he wanted to annex; (2) The mobilization of the army; (3) The payment of the Jameson Raid indemnity; (4) The uitlanders’ petition; (5) The gold law; (6) The mining law; (7) The liquor law; (8) The tariff law; (9) The independence of the Republic; (10) The dynamite monopoly; (11) Arbitration on all disputed points; (12) British intervention in the internal policy of the South African Republic. And then, added Kruger, ingeniously, when all these matters have been disposed of, we can take up the question of franchise.’[1]

Let’s look at the first lie:

‘Originally a 14 year qualification was required for Uitlanders to vote in ZAR elections’

This is not true. While their constitution expressly declared that they had no interest in extending the franchise to the ‘inferior races’ (Christ – why does anyone stick up for these racist dinosaurs!?), the Transvaalers initially allowed incoming whites to gain citizenship and the right to vote after one year’s residence.
After the First Boer War, at the British and Transvaal Commission, on 10 May 1881, Kruger had confirmed that this would still be the case. He assured Sir Hercules Robinson that British subjects would continue to be treated exactly like citizens of the Transvaal, just as they had before the 1877 annexation. When General Wood pressed him on this point, asking him to confirm that British subjects would continue to receive equal privileges, Kruger replied:

‘We make no difference so far as burgher rights are concerned. There may be, perhaps, some slight difference in the case of a young person who has just come into the country.’

When asked to clarify this point, another Boer delegate, Dr Jorrisen, gave some more detail:

‘What Mr Kruger meant to say is this; according to our law, a newcomer is not immediately considered a burgher. The words ‘young person’ have not reference to age but to length of residence. According to our ancient ‘Grondwet’ (Constitution) you must have resided one year in the country to become a burgher.[3]

Had the Kruger cabal abided by these perfectly reasonable assurances—which were openly published in the minutes of the meeting—there would have been no Second Boer War, but (as Gladstone had not given his generals a few more weeks to crush the uprising) these were nothing more than empty words and the rebels had no reason to honour such promises. Sure enough, the Transvaal’s newly installed rulers simply increased the required residence period from one year to five the following year, and would keep changing it again and again in their desperate attempt to deny the Uitlanders any say in the running of the country.

So why pretend it was ‘originally’ a 14-year qualification period when it wasn’t? The reality is that Kruger just kept changing the rules to ensure that his little group of ‘Chosen People’ would remain in absolute power. Whereas the British made no effort to deny the vote to Afrikaners or non-whites in the Cape, those who are so quick to defend Kruger’s regime don’t seem to have any issue with a tiny number of Boers lording it over a vast number of non-whites (a ratio reckoned in 1881 to be about 25:1)[4]. Presumably they are thus equally supportive of the later (and, actually, rather more liberal) Apartheid regime.

So onto the next lie:

‘Kruger’s acquiescence to reduce this to seven years, before the Bloemfontein Conference, was hardly the sign of a reluctant negotiator’

What really happened at Bloemfontein is that Steyn and Smuts both pleaded with Kruger to agree to Milner’s straightforward demands: a retrospective five-year franchise (which, far from being onerous, would only have brought the Transvaal into line with the rest of southern Africa) and reasonable representation for the mining areas.[5] A far from unreasonable request.

Essentially, this would have meant that any white man who had settled in the Transvaal before 1894, and who had enough property to qualify, would have a vote. A distraught Kruger reckoned these numbers at over 60,000, inadvertently admitting just how many uitlanders his disgraceful regime discriminated against. Milner even proposed that any uitlanders desirous of the vote should take ‘an oath to obey the laws, undertake all obligations of citizenship, and defend the independence of the country’.[6]  Hardly the words of a man determined to annex the place. Despite enjoying the support of Steyn and Smuts, it is this eminently reasonable demand which has caused latter-day pro-Boer writers to present Milner as a warmongering psychopath.

The truth is that, though he was barely able to control his even more hard-line countrymen, the president of the Transvaal quite simply had no intention of loosening his vice-like grip on the reins of power. Sure enough, Kruger rejected Milner’s perfectly reasonable proposal, instead offering a highly conditional ‘seven-year’ franchise qualification and seeking to make even this contingent on British agreement of a whole raft of other thorny issues, including being allowed to grab Swaziland. Most importantly, due to the peculiar and highly convoluted semi-retrospective element of Kruger’s offer, no uitlander could expect the right to vote for another two years, and the vast majority would have to wait at least another five years.[7]

As the French observer, Monsieur Yves Guyot, put it, Kruger’s ‘7 year’ offer was really:

‘…a nine years’ residence, plus two years for naturalization, plus six months’ declaration, in all eleven years-and-a-half, at the least. The wording of the clause is as follows:

‘The Residents in the South African Republic before 1890, who shall become naturalized within six months of the promulgation of the proposed law, after giving six months’ notice of their intention to apply for naturalization, shall obtain the full franchise two years after naturalization, instead of five years. Those who have not been naturalized within six months will have to fulfil the conditions applying to new comers’

Look at the trickery of this regulation. A man must apply for his naturalization six months beforehand, and he is bound to be naturalized within six months of the promulgation of the law. If he does not make his application on the very day of promulgation, he loses all the advantages of residence in the Transvaal before 1890, and he must wait another seven years. Note, that on the actual day of promulgation the administration of the Transvaal could never, even in good faith, have dealt with the 20,000 or 30,000 declarations that would have been made and Mr. Kruger calmly proceeds to adjourn for another seven years the uitlanders who had already put in nine years of residence, total 16 years. Yes, Mr Kruger is very clever to have invented such a skilful contrivance; to have had the audacity to propound it, and to hold the opinion of Europe in such contempt that he could think it possible to make the majority of people the dupe of such schemes; and he has succeeded!

Chamberlain had wanted Milner to continue until Kruger talked himself out but the discussions broke up before his message arrived. Rather contradicting what he is alleged to have told Abraham Fischer, Milner later told James Rose-Innes that he would have come to an agreement had he been able to trust Kruger.[9]  Even senior men within Kruger’s own regime saw the President’s proposals for what they were. Wessels, the leader of the Pretoria bar, ‘denounced them as ridiculous, and it was calculated that if similar provisions were in force in the Cape Colony, not one man in 50 now on the register would ever get there’.[10]

In the wake of the failed Bloemfontein Conference, however, the Government of the Transvaal announced they would introduce the seven-year franchise anyway. All seemed good. Surely the tensions would subside if the only difference between the proposals genuinely was just two years? But there remained the troubling and ominous fact that the Transvaal refused to make clear the precise nature of the revised offer. Was it really the same as Milner’s proposal but with seven years substituted for five? Chamberlain’s request for details was brushed aside by Reitz who airily declared:

‘…the whole matter is out of the hands of the government, and it is therefore no longer possible for this government to further satisfy the request of the Secretary of State.

A further request was similarly rebuffed. What was Kruger’s clique trying to hide?

The mysterious new law was passed on 23 July, but an explanatory memorandum only reached the British Colonial Office on 11 August. Kruger seemed in no hurry to resolve the crisis and his constant delaying tactics should have rung alarm bells in London. That the new law required an explanatory memorandum in the first place amazed Sir Henry de Villiers, chief justice of the Cape Colony. Sir Henry wrote to a highly placed friend in the Orange Free State saying:

‘Surely a law should be clear enough to speak for itself, and no government or court of law will be bound by the State Attorney’s explanations. I do not know what these explanations are, but the very fact that they are required condemns the Bill … If you can see your way to bring about a settlement to all concerned, you will be a benefactor to South Africa. I don’t think that President Kruger and his friends realize the gravity of the situation. Even now the State Secretary is doing things which would be almost farcical if the times were not so serious … the time really has come when the friends of the Transvaal must induce President Kruger to become perfectly frank and take the newcomers into his confidence. It may be a bitter pill to swallow, in yielding to further demands, but it is quite clear to the world that he would not have done as much as he has done if pressure had not been applied.’[12]

The fact that the British Government seemed to be ready to listen to the new seven-year franchise proposal at all deeply worried the uitlanders. They saw this as contrary to the line Milner had drawn in the sand at Bloemfontein and, expecting yet more vacillation and back-tracking from the Colonial Office, sent a despairing telegram to Chamberlain.  On the other hand, pro-Boers were delighted at what seemed like a victory, while moderates hoped against hope that Kruger’s latest proposal was sincere.

To try and unravel the enigma which was the new law, the Colonial Office proposed to Kruger that an impartial commission investigate it. Even the German Government encouraged Kruger to agree to this eminently reasonable suggestion, as did the outrageously pro-Boer and utterly loathsome Henry Labouchère[13]:   ‘Don’t, for goodness sake,’ Labouchère counselled a leading republican, ‘let Mr Kruger make his first mistake by refusing this; a little skilful management, and he will give Master Joe another fall … you are such past-masters in the art of gaining time, here is an opportunity… you ought to spin out the negotiations for quite two or three months.[14]

Reitz was approached to persuade Kruger to agree to the commission, but, according to Sir Henry de Villiers, he ‘seemed to view the whole thing as a joke. He is a danger in the present situation’.[15]  But in any case, Kruger was not interested in having anyone unpick the details and hidden ramifications of his latest proposal. He explained this untenable position to the Dutch consul-general:

‘By accepting it a very direct encroachment of the English in internal affairs would result.’

More tellingly, he went on to make clear he had no fear about any war his intransigence would provoke:

‘Defeats such as the English had suffered in the war for freedom, and later under Jameson, had never been suffered by the Boers.’

Kruger could only have been so reluctant to make the full text of the new law public—and objected to an impartial inquiry into it—because it was a sham. As the details of the new law slowly began to dribble out, it became obvious to all that it was yet another smoke-screen. Far from being a simple seven-year version of Milner’s proposal, according to the leader in The Times, the new law was ‘of such a character as to make the period of qualification utterly unimportant. It might almost as well be 70 years as seven’.[17]  It was by no means a general enfranchisement of those uitlanders who had resided in the Transvaal for seven years, but instead applied only to those who had enjoyed ‘the personal acquaintance of the field cornets and landdrosts of the wards and districts in which they lived’. Furthermore, these officials were called upon to certify entirely from personal knowledge the domicile, continuous registration, and obedience to the law of the uitlander in question. Another demand made of the prospective voter was the vague and unqualified criteria that insisted he should never have been ‘guilty of any crime against the independence of the country’. An alternative was that the uitlander of seven years’ residence could be recommended for the franchise by two ‘notable’ burghers, officially defined as needing to be ‘more than respectable’ in their ward and who had personally known him for the entirety of his residence.

The reality—as everyone knew—was that the vast majority of uitlanders were geographically and linguistically separated from the Transvaal burghers. Precious few Johannesburg mine-workers or merchants could possibly meet these demands; however long they had lived in the Transvaal—as well Kruger knew. But this was not all. If any uitlander achieved the impossible and actually managed to meet these criteria, he still had to produce ‘proof of good behaviour such as will satisfy the State Attorney’. In essence, what the proposal did was permit Kruger’s clique to grant the franchise to the small number uitlanders who were known to be hostile to Britain, and effectively deny the rest—the large majority—the franchise for as long as they wanted. It is thus quite obvious why Kruger was so determined that his new law would not be scrutinized by an independent commission.

So no: Kruger did not make any attempt to offer a clear and unambiguous 7-year qualification term.

And another lie:

‘Kruger then agreed to the five year proviso, (August, 1899) but with some conditions’

What really happened is that the British, quite rightly, rejected Kruger’s opaque, non-workable and nonsensical ‘7 year’ offer, seeing it for what it was. Kruger, however, still had one more trick up his sleeve: he suddenly suggested that he would change it to a five-year franchise if the British agreed to drop any inquiry into the law.  The Cape Times summed this up in quaint terms:

‘A countryman who had some claim against a neighbour was once offered a florin for full discharge. He suspected the florin. ‘Let us drop any enquiry into that,’ said the donor, ‘and I will make it half a crown instead.’’[18]
Kruger had in no way agreed to the British request for a 5-year franchise (a request, let us not forget, which was far from onerous, and which would only have brought the Transvaal into line with the other territories of the region). He had simply kept his deliberately unworkable ‘7 year’ proposal – the one the Leader of the Pretoria Bar would only let one man in fifty get the vote if it was in force in the Cape – but changed the (meaningless) term from 7 years to 5.

Nevertheless, in an attempt to get to the bottom of the new five-year offer, Conyngham Greene, the British agent in Pretoria, held exhaustive meetings with the Kruger cabal, finally emerging with what seemed like a new and more reasonable proposal which he telegrammed to Milner on 15 August.  Indeed, so reasonable did he understand the revised proposal to be, that Conyngham Greene considered it a bona fide attempt to settle the political rights of the uitlanders once and for all:

‘…the government of the South African Republic need not fear that we shall in future either wish or have cause to interfere in their internal affairs. I have said, as regards suzerainty, that I feel sure Her Majesty’s government will not and cannot abandon the right which the preamble to the Convention of 1881 gives them, but that they will have no desire to hurt Boer sensibilities by publicly reasserting it, so long as no reason to do so is given to them by the government of the South African Republic.’ [19]

Far from indulging in warmongering, Milner instructed Conyngham Greene:

‘If the South African Republic Government should reply to the invitation to a joint inquiry put forward by Her Majesty’s government by formally making the proposals described in your telegram, such a course would not be regarded by Her Majesty’s government as a refusal of their offer, but they would be prepared to consider the reply of the South African Government on its merits.’[20]

But just as it seemed the Transvaal had finally made a genuine concession to the uitlanders, things began to unravel. Reitz sent a formal proposal through on 19 August, but it was substantially different from what had been agreed upon in the meeting with Conyngham Greene. Reitz had added various conditions and additions, the thrust of which were that Great Britain had to give up any suzerainty over the Transvaal and agree never again to interfere in its internal affairs. Reitz also dropped the clause which agreed ‘as regards language, the new members of the volksraad to use their own’ and, perhaps most importantly of all, he ditched the statement that the enigmatic new franchise law would be ‘simplified immensely’.[21]

If this was not bad enough, another telegram containing many more demands, and pre-conditions arrived from Reitz only two days after these eleventh-hour changes. It altered the whole tone of the agreement; so much so that an exasperated Conyngham Greene declared his efforts at diplomacy to have been ‘reduced to a regular k****r bargain’.[22]

Michael Farrelly, the brilliant Irish barrister and advisory counsel to the government of the Transvaal in the run up to the war, knew Kruger’s methods and slippery tricks better than anyone, and had told the British negotiators that they would be better served to conduct the discussions in writing:

‘Sir Conyngham Greene’s diplomatic experience in civilized lands, such as Holland and Greece—and Persia—had misled him as to what he was reasonably justified in expecting. A veneer of European civilization is at times disconcerting.’[23]

Sure enough, Conyngham Greene quickly spotted numerous discrepancies between what he had agreed to and what appeared on the formal proposal, and pointed these out. Jan Smuts himself replied to tell him there was not ‘the slightest chance of an alteration or amplification of those terms’.[24]  It was not only the career diplomat, Conyngham Greene, who greeted all this with disbelief and annoyance. Sir Henry de Villiers, chief justice in the Cape, declared:

‘…something happened between the 19th and 21st which led the Transvaal Government to think they had yielded too much. I have heard it said that between these dates a cablegram from Dr Leyds gave hopes of European intervention, and the return of Wolmarans from the Orange Free State gave hopes of assistance from that quarter.’[25]

William Schreiner, premier of the Cape Colony and by no means a friend of Milner’s, also believed that it was information from Europe that had suddenly convinced the Transvaal to change their proposal and (perhaps dreaming of German Ironclads steaming out into the grey waters of the North Sea, or of countless Russian hordes pouring into India) instead play for time.

‘He [Kruger] firmly believed that the unfortunate Republics had been led to suppose that the Great Powers in Europe were about to interfere on their behalf, and they must have been misled by the assumptions and assurances conveyed to them by their emissaries.’[26]

Indeed, Schreiner considered the Transvaal’s confidence about receiving help from a European Great Power to be ‘the chief influence in causing the war’.

Interestingly, Pakenham fails to mention any of this in his ‘magisterial’ (God awful) book on the war. Instead, he states that the dastardly scheming Milner naughtily convinced Chamberlain that the proposal was ‘full of traps and pitfalls’[27] without seeming to think for a moment that Milner said this (and that Chamberlain agreed) precisely because it was. He thus peddles his inexplicable falsehood that this so-called five-year franchise offer was ‘the same’ as Milner had demanded at Bloemfontein.

It was becoming clear to even the most sympathetic observer that this diplomatic ping-pong was just a waste of everyone’s time and that Kruger had no intention of ever offering any meaningful concessions. Sir Henry de Villiers, who was no enemy of the Transvaal and was, indeed, disliked by the Jingoes for being overly enamoured of Kruger’s regime[28], perhaps put it best:

‘Throughout the negotiations, they [the Transvaal Government] have always been wriggling to prevent a clear and precise decision,’[29]  and, ‘The very best friends of the Transvaal feel that the Bill providing for the seven years’ franchise is not a fair or workable measure. It is this manoeuvring to escape an unpleasant decision which has more than anything else driven the British Government into its present attitude.’[30]

That attitude was demonstrated by a speech that Chamberlain gave in Birmingham on 28 August:

‘We have been, as you know, for the last three months negotiating with President Kruger. We have made perhaps some progress; but I cannot truly say that the crisis is passed. Mr Kruger procrastinates in his replies. He dribbles out reforms like water from a squeezed sponge, and he 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 character of these reforms.’[31]

The British dispatch sent on the same day summed up the situation and proposed a way forward which involved an inquiry into the new five-year franchise proposal and independent arbitration on the differing interpretations of the suzerainty question. Again, it was hardly a warlike communiqué—especially given the perpetual stream of time-wasting drivel coming out of Pretoria.

The Transvaal’s response was a long-winded message (sent on 2 September) that devoted an entire paragraph to rejecting the use of English in the volksraad.[32]  Indeed, it rejected all the British proposals and withdrew the offer of the five-year franchise[33].  The reasons given for this retraction were that the British Government had not accepted the conditions imposed on this ‘gracious’ offer, namely, that there would be no enquiry into the details by a joint commission and that the quid pro quo for Kruger’s supposed generosity would be the rescinding of British suzerainty over the Transvaal[34].  Even Jan Hofmeyr—a man who no rational person could describe as a Jingo—had tried to persuade Kruger to accept the joint enquiry, but the President had simply not been interested.

Chamberlain’s response to this message (sent on 8 September) was about as conciliatory as was possible. There was no mention of suzerainty; that troublesome word was tactfully dropped. He repeated his desire for an independent arbitration commission to examine whether the lengthy screed of conditions attached to the proposed franchise law would render it unworkable or not, and expressed HM government’s willingness to accept at least part of the latest proposal from the Transvaal:

‘…provided that the inquiry which Her Majesty’s government have proposed, whether joint—as Her Majesty’s government originally suggested—or unilateral, shows that the new scheme of representation will not be encumbered by conditions which will nullify the intention to substantial and immediate representation to the uitlanders.’[35]

Chamberlain ended by proposing a second conference to settle all the details and confirming that:

‘The acceptance of these propositions by the South African Republic would put an end to the tension existing between the two Governments, and, in all probability, would render ulterior intervention on the part of Her Majesty’s government to ensure redress of the uitlanders’ grievances unnecessary, as they themselves would thenceforth be entitled to bring them directly to the cognizance of the Executive and the Raad.’[36]

In short, the Transvaal would finally start to resemble something approaching a semi-workable democracy – well, at least as far as the white population were concerned.

The British proposal of 8 September was widely seen as a fair and moderate response, even by the most ardent of pro-Boers. Speaking in Manchester, one the oldest and most stalwart supporters of the Transvaal’s cause in Britain hailed it with satisfaction, declaring it:

‘…a rebuke to the fire-eaters, and a rebuke, most of all, to … Sir Alfred Milner. [He was] glad of the last despatch of Mr Chamberlain, and wished Paul Kruger could control his Boers sufficiently to induce them to accept the proposals of that document.’[37]

His audience of ghastly Little-Englanders stopped wringing their hands long enough to applaud loudly. If even these self-loathing lefties thought the British offer was fair, it is hard to see what the problem was. As one canny observer remarked: ‘It is difficult also to see why the Transvaal Government should not be satisfied, except on the hypothesis that something more was wanted than appeared on the surface.’[38]

Indeed, it was becoming obvious to many that something was brewing behind the scenes and few of those in the know had any confidence that the latest British proposal would be accepted. Sir Henry de Villiers, who worked tirelessly for a pacific solution throughout the crisis, gloomily wrote:

‘The manner in which the latest proposals were rejected does not give me much ground for hope. Take such a reasonable proposal as that members should be allowed to address the volksraad in the English language. Surely it ought not to have been rejected in such a summary, I might almost say, contemptuous, manner.’[39]

Sir Henry was right to be worried, for when the response from Kruger (via Reitz) arrived on 16 September, it was to reject the British proposal—the ‘rebuke to the fire-eaters’ so heartily approved of by British pro-Boers—absolutely. Once more, the communiqué was verbose and waffle-ridden, but the long and short of it was that all the key proposals were dismissed out of hand. The Transvaal would not agree to a retrospective five-year franchise, a reasonable number of seats for the goldfields or, indeed, for any new volksraad members to be permitted to speak their own language. Instead, the Transvaal’s latest horse-trading move was to renege on their offer of a five-year franchise and return to their earlier offer of a seven-year term. If anyone seriously retained any lingering belief that the Transvaal genuinely wanted to solve the problem, this was surely dispelled by the communiqué of 16 September as it also rejected the British proposal of another conference.[40]

Kruger’s supporters among the British Left had been sure that the five-year offer would not be withdrawn, assuming—naturally enough—that what had been offered one day could not be withdrawn the next. But these naïve Little-Englanders had wrongly presumed both the peaceful intentions of the Transvaal Government and its sincerity during the negotiations.

An increasingly distraught and exasperated Sir Henry de Villiers saw this latest delaying tactic for exactly what it was, and write to a friend saying:

‘I confess I look with horror on a war to be fought by Afrikanders to bolster up President Kruger’s regime. I could understand a war in defence of the South African Republic after it has made reasonable concessions to the demands of the new-comers, and after it has displayed the same desire to secure good government as is seen in the Orange Free State; but of such a desire I have not seen the faintest trace.’[41]

An equally infuriated Michael Farrelly agreed with Sir Henry, describing the Transvaal’s tactics throughout the negotiations:

‘Understanding, so well as I do, the series of evasions and devices the kaleidoscope succession of supposed offers of franchise really were, I could not find patience to attempt to summarize them, but that it is alleged even by some people in England that the faulty diplomacy of the Imperial Government caused the war. There was no faulty diplomacy on the British side after the conference at Bloemfontein … if anything, it was too patient. As I have shown, war was forced on the Afrikander leaders by the veldt Boer. But it was they who sent the veldt Boer to the border; and there would have been no war if they had agreed to treat the uitlander as a political equal.’[42]

Other moderate observers outside the Transvaal also racked their brains to work out what ‘the rock on which the British proposals of September 8 had broken up’ was. The leader in the Daily News asked rhetorically what Kruger’s difficulty in accepting the proposals was:

‘Is it future interference? Is it suzerainty? Is it arbitration? These, it will be remembered, were the three points which formed the subject of the conditions attached to President Kruger’s own offer of August 19. On each and all of these points the British Government has gone a long way to meet the President’s demands. Wherein is it that the British propositions and assurances are so unsatisfactory to him as to make him prefer a rupture? … In the absence of any intelligible and coherent reply to these questions, it will be difficult to resist the conclusion that the real issues lie far behind; that either President Kruger has not yet sincerely convinced himself of the necessity of doing prompt and substantial justice to the uitlanders, or that he is only prepared to do it at the price of extorting from Great Britain concessions inconsistent with her present position in South Africa.’[43]

Around 10 September Kruger had decided to up the ante. As Michael Farrelly mentions, Boer commandos were ordered to the Natal frontier, the thought being to ‘frighten the Imperial Government out of its supposed policy of pretence and bluster’.[44]  But the British—and Sir Alfred Milner in particular—were not pretending or blustering. In Michael Farrelly’s view it was the Transvaal’s aggressive deployment of these forces to the Natal border that finally made war unavoidable.

A secret memorandum sent by Jan Smuts to the Transvaal Executive on 4 September suggests that all the negotiations had only ever been a time-wasting exercise in any case, and leaves one in no doubt as to the Imperial ambitions of the Boers:

‘South Africa stands on the eve of a frightful blood-bath out of which our Volk shall come … either as … hewers of wood and drawers of water for a hated race, or as victors, founders of a United South Africa, of one of the great empires [rijken] of the world … an Afrikaans republic of South Africa stretching from Table Bay to the Zambezi.’[45]

Blind to the empire-building ambitions of the Boers, the British cabinet met on 22 September to discuss the Boer communiqué of the 16th. Unsure exactly how to proceed, it was decided that an interim dispatch should be sent to Pretoria, merely to acknowledge the Transvaal’s rejection of the latest proposals and to state that London was now deliberating on the way forward. The interim dispatch clearly stated that Great Britain had:

‘…no desire to interfere in any way with the independence of the South African Republic. It has not asserted any rights of interference in the internal affairs of the Republic, other than those which are derived from the Conventions between the two countries, or ‘which belong to every neighbouring Government for the protection of its subjects and of its adjoining possessions.’’[46]

The message reasserted the position that the British had adopted throughout the ‘four months of protracted negotiations’, viz. ‘to obtain such a substantial and immediate representation for the uitlanders in the South African Republic as Her Majesty’s government hoped would relieve them from any necessity for further interference on their behalf, and would enable the uitlanders to secure for themselves that fair and just treatment which was formally promised them in 1881’.[47]

Again, this communiqué was regarded as reasonable and fair by most observers except, perhaps, some of the more enthusiastic Jingoes who by then had had more than enough of Kruger’s antics. Judging from the tone of Britain’s newspapers at the time, however, these voices were a small minority. Indeed, the British press approvingly described this latest dispatch as a ‘golden bridge’ as it offered Kruger a chance to return to his five-year franchise offer with dignity and honour.

While supportive of London’s latest attempt to continue negotiations, the Daily News also reminded its readers that:

‘It takes two to make an honourable peace. We are afraid that some of those who are loudest in their professions as friends of peace do not always remember this simple fact. Of course, if Great Britain is to pursue peace at any price, then she alone—without any corresponding goodwill on the part of the Transvaal—can secure peace. She has only to withdraw from her position, or to go on negotiating for ever, and the peace thus need never be broken. But if the task to which she has set herself is just and right, what then? Mr Morley [a leading British pro-Boer and outspoken champion of the Transvaal] says that Great Britain must ‘insist’ on the five-year franchise. But if President Kruger ‘insists’ on withdrawing his offer, what is then to be the issue? … The weakness of Mr Morley’s case is that he is afraid to say what he knows to be true—that we cannot go on forever with diplomacy. We have asked nothing but what is reasonable, and we mean to have it. They are the best friends of the Boers at the present crisis who urge them to yield gracefully and to trust our country. The British Cabinet by its decision of yesterday has left a way open for peace. The next move is with President Kruger. It is to him that peacemakers should now address their articles, their resolutions, their memorials.’[48]

Our old friend, Sir Henry de Villiers was endeavouring to do just that. Sir Henry was about as far from being a Jingo as is possible to be. He was a decent and tireless worker for peace and his natural affinity to his Afrikaner kinsmen lends a certain weight to his views and the statements he made throughout the crisis. On 28 September Sir Henry wrote to his friend Abraham Fischer, a member of the Orange Free State’s executive council, imploring him to talk some sense into Kruger:

‘I do not, of course, know what the contents of the next British despatch will be, but if they be such as can be accepted without actual dishonour, I hope they will be accepted. The South African Republic cannot go to war if your government should consider the despatch one which ought not to be rejected … Judging from the forecasts given of the intended despatch, it will, at all events, formulate all the British demands. If that be so, there will not be the danger of further demands being sprung on the South African Republic. It will surely be for the interests of South Africa that a full and final settlement should now be arrived at … My fear is that the fresh proposals will be summarily rejected, but that the day will come when everybody who has had a hand in such rejection will bitterly regret his action.’[49]

Unfortunately, Sir Henry’s wise counsel was destined to fall on deaf ears. While de Villiers vainly tried to encourage Pretoria to show a modicum of conciliation, the Cape Government sent appeals to London. The Cape premier, William Schreiner, urged ‘consideration and compromise’ from the British Government (though he didn’t seem to feel the Transvaal should be asked to display either), prompting the following reply:

‘Her Majesty’s government have shown, and will continue to show, every consideration to the government of the South African Republic consistent with the maintenance of British interests; that they profoundly deplore the fact that up to the present, all their efforts to secure a peaceful and satisfactory settlement have been unsuccessful, but this is still open to the government of the South African Republic to do so without any sacrifice of its independence.’[50]

So no: Kruger did not agree to Milner’s request for ‘a five-year term, but with a few conditions’. All he did was waste time until his forces were ready to invade.

As Arthur Hamilton Baynes DD, Bishop of Natal, wrote at the time:
‘I began to perceive that signs of any inclination seriously to meet the grievances were altogether wanting; and that in this, and many other directions, there unmistakable signs coming into view of a spirit very far removed from conciliation or yielding on the part of the South African Republic. It seemed plain that it was no longer a question of a five years’ or a seven years’ franchise. It was a question of who was to dictate to South Africa’.[51]

And yet another lie:

‘Trust had already been lost with the earlier annexation of the OFS diamond fields, as an example of Britain annexing territory, after freely giving it to that smaller republic in 1854’

Firstly, the diamond fields were not part of the Orange Free State. Yes, the OFS claimed them, but the diamonds were actually discovered in a disputed area between the OFS, the Transvaal and the Cape Colony.
Seeking as always to justify the republican invasions, and displaying his trademark cavalier disregard for historical reality, Pakenham claims that Kimberley was only British because it had been ‘grabbed from the Free State when it was found to contain the largest diamond pipe in the world’.[52]  The truth is no less dramatic but the only ‘grabbing’ involved was an early attempt at empire-building by the Transvaal.

In the 1860s diamond deposits had been discovered in the lands belonging to the chief of the Griquas, Nicholas Waterboer, whose territory lay between the poorly defined borders of the newly independent Orange Free State, the Cape Colony, and the Transvaal. True to their ever-expansionist ways, 1870 saw the Transvaal simply announcing that the area belonged to them, with President Marthinus Pretorius personally leading an armed force to snatch the diamond fields.[53]  This attempt was foiled by the diggers themselves, the majority of whom were of British extraction. The Transvaal flag was seized by an angry mob before it could be hoisted, a few shots rang out, and the Transvaalers beat a hasty retreat.

Though the Orange Free State certainly had a decent claim on the area, they by no means controlled it. Indeed, in the wake of the Transvaal’s attempted invasion, the diggers actually set up their own diggers’ republic and elected an ex-seaman, Stafford Parker, as their ‘president’. An increasingly nervous Waterboer, counselled by an extremely able and intelligent Cape Coloured lawyer called David Arnot[54], requested that his territory be taken under British protection. Even the diggers were relieved to see the end of their short-lived, bizarre, and rather lawless republic, and ‘President’ Parker greeted the first British resident magistrate under a banner that read, ‘Unity is Strength’.

Griqualand West was initially administered as a separate entity, but a bill annexing it to the Cape Colony had been passed by the Cape Assembly in 1877, though nothing had really been done to effect this.  It was not until 15 October 1880 that Griqualand West was officially incorporated into the Cape Colony. Despite the fact that Waterboer had asked to be taken under British protection and the fact that the diggers wanted this, the British Government nevertheless voluntarily forked out £90,000 in ‘compensation’ to the Orange Free State.[55]


And even if we overlook all the blatant, self-serving, falsehoods in this chap’s article, it is not as though, when the talks broke down, Britain declared war – it was the Boers who did that. Britain – a liberal democracy – had a very small number of troops in the theatre, no plan in place for war with the republics, no interest in starting a war, and absolutely nothing to gain from so doing. And Milner, despite those who frantically depict him as some sort of swivel-eyed warmonger, did not have the power to start a war anyway – he was a highly intelligent, professional representative of the democratically-elected government of Great Britain, and he acted on instruction from London… which makes it all the more improbable that he would have said something so conveniently damning to Abraham Fischer (far from an unbiased source). And even if he did say such a thing, it was not Milner’s decision to be ‘satisfied by concessions’ in any case – that was up to his masters in London.

Let us never forget that War was declared not by the British, but by the Boers. It was the Boers – who this writer ludicrously tries to pretend were so desperate for peace – who rampaged over the borders, annexing British territory, looting, changing the names of the towns they captured, and implementing their racist laws. As even his Commandant-General, Piet Joubert, said, the war was caused by Kruger’s ‘blind obstinacy’[56] and admitted that all it would have taken to end the tensions in the region was for Kruger to agree to a fair five-year qualification period[57]. Simple as that. Of course, by doing so, his corrupt little clique would probably be voted out of office, and there was no way on earth he was ever go to let that happen.

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.’[58]

Gibson is perfectly right: the simple, undeniable fact is that, guided by a quasi-lunatic belief that the Boers were God’s Chosen People, Kruger instead picked a fight with the British Empire… and lost. If I may paraphrase: The Anglo-Boer conflict is a clear example of an unnecessary war provoked by aggressive diplomacy to try and destroy British power in the region.

The sooner people forget the National Party propaganda and accept this blatant reality, the better.


[1] Guyot, p.91

[2] Guyot, p.41

[3] Guyot, p.42

[4] Creswicke, Vol.1, p.103

[5] Walker, p.480

[6] Cook, p.138

[7] Cook. p.139

[8] Guyot, p.93

[9] Walker, p.480

[10] Cook, p.141

[11] C.9415, p.43

[12] Cook, p.150

[13] Cook, p.173

[14] Cook, p.174

[15] Cd. 369, p.4

[16] Cd. 547, p.9

[17] The Times, 28 October 1899

[18] Cape Times, 24 August, 1899

[19] C.9521, p.45

[20] C.9521, p.46

[21] Cook, p.183

[22] Cook, p.182

[23] Farrelly, p.216

[24] Cook, p.183

[25] Cd.369, p.6

[26] Cook, p.300

[27] Pakenham, p.86

[28] Scoble & Abercrombie, p.51

[29] Cd.369, p.2

[30] Cd.369, p.6

[31] Cook, p.191

[32] Guyot, p.114

[33] Cook, p.198

[34] Guyot, p.113

[35] Cd.9521, p.64

[36] Guyot, p.113

[37] Cook. p.206

[38] Cook, p.202

[39] Cd.369, p.6

[40] Guyot, p.114

[41] Cook, p.216

[42] Farrelly, p.214

[43] Daily News, 3 October 1899

[44] Farrelly, p.213

[45] Roberts, p.734

[46] Guyot, p.114

[47] C.9530, p.16

[48] Daily News, 23 September 1899

[49] Cd.369, p.5

[50] C. 9530, p.18

[51] Baynes, p.x

[52] Pakenham, p.118

[53] Roberts, B. p.29

[54] Roberts, B. p.27

[55] Botha. p.15

[56] Nasson, p.36

[57] Pakenham, p.104

[58] Gibson, p.16


  • Bulldog Posted April 19, 2020 8:56 pm


    The author of the original piece has said he will not respond to my rebuttal of his (completely unreferenced) article… why, one wonders, might that be? It is amusing that people will happily post such rubbish online, then scuttle away as soon as someone challenges their work using things like ‘facts’ and ‘references’,

  • Chris Posted April 20, 2020 10:02 am

    Perhaps one needs to look further than the ZAR and try to understand WHO the foreign powers were that were encouraging Kruger ?
    I certainly beleve that this is what led to the intransigence of the ZAR “expansionists”
    What exactly was Leyds doing in Europe ?
    Who was he seeing and speaking to ?
    What assurances had he been given ?
    By whom ?

    • Bulldog Posted April 21, 2020 7:02 am

      Writing in 1897, the pro-Boer journalist, William Stead said this about Leyd’s role:

      The Boer ideal was ‘Anti-British Federation in South Africa’. Mr Secretary Leyds has been appointed a kind of a Boer Minister in Europe, where he will no doubt do his utmost to encourage the idea that the federated Dutch Republics can be relied upon by anyone who wishes to destroy British supremacy in South Africa.

      Pretty damning stuff, I would suggest… but of course, there will always be sheep out there who will tie themselves in knots to blame the whole thing on Milner.

  • Chris Posted April 20, 2020 10:03 am

    One is reminded of Johan Arnold Smellekamp and his visit to Port Natal
    The people of Natalia were – mistakenly – under the impression that Smellekamp’s arrival heralded a full-scale intervention by the Netherlands. Smellekamp very much enjoyed his sudden importance and did nothing to correct the impression. The Volksraad gave some promises about trade in the future and put in a request for immigrants to strengthen the Boer state.[1][3]

    “An exposition of the clash of Anglo-Voortrekker interests at Port Natal leading to the Military Conflict 0f 23-24 May 1842” › content › hist › pdf
    by AE Cubbin – ‎1992

  • Chris Posted April 20, 2020 10:03 am

    Perhaps one needs to look at the wider larger international picture.
    At what stage did the British begin to feel the stirrings of German designs ?
    When did the “Dreadnought-War” begin ?

    Most people seem to see the ABW in a purely LOCAL context missing out that this all took place in a rapidly globalising World !

    CLEARLY in any major war whoever controlled the ZAR — AND — the largest gold deposits in the World would have an overwhelming advantage.

    How long term / far seeing were the British ?

    • Bulldog Posted April 20, 2020 11:42 am

      Well, HMS Dreadnought was not built until 1905/6…

      But I fully agree one has to look at the bigger picture, and there was no way the British could ignore the growing threat to their naval base in the Cape.

      • Chris Posted April 23, 2020 9:30 am

        One should also remember / think about the “Kaisers Telegram” ( sort of like the “ZImmerman Telegram ” )
        Do you perhaps have the exact wording and context of that — little diversion ?

        • Bulldog Posted April 23, 2020 10:34 am

          Not sure if I have seen the exact wording, no – though from what I remember it was a very ill-advised and undiplomatic message.

  • Rene Posted April 20, 2020 11:17 am

    “According to our ancient ‘Grondwet’ (Constitution)…”? Okay… LOL

    • Bulldog Posted April 20, 2020 11:43 am

      Yes, our ‘ancient’ (ie. 40 year old) attempts at retaining absolute power at all costs, and discriminating against non-whites, Catholics, Jews and English-speakers!

  • Chris Posted April 23, 2020 9:33 am

    You are going to have to try harder …

    “invading forces of the British Empire …. ”

    Viljoen was born on October 1933 on a farm in Standerton. Viljoen’s paternal grandfather, a deeply religious man, fought in the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) for the Boer republics against the invading forces of the British Empire. As a child, Viljoen’s father, Andries, watched helplessly how two of his sisters and a brother died in front of his mother in the British concentration camp of Standerton. 26 000 women and children died in a similar way.

    • Bulldog Posted April 23, 2020 10:32 am

      Absolutely. In the same way that Germans fought against the ‘invading forces of the Western Allies’ in 1945, I guess.

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