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Botha, Louislocked

  • Christopher Saunders

Louis Botha (1862–1919)

by Sir James Guthrie, c. 1919–21

Botha, Louis (1862–1919), prime minister of the Union of South Africa and army officer, was born on 27 September 1862 at Honigfontein, near Greytown, Natal, the ninth child of Louis Botha (1827–1883), farmer, and his wife, Salomina Adriana Van Rooyen, both of whom had gone on the great trek as children. Until Louis was seven the family lived as British subjects outside Greytown, where he learned Zulu as he was growing up. In 1869 they left northern Natal for the independent Orange Free State, where they settled in the north-east on a large mixed farm near Vrede. His only formal education was two years at a farm school; he now learned to speak Sesotho as well as Zulu. Having helped his parents to farm he became a farmer himself. From the age of eighteen he took the family's sheep and cattle every winter across the Drakensberg to find pasture on the borders of Zululand.

Early military career

In 1884 Botha responded to a call by Lukas Meyer, the landdrost of Utrecht, to serve on a commando (mounted fighting group) to restore Dinizulu as Zulu king. After a short campaign Dinizulu was able to defeat his rival Zibhebhu at Entshaneni. In return for their assistance Dinizulu gave the Boers the land on which the New Republic was established. Botha helped to survey the future town of Vryheid and himself settled on the farm Waterval, east of Vryheid, in 1886. On 13 December of that year he married Annie Frances Bland (1864–1937), eldest daughter of John Cheere Emmett, a descendant of the Irish patriot Robert Emmet. They had three sons and two daughters.

For a time Botha lived a happy married life at Waterval, becoming a prosperous farmer and serving as field-cornet of the district. From 1888 he found himself living in the South African Republic (SAR), for the new republic became part of Paul Kruger's state. In 1895 he was appointed a native commissioner and the following year he won election to the SAR Volksraad (parliament) as representative for Vryheid, gaining more votes than his old friend Meyer. Botha was not, as sometimes alleged, an opponent of Kruger, nor an uncritical supporter of the Uitlander cause, but he did support Piet Joubert in the Volksraad and spoke in favour of concessions on the Uitlander franchise issue. When it was clear that such concessions would not satisfy the British government he spoke out strongly against Britain, and when war was declared in October 1899 he left immediately to muster the Vryheid commando for action.

Since Meyer was ill Botha virtually took over command of the Boer forces at the battle of Talana Hill (Dundee), and he might have delivered a major blow to the British after the battle had his superiors not refused to allow him to pursue the enemy. An imposing man with a warm personality, Botha was revered by those whom he commanded. As Meyer's condition worsened he took over as commandant of the south-eastern Transvaal forces. The aggressive strategy that he favoured would have taken the Boers deep into Natal, but after he routed a British division south of Ladysmith he was again refused permission by his superiors to follow up his victory. Though he was in charge of the commando that took Winston Churchill prisoner he was not himself involved in the capture, although Churchill gained that impression when the two men met after the war. When Commandant-General Joubert became ill Botha was put in command of the Boer forces along the Tugela River and, by anticipating where Sir Redvers Buller, commander of the British forces in Natal, would strike, won one of the greatest Boer victories. With 5000 men he held the small town of Colenso against Buller's 23,000.

Botha followed this with another triumph, on the flat-topped hill of Spioenkop, west of Colenso, where he again outwitted the British and defeated their assault on the summit. After Joubert's death, in March, he was made commandant-general of the Transvaal forces. His meteoric rise to the highest military position in the Boer army in a matter of months, at the age of only thirty-seven, was fully deserved, for he had emerged as probably the greatest of the Boer generals, and on his appointment as commandant-general he was immediately able to infuse new energy into the Boer forces. But by the time he was given the highest command the British had begun to turn the tide of war in their favour.

After trying unsuccessfully to halt the British advance through the Free State, Botha evacuated Pretoria on 5 June and then held up the British attackers long enough to secure for his forces and the Boer government a safe retreat along the line of railway to the east. So, though defeated at Berg-en-Dal on 27 August 1900, in the last set-piece battle of the war, he kept Buller engaged long enough for the republican government to move further east. By then he had realized that the Boers had to adopt guerrilla tactics, and so sent his commandos to their home districts, remaining himself in the south-eastern Transvaal, attacking isolated British units. On several occasions he was extremely fortunate to escape arrest or death.

Peace and union

Botha had his first meeting with Lord Kitchener at Middelburg in February 1901 but rejected Kitchener's proposals for ending the war. He continued his guerrilla activities, harassing British forces; on one occasion he invaded Natal and captured a British convoy. But in the face of the British scorched-earth and concentration camp policy he became convinced by early 1902 that the Boers should accept a negotiated peace. When the Boer fighters met at Vereeniging in May of that year, to debate whether to lay down their arms, he urged them to do so. Speaking simply but with great passion he told the assembled men that their land was ruined and that the question before them was whether the Boer nation would die. Those who wanted to fight to the bitter end, he added, did not say what that end would be. 'We must save the nation' was his successful plea.

Milner called the document that closed the war 'terms of surrender' but Botha insisted that it be called a treaty, and he got his way. As soon as he had added his signature to the document in Pretoria he told his burghers in the field that the 'great task of building a South African nation begins tomorrow' (Kruger, 45). Remarkably quick to forget and forgive, he now sought to reconcile British and Boer in a new united nation. Among those whom he influenced in that direction was his fellow general and closest political associate, Jan Smuts.

When he went to England in August 1902 to plead for the Boer orphans and widows Botha had a friendly meeting with Edward VII. An article that Botha published in Britain in that year, 'The Boers and the empire', helped to persuade the House of Commons to grant additional millions of pounds in compensation to the Boers. In England he became a popular figure as the former enemy now reconciled to the idea that South Africa should be part of the British empire. His charming, powerful personality and moderate views greatly impressed a range of British politicians, including the Liberal leader, Sir Henry Campell-Bannerman.

On his return to South Africa Botha bought a farm at Rusthof, near Standerton, south-east of Johannesburg, but most of his time was spent in Pretoria. He refused to sit on the advisory legislative council set up by Sir Alfred Milner in the Transvaal and he protested against the importation of Chinese labour. Meetings that he helped to organize on that issue led to the founding of Het Volk (‘the nation’) in the Transvaal in May 1904. As leader of this new party he hoped to bring together those Boers who had joined the British cause during the war as well as the ‘bitter-enders’. But his aims extended beyond Afrikaner unity to ‘conciliation’ among all white South Africans and self-government for the ex-republics. He greeted Campbell-Bannerman's decision in 1906 to grant self-rule to the Transvaal as proof of British magnanimity and a triumph for his policy of reconciliation.

In the general election held in 1907, in which Het Volk gained an outright victory, Botha was returned for Standerton. As leader of Het Volk he became prime minister of the Transvaal at the age of forty-four. Taking on the agriculture portfolio himself, he encouraged scientific farming methods and established a land bank. He returned to Britain to attend the Imperial Conference in 1907, where he was able to obtain a further loan and was again showered with praise. But many Afrikaners resented his protestations of loyalty to the empire and were displeased when the Cullinan diamond, the largest to have been discovered, was given to the British monarch to be incorporated into the crown jewels. It was, after all, only half a decade since the war had come to an end.

Botha's main achievement as prime minister of the Transvaal was to take the country into the union of South Africa. He played an important mediating role at the national convention of 1908–9, as head of the Transvaal delegation. He went out of his way to make friends with former enemies, such as Leander Starr Jameson, and was often able to win such people to his cause. The Transvaal delegation was able to secure a centralized union rather than a loose confederation and to insist that in the new united South Africa, though each province would be able to retain its existing franchise provisions, no black person would be able to become a member of the union parliament.

Prime minister of South Africa

Botha returned to England in 1909 as a member of the delegation from the national convention that presented the draft legislation for union to the British parliament. And when union arrived in May 1910 it was Botha—and not the veteran Cape politician J. X. Merriman, who did not enjoy the same widespread support—who was asked by the governor-general to become the first prime minister of the new united country, an office that he held until his death.

Botha received a setback in the general election of September 1910. Taking a risk by standing in the Pretoria East constituency, he was to his surprise defeated by Sir Patrick Fitzpatrick. Given a parliamentary seat, he continued as prime minister and in 1911 was able to return to England to attend the Imperial Conference. It was then that he worked out with Viscount Haldane a scheme for a South African defence force that was to prove invaluable when war broke out with Germany in 1914. Though he spoke English in private he nearly always spoke Dutch in public, impressing his audiences in England and South Africa as a man of sincerity, courtesy, and now loyalty to the crown.

One of Botha's chief tasks in the new united South Africa was to fuse the political parties of the ex-colonies into a single new party. In 1911 the South African Party was founded in Bloemfontein with, as the cornerstones of its policies, conciliation at home and continuation of the existing links with Britain. But Botha found himself in an impossible position: the more he leaned towards the English-speaking community the more he offended some Afrikaners. He had tried to keep his strongest critic, J. B. M. Hertzog, out of the first union cabinet but had been unable to do so. Unable to put up with Hertzog's criticisms any longer, he decided to resign as premier in December 1912 in order to form a new government without Hertzog.

One of Botha's first acts as union premier was to release Dinizulu, the Zulu king, from gaol and settle him on a farm, but Botha was conservative and highly paternalistic in racial matters. He must take responsibility for pushing through parliament in 1913 one of the most notorious pieces of segregationist legislation, the Natives Land Act, which prevented black Africans from acquiring land outside the overpopulated reserves. Though he spoke of allowing black Africans to 'rule themselves under the supervision of the white man' (Meintjes, 200) he did nothing to relieve the harsh conditions in which they lived. Nor had he any time for those white trade unionists who sought to improve conditions for the relatively privileged white miners on the Witwatersrand. In 1913 and again in 1914 he allowed Smuts to take strong action against white workers who went on strike. Critics in England and South Africa denounced the deportation of nine labour leaders without trial or appeal, but Botha was able to win parliamentary support for the action, and an indemnity act was passed.

It was when war broke out in Europe that Botha's greatest trial as premier came. He at once assured Britain that the union would support the war effort and advised that the imperial garrison could be withdrawn from South Africa for use in Europe. When he acceded to the British request that he invade German South-West Africa, however, some of his former Boer generals were so angered that they went into rebellion. To have to take up arms against fellow Afrikaners was, Botha said, 'the saddest experience of all my life' (Meintjes, 251). Though he went out of his way to call out only Afrikaners to deal with the uprising, and showed leniency in dealing with most of the rebels, his suppression of it, and the ‘martyrdom’ of Jopie Fourie in particular, alienated him from some who had previously supported him.

Early in 1915, having put down the uprising, Botha took personal charge of the invasion of German South-West Africa, and conducted a brilliant campaign there. He decided to advance along the line of rail from Swakopmund, on the coast, leaving Smuts to move up from the south. On 18 May Botha secured the bloodless surrender of Windhoek, the capital, and then continued north to Otavi, where in early July the German governor was finally forced to agree to the surrender of the entire territory. Botha then told his men that 'self-restraint, courtesy and consideration of the feelings of others on the part of the troops whose good fortune it is to be victors are essential' (Williams, 99).

Final years

In the campaign before the general election of 1915, which was bitterly fought, Botha was accused of forgetting his Afrikaner roots and the sufferings of his people, and was even labelled a 'Judas, traitor, bloodhound, murderer' (Williams, 100). As a result of the election he no longer enjoyed an outright majority in parliament and had to form an alliance with the pro-British Unionists, which gave his Afrikaner critics more reason to revile him as a traitor. With Smuts out of the country for long periods during the war more work fell on his shoulders, and he began to suffer from periods of depression. He had become overweight; being over-sensitive he was hurt by cartoons that depicted him as clumsy and pot-bellied, and wearing a British military uniform.

By the time that he went, with Smuts, to the Paris peace conference at the end of the war Botha was under continuous medical attention. At the conference he played a moderating role, advising against a triumphal march by the allies to Berlin. He contrasted the magnanimity that Britain had shown to the ex-republics with the punitive measures that the allies wished to impose on the defeated Germany; he reminded his audience that 'he also came from a conquered nation' (Kruger, 25). That he was asked to chair a peace committee concerned with the war in Poland and the Ukraine was a sign of how respected he was as an international statesman. Though bitterly disappointed that permission was not given for South-West Africa to be annexed to the union, as he and Smuts wished, it was secured as a class C mandate under the new League of Nations. Though he added his signature to the peace treaty reluctantly, because he thought it was too harsh, he was proud to sign as leader of a dominion equal to others in the British empire.

Botha returned to South Africa in triumph but the way in which he had been rejected by many of his own people continued to weigh him down. In August 1919, soon after returning to Pretoria, he suffered a heart attack, and he died there, on the 27th, in his fifty-seventh year. He was buried in Rebecca Street cemetery, Pretoria, on 30 August; right-wing Afrikaners boycotted his state funeral. At his graveside Smuts called him 'the sweetest soul of all my days' (Williams, 125) and said that the unity of South Africa had been his life's work. But his vision of a united South Africa within the empire was not shared by those Afrikaners who lacked his capacity to forget the past and see the value of entering into a new relationship with the imperial power. His goal of reconciliation between Boer and Briton was not achieved and, like Smuts, he had no vision of how to bring blacks into the new union. Though he treated individual blacks with respect, as a group they remained non-persons in his eyes.

For a long time Botha's reputation suffered by comparison with that of Smuts. Most Afrikaner writers viewed his career after union as a failure. More recently, however, Afrikaner writers have not questioned his standing as much as that of Smuts, while among British and imperial historians Smuts's reputation has declined as that of Botha has risen. Such historians have come to recognize that he did not live merely in the shadow of Smuts. There is a new admiration for his modest, unassuming personality and his extraordinary willingness to reconcile with his former enemy. A century after the South African War—in an era of black majority rule, when reconciliation was again needed after another brutal conflict—statues of Botha still stood, both in the meadow below the union buildings in Pretoria and outside the parliament buildings in Cape Town.


  • J. Meintjes, General Louis Botha: a biography (1970)
  • D. W. Krüger, ‘Botha, Louis’, DSAB
  • A. van Wyk, ‘Gen. Louis Botha’, They shaped our century (Cape Town, 1999)
  • E. M. Clark, Louis Botha: a bibliography (Cape Town, 1956)
  • B. Williams, Botha, Smuts and South Africa (1946)
  • H. Spender, General Botha: the career and the man (1916)
  • Earl Buxton, General Botha (1924)
  • F. V. Engelenburg, General Louis Botha (Pretoria, 1929)
  • W. K. Hancock, Smuts: the sanguine years, 1870–1919 (1962)
  • J. D. Kestell and D. E. van Velden, The peace negotiations between the governments of the South African Republic and … the British government, trans. D. E. van Velden [Eng. trans. of De vredesonderhandelingen tusschen …]
  • D. W. Kruger, The age of the generals: a short political history of the Union of South Africa, 1910–1948 (1958)
  • L. M. Thompson, The unification of South Africa, 1902–1910 (1960)
  • C. J. Barnard, General Louis Botha op die Natalse front, 1899–1900 (Cape Town, 1970)
  • S. B. Spies, ‘The outbreak of the First World War and the Botha government’, South African Historical Journal (Nov 1969)
  • N. G. Garson, ‘Het Volk: the Botha–Smuts party in the Transvaal, 1904–11’, HJ, 9 (1966)


  • Bodl. RH, corresp.
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Gladstone, Add. MSS 46006–46007
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Selborne
  • Bodl. RH, letters of Sire Matthew Nathan
  • NAM, letters to Earl Roberts
  • National Archives of South Africa, Pretoria, Transvaal Archives depot, state papers, South African republic
  • National Archives of South Africa, Pretoria, state papers, union of South Africa
  • Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Mottistone
  • Parl. Arch., letters to D. L. George


  • BFINA, documentary footage
  • BFINA, news footage
  • National Film Archive, South Africa


  • W. Orpen, portrait, 1919, repro. in Engelenburg, General Louis Botha
  • J. Guthrie, oils, 1919–1921, Scot. NPG [see illus.]
  • J. S. Sargent, pencil drawing, 1921, NPG
  • J. S. Sargent, group portrait, oils, 1922 (General officers of World War I, 1914–18), NPG; study, NPG
  • J. B. Leighton, oils, 1924, Palace of Westminster, London
  • J. Guthrie, group portrait, oils, 1924–1930 (Statesmen of World War I, 1914–18), NPG; study, NPG
  • R. Romanella, statue, Stal Plein, Cape Town
  • E. Roworth, portrait
  • RYG, lithograph caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (29 May 1907)
  • C. Steynberg, statue, union buildings, Pretoria
  • A. Van Wouw, statue, Botha Gardens, Durban
  • photographs, repro. in Engelenburg, General Louis Botha

Wealth at Death

£67,648: J. Meintjes, General Louis Botha: a biography (1970), 123

Historical Journal