CAPE TOWN, February, 1900.
TEN YEARS AGO a man lay sick of a fever under Table Mountain persuaded that, of all vile lands, South Africa was the worst. But wiser than he said between the quinine doses — “You’ll conic back again. When its all over you’ll long to come back again.” They were entirely right. The man hankered to see more of the fascinating country, and in due course of years, back he came to fall in love with heath, dysa, plumbago, the sudden flush of bloom in the Karroo after rain, the thunderstorms among the ironstone hills, and the big, dry distanees of the North. That was when one went up to Kimberley is cars of state; when Mafeking was remembered for the villainy of its refreshments; Gaberones because there was a little fever along the line; and De Aar because it was a junction of the night. The wise ones—those who had given the invalid quinine—reappeared, most of them, a little older, and browner and leaner, all telling one tale. all awaiting the fulfilment of their prophecies of eight years before.
“Now there is trouble,” they said, “the trouble that we forecast in 1891, when we were laughed at. That trouble is growing, and will presently come to a head.” Then they told tales in the clubs and on the railway platforms, looking over their shoulders, for the land was full of spies and all mistrust. “And,” said one of them, “when that trouble begins remember that from Cape Town to the border we shall be in an enemy’s country. Remember too, that, as it was in 1881, the government will take care it does not pay any one to be loyal.”
They were bitter and angry men two years ago; they are scarcely less bitter now, though the war has been going on four months. They still look over their shoulders when they say certain things in the club; they still sink their voices when they record certain facts, and are careful of their surroundings when they would speak freely. But it is to be remarked that the Cape Town clubs are not quite so full of memhers who personally shot Colley at Majuba—and two years ago there were several. In many small ways—not to be too optimistic—it seems as though there is growing, if not toleration, at least a certain respect for Englishmen. The contempt, at all events, is less open. I speak only of Cape Town as she faces the erowded bay where lie all the steamers that ever a man has used in his business— P. and O.’, Cunarders, White Stars, Orients, British Indias, Wilsons, and long-forgotten coasting tramps masquerading as troop and supply ships, These bring men—not enough of them yet—but a fair allowance of mud-coloured men whom the town notices out of the corner of her eye ere they disappear into camps and trains. These bring guns, clay-coloured guns—not enough by any means —but indubitable guns—those weapons which so many have assured their doubting friends England did not possess. Traction engines patrol Adderley Street hauling a score of loaded trucks at a time; mule and cattle boats load the air by the South Arm, and at the railway station, or, rather, in that railway town that runs from here to Salt River Junction, are stacked girders and rivets to mend broken bridges. The first fine, careless rapture of the war died nut long ago. It takes something very special in the way of troops to stir Cape Town nowadays (the Post-office and the Government buildings are still as singularly economical of bunting as ever they were), but those of her sons who are not at the front make their little profit out of the passing traffic. Dimly and distantly Cape Town realizes that that thing called the British Government is now in earnest. She hopes not too much in earnest; she prays very deeply that some of that earnestness may be diverted, or, if there be not too much danger to life and property, actively thwarted by some of her faithful children, but at heart I do believe that Cape Town is a little disposed to reeonsider her position. She sees no end to the troops and the guns; the strange men front the ends of the earth, the cattle, the mules, and the horses; the boxed machinery, and the walls of ammunition boxes.
In her leisure she learns something across the club-tables from men born and bred in the Colony who have seen fit to risk their hides in the colonial corps. The language is not of the book, and I think it shocks and revolts her; she had always wished to remain neutral, and the talk is positive. It is delivered very clearly, but in a low voice, for fear of creating scenes; it is meant to instruct, not to amuse, and it is backed with illustrations and instances that have not yet appeared in any journal. Let us suppose that you who read these lines had been out with Rimington’s jay-hawkers or somebody else’s fly-by-nights, riding hard and sleeping light for weeks; had been chewing horsedung round Colesberg, catehing sand-colic from mouldy water to the eastward, or chasing into the hot lands Sunnyside way. Suppose, now, by forethought and a little luck you had caught a few dozen veritable rebels—neither Free Staters nor Transvaalers, but registered voters, who had been firing at you as you blundered desperately across the barbed wire fences. Suppose that you had not shot your prizes, but had turned them over to the military authorities. Suppose, now that through some accident of marching these registered voters, across a section not under martial law, the civil authorities had received them with open arms; had prepared feather beds for them to fall upon, and by some hanky-panky of civil law, which you, ordered out on a new expedition, could by no means counteract, had sentenced them to practically nominal punishments. I am, of course, putting a purely supposititious case; but suppose at last that you were sent down to Cape Town sick, and met above the white table-cloth and crystal, which you had not seen since November, a clean quiet, collected gentleman in authority who had never been further than Stellenbosch since the war began; and that gentleman chaffed you about your ill success with your captives, and you had the best of reasons to believe that he and a few friends of his had used their authority to undo all the work you had paid for with sweat and saddle-chafe and dysentery and sun-fever. I put it to you, what would you say to that urbane and well-washed friend smiling craftily across the table ?
So it comes about that social relations in Cape Town are a little straiued, and that men have given up talking to one another who once preserved the semblanee of civility. No, it did not pay to be loyal in ’81—that is one reason why men who were loyal then are fighting hard against us—and it pays very little better now. The loyalist on the border has his house ripped inside out by Boers or rebels or both. The disloyalist’s farm is tespectud, and, in return, he supplies the enemy with food, horses and information. His risk is small. He may possibly, and not if his friends can stop it, be arrested on a charge of treason. He may then be sent down country to be tried by a sympathetic jury. He hopes, and not without reason, to have his farm restored to him after he has undergone some absurdly inadequate punishment.
Meantime the loyalist’s piano is lying wireless on the verandah, photographs of his house show the rooms as though cyclones had met to wrestle there, his flocks and herds are gone, and the baby-linen is lying on the dung-heap. He and his family crawl into Cape Town in over-packed trains and get what consolation they can from singing “Britons Never Shall be Slaves ” on the platform. Then do Messrs. Kruger and Steyn enter into correspondence with Lord Roberts as to the atrocities committed on a virtuous population by a brutal and licentions soldiery; and, out and in the dust and glare to eastward, the various jay-hawkers and night-cats and catch-’em-alive-o’s of our irregular corps may be forgiven if they vow that the next. time they are fired upon from a registered voter’s farm they will not wait for an authorization countersigned by 15 officers ere annexing all that registered voter’s stock.
In sober truth only a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta can parallel some of the affairs in which the military and civil authorities have met over the bodies of suspected farmers or the correspondence of disinterested officials. The loyalists declare that, properly handled, open disloyalty could be redueed to a neglectable quantity. “What, then,” they demand, “is the sense of creating and propping and supporting the thing, as you created and propped and supported the Transvaal till it bit you ?” They have a certain amount of reason on their side, and it may as well to set out. To defeat, to delay, to evade and nullify the workings of a just punishment at first cautiously, but later made bold by toleration, with an insolent carelessness of security; to preach sedition under guise of abject loyalty; to malign unscrupulously, and to lie malignantly and with knowledge among an ignorant people is a merry and profitable game while it endures. The players, however, do not see or, busy with their small intrigues, will not realize that, for each man whose neck they save, arises another and yet another desiring nothing less than their necks. It is a brutal way to put it; but things are not all cream and honey in Cape Town just now; and I confess it gives me the cold ereeps to watch these smooth-talking smiling men explaining to their intimates, as they have cxplained these ten years past, how this and that will surely be softened down in the interest of some imperilled rebel, how help will come from here and snpport from another quarter, and how little in any case to be feared is the British Government. They—they will attend to it all. They will arrange, they will explain, they will influence, they will speak with the enemy in the gate. Truly the guns and men and the steadily arriving ships are annoying factors, but England cannot keep up the supply; she has drawn on her last resources, the capitalists are nearly tired, and, above all, the military are immensely fools and most easily hoodwinked. The home Government is far, weak, and of many minds. They are present—omnipresent. They maintain intimate relations with all sides, with the front, and the far more important “back-front” which begins at Pretoria. First news of all our movements comes to their hands, and also first news of all our reverses. They can make it unpleasant for the magistrate who does and the civil servant who sees too much; for the zealouss stationmaster or the uncommunicative telegraph clerk. Above all—and it was that that gave me the shudder up my back, same which you get when you see a man rioting a little before his end—they are persuaded that their own lives are absolutely safe. Nothing untoward can befall gentlemen of such address and influence. So they devote themselves to their gospel which preaches that it is not wise politically or departmentally to be over-loyal.
“We admit all that,” say the sagacious and the statesmanlike, “But when the war is over and the British flags come out of all the back cupboards and men are filing claims for compensation for disturbance by the wicked Free Staters and Transvaalers, these men will see which side their bread is buttered, and will work loyally with the constituted authorities. Our first business is to break up the Boer armies and confront them with the accomplished fact.”
This may be statecraft. and the foreknowledge that these gentlemen will enjoy positions of distinction and emolument after a peace which will have been won in the teeth of their efforts seems a mighty poor present equipment, for the loyal colonist. He consoles himself, however, with the hope that at the end he may be permitted to file affidavits and bring witnesses—hundreds of witnesses—charging certain men not with isolated acts of treason and sedition, but with deliberate and caleulated treason extending over a long period. He believes that the British public, who by them will have lost no small number of friends and relatives, may listen to something so fantastie and absurd as an impeaehment and a trial far away from kindly supporters and admirers.
And it rests with you, O British people, to fill his hope. When you hear, as you will hear, what you will call a howl go up Irom this side of South Africa, demanding that certain men be put on trial for certain definite offences, do not, I beseech you, shut your ears.
There is no need to be vindictive. There is a great need for justice—such justice as is dealt coldly and deliberately, months or years after his erime, to the murderer or the manslayer. They will pray you to let bygones be bygones. They will beguile you and buy men to beguile you with lies of the danger of increasing race hatred; they will appeal tearfully to your magnanimity; behind the victories of your men they will shelter themselves; for their very misdeeds they will take credit, urging that if they had not done a little evil greater harm would have befallen the Colony. They will coax, they will threaten, they will bribe, and in the last resort they may turn Queen’s evidence. But when that time comes listen at least to the case for the prosecution; take the trouble to read through the affidavits, and see that some of those hoary heads come to the trial. Our own folly and wilful blindness have already given us enough to answer for. We have condoned that for which we are now paying with good lives, but there is no sane need why we should, at the end, endorse dirty little felonies.
We owe this much not to ourselves, but to the Colony. At present a section of the land—that Cape Town I have talked about—is like a woman who has just thrown her cap over the windmill. Excitement enables her to brave many things; but the reckoning from her family and her little world is yet to be faced. The Colony’s world is a large and a growing one ; the circle of her acquaintances to-day runs front Edmonton to Invercargill, from Perth to Halifax. ‘What the Colony thinks of them as they pour north in the labouring trains, or, all new to Adderley Street, buy the South African News in mistake for the Cape Times is a matter of no importance.
What they think of her matters a great deal—not today, but the day after tomorrow. They are not by any means the English of the island in their notions. The Colony cannot say that they are untroubled or do not understand her peculiarities, for they too know the life that is lived out between a horse and a verandah under hot blue skies. They, too, draw from the townships lost in vast plains; they are accustomed to manage their own affairs in their own way, as they are accustomed to accept responsibility and wise in the management of men. There is no trick or turn of Cape polities, save one, which they cannot duplicate in the land of their birth. They have hurried in from self-governing communities whose men act and think and write a little more freely than you do at home, and they perceive that from Cape Town to the border they must consider themselves in an unfriendly land. A few of them are now nursing wounds which they owe to early and accurate information received by the enemy from the registered voters of the border districts. Others, and this is quite as important in their eyes, have lost meals and drinks through the carelessness, shall we call it, of those who they unreasonably expected might be their friends. Now, men who are used to dust in their food do not care to have it thrown in their eyes. Five, six, and seven thousand miles away, anxious young communities are waiting for word of their men. No detail of their doings goes unrecorded by the big dailies whose wrappers you have never opened, or by the little cheap newspapers with the patent insides. Move a mixed colonial contingent fifty miles here across country, and Winnipeg, Quebec, Vancouver, Canterbury, Wellington, and Brisbane are also moved; over and above that they will write to their papers. These men’s letters will be read and re-read at cross-road stores, in railway round-houses, in wayside dossers’ camps, at up country race-meetings, little masonic lodges, the wharves of big exporting houses, and the clubs of all the White Man’s world. Do you see, therefore, that the long-enduring scorn, the terse, sticking contempt, the happy epithet spat out in a dusty ramp, to turn up double-leaded in a journal of eighty thousand circulation on the other side of the world will not come from England ? The Colony will be branded by her own brethren, by the open-air men who have voted regularly since their majority and who own the houses they live in. She dare not say that they have been bought by the capitalists, influenced by the Press, or prejudiced by their insular training.
It is her own caste in punchayet that will strip the Colony of her caste. She will be left with her climate and her geographical advantages, but her place among our peoples will go over to little Natal, while her honour is trailed round the world at the heels of these returning horsemen.
This is unjust—bitterly and cruelly unjust. I developed the forecast at some length to a South African, and there are no words to paint his extreme objection to the medicine. He was quite unconsoled by the reminder that the Cretans have not yet recovered from the effect of a hasty hexameter of old days, and that the Laodiceans have “passed into literature.” It struck him as a piece of hideous brutality, for he loved his land with passion. You see, she is his own land in agony and great torture, and it cuts him to the soul that her name should be soiled. He says that she has more loyalists fighting in the field than Natal; that there are thousands of men and women, their relatives fighting on the other side, their hearts torn in three pieces, who still bide loyal. Is it not, he asks, enough that when peace comes the disloyalists will be petted and raised to honour, without this last shame upon him and his ?
There is one way out of the horror, and one only. The men who have befouled the Colony are known. They go abroad; no man lays a hand upon them; they have become careless in speech and—this is important—in deed. At the proper time those men can be made the means of saving the Colony.
Cape Town, February 1900