The British Empire 
                                                              1815-1914

Peace at Vereeniging

Talks resume in April 1902

In April 1902 the British and Boers resumed talks that had got nowhere in 1901. This time with the war having become more bitter and conditions for the Boer commandos and their families quite desperate the talks would reach a conclusion. As with the previous year there would be divisions between the civilian and military authorities with Milner wanting an unconditional surrendered so that south Africa could be rebuilt in a way that would leave the British the dominant force. Kitchener felt that the Boer leaders had to be accommodated in some way.


Representatives from the two Boer governments  meet at Klerksdorp

On 9 April representatives from the two Boer governments met at Klerksdorp and the generals gave an appraisal of their situation. They reported of shortages of food, hostilities with the Zulus and dwindling space in which to operate. They talked about the blockhouses were denying them access to food areas. Steyn talked about surrendering unconditionally and meaning by that that he would not feel bound by the eventual terms. This information got back to Kitchener and he used it to justify the terms he wanted. A recent Boer victory in which Methuen had been captured at Tweebosch encouraged in the belief that they could continue but the Boers failed to get the British to agree to take off the point that required them to surrendered their independence. De Wet, who might have spoken for the continuance of the war, spoke of having reached the bitter end, and with that there was an acceptance that they must sue for peace, but on the basis of not having been defeated. In fact there were still 7,000 fighting men at large in the OFS and 12,000 in the Transvaal. The leading Boer commandos were still in the field but they had lost half their fighting strength in the previous year.


The Boers had not been defeated and wanted appropriate terms

The Boers did not regard themselves as having been defeated and asked for terms in which the Boers would retain their self respect. The British government though would not entertain the notion of the Boers retaining their independence.


In the event Boer delegates were elected to attend a conference that would meet at Vereeniging to discuss the terms which were offered. These terms were largely those offered at Middleberg the previous year. On 15 May, 60 delegates came together to determine the fate of the republics. There were several days arguing whether the war should be continued or not and whether they had reached the bitter end. De la Rey argued  that:

"I think each one must decide for himself. It must be borne in mind that everything-cattle, goods, money, man, woman and child-has been sacrificed. In my division many people go almost naked. There are men and women who wear nothing more than plain skins on the naked body. Is this not the bitter end?"


An imposed peace

Rather than discussing the terms of the British government the Boers produced their own terms not wanting to surrender any of their sovereignty but these were rejected out of hand by the British. On 28 May the Boers were handed the governments terms and there were three days for the Boers to decide whether to accept them or not. They covered the surrender of the Boer forces, the return of those outside the old frontiers, the return of prisoners of war once they had sworn an oath of allegiance, a guarantee of property, an amnesty to surrendered Boers, the teaching of English  and Dutch in schools, the return of self government as soon as conditions allowed, the black franchise and a reparations commission. On 31 May, 56 voted for acceptance and six voted against.


Results of the war

The war was fought to bring the Boer republics under British control and to reduce the influence of the Afrikaner culture in south Africa. It achieved neither of these objectives. The Boers said the war was fought for liberty and the British said the war was about equality. The majority of the inhabitants were not white and did not gain equality or liberty. The war exposed weaknesses in British society and in its institutions and resulted in large scale changes in the army and in foreign policy.


The war cost the British £200,000 and required 450,000 troops. The British lost 22,000 troops of whom two-thirds died not from bullets but from germs. The Boer death toll totalled 24,000 of whom 20,000 were woman and children in camps.


The war  exposed  weaknesses within the army: weaknesses of leadership which had been indecisive and over-cautious. These were stories of corruption and rape by soldiers whilst the Morant trial had exposed atrocities. A subsequent inquiry revealed that something like seven million pounds had been robbed from the army. As a result, a number of reforms were implemented including a Committee of Imperial Defence. The Territorial Force was introduced by bringing together the Special Reserve, the Yeomanry and the Volunteers. An OTC was established in public schools and universities, an Imperial General Staff was created to produce a common strategy and policy within the empire and a new training and operational manual was produced. To enable a quicker response to a war overseas a new Expeditionary force was created with a peacetime permanent force. it would be this force that was sent to France in August 1914.


Concern about the condition of the soldiers contributed to an ongoing  discussion about national efficiency and had a part in bringing about the Liberal reforms of 1906-14. British deaths had amounted to nearly 22,000 and of these over 13,000 were from disease. Coming soon after reports into the condition of the urban working classes it gave concern about the condition of the English race in sharp contrast to the way in which colonial forces from Canada, New Zealand and Australia were perceived. These men seemed much hardier and independent than the stunted Tommies.


Within South Africa the overall aims of 'Milnerism' failed to be realised. A permanent British supremacy in the area was not realised nor was Afrikaans relegated to a second class language. In fact the war helped to strength the Boers' sense of identity. Between 1910 and 1960, when the Union existed, every Prime Minister was an Afrikaner.

The two Boer territories became self governing in 1906 and in 1910 the four colonies formed the Union of South Africa.


The position of the African native was not improved. By postponing the question of the franchise for blacks Britain rubber stamped the disenfranchisement of the majority of the population. Conditions for blacks in the mines improved a little but with self government and control of the political process by the Boers, the system of apartheid that had existed in the Boer republics and was being introduced in the Cape was fully implemented throughout the country after 1948 when Malan's party came to power.


The idea of the Empire as a force for good was questioned by many. There had been opposition to the war by liberals as a war about capitalism and the news about concentration camps only increased the criticism about the purpose of the British Empire. The 1897 Jubilee celebrations had masked the true state of the British empire which now was openly debated again.

The same year as the treaty was signed Britain signed a treaty with Japan thus ending what for many was a period of isolation. Within a few years there followed treaties with France and Russia as Britain entered the Triple Entente.





General Kitchener

General De Wet

President Steyn of the Orange Free State

Melrose House where the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed

The table in Melrose House on which the treaty was signed

The Union of South Africa 1920