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Christiaan De Wet

Christiaan Rudolph De Wet (1854 - 1922) was a key Boer general during the 1899-1902 South African War. De Wet was born to an Orange Free State farming family and grew up to become a farmer himself, Having little formal education. He took part in the 1880-81 Anglo-Boer War, including at the battle of Amajuba. He served briefly on the Transvaal Volksraad (‘people’s council’, its governmental body) after this, before returning to the Free State. He later served on the Free State Volksraad, and was a strong supporter of closer union between the Transvaal and Free State in order to oppose British expansionism.

When the South African War broke out in 1899 De Wet was initially conscripted as an ordinary commando member, but his leadership and strategic abilities were quickly recognized and he was soon promoted to field general and later to commandant-in-chief on the western frontier. By the end of the war De Wet had emerged as a powerful and popular leader, and on the last day of the Free State’s independence he had to act as Free State president, owing to President Steyn’s poor health. De Wet was one of the Boer generals who travelled to Europe, together with Botha and De La Rey, to collect money for destitute Boer widows and orphans. When the Free State was granted self-government in 1907 De Wet was elected a member in the colony’s first parliament; and although he was a delegate for the Orange Free State at the National Convention, he left politics after Union in 1910.

In the schisms that opened up between the former Boer generals in 1913 and 1914, De Wet backed Hertzog, and helped him to found the National Party in 1914. However, it was the Botha government’s decision to take South Africa into the First World War on Britain’s side that was the defining moment for De Wet, who, shocked by the (accidental) police shooting of De La Rey when his car went through a road block where police were waiting for the notorious Foster gang of criminals, went on to lead the 1914 Rebellion. This was an armed revolt against the South African government by Afrikaners who rejected South Africa’s wartime support for Britain, and it was led by former Boer generals De Wet and Beyers. The Rebellion was crushed and in 1915 De Wet was found guilty of treason and sentenced to six years imprisonment, although he was freed later that year following a march by thousands of women in Pretoria to protest about his treatment.

Schreiner came to know De Wet and mentions him in many of her letters written during and shortly after the South African War, writing to Isie Smuts in 1905 that “Of course personally I have a feeling for de Wet I can’t have for the others [Boer generals] because I know him personally & have had long talks with him”.

For further information see:
John Bottomley (1982) The South African Rebellion of 1914: The Influence of Industrialisation, Poverty and ‘Poor Whiteism’ Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand, African Studies Institute
Michael Brien (2009) An Uneasy Anger: De La Rey and the Foster Gang Newlands, Cape Town: Ampersand Press
M.C.E. van Schoor (1968) ‘De Wet, Christiaan Rudolph’ in (ed) W.J. de Kock Dictionary of South African Biography¬† Vol I Pretoria: National Council for Social Research, pp. 233 - 240
Christiaan Rudolf De Wet (1902) Three Years War (October 1899-June 1902) London: A. Constable
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collection icon SCCS Edited Extracts: Four groups of edited extracts from Olive Schreiner's letters can be accessed from here, made by her estranged husband Cronwr... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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