Anecdotes and legends swirl around Paul Kruger, celebrated in his day as “Oom Paul” — Uncle Paul. He was the immovable cornerstone of Boer aspirations late-19th-century southern Africa, the Keeper of the Vow, even as he was reviled as a racist, obstructionist rube. Kruger was born on the eastern edge of the Cape Colony in 1825. His family had lived in south Africa since 1668. The Krugers moved across the Orange River in 1836 as part of the Great Trek. He had little or no formal education outside of the Bible. He grew up fast amid skirmishing Boers, Brits and Bantus. By his teenage years, Kruger was already an accomplished frontiersman, horseman and guerrilla fighter. In his memoirs he said he shot his first lion at 16, though others say he was 14, or perhaps 11. After breaking a leg in an accident, the story goes, Kruger repaired his wagon and drove it to safety — though one leg was shorter than the other thereafter. He spoke Dutch, basic English and several African languages — and believed all his life that the Earth was flat.
Kruger would marry twice and father 17 children. As an adult, he cut an odd figure with his bulk, his rustic attire, a wide, uneven fringe of facial hair and an unsmiling, sphinx-like demeanor. His habits were not of the manor born. Some imperialists underestimated the future four-term president of the ZAR, considering him unsightly, even ugly with his short frock coat, chin whiskers and top hat. Some saw only greasy hair, a worn pipe protruding from his pocket, and copious spitting — in short, here was little more than a vulgar, backveld peasant.
But Kruger’s capacity for leadership, his zeal for autonomy and his unshakable faith set him apart. He caught the eye of Andries Pretorius, the Boer leader who founded the short-lived Republic of Natalia. Biographer Johannes Meintjes observed that Pretorius saw in Kruger a man behind whose “tough exterior was a most insular person with an intellect all the more remarkable for being almost entirely self-developed.” Later on, a discerning Lady Phillips was said to have commented on the president’s comings and goings in Pretoria in his stained frock coat and tall hat: “I think his character is clearly to be read in his face — strength of character and cunning.”
Not yet 30 in 1852, Kruger was present for the signing of the Sand River Accords that ended the First Boer War and established the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek. He led commandos for the ZAR against Basoto and Tswana tribes, and was commandant-general from 1863-73. After Britain’s annexation of ZAR/Transvaal in 1878, it didn’t take long for Kruger to begin agitating for new arrangements with the Crown. In 1880 Kruger, Martinhus Pretorius and Joet Joubert were called to confer with the British overlords, and on December 16 the Boer leaders declared renewed independence for the ZAR. Shooting and bloodshed followed, with the Boers prevailing at Laing’s Nek, Ingogo and beyond. Rather than pressing imperial interests, British Prime Minister William Gladstone chose to negotiate, granting the Boers local autonomy and in the London Convention of 1884, full independence under a new president — Paul Kruger.
The British continued to call the region Transvaal, though the stamps issued after 1884 all carried the name “Z.Afr.Republiek,” in line with a postal convention between ZAR, the Orange Free State and Cape Colony. In what looks like a cheeky maneuver, the Boers also took the 4d. stamp from the Queen Victoria series of 1878 and surcharged it “Een Penny” — simultaneously asserting their Afrikaner supremacy and devaluing a British artifact from four pence to one penny. Cute! Other than that, all the new ZAR stamps, as before, had the same design: the Boer coat of arms.
The ensuing years were a period of prosperity and growth for the ZAR, particularly after the discovery of rich gold reefs in Witwatersrand. Friction grew between Boers and the burgeoning population of “uitlanders” — non-Boer settlers. The ZAR and the Orange Free State strengthened their ties, and smaller Boer republics like Stellaland were brought under the ZAR’s wing. Conflicts between Boers and Brits only increased after Cecil Rhodes, the swashbuckling imperialist, became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890. His British South Africa Company impinged on ZAR/Transvaal from Matabeleland and Mashonaland, and non-Boer settlers in the ZAR increased their pressure for full citizenship rights and privileges. Paul Kruger with his plain politics, his biblical certainty and stubborn commitment to Boer supremacy, was ill-suited to the task of guiding his sturdy wagon of state through the economic expansions and upheavals of the century’s end.
Notwithstanding the pressures, Kruger was at the height of his popularity among the Boers in 1898, winning election to his fourth term by record margins. By now, Transvaal had its long-dreamed-of railroad to the Indian Ocean coast at Delagoa Bay, in Portuguese Laurenco Marques — celebrated in a stamp released in 1895 to inaugurate “penny postage” in the ZAR. The gold boom had created the mining town of Johannesburg, which already had grown bigger than Cape Town. The uitlanders and their British surrogates, including Cecil Rhodes, had been humiliated by the failed Jameson Raid of 1896, and Kruger had a strong ally and protege in his bright young state attorney, Jan Smuts.
In 1898, Kruger and Smuts became enmeshed in negotiations with the British in Bloemfontein that broke down over seemingly intractable differences between Boers and the disenfranchised
uitlanders. Though Smuts thereby helped to precipitate the Second Boer War (1899-1902), which brought a permanent end to the ZAR, Smuts also saw to it that the Boer people emerged from the fighting in a strong position. Over the years he would serve twice as prime minister of the Union of South Africa. He became an intimate of Winston Churchill and a statesman of international stature. Suave and polished, unlike his mentor Paul Kruger, the durable Smuts was the only delegate to sign the peace treaties ending both World Wars I and II. He was a member of Britain’s war cabinet and helped establish the RAF. His vision shaped the League of Nations. He wrote the first draft of the preamble to the United Nations Charter. And yet, his racist policies laid the foundations of apartheid. But I digress.
By the time the Second Boer War was declared Oct. 11, 1899, Paul Kruger had became a popular figure internationally among critics of British imperialism in Africa. By now 74 years old, Kruger no longer led commandos — though he sent four of his sons, six sons-in-law and 33 grandsons. True to form, the Boers started out fighting for their homesteads with pluck and luck. They won early victories in Natal
and the Cape Colony, and laid siege to the strategic cities of Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking. But the superior forces and resources of the British soon prevailed — Kimberley and Ladysmith were relieved in February, 1900, and Mafeking two months later. The British were in Johannesburg by May 30. Many demoralized Boers simply went home. An unyielding Kruger abandoned his capital, Pretoria, and settled with his family in the “Krugerhof” at Waterval Onder. Britain’s Lord Kitchener formally annexed the Orange Free State May 24 and claimed the ZAR Sept. 1. New stamps appeared in the ZAR with the overprint “V.R.” to re-confirm Queen Victoria’s dominion. Kruger was unbending and declared Kitchener’s decrees “not recognized.” On Sept. 11, he left the ZAR/Transvaal, crossing into Mozambique on his coveted railroad. Ultimately he went into exile. He died surrounded by his family in Clarens, Switzerland in 1904.
Erratic fighting continued through 1901. On the philatelic front, Queen Victoria died Jan. 22, 1901, and the “VR” overprint (above) was replaced by “ER” (below) for her son and heir, Edward VII.
The ZAR government, now re-located to Pietersburg, was running short of stamps by March 1901. The besieged Boers issued a new series, crudely type-set and hand-signed. The stamps were only in use for a matter of weeks — the British captured Pietersburg April 9. Because of this short time span, the desperate cause represented, and the varieties of production that resulted in subtle design changes, the “Pietersburg” stamps are catnip to specialist collector-cats. More on this later.
While the Boers were holding out, Kitchener adopted a punishing “scorched earth” policy, burning and razing Boer farms and homesteads. Thus died the Boer dream of the good life, the lekker lewe of limitless land and divine blessing. The British set up “concentration camps” that over time held as many as 115,000 people, mostly women and children. Almost 28,000 died, including 22,000 children — 10 percent of the Boer population. Approximately 20,000 blacks also died in camps. The appalling toll sparked international outrage. Irish nationalists sympathized with the embattled Boers, and sympathy surely spread in the United States, where the plucky Boers taking on the Redcoats kindled memories of the revolutionary wa
This “stamp,” or Cinderella label, at left is quite a puzzler. (The image is from the Internet.) It pays tribute to Paul Kruger — in Spanish and Latin. (“Glory to Kruger — The Transvaal for the Boers”) The best I can figure is that this was a propaganda label put out around the time of the Second Boer War. A number of settlers from the Transvaal had relocated to Argentina. There they formed a close-knit farming community and outpost that has lasted to this day.
I include this set from my collection (above and right) just to show off. It’s the second Edward VII set, issued shortly before his death and the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. The set catalogs at about $30, so it’s not rare. It’s neat to have a complete set, though, don’t you think? As you can tell from my notations, it took me more than nine years to assemble it — patience is a virtue for stamp-collectors. Filling out sets over time is one of the deep, glacial satisfactions of the hobby. Reaching completeness is soul-satisfying. Besides, these stamps have a certain elegance, and the contrasting color combinations are gorgeous, don’t you think?
Jan Smuts strengthened the Boers’ position in early 1902 by seizing the copper mining town of Okiep, demonstrating Afrikaner resolve. Although the Boers’ way of life would be forever changed, the negotiated peace protected their rights in Transvaal. The Boers would become full partners in the future Union of South Africa (at the expense of black South Africans). Smuts, Kruger’s brilliant protege, would go on to help found a political party for the Boers, and serve as South Africa’s prime minister for two long stints (1919-24, 1939-48).
THERE’S MORE TO SAY (SEE PART 3, IN THE WORKS)