Paul Kruger is believed to have been born on 10 October 1825 on his grandfather's farm, Bulhoek, in the Cradock district, near the present day town of Steynsburg. At the age of ten his family set out as part of the Great Trek and he was brought up within the strict tenets of Dutch Calvinism.
Kruger fought in the Battle at Vegkop in 1836, where they fought against Mzilikazi. Shortly after this, he and his family accompanied Piet Retief on his trek to Natal. Here he also witnessed conflicts between the Voortrekkers and the Zulu, including the killing of a number of trekkers in the encampments along the Bloukrans and Bushmans rivers. Next, the family moved north with Hendrik Potgieter. Paul’s father and uncle were two of the founders of the town Potchefstroom, the first capital of what would later become the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek(ZAR).
When Kruger was 16 he received his first farm near present-day Rustenburg, as was the custom, and named it Waterkloof, in the Magaliesberg. In 1842, he married Maria du Plessis, who was a Voortrekker girl from Tarka. Kruger is said to have been a keen hunter, but not a dedicated farmer, and he and his family later accompanied Potgieter to the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) where they founded Ohrigstad, near the border of Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique).
In 1846, he returned to the Magaliesberg, where both his wife and baby died of malaria. A year later, Kruger married Gezina du Plessis, his first wife’s cousin (a suburb of Pretoria is named after her). Together they had 16 children, but some died in infancy.
Kruger began his military career at an early age, and served as a veldkornet during his teens. He also began to have an interest in politics, and accompanied Andries Pretorius to the signing of the Sand River Convention in 1852, where the Transvaal was granted its independence. Three years later he helped draw up the constitution of this new republic. He also served as commandant-general in several conflicts against neighbouring chiefs, and played a prominent role in the pacifying and uniting of the Boer communities in the early 1860’s, when there was conflict between the government lead by Pretorius, and the anti- state faction lead by Schoeman.
In 1877, when the British annexed the Transvaal, Kruger became the champion of the Boer nation in their struggle to regain and keep their independence. His first two visits to England, and his negotiations with the government of Benjamin Disraeli, were fruitless, as with his campaign of passive resistance back home. These attempts established him as a patriotic leader and a skilled politician.
In 1880 the Transvalers, under the leadership of Kruger, M.W. Pretorius and Piet Joubert, rebelled against the British authorities. The invading forces were defeated by Joubert’s burghers at Laing’s Nek, Ingogo, and Majuba Hill in 1881.
Kruger was known as the ‘father of the Afrikaner nation’ and his firm belief in the destiny of the Afrikaner, his strong faith and his obedience to his God characterized his life. In 1883 he was elected president of the ZAR. He proceeded to negotiate the ZAR’s complete independence from Britain in 1884 at the London convention, and the abolition of British suzerainty (supervision).
Kruger had an arch-enemy in Cecil Rhodes and his Cape political associates. The latter regarded the western parts of the Transvaal as the ‘Suez Canal’ of Africa. It was the Imperial way across the Limpopo and into the far northern interior. Kruger had, against the terms of the London Convention, proclaimed the area a Transvaal protectorate, and had to withdraw. Later this land became the British protectorate of Bechuanaland.
In 1886, the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand resulted in a flood of immigrants or ‘uitlanders’ to the area. This was a threat to the new political independence of the Transvaal and the Afrikaner identity. Kruger’s government needed the revenue from the mines and didn’t have any legitimate reason to remove these foreigners, but to grant them full political rights would negate everything he had fought for.
Rhodes, the ‘uitlanders’ and their representatives in Johannesburg, the Reform Committee, increased the pressure on Kruger, but the failed Jameson Raid of 1895-1896 spoiled the possibility of a peaceful resolution. The aftermath of the Raid showed Kruger at his political peak. Jameson and his officers were released to stand trial in London and the ‘uitlander’ leaders, most of who had been convicted of treason, had their sentenced reduced greatly. This afforded Kruger with the moral high ground and for the next six years international sympathy lay with the Transvaal. This also resulted in him defeating Piet Joubert in the 1896 presidential election.
Later Kruger did make some concessions to the British, but Alfred Milner, the High Commissioner, made increasingly difficult demands. Britain was determined to create a unified South Africa and negotiations were no longer about the rights of ‘uitlanders’.
The South African War, or Anglo-Boer War, broke out on 11 October 1899, and Kruger, now 74, remained in Pretoria as a result of poor health until 1900. He left the capital only a few days before Lord Roberts occupied it in May of the same year. On 21 October 1899, Kruger boarded the Dutch warship Die Gelderland, sent by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, at Lorenço Marques, and left for Europe.
There he tried to gain practical support for the Boer cause, but was mostly unsuccessful. He did, however receive a lot of moral support. For a period of time he lived in the Netherlands, but moved to Clarens, Switzerland, where he died on 14 July 1904 from heart failure caused by hardening of the arteries.
Kruger was also instrumental in the formation of the Kruger National Park, the largest and one of the most famous national parks in the country. After numbers of game began to dwindle in the late 19th century, due to hunting, Kruger advocated the policy of setting aside specific areas for animals to proliferate without human interference.
*Both Kruger’s birthdate and birthplace have been disputed, but it is believed that he was born on his maternal grandfather’s farm, Bulhoek, near Steynsburg. However, as Kruger’s family did not have a permanent home at the time, other researchers have claimed that he was born in Soutpansdrift, near Hofmeyr. Kruger apparently states in his memoirs that his birthplace was Vaalbank, near Colesberg.