- History and Photographs of the Boer War

Martinus (Marthinus) Theunis Steyn

President of the Orange Free State

President Steyn of the Boer Orange Free State

Martinus (Marthinus) Theunis Steyn (October 2, 1857 - November 28, 1916) was a Boer leader, jurist and last president of the Orange Free State.

Steyn was born Winburg in the Orange Free State, the fourth in a family of eleven children. Unusually for Boers of that time, he received a good education and was sent to study law in the Netherlands, where he earned a law degree. Upon his return to the Boer republic, Steyn set up a successful law practice in the capital and was eventually appointed Attorney General and later Judge.

Shortly before the start of the (Second) Boer War, Steyn was elected President of the Orange Free State, the smaller of the two Boer Republics. With tensions escalating between the Boers and the British Empire over the issue of whether British citizens resident in the republics would be granted voting rights, and disputes over frontier boundaries, Steyn adopted a hard stance against the British. He was instrumental in sending the British an ultimatum which was the immediate precursor to war.

As Steyn explained before sending the ultimatum: "I would rather lose the independence of the Free State with honour than retain it with dishonour".

President Steyn and his council
President Steyn Amid His Council

After the war turned against the Boers and the capitals of both the Orange Free State and the Transvaal were occupied by the British, Steyn was instrumental in organizing Boer resistance to carry on the fight. Evacuating his capital, he continued to lead the government, and coordinating the guerilla war against the British occupation. He also strongly opposed any proposals for peace by the other Boer leaders.

Nevertheless, as defeat became clearly inevitable, Steyn finally came around to the realization that there was no option but to sue for peace. He took part in the initial peace conference with the British, but had to drop out of the final negotiations due to ill health.

After the war, Steyn remained active in politics within the newly formed Union of South Africa. Steyn was instrumental in building a memorial to the women and children who had died in British concentration camps during the occupation. He died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 56 while giving a speech at a political rally.

His brother, General J.P. Steyn was a general in the Boer army.