That same evening, the 28th of May, the commission returned to Vereeniging, and the following morning a meeting of both Governments was held in the tent of President Steyn to hear the report of the five men. The commission read the following letter:—
To the Honourable Governments of The Orange Free State and the South African Republic.
"Pretoria, 28th May 1902.
"Honourable Sirs,—In accordance with our commission from both Governments to proceed to Pretoria for the purpose of negotiating with the British authorities on the question of peace, we have the honour to report as follows: The sessions lasted from Monday the 19th May till Wednesday the 28th May, and the delay was chiefly caused by the long time which had to be given to the cable correspondence with the British Government. First of all, we submitted a proposal in which we endeavoured to negotiate on the basis of a limited Independence, with the surrender of a portion of our territory. Lord Kitchener and Lord Milner positively refused to negotiate upon this basis, and informed us that if this proposal were telegraphed to the British Government it would be detrimental to the negotiations. At the same time we were informed that, as already stated to the two Governments, the British Government was only prepared to negotiate on the basis of the Middleburg proposal, with minor modifications. In order to throw this proposal into a final shape, Lord Milner asked the assistance of some members of the commission; and this was agreed to, on the understanding that the help of these members should be given without prejudice.
"As the result of the labours of this sub-committee, Lord Milner laid on the table a draft proposal to which we insisted that the new article should be added, which was agreed to (No. 11). This draft proposal was then telegraphed to the British Government, and was by them altered into a final form, which was communicated to us. This final proposal is annexed hereunto. We were also informed on the part of the British Government that this proposal could not be further altered, but had to be either adopted or rejected as it stood by the Delegates of both Republics: at the same time we were informed, that this adoption or rejection had to take place within a fixed time. We thereupon told Lord Kitchener that this final decision would be communicated to him not later than Saturday evening next (the 31st of May).
"During the formal negotiations some informal discussions also took place regarding the British subjects in the Cape Colony and Natal, who have fought on our side. As the result of these informal discussions, a communication was made to us by the British Government, which we annex hereunto.—We have the honour to be your Honours' obedient servants,
"Louis Botha. J. H. de la Rey. C. R. de Wet. J. B. M. Hertzog. J. C. Smuts."
That the Governments were greatly disappointed it is needless to say, that they did not say much may be well imagined. Still, questions were asked as to the meaning of conditions that appeared to require explanation, and these were answered by the commission to the best of their ability.
President Steyn made a few remarks, and pointed out how objectionable the proposal was. He expressed himself strongly against the acceptance of it.
General de la Rey pointed out that the Representatives of the People should have to choose one of these three ways out of the difficulty: (1) To continue the struggle; or (2) To accept the proposal of the British Government; or (3) Unconditional surrender.
Hereupon President Steyn remarked that there was still a fourth: viz. To insist upon our cause being decided in Europe by persons empowered, and sent thither by us.
"But," he added in a sad tone, "I am like one who had been wounded to death. I can no longer take part in the struggle, and have therefore perhaps no right to speak any more. To-day I must, on account of my serious illness, resign my position, and now the matter is in your hands and in those of the Representatives of the People!"
It was a hard thing to hear those words: "I am as one who has been wounded to death." Our hearts were broken at the thought that the President could not wield the sword. He had in the long and dreadful struggle lived each day on the very summit of determination and of courage. Never, not even when he saw that his bodily strength was rapidly failing, had he shown the slightest sign of discouragement.
And now he could no longer take part in the struggle. Many things in this war had weighed heavily upon us; but the fate of President Steyn broke our hearts.
Having conversed together some moments longer, the Governments proceeded to the tent of assembly, and there laid the letter of the commission before the Delegates.
It was a blow for these Representatives of the People, a blow which, though it did not come unexpectedly, was nevertheless overwhelming. It stunned them like the thunder-clap which, expected from moment to moment, at last explodes.
The clouds lowered, and their sombre shadow lay upon the meeting until the end of the discussions.
In the first place, the commission was asked for explanations regarding the various articles of the British proposal, to which "Yes" or "No" was now to be the answer. It was as if they were seeking for something in the proposal that could not be found there.
There were all sorts of conditions in it, but all were on one condition: The Republics must surrender their Independence!
During the adjournment in the afternoon the Free State Delegates met in the tent of General de Wet to accept there the resignation of President Steyn. They received a letter from him, in which he said that he was obliged to do this on account of his serious illness. He further stated that, according to a law which gave him that power, he had appointed General C. R. de Wet as Acting State President.
Just when the letter had been read and discussed, something happened in the tent that drew the heart of the Free Stater closer to that of the Transvaaler than before. Acting President Burger gave, on behalf of his Government to the Government of the Orange Free State, a sum of money—not so much, he said, as they would have desired—for the use of President Steyn. All were moved, and Judge Hertzog expressed the feelings of all when accepting the gift, as chairman, he said that they were deeply touched by the thoughtfulness of the Transvaalers, and that their deed afforded a new proof of our indissoluble union.
Shortly before three o'clock horses were harnessed to the vehicle of President Steyn, and accompanied by Dr. van der Merwe he got into it. Dr. van der Merwe was now going to take him to his own house at Krugersdorp, and there to take further charge of him. And here I must not let the opportunity pass without bearing witness to the unselfishness and self-sacrifice of this doctor. Everyone appreciated what he had done for the President, and I feel assured that the Africander nation will bear it in thankful remembrance.
The President said farewell to those who loved him, and rode away. I sat writing in another tent on some business of his, and did not see him depart.
The carriage rolled away, and I had not said farewell to him. I could not let him go without a last pressure of the hand. I ran after the vehicle. The guards stopped it, and so I could reach him. I grasped the hand of the sick man. I still see him as he sat in his carriage. He looked to me like the personification of all that was noble, of all that was heroic: a man who for a great idea could sacrifice all.
I feel the pressure of his hand yet, I still hear his words, but how he looked, and what he spoke, I may not, and what passed through my heart, I cannot set down here.
The carriage drove away.
The curtain had fallen upon a tragedy: Martinus Theunis Steyn had disappeared from the scene.
It was as if an arrow had gone through my heart.
I went to the tent of assembly. I listened to the words of the Delegates, and mechanically made notes of what was said; but my heart was elsewhere. It was with the man who had striven as few could, and who was now being carried away by the train farther and farther from the arena.
For a considerable time longer the Delegates continued asking for explanations of the articles of the British proposal. At last nothing remained to be asked; then it was that one of the Delegates girded himself to the task of placing himself face to face with the question, "What we were to accept: whether we should continue this struggle, or whether we should accept the terms of the British Government, or whether we should surrender unconditionally."
The Delegate who spoke first said that the terms of the English were not such as had been desired, but that under the circumstances no better ones could be expected. It was his opinion that they should be accepted. This Delegate had hardly sat down when General Nieuwoudt rose and expressed it as his view that the meeting should immediately proceed to vote.
This was a bold move, intended, as everyone could see, to obtain a vote for the continuance of the struggle. And this would have happened if a vote had now been taken, for the meeting was just then in a mood to reject the English proposals, which had made a very unfavourable impression. This was well understood, and several members remarked that in such an important matter the meeting should be careful, and not act without due caution; if it did it might prove fatal. The discussions then continued, until a resolution was come to on the afternoon of the third day, Saturday, the 31st of May.
As things had gone in the beginning, so they went now. There were two parties, and the views were distinctly and clearly marked; the one side maintaining that it was the duty of the people to continue the struggle, whilst the other party held that, whatever one might wish, it was no longer possible to do so. I shall not note here all that was said, for much that had been said on the 15th, 16th, and 17th of May was repeated. I shall now again, as I did in a former chapter, summarise and arrange.
There were some who pointed out that, however one might regard the matter, it was impossible to continue the war. As before, it was remarked that we stood on the threshold of a famine, and that it was want of food that was forcing us to discontinue the struggle. It was also stated that horses had become so scarce that almost three out of every ten burghers had to go about on foot, and that the horses which we still possessed were so weak that they were unable to do the work that was required of them, especially now that no forage was any longer obtainable and they had to subsist on grass only. It had also become undeniably evident that the commandos had grown gradually weaker. Where we lost men we could not fill up their places. Thus General de la Rey—the man who had never shown any signs of discouragement—declared that since his last great fights he had lost 300 men, dead, wounded, and prisoners, and that his cattle had been captured by 40,000 mounted troops. Commandant-General Botha also referred to the fact that the English had 31,400 of our men prisoners-of-war, that of these 600 had died, and that 3800 of our burghers had fallen in battle. He said that if the war continued in the same manner we should eventually be exhausted, and should not again have a chance to negotiate. General Smuts made it clear to the meeting that it was possible to continue the war from a military point of view for three or six months longer; but the war was not a mere military matter, it was a national matter; and he added, "Why did we fight? Merely for the sake of fighting; merely to shoot and be shot? No, it was for our Independence. Well, then, was there any chance left, humanly speaking, of retaining it?"
But what was more specially urged was the miserable plight of our women. Many of them had hardly any clothes left, and they were in danger of dying of famine. When the commandos brought them food it was taken away by the English forces, so pitilessly that they took, as it were, the food out of the mouths of the children. So far from the truth was it that the English had removed our wives to the concentration camps from charitable motives, that during the last six months they had refused to receive them when, driven by want, they had sought refuge in the camps, and had, since the need had become most pressing, sent them back to their ruined dwellings when the women had gone to the towns for help. Moreover, every Delegate there knew well to what dangers the women were exposed, and that whenever they most required the protection of the men those men had to retire before the overwhelming numbers of the enemy, thus leaving the women behind, exposed to indescribable insults from Kaffirs and soldiers. This surely could not continue.
On the other hand, it was argued that if the proposal was accepted the nation would thereby be extinguished. It was said that if the war was continued then there was a hope of winning it; but by accepting the proposal the deathblow would be given to our national existence. The unsatisfactory nature of the terms offered by England were also dwelt upon. The arrangement offered in the proposal as to compensation for losses suffered by the war was insufficient, and the people would be reduced to the greatest poverty. It was further urged that we should not allow our courage to sink on account of the dark hour we were passing through. In the past there had also been dark days. Dark had been the days when the chief towns had been taken by the enemy, when General Prinsloo surrendered, when the railway lines fell completely into the hands of the enemy. But we put our trust in God and carried on the struggle, and no one was made ashamed. After the sifting, those who were left had remained steadfast. The outlook had also been dark when the ammunition was spent. General de Wet said that he used to shudder when he saw a burgher coming towards him with an empty cartridge-belt. And yet later on so much was taken from the English that there was now a sufficient supply. The fact also that England was at this moment ready to negotiate was a proof that by persisting we had gained something, for there had been a time when Lord Salisbury had insisted on unconditional surrender. Another Delegate also reminded the meeting that there was a time when Lord Roberts would not meet General Botha, and now the English were negotiating with us! Why then, some Delegates asked, should this be the last chance of negotiating? Even if the proposal was now declined—this had been done before several times in the past—England would be willing to negotiate, and the chances were that at each negotiation they would obtain better terms.
So the Representatives of the People discussed the great question; but it was as if they were grasping at the last straw floating on the stormy waters of a whirlpool. We could not resist the conviction that the Africander nation was exhausted. Gradually it was becoming evident that it was impossible to continue the war. Even those who saw a chance to hold out in their own districts and with their own commandos began more and more to perceive that they could not do so if they stood alone.
This conviction acted on the minds of the Delegates, and, as General Beyers remarked, a spirit of aversion to further resistance arose. Against this spirit it was seen to be impossible to struggle. Judge Hertzog also showed that, although he wished to make no accusation against anyone, the holding of this meeting had been a great mistake, for the meeting had taken away the last plank upon which they had stood. For at this meeting the Delegates had been obliged to declare what the true state of the country was, and those who still had courage would now, after learning to what a pass matters had come, grow disheartened. General de la Rey also pointed to this when he said, "You may say what you will, resolve what you will; but whatever you do, here in this meeting is the end of the war!" The same was said by General Smuts. "This is for us," he said, "a great moment, perhaps the last in which we shall meet as a free people and a free Government."
It was in vain that voices were still raised for continuing the struggle. In vain that one referred to posterity, and declared that future generations would blame their forefathers that they had laid down their arms when they should have continued the struggle. In vain was it shown that they had been enjoined by their constituents to continue the struggle. "Injunction or no injunction, it is you," said General de la Rey to the Delegates, "who must decide, and you will have to decide, not for your own village or for your own district, but for the whole country."
The inevitable, the hard inexorable, stared the meeting in the face. It was simply impossible any longer to struggle against the stream. It was evident that although, from a military point of view, we had not been conquered, yet the war could not, for the sake of the People, be carried on any longer. The Boers had held out as long as they could; nay, months and months longer than they really could, and now—The bitter end had come!
But how should we surrender? Unconditionally? That was what the warrior would wish. He would have wished to receive no favour from the enemy; he would have wished to listen to no terms from his adversary. He would have wished to say to his enemy, "I can do no more; there is my sword! Do with me now what you will!"
But this could not be. There were the People!
What would become of the People if their leaders, in order to gratify their own military sentiment, surrendered unconditionally? "No!" said the leaders of the People, "we cannot do this." Here it was that I learned to respect General L. Botha, and with him other Generals, more than ever before. They sacrificed themselves, at the last moment, once more for the People. Repeatedly at the meeting at Vereeniging, and previously at Klerksdorp, the interests of the People had been referred to, especially by General Botha. Repeatedly, too, the colonists who had fought along with us had been mentioned, and it had been shown that if we accepted the terms of the English, then the People would retain possession of their personal liberty, and would eventually obtain self-government; and the colonists, although deprived of the franchise, would remain free. For the sake, therefore, of the People, the chiefs sacrificed their military pride; and in order to be able to provide for their kith and kin, and to be able to some extent to heal their wounds, they said, "We shall not surrender unconditionally; we shall advise the Delegates to adopt the proposal of the enemy."
Now there were a considerable number of Delegates that still desired to continue the war. They were principally Free Staters, but there were also Transvaalers who were unwilling to give up the struggle, just as there were also some from the Free State who could no longer persist. The disposition of these was, at all events, to persist until the discussions were closed, and if it then became evident that there were so many who voted against the continuance of the struggle that it would be impossible for them to carry on the war alone, then to say, "You who are for yielding force us also to surrender. We are driven to it." Thus, they thought, the whole world would see who the men were who, at the last gathering of the Africander nation, had endured unto the end.
To the views of these Delegates expression was given on Saturday morning, the 31st of May, by a resolution proposed by General Nieuwoudt, seconded by General Brand. That resolution proposed that the terms of the English should be rejected. Another proposal was drawn up by General Smuts, and laid before the meeting by Mr. R. R. Viljoen and General H. A. Alberts. This draft proposed that the meeting should authorise the Governments to adopt the proposal of the British Government, and fully set forth what the reasons were that forced the Delegates to do so.
There now lay the two proposals. Would the Delegates be divided? Would they part from each other in anger? Would they for all future time look back upon this, the greatest moment in the history of South Africa, with bitter reproaches against each other?
But something great occurred. Was it not God's guidance to keep the People united to the last moment? It was this: those who wished to continue the war, instead of striving after the honour of being renowned as the steadfast ones who had only been forced by the surrender of others to surrender also, ranged themselves by the side of those who could no longer continue the contest, feeling that as they had fought and suffered together, they should also fall together.
It happened in this way. General Botha and General de la Rey went to General de Wet early on the morning of the 31st of May, and pointed out to him that it had after all now become plain that they could not go on with the struggle. Why should there still be division amongst them? they asked. If they had been united in the struggle until now, then surely it would be wrong to be divided at the last? General de Wet saw that this was so, and agreed with the other two Generals to meet his burghers separately, whilst the other two would speak to their burghers apart, with the object of arriving at unanimity.
At the meeting General de Wet suggested that in order to avoid division a commission should be appointed to draw up a third proposal that would be acceptable to both parties; and that whilst the commission was busy at this work the Free State and Transvaal Delegates should consult separately, with the object of arriving at a unanimous conclusion. The meeting approved of this, and appointed General Smuts and Judge Hertzog to carry out the resolution. Then the Free Staters went to the tent of General de Wet, while the Transvaalers remained in the tent of assembly.
I went along with the Free Staters. Never shall I forget what I witnessed there. General de Wet showed that there was no chance any longer of continuing the struggle, and said that they ought not to be divided, but if possible unanimously vote for one resolution. I see him yet, that unyielding man, with his piercing eyes, his strong mouth and chin—I see him there still, like a lion fallen into a snare. He will not, he cannot, but he must give up the struggle! I still see the stern faces of the officers who up to that moment had been so unbending. I see them staring as if into empty space. I see engraved upon their faces something indescribable, that seemed to ask: Is this the bitter end of our sufferings and our sorrows, of our faith and of our strong crying to God?
General de la Rey had on the previous day exclaimed in the meeting, "You speak of faith. What is faith?... Lord, Thy will, and not mine, be done! I eliminate myself under God's will!" Then those strong men who had led the People until that moment felt what those words implied!
How great was their emotion! I saw the lips quiver of men who had never trembled before a foe. I saw tears brimming in eyes that had been dry when they had seen their dearest laid in the grave....
The men agreed to remain united!
They again assembled in the tent. The draft of General Smuts, amended by him and Judge Hertzog, was read by the latter, and ran as follows:—
"This meeting of Representatives of the People of the S.A.R. and O.F.S., held at Vereeniging from the 15th May 1902 to the 31st of May 1902, has learnt with regret of the proposal made by His Majesty's Government in regard to the cessation of existing hostilities and of the intimation that this proposal must be accepted or rejected in an unaltered form.
"The meeting regrets that His Majesty's Government has absolutely refused to negotiate with the Governments of the Republics upon the bases of our Independence, or to permit our Governments to enter into communication with our Deputation.
"Our Peoples have indeed always thought that not only on the ground of Right, but also on the ground of the great material and personal sacrifices that they have made for their Independence, they have a just claim to such Independence.
"This meeting has earnestly taken into consideration the condition of land and people, and has more especially taken into account the following facts:
"1. That the military tactics pursued by the British military authorities has led to the entire ruin of the territory of both the Republics, with burning of farms and towns, destruction of all means of subsistence, and exhaustion of all sources necessary for the support of our families, for the maintenance of our forces in the field, and for the continuation of the war.
"2. That the placing of our captured families in the concentration camps has led to an unprecedented condition of suffering and disease, so that within a comparatively short time about 20,000 of those dear to us have perished there, and the horrible prospect has arisen that by continuing of the war our entire race might be exterminated.
"3. That the Kaffir tribes within and without the borders of the territories of both Republics are almost all armed and take part in the struggle against us, and by perpetrating murders and committing all kinds of horrors, an impossible state of affairs has been brought about in many districts of both Republics, an instance of which took place lately in the district Vrijheid, where fifty-six burghers were murdered and mutilated in a shocking manner at the same time.
"4. That by proclamations of the enemy, which he has already carried into effect, the burghers still in the field are threatened with loss of all the movable and immovable property, and so with total ruin.
"5. That through the circumstances of the war it has already long ago become impossible for us to retain the many thousands of prisoners-of-war taken by our forces, and that we thus could do but comparatively little damage to the British troops, whilst our burghers captured by the British are sent abroad; and that after the war has raged for nearly three years there remains only a small portion of the forces with which we entered into the war.
"6. That this remnant still in the field, which forms but a small minority of our entire people, has to contend against overwhelming odds, and moreover has reached a condition virtually amounting to famine and want of the necessary means of subsistence—and that notwithstanding our utmost endeavours and the sacrifice of all that we value and hold dear, we cannot reasonably expect a successful issue:
"This meeting is therefore of opinion that there is no reasonable ground for thinking that by continuance of the war our People will retain the possession of its Independence, and considers that under the circumstances the People is not justified in carrying on the war any longer, as that can alone tend to bring about the social and material destruction not only of ourselves but also of our descendants.
"Urged by the above-mentioned circumstances and motives, this meeting authorises both Governments to accept the proposal of His Majesty's Government, and on behalf of the People of both Republics to sign the same.
"This meeting of Delegates expresses the confident hope that the conditions which have now been called into being by adopting the proposal of His Majesty's Government may soon be ameliorated in such a way that our nation may thereby attain the enjoyment of those privileges to which it considers that not only on account of its past, but also on the ground of its sacrifices in the course of this war, it can justly lay claim.
"This meeting has noted with satisfaction the resolution of His Majesty's Government to grant a large measure of amnesty to those British subjects who took up arms on our side, and to whom we are bound by the ties of blood and honour, and expresses the hope that it may please His Majesty to extend this amnesty still further."
With fifty-four against six votes the meeting adopted this proposal.
Clearly and fearlessly there were reasons set forth in this resolution why the Representatives of the People felt themselves obliged to give up the long struggle.
For a year past it had been impossible to continue, and yet the Africander people had with wonderful endurance continued to stand firm. Not easily had they been induced to see that the struggle was a hopeless one, and when at last they were compelled by the overwhelming force of circumstances to give up the contest, they did not sink down paralysed to the earth, as if they no longer retained any self-respect; but they made themselves felt for the last time, by a resolution which will take rank in history as one of the great manifestos, which will be valued according to its true worth by future generations, better than we can value it to-day.
The Boers had sacrificed everything. They had seen their houses given as a prey to the flames. They had seen their property destroyed. They had seen their cattle driven away in large numbers, and their sheep done to death in heaps of tens of thousands. They had shed their blood like water. Everything, everything, they had offered up for freedom and independence. Nay, more than this had they laid on the altar. They saw that for the great cause their mothers, their wives, their daughters, their sisters, had suffered hunger, had been carried away, had died by thousands in the camps, that they had been ill-treated, insulted and slandered, and violated ... they had drunk of the cup to its last bitter dregs.
Could they do more? It was already too much. They had made the greatest sacrifice that could be demanded, and they had made it in a materialistic age, in which gold exercises a tyrannic influence, and much that is noble is trodden down under its remorseless heel. In these times, when many believe no more in such a thing as a pure love for Liberty, a love that can lead a man to the performance of sublime deeds; in these times, when men contemn the ideal, and speak with pity of noble aspirations, as being illusions or puerilities;—in these times, a drama had been acted before the eyes of the whole world by a people that could still sacrifice all for a great and holy ideal. Still in these times of unbelief there had been seen the heads of two States openly calling upon the name of God, and the world had seen a nation that could carry on war believing in God. And had these ideals now been rudely dragged through the mud by the bitter result? Had the faith of the People been in vain? Had that People appealed to God, and had He declared Himself against them?
Let no man say this!
God has formed the Africander nation in this great struggle. It has not been exterminated; its language has not been destroyed. The might of the enemy has overwhelmed it, has gone over it like a mighty wave, but Africander sentiment still exists. No weapon can bend that will, no violence can suppress that spirit! The Africander nation remains an indestructible element in the British Empire. Let no man say that God has not heard the prayer of the Africander nation. Many have not been able to understand the will of God, and have been overthrown by the insulting question, "Where is now your God?" but I say again, let no man assert that God has not heard the prayer of the Africander people. He who has eyes to see can see that the Africander race has been more firmly welded together by the glowing heat of this struggle, and our People will be held together chiefly by those who passed through the greatest heat of the fire—our mothers. For it was they who suffered most; it was they who made the greatest sacrifices. Words fail me when I endeavour to speak of the women and of what they had to endure. I have found them in their burnt-down dwellings, in stables, and in waggon-houses. I have endeavoured to speak words of encouragement and consolation to them when I met them in the veld, fleeing before the enemy. I have seen them almost unrecognisable, tanned by sun and wind, and seen how thinly they were often clad. I have sat with them at their meals, in the burnt houses or on the ground in the veld, and when I thought of their scanty food it was as if the morsel in my mouth had grown too large, and I could not swallow it. And never did I hear them complain. They were ever ready to bear every burden, to make every sacrifice, if only the Independence of the People were not lost. It is they who will hold our People together.
It is because we have such mothers that we look into the future with courage, and feel that, although we now are under the British Empire, and as subjects of that Empire will bear ourselves peaceably, yet our own nationality will ever be something great and sacred to us. And we shall always consider it the greatest honour still to be known as Africanders.
Thus God has heard our prayer.