"Will this lead to peace?" the burghers asked one another, when, on 27th March, the news spread through the commandos that there were messengers from Acting President Schalk Burger seeking President Steyn. The messengers, it was said, had a safe-conduct from Lord Kitchener, and were provided with horses and rations by the English in order to be able to travel rapidly.
I got all the particulars when I returned to the laager of the President on the following morning (Good Friday). Our Government had received an invitation from the Government of the South African Republic to meet them in order to discuss the question of whether a proposal of peace could not be made to England.
This invitation of the Transvaal Government was the result of Lord Kitchener's having sent, on behalf of his Government, to President Burger on the 4th of March a copy of the correspondence of 25th to 29th January between Holland and England.
Baron Gerické had asked the British Government whether the Netherlands Government could not act as intermediary between England and the Boers in the field. The Netherlands Government considered themselves justified in making this request, as exceptional circumstances prevented the Boers in the field from treating directly with the British Government through their representatives in Europe. They therefore declared themselves willing, if England consented, to act as a third party, and to ask the Boer Deputation if they were willing to go to South Africa with a safe-conduct from England to discuss matters with the Boers, and then return to Europe with full powers to make a treaty of peace, which would be binding in Europe as well as in Africa.
Lord Lansdowne had replied that, although the British Government appreciated the philanthropic motives of Holland, they adhered to their decision not to accept foreign intervention. It was open, however, to the Boer Deputation to lay a request for a safe-conduct before the British Government, but that the Government could not decide on the matter before knowing what the nature of such request was and the grounds on which it was made. Lord Lansdowne had said that it was not clear to the British Government whether the Deputation had still any influence with the Boer representatives in South Africa; and that the British Government was of opinion that all powers of government, including that of negotiation, were vested in President Steyn for the Boers in the Orange Free State, and Acting President Burger for those in the South African Republic. He considered that the most speedy and satisfactory manner in which a settlement could be arrived at would be by direct negotiation between the Boer leaders in South Africa and the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces, who had already been instructed to forward immediately any offers he might receive to the British Government. It had been said finally that the British Government had decided that if the Boers in South Africa wished to negotiate, negotiations had to be conducted in South Africa and not in Europe; for at least three months would elapse if the Deputation went to South Africa, and thereby hostilities would be protracted, and much further suffering would be caused.
On receipt of the copy of this correspondence, Acting President Burger had asked Lord Kitchener for a safe-conduct for himself and the members of his Government in order to meet President Steyn and the Executive Council of the Orange Free State, and to discuss a proposal of peace with them. Lord Kitchener had immediately granted him the safe-conduct, and the Transvaal Government had proceeded by rail to Kroonstad, as they considered that town, according to information received from Lord Kitchener as to where President Steyn was presumed to be, the spot from which they could most easily come into touch with the Free State Government.
Messages were sent from Kroonstad to search for President Steyn. They found him at Roodewal, district Lichtenburg, and handed him the letter of Acting President Burger.
The letter contained a request for a meeting, for the purpose above mentioned. President Steyn replied that he considered Klerksdorp, Potchefstroom, or a spot in the neighbourhood of these towns, as the best adapted for holding the conference.
While waiting for an answer to this letter, a fight took place between the commandos of General de la Rey and the English at Brakspruit, not far from Roodewal. Here the English experienced once more what it meant to be bombarded. No advantage was gained on either side, but the English forces were arrested in their progress and retired to Van Tender's farm.
A letter from Lord Kitchener reached President Steyn at Weltevrede on April the 5th, containing Acting President Burger's answer, and a safe-conduct from the English Commander-in-Chief for the Government of the Orange Free State to Klerksdorp and back.
On the 7th our Executive Council started, accompanied by General de la Rey, who had been summoned by his Government, as one of the members, to take part in the negotiations, and we arrived at Klerksdorp at twelve o'clock on the 9th.
President Steyn was received by Major E. H. M. Leggett, and quartered in the Old Town. We heard that the Transvaal Government were already in Klerksdorp, and that they had quarters in the New Town. The two Governments were thus separated, excepting during the time they conferred together. This was the case afterwards, at Pretoria also.
We had hardly entered the house when the sounds of a bagpipe fell on our ears, and soon a detachment of about twenty Highlanders, under the command of Lieutenant Burn, marched up to the house.
"This is a guard-of-honour for the President," said Major Leggett, who had been charged to look after the Free State Government. "It was," he said, "most annoying to be snapshotted and stared at by a gaping crowd."
The President appreciated, of course, the honour, but it was clear to us that the "guard-of-honour" was to keep an eye not only on intruders from outside, but also upon us, so that no one from within should find his way out. Indeed, it soon appeared that we were not allowed to go farther than the boundaries of the plot of ground on which the house stood, and if one wished to go anywhere farther one was always accompanied by one of the military. But we did not take this amiss. It was war, and we were inside the English lines.
No one could complain of the treatment of the English. The President was made as comfortable as possible, and all respect due to his position was shown him.
We were allowed to buy clothes, and when we met the Transvaalers that afternoon we heard that some of them had written letters to their wives, and had received answers. President Steyn, in view of his serious indisposition, also availed himself of the opportunity afforded him, and wrote to Mrs. Steyn from Pretoria, acquainting her with the state of his health.
At three o'clock on the afternoon of our arrival the two Governments assembled in a large tent erected between the Old and New Towns.
There were present—from the South-African Republic: The Acting President, S. W. Burger, Commandant-General Louis Botha, State-Secretary F. W. Reitz, General de la Rey, and Ex-Generals L. G. Meyer and G. C. Krogh, also the State-Attorney, Mr. L. Jacobsz.
From the Orange Free State: The State President, M. T. Steyn, General de Wet, Acting State-Secretary W. J. C. Brebner, Judge J. B. M. Hertzog, and General C. H. Olivier.
For the Transvaal Mr. D. van Velden acted as secretary of the Executive Council, and the Rev. J. D. Kestell as acting-secretary for the Free State Executive Council.
There were also present the advocates J. Ferreira (State-Attorney for the western district of the South African Republic) and N. de Wet (secretary of Commandant-General L. Botha). Mr. B. J. du Plessis was also present as private secretary to President Steyn. The Acting President of the Transvaal delivered a short address of welcome to the President and Executive Council of the Orange Free State, and asked the Rev. J. D. Kestell to open the proceedings with prayer. He thereupon explained the circumstances which had led up to the meeting of the two Governments.
He said that he and his Government considered the forwarding by the British Government of a copy of the correspondence between it and the Government of Holland as an invitation made by England to the two Republics to discuss the question of peace. Viewing the action of England in this light, he had requested a safe-conduct from Lord Kitchener to be enabled to meet the President and Executive of the Orange Free State, in order to have a conference with them, and, if possible, to co-operate with them in drawing up a peace proposal to be laid before the British Government. Before, however, they proceeded to discuss the question, it was necessary, he thought, to hear particulars of the conditions under which the war was being carried on, and he thought that the general officers present should address the meeting.
As it was decided not to hold minutes, I shall merely state that Commandant-General Louis Botha, Chief-Commandant de Wet, and Assistant Commandant General de la Rey addressed the meeting, giving an account of the state of the country and of the numbers and condition of the commandos. Several other members of the Government spoke.
The next day the following resolution was agreed to:—
"The Governments of the South African Republic and Orange Free State, having met in consequence of Lord Kitchener's having sent the correspondence exchanged between the Government of His Majesty the King of England and Her Majesty the Queen of Holland, concerning the desirability of giving the Governments of these Republics the opportunity of communicating with their authorised envoys in Europe, in whom both Governments have all along had the greatest confidence;
"Having marked the conciliatory spirit which appears therein on the part of His Britannic Majesty, as well as the desire expressed therein by Lord Lansdowne in the name of his Government, to put an end to this struggle;
"Are of opinion that it is now a suitable moment to show their willingness to do all in their power to put an end to the war.
"And therefore decide to lay certain propositions before Lord Kitchener, as the representative of His Britannic Majesty's Government, which may serve as a basis for further negotiations to bring about the wished-for peace.
"Furthermore, it is the opinion of both Governments, in order to hasten the attainment of the desired end, and to avoid as much misconception as possible, that his Excellency Lord Kitchener be requested to meet these Governments in person at a time and place fixed by him, in order that the Governments may lay peace-proposals directly before him, which they are prepared to do, and thus to solve all difficulties which may exist by direct verbal communication with him, and thus make sure that this conference will bear the wished-for fruits."
A letter signed by the two Presidents enclosing this proposition was written during the meeting, and despatched to Lord Kitchener. The meeting then adjourned till the afternoon, when much was said about the proposals to be made to Lord Kitchener.
Finally, at the instance of General de la Rey, seconded by Mr. L. Jacobsz, the drafting of a proposal was relegated to a commission.
This commission handed in the following report, which was accepted by the meeting:—
"The commission, having taken into consideration the desire of this meeting to draw up a proposal (in connection with the letter sent yesterday by both Presidents to his Excellency Lord Kitchener), with a view to a conference with Lord Kitchener, suggests the following points:—
"1. The making of an enduring treaty of friendship and peace, by which is understood—
(a) Arrangement of Customs Union.
(b) Postal, Telegraphic, and Railway Union.
(c) Fixing of the Franchise.
"2. Dismantling of all forts belonging to the State.
"3. Arbitration in future disagreements between the contracting parties, the arbitrators to be chosen by both parties, in equal numbers from their subjects. With a final arbitrator to be chosen by the appointed arbitrators.
"4. Equal rights in regard to education in both the English and Dutch languages.
"5. Mutual amnesty."
Messrs. Krogh, L. Jacobsz, Judge Hertzog, and Commandant-General Louis Botha then addressed the meeting.
Shortly after General Botha had concluded his speech, General Wilson came to the tent and brought a message from Lord Kitchener saying that he was willing to meet the Governments at Pretoria. General Wilson also stated that arrangements would be immediately made for the railway journey, and that the Presidents and their Executives could start for Pretoria in the evening.