On Friday evening, the 18th of April 1902, the Generals had, as we saw in the foregoing chapter, left Pretoria for the purpose of going through the two Republics and ascertaining what the wish of the People was in regard to the great matter on which the Governments themselves had no power to decide. All went prosperously. The officers who held the meetings were everywhere helped by the English. Rail and telegraph were at their service, and when the 15th of May approached, all the meetings had been held and all the representatives elected.
On the 13th of May all the general officers had been elected, and had left as Representatives of the People for Vereeniging. There was, accordingly, an armistice from that day everywhere in the two States for the burghers under the command of such officers.
Together with President Steyn I set out for Vereeniging. On the way thither he became gradually weaker, and when on the 14th of May we arrived at Klerksdorp he could no longer dismount from his spider without assistance. He could no longer walk without leaning on someone for support.
We went into the train immediately on our arrival at Klerksdorp, and the journey began that same evening. The following morning we reached Vereeniging. A thick mist covered the ground, and it was cold. There was therefore nothing in Nature to cheer one, or to give a good omen for the great work that lay before the Representatives of the People.
We were immediately conducted to the camp that had been prepared for the Delegates, and we found that almost all the Representatives of both the States had already arrived there. How pleasant it was to meet friends and acquaintances from all parts. They had much to relate about what had occurred since we had spoken to each other last, and we could also tell much about our own experiences. Although they had arrived in the camp only a little before us, they had the manner of people who knew more about things than new arrivals, and took a pardonable pleasure in instructing us as to the topography of the camp. We learned that tents had been pitched for the Free State Representatives in the south-east portion of the camp, and for those of the Transvaal in the north-west. In the middle between the two "States" there was a large tent, where the meetings were to be held.
Everything was arranged with the object of making it as pleasant as possible for the deputies. There was, we soon found, nothing to complain of. The friendliness of the English left nothing to desire. The English officers who had charge of the Delegates attended to every request and granted everything that was asked, if it was in their power. Nothing was wanting that could, under the circumstances, be provided.
After breakfast, the Governments held a preliminary meeting in the tent of President Steyn. It may well be imagined what the feelings of everyone were at seeing the rapid decline that had taken place in the health of the great leader. There was this strong man, seized in the iron grasp of an inexorable malady, and it seemed as if within a short month he had grown many years older. But his intellect was as clear and as strong as ever, and his courage still greater than before. When he spoke there was not the slightest sign of despondency in his words, and his strong personality still, as in his best days, commanded respect. But his body—his body had been stricken; and while the unconquerable spirit was willing, the poor instrument of flesh and blood was unable to accomplish.
Words of heartfelt sympathy were spoken, or a silent pressure of the hand was given. The Governments had met to make some preliminary arrangements before the Delegates should meet. First a decision was taken as to the oath which the deputies should take; and then the commission which the Delegates had received from the People was discussed. It appeared that at the meetings held by General L. Botha and most of the Transvaal officers, and at those held in the Orange Free State by Judge Hertzog, the Delegates had been fully empowered to act on behalf of the People according to circumstances, and even to come to a final decision. On the other hand, at the meetings held by General de Wet in the Free State and by General de la Rey in the South African Republic, the People had given to their Delegates a fixed and limited authority, whatever else might be decided, in no case to relinquish the independence of the States. The question was now raised, whether representatives with such conflicting commissions could be lawfully constituted an assembly, and the assembly to pass resolutions as to matters treating of a final decision. The discussion of this question threatened to take up too much time, and the Governments resolved to leave this point to the decision of the Delegates themselves.
At eleven o'clock there assembled in the large tent the following Representatives of the People, who took the oath and signed it:—
For the South African Republic.
H. A. Alberts, General, Heidelberg. J. J. Alberts, Commandant, Standerton and Wakkerstroom. J. F. de Beer, Commandant, Bloemhof. C. F. Beyers, Assistant Commandant-General, Waterberg. C. Birkenstock, burgher, Vryheid. H. J. Bosman, Landdrost, Wakkerstroom. Chris Botha, Assistant Commandant-General, Swazieland, State Artillery. B. H. Breytenbach, Field-Cornet, Utrecht. C. J. Brits, General, Standerton. J. G. Cilliers, General, Lichtenburg. J. de Clercq, Assistant Commandant, burgher, Middelburg. T. A. Dönges, Field-Cornet, of the town of Heidelberg and bodyguard to the Government. H. S. Grobler, Commandant, Bethal. J. L. Grobler, burgher, Carolina. J. N. H. Grobler, General, Ermelo. B. T. J. van Heerden, Field-Cornet, Rustenburg. J. F. Jordaan, Commandant, Vryheid. J. Kemp, General, Krugersdorp. P. J. Liebenberg, General, Potchefstroom. C. H. Muller, General, Boksburg. J. F. Naudé, burgher of Pretoria, with flying commando of General Kemp. D. J. E. Opperman, Field-Cornet, Pretoria South. B. J. Roos, Field-Cornet, Piet-Retief. P. D. Roux, Field-Cornet, Marico. D. J. Schoeman, Commandant, Lydenburg. F. C. Stoffberg, Acting Landdrost, Zoutpansberg. S. P. Du Toit, General, Wolmeranstad. P. L. Uys, Commandant, Pretoria North. P. R. Viljoen, burgher, Heidelberg. M. J. Viljoen, Commandant, Witwatersrand.
For the Orange Free State.
C. C. F. Badenhorst, Assistant Chief-Commandant, Boshof and Hoopstad, western portion of Bloemfontein, Winburg, and Kroonstad. A. J. Bester, Commandant, Bethlehem. A. J. Bester, Commandant, Bloemfontein. L. P. H. Botha, Commandant, Harrismith. G. A. Brand, Assistant Chief-Commandant, Bethulie, Caledon River, Rouxville, Wepener, and eastern portion of Bloemfontein. H. J. Bruwer, Commandant, Bethlehem. D. H. van Coller, Commandant, Heilbron. F. R. Cronje, Commandant, Winburg. D. F. H. Flemming, Commandant, Hoopstad. C. C. Froneman, Assistant Chief-Commandant, Winburg and Ladybrand. F. J. W. J. Hattingh, Assistant Chief-Commandant, eastern part of Kroonstad and Heilbron. J. A. M. Hertzog, Commandant, Philippolis. J. N. Jacobs, Commandant, Boshof. F. P. Jacobsz, Commandant, Harrismith. A. J. de Kock, Commandant, Vrede. J. J. Koen, Commandant, Ladybrand. H. J. Kritzingen, Field-Cornet, Kroonstad. F. E. Mentz, Commandant, Heilbron. J. A. P. van der Merve, Commandant, Heilbron. C. A. van Niekerk, Commandant, Kroonstad. H. van Niekek, Commandant of bodyguard to President Steyn. J. J. van Niekerk, Commandant, Ficksburg. J. K. Nieuwoudt, Assistant Chief-Commandant, Philippolis, Fauresmith, Jacobsdal, and a portion of Bloemfontein. H. P. J. Pretorius, Commandant, Jacobsdal. A. M. Prinsloo, Assistant Chief-Commandant, Bethlehem and Ficksburg. L. J. Rautenbach, Commandant, Bethlehem. F. J. Rheeder, Commandant, Rouxville. A. Ross, Commandant, Vrede. P. W. de Vos, Commandant, Kroonstad. W. J. Wessels, Assistant Chief-Commandant, Harrismith and Vrede.
The Representatives chose General C. F. Beyers as chairman; and as secretaries, Mr. D. E. van Velden, Minute-keeper of the Government of the South African Republic, and the Rev. J. D. Kestell, Acting Secretary of the Executive Council of the Orange Free State.
The chairman asked the Rev. J. D. Kestell to open the proceedings with prayer, and then Acting President S. W. Burger declared the meeting to be legally constituted. Thereupon the meeting was adjourned.
In the afternoon the Delegates met at three o'clock. Before beginning the discussion of the important subjects, the chairman said it would be well if the Acting President of the South African Republic were first to address some words of explanation to serve as a guide to the meeting.
Acting President Burger then addressed the meeting, and explained, as already stated earlier in this book, that it was the correspondence between Holland and England that had brought about, first a meeting between both the Governments at Klerksdorp, and subsequently a meeting with Lord Kitchener and Lord Milner at Pretoria. The presence of the Delegates at Vereeniging at that moment had resulted from the fact, that when it appeared that the British Government insisted on the surrender of Independence the two Governments had declared that it was beyond their power constitutionally to enter into discussions on that point; of that the People alone could treat. Thereupon both Governments had made arrangements with Lord Kitchener to proceed to the People and hear what they desired. The People had elected representatives, and these were now assembled at Vereeniging to inform the Governments what the will of the People was. President Burger then proceeded to state that the English Government would not entertain the idea of Independence for the two Republics, and that the Delegates there present should bear this in mind; they would have to give information as to the condition of the country, and to decide whether, bearing that condition in mind, the struggle could still be continued. Whether the destruction of the entire nation would not be the result of continuing the war, and whether it would be right to do this. He then referred to the question which had arisen as to the qualification of the members to sit together in conference and to decide upon questions, seeing that some Delegates had received full powers to act, whilst others had only a limited commission, which bound them to a certain course of action. He trusted, however, that this would place no insurmountable obstacle in the way. Finally he expressed the hope that they would bear with one another, and warned the members against divided counsels.
Thereupon the chairman asked General L. Botha to address the meeting. The General replied that he did not see his way to doing this, since the question as to the powers of the Delegates was not yet clear to him. It was then that Judge J. B. M. Hertzog explained that a Representative of the People, from a legal point of view, could not be regarded as a mere agent or mouthpiece of his constituents; but that he, in matters of a public nature, held a general power with the right of acting according to his convictions, whatever might be the special injunction that had been laid upon him by the constituents. General J. C. Smuts, State-Attorney of the South African Republic, was of the same opinion.
This satisfied the Commandant-General, and he commenced with a general statement as to the condition of his commandos. General de Wet and also General de la Rey addressed the meeting. They stated, however, that they were purposely brief, because the making of formal reports should be left to the Delegates themselves.
The Representatives then addressed the meeting, and the first and a part of the second day were spent in the hearing of reports. The Delegates spoke till late at night, for they desired not to lose any time. From the reports of the members of the meeting it was evident that the condition of the country was miserable. There were no less than fourteen districts of the Transvaal that had become so exhausted that the commandos would no longer be able to continue in them. Food had become exceedingly scarce everywhere, and in some parts the burghers were dependent solely on the Kaffirs for their supplies. Everywhere the "horse sickness" was causing great uneasiness, and the number of those who had to go on foot was daily increasing. Special reference was made to the distress caused by the sad fate of the women, who were still found in greater and smaller numbers in different parts of the two States. They often suffered great want, and were constantly exposed to dangers at times when their husbands could afford them no assistance.
In the Orange Free State matters were somewhat more favourable.
It was true that some portions of this country were exhausted; but in general the Delegates from there thought that the war could still be continued for six months or a year. Still, there were some who related sad facts and who were not silent as to the sufferings of the women in that Republic. On the second morning this resolution was adopted:—
"That the Governments be requested through Lord Kitchener, to thank His Majesty the King of England and Her Majesty the Queen of Holland for their interposition in connection with the bringing about of peace negotiations, as appears from the correspondence between the said Governments, and to express their regret that His Majesty's Government had not adopted the suggestion of Her Majesty's Government, to give our Delegates in Europe, who still possess our fullest confidence, the opportunity of coming to the Republics, and also that Lord Kitchener has refused to accede to a similar request made by our Governments."
After this resolution had been adopted by the meeting, almost all the Delegates had given their reports on the condition of both States. The chairman then caused the letter, together with its annexures, which had been addressed by the Governments from Pretoria to the burghers in the veld, to be read. After that it became the duty of the Delegates to consider what was to be done.
In the letter sent by the Governments at Pretoria to the burghers it was stated that the British Government still adhered to the same proposals that they had made to General L. Botha at Middelburg on the 7th of March 1901. The British Government demanded that a general surrender should first take place, and if that were done they would grant the Boers certain privileges, and as soon as possible Self-Government.
The question now before the meeting was, whether the Representatives would accept this proposal of England, or—reject it and continue the war?
It was immediately evident that the meeting was, to express myself so, divided into two camps: the one forced to the conviction, that it was no longer possible to resist the inevitable; the other holding that the end had not yet come, and that, if England would negotiate upon no other basis than that which insisted upon the surrender of Independence, the war ought to be continued.
The Free State Delegates, with the exception of two or three, were with one accord of the latter opinion, whilst the majority of the whole assembly were convinced of the opposite. Among the Transvaalers there were some who had come to the meeting with the motto, "Independence, or else fight on!" But these, with the exception of six, came to the conclusion during the discussion that it was their duty for the sake of others to modify their views.
The reasons for ending the struggle, which were given by those Delegates who now declared that it could no longer be proceeded with, were more particularly the following:—
The country was, as already briefly indicated above, so devastated and exhausted by the burning and destruction of farms and villages, the removal of all cattle and sheep, the ruthless slaying of sheep, and destruction of grain of all sorts, that we were standing upon the threshold of a famine. It was further pointed out that horses were becoming more and more scarce, and what would the burghers signify without horses?
But it was the condition of the women, above all, that went to their hearts. The condition of the women was most pitiable. They were almost naked and suffered from hunger. They were exposed to dangers just at the times when the men had to retire before overwhelming odds, and thus had no protection just when they stood most in need of it. It was also shown that the commandos were becoming weaker and weaker, and that if in the future matters took the same course as in the past, nothing remained for us but certain destruction. Acting President Burger and Commandant-General Botha spoke in this strain. The former warned the leaders that they should not continue the war merely for the sake of their own honour, and that they had no right to sacrifice a nation to their own ambition. The latter said that he was not thinking of himself, when he declared that they could not continue the struggle. He himself could still go on, for his family was provided for. He had horses too; he wanted nothing. Besides, it was his earnest desire to continue the war. But he dared not think of himself only. Constantly the question arose in his mind, what would become of the People? and without intermission, a voice spoke within him that it was his duty now, whilst it was yet possible, to do the best he could for his People. He also referred to the fact that it had been repeatedly declared that we should continue to the "bitter end." He would ask where that bitter end was? Would it be reached when the last man lay in his grave or had been banished, or had it been reached when the nation had striven until it could do so no longer? General de la Rey, too, spoke in the same spirit. He could still continue, he declared. His commandos were still able to continue the struggle, but this many others could not do—and if all could not do it, then a portion could not. From all that he had heard at the meeting he had come to the mournful conclusion that the war should be discontinued. He also referred to what had been said as to enduring to the end. "Fight to the bitter end?" he asked, addressing the meeting,—"do you say that? But has the bitter end not come? Each one of you must decide that question for himself."
With regard to the expectations we had of the Cape Colony, these evaporated when General Smuts said that there was no possibility in the Cape Colony of a general revolt. He declared that everything possible had been done there. The Colonists could not have done more than they had done, but a general rising was, for various reasons, impossible. If, therefore, a reason for continuing the struggle in the Republics themselves did not exist any longer, it would be idle to go and seek it in the Cape Colony.
The Delegates on the other side did not deny that the condition of things was appalling, and that there was great distress everywhere; that especially the sufferings of the women were so great that one could not think of it without danger of becoming weak and despondent, and that there were large portions of the country that had become entirely exhausted. But it was argued that this was also the case, or at least had been said to be the case, a year ago, when General Smuts, the State-Attorney, had in his telegram to our Deputation in Europe described the condition of the country as being most dreadful. Then also it had been said by many that through want of ammunition, and of other things absolutely necessary for the continuance of the war, we could fight no longer; and yet the struggle had been continued after that for twelve months.
With respect to what had been said concerning the districts which would have to be abandoned, it was urged that in the Free State there were portions which had been entirely destroyed and consequently abandoned; but these had nevertheless later on been again inhabited and supplied with cattle. And then it was asked, whether the war had not been begun in faith, and whether it could not be carried through in the same faith?
General de Wet spoke in this strain. He pointed with earnestness to the fact that times of depression had been surmounted in the past, and that they should be surmounted again. If there were those who could not provide for themselves, then it was the duty of the meeting to do so for them, and to continue the war.
Referring to the charge made by some, that those who wished to continue the war did not take facts into consideration, he said that he had nothing to do with facts, it was a war of faith; he had to concern himself with a fact only when he had to clear it out of the way.
And yet, it was these facts that were constantly being pointed at. They were declared to be insurmountable. Many advised those who wished to continue the war, to consult not only their hearts but their common sense, and if they did this they would see what God's purpose with us in this war was. One Delegate said that the war had been commenced with prayer and with the Mauser, and, he asked, what had been God's answer to this prayer? "Can you not see," he continued, "that the hand of God is stretched out against us?"
The Middleburg proposals then were before the meeting. The question now was, what the meeting was going to do in regard to those proposals? It was soon evident that the Delegates were not prepared to accept them, and were of opinion that before deciding another endeavour should be made to see whether the British Government was not inclined to conclude peace upon some other basis, a basis which would not exclude the Independence of the two States. It had, however, become plain to all that, as matters then stood, the People could not expect to have the same measure of Independence which they had enjoyed before the war, and the Delegates felt that they would have to concede and surrender much. The State-Secretary, Mr. F. W. Reitz, had suggested what might be surrendered. We could, he said, agree to the surrender of a portion of our territory—the goldfields and Zwasieland, for instance. We could relinquish our foreign policy. We could even agree to an English protectorate. There were those who were opposed to this idea, yet it seemed that Mr. Reitz's view was in accordance with the sentiments of the meeting, and several members expressed themselves to the same effect.
I have now briefly summed up, and arranged in order, what was discussed by the Representatives of the People at Vereeniging. I have now in this chapter only to add that on the third day of the meeting, on Saturday, 17th May, two resolutions were adopted. The first empowered both Governments to conclude peace on this basis:—
The retention of a limited Independence, with the power to offer, over and above what had already been offered, by both Governments in their negotiations of 15th April 1902—
1. The relinquishment of foreign relations and embassies.
2. The acceptance of the protectorate of Great Britain.
3. The surrender of a portion of the territory of the South African Republic.
4. The conclusion of a defensive treaty with Great Britain with regard to South Africa.
The second proposal authorised the Governments to appoint a commission to negotiate with Lord Kitchener on any subject that might lead to a satisfactory peace, and to submit, through the Governments, the result of their labours to the meeting for ratification.
Shortly after these two resolutions had been agreed to the meeting was closed with prayer, and adjourned until the report of the commission was handed in.
Immediately after the close of the meeting the Governments met in the tents of President Steyn, who had been too weak to be present except at two of the sessions, and they nominated the Generals L. Botha, C. R. de Wet, J. H. de la Rey, J. C. Smuts, and Judge J. B. M. Hertzog as the commission to negotiate at Pretoria. The following day a service was held in the large tent, and those present were addressed on the striking words of Paul: "I am not speaking falsely, and my conscience, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, bears me out when I say that I am greatly pained, and that my heart is never free from sorrow. I could wish that I were accursed, and severed from the Christ, for the sake of my brothers—my own countrymen" (Rom. ix. 1-3).—The Twentieth Century New Testament.
In alluding to this divine service, I may also note that every morning a prayer-meeting, and every evening a short service, was held during the whole time that the Representatives of the People were at Vereeniging; and thus the People remained faithful to the last to that spirit which since and before the days of Sarel Celliers had inspired the Africander nation. The God of their fathers was not forgotten. Their posterity also said of that Lord, "God is our refuge and our strength." In the afternoon the Governments received a reply from Lord Kitchener and Lord Milner that the request of the Delegates for a conference was acceded to, and that the commission could come to Pretoria.
The commission left about sunset, and arrived at Pretoria at about nine o'clock.