At six o'clock in the morning on the 12th of April the Governments arrived at Pretoria in two separate trains.
The Transvaal Government were quartered in the house of Mr. C. Rooth, adjoining that in which Lord Kitchener lived, while the members of the Free State Government were taken to the residence of Mr. Philippe in Arcadia.
Nothing could surpass the friendliness of the English. Their hospitality left nothing to be desired, and the considerateness of those who had the difficult task to perform was admirable.
Yet with all these signs of politeness, one could not help thinking of what that same nation had done to our wives and children. The English spread for our Governments a table with a menu as good as their commissariat could supply, and at the same moment there were pining away on desolated farms the women and children whose houses they had burnt over their heads.
One thing that impressed me very strongly was the strong desire which the English could not conceal that Peace should be restored. They made no secret of it. This will become more plain in this chapter, when the telegrams exchanged between our Governments and that of the British come to be read.
But what sort of Peace?
It soon became clear from conversations that we had with Major Leggett and other officers, that it was a Peace based upon British conditions. The English officers gave us to understand that it was taken for granted by them that we were now going to negotiate with a Conqueror. The annexation of the two Republics was regarded as an established, irrevocable fact. They constantly spoke of the Orange River Colony. Then they lost no time in informing us shortly after our arrival that Civil Government had been partly restored in the Transvaal, and that since the beginning of the month the High Court at Pretoria had been reopened. They also asked what our leading men would consider the best way in which the farms in the two States could be rebuilt and restocked.
President Steyn and General de Wet answered very curtly, and it became plain to the English officers that it was better not to hold such conversations with the leaders of our people.
With the exception of this, all went smoothly, and were it not that one could always under the garb of politeness perceive an enemy, who had destroyed our country, then certainly we might have looked back upon our stay at Klerksdorp and Pretoria with the pleasantest recollections.
We had not long been in the house in which we were to stay before a message came from Lord Kitchener, that he desired to meet the Governments. A hasty breakfast was eaten, and then the President and General de Wet entered Lord Kitchener's carriage, and the other members of the Executive the carts provided for that purpose, and were conveyed to the house of the Commander-in-Chief. Conducted into a large hall, we found the Transvaalers there already. Lord Kitchener stood on the other side of the hall, and came forward to meet President Steyn. He shook hands with him, as also with the other members of the Government.
Then he stood erect in the attitude of a soldier, and a little general conversation followed. After some moments Lord Kitchener said that the work which had brought the Governments to Pretoria should be commenced, and expressed it as his opinion that, as the negotiations were at first to be conducted in an informal manner, the secretaries should retire. Thereupon these gentlemen left the hall, the doors were closed, everybody sat down at the table, and Lord Kitchener asked who was to begin.
President Steyn answered that Lord Kitchener should. Thereupon Lord Kitchener began. He spoke in the tone of a person who had a grievance. He wished, he said, to say something concerning what he had been reported as having said in June 1901, when he had negotiated with General Louis Botha. In connection with those negotiations, he declared that he had been misrepresented, wrong motives having been imputed to him. It had been said, for instance, that he had contemplated the destruction of the Boers. He could, however, give the assurance that no such thing had ever been his intention. Those who said so greatly misrepresented him. Whether what he said was aimed at General Botha, nobody can say—he mentioned no names. He spoke, however, in the tone of a person who considered that he had been unfairly treated. "But," he suddenly said, "that is past. I only say this because no official minutes are being kept, everything must take place informally and in a friendly manner.... I understand that you have something to propose. This can be done now."
Acting President S. W. Burger then introduced the question. He said that both the Governments had drawn up a proposal at Klerksdorp, and he then proceeded to read the proposal article by article. State-Secretary F. W. Reitz acted as interpreter between the two parties.
Then President Steyn spoke. He thanked Lord Kitchener for the readiness with which he had consented to meet the Governments, and gave the assurance that they were earnestly desirous that the war should cease. He also wished, he said, to make an explanation, and this was with respect to a misunderstanding which the British Government was apparently labouring under in regard to the position of the Deputation in Europe, in relation to the burghers in South Africa. From the correspondence of Lord Lansdowne with the Dutch Government, it seemed as if the Government of His British Majesty were in doubt as to whether the Deputation in Europe still represented the Boers in the field. That they still represented the Boers President Steyn declared was most certainly the case. They still enjoyed the fullest confidence of both Governments. Coming to the matter at issue, the President said that the Governments and the People were very desirous that Peace should be restored. But the Peace that was to be restored should be a lasting one, and that was why the proposals were of the nature the Governments had proposed. They had come there to attain no other object than that for which the People had fought until this moment.
Here Lord Kitchener interrupted President Steyn with a question which seemed to express great astonishment. He drew up his shoulders, threw his head forward to one side, and asked, "Must I understand from what you say that you wish to retain your Independence?"
President Steyn. Yes, the people must not be reduced to such a condition as to lose their self-respect, and be placed in such a position that they will feel themselves degraded in the eyes of the British.
Lord Kitchener. But that could not be; it is impossible for a people that has fought as the Boers have done to lose their self-respect; and it is just as impossible for Englishmen to regard them with contempt. What I would advise you is, that you should submit to the British flag, and should now take the opportunity to obtain the best terms in regard to self-government and other matters.
President Steyn. I would like to know from Your Excellency what sort of self-government it would be? Would it be like that in the Cape Colony?
Lord Kitchener. Yes, precisely so.
President Steyn. I thank Your Excellency. I put the question merely for information.
Lord Kitchener then proceeded to say that one should bear in mind the British Colonists. "The Colonists," he said, "were proud of their own nationality. If anyone, for instance, asked a Colonist in Australia whether he was an Englishman, then his answer would be 'No, I am an Australian.' And yet such a man felt himself to be one with the British nation, and was proud of being a British subject."
President Steyn then said that this comparison would not hold. In the case of English Colonies one had to do with communities which from the beginning had grown up under the British flag, with all the limitations connected therewith. The Colonists had not possessed anything which they had had to surrender, and having had nothing to lose they would have nothing to complain about. In the case of the Boers it was quite different. The Africanders in the two Republics were an independent people. And if that independence were taken away from them they would immediately feel themselves degraded, and a grievance would arise which would necessarily lead to a condition of things similar to that in Ireland. The conditions in Ireland had arisen mainly from the fact that Ireland was a conquered country.
Lord Kitchener replied that Ireland could not serve as a parallel, seeing that it had never had self-government.
To this President Steyn replied that the Irish had self-government, and that in a measure that had never yet been granted to any Colony, seeing that they were represented in the Imperial Parliament. Their power also in this respect was so great that the Irish vote, under a strong man like Parnell, could turn the scale in a Parliamentary question in one way or another.
Lord Kitchener then said that he was himself an Irishman, and therefore better able to judge in regard to Irish affairs. He proceeded to say that what was contemplated by the British Government was self-government for the Boers, preceded by military rule for a certain period. That this military rule as a preliminary measure was indispensable at the commencement of Peace for the establishment and maintenance of law and order; that as soon as this period had elapsed self-government would be substituted for it, and then the Boers could annul any measure or law made by the military authorities. He remarked, however, that he felt sure that much that was good would be called into being by the military government, which they would not desire afterwards to rescind. But the People would have it in their power to decide in every case.
A desultory discussion followed now, and Lord Kitchener urged that the Governments should make a proposal in accordance with what he had suggested; and both the Presidents replied that the Governments, according to the constitutions of the Republics, were not qualified to make any proposal whereby the Independence of the Republics should be touched.
When Lord Kitchener saw that he could make no progress he moved about impatiently in his chair, and said,—again with the same gesture as before: that if the Governments wished he would telegraph their proposal to his Government, but he could guess—he did not know officially what they would do in England, what he said was merely his own opinion,—but he could guess what the answer would be.
The Presidents then expressed their desire that Lord Kitchener should send the proposal that had been made by them; but he thought that it was not desirable to transmit it in the form in which it had been laid before him. He thought it could be drafted in a more acceptable form. Thereupon he took a pencil and roughly drafted the preamble of a telegram. He read it aloud, and asked whether anybody wished to make any remark upon it, in order to make the telegram still more acceptable; and whether they wished to appoint anyone for this purpose. Mr. Reitz was nominated, and the preamble of Lord Kitchener with the points of the proposal (modified, as will be observed) was thus drawn up, approved of by all, and, on the adjournment of the meeting, forwarded to the British Government.
From Lord Kitchener to Secretary of State.
"Pretoria, 12th April 1902.
"... The Boer Representatives wish to lay before His Majesty's Government that they have an earnest desire for peace, and that they have consequently decided to ask the British Government to end hostilities and to enter into an agreement of peace with them. They are prepared to enter into an agreement by which, in their opinion, all future wars between them and the British Government in South Africa will be prevented. They consider this object may be attained by providing for the following points:—
"2. Equal rights for Dutch and English languages in educational matters.
"3. Customs Union.
"4. Dismantling of all forts in Transvaal and Free State.
"5. Post, Telegraph, and Railway Union.
"6. Arbitration in case of future differences, and only subjects of the parties to be the arbitrators.
"7. Mutual amnesty.
"... But if these terms are not satisfactory, they desire to know what terms the British Government would give them in order to secure the end they all desire."
After this conversation with Lord Kitchener the two Governments consulted with each other, and agreed that when they again met the representative of the British Government they would very clearly declare their standpoint, namely, that in the matter of Independence it was the People alone that could constitutionally decide.
Sunday was passed quietly, and divine service was held in the house in which the Free State Government was quartered.
Early on Monday morning, the 14th of April, Lord Kitchener sent to the members of both Governments a copy of the following telegram. He also stated that Lord Milner would take part with him in the conference.
The telegram was as follows:—
From Secretary of State to Lord Kitchener.
"London, 13 April 1902.
"... His Majesty's Government sincerely share the earnest desire of the Boer Representatives, and hope that the present negotiations may lead to that result. But they have already stated in the clearest terms, and must repeat, that they cannot entertain any proposals which are based on the continued Independence of the former Republics which have been formally annexed to the British Crown. It would be well for you and Milner to interview Boer Representatives and explain this. You should encourage them to put forward fresh proposals, excluding Independence, which we shall be glad to receive."
At ten o'clock the members of the Government again assembled in Lord Kitchener's house.
Lord Milner entered the hall after the members of the Government had assembled, and was introduced to the Representatives of the People by Lord Kitchener. He greeted the Presidents as "Mr. Steyn and Mr. Burger." But later, during the conference, he addressed each—was it inadvertently—as President.
It struck me that he had piercing eyes, that apparently strove to penetrate the person on whom they were fixed. Those who had seen him before, said that he had become very thin. He had grown grey, and wrinkles were beginning to show on his forehead. He also looked pale, and he seemed to show signs of fatigue. Before the conference was continued, Lord Milner spoke a few words. He also wished to remove wrong impressions. He declared that it had been said that he was not well disposed towards the Boers. That was incorrect. He could give the assurance that he wished to promote the interests of the Boers; and that he, like themselves, desired peace.
Thereupon Lord Kitchener laid the telegram from the British Government on the table. Without entering into discussion on it, the Presidents pointed out that it was impossible for the two Governments to act in accordance with the desire of the British Government, seeing that, as had already been said on Saturday, they were not qualified to discuss the question of Independence before having consulted the People.
Lord Milner. May I ask if the prisoners-of-war will also be consulted?
President Steyn. Your Excellency surely cannot be in earnest in putting this question?
Lord Milner (in a tone of annoyance). Yes, certainly.
President Steyn. How can the prisoners-of-war be consulted?—they are civilly dead. To mention one practical difficulty: suppose the prisoners should decide that the war should be continued, and the burghers on commando that it should not—what then?—
Lord Kitchener and Lord Milner, seeing the absurdity, laughed aloud. They quite agreed with President Steyn, and admitted that the difficulty raised by him was to the point.
Lord Kitchener, however, wished to call attention to the word "excluding" in the answer of the British Government. He put it that the words "excluding Independence" rendered a discussion, as to Dependence or Independence, superfluous. The question should now be discussed as if Independence were finally excluded; and assuming this, such proposals should be made as it was thought would be acceptable as well for the Boers as for the British Government.
President Steyn then pointed out again that it was beyond the power of the Government to do so. They had no right to make a proposal that even assumed the exclusion of Independence.
Lord Kitchener and Lord Milner here again agreed with the President. Both said at the same time, "We agree—we agree."
Meanwhile it had been urged several times that Lord Kitchener should request his Government to make such proposals as might be regarded as some kind of compensation, and which could, as such, be laid before the People, in case the question of surrendering their Independence were laid before them.
Now this may look as if the Governments were already convinced that our cause was a hopeless one, and that they, being themselves not qualified to surrender the Independence, were only waiting for the decision of the People thereupon. But I know well that the majority at least of the men there did not think so, and that they felt convinced that, if they appealed to the People, the People would with one accord say, "We will retain our Independence, and if England does not agree to this, then we shall go on with the war."
The Representatives of the English Government would not, however, be persuaded that the British Government should make any proposals, and after much discussion Lord Milner said that it appeared to him that they had come to a "Dead-lock."
"It seems so to me too," said Lord Kitchener, "and that is just what I wish to avoid.—Would the gentlemen not," he continued, "first consult about this privately? If so, Lord Milner and I can retire from the room for a while, and the result of your deliberations can, when you are ready, be communicated to us"—
But it was agreed to adjourn till three o'clock in the afternoon.
It is not necessary to relate here the particulars of the private conference which was held. I will only record the resolution that was taken: "The Governments, considering that the People have hitherto fought and sacrificed everything for their Independence, and as they constitutionally have not the power to make any proposal touching Independence, and as the British Government now ask for other proposals from them, which they cannot make without having previously consulted the People, they propose that an armistice be agreed upon to enable them to do so. At the same time they request that a member of the Deputation should come over to them."
At three o'clock they again met the Representatives of the British Government. President Steyn then began by saying (in the spirit of the resolution that had been taken), that the Governments, having taken the reply of the British Government into consideration, had concluded that they could make no proposal on the basis therein suggested; but as they were desirous of seeing Peace restored, they requested (1) that one of our delegates (in Europe) should obtain a safe-conduct to come hither, and that, if it were deemed inadvisable to allow him to return, he might remain somewhere in South Africa, on parole, till the war was over; (2) that an armistice should be agreed upon in order to enable the Governments to consult the People regarding the question of Independence.
Lord Kitchener said, "This comes as a surprise on us!"
The question as to allowing a member of the Deputation to come over was now left unanswered. It had already been discussed in the forenoon, and then Lord Kitchener had said, that it concerned a military question regarding which he had himself to decide, and that he could not grant the request, because it would be an exceptional mode of proceeding to which he could not consent.
As to an armistice, he now also at first said nothing; but after waiting some moments he said, as if the thought had just occurred to him, that it seemed better for him to ask his Government to make proposals which could be regarded as compensation to the Boers for the surrender of their Independence. But this was exactly what the Governments had repeatedly desired of him, and which he, without positively refusing, had ignored. Up to the moment that he made the proposal which he now made, he and Lord Milner had been trying to compromise the Governments, by binding them in one way or other to the surrender of Independence. He now, however, no doubt perceived that there was a risk of the negotiations breaking off, and proposed—as if it had come to him as an inspiration—what the Governments had constantly, but without result, desired of him. What he suggested was of course immediately accepted, and the following telegram, drafted in accordance therewith, was sent by him to his Government:—
From Lord Kitchener to Secretary of State,
"Pretoria, 14th April 1902.
"A difficulty has arisen in getting on with proceedings. The Representatives state that constitutionally they have no power to discuss terms based on the surrender of Independence, inasmuch as only the burghers can agree to such a basis, therefore, if they were to propose terms, it would put them in a false position with regard to their People. If, however, His Majesty's Government could state the terms that, subsequent to a relinquishment of Independence, they would be prepared to grant, the Representatives, after asking for the necessary explanations, without any expression of approval or disapproval, would submit such conditions to their People."
The Governments waited for a reply the whole of Tuesday. On Wednesday the officers—who had been absent from their commandos so long—became impatient, and General de Wet was just about to proceed to Lord Kitchener to inquire if matters could not be expedited, when a letter was received from him saying that an answer from the English Government had been received, acknowledging the receipt of the telegram that had been sent on Monday, and adding that an answer to it would be sent during the course of the day.
But it did not arrive during the day, and the dissatisfaction of the Generals increased. The impatience grew greater, especially when the English gave accounts of a fight that had taken place with the commando of General de la Rey after he had left it, and said that Commandant Potgieter and 43 burghers had fallen. At last, on the following morning, Thursday, the 17th of April, Lord Kitchener invited the members of the Governments once more, and laid before them the following telegram:—
From Secretary of State to Lord Kitchener.
"London, 16th April 1902.
"We have received with considerable surprise the message from the Boer leaders contained in your telegram. The meeting has been arranged at their request, and they must have been aware of our repeated declarations that we could not entertain any proposals based on the renewed Independence of the two South African States. We were therefore entitled to assume that the Boer Representatives had relinquished the idea of Independence and would propose terms of surrender for the forces still in the field. They now state they are constitutionally incompetent to discuss terms which do not include a restoration of Independence, but ask us to inform them what conditions would be granted if, after submitting the matter to their followers, they were to relinquish the demand for Independence.
"This does not seem to us a satisfactory method of proceeding, or one best adapted to secure at the earliest moment a cessation of the hostilities which have involved the loss of so much life and treasure. We are, however, as we have been from the first, anxious to spare the effusion of further blood and to hasten the restoration of peace and prosperity to the countries afflicted by the war, and you and Lord Milner are authorised to refer the Boer leaders to the offer made by you to General Botha more than twelve months ago, and to inform them that although subsequent great reduction in the strength of the forces opposed to us and the additional sacrifices thrown upon us by the refusal of that offer would justify us in proposing far more onerous terms, we are still prepared, in the hope of a permanent peace and reconciliation, to accept a general surrender on the lines of that offer, but with such modifications in details as may be mutually agreed upon."
The conference was not long. Our Governments left the hall to consult with one another. They resolved again to ask Lord Kitchener that a member of our Deputation should be allowed to come over to us, and that an armistice should be agreed to, to enable us to consult the People.
On returning and again making this request, Lord Kitchener without hesitation replied that the Deputation would not be allowed to come. He asked what the good of it would be, as nothing was really happening in Europe that could help the Boers. This, he said, the Governments could see for themselves in the newspapers. He could also give them the assurance of it on his word of honour. He also gave his decision with regard to an armistice. He could not grant it; but he declared that he was willing to do what he could. He was prepared to give the Governments every possible opportunity to enable them to get the votes of the People. He would give the Generals the use for that purpose of the railway and telegraph. They could go to the People, and call them together to meetings where they could ascertain what the burghers thought on the matter in question.
The task of the Governments was for the present completed. All left the hall excepting Generals Botha, De Wet, and De la Rey. These remained to discuss with Lord Kitchener the method of getting about their work. The Generals proposed to Lord Kitchener, and it was accepted by him, that thirty burghers for each Republic—sixty in all—should be chosen by the People at their meetings to express the will of the People. It was also decided that after the sixty representatives had become acquainted with the views of the People, they should acquaint the Governments with the same on the 15th of May 1902, at Vereeniging, in order that they could lay the same before the British Government.
Lord Kitchener also granted an armistice of one day, at the centres where the different meetings were to be held; and further, to those commandos whose chief officers were chosen to represent the People at Vereeniging, as long as these officers should be absent, in order to attend the conference. It was also promised that the Governments would not be interfered with where they waited until the assembly began on the 15th of May at Vereeniging.
In the meanwhile the secretaries had been very busy writing out a document which would explain the whole condition of affairs. This document, to which the correspondence exchanged between Lord Kitchener on behalf of the two Governments and the British Government was appended, was to be given to the officers, to be read by them to the People at their meetings, so as to enable them more easily to decide the question.
On Friday evening, the 18th of April, the Governments left Pretoria. The three Generals and some of the members of the Executive Council went in different directions to do their important work. The other members, to whom no special work had been intrusted, sought a place somewhere, where they could rest quietly and await the result of the voting. What would that be? That question everyone asked with more or less uneasiness, and all thought with anxiety of the future. But not alone did the great importance of our cause weigh heavily upon us. There was something else that disquieted us. President Steyn was very ill. The condition of his eyes, of which I have already spoken, and which had been part of the reason why he had come to the Transvaal, appeared to be of a more serious nature than we had suspected. Dr. W. van der Merwe, of Krugersdorp, had declared that it was a dangerous affection of the nerves, and everyone could see now that it was so. The President gradually became weaker and weaker, and when he took part in the negotiations, it had already become difficult for him to ascend the doorsteps. After the negotiations Dr. van der Merwe advised him strongly not to return to the veld whilst we were waiting for the result of the meetings of the People, and said that his house at Krugersdorp was at his service. But the President, ill as he was, grateful though he was to the kind doctor, said that he could not think of it, because, if he remained at Krugersdorp, this would have a bad influence upon the People; and he resolved to go out again. So he went from Pretoria to Klerksdorp, and from there to Leeuwfontein, six miles from Wolmeranstad. There he remained for a week, and then took up his abode in a half-destroyed house in Wolmeranstad, which he did not leave until we went to Vereeniging.
The long time of rest stood me in good stead. I made use of it to write my notes in connection with the negotiation.