Thursday, May 31, 2012

May 31, 1902 – Treaty of Vereeniging Assures Boer Independence

After generations of colonial strife between Dutch Boer and British settlers, the matter of dominance in southern Africa came to an end with recognition of independence for the Boer Republics. Dutch settlement began in 1652 with the establishment of a refreshment station along the Cape Sea Route. Introducing slave labor, the Dutch expanded and defeated the native Xhosa in wars that gradually added more and more territory to Boer (“farmer”) control. As naval supremacy shifted from Dutch to British hands, new waves of British settlers arrived, pushing the Dutch toward an inland migration. The two peoples lived somewhat peacefully until the discovery of diamonds in 1866. European powers descended on Africa, carving it up into their own empires, and the British annexed mineral-rich Transvaal to ensure dominance.

The Boers balked under British government and declared independence in 1880. While they did not have the advanced weaponry of the British soldiers, the Boers did have intimate knowledge of the land and conducted devastating guerrilla attacks. Prime Minister Gladstone offered a treaty in 1881, which allowed Boers in Transvaal and the Orange Free State self-government with a parliament under Queen Victoria's rule. The peace lasted for a time until the discovery of gold in 1886 at Witwatersrand (“White Water Ridge”) prompted a predominantly British gold rush. Tensions grew again, and, in 1895, Cape Colony Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes launched the Jameson Raid to seize Johannesburg from Transvaal. The Boers repulsed and arrested the attackers, sending them back to the British for trial, and began an alliance between Transvaal and the Orange Free State for defense. Ultimatums were sent out on both sides, not met, and the war began with a devastating Boer offensive in 1899 with tactics comparable to the First Boer War. The British retaliated with more than 180,000 men, dealing with guerrillas by systematically searching out and arresting whole Boer families and placing them in concentration camps.

While the bloody war dragged on in southern Africa, it laid a pretense for the rest of Europe to attack on the high seas. Britain had held unquestioned naval superiority since the Battle of Trafalgar and the simultaneous defeats of the French and Spanish fleets, but new nations had grown over the tumultuous nineteenth century. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany took note of the bloodshed in Africa first with the Jameson Raid, after which he sent a telegram to President Kruger of Transvaal saying, “I express to you my sincere congratulations that you and your people, without appealing to the help of friendly powers, have succeeded, by your own energetic action against the armed bands which invaded your country as disturbers of the peace, in restoring peace and in maintaining the independence of the country against attack from without.” The telegram spurred outcry in Britain and much anti-German sentiment. Four years later in February of 1900, according to his memoirs, the Kaiser “received news by telegraph...that Russia and France had proposed to Germany to make a joint attack on England, now that she was involved elsewhere, and to cripple her sea traffic.”

Wilhelm was unnerved by the idea of attacking Britain, which had lost its beloved Queen Victoria, his grandmother, only weeks before, but he determined to feel out the possibility for success. Britain had recently begun renovating its fleet under the Naval Defense Act of 1898, a response to Germany's own First Fleet Act, showing that it meant to always outpace Germany's seaward expansion. In 1900, as German Admiral Tirpitz worked to completed a new bill for dozens of ships, three German mail ships were humiliatingly boarded by a British cruiser searching for weapon supplies for Boers. The efforts of British soldiers to restrict Boer freedom of movement to limit guerrilla flexibility came to press that fall, and Wilhelm saw his opportunity to act in their defense. He called a conference of Russia (who had battled with Britain in the Great Game for central Asia for decades), France (who had been humiliated at the Fashoda Incident in 1898), and Portugal (whose Pink Map strategy of linking Africa east and west had been destroyed by the 1890 British Ultimatum, demanding central Africa for Britain for its Cape to Cairo railway) in addition to old allies Austria-Hungary and Italy and drew up an ultimatum for Britain to remove her forces from the Boer Republics or face blockade.

Although many in Britain did not want to see war, it seemed to be a turning point for the end of her colonial power. Debate continued almost endlessly in Parliament between the peace-minded Liberals under David Lloyd George and Conservatives who controlled the government, and finally the deadline of January 1, 1901, passed without action hoping that the Kaiser had bluffed and could not maintain control of such a varied coalition. However, each nation seemed to have its own issues with Britain and were happy to form a united attack, leading to the First World War. Although Europe itself was practically devoid of military action, there were unprecedented sea battles along with a German, French, and Portuguese campaigns into central Africa from the Orange State to Sudan, seizure of the Suez Canal, and a Russian march on Tibet, threatening India. Britain's imperial resources became stretched thin, and its search for allies only turned up Japan, who effectively took Russia out of the war.

The end of the war in 1905 was brought about through a conference held by American President Theodore Roosevelt, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for his actions. Britain's empire became hamstrung, but the resulting treaties outlined a method of international oversight to ensure the actions taken against Boers (which continued to serve as the grounds of war) could never happen again became an international court to slow imperialism for other actions in later land-rushes in China and the collapsing Ottoman Empire.


In reality, the Kaiser “objected and ordered that the proposal should be declined”, ending the notion of a multinational naval war with Britain. He instead notified “Queen Victoria and to the Prince of Wales (Edward) the facts of the Russo-French proposal, and its refusal by me. The Queen answered expressing her hearty thanks, the Prince of Wales with an expression of astonishment.” The British strategies of containment eventually wore down the guerrillas, ending the war in 1902 with the Peace of Vereeniging, which promised to return self-rule to the Boer Republics: a promise made good in 1907.

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