Paul Kruger was born on October 10, 1825, in the British Cape Colony. His family was Afrikaner, or Boer, descended from the first European colonists of southern Africa. Afrikaners were primarily of Dutch descent and spoke a language, Afrikaans, that developed independently from Dutch during the 18th century. Kruger accompanied his family on the Great Trek, a large scale migration by Afrikaners attempting to escape British control, and fought in several battles against African societies before he was a teenager. Kruger received almost no formal education, but his considerable size, firm will, and frontier experiences made him a natural leader.
Several Boer Republics were founded in the aftermath of the Great Trek and Kruger’s life became entwined with that of the leading republic, the South African Republic or Transvaal. Kruger first served as an advisor to the republic’s president and was elected commandant general, the leader of the nation’s military, in 1863. He was expected to become president in the 1877 election but the country was annexed by the British. Kruger resisted the annexation, at first peaceably, but fighting broke out in 1880. After a great victory at Majuba, the South African Republic regained conditional independence and, after being elected president in 1883, Kruger secured full independence with the 1884 Convention of London.
The discovery of gold in the Transvaal rapidly altered the country’s fortunes. The Afrikaners found themselves suddenly wealthy but also outnumbered by foreigners, mostly British, who flocked to the goldfields. The Transvaal government and the foreign workers, known as uitlanders (outlanders or foreigners), were often at odds. Kruger sought to maintain Afrikaner dominance of the country and limited uitlander rights, such as requiring 14 years residence for citizenship. The uitlanders looked to Britain and the Cape Colony for support. The two sides were unable to find common ground, and after the expiration of a republican ultimatum, the South African Republic and the Orange Free State, a neighboring Boer republic, declared war in October 1899.
He won't go off his beat, March 7, 1900. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs collection.
The Afrikaners had initial success but the power and resources of the British Empire overwhelmed the two republics in less than a year. Kruger left for Europe in 1900 to promote the republic’s cause but failed to convince any foreign power to intervene. The war, declared over by the British, continued as a guerrilla campaign with the attendant atrocities, scorched earth tactics, and the widespread internment of Afrikaner women and children, which popularized the term concentration camp. As the war wound down, Kruger also sought help from President Roosevelt. In an impassioned February 1902 letter, Kruger doesn’t request military aid but asks Roosevelt to be an “influence for good” and speak out regarding Britain’s wartime conduct. The Treaty of Vereeniging ended the South African War in May 1902. The South African Republic and Orange Free State were incorporated into the British Empire. Kruger died in exile on July 14, 1904.
Pakenham, Thomas. The Boer War. New York: Random House, 1979. Print
“Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. Print