Christiaan Rudolf De Wet

Names: De Wet, Christiaan Rudolf

Born: 7 October 1854, Smithfield District, Orange Free State [now Free State]

Died: 3 February 1922, Dewetsdorp district, South Africa

In summary: A great Boer general and rebel leader. His name is inextricably woven into the epic struggle of Afrikaners for independence from British rule in South Africa.

 

Christiaan de Wet was born at Leeuwkop near Smithfield, Orange Free State, on 7 October 1854. He received little formal education, spending his days helping his father in the management of the farm Nuwejaarsfontein, near the present town of Dewetsdorp. At the age of nineteen, he married Cornelia Margaretha Kruger, a woman of strong character. They were to have sixteen children. Upon the annexation of the Transvaal in 1877, he moved to the Vredefort district in the Orange Free State, then to Weltevreden near the present village of Koppies, and from there to Rietfontein in the Heidelberg district (Transvaal), in 1880.

De Wet was twenty-seven when the First Anglo-Boer War broke out in 1880. He fought with the Heidelberg Commando, taking part in the Battle of Laing's Nek, where he displayed courage at Ingogo and in the storming of Majuba in early 1881. After the war and the restoration of Transvaal independence, he was elected a veld-cornet. In 1882, the family moved again, this time to the farm Suikerboskop in the Lydenburg district. Elected to the Transvaal Volksraad in 1885, he only attended one session because he decided to buy his father's farm, Nuwejaarsfontein, and the family moved back to the Orange Free State. In 1896, he was to move once more, this time to the farm Rooipoort in the Heilbron district. In 1889, he was elected to the Free State's Volksraad and represented Upper Modder River until 1898.

Expecting the outbreak of war in 1899, De Wet, then forty-five, prepared for the hardships to come. Among other things, he bought Fleur, the white Arab horse that was to carry him steadfastly through many battles and across thousands of miles on the veld. On 2 October 1899, De Wet and his eldest son, Kotie, were called up as ordinary burghers in the Heilbron commando. De Wet's sons, Izak and Christiaan enlisted as volunteers and the four of them reported for duty under Commandant Lucas Steenekamp.

In March and April 1900 De Wet launched an offensive that heralded the Boer revival. Attacking south-eastwards, in the guerrilla style for which he was to become legendary.

In order to decide whether to continue the war or to accept the British terms the Boer leaders called a conference of sixty representatives of the Transvaal and Orange Free State to be held at Vereeniging on 15 May. With Steyn ill, De Wet, as Acting President, represented the Free State. De Wet said he was prepared to carry on the struggle beside President Steyn to the bitter end. The Treaty of Vereeniging was the result of the Boer discussions.

With his family, De Wet returned to his ruined farm, Rooipoort. In July 1902, leaving his wife and children in a tent on the farm, he left for Europe with Botha and De la Rey to try to raise funds for the widows and orphans impoverished by the war. On board ship, the Reverend J D Kestell assisted him in the prodigious effort of writing his war memoirs, De Strijd Tusschen Boer en Brit (subsequently published in English as Three Years War). The book was an overwhelming success and was later translated into at least six languages.On his return, De Wet played an important part in the movement to counter Milnerism in the Free State, which culminated in the establishment of the Orangia Unie in 1906. When the Orange River Sovereignty was granted self-Government in 1907, De Wet was elected the member for Vredefort and became Abraham Fischer's Minister of Agriculture. He was a delegate to the National Convention of 1908-09, which met to decide on the Constitution of the Union of South Africa. He left politics after Union in 1910 and went to live at Allanvale, near Memel, where he was nominated to the Union Defence Board. A supporter of Hertzog, his fiery personality came to the fore when he made his famous 'dunghill' speech in Pretoria on 28 December 1912. The following year he resigned from the Defence Board. In 1914, when De Wet and Hertzog founded the National Party, the political divisions between Afrikaners grew wider.

In mid-August 1914, a number of prominent Boer War leaders were in contact with each other. They were: General de la Rey, now a Government senator, Lieutenant-Colonel 'Manie' Maritz, who was in command of the Union forces near the border of South West Africa, General Beyers, the commander of the Active Citizen Force, General Kemp, the commander of the Potchefstroom military camp, and General De Wet. Wanting no part in 'England's wars', they opposed South African participation in World War I and the proposed invasion of German South West Africa by South African forces. According to subsequent statements of the participants, these leaders saw an opportunity of regaining the independence they had so dearly lost twelve years earlier and were planning a coup d'etat, which was to take place on the South West African border, in the Free State and at Potchefstroom. Beyers had arranged to meet Governor Seitz of German South West Africa at the border. De la Rey was to address the soldiers in the camp at Potchefstroom. And Maritz was to defect to the Germans with his men. Beyers and Kemp both resigned their commissions. On 15 September Beyers set out to drive to Potchefstroom with General J.H. de la Rey. When they failed to stop at a roadblock at Langlaagte, a trooper opened fire and De la Rey was shot dead. After speaking at De la Rey's funeral in Lichtenburg, De Wet took part in a protest meeting in the town the following day. It was decided that he and others would try to persuade Botha and Smuts to abandon their plans to attack German South West Africa. But the deputation achieved nothing.

Soon after De la Rey's funeral, Maritz defected to the German side with more than a thousand men. Kemp joined him. At Steenbokfontein on 29 October 1914, Beyers issued a declaration on behalf of himself and De Wet that they were to stage an armed protest. Afrikaners flocked to them, intending to march on Pretoria. The rebellion spread, inspired by De Wet who occupied towns and seized property in the north-eastern Free State where he commanded a great following. In total, more than 11,400 poorly equipped men rebelled. They were doomed to failure.

Martial law was declared and Government troops were swiftly mustered to suppress the revolt. It took Botha one month. At Allemanskraal, De Wet's son Danie and several other rebels were killed. De Wet, who was grieving bitterly over his son, occupied Winburg. At Mushroom Valley, north-east of Bloemfontein, Botha completely surprised the poorly armed rebels. A short sharp skirmish showed they were no match for Botha and the Government troops. Twenty-two rebels and six of Botha's men were killed; the rest were captured or fled in every direction.

With his family, De Wet returned to his ruined farm, Rooipoort. In July 1902, leaving his wife and children in a tent on the farm, he left for Europe with Botha and De la Rey to try to raise funds for the widows and orphans impoverished by the war. On board ship, the Reverend J D Kestell assisted him in the prodigious effort of writing his war memoirs, De Strijd Tusschen Boer en Brit (subsequently published in English as Three Years War). The book was an overwhelming success and was later translated into at least six languages. On his return, De Wet played an important part in the movement to counter Milnerism in the Free State, which culminated in the establishment of the Orangia Unie in 1906. When the Orange River Sovereignty was granted self-Government in 1907, De Wet was elected the member for Vredefort and became Abraham Fischer's Minister of Agriculture. He was a delegate to the National Convention of 1908-09, which met to decide on the Constitution of the Union of South Africa. He left politics after Union in 1910 and went to live at Allanvale, near Memel, where he was nominated to the Union Defence Board. A supporter of Hertzog, his fiery personality came to the fore when he made his famous 'dunghill' speech in Pretoria on 28 December 1912. The following year he resigned from the Defence Board. In 1914, when De Wet and Hertzog founded the National Party, the political divisions between Afrikaners grew wider 1, 400 poorly equipped men rebelled. They were doomed to failure.

Ever the master of evasive tactics, De Wet managed to escape, only to be engaged in a fierce skirmish at Virginia station. Seeing it was useless to continue the fight, he instructed his burghers to accept Botha's favourable amnesty terms, while he and a handful of faithful followers headed towards the Kalahari Desert in a bid to join Maritz in South West Africa.

On 30 November 1914, at Waterbury farm near Vryburg, an informer told Colonel G F Jordaan that the exhausted De Wet and his companions were hiding out in the district. Coen Brits set off after him with a posse of motorcars.

For the first time in his life, De Wet was taken prisoner. "It was the motorcars that beat me," he said. And on hearing that his captors were Afrikaners, he remarked with a wry smile, "Well, thank God for that. Then the English never captured me!"

De Wet was taken at once to the Johannesburg Fort, where together with other rebels he was imprisoned. Special courts were set up to try the rebels. De Wet got six years and a fine of £2,000. He expressed surprise at the leniency of his sentence. Within a short time the fine was collected from voluntary contributions, and after six months he was granted a reprieve. But imprisonment had seriously undermined his health.

Shortly after his release, De Wet sold his farm Allanvale and settled near Edenburg for a few years. Then he moved for the last time to the farm Klipfontein, near Dewetsdorp. Although he was poor and a shadow of his former self, his spirit remained forceful; and an incessant flow of visitors found their way to his door to pay their respects to him. But, because of his illness, he made few public appearances. Nevertheless, when ex-President Steyn died in November 1916, De Wet paid tribute to his old friend and comrade-a-arms in a famous oration at the graveside. As he aged, De Wet became politically moderate, to the extent that he advised the inclusion of English-speaking citizens in political affairs; but he never forgave those who had collaborated during the Boer War

De Wet progressively weakened and at length, on 3 February 1922, he died on his farm. General Smuts, who had become Prime Minister, cabled his widow: 'A prince and a great man has fallen today.' De Wet was given a state funeral in Bloemfontein and buried next to President Steyn and Emily Hobhouse at the foot of the memorial to the women and children who died in the concentration camps. On the hundredth anniversary of his birth, a bronze equestrian statue, by Coert Steynberg, was unveiled at the Raadzaal in Bloemfontein.

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