The Lion of Transvaal

Paul Kruger, posing here in 1898 with enough medals to stop a tank round. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons
Paul Kruger, posing here in 1898 with enough medals to stop a tank round. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Following the Boer War, Paul Kruger returned in triumph from London to the newly independent South African Republic, and it’s high time he gets an introduction. Kruger was a big man, with the kind of beard Abraham Lincoln would have possessed if he misplaced his razor for six years. His family was among the first Voortrekkers, and he had since established himself as a permanent fixture in Transvaal politics. As conservative, stubborn, and religious as they came, Kruger’s support was derived from the most rural of the already rural Boers. He was also a brilliant political operator, capable of swinging from blustering, rage filled tantrums to rational negotiator depending on what he thought would work best. It was the kind of attitude that helped him corral the notoriously independent Boers into line. He had helped restrain them for years before the first Boer war, giving the Transvaal the time it needed to truly speak and shoot with one voice and arm. This isn’t to say he was a universally beloved presence. Like many militantly conservative leaders, Kruger was the type of leader men looked to in a crisis. In the years between the first war and its much uglier sequel Kruger’s political administration was regularly accused of corruption, especially favoring Dutch and German investors above others, and the man himself became seen as something of a fossil. Yet he would still be looked to as the British found another reason to interfere in the Transvaal’s affairs.

The Witwatersrand gold deposit. The seam is both unusually deep and quite pure. Map Credit: Futura sciences.
The Witwatersrand gold deposit. The seam is both unusually deep and quite pure. Map Credit: Futura sciences.

What finally piqued British interest was another discovery, this time just thirty miles outside of Pretoria in a ridge called Witwatersrand. In 1886 prospectors literally struck gold, and the entire political situation in the Transvaal was turned upside down. The Rand, as it became known, quickly became the site of an overnight gold rush. By the end of the Second Boer War over 200 gold mines were operating in the region. A state that had once meekly surrendered their sovereignty in exchange for 100,000 Pounds was now pulling in more than 2.5 million Pounds annually from gold alone. Money wasn’t the only thing flowing into Transvaal though, and the people that raced to find work in the mines were far more troublesome for the Boers. The Uitlanders (pronounced Ou-utlanders) were from all over Europe and even America, but most white immigrants were of British origin. The swarming influx of humanity changed the demographics of the Boer state into a mirror image of the Cape Province, with the Boers forming a minority outnumbered 2:1 in their own state. It was a worrying trend for Kruger, who realized Transvaal sovereignty might be seized by the ballot box rather than at the barrel of a Martini-Henry. To that end the government mandated lengthy waiting periods before Uitlander residents could apply for citizenship, and leveled disproportionate taxes on all foreign miners. While this solved Kruger’s short term democracy issues, it left a large portion of suddenly wealthy men feeling disenfranchised.[1] Astute readers may note that this situation is both historically uncommon, and quite dangerous. It wouldn’t take too long before the Uitlanders began to get some revolutionary notions of their own.

[1] Naturally these same Uitlanders had no interest in enfranchising the African or Asian population. Not that this separated them from the Transvaalers themselves. While xenophobia underpinned the South African Republic, it was still built on a foundation of institutionalized racism and horrible oppression. Segregation was at least partially justified on the grounds of: “sanitation and regard to public health”.

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