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President Martinus Steyn PDF Print E-mail

260px-Marthinus Theunis SteynTo read this article in Afrikaans as published in the South Africa History Series in JUIG! Tydskrif, click here.

The PowerPoint presentation of this article is available here.

Martinus Steyn was a courageous and principled statesman, the 6th and last president of the independent Orange Free State. President Martinus Steyn is considered one of the finest examples of a Christian president. His integrity was widely recognised by all, including by his enemies, as of the highest standards.



Martinus Steyn was born at Rietfontein, Winburg, on 2 October 1857. His father was Martinus Steyn and his mother, Cecilia Wessels. He first attended a farm school and then studied at Grey College in Bloemfontein. At the suggestion of Judge James Buchanan, he continued his education at Leyden University in the Netherlands and completed his legal training in England. He was admitted to the Bar in London in 1882. He then returned to the Orange Free State and soon had a flourishing legal practise in Bloemfontein.


Overzicht met het standbeeld van president Steijn van Oranje Vrijstaat in de nabijheid van het spoorwegstation - Deventer - 20534803 - RCEJudge

On 10 March 1887, he married Rachel Isabella Fraser. In 1889 he was appointed State Attorney of the Orange Free State, and in 1892, became a Judge of the High Court. When the state president F.W. Rietz, resigned in 1895, Judge Steyn was recommended as a successor. The other candidate J. G. Fraser opposed close cooperation with the South African Republic (ZAR) of the Transvaal, while Steyn strongly supported close ties and co-operation with the ZAR. The Jameson Raid, which attempted to violently seize control of the Transvaal, swayed public opinion overwhelmingly in favour of Judge Martinus Steyn and he was elected by landslide and sworn in as President of the Orange Free State on 4 March 1986.



At this stage he was only 39 years old, but his strong sense of duty, Christian integrity and wisdom was beyond his years. As newly elected president of the Orange Free State, Martinus Steyn had to deal with the intrigues of Sir Alfred Milner, the new British High Commissioner, an ardent imperialist involved in schemes to undermine the independence of the South African Republic and seize control of the gold fields.


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President Steyn considered the British imperial policy as a clear and present danger to the independence and freedom of the Orange Free State. So he hosted a conference in Bloemfontein in March 1897, attended by President Paul Kruger of the ZAR. Steyn proposed that they should extend the political alliance of 1889, by adding a clause that the Boer Republics would consult with each other on all matters that could lead to war with Great Britain. President Steyn did attempt to persuade the Transvaal government to become more flexible to accommodate the aspirations of the Uitlander franchise and the dynamite monopoly.


A series of crises and diplomatic manoeuvrings came to a head when High Commissioner Alfred Milner broke off talks with President Kruger, concerning the Uitlander franchise. President Steyn had initiated the Bloemfontein Conference of 31 May to 5 June 1899. When Milner walked out on this negotiation, war became imminent.



On 27 September 1899, Steyn presented to the Free State Volksraad a sober report, which concluded that he would rather lose the independence of the Orange Free State with honour, than fail to stand by the Transvaal in their hour of need. President Steyn declared that by declaring war, politicians admit that they have failed diplomatically. By declaring war, they effectively handed over control to the military. As he had declared war, he would join the commandos and fight alongside the Burghers. Nor would he use his political powers to interfere in the military strategies of the Generals.



President Steyn became one of the bittereinders, who courageously fought to the very end of the ruinous Anglo Boer War (1899 - 1902). President Burgher was frequently seen at the frontlines encouraging his Burghers with his steadfast example, resilience and courage.



After the catastrophic surrender of General Piet Cronje at Paardeberg, Steyn sought to rally the demoralised Burghers to make a determined stand. However the battles of Poplar Grove (7/3/1900) and then at Abrahamskraal (10/3/1900), failed to stop the British advance. On 13 March 1900, Lord Roberts entered Bloemfontein with the British forces. Steyn and his government evacuated Bloemfontein just the day before.


boer commando riflesCommandos

At Kroonstad, Steyn convened a Joint Council of War where President Kruger and General Piet Joubert were also present. There they decided to abandon the wagons and to employ mounted commandos, transforming the more static conventional war into mobile guerrilla warfare operations.


The British seized Bethlehem, 7 July, denying the Orange Free State government its last seat of power. From this time on, President Steyn and his Executive Council remained in the field fighting under the command of General De Wet.


Counter Attack

On numerous occasions, President Steyn intervened when the Transvaal sought to open up peace negotiations with the British. When the Transvaalers' were talking about surrender, President Steyn and General De Wet remained adamant that the only condition for negotiations had to be the independence and freedom of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. President Steyn accompanied General De Wet on operations into the Cape Colony, to disrupt the supply lines of the British forces occupying the Orange Free State and Transvaal.



When his term of office expired, he insisted that they should hold a fresh presidential election. At Doornberg, the Oath of Office was administered and President Steyn was sworn in for a second term of office.



President Steyn drafted the replies of the Orange Free State to the British authorities in well-reasoned legal terminology, which greatly encouraged the ongoing resistance of the Burghers. President Steyn delivered an answer to General Roberts', annexation of the Orange Free State, declaring that the Republic of the Orange Free State still existed and that the annexation was illegal. On 7 August 1901, in response to Lord Kitchener's Scorched Earth and Concentration camp policies, President Steyn protested the inadmissible methods of barbarous warfare targeting civilians.


De la Rey standbeeld Lichtenburg 2Outstanding

In March 1902, President Steyn joined the command of General de la Rey at Dooringspruit to receive eye surgery. Acting President Schalk Burgher informed him of the negotiations taking place at Klerksdorp. 31 May 1902 Kitchener was most impressed by President Steyn and declared of him that he was 'head and shoulders above all the others'.



When everyone else was ready to sign the surrender, De Wet and Steyn demanded self-government and reparations. Steyn was in Kroonstad for medical attention, when the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed, 31 May 1902.


The Sparrows

In June, Steyn and his wife left for Europe for medical attention, and when he returned to South Africa, he campaigned for self-government and served as one of the Orange Free State delegates at the National Convention, which led to the formation of the Union of South Africa. It was President Steyn's initiative that led to the first act of the Union of South Africa being the minting of the half cent coins with two sparrows on them, to remind us that God cares for the very least.



President Steyn, General Christiaan De Wet and Rev. J. D. Kestell, were considered the soul of the Boer struggle for freedom and independence. Their Reformed Faith was the cornerstone of their policy. President Steyn was considered the first choice to be Prime Minister of the new Union of South Africa in 1910, but for health reasons, he could not accept this position. That honour then fell to General Louis Botha. When Prime Minister Botha supported the British war policy and declared war on Germany, President Steyn resigned from the South African Party in protest and spoke out against the imprisonment of General De Wet for opposing the war.


c1main.wwi.french.machinegunProtest and Principle

Martinus Steyn was the most prominent advocate for the establishment of the National Women's Memorial, which was unveiled in Bloemfontein, 16 December 1913. He was a co-founder of the South Africa Party. However, when the South Africa Party supported war with Germany, he left in protest, and with General James Barry Hertzog and General Christiaan De Wet, founded the National Party.



General Steyn died of a heart attack while addressing a meeting in Bloemfontein, November 1916. He was only 58 years old. He is buried at the Women's Memorial at the Anglo Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein. President Steyn stands out as one of the finest examples of a principled Christian statesman, a patriot and a courageous campaigner for freedom.


"I would rather lose the independence of the Free State with honour than retain it with dishonour."


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