The Kruger " ultimatum "—The loyalty of the Orange Free State-Its chivalrous resolve to stand by the Transvaal republic—The British declaration of war
Immediately following the Privy Council meeting on the 6th of October, a Royal Proclamation was issued in London authorizing the calling out of the First Class Army Reserves. A similar order was published for the mobilization of a full field force for South Africa. The "terms of settlement" which the Colonial Secretary declared would be submitted by his Government; in due course were plainly indicated to the Transvaal by the nature and purpose of these Royal Proclamations. These were England's, virtual declaration of war against the independence of the South African Republic.
This open abandonment of peaceful measures, by a Power which had so often previously violated its pledges and torn up Conventions, left no alternative to the menaced Republic but a resolve to meet force by force. President Steyn, in his despatch to Sir Alfred, Milner on the 5th of October, indicated plainly what the two Re-publics required from the British Government as a proof of the sincerity of its professed desire for a peaceful ending of the crisis;' a desire which the High Commissioner took the trouble to reiterate' on the very eve of the mobilization of a full field force for South Africa, and of the calling out of the Reserves. The President of the Orange Free State wrote:
" I consider it would not be practicable to induce the Government of the South African Republic to make or entertain (further) proposals or suggestions unless not only the troops menacing their State are withdrawn further from their borders, but that an assurance be given by her Majesty's Government that all further despatch and increase of troops will at once and during the negotiations be stopped, and that those now on the water should either not be landed or, at least, should remain as far removed as can be from the scene of possible hostilities. . . . If so, I would be prepared to take steps at once to try and obtain any needful assurance to safeguard against any act of invasion or hostility any portion of her Majesty's colonies or territories, pending the negotiations."
This offer was not accepted.
On Monday, the 9th of October, the Transvaal Government put President Steyn's reply to Sir Alfred Milner in the form of a final despatch to the Ministers of the Queen of England. The document was handed to Mr. Conyngham Greene on the afternoon of that day, and an irrevocable step was thus taken in the fate of the Republic.
The civilized world almost held its breath on reading the terms of Mr. Kruger's communication. " This Government," wrote State Secretary Reitz, "feels bound to insist on the British Government immediately ending the tension, and giving an assurance:
"1. That all debatable points shall be settled by arbitration, or in a peaceful manner agreed upon;
" 2. That the troops on the border shall be withdrawn immediately.
"3. That all reinforcements since the 1st of June shall be removed to the coast, and thence removed in a reasonable time to be agreed upon, and mutual undertakings given against warlike acts during negotiations; and "
4. That troops on sea shall not be landed.
" The Republic's Government insist on an immediate affirmative reply before Wednesday, 11th October, at five o'clock in the evening.
" If no reply arrives the Republic will consider it as a formal declaration of war and act.
" In the meantime if troops are moved nearer the border this also will be considered a formal declaration of war."
Many external friends of the Boer cause deeply regretted the wording of this despatch. They looked upon it as playing into the hands of Mr. Chamberlain and of the English war party. Doubtless it did. So would a continuation of useless proposals and negotiations, only more so. The due formulation of Mr. Chamberlain's terms of settlement would have meant such a convenient delay as would have enabled England to place 50,000 more troops in transports for South Africa, with which to enforce the Colonial Secretary's purpose. President Kruger acted boldly, and thereby acted wisely, remembering the perfidious foe with whom he had to deal. It was a question with him, whether he should draw England's fire before she had quadrupled her soldiers in South Africa, or wait until the borders of the Free State and Transvaal were occupied by forces powerful enough to back up an imperative demand for impossible concessions with an overwhelming army of invasion. He acted with judgment and with rare courage in resolving to face the ordeal of actual conflict sooner than later, knowing as he did hostilities were inevitable, and that England would only hold her hand until she had force enough in the field with which to strike for the prize and the revenge for which she hungered.
Sir Alfred Milner made a demand upon President Steyn for a declaration of the attitude of the Free State in view of the terms contained in the Transvaal despatch and the following dignified and courageous reply was forwarded to Cape Town from Bloemfontein, on the 11th of October:
" I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your Excellency's telegram of this evening. The high-handed and unjustifiable policy and conduct of her Majesty's Government in interfering with and dictating in the purely internal affairs of the South African Re public, constituting a flagrant breach of the Convention of London accompanied at first by preparations for, and latterly followed by the active commencement of hostilities against that Republic, which no friendly and well-intentioned efforts on our side could induce her Majesty's Government to abandon, constitutes such an undoubted and unjust attack on the independence of the S. A. Republic that no other course is left to this State than honorably to abide by its Conventional engagement entered into with that Republic. On behalf of this Government, therefore, I beg to notify that, compelled thereto by the action of her Majesty's Government, they intend to carry out the instructions of the Volksraad as set forth in the last part of the resolution referred to by your Excellency."
The action of the Free State in resolving to throw in its lot with the desperate fortunes of the Transvaal has been variously criticised. President Steyn has been blamed by one trend of opinion, and lauded by another. It has been urged, in condemnation of the course which he took, that his action was one of supreme folly in inviting the certain destruction of his country's independence by voluntarily taking the field against the forces of the British Empire. This, however, is the comment of a soulless selfishness, regardless of national honor. It is also a view that has been urged by journals and men on the British side who have lauded to the skies the egregious and gratuitous jingoism of Canada and the Australias in offering, on account of racial ties, to fight for England against so small a foe. Blood is only " thicker than water " when it flows from an Anglo-Saxon source. President Steyn and his burghers were neither deaf to the appeal of racial kinships nor blind to the motives which animated and the purposes which inspired the authors of the war. They nobly responded to the stern duties contracted in the Treaty of 1897, and in doing so exhibited to a grossly selfish age and to the capitalist-ridden governments of Europe an example of exalted statesmanship and of chivalrous self-sacrifice in the cause of liberty which will earn for them to all time the grateful admiration of every mind that can differentiate between the brigand aims of modern Imperialism and the nobler spirit and mission of Nationality.
Altho no member of the Transvaal Executive had any doubt as to the reply which the British Government would return to the message of the 9th, it was with a feeling of suppressed excitement that President Kruger, Mr. Reitz, and Mr. A. D. Wolmarans heard the door-keeper of the Executive Chamber announce " Mr. Conyngham Greene " early on the afternoon of the 11th of October. The British Agent shook hands with the Executive members, and handed his fateful message to the State Secretary. The document read as follows :
" H. M.'s Agency, "Pretoria, October 11th, 1899.
" Sir—I am instructed by the High Commissioner to state to you that her Majesty's Government have received with great regret the peremptory demands of the Government of the South African Republic conveyed to me in your note of the 9th instant, and I am to inform you in reply that the conditions demanded by the
Government of the South African Republic are such as her Majesty's Government deem it impossible to discuss.—I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,
" W. Conyngham Greene, C.B."
There was a moment's deep silence in the room, after which the courteous medium of England's haughty message was told in respectful terms that the note just delivered would be considered as a declaration of war. Mr. Greene bowed his head, and withdrew, after having requested that his passport should be prepared without delay. After England's representative had left the Council Chamber, the aged President inclined his head for a few moments in silent prayer, and then attached his signature to the document which was to give Mr. Greene safe passage through the territory of the Transvaal Republic.
Within an hour after this memorable interview and scene, a word was flashed over the wires of the two Republics from Pretoria—a single word—to every Landrost in every district, and to each officer in command of burghers along the Natal and the Western borderlands. The word was " War," and from that time forth the Boers of the two little nations loaded their Mausers, and stood at bay.
At six o'clock the same evening the President of the Free State caused a " Gazette Extraordinary " to be issued, in which an impassioned appeal to the sister Republic was published, calling upon its burghers to stand by their brethren across the Vaal in their hour of danger against" the oppressor and violator of justice." President Steyn further said :
"In carrying on this struggle let no single action of yours be otherwise than such as becomes a Christian and a burgher of the Free State. Let us look forward with confidence to a successful issue to that struggle, trusting in a Higher Power, without whose support no human weapons avail anything. To the God of our forefathers we humbly submit the justice of our cause. May He protect the right, may He bless our arms. Under His banner do we draw the sword for freedom and for Fatherland."On learning of the nature of England's reply to the last demand for arbitration, President Steyn telegraphed to Pretoria, " We are ready!"