Treaty of Vereeniging Ends the Boer War

The peace treaty signed at Vereeniging ending the Boer War marked the high point of British intervention in South Africa and led to a slow British withdrawal. Although the Boers, or Afrikaners, did not win the war, the British retreat allowed the establishment of an Afrikaner government controlled by whites rather than native Africans.

Summary of Event

After several years of tension throughout the late nineteenth century, the conflict between British aspirations for imperial control of the profitable gold mines and Afrikaner nationalism finally escalated to violence in 1899. In October of that year, the Second Boer War began between the British and the two Afrikaner republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The Afrikaners (South Africans of European, largely Dutch, descent) gained the upper hand early in the struggle, as many Afrikaners in British territories joined their compatriots and rebelled against British control. The Afrikaners, however, were not able to maintain their success. In 1900, the British sent reinforcements led by the generals Lord Kitchener and Lord Frederick Sleigh Roberts, and the British quickly regained the initiative. Hardly deterred, the Afrikaners turned to guerrilla tactics, and the war became bogged down for nearly two years. The conflict grew more vicious when the British introduced concentration camps and scorched-earth policies. Soon after, leaders on both sides began contemplating peace. Vereeniging, Treaty of (1902)
Boer War (1899-1902)
Second Boer War (1899-1902)
[kw]Treaty of Vereeniging Ends the Boer War (May 31, 1902)
[kw]Vereeniging Ends the Boer War, Treaty of (May 31, 1902)
[kw]Boer War, Treaty of Vereeniging Ends the (May 31, 1902)
[kw]War, Treaty of Vereeniging Ends the Boer (May 31, 1902)
Vereeniging, Treaty of (1902)
Boer War (1899-1902)
Second Boer War (1899-1902)
[g]Africa;May 31, 1902: Treaty of Vereeniging Ends the Boer War[00490]
[g]South Africa;May 31, 1902: Treaty of Vereeniging Ends the Boer War[00490]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;May 31, 1902: Treaty of Vereeniging Ends the Boer War[00490]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;May 31, 1902: Treaty of Vereeniging Ends the Boer War[00490]
[c]Government and politics;May 31, 1902: Treaty of Vereeniging Ends the Boer War[00490]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;May 31, 1902: Treaty of Vereeniging Ends the Boer War[00490]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 31, 1902: Treaty of Vereeniging Ends the Boer War[00490]
Kitchener, Lord (Horatio Herbert Kitchener)
Roberts, Frederick Sleigh
Botha, Louis
Milner, Alfred
Chamberlain, Joseph
Steyn, Marthinus Theunis
Smuts, Jan Christian
Wet, Christiaan Rudolf de
De la Rey, Jacobus Hercules
Hertzog, James
Barry Munnik

In February, 1901, Lord Kitchener and General Louis Botha arranged a meeting at Middelburg to discuss an end to the war. Lord Kitchener outlined terms, many of which were favorable to the Afrikaners, including British aid for reconstruction and debt as well as official respect for the Dutch language and the Dutch Reformed Church. However, two other aspects of Kitchener’s plan were opposed by the British government. Many officials, led by Governor Alfred Milner, disagreed with the offer of amnesty to Afrikaner combatants, especially for those who lived in British colonies and were thus traitors to British rule. Second, Kitchener’s terms denied native Africans the right to vote until self-government was established. This move evoked negative responses from humanitarian groups in Britain, especially from Joseph Chamberlain, secretary of state for the colonies, who believed that the British had an obligation to protect African rights. On the Afrikaner side, most commandos balked at the idea of allowing the republics to be annexed by Britain as Crown Colonies, even if the future right to self-government was assured. This opinion was vehemently supported by Orange Free State president Marthinus Theunis Steyn. The Middelburg talks were fruitless, but they became the basis for future peace discussions.

The war continued for another year before significant negotiations reemerged. In April, 1902, Jan Christian Smuts, Christiaan Rudolf de Wet, Steyn, and Botha took up Kitchener’s offer of a meeting in Pretoria. Milner soon joined them as the official representative of the British government. The attempt was stymied, however, by the Afrikaners’ resistance to the idea of surrendering their independence and Milner’s refusal to end a war he perceived to be close to victory. With Milner’s approval, the British government refused to accept any terms beyond those outlined at Middelburg. After this failed attempt, Afrikaner leaders met to form a committee responsible for negotiating terms with Britain. James Barry Munnik Hertzog and de Wet were chosen from the Orange Free State, and Botha, Smuts, and Jacobus Hercules De la Rey represented the Transvaal. Talks resumed in May, and with Kitchener’s persistence the stalemate was broken. If the Afrikaners agreed to British sovereignty and disarmament, Kitchener believed, the specifics could be settled later.

Although many Afrikaners resisted, leaders like Botha made it clear that the Afrikaners were suffering and needed peace. Smuts and Hertzog met with a reluctant Milner to finalize the agreement, the end result of which was almost identical to the terms Kitchener had proposed a year before at Middelburg, except that this time the Afrikaners gained even more concessions. The British promised to prosecute only the Afrikaner rebel leaders in Cape Colony and agreed to pay more than three times the money they had previously offered for reconstruction. Additionally, the British government allowed the clause calling for the disenfranchisement of native Africans to stand; they were more interested in ending the costly conflict than in pursuing humanitarian goals. Milner’s attempts to block the treaty failed as the British government approved the amended treaty.

The decision was now in the hands of the Afrikaner delegates at Vereeniging. De la Rey agreed with Botha that the war must end, although staunch resisters such as Steyn and de Wet remained. Some Afrikaners hoped for a compromise that made the Afrikaner republics protectorates and not fully annexed colonies, but this idea was soundly rejected by both Milner and Kitchener. Even among those who opposed surrender, it was clear that the shortages of manpower and supplies and the burden on civilians could not continue indefinitely. More important, the African groups who had remained neutral throughout the war were beginning to stir, and the Afrikaners realized the weakness of their position. With these issues in mind, Botha and De la Rey convinced most of the other delegates, including de Wet, to vote in favor of the treaty, and on May 31 the delegation approved the document by a vote of fifty-four to six.


The war’s immediate effect was visible in the number of people killed and in the amount of money spent. More than 100,000 British soldiers were injured in the fighting, and roughly one-fifth of them died. The British also spent upward of £200 million on a war that pundits had originally expected to last only a few months. For the Afrikaners, the cost of suffering and destruction was higher. Approximately 7,000 Afrikaners died in the war, and at least 18,000 perished in concentration camps. Other effects of the war, however, were less tangible. Anti-imperialists used South Africa as an example of flawed colonial policy in action, and the British victory was viewed as a superficial one. This opinion was substantiated by British activities over the next few years: After expending such large amounts of resources, the British began to withdraw from South Africa. Milner had his unified South Africa, but the British did not maintain their authority. After the Liberal Party’s victory in Parliament three years later, South Africa was put on the fast track to self-government. By 1910, the British had all but left South Africa to its own devices, with power in the hands of the very people they had fought so hard a few years earlier.

The greatest tragedy of the last Boer War and the Treaty of Vereeniging was the loss of native African life, property, and civil rights. Many Africans participated in both sides of the conflict, and few were compensated for property lost during the war. Moreover, thousands of Africans—both soldiers and noncombatants—died in the war, although no reliable estimate on the number of deaths was produced. While the British had initially defended African rights and seemed poised to force the issue on the Afrikaners, this pursuit was sacrificed in the interest of establishing a quicker peace. The British government relented, and the Treaty of Vereeniging promised to establish African freedoms after self-government was achieved. However, when the time came, this stipulation was ignored. At the Treaty of Vereeniging, the British left the issue of African rights to the Afrikaners, and in doing so they created a foundation for the state-sponsored apartheid that marked South Africa for most of the twentieth century. Vereeniging, Treaty of (1902)
Boer War (1899-1902)
Second Boer War (1899-1902)

Further Reading

  • Farwell, Byron. The Great Boer War. London: Penguin Books, 1976. A worthy survey intended for a general audience.
  • Hobson, John. The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Effects. 1900. Reprint. New York: H. Fertig, 1969. Excellent work explains both the British economic interests in the war and the attitudes of citizens in Britain toward the war.
  • Lowry, Donal, ed. The South African War Reappraised. New York: Manchester University Press, 2000. Compilation of scholarly articles on the war, including a chapter on the African perspective before and after the war.
  • Nasson, Bill. The South African War, 1899-1902. London: Arnold, 1999. Highly detailed yet concise account of the war. Includes useful chapters on the consequences of the war.
  • Pakenham, Thomas. The Boer War. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1979. Well-researched account full of specific information. The colorful language of the narrative belies the seriousness of the subject matter.
  • Warwick, Peter. Black People and the South African War, 1899-1902. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. One of the best accounts available of the role of Africans in the war and the effect of the end of the war on Africans.

Herero and Nama Revolts

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Formation of the Union of South Africa

South African Native National Congress Meets

Great Britain Grants Self-Government to Southern Rhodesia