The End of the Second Boer War

As the war staggered into 1902, there were many signs that British tactics were finally exhausting the Boers. After months of chasing shadows, Kitchener’s men had become quite adept at hunting their quarry. The blockhouses were providing a steady stream of intelligence, and the increasingly barren countryside meant even resupplying often forced the commandos into battle with the technically neutral African tribes in the region. It’s worth noting that both the British and the Boers remembered the last time they had squared off with the Zulus and other kingdoms, and as a result no one was exactly keen to bring them into a “white man’s war”. Even so, Kitchener had begun to equip and employ locals as scouts, blockhouse guards, and spies. By the end of the war, some 15,000 black Africans were under arms for the British, and the implication that Kitchener might scale up this militancy frightened the Boers more than anything else. After all, there were a lot of old and new debts that tribes like the Zulu would dearly love to collect on from a century of Boer atrocities.

Piet de Wet. Captured in 1900, he and others like him were dubbed
Piet de Wet. Captured in 1900, he and others like him were dubbed “Hensoppers”, or “hand-up’s” by the commandos, in the view that they were quislings.
Photo Credit: Project Gutenburg

Most telling of all though was the appearance of some 5,000 turncoat Boer commandos in the British army. The British had been effectively shipping Boer POWs to overseas camps to prevent their escape, but many former prisoners were now returning to fight for the British themselves as auxiliary fighters. Most infamous was Christiaan de Wet’s own brother Piet, who had been captured early in the war. For the defectors, it was simply a matter of acknowledging the writing on the wall, and ending the war while there were still any Boers left at all.

The prospect of annihilation wasn’t lost on the remaining guerilla units, and by April 1902 they were finally ready to talk terms. Still wandering the hinterlands, Louis Botha, Jan Smuts, Christiaan de Wet, and even Free State president Martinus Steyn had survived the assaults of the world’s largest empire, but that was about all they could do.[1] They had no hope of reinforcements or support, and while their dispersed nature meant it was difficult to track them down, likewise it made planning a large scale strategy impossible. Aware of the futility of it all, Transvaaler Louis Botha argued that, “Terms might now be secured which would save the language, our ancient customs and national ideals. The fatal thing would be to secure no terms at all and yet be forced to surrender.”[2] While men like Steyn and de Wet argued for a fight to the bitter end, the majority of Boer leaders were in favour of seeking terms.

Louis Botha. Legendary commander, and pragmatic enough to face the end. Photo credit: Molteno, P.A.
Louis Botha. Legendary commander, and pragmatic enough to face the end. Photo credit: Molteno, P.A.

Under an offer of safe conduct on April 12, 1902, a delegation of Boers met with Kitchener to talk final terms. Proving that even with nothing else they had lost none of their moxy, the first Boer offer asked for an acknowledgement of independence for the South African Republic and Orange Free State. While this was bundled in with concessions like a commercial agreement with the British, Uitlander enfranchisement, and full control of the Rand gold fields, Kitchener’s marvellously bushy eyebrows must have shot clean out of his head. Even if the initial highball offer wasn’t likely to be accepted, Kitchener agreed to wire it back to London anyways. In his view, if the Boers were finally at the table then the end was in sight.[3]

In a compelling inversion of their previous roles, Kitchener’s partner in the negotiations was one of our favorite racist megalomaniacs, Alfred Milner. While Milner had spent the past few months struggling to supply the concentration camps and drop the staggering rate of children’s deaths, he was openly hostile to any terms. Only unconditional surrender was acceptable to Milner, preferably one that banned the Dutch language in the occupied republics. By contrast, Kitchener had spent the entire war pursuing its conclusion with a ruthless abandon for its cost to innocent lives. Yet now that the Boers were present, he switched gears to the more conciliatory half of the negotiating wing. He struck up a personal friendship with some of the Boer delegates, treating them more like an honoured foe than a conquered subject. Even so, as both sides fought with their hardliners, the negotiations in the town of Vereeniging dragged on into May.

The negotiators at Vereeniging. L. R seated: once and future enemies Christiaan de Wet, Louis Botha, and Lord Kitchener himself.
The negotiators at Vereeniging. L. R seated: once and future enemies Christiaan de Wet, Louis Botha, and Lord Kitchener himself.

As with all negotiations, both sides haggled and quibbled over what would make the final text of the treaty. Eventually, and reluctantly, the Boers dropped the call for recognized independence. In return, Kitchener used his formidable influence in formal and back channels to silence Milner’s demands for an imperial conquest of the republics. Under the sketched out treaty, South Africa would be initially administered by the British, but with a path laid out for speedy enfranchisement for the Boers. Dutch was also recognized as an official language, much to Milner’s anglophilic frustration. A sum of about ₤3 million was also thrown in to restock and rebuild the broken republics, along with a promise to pay off the Boer debts from the war as well.

Most telling and frustrating though was the fate of the native African population. While men like Chamberlain and PM Salisbury had claimed to fight this war partially on their behalf, when the chips came down enfranchisement was deferred until the republics were self-governing again. Whether it was said or not, it’s hard to escape a sense that the native population’s fate and rights were simply allowed to die on the negotiating table. Unsurprisingly, both under British administration and subsequently as South Africa, the groundwork for the racial segregation and authoritarian control Apartheid state was laid out.

Jan Smuts, seen in 1947. Together with Louis Botha he helped shape postwar South Africa. This includes his vocal and often hypocritical support for segregation. He is also the only man to sign both the treaties ending the First and Second World Wars. Photo Credit: Dutch National Archives,
Jan Smuts, seen in 1947. Together with Louis Botha he helped shape postwar South Africa. This includes his vocal and often hypocritical support for segregation. He is also the only man to sign both the treaties ending the First and Second World Wars.
Photo Credit: Dutch National Archives,

On May 31, 1902, the final Treaty of Vereeniging was signed.[4] It hadn’t been an easy process for either side. Holdouts like Christiaan de Wet had to be dragged to the paper, and Milner himself was likely pulling on his mustache in a rage. Yet for the majority of Boers, there was an acceptance that the war was over, and they had lost. The final commandos surrendered peacefully to the British by the end of May, and the Second Boer War was brought to a final close.

The cost had been high for both sides. More than 22,000 British soldiers had died in the three year war, half of them from disease and the harsh conditions of the Veld. Financially the war was ruinous, costing more than £ 202,000,000,000 in today’s value, and in 1906 an inverse of the Kakhi booted the conservative government clean out of power. The Boers and their allies had lost more than 9,000 men, again about half that from combat and the other from disease and starvation. Many guerrillas were also coming home to a shattered household, with their homes burned, and their women and children dead in the camps. Taken together the concentration camps had killed close to 28,000 Afrikaner women and children, and at least another 12,000 native Africans who had served or worked for the Boers before the war.

In the initial aftermath of the war, it seemed like the fate of the Afrikaners was to play out like another copy of the British occupation of Ireland. As chief administrator of the region, Alfred Milner filled every bureaucratic position with his Anglican supporters, a club sarcastically dubbed Milner’s Kindergarten. As an added bonus, Dr. Jameson returned and was elected Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1904, leading the only all British cabinet in the colony’s history. Locked out of leading their own country, the Afrikaners initially turned to their own culture and language for solace, and an explosion in Afrikaner writing and poetry began in 1903. However, both sides took steps to defuse this nationalistic powder keg.

Christiaan de Wet surrenders in 1915, after having fled and fought in Namibia. Photo Credit: SANDF document center.
Christiaan de Wet surrenders in 1915, after having fled and fought in Namibia. Photo Credit: SANDF document center.

By 1906 Milner’s term ended, and a more conciliatory British administrator took over, granting self governance to the Transvaal in the same year. With his support, Boer leaders Louis Botha and Jan Smuts began to consciously work towards a more united South Africa. In 1910 the four regional colonies were reformed into the Union of South Africa, eight years to the day after Vereeniging. Louis Botha became its first Prime Minister. In 1914, against the backdrop of World War One, Christiaan de Wet and other holdouts launched their final play at independence. The little-known Maritz Rebellion raised 12,000 men, and was almost immediately quashed by Botha, Smuts, and an Afrikaner army. From then on, there was no questioning which side the Afrikaners were fighting for, and they spearheaded a successful invasion of German Namibia.

The Second Boer War feels like a dark glimpse into what the 20th Century had to offer the human race. In the short term there was the mineral wealth and prosperity that a burgeoning globalization brought, in the longer term the conflict that often follows on the heels of fortune. The industrial scale of death that became the hallmark of repeating rifles, trenches, artillery, and concentration camps showed what war would become. Yet as with the Treaty of Vereeniging, most of those lessons and cautions went unnoticed by the men involved, who wanted to move forward as quickly as they could to get away from the nightmare they had unleashed. It’s a series of mistakes we have repeated too often on scales both large and small.

[1] Steyn had actually been on the lam for the entire time. The effort exhausted him, and he was too sick to sign the final peace treaty when it took shape. The war probably shortened his life immensely, and he died at the age of 58 in 1916.

[2] Cavendish, R. 2002. The Treaty of Vereeniging. History Today. Available at: http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/peace-vereeniging

[3] This wasn’t to say that all fighting was on hold. Throughout April Jan Smuts’ commando laid siege to a copper mine at Okiep. When initial attacks failed, Smuts openly contemplated filling a freight train with explosives and rolling it into the town. In early May the town was relieved by British troops.

[4] Incidentally, Vereeniging was both the name of the town, and translates to “Unity” in Afrikaans.

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