Capetown, February 1901
IT OCCURRED to an ex-Minister of Queen Victoria on the day after the death was announced, to go into Cape Town with a red flower in his buttonhole. All colour was wiped out of the streets; the Malay women had stitched black armlets on their sleeves, and the pillars of Parliament House, that was so slow, last year, to rejoice at the relief of Ladysmith, were heavily draped with mourning. In the generations to be, those now children will tell their children what trivial things they were doing when the news came that cut across their play and they listened, awed and curious, to the booming of timed guns from the warships. The ex-Minister, sworn servant of the dead woman, had chosen this day of all others to parade his oafdom before the sun. His position, his education, he owed to the Queen’s Peace: under the forms of freedom devised by her stewards, he had been enabled to work peacefully and honourably towards the disintegration of her Empire; and his sole notion of gratitude (who is debtor for the very breath in his nostrils to the long habit of order and restraint established through three generations under her rule) was to run about the city with a red flower in his coat.
But we owe him some thanks, since, the other day, in gay talk to an acquaintance, he said: ‘We mean to keep the war going till the Income Tax is doubled. Then there will be plenty of pro-Boers in England.’
Taking this for our text, let us now consider the progress of the war at the Front which Front is precisely where it has been for the last year—neither in the Transvaal nor the Orange River Colony but in Cape Town and Cape Colony.
If you re-read the letters of advice and reproof sent to Pretoria and Bloemfontein shortly before the outbreak of the war by ‘responsible Ministers’ and highly placed officials at Cape Town, you will see that they are not so much single-minded exhortations addressed to a possible enemy, as respectful counsels of prudence from officers in command of an unprepared right wing to impetuous generals who propose to fling their centre into action at once.
One ex-Minister put the case exactly when he wrote in effect: ‘Give way now. Later we can tighten the string at our pleasure.’ The right wing of the ‘Republican’ armies, as represented by the Bond and its allies—the men who have preached hate for a generation—was in truth not pleased with the brutal head-breakings of actual war. The more careful among them sincerely objected, because they saw their way to win their ends constitutionally, i.e. by embezzlement, rather than by highway robbery. They looked for no sudden jarring upheaval, but a dual and, in spots, State-aided deliquescence of the race that had abdicated its sovereign position at Majuba. Yet, once called into the strife, we must own that they did their duty nobly. For the past twenty years, the Bond has been practically the sole instructor of the up-country farmer in the Colony — an organisation able and willing to trust and to reward, politically and personally — a power to be feared in all relations, working without scruple or change on the emotions of perhaps the most ignorant breed of whites and semi-whites in the world. Therefore the up-country farmer, and the down-country one as well, have contributed from ten to twelve thousand armed men to the ranks of the enemy, and held passive from thirty to forty thousand British troops on the line of communications. We shall never wholly know how much information the leaders of the Bond sent to the Transvaal and the Free State in the early days of the war (it takes them over a week now to send news to the Northern Transvaal) and till the documents are printed we can only guess at the thousand quiet and ostentatious ways in which it hampered and delayed the efforts of an Army none too wise. As a body, as individuals, in press, in pulpit, in caucus and in Congress, the Bond never forgot that they were the right wing of the Republican armies. And our own folly helped them. A year ago some thirty-eight rebels, their rifles hot in their hands, were caught at Sunnyside, within the colony, and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. A fortnight since, a Dutchman said to an Englishman at Piquetberg Road where a column is now looking for a commando: ‘If you’d shot those Sunnyside chaps when you’d caught ’em we shouldn’t have this bother now.’ There are at present some thousands of rebels scheduled for trial, and under the new Treason Bill the utmost that could be squeezed out of a loyal colony—the bulk of them may be deprived of their vote for five years if it can be proved that they did not rebel under compulsion.
We are waiting now to see how far the Dutch in the colony will accept this invitation to loot and free shooting. Meantime, the farmer, to whom the Bond with the Dutch Reformed Church have taught the obligations of hatred, gives food, forage, horses, and information to the commandos that have come in from the North. Very often he acts as unarmed scout in advance of them, and when he meets a policeman or a wandering patrol, says that he is looking for strayed cattle. So he rides at leisure to give his friends the lie of the land. The farmer believes himself to be on velvet. If at long last the ‘Republics’ lose, he will present enormous bills for compensation to the British Government, and his neighbours, partners in that spoil, will swear that he was of all most loyal. If the ‘Republics’ win, he is promised the pick of the loyalists’ farms, and since the loyalist is seven times out of ten a progressive, with grade stock, clean sheep, and well arranged water-supply, the inducement is simple and direct. The looting of small shops, where the women take the calico and the tinned foods, and the men the tobacco and whisky, is a foretaste of the good time coming. In any other part of the world these things would be called common theft, but here they seem to be political offences.
And so the game goes on: the Bond lifting not a finger to check it. The Bond says, in the first place, that their people are misguided. They should have resisted at this eleventh hour the teaching of the Bond — should have flown in the face of every influence brought to bear on them from their youth. Secondly this point is generally developed by persons of Continental extraction who have grown to importance under British rule, how can the Bond hold these misguided folk from sympathising with down-trodden patriots of their own breed—lawful overlords of the soil? Thirdly, a Dutch rising is always probable — most regrettable, but still quite on the cards. No one, says the Bond, can foresee where such a rising might end. Would it not be better, then, to ‘consult South African sentiment in the settlement’ — and, under threat of a Dutch rising, condone all the acts of their allies in Cape Colony? In plain English, acknowledge the Dutch as the dominant power in South Africa. Sometimes the Bond adds touching appeals against the danger of waking further race-hatred, ignorant of the fact that had the Empire for three months been actuated with one-tenth of the race-hatred these men have taught their ‘misguided’ constituents for the last twenty years, everything with a Dutch name to it would by now dismount and walk (as it was after the Mutiny) at the far vision of an Englishman. One hears from the more malignant an occasional hint that the Boer may at last be forced into joining with the native to secure his rights.
But by present indications it does not look as if the Bond were openly for extreme measures. As the ex-Minister hinted, it is wisest to attack England through her pocket. The game will be to keep the Colony on the see-saw, to fill it with rumour and unrest; sympathising here and suggesting there, just enough to keep the heavy-footed and expensive columns dancing after the cheap and evasive commandos, till England, in despair, grants that amnesty to Colonial rebels which will bring the Bond up to full voting for further ‘constitutional’ warfare. Yet the position is not without delicacy for the Bond, which are fighting for their political life.
If their constituents are ultimately disenfranchised even for five years, the Bond will be unable to help them constitutionally towards any recompense from the Treasury for losses incurred at the hands of the enemy; and it is of the first importance for the Bond’s future that no true son of the soil who has taken part in this war against the English goes unrewarded. There must, therefore, be a sufficient threat, if not of a full Dutch rising, of interminable police work to coerce the British taxpayer into patching up the war in a hurry. Per contra, if too many hungry commandos come down, they may be chased about the Colony by angry and hungry troops—even by Colonials, who have a horrible gift, denied to purely British forces, of distinguishing a loyalist from a rebel. That would not be good for crops, or cattle, or human life; and the farmer might hold the Bond responsible. If too few invaders come down, the taxpayer in England may not be cowed; the raiders will not be able to live for ever on the loot of loyalists’ farms, and will take to looting their own people. For this again, the farmer may hold the Bond responsible, and their political prestige may be impaired at the next elections. Lastly, when De Wet comes down in force, he will want to sweep up all the men and all the provisions he can lay hands on; and he may be quite unsympathetic enough to sjambok, if not to shoot, good Bond voters, who, like their betters, are sitting on the fence.
Now, to preserve a decent face in England, where their envoys go to plead the case of South Africa, the Bond cannot unreservedly approve of De Wet’s actions, though a Bond paper may extol his flogging and shooting of peace envoys. Yet the Bond want their voters sound and unperforated for future oonstitutional contingencies, and De Wet is fairly sure to lead red war all in and out and among the farms. If he wins he will not give many political billets to statesmen, be they never so statesmanlike, who have merely prepared the way for his warriors. If he loses, there will be no compensation for rebels. The new Treason Bill runs out in a few months, and if the English are not soothed down there may be confiscation and heavy fines, perhaps hanging, for as innocent and simple a rebellion as ever the Chosen People embarked upon. This is very sad and complicated and may lead to recriminations. Some of the extremists of the Bond are for committing themselves now fully to the Dutch cause, De Wet and all; but some of the others are hunting for some sort of side-path that will give them a chance to keep on the ground-level of the gallows, within hail of a seat in the next Parliament. If De Wet wins — he is assumed to be in command of several thousands, all lusting for real battle, and sure of a welcome among many more thousands alight with the same desire — the Bond may, of course, come out flat-footedly on his side. Just at present.the apricots are not yet quite ripe enough. But the Bond has unshaken faith in the Opposition, whose every word and action are quoted here, and lead to more deaths on the veldt. It is assumed that His Majesty’s Opposition will save the Bond, and South Africa for the Bond, if only the commandos make the war expensive.
That latter note has been set during the past few weeks at Jagersfontein (the story of which evacuation is interesting) and on the outskirts of Johannesburg where mines and electric light have been damaged. We shall probably learn later of an attack on the far-away Namaqua copper mines. It is easy enough to say that this is the work of mere marauders, but north and south they are working for a common object—the manufacture of pro-Boers in England by doubling the Income Tax.
It is no small part of the Bond’s policy—they are thorough as we are not — to throw a delicate gloom over every aspect of the situation. Their friends and their agents return from London, where they do occasionally dine with the Liberal leaders, and propound terms asserting that the English are already sick of the job, and that no power on earth can save the Empire if another forty thousand Dutchmen rise. That the Empire has more than once dedicated itself to seeing the work through is a detail. The Bond, remembering Majuba, thinks that when a man or a people has lied for twenty years it will be some time before friends, and still longer before enemies, believe in any abiding reformation on the part of that man or that nation. But the Bond has forgotten that it deals today with the Empire, which is not altogether England.
The game of constitutional government strengthens their hands very firmly. The present Ministry has, of course, followed the highest traditions of politics. It has been brought up with, dines, and teas, with the opposition, and naturally does not look much beyond the next election. Now Smijtt, ex-Minister, may be less than one-eighth of one degree removed from a malignant and peculiarly unscrupulous rebel. Van Djones has a knack, we will say, of raising red war every time he visits his disenfranchised but well-armed constituency; while Robinschoen, in his hours of ease, speaks of the enemy, to whom he is related by ties of marriage, as ‘we’, and forwards letters to a host of paroled friends scattered about the border towns. It is annoying; it is very annoying; it militates against a speedy settlement and a return. to family politics; but … Mrs. Smijtt is rather nice, and one’s wife discusses cooking with Mrs. Van Djones, whose cousin, now in Ceylon, is godfather to one’s niece’s second child, and no dinner party is complete without Robinschoen’s delightful Dutch anecdotes … How, then, can a respectable, tea-drinking Ministry draw down upon these nice folk the indecent rigours of martial law. This sounds trivial and vulgar enough. Perhaps it reads better to write that the Ministry ‘are not justified in employing martial law to oppress their political opponents’, and so through every relation of the easy intimate delightful Cape Town life — at coffee on the stoep, at the morning ride, or in casual neighbourly talk across the garden fence, the cohorts of Smijtt, Van Djones, and Robinschoen skirmish in support of the commandos. They cannot fight, but they can put useful pressure on loyal Brown who, let us say, is a Minister. Their common ground (even Brown may be forgiven for joining them here) is the eccentricities of the imperial arms.
Smijtt describes with curious detail the sorrows of a Militia regiment toiling afoot up Africa in the wake of a handful of deeply amused Light Horse. He knows that stretch of country — they all know it — have shot buck there together years ago. He puts it to Brown as a fellow-sportsman:
‘Politics apart, old man, do you honestly think that ten or thirty thousand acres of that ghastly high veldt is worth one of the poor boys coming into hospital now?’
‘And such nice boys too,’ says Mrs. Smijtt tenderly.
Brown cannot deny that that country is pretty much of a waste; that the Wynberg hospitals are full and that the game does not seem to get any forrader.
Smijtt says: ‘Ah!’ and conveys the impression that he and Brown are only separated from each other’s political arms by the immense stupidity of ‘Downing Street,’ which through laxity has plunged the land in blood.
Brown is no match dialectically for the suave Smijtt, full of facts, delivering prophecies that have an odd knack of fulfilling themselves forty-eight hours later. It is easy enough for those free from responsibility, who, from a distance, see the full sweep and swing of the huge game, to say that Brown is an ass for taking any notice of these things. But, remember, Brown has known Smijtt for a generation: has cut in and out of cosy little Ministries, with or against him, since railways were new in the land. Brown is dragged at the heels of a situation that he is doing his best to overtake in all honour and honesty; but he is only human. He goes forth from these councils with a face as long as a cavalry stirrup-leather—depressed and foreboding. That is all Smijtt needs for the present—that Brown shall think and doubt, and doubting, temporize even more than his natural disposition will lead him to. Smijtt will repeat the treatment next time they meet.
Van Djones’ work is easier but, perhaps, more artistic. The Bond knows that a developed Africa — say a land only fifty years behind Canada or Australia — would slay its whole precious organisation as surely as the self-binder slew the sickle. It is Van Djones’ business, then, to catch the new man from England and to demonstrate to him the supreme worthlessness of Africa as a field for all white effort. Only a very low type of Dutch (Van Djones is magnificently scornful of them. He even hints that they are mixed with native blood) can hope, he says, to snatch a living out of the larger part of the unthrifty earth. All manner of experiments (here he gives chapter and verse) have been tried, and have failed.
‘The honest fact is, and a man of your penetration will see it the minute he goes up-country, that Africa is the most over-rated land in the world, and the little we can ever acomplish can only be done on strictly South African lines.’
Then he begins the list of calamities that, quite rightly and inevitably, have scourged this unfenced, unplanted, unirrigated, unhandled country, where sloth has been made a political programme and religion the handmaid of dirt. Presently — for Van Djones’ man of penetration is more handy with a pen than a plough and does not read Wallace — the echoes of this talk drift back to London, and, in due time, you read that some well informed member of the Opposition has been speaking of the barren rocks and worthless wilderness which we are drenching with the blood, of our best, etc., etc. Then do Smijtt, Djones, and Robinschoen and the rest take fresh heart (rather like spiritualists half-deceived by their own trappings) and plunge anew into their penny-farthing councils and threepenny ju-ju work. In about three days the papers, quoting the news of the open-minded, sympathetic frock-coated member of the Opposition, have found their way, with or without inspired comments on the change that God is working in the hearts of the English, to beyond Aliwal North—to Prieska and Calvinia. Smijtt and Van Djones go home to tea after worrying the luckless Brown with dark hints of what happens to people who trust the word of the English, and somewhere three hundred miles up-country a wandering patrol is arrested by an appalling stench behind a bush, and the well known buzz and dispersal of clotted flies. And that is how it is done.
But we have our lighter moments. Though Van Djones’ South African talk rather impresses the English of the Rand who have a thousand years of tradition behind them and rent their houses on a three years’ lease, the sons of men who made countries with their hands the day before yesterday decline to be bluffed. Said a wrathful Canadian to me, not long since:
‘Did you ever try to talk about opening up the country to Van Djones? He acts precisely like a neutral Boer when you’re looking for ammunition in his house. He just sweats with loyalty, and rubs his hands and swears you’ll find good grass and water ten mile down the valley, but there’s nothing here s’welp ‘im. All the sheep have got the scab, and the cattle are dead, and his horses were stolen last week. Yes, that’s just like Van Djones, on South African Development — with his red-water, and his lung sickness, and his black labour difficulty, and his locusts. Why! (Do you know that high neighiing half shriek of indignation?) Why, where under the canopy would folk have been in Kansas today if they’d laid down and died just because locusts ate up a crop or two?. Van Djones says there’s a curse on the land. He’s dead right. He’s it! There’s nothing the matter with South Africa but laziness—common Creator-condemned idleness. They’ve a better climate than we have and more water than Australia has. They talk as if their old ragbag of a country wasn’t made out o’ common dirt. See here! That unique air o’ theirs is the same as Colorado; the Karroo they fuss over is our Plains, only the sago-brush grows high instead o’ low, and their kopjes are mesas with points to ’em. And the people — the holy sacred people —they’re simply Pennsylvania Dutch. They’ve killed the country.’
‘Then you think the Constitution ought to be suspended?’
‘Yes,’ said the child of free institutions. ‘It’s crazy nonsense. We needn’t suspend it for keeps, but we ought to have a family Council —Canada, Australia, and England, I mean— and hang the whole show up for two years till our erring sister has got over her hysterics. A constitution—for a country that don’t know enough to cut its own hay — where I’ve had to lie out for a year in the open for fear the pious voter would blow up the railway bridges behind me? No, sir.’
Thus far Canada, eleven months on the war-path. Australia is even more outspoken and inclined to take every delay as a personal insult to the Commonwealth.
But the Bond prefers to keep its eye on the Continent, and London, valuing more the modified friendship (when it shall be quite convenient) of the old peoples; and the favour and Countenance of His Majesty’s Opposition, than the disapproval of two healthy young nationalities.
Perhaps the Bond is right. Cape Town, the head-quarters of the enemy’s right wing, is the only spot where martial law is not proclaimed. If you can imagine a Mahsud Waziri rising in fall swing with the heads of jirgas members of the Peshawar Club; the Mullah Powindah himself playing whist with the Commissioner of Peshawar, and all the priests who have preached the Jehad for the past sixty Sundays, calling on the wives of the Civil Service men, you will have some faint idea of the present situation.
The loyalist thinks that a war conducted on these lines will never end. The Bond assures him that he is right, that the British taxpayer will blench at the expense and will betray him once again to the Dutch. So they wait, Rebel and Loyalist, for a sign. It looks as though that sign had come. We have here a disease called the Plague — a new visitor — the outcome of filth and hidden dirt. It is caused by rats that seep into men’s houses and run about under the floors and presently die; one rat infecting the other. When you take up the floor you find the dead rats, and in due time are yourself shot full of the poison and end miserably at Uitvingt, our plague-camp. Experts say that if you make the rat unhappy by means of poison, broken glass, creosote and carbolic acid, the Plague may be stayed. Logically, of course, the rat should only be disenfranchised, for Plague does not more than kill the body; and after all, the present Municipality’s notions of cleanliness are precisely on a par with the late Ministry’s notions of loyalty. It is an interesting allegory.
Capetown, February 24,1901