Family and childhood
Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger was born on 10 October 1825 at Bulhoek, a farm in the Steynsburg area of the Cape Colony, the third child and second son of Casper Jan Hendrik Kruger, a farmer, and his wife Elsie (Elisa; née Steyn). The family was of Dutch-speaking Afrikaner or Boer background, of German, French Huguenot and Dutch stock. His paternal ancestors had been in South Africa since 1713, when Jacob Krüger, from Berlin, arrived in Cape Town as a 17-year-old soldier in the Dutch East India Company's service. Jacob's children dropped the umlaut from the family name, a common practice among South Africans of German origin, and over the following generations Kruger's paternal forebears moved into the interior. His mother's family, the Steyns, had lived in South Africa since 1668 and were relatively affluent and cultured by Cape standards. Kruger's great-great-uncle Hermanus Steyn had been President of the self-declared Republic of Swellendam that revolted against Company rule in 1795.
Bulhoek, Kruger's birthplace, was the Steyn family farm and had been Elsie's home since early childhood; her father Douw Gerbrand Steyn had settled there in 1809. The Kruger and Steyn families were acquainted and Casper occasionally visited Bulhoek as a young man. He and Elsie married in Cradock in 1820, when he was 18 and she was 14.[n 1] A girl, Sophia, and a boy, Douw Gerbrand, were born before Paul's arrival in 1825. The child's first two names, Stephanus Johannes, were chosen after his paternal grandfather, but rarely used—the provenance of the third name Paulus "was to remain rather a mystery", Johannes Meintjes wrote in his 1974 biography of Kruger, "and yet the boy was always called Paul."
Paul Kruger was baptised at Cradock on 19 March 1826, and soon thereafter his parents acquired a farm of their own to the north-west at Vaalbank, near Colesberg, in the remote north-east of the Cape Colony. His mother died when he was eight; Casper soon remarried and had more children with his second wife, Heiletje (née du Plessis). Beyond reading and writing, which he learned from relatives, Kruger's only education was three months under a travelling tutor, Tielman Roos, and Calvinist religious instruction from his father. In adulthood Kruger would claim to have never read any book apart from the Bible.
In 1835 Casper Kruger, his father and his brothers Gert and Theuns moved their families east and set up farms near the Caledon River, on the Cape Colony's far north-eastern frontier. The Cape had been under British sovereignty since 1814, when the Netherlands ceded it to Britain with the Convention of London. Boer discontent with aspects of British rule, such as the institution of English as the sole official language and the abolition of slavery in 1834, led to the Great Trek—a mass migration by Dutch-speaking "Voortrekkers" north-east from the Cape to the land over the Orange and Vaal Rivers. Many Boers had been voicing displeasure with the British Cape administration for some time, but the Krugers were comparatively content—they had always co-operated with the British and the abolition of slavery was irrelevant to them as they did not own slaves. They had given little thought to the idea of leaving the Cape.
A group of emigrants under Hendrik Potgieter passed through the Krugers' Caledon encampments in early 1836. Potgieter envisioned a Boer republic with himself in a prominent role; he sufficiently impressed the Krugers that they joined his party of Voortrekkers. Kruger's father continued to give the children religious education in the Boer fashion during the trek, having them recite or write down biblical passages from memory each day after lunch and dinner. At stops along the journey classrooms were improvised from reeds and grass and the more educated emigrants took turns in teaching.
The Voortrekkers faced competition for the area they were entering from Mzilikazi and his Ndebele (or Matabele) people, a recent offshoot from the Zulu Kingdom to the south-east. On 16 October 1836 the 11-year-old Kruger took part in the Battle of Vegkop, where Potgieter's laager, a circle of wagons chained together, was unsuccessfully attacked by Mzilikazi and around 4,000–6,000 Matabele warriors. Kruger and the other small children assisted in tasks such as bullet-casting while the women and larger boys helped the fighting men, of whom there were about 40. Kruger could recall the battle in great detail and give a vivid account well into old age.
During 1837 and 1838 Kruger's family was part of the Voortrekker group under Potgieter that trekked further east into Natal. Here they met the American missionary Daniel Lindley, who gave young Paul much spiritual invigoration. The Zulu King Dingane concluded a land treaty with Potgieter, but then promptly reconsidered and massacred first Piet Retief's party of settlers, then others at Weenen. Kruger would recount his family's group coming under attack from Zulus soon after the Retief massacre, describing "children pinioned to their mothers' breasts by spears, or with their brains dashed out on waggon wheels"—but "God heard our prayer", he recalled, and "we followed them and shot them down as they fled, until more of them were dead than those of us they had killed in their attack ... I could shoot moderately well for we lived, so to speak, among the game."
These developments impelled the Krugers' return to the highveld, where they took part in Potgieter's campaign that compelled Mzilikazi to move his people north, across the Limpopo River, to what became Matabeleland. Kruger and his father thereupon settled at the foot of the Magaliesberg mountains in the Transvaal. In Natal Andries Pretorius defeated more than 10,000 of Dingane's Zulus at the Battle of Blood River on 16 December 1838, a date subsequently marked by the Boers as Dingaansdag ("Dingane's Day") or the Day of the Vow.[n 2]
Boer tradition of the time dictated that men were entitled to choose two 6,000-acre (24 km2) farms—one for crops and one for grazing—upon becoming enfranchised burghers at the age of 16. Kruger set up his home at Waterkloof, near Rustenburg in the Magaliesberg area. This concluded, he wasted little time in pursuing the hand of Maria du Plessis, the daughter of a fellow Voortrekker south of the Vaal; she was only 14 years old when they married in Potchefstroom in 1842. The same year Kruger was elected a deputy field cornet—"a singular honour at seventeen", Meintjes comments. This role combined the civilian duties of a local magistrate with a military rank equivalent to that of a junior commissioned officer.
Kruger was already an accomplished frontiersman, horseman and guerrilla fighter. In addition to his native Dutch he could speak basic English and several African languages, some fluently. He had shot a lion for the first time when he was a boy—in old age he recalled being 14, but Meintjes suggests he may have been as young as 11. During his many hunting excursions he was nearly killed on several occasions. In 1845, while he was hunting rhinoceros along the Steelpoort River, his four-pounder elephant gun exploded in his hands and blew off most of his left thumb. Kruger wrapped the wound in a handkerchief and retreated to camp, where he treated it with turpentine. He refused calls to have the hand amputated by a doctor, and instead cut off the remains of the injured thumb himself with a pocketknife. When gangrenous marks appeared up to his shoulder, he placed the hand in the stomach of a freshly-killed goat, a traditional Boer remedy. He considered this a success—"when it came to the turn of the second goat, my hand was already easier and the danger much less." The wound took more than six months to heal, but he did not wait that long to start hunting again.
Britain annexed the Voortrekkers' short-lived Natalia Republic in 1843 as the Colony of Natal. Pretorius briefly led Boer resistance to this, but before long most of the Boers in Natal had trekked back north-west to the area around the Orange and Vaal Rivers. In 1845 Kruger was a member of Potgieter's expedition to Delagoa Bay in Mozambique to negotiate a frontier with Portugal; the Lebombo Mountains were settled upon as the border between Boer and Portuguese lands. After Maria and their first child died of fever in January 1846, Kruger married her cousin Gezina du Plessis, from the Colesberg area, in 1847. Their first child, Casper Jan Hendrik, was born on 22 December that year.
Concerned by the exodus of so many whites from the Cape and Natal, and taking the view that they remained British subjects, the British Governor Sir Harry Smith in 1848 annexed the area between the Orange and Vaal rivers as the "Orange River Sovereignty". A Boer commando led by Pretorius against this was defeated by Smith at the Battle of Boomplaats. Pretorius also lived in the Magaliesberg mountains and often hosted the young Kruger, who greatly admired the elder man's resolve, sophistication and piety. A warm relationship developed. "Kruger's political awareness can be dated from 1850", Meintjes writes, "and it was in no small measure given to him by Pretorius." Like Pretorius, Kruger wanted to centralise the emigrants under a single authority and win British recognition for this as an independent state. This last point was not due to hostility to Britain—neither Pretorius nor Kruger was particularly anti-British—but because they perceived the emigrants' unity as under threat if the Cape administration continued to regard them as British subjects.
The British resident in the Orange River area, Henry Douglas Warden, advised Smith in 1851 that he thought a compromise should be attempted with Pretorius. Smith sent representatives to meet him at the Sand River. Kruger, aged 26, accompanied Pretorius and on 17 January 1852 was present at the conclusion of the Sand River Convention, under which Britain recognised "the Emigrant Farmers" in the Transvaal—the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek ("South African Republic"), they called themselves—as independent. In exchange for the Boers' pledge not to introduce slavery in the Transvaal, the British agreed not to ally with any "coloured nations" there. Kruger's uncle Gert was also present; his father Casper would have been as well had he not been ill.
The Boers and the local Tswana and Basotho chiefdoms were in near-constant conflict, mainly over land. Kruger was elected field cornet of his district in 1852, and in August that year he took part in the Battle of Dimawe, a raid against the Tswana chief Sechele I. The Boer commando was headed by Pretorius, but in practice he did not take much part as he was suffering from dropsy. Kruger narrowly escaped death twice—first a piece of shrapnel hit him in the head but only knocked him out, then later a Tswana bullet swiped across his chest, tearing his jacket without wounding him. The commando wrecked David Livingstone's mission station at Kolobeng, destroying his medicines and books. Livingstone was away at the time. Kruger's version of the story was that the Boers found an armoury and a workshop for repairing firearms in Livingstone's house and, interpreting this as a breach of Britain's promise at the Sand River not to arm tribal chiefs, confiscated them. Whatever the truth, Livingstone wrote about the Boers in strongly condemnatory terms thereafter, depicting them as mindless barbarians.
One charge levelled by Livingstone and many others against the Boers was that when attacking tribal settlements they abducted women and children and took them home as slaves. The Boer argument was that these were not slaves but inboekelings—indentured "apprentices" who, having lost their families, were given bed, board and training in a Boer household until reaching adulthood. Modern scholarship widely dismisses this as a ruse to create inexpensive labour while avoiding overt slavery.[n 3] Gezina Kruger had an inboekeling maid for whom she eventually arranged marriage, paying her a dowry.
Having been promoted to the rank of lieutenant (between field cornet and commandant), Kruger formed part of a commando sent against the chief Montshiwa in December 1852 to recover some stolen cattle. Pretorius was still sick, and only nominally in command. Seven months later, on 23 July 1853, Pretorius died, aged 54. Just before the end he sent for Kruger, but the young man arrived too late. Meintjes comments that Pretorius "was perhaps the first person to recognise that behind [Kruger's] rough exterior was a most singular person with an intellect all the more remarkable for being almost entirely self-developed."