Secret Conferences: Pretoria June 1887

In June 1887, John Fraser[i] headed a delegation from the Orange Free State Volksraad which had been invited to talks with Kruger’s government in Pretoria. Fraser included extensive minutes of these conferences in his autobiography, including mention of the secret meetings which were going on behind his back, and the rather remarkable outburst by a Mr. F. Wolmarans, who ominously declared: “You know our secret plans. We will never give the Colony what we will give you. The Colony will kill us. We cannot compete with them. Time will show what we must do with them. Now we must keep them away”.[ii]

Perhaps needless to say, these were no ordinary talks. Although Fraser and his team had arrived expecting to discuss railways and customs, Kruger quickly made it clear had much bigger fish to fry. He wanted nothing less than to gain agreement from the OFS delegation to the plans which had been drawn up and ‘passed in the Secret Session of the Honourable Volksraad of the Transvaal, dated 3rd June, 1887’

These secret plans concerned the following resolution:

Article 439. The Volksraad resolves to authorise the Government to carry on negotiations for a secret treaty with the Orange Free State, and further to conclude that treaty with the object of securing uniform policy for both States in future.

The first seven principles of the resolution related to the building of railways, imports and exports, and an agreement that neither republic would independently sign up to a Customs Union with any British colony (agreement on this one being ‘absolutely necessary’, apparently). Principles 8 and 9 of this secret treaty are the most interesting, however, especially given that all the preceding principles were wholly dependent on the Orange Free State agreeing to the 8th one:

8. The conclusion of this treaty, as well as of a Treaty of Commerce and Amity, shall be subject to the condition that an offensive and defensive alliance between the South African Republic and the Orange Free State, or another political treaty which will secure the same object, namely, the political Union of both States, shall be included therein.

9. This secret treaty to be concluded for a definite period, for instance, about twelve years.

Why, one might wonder, if poor old misunderstood Kruger ‘only wished to be left alone’ as his modern-day fanboys desperately like to claim, was he trying to sign a secret offensive alliance? Why was he so keen to offer incentives so as to secure an ally to join him in an offensive war? Why was he trying to prevent any customs agreements between the Orange Free State and neighbouring British colonies? Moreover, if there was nothing untoward going on, why did all of this need to be conducted in ‘secret’?
And before anyone starts squawking and screaming the normal waffle about Milner, or the Jameson Raid (or any of the usual excuses which are always trotted out to explain away Kruger’s invasions), these conferences took place many years before Milner arrived on the scene, or the Raid occurred.

Away from the normal bizarre fantasies of the Defenders of the Myth™, Fraser’s account of the secret conferences makes it clear that Kruger repeatedly demanded that everything else he was offering was linked to this greatly-desired offensive alliance between the two republics – without this, nothing else would be agreed. And as the only possible target of such an ‘offensive alliance’ was the British Empire, it is remarkable that this clandestine, but unashamedly bellicose, stance is carefully ignored by the likes of Pakenham, Nasson and Pretorius. Clearly it does not fit their agenda: ie. to pretend that Kruger’s regime only ever wished ‘to be left alone’, was in absolutely no way responsible for anything at all, at any time, ever, and that the big, bad British bullies are to blame for everything that has ever happened throughout the entirety of human history.

But don’t take it from me – let’s see what the man who unexpectedly found himself at the centre of all this duplicitous intrigue made of it all: below is Fraser’s summation of these, and the other talks which followed the secret conferences and which rumbled on throughout most of 1887. The last couple of lines should be required reading for anyone with a genuine desire to understand the causes of the Boer War:

Several meetings of the two Presidents and the Commissions of the Republics took place, and correspondence on the points at issue was submitted, especially in regard to closer Union, regarding which President Brand and our Commission proposed a treaty for Federal Union between the two Republics, but without success on any point. On the 22nd October, 1887, our Commission reported to the Volksraad that as President Kruger and his Commission persistently maintained the attitude laid down in the original treaty submitted by him, and gave no sign of agreeing to any other proposals which we considered fair, and that also in regard to railways and Customs Union no agreement could be arrived at, it was desirable that the negotiations should be closed, and that the further correspondence be left in the hands of the Executives of both sides. Further, the Commission was unanimous that closer Union could best be regulated in Federal Union, and that President Brand should continue to urge this in his correspondence.
With regard, however, to Customs Union, the Commission recommended that the President should be empowered to send delegates to a conference to be held with the colonies of the Cape and Natal, and, regarding railways, that the Volksraad should resolve to build a line through our State and arrange for
its connection as proposed in his opening speech. The report of the Commission was dealt with in the Volksraad, with the result that His Honour, President Brand, was empowered to nominate a Commission to attend a Customs Union and Railway Conference with such instructions as he deemed requisite.

I have thought it right to give a full account of the whole course of negotiations towards a friendly solution of existing questions with the South African Republic, and with reference to the desire expressed for closer Union with that State, so that it may be seen that there was no desire for amalgamation with the South African Republic, under which we should lose our autonomy; that, on the other hand, the South African Republic desired nothing more nor less than the offensive and defensive alliance which, in my opinion, would have been a breach of the Convention of the 23rd February, 1854, by virtue of which we held Sovereign Independence. That independence would have been imperiled thereby, and ourselves made sharers in the animosity cherished against the British Government, which appeared very clear to me during the conference in Pretoria in June, 1887.
[iv] (emphasis is mine)

Under the calm, steady rule of President Brand, the Orange Free State enjoyed the best possible relations with the British Empire and had absolutely no reason to look to pick a fight with London. What a shame for Free Staters – and, indeed, for all South Africans – that their decent, pragmatically patriotic and honourable leaders like John Fraser and Jan Brand[v] were soon to be replaced by a claque of fanatical, ultra-nationalistic, Kruger-worshipping sycophants like F.W. Reitz and Marthinus Steyn; men who passionately shared their hero’s pie-in-the-sky dream of driving the British from southern Africa and establishing a vast Afrikaans Empire in their place, and who would show no hesitation to throw their own nation under the bus to achieve this far-fetched aim. It wouldn’t be long before Reitz, Steyn et al did indeed plunge the Orange Free State headlong into the ‘animosity cherished against the British Government’.


[i] Sir George John Fraser (1840–1927), born in Beaufort West, Fraser was educated in Aberdeen (Scotland) and fought with Philippolis Commando against the BaSotho in the 1860s. From 1871, he held various appointments in the Government of the Orange Free State, before being elected to the Volksraad in 1879. Within two years, he was elected as the Member for Bloemfontein, serving in that role for 18 years. He ran for the Presidency in 1896, but was defeated by Kruger’s choice, Marthinus Steyn. Fraser remained as the Member for Bloemfontein and was one of the OFS delegation who surrendered the capital to Lord Roberts in March 1900. John Fraser was knighted in 1905 and elected as a Senator in the first Union Parliament in 1910.

[ii] John Fraser, Episodes of my Life, p.127

[iii] John Fraser, Episodes of my Life, p.134-136

[iv] John Fraser, Episodes of my Life, p.145-147

[v] Sir Johannes Henricus Brand GCMG (1823-1888). It was Jan Brand’s untimely death which – perhaps more than anything – saw the Orange Free State swing into the Transvaal’s orbit. He was replaced by the Afrikaner Nationalist, F.W. Reitz, and thus the republics were set on their course to start an utterly disastrous war

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