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An English-South African's View Of The Situation

 

 

Words In Season

 

by Olive Schreiner

 

 

 

London.  Hodder & Stoughton, 27, Paternoster Row

 

c.  July 1899 

 

 

 

Many views have found expression in the columns of papers during the last weeks. The working man only a few weeks or months from England has expressed his opposition to those stratagems with war for aim which would leave him without the defence he has at present from the pressure of employers. Journalists only a few years, months, or weeks from Europe, have written, not perhaps expressing a desire for war, but implying it might be well the wave swept across South Africa, and especially if across that portion which is richest in mineral wealth, and, therefore, more to be desired. South Africans and men from Europe alike have written deprecating war, because of the vast suffering and loss it would occasion to individuals.

 

Dutch and English South Africans have written proving the injustice that would be inflicted on the people of Africa, the violation of treaties and trust. But, amid all this chorus of opinion, there is one voice which, though heard, has not yet been heard with that distinctness and fulness which its authority demands — it is the voice of the African-born Englishman who loves England, the man who, born in South Africa, and loving it as all men, who are men, love their birth-land, is yet an Englishman, bound to England not only by ties of blood, but that much more intense passion which springs from personal contact alone. Our position is unique, and it would seem that we are marked out, at the present juncture of South African affairs, for an especial function, which imposes on us at whatever cost to ourselves the duty of making our voices heard and taking our share in the life of our two nations at their

 

Most Critical Juncture.

 

For let us consider what exactly our position is.

 

Born in South Africa, our eyes first opened on these African hills and plains; around us, of other parentage, but born with us in the land, our birth-fellows, were men of another white race, and we grew up side by side with them. Is it strange that, like all men living who have the hearts of men, we learnt to love this land in which we first saw light? In after years, when we left it, and lived months or years across the seas, is it strange we carried it with us in our hearts? — when we stood on the Alps and looked down on the lakes and forests of Switzerland, we have said, "This is fair, but South Africa to us is fairer"? that when on the top of Milan Cathedral, and we have looked out across the wide plains of Lombardy, we have said, "This is noble; but nobler to us are the broad plains of Africa, with their brown kopjes shimmering in the translucent sunshine "? Is it strange that when, after long years of absence, years it may be of success and the joy which springs from human fellowship and youth, our ship has cast its anchor in sight of Table Bay, and the great front of Table Mountain has reared up before us, a cry of passionate joy has welled up within us; and when we saw the black men with their shining skins unloading in the docks, and the rugged faces of South Africans browned with our African sun, we put our foot on the dear old earth again, and our hearts have cried: “We are South Africans! We have come back again to our land and to our people"? Is it strange that when we are in other lands, and we fear that death approaches us, we say: "Take us back! We may live away from her, but when we are dead we must lie on her breast. Bury us among the kopjes where we played when we were children, and let the iron stones and red sand cover us"? Is it strange that wherever we live we all want to go home to die; and that the time comes when we know that dearer far to us than fame or success is one little handful of our own red South African earth? Is it strange that when the

 

Time of Stress and Danger

 

comes to our land we realise what, perhaps, we were but dimly conscious of before, that we are Africans, that for this land and people we could live — if need be, we could die?

 

Is it strange we should feel this? The Scotsman feels it for his heathery hills, the Swiss for his valleys. All men who are men feel it for the • land of their birth.

 

What is strange is not that we have this feeling, but that, side by side with it, we have another. We love Africa, but we love England also. It is not merely that when for the first time we visit the old nesting place of our people it is rich for us with  associations, that we tread it for the first time with something of the awe and reverence with which men tread an old cathedral, rich with remains of the great dead and past; it is not merely that the associations of language and literature bid us to it, nor that in some city or country churchyard we stand beside the graves of our forefathers, and trace on mould-eaten stones the names we have been familiar with in Africa, and bear as our own; nor is it that we can linger yet on the steps of the church where our parents were united before they moved to the far south, and made of us South Africans. Beyond all these impersonal, and more or less intellectual ties, we form a personal one with England. Whether we have gone home as students to college or university, or for purposes of art, literature, or professional labour, as time passes, there springs up around us

 

A Network of Tender Bonds;

 

there are formed the closest friendships our hearts will ever know, such as are formed only in the springtime of life; there is gained our first deep knowledge of life, and there grew up within us passions and modes of thought we will carry with us to our graves. After years, it may be after many years, when we return, on the walls of our study in South Africa we still keep fastened in memory of the past the old oar with which we won our first boating victory on Cam or Thames, and the faces of the men who shared our victory with us still look down at us from our walls. Not dearer to any Englishman is the memory of his Alma Mater than to him who sits thousands of miles off in the south, and who as he smokes his last pipe of African Boer or Transvaal tobacco, is visited often by memories of days that will never fade — evenings on the river with bright faces and soft voices, long midnight conclaves over glimmering fires, when, with hearts as young and glowing as our own, we discussed all problems of the universe and longed to go out into life that we might settle them — they come back to us with all the glitter and light which hang only about the remembrances of youth; and for many of us the memory of fog-smitten London is inextricably blended with all the profoundest emotions, the most passionate endeavours, the noblest relations our hearts will ever know. The steamers that come weekly to South Africa are not for us merely vessels bringing news from foreign lands; nor do they merely bring for us the intellectual pabulum which feeds our mental life; they bring us

 

"News from Home."

 

In London houses, in country cottages, in English manufacturing towns, are men and women whose life and labour, whose joys and sorrows, our hearts will follow to the end, as theirs will follow ours to the end, and across the seas our hands will always be interknit with theirs. Our labour, our homes, our material interests may all be in South Africa, but a bond of love so strong that six thousand miles of sea can only stretch it, but never sever it, binds us to the land and the friends we loved in our youth. We are South Africans, but intellectual sympathies, habits, personal emotions, have made us strike deep roots across the sea; and when the thought flashes on us, we may not walk the old streets again or press the old hands, pain rises which those only know whose hearts are divided between two lands. We are South Africans, but we are not South Africans only — we are Englishmen also:

 

 

 

Dear little Island,

 

Our heart in the sea!

 

 

 

If to-morrow hostile fleets encompassed England, and the tread of foreign troops was on her soil, she would not need to call to us; we should stand beside her before she had spoken. This is

 

Our Exact Position.

 

Side by side with us in South Africa are other South Africans whose position is not and cannot be exactly what ours is. Shading away from us by imperceptible degrees, stand on one side of us those English South Africans who, racially English, yet know nothing or little personally of her; the grandparents, and not the parents of such men, have left England; they are proud of being Englishmen; proud of England's great record and great names, as a man is proud of his grandmother's family; they are before all things essentially South African. He desires to see England increase and progress, and to remain in harmony and union with her while she does not interfere with internal affairs of South Africa, but he does not and cannot feel to her as those of us do whose love is personal and whose intellectual sympathies centre largely in England.

 

Yet further from us on the same side stand our oldest white fellow South Africans; who were, many, not of English blood originally, though among that body of early white settlers, men who preceded us in South Africa by three centuries, were a few with English names, and though by intermarriage Dutch and English South Africans are daily and hourly blending, the bulk of these folk were Dutchmen from Holland and Friesland, with a few Swedes, Germans, and Danes, and later was intermingled with them a strong strain of Huguenot blood from France. These men were mainly of that folk which, in the sixteenth century, held Philip and the Spanish Empire at bay, and struck the first death-blow into the heart of that mighty Imperial system whose death-gasp we have witnessed to-day. A brave, free, fearless folk with the

 

Blood of the Old Sea Kings

 

in their veins; a branch of that old Teutonic race which came with the Angles and Saxons into England and subdued the Britons, and who in the persons of the Franks entered Gaul, and spread its blood across Europe. They are a people most nearly akin to the English of all European folk; in language, form, and feature resembling them, and in a certain dogged persistence, and an inalienable, indestructible air of personal freedom.

 

Even under the early Dutch Government of the East India Company they were not always restful, and resented interference and external control. They frequently felt themselves "ondergedrukt," and taking their guns, and getting together wife and children and all that they had, and inspanning their wagons, they trekked away from the scant boards of civilisation into the wilderness to form homes of freedom for them selves and their descendants.

 

In 1795, owing to the change of matters in Europe, England obtained the Cape as the result of European complications, and the South African people, without request or desire on their part, were given over to England. England retired from the Cape in 1803, but, owing to other changes in Europe, she retook the Cape again in 1806, and has since then been the

 

Guardian of Our Seas,

 

and the strongest power in our land. Since that time for the last ninety years Englishmen have slowly been added to the population, but the men of Dutch descent still form the majority of white South Africans throughout the Cape Colony, Free State, and Transvaal, outnumbering even at the present day, even with the accession of the foreigners (Uitlanders mean foreigners in Dutch) to the goldfields of the Transvaal, those of English descent, as probably about two to one.

 

So we of England became step-mother to this South African people. We English are a virile race. There is perhaps no one with a drop of English blood in his veins who does not feel pride in that knowledge. We are a brave and, for ourselves, a freedom-loving race: the best of us have nobler qualities yet — we love justice; we admire courage and the love of freedom in others as well as ourselves; and we find it difficult to put our foot on the weak; it refuses to go down. At times, whether as individuals or as a nation, we are capable of the

 

Most Heroic Moral Action.

 

The heart swells with pride when we remember what has been done by Englishmen at different times and in different places, in the cause of freedom and justice, when they could meet with no reward and had nothing to gain. Such an act of justice on the part of the English nation was done in 1881 when Gladstone gave back to the Transvaal the independence which had been mistakenly taken. I would not say policy had no part in the action of the wise old man. No doubt that keen eagle-eye had fixed itself closely on the truth which all history teaches that a colony of Teutonic folk cannot be kept permanently in harmony and union with the Mother Country by any bond but that of love, mutual sympathy, and honour. The child may be reduced by force to obedience; but time passes and the child becomes a youth, the youth may be coerced; but the day comes when the youth becomes a man, and there can be no coercion then. If the mother wishes to retain the affection of the man, she must win it from the youth. This the wise old man saw; but I believe that, over and above the wisdom, he saw the right, and the action was no less heroic because it was wise; for other men see truth who have not the courage to follow her, and accept present loss for a gain which lies across the centuries. We English are a fearless folk, and in the main I think we seek after justice, but we have our faults. We are not a sympathetic or a quickly comprehending people; we are slow and we are proud; we are shut in by a certain

 

Shell of Hard Reserve.

 

There are probably few of us who have not some consciousness of this defect in our own persons: it may be a fault allied to our highest virtues, but it is a fault, and a serious one as regards our relations with peoples who come under our rule. We may and do generally sincerely desire justice; we may have no wish to oppress, but we do not readily understand wants and conditions distinct from our own. Here and there great Englishmen have appeared in South African history as elsewhere [such as William Porter and Sir George Grey] who have been able to throw themselves sympathetically into the entire life of the people about, to love them, and so to comprehend their wants and win their affections. Such men are the burning and shining lights of our Imperial and Colonial system, but they are not common. Undoubtedly the officials sent out to rule the Cape in the old days were generally men who earnestly desired to do their duty; but they did not always understand the folk they had to rule. They were generally simple soldiers, brave, fearless, and honourable as the English soldier is apt to be, but with hard military conceptions' of government and discipline. Our Dutch fellow-South Africans are a strange folk. Virile, resolute, passionate with a passion hid far below the surface, they are at once the gentlest and the most determined of peoples. When you try to coerce them they are hard as steel encased in iron, but with a large and generous response to affection and sympathy which perhaps no other European folk gives. They may easily be deceived once, but never twice. Under the roughest exterior of the up-country Boer lies a nature strangely sensitive and conscious of personal dignity — a people who never forgets a kindness and does

 

Not Easily Forget a Wrong.

 

Our officials did not always understand them; they made no allowances for a race of brave, free men inhabiting a country which by the might of their own right hand they had won from savages and wild beasts, and who were given over into the hands of a strange government without their consent or desire; and the peculiarities which arose from their wild, free life were not always sympathetically understood; even their little language, the South African "Taal," a South African growth so dear to their hearts, and to all those of us who love indigenous and South African growths, was not sympathetically and gently dealt with. The men, well meaning, but military, tried with this fierce, gentle, sensitive, free folk force, where they should have exercised a broad and comprehensive humanity, and when they did right (as when the slaves were freed), they did it often in such manner that it became practically wrong. A little of that tact of the higher and larger kind which springs from a human comprehension of another's difficulties and needs, might, exercised in the old days, have saved South Africa from all white-race problems; it was not, perhaps under the conditions, could not, be exercised. The peoples' hearts ached under the uncompromising iron rule.

 

In 1815 there was a rising, and it was put down. As the traveller passes by train along the railway from Port Elizabeth to Kimberley, he will come, a few miles beyond Cookhouse, to a gap between two hills; to his right flows the Fish River, to his left, binding the two hills, is a ridge of land called in South Africa a "nek." It is a spot the thoughtful Englishman passes with deep pain. In the year 1815 here were hanged five South Africans who had taken part in the rising, and the women who had fought beside them (for the South African woman has ever stood beside the man in all his labours and struggles) were compelled to stand by and look on. The crowd of fellow South Africans who stood by them believed,

 

Hoped against Hope

 

to the last moment that a reprieve would come. Lord Charles Somerset sent none, and the tragedy was completed. The place is called to-day "Schlachter's Nek," or "Butcher's Ridge."

 

Every South African child knows the story. Technically, any Government has the right to hang those who rise against its rule. Superficially it is a short way of ending a difficulty for all Governments. Historically it has often been found to be the method for perpetuating them. We may submerge for a moment that which rises again more formidably for its blood bath. The mistake made by Lord Charles Somerset in 1815 was as the mistake which would have been made by President Kruger if, in 1896, instead of exercising the large prerogative of mercy and magnanimity, he had destroyed the handful of conspirators who attempted to destroy the State. Both would have been within their legal right, but the Transvaal would have failed to find that path which runs higher than the path of mere law and leads towards light. Fortunately for South Africa our little Republic found it. The reign of stern military rule at the Cape had this effect, that men and women, with a sore in their proud hearts, continued to move away from a controlling power that did not understand them. Some moved across the Orange Eiver and joined the old "Voortrekkers" that had already gone into that country which is now the Free State. England kept a certain virtual sovereignty over that territory till, in 1854, she grew weary of the expense it cost her, and withdrew from it in spite of the representations of certain of its inhabitants who sent a deputation to England to request her to retain it. Thereupon the folk organised an independent State and Government; and the little land, peopled mainly by men of Dutch descent, but largely intermingled with English, who lived with them on terms of the greatest affection and unity, has become one of the most

 

Prosperous, Well-Governed, and Peaceful

 

communities on earth. Others, much the larger part of the people, moved further; they crossed the Vaal River, and in that wild northern land, where no Englishman's foot had passed, they founded after some years the gallant little Republic we all know to-day as the Transvaal. How that Republic was founded is a story we all know. Alone, unbacked by any great Imperial or national power, with their old flint-lock guns in their hand, as their only weapon, with wife and children they passed into that yet untrodden land. The terrible story of their struggles, the death of Piet Retief and his brave followers, killed by treachery by the Zulu Chief, Dingaan, the victory of the survivors over him, which is still commemorated by their children as Dingaan's Day, the whole, perhaps the most thrilling record of the struggle and suffering of a people in founding their State that the world can anywhere produce. Paul Kruger can still remember how, after that terrible fight, women and children left alone in the fortified laager, he himself being but a child, they carried on bushes to fortify the laager, women with children

 

in their arms, or pregnant, labouring with strength of men to entrench themselves against evil worse than death. Here in the wilderness they planted their homes and founded their little State. Men and women are still living who can remember how, sixty years ago, the spot where the great mining camp of Johannesburg now stands was a great silence where they drew up their wagon and planted their little home, and

 

Fought Inch by Inch

 

with wild beasts to reclaim the desert. In this great northern land, which no white man had entered or desired, they planted their people, and loving it as men only can love the land they have suffered and bled for, the gallant little Republic they raised they love to-day as the Swiss loves his mountain home and the Hollander his dykes. It is theirs, the best land on earth to them.

 

They had fought not for money but for homes for their wives and children; when they battled, the wives reloaded the old flint-lock guns and handed them down from the front chest of their wagon for the men who stood around defending them. It was a wild, free fight, on even terms; there were no Maxim guns to mow down ebony figures by the hundred at the turn of a handle; a free, even stand-up fight; and there were times when it almost seemed the assegai would overcome the old flint-lock, and the voortrekkers would be swept away. The panther and the jaguar rolled together on the ground, and, if one conquered instead of the other, it was yet a fair fight, and South Africa has no reason to be ashamed of the way either her black men or her white men fought it.

 

If it be asked, has the Dutch South African always dealt gently and generously with the native folks with whom he came into contact, we answer, “No, he has not " — neither has any other white race of whom we have record in history.

 

He kept slaves in the early days! Yes, and a century ago the English wished to make war on her American subjects in Virginia for refusing to take the slaves she sent. There was a time when we might have vaunted some superiority in the English African method of dealing with the native.

 

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