Of an old savage.
'E 'asn't got no papers of his own,
'E 'asn't got no medals nor rewards,
So we must certify the skill 'e's shown.
It is with reluctance we approach a subject on which in past years so much has been written, often falsely. Besides, it is certainly a most delicate matter to expatiate on the character of any individual or nation.
We are aware that some of our readers will read the remarks on this subject--Boer character--with considerable suspicion and distrust. They may argue that the writers, being of Dutch extraction themselves, are not likely to give an accurate and dispassionate estimate of the character of their own people. They may even fear that our national sentiments might influence and predominate over our judgment, and switch us off the track of strict impartiality. If there be such, we can only assure them that we have no intention whatsoever of eulogising and extolling the race with which we are connected by blood.
[Illustration: EX-PRESIDENT STEYN.
Photo by Duffus Bros., Capetown.]
In the past the Boers, i.e., the Dutch element in the late Republics, have frequently been described, and as often maligned, by men who were perfect strangers to them; men who had not taken the least trouble to study their habits and character so as to arrive at a better understanding of the people they were trying to describe. Hence the various contradictory statements and representations of one and the same people. Alas! that they should ever have been the victims of so much cheap slander, that some men should have vied with one another in heaping insult and infamy on their heads, while others conjured up for themselves a fantastic and outrageous monster, and called that a Boer. We cannot expect that minds so inflamed and exasperated would do justice to the Boers. We feel convinced that their character can only be portrayed correctly and justly by men not animated by hostile sentiments towards them, but who, having been in touch with them have generously entered into their feelings and aspirations, and have looked at things from the Boer standpoint, as well as from their own; men who have had patience to bear with their infirmities; in a word, by men from their very midst--such and such only could do justice to their character.
Born and bred among the Dutch, associated with them all our lives, Dutch ourselves every inch--a fact in which we glory--our relations to the Boers, specially during the war, have afforded us excellent opportunities of making an ethnological study of them. During the war the Dutch population, more especially that portion of it which was directly connected with the struggle, passed through various phases and changes of life. Subjected to the most harassing circumstances, one saw them at their worst, but also at their best. Their virtues, as well as their vices, were fanned by the breath of war. Many a hidden virtue sparkled forth, as the dewdrop glistens in the beams of the rising sun. Many a slumbering vice and latent evil inclination found the regions of discord and strife a fruitful soil for development.
Now that hostilities have ceased, and the liberties of speech and the Press are extended once more, not only to such as were or are possessed of the bitterest of feelings towards the Dutch, but to all British subjects, we feel constrained to dissipate, if possible, some of the clouds of slander which encompassed the Boers before and during the war. Never in the history of nations has an honourable foe been more abused than the Boers. They have been misrepresented altogether to the world at large, and to the public in England in particular.
The war-Press, the platform, and even the pulpit, were all arrayed in martial order against them, and belched forth streams of abuse on two small states. A warm glow comes over our faces, and the blood begins to surge swiftly through our veins, as we recall some of the stinging expressions by which the Boers were stigmatised, and through which the mind of the English public was more and more inflamed, and all traces of sympathy with the Boers removed. We do not wish to enumerate these descriptive terms and phrases, for that would be raking up old scores. We would rather forget than remember unpleasant words and deeds.
We must, however, direct our attention briefly to the platform and pulpit, not to mention the Press, which were so successful in exercising an influence calculated to intensify race-hatred and obstruct the way to any peaceful settlement of political disputes.
When the Uitlanders in Johannesburg became dissatisfied with the existing state of affairs, and began to ask for greater privileges, they betook themselves to the platform. Now the Boers had no objection to their forming political organizations, or holding public meetings in which they could agitate for redress of grievances. But what they did object to, and very strongly, was the blatant manner in which these Uitlanders referred to their governments and themselves. Instead of exercising the art of "gentle persuasion" by laying their grievances before the Transvaal Government in the form of a polite request, and so achieving their desired object, these Uitlanders resorted to the policy of fortiter in re, the policy of intimidation, by threatening the Boers with the right arm of the British Empire unless they granted their requests instantly. When they adopted this method of procedure, they naturally did not get what they wanted. So they agitated and cried for redress of grievances until the unhappy war was brought about. Not only in South Africa, but also in England thousands were misled by these platform agitators, who were bent on placing the Dutch in a false light before the civilized world.
And the pulpit, as represented by some ministers not only of the Church of England, but also of the Nonconformist Churches, ministers of the gospel of peace on earth and good-will towards man--what an attitude did it assume! Surely if these clergymen had been as eager to promote peace as they were zealous to set in motion the waters of strife, they might, have accomplished a work meriting eternal reward. Alas! that some who are, or call themselves, followers of the Prince of Peace should have favoured a war of destruction, and been led to say very hard things and utter unfounded charges against the Dutch.
To cite only one of many instances, the Rev. Dr. Hertz, writing from Lourenço Marques, worded his letter thus:--
"We are safe, having left all we possess in the world behind us, and in all probability shall never see a single thing of it again. When I found the game the President and his crew were playing I thought it best to clear out ... The Boers have threatened to kill, burn, and destroy everything and everybody, women and children, and some of them at least are bad enough to do it. I had the verbal assurance of the President that I could stay safe and undisturbed, but he would not put anything in writing. Then they appointed a committee to give permits, and they would not give me one. And so it became more and more manifest that they meant to decoy me into staying, and then hold me at mercy. And what this mercy is may be seen from the last news from Johannesburg; any one without a written permit has been condemned to 25 lashes and three months' hard labour."
Such statements flowing from the pen of a Reverend Doctor were believed by thousands. Now what is the truth in regard to them? During the Bishop's absence his residence was specially guarded by order of the Government. The punishment meted out to some who remained in Johannesburg without permits exceeded in no case a higher fine than £3 without lashes. As to the Boers' intention of decoying the Doctor to stay, and then hold him at mercy, we need only remark that he must have thought more about his own importance than the Boers ever did. His assertion that the Boers threatened to kill everybody, including women and children, and that some of them are bad enough to do it, needs no refutation, for it merits silent contempt.
A feeling of sadness, if not pity, lays hold of one to think that ministers of the Gospel could actually draw up large petitions, urging the British Government to prosecute the war vigorously until the complete subjugation of the Boers was accomplished, which meant either their entire extermination or the sacrifice of their sacred rights.
There were, however, several notable exceptions, men who were not afraid to speak the truth about their enemies or their country's enemies, regardless of what others might think or say of themselves, regardless whether they would be called Boer-sympathisers or pro-Boers. Such men we shall ever revere and hold in estimation because they dared to speak the truth, cost what it would.
Thus far we have depicted the Boer character negatively in denying the unjust and unfounded charges brought against them by callous and misinformed minds. We do not hesitate to state that they are not a race of inferior beings, savage and uncivilized. They are not as good as some have presented them, they are not as bad as others have pictured them. Who, then, are these men and women who so stubbornly resisted British power and supremacy for such a long period under such great disadvantages? What are their main characteristics?
The Boers are the descendants of those pioneers who, for various reasons, left the Cape Colony between the years 1834-39. These emigrants or pioneers inspanned their large ox-waggons, bade farewell to their homes and farms in the Cape Colony and trekked across the Orange River. They traversed the wide plains of the late Orange Free State and proceeded to the Drakensberg Mountains. These mountains they crossed and settled down in Natal. How they were attacked and massacred by the Zulus, and how they, in their turn, defeated the Zulus and broke their power, how Natal became a British colony, all this is ancient history. The pioneers, objecting to English rule, quitted Natal. Some of them forded the Vaal River and they founded the Transvaal or South African Republic. Others settled west of the Drakensberg Range and founded the Orange Free State Republic.
These states were then infested by wild beasts and uncivilized native tribes. Against these the sturdy pioneers had to contend, and only after years of suffering, hardship, and bloodshed did they succeed, by their indomitable spirit, in vanquishing all foes, and so made habitable and opened up for commerce and civilization the Republics, which the late war has laid in ruins and ashes, indeed, converted into a howling wilderness, a land of desolation.
And these pioneers, whence came they, and what is their origin? They are descended from that race which so valiantly resisted and defied Spanish tyranny and power for eighty years, and so achieved that freedom of life, freedom of thought and freedom of belief, from which all Europe and England herself has derived priceless blessings. They are sprung from that stock whose courage was not shaken by the flames of funeral pyres, nor by all the tortures the human mind could devise; men who at the block betrayed no signs of fear, but faced death, as brave men ofttimes do, with a beatific smile, to the utter amazement of such as had to enact the cruel tragedy. These pioneers have in their veins the best blood of European nations, and their traditions are such as any nation might be proud of.
With such a history behind them, and descended from such ancestors, it is not strange that the most prominent feature in the Boer character is an intense and unconquerable love of freedom. His isolation, his large farm with outstretched plains or rugged mountains, and his manner of living, all tend to nourish that love of freedom in his bosom. Above all things he wants to be free and independent. His history is one long record of trekking away from British domination, not because he wishes to be exempted from all control and thus indulge in a lawless life, as some writers have erroneously maintained, but because he desires a government of his own. The chief desideratum with the Boer, in regard to government, is that it shall be his own, and not that of some other power, be it never so excellent a form of government.
When the Republics were annexed the English thought and hoped that the Boers would very soon take to the new Government, would be more than satisfied with the new arrangements, and so forget the privileges which they had enjoyed under the auspices of their own government. Those who thought and hoped thus were sadly disappointed. That powerful sentiment and that strong passion for freedom, seated deep down in the heart of the Boer, sustained them in bidding defiance to fearful odds for almost three years. That inborn passion enabled the Boer nation to sacrifice their all, and to endure for freedom's sake indescribable hardships and sufferings.
A Boer may not exactly know all that independence includes; he may not be able to enumerate the benefits accruing from it, but instinctively he covets it as a jewel of great price.
That this love of liberty and of country amounted to something more than mere sentiment has been proved conclusively by the war, when the whole male population rose in arms against the invading foe. Touching, indeed, it was to behold boys of twelve and grey-headed men of seventy and eighty years shouldering their rifles and all fighting for one great ideal. When their homes were burned, families removed, and goods taken or destroyed, they exclaimed: "Let the British do whatever they please, let them strip us of everything we hold dear, so long as we are only a free people. We do not mind being poor; we are prepared, when the war is over, to live in tents as our forefathers did; but we do not want to swear allegiance to the despoilers of our country. British subjects! No, never."
And the Boer women, who are the very embodiment of liberty itself, were they less enthusiastic and determined to be free than their husbands and sons? Verily not. Words fail us when we want to express our admiration for these heroines who played so prominent a part in the South African Campaign, and upon whom the brunt of the war fell. Alas! that this should have been the case.
In years gone by the wives and daughters of the early pioneers stood by the side of their husbands and fathers, casting bullets and loading their flint-lock guns, as the latter bravely repelled the fierce onslaught of Zulus, Matabeles, and other savage hordes. Many of them were ruthlessly murdered by these savage tribes. No Africander will ever forget names such as Weenen (Place of Weeping), Blood Rivier (Blood River), Vechtkop and Blauwkrants--places where Boer women had contributed their share of blood, that their children might be free. Those days were sad and dark; but there were sadder and darker times in store for the descendants of these pioneer women.
During the war the Republican women proved themselves no less formidable and brave than in those early days. When their husbands and sons were called to the front they took upon themselves the entire management of the farms. So well did they acquit themselves of such an onerous task that, as long as they were left unmolested, there was no lack of provisions for man or beast, always enough, and to spare. True, it cost them much labour and fatigue, for some of them had to tend the flocks, while others had to plough the fields and reap the crops in the scorching rays of a December or January sun. They did it willingly and gladly, so that the men might be free to engage in the struggle.
The enemy, on observing the attitude of the women, determined to strike a blow at them. They, so reasoned the enemy, had to be removed and gathered into concentration camps, if there ever was to come an end to the war. Not so much the men as the women were blamed for the prolongation of the war. The women first had to be subdued; the flames of freedom burning in their bosoms had to be extinguished. Hence the sad story of a war in which the weak and defenceless were made to suffer and endure so much.
When they were roughly handled and transported in ox-waggons, exposed for days to wind, sun, and rain, and were piled up in disease-stricken camps, did they flinch? When they and their children were dying in scores in these camps, did they beseech the burghers to relinquish the struggle, or petition the Boer Governments to yield? Verily not. On the contrary, in spite of their intense sufferings and of the appalling rate of mortality among them, they continually encouraged the burghers by sending out messages to them to this effect: "Fight on, don't yield; we would rather all die in the camp than see you surrender" "Go and fight," said one to her husband; "I would rather see you dead, and all my children dead, than that you burghers should cease the struggle." Another woman was so disappointed and disgusted at the surrender of her husband, that when he arrived at the concentration camp where she was confined she would have none of him, and quitted the camp the same night, making her escape to the Boer lines. Such women are the mothers of the next generation. Was it quite prudent on the part of the British to tempt them to rear their children in bitter hatred of the English race?
This liberty-loving feature in the Boer character has been beautifully described in the Leek Times:--
"The old man, the youth and the stripling, are offering their hearts' blood as a sacrifice; nor do they think the sacrifice too great, strengthened and urged on by all they believe to be the highest and holiest in religion and principle. The Boer will fight on, giving his last drop of blood and his last breath for his freedom. And the women-folk of his land are bearing their share of this task; they do not shrink; they are helping their fathers, brothers, and sons in this fight. They think no distance too great to travel, no burden too heavy to carry. The wife, with her little children round her knees, bids her husband a tearful but brave God-speed. The mother, as she gazes with a full heart on the boy who is as the apple of her eye, bids him go forth and fight in Freedom's Holy War. The lass bids her lover take his stand for all that she thinks worth having, esteeming him something less than a coward if he fails to the fight. Woe betide the oppressors when the women of a nation take up the quarrel."
Ah! thou mighty Christian England, who hast always prided thyself on being the most liberty-loving of all the Powers that be, how couldst thou have crushed the liberty of two small states? How couldst thou have torn so mercilessly the noble passions and aspirations of being free and independent from the Boer hearts? Hast thou verily extinguished by force the highest and holiest ambitions of a free-born people? Can the mountain torrent rushing down the valley be stemmed in its onward course? If patriotism is the ideal of a race that nourishes the most indestructible of all passions, then ye have indeed contended against an indestructible element of the Boer nature.
Next to and quite as prominent as this all-absorbing passion for freedom is the religious trait in the Boer character. As a people they are distinguished from all other nations by their religiosity. Remembering that they are the offshoot of men and women who perished in France, Holland, England and elsewhere for their faith, one does not wonder that they are religious. The religion of the Boer forms part and parcel of his very existence. His mind is imbued with the words and thoughts of Holy Writ. On a Sunday you will find him with his family, as a rule, attending service in his little chapel. If he cannot go to church, he will gather his family, increased sometimes by the presence of neighbours, round the family altar, and there he will read his Bible, sing his Psalms, bend his knees and lift up his heart in prayerful adoration to the God of his fathers.
Attachés, correspondents, and foreigners who fought on the side of the Boers were struck much by the simple piety, the religious ideas and sentiments of the Boers. Early in the morning and late at night their camps would resound with hymns. In this enlightened twentieth century, however, it has become the fashion to scoff and sneer at everything which savours of religion, so much so that it seems incredible to most that the Boers, as a people, can still be devout and God-fearing. Civilization with its concomitant vices has assumed the garb of Christianity, having its form and semblance, but missing its spirit and power. Such as are animated by the spirit of Christian religion and are endowed with its power are derisively called hypocrites. We shall willingly admit that there are many hypocrites among the Boers. But are they not found among all nations? To say that all religious Boers are hypocrites is utterly false.
When the English entered upon the contest with the Republics they evidently did not reckon with this religious factor of the Boer character. They did not know that the Boer would be supported as much by his religious sentiments as by his love of freedom to fight to the bitter end. Had they not been animated by such a fervent belief and childlike trust in Providence, they would have abandoned ere long a struggle which, regarded from a human standpoint, must have seemed hopeless to them. But they believed that their cause was a holy and just one, and that the God of Battles, the God of their forefathers, would ultimately crown their efforts and sacrifices by sending them a glorious deliverance. When the enemy desecrated their churches, ill-treated their pastors, and stabbed their flocks, cattle and horses, they were not disheartened, but said to themselves: "God in Heaven does behold, and He shall vindicate the cause of the just as well as that of defenceless creatures." Such deeds the religious Boer regarded with awe and aversion, and made him more determined than aught else not to surrender to those who perpetrated them.
The national anthems of the late Republics admirably express these two features of the Boer character. The following is a free translation of the Transvaal Volkslied, which may serve to illustrate the sentiments which have dominated the Boers ever since their national existence:
Right nobly gave Voortrekkers brave their blood, their lives, their all; For Freedom's right, in Death's despite, they fought at duty's call. Ho! Burghers, high our banner waves, the standard of the free, No foreign yoke our land enslaves, here reigneth liberty. 'Tis heaven's command, here we should stand, And aye defend the Volk and land.
What realm so fair, so richly fraught with treasures ever new; Where Nature hath her wonder wrought, and freely spread to view! Ho! Burghers old, be up and sing, God save the Volk and land, Then, Burghers young, your anthem ring, o'er veldt, o'er hill, o'er strand. And, Burghers all, stand ye or fall For hearths and homes at country's call.
With wisdom, Lord, our rulers guide, and these Thy people bless, May we with nations all abide in peace and righteousness. To Thee, whose mighty arm did shield Thy Volk in bygone days-- To Thee alone we humbly yield all glory, honour, praise. God guard our land, our own dear land, Our children's home, their Fatherland.
A third distinctive mark in the Boer character, regarded from a military point of view, is his fearlessness, so strikingly displayed in several battles. That the Boers proved themselves brave during the war goes without saying.
Those who prophesied a speedy termination of the war in favour of the British thought that lyddite-shells and dum-dum bullets, when applied to the Boer, would at once scatter them far and wide, and so intimidate them that they would kneel and sue for mercy and peace. To their great disappointment they found the Boers stubbornly and gallantly resisting the most determined onslaught of the British forces, repelling them as often with disastrous results.
We admired, in friend or foe, no other quality more than bravery--bravery as distinguished from recklessness. We had respect for brave foes, and when the fortunes of war entrusted such as prisoners-of-war to our care, we always treated them with the courtesy gallant men deserve.
We often admired the valour displayed by our opponents. On certain occasions the British forces performed the most daring and heroic feats of which mortal men are capable. We saw officers and soldiers rushing and marching, as it were, into the very jaws of death. Though exposed to a storm of bullets, which consumed them like a withering fire, they would press on, often dropping down as wheat before the scythe. Such determination and bravery called forth the admiration of our men. There is, however, a difference between valour as displayed by the British and valour as displayed by the Boers. Without wishing to rob the British officer and soldier of their martial honours, which they may well deserve, having earned them at so great a cost, yet, in comparing Boer and Briton, we must bear in mind that the Boer had had no military training whatsoever, and was never subjected to military discipline. He hardly knew the importance and necessity of obeying orders promptly and implicitly. When he attacked or charged the enemy's stronghold or positions he did so, as a rule, of his own accord, not under any compulsion, but spontaneously and voluntarily. The British soldier, on the other hand, had all the advantages and sometimes disadvantages of military discipline. He had been taught to obey orders, whether it meant death to him or not. Besides, the soldier was backed up by thousands and tens of thousands of comrades on every side, while batteries of naval guns and Armstrongs were at his rear, under cover of which he could charge or retreat. No beating of drums, or symphonies of martial music, or great numbers inspired and urged the Boer on to the performance of heroic deeds. With rifle in hand and limited supply of cartridges he often had to face overwhelming odds. And when these odds threatened to outflank him, he was called by some a coward for retreating and not allowing himself to be captured. Instinctively he knew it was better to retreat--
"For he who fights and runs away May live to fight another day."
Some maintain that the Boers are only brave when lying behind huge boulders, or entrenched in strong fortifications, from whence, concealed, they can pour a deadly fusillade on the approaching enemy. There may be an element of truth in this charge, but as a generalization it is utterly false. To stamp the Boers as cowards in general is to rob the British Army of much of its honour and so discredit their work in South Africa. The best answer to and the most persuasive argument against this assertion is to be found in the construction of the multitudinous forts, trenches, sangars, blockhouses, etc., by the British in South Africa. What is their significance? The most inobservant traveller in South Africa must be struck by the network of fortifications erected almost throughout the length and breadth of the country. Could the English have given the Boers a better testimonial of gallant behaviour than these? Surely blockhouses and bulwarks are not required for cowards, for they would never approach them.
It is hardly necessary to say that all Boers were not brave; there were many timorous ones among them. No army in the world is composed entirely of brave and fearless characters. We often sustained losses and sometimes disasters because the burghers retreated when they should have stood or charged. The victory would have often been theirs had they resisted a little longer. But apart from this, have they not proved to the enemy in particular and to the world in general that they are the children of chivalrous nations, of men who knew no fear? Have not the British forces sustained some of their greatest losses when these untrained peasants led the charge? We need only refer to a few of the many battles fought during the war to show what these simple untrained farmers did accomplish--battles which certainly merited for them the attribute of being brave.
(1) On the 30th of November, 1899, General De Wet, who was then only Assistant Commandant, led 200 men up Nicholson's Nek, a hill which was then in the possession of the enemy. After an engagement which lasted five hours, the British hoisted the white flag. General De Wet personally counted 817 prisoners-of-war, while 203 were lying on the battlefield either dead or wounded. Here the English were in possession of the hill, i.e., of the best positions, and vastly outnumbered the Boers.
(2) In the great battle of Spion Kop, which lasted eight days, the Boers were placed under the most terrific bombardment, and were constantly attacked by large numbers of the enemy--yet they warded off these attacks gallantly. On the night of the 23rd of January the English under cover of darkness scaled the mountain--Spion Kop--and were thus in possession of the key to Ladysmith. It was evident to the Boer generals that Ladysmith would be relieved if Spion Kop was not retaken. As soon as it became light the mountain was stormed from different directions by the Boers, who were determined, if possible, to wrench it from the grasp of the British. Both parties displayed amazing bravery. Boer and Briton fell side by side, staining the grass with their blood, and bespattering the stones and rocks with their brains. At dusk more than half of the mountain was in possession of the Boers. During the night the English evacuated it, and once more the Boers commanded over the entire mountain. It cost them 35 killed and 170 wounded, but their objective was achieved. Again the British were in command of the mountain, and were continually reinforced. After Spion Kop was retaken, no more white flags were hoisted by the Boers. On the contrary they lamented the loss of so many precious, innocent lives. The Rev. R. Collins, a chaplain with General Warren's Brigade, made the following statement re the attitude of the Boers after the battle:--
"I venture to think it a matter of considerable importance to draw attention to the attitude of the Boers whom we met during the carrying out of our duties on these three days. For my part I confess that the deepest impression has been made on me by these conversations, and by the manly bearing and straightforward outspoken way in which we were met.
"There were two things which I particularly noted. As there was no effort made to impress us by what was said (they spoke with transparent honesty and natural simplicity, and in nearly all cases the conversations were begun by us), so there was a total absence of anything like exultation over what they must consider a military success. Not a word, not a look, not a gesture or sign, that could by the most sensitive of persons be construed as a display of their superiority.
"Far from exultation there was a sadness, almost anguish, in the way in which they referred to our fallen soldiers. I can best convey the truth of this statement, and show that there is no attempt at exaggeration in using the word anguish, by repeating expressions used, not once, but again and again by great numbers as they inspected the ghastly piles of our dead--'My God! what a sight!' 'I wish politicians could see their handiwork,' 'What can God in Heaven think of this sight?'"
By such a spirit was the Boer animated when he achieved some of his most brilliant successes. He did not fight for honour and glory. He fought at duty's call as a patriot in a great cause.
(3) A few weeks prior to the battle of Spion Kop the Boers made their famous, though unsuccessful, attack on Platrand, known as Waggon Hill to the English, a hill situated three miles south of Ladysmith. This hill was occupied by the British, and formed as it were the key to Ladysmith. For it was practically impossible to bring about the fall of Ladysmith so long as the British were on Platrand. A council of war accordingly decided to attack the enemy on the hill on the night of the 5th of January, and, if possible, expel them from it.
The Rev. J.D. Kestell, who accompanied the Boer forces, gives the following striking description of the attack--a description which conveys to the mind of the reader something of the awfulness of war, as well as of the courage and heroism displayed by Boer and Briton alike:--
"On the summit the hill is level, and round about its crest runs a cornice, to use an architectural term, of great rocks, which we call a krantz in the Africander language. The British forts were built immediately above this krantz.
"At about 10 P.M. we left the laager in order to climb the hill at half-past 2 A.M. Having reached Neutral Hill, we left our horses there and proceeded on foot. It was very dark, and all was still as death. We walked forward slowly and spoke only in whispers, and yet our progress was not so silent but that we feared we should be heard. In the silence of the night the slightest rustle of tree or shrub sounded loud in our ears, and the thud of our feet on the loose stones seemed to me like the tramp of a troop of horses. The enemy, thought I, would certainly become aware of our approach long before we could even begin to climb the hill. But it seems after all that I was mistaken, and that the sentry did not discover us until we had approached very close. At three o'clock we reached the deep dongas at the foot of the hill, and the foremost men passed through. In about twenty minutes we had climbed almost two-thirds of the hill, when we heard a beautiful voice ringing out in the morning air: 'Halt! Who goes there?'
"No answer came from us. We continued climbing. A moment passed, and then the silence was broken by a crash of a volley. Then another and another. Everywhere, above and in front of us, the flashes of the rifles leapt forth into the darkness, and the sharp reports followed in such quick succession as to give the impression of Maxims firing. All of a sudden I saw a great jet of flame, and instantly the thunder of a cannon broke upon the startled air, and presently behind us I could hear the shrapnel bullets falling on the ground.
"Then many of those who had not yet begun to climb the hill turned and fled; but others rushed upwards, and rapidly approached the cornice of rocks, whence the heavy firing issued. Silence was now unnecessary, and everywhere voices were heard encouraging the men.
"At half-past three we reached the reef of rocks and boulders, and presently I heard that two burghers had already been wounded, while another lay motionless, but it was as yet too dark to see who it was.
"Before long it became light, and some of the burghers charged the forts that were just above the ledge of rocks. They overpowered the soldiers there, and took them prisoners, but were forced to fall back to the escarpment of rocks immediately, on account of the heavy fire directed on them from the other forts. And now the roar of the cannons and rifles became terrific. This was especially the case with the ceaseless rattle of small-arms. One could with difficulty distinguish separate reports. All sounded together like one continuous roar, and awoke an echo from the Neutral Hill that sounded like the surging of a mighty wind.
"We found ourselves under a cross cannon-fire. The shells from one of our guns flew over our heads, and exploded just in front of us on the forts, so that we were often in danger of being struck by our own shells; and the projectiles of the English were hurled in an opposite direction on our cannon forts and on the burghers on Neutral Hill.
"Gradually we began to see in what a terrible position we were. How terrible the firing was! It never ceased for a moment; for if the burghers did not rush out from time to time, to assail the forts, the English charged us. This alternate charging was taking place every now and then, and it was during these attacks that the pick of our men fell. Whenever a sangar was charged, a destructive fire was directed on our men, and then some gallant fellows would always remain behind struck down.
"It was a fearful day--a day that no one who was there will ever forget. The heat, too, was unbearable. The sun shot down his piteous rays upon us, and the higher he rose the hotter it became. It was terrible to see the dead lying uncovered in the scorching rays; and our poor wounded suffered indescribable tortures from thirst. And there was nothing to give them--only a little whisky which I had got from an English officer, who had been taken prisoner. I gave a little of that--only a few drops--to every wounded man. Not only the wounded--all of us suffered from thirst. Long before midday there was not a drop of water left in our flasks. So intolerable was the thirst that there were burghers who went down to the dongas below in search of water, where there was none, and where they knew that almost certain death awaited them.
"How slowly, too, the time dragged on! 'What o'clock is it?' someone asked. It was then only ten o'clock, and it seemed as if we had been fighting more than a day, for up to that moment the firing had continued unabated.
"Twelve o'clock passed, one o'clock, two o'clock--and still the fire was kept up; and still the burning rays of the sun were scorching us. Clouds! But they threw no shadow over us. Everywhere small patches of shadow chequered the hills and valleys, but they seemed to avoid us. But a black mass of cloud is rising in the west, and we know that everything will soon be wrapped in shadow. Nearer and nearer to the zenith the clouds are rising. What is that deep rumbling in the distance? Thunder! Nearer and nearer it sounds, and presently we hear it overhead above the din of the musketry and the boom of the cannon. How insignificant the crash of the cannons sounds now. It is as the crackle of fireworks when compared with the mighty voice of God!
"We got more than shadow from the clouds. At five o'clock great drops splash on the rocks. Presently the rain fell in torrents, and I could wash the blood of the wounded from my hands in it.
"It was now just when the rain was descending in sheets of water, and the thunder-claps were shaking the hills, that the enemy redoubled their efforts to drive us off the ledge, and our men had to do their utmost to repel the determined onslaught. Had they been driven down the hill, every burgher fleeing for his life would have formed a target for the enemy. The fight was now fiercer than at any time during the day. It was fearful to hear the roar of the thunder above and the crash of the rifles below. But the enemy did not succeed in driving us off. We remained there two and a half hours longer. Meanwhile we had been able to quench our thirst. Streams of water dashed down through the rocks, and we drank our fill. These streams of water came from the forts a few yards above us, and were red in colour. Was it red earth, or was it the blood of friend or foe that coloured the water? Whatever the cause, we were so thirsty that nothing would have kept us from drinking. After the English had done their utmost to drive us from the hill, and been baffled in their attempts, they returned to their forts, and the firing subsided for a short time.
"At last the sun set, and at half-past seven we withdrew. We had been on the hill for sixteen hours, under a most severe fire, and now we retired; but we were not driven off by the Devons with levelled bayonets, as I have read in an English book. We were not driven off the hill. We held it as long as it was light, and when twilight fell and no reinforcements came, we considered it useless to remain there. Including the Transvaalers we had lost 68 killed and 135 wounded."
(4) One instance more to show that the Boers behaved gallantly not only under cover or when scaling mountains or hills occupied by the enemy, but also when they met the foe on the plain without any cover at all.
Lord Methuen's column, 1,500 strong, was charged in broad daylight on the open veldt by about 700 burghers. The whole convoy with four Armstrong guns was captured. Besides this the enemy lost 400 in killed and wounded, and 859 prisoners of war, including Lord Methuen himself, who was wounded in the leg. The Boer casualties amounted to 9 killed and 25 wounded. Do not such engagements prove that the Boers could hold their own not only behind stones and in trenches but also on the plain?
Lord Methuen's column was not the only one which was attacked and taken on the exposed veldt. Some of the most brilliant achievements of the Boers were accomplished when they were altogether exposed to the enemy's fire and had to take the offensive. Was it then arrogance and vainglory which prompted them to offer battle to one of the great Powers of the world? Arrogance and vainglory would not have stood the test, but would soon have vanquished like morning clouds before the rising sun. There must have been some other cause. What was it?
Here, then, the reader has another reason why the Boers fought so long. As a people they are brave, and thus scorn the very thought of surrendering like cowards. They chose to die as men, and the memory of those who fell as such shall ever be dear and sacred to us.
"For how can man die better Than facing fearful odds, For the ashes of his fathers And the temples of his gods?"
Another trait in the Boer character is his wonderful resourcefulness and his ability to cope with difficulties. It was as much this phase of his character as his patriotism, religiosity and valour which enabled him to continue the struggle so long. If the Boers had not been so wonderfully resourceful, and understood so well how to lighten their burdens and solve their problems, they never could have held out so long.
Surrounded on almost every side by British dominions, with all imports cut off, they were bound to fall back on their own limited resources. When these were exhausted, they had to plan some way out of the difficulty. And so ingeniously did they contrive to find the wherewithal for the prosecution of the war, and the necessaries of life, that it must have appeared hopeless to the enemy at times that the Republicans should ever be reduced to such an extremity that they could help themselves no longer.
And this is the way they planned. When their boots wore out, men were appointed to tan hides and make boots; even the women busied themselves in this kind of work. When there was a great scarcity of soap,--an article used also by Boers,--the women boiled a serviceable substance with the help of the ashes of various weeds. When the British began destroying the mills everywhere mills were mounted on waggons and carried off on the approach of the enemy. When tobacco failed the burghers, Nature made provision once more. Leaves of different kinds of trees were taken, dried and soaked in a weak solution of tobacco extract, and when dry these leaves answered the purpose of tobacco. The fine handicraft of great-grandmothers in the spinning of wool was revived. The women-folk, constructing spinning-wheels from old sewing-machines, spun wool beautifully, and knitted socks and other articles as fine and as strong as any that can be bought in shops. When the English took or burnt all their vehicles they reconstructed others from the remnants of the burnt ones. One woman was seen with a cart in which two plough wheels were placed. It looked strange, but answered the purpose well enough. When salt was not to be had for love or money, wells were dug in the pans and salt water was found, from which, by a process of evaporation, salt was obtained. In this manner one problem after the other was solved. As to their clothes, overcoats were made of sheep-skins, and some burghers wore complete suits made of leather. The worn-out clothes were patched with soft leather and then they were said to be "armoured." Besides this there was the "shaking out" process, as it was called by the burghers. The Boers thought that they were quite justified in exchanging clothes with Tommy Atkins whenever he was captured; for the English had destroyed and burnt theirs as often as they could. As we had no means of import, and as the enemy had burnt our clothes, who shall condemn our action, however humiliating it might have been to the soldier or costly to the British Government to provide outfits for both parties? Necessity knows no laws. In the same way the burghers were provided with rifles, ammunition, horses, saddles, bridles and other necessaries by the British. When their ammunition first ran short, many were not a little concerned about it, and thought that that would ultimately compel them to surrender. But the English were kind enough to supply them, so that after each fight, as a rule, they had enough to commence another with. Towards the latter part of the war the English were fought and often beaten with their own arms. So, as far as that was concerned, the Republics could have prolonged the war indefinitely, or at least as long as they were being supplied by the British Government. Does this often happen in the history of wars--a foe lashed by its own weapons?
In his social intercourse the Boer is kind-hearted, tender and hospitable. He loves to be kind--to be hard and cruel is contrary to his nature. Owing to his soft and gentle disposition he sometimes brought disaster and ruin upon himself during the war. Traitors and renegades were mercifully spared, and these notorious beings were instrumental in bringing about his defeat. In times of peace kind-heartedness no doubt is a virtue of intrinsic worth; in times of war it cannot always be exercised.
In outward appearance the Boer may be, and sometimes is, somewhat stern and uncompromising; but those who have gained his confidence and known him best have invariably discovered behind and at the bottom of this seemingly forbidding exterior a softness of disposition and a tenderness of heart which brooks no rivalry. Men who have taken the Boer character second-hand, or have not taken the trouble to enter into his feelings or obtain his friendship, have often been misled by his quiet phlegmatic demeanour, which at times verges on stolidity. They have described him as being sour, morose and unkind. To such he appeared a sort of obstreperous, cantankerous being, who simply delights to quarrel with every man he meets--especially if an Englishman came in his way. Needless to say he is nothing of the sort.
During the war we were several times struck by the gentle nature of the Boers. They are indeed not that blood-thirsty, war-loving race which some have imagined them to be. We make bold to say that there is nothing which they so much dislike and abhor as shedding blood and inflicting torture and misery on humanity. They are essentially a peace-loving race, and will never indulge in war unless compelled by circumstances over which they have no control.
The British officers and soldiers who fell into their hands during the war can bear evidence from personal experience that the average Boer is dominated by kind and gentle sentiments. He treated the wounded soldier and the prisoner-of-war with kindness. He would share his last drop of water with the wounded, bandage his wounds to the best of his ability, and would extend to him all the medical attendance at his command.
Major J.B. Seely, Conservative M.P. for the Isle of Wight, who served with the Hampshire Yeomanry for many months in the Transvaal, confirmed the above statements in a letter to the Times in the following way:--
"During the seventeen months that I have served in South Africa I had, perhaps, rather exceptional opportunities of learning how our wounded were treated by the Boers. On two different occasions men under my command who were dangerously wounded were attended with the greatest kindness and care by the Boers; and the wounded men themselves begged me to thank those who had been so good to them. On both occasions the general in command of the column conveyed his thanks either personally or by letter. I have spoken to many officers and men who have been left sick or wounded in the hands of the Boers, and in no single instance have I heard anything but gratitude expressed for the treatment they had received. In the intense excitement of hand-to-hand fighting it may be difficult to differentiate between the wounded and unwounded, but the relatives and friends of those now fighting may rest assured that English left wounded on the field will receive from the Boers no less care and kindness than wounded Boers have invariably received from the English."
Such is the testimony of men who came in contact with the Boers at a time when one would expect that the demoralizing and hardening influences of war had removed every vestige of gentleness.
We never heard the Boers use strong and abusive language towards prisoners-of-war. On the contrary they would converse with them in a most genial and friendly spirit; so much so, that the onlooker could scarcely distinguish between Boer and Briton, friend or foe. Now when the Boers behaved thus towards their prisoners-of-war they only did what they ought to have done. When a man is captured or wounded he is no more an enemy in the literal sense of the word, and should not be treated as such. Military precautions must necessarily be taken to prevent the escape of prisoners, but, apart from that, men forced to surrender should neither be regarded nor treated as criminals, but as an honourable foe deserves. In making these remarks we do not infer that our wounded were not well attended to by the enemy. In most cases we believe they were. We shall not comment on the treatment extended to our prisoners-of-war. In the latter stage of the war we believe there was room for improvement, especially when natives were taken up in the British ranks. These natives treated our men shamefully at times, and went even so far as to commit the most brutal murders.
Not only did the burghers treat their prisoners-of-war well, but the Boer officers under whose immediate control they were placed dealt, as a rule, very kindly and leniently with them. Some of the more prominent Boer officers, such as General De Wet and others, have been accused occasionally of having ill-treated prisoners-of-war. Most of these charges on examination proved groundless.
Mr. Erskine Childers, in a letter to the Times, expressed himself on this matter as follows:--
"It is time that a word was spoken in opposition to the idea that General C. De Wet is a man of brutal and dishonourable character. Those who, like myself, have served in South Africa, fought against him, and frequently met men who have been prisoners under him, look, I believe, with shame and indignation on the attempts made to advertise and magnify such incidents as the alleged flogging and shooting of peace envoys, so as to blacken the character of a man who, throughout the war, held a reputation with our troops in the field of being not only a gallant soldier, but a humane and honourable gentleman. We may deplore the desperate tenacity of his resistance. Our duty is to overcome it by smashing him in the field. We gain nothing but only lose our self-respect by slandering him.
"His whole career gives the lie to such aspersions. It was in May of last year, ten months ago, that he first gained prominence. Since then he has fought scores of engagements with us, some successful, some unsuccessful, never with a suspicion of dishonourable conduct. He has had at one time or another some thousands of our men in his hands as prisoners-of-war. Many of them I have myself met. At second or third hand I have heard of the experiences of many others. I have never heard a word against him. When men suffered hardships they always agreed that they could not have been helped. But, on the other hand, I have heard many stories showing exceptional personal kindness in him over and above the reasonable degree of humanity which is expected in the treatment of prisoners-of-war.
"I believe this view of him is universal among our troops in South Africa. It makes my blood boil to hear such a man called a brigand and a brute by civilian writers at home, who take as a text the reports of these solitary incidents, incomplete and one-sided as they are, and ignore--if, indeed, they know of it--the mass of testimony in his favour."
This testimony about De Wet, as well as other Boer officers, has been substantiated by scores of letters from other officers and privates.
The relation of the Boers to the coloured races in South Africa, and the treatment of the latter, have been a cause of much offence and misunderstanding. It is generally, though mistakenly, held that the Boers ill-treated the natives, and that in the most brutal and tyrannical manner. Such unwarranted assertions had furnished one of the various flimsy excuses for war in South Africa. The natives had to be protected! They were slaves, and must be liberated. Therefore--war! That natives have sometimes received bad treatment at the hands of their masters we shall candidly admit. In such instances the law-courts of the country stood open to them, where justice was at all times meted out to the guilty party.
On the whole, we maintain that the treatment of inferior races by the Boers contrasts very favourably with that by the British. The Dutch have always expressed themselves very strongly against the policy of placing the natives on a footing of political equality with the whites, because morally, intellectually, and industrially they are decidedly their inferiors.
Those who, like the American Bishop Hartzell, argued that the British cause ought to win, since the Boers do not equal the English in just treatment of inferior races, would do well to consider the following facts:--
(1) In the strip of East African coast--a British Protectorate--which faces Zanzibar the full legal status of slavery is maintained, and fugitive slaves have even been handed back to their owners by British officials.
(2) In Zanzibar and Pemba the manumission of slaves presided over by Sir Arthur Hardinge is proceeding slowly, and many thousands are still in bondage.
(3) In Natal the corvée system prevails, and all natives not employed by whites may be impressed to labour for six months on the roads.
(4) In Bechuanaland, after a rebellion some years ago, natives were parcelled out among the Cape farmers and indentured to them as virtual slaves for a term of five years.
(5) Under the Chartered Company in Rhodesia the chiefs are required, under compulsion, to furnish batches of young natives to work in the mines; and the ingenious plan of taxing the Kaffir in money rather than in kind has been adopted, so that he may be forced to earn the pittance which the prospectors are willing to pay him.
(6) In Kimberley what is known as the compound system prevails. All natives who work in the diamond mines are required to "reside" under lock and key, day and night, in certain compounds, which resemble spacious prisons. So stringent is the system that even the sick are treated within the prison yard. On no pretext whatever is a native allowed to leave his compound.
During these months of incarceration the natives are separated from their women-folk and families. The consequence is one of the most striking and shocking features of the compound system. A number of the lowest, drink-besotted, coloured prostitutes, estimated at about 5,000, have collected at Beaconsfield, where, so to speak, they constitute a colony, occupying a revolting quarter of the township. When the natives come out for a short spell these unhappy women receive them. It is, no doubt, convenient from the standpoint of the company to have them there, for it probably prevents the natives from going away. This moral cancer is one of the direct and inevitable outcomes and concomitants of the compound system.
(7) The South African Dutch contribute more money annually to native mission work than the South African English. The English missions in South Africa are supported chiefly by funds from England. The largest and most handsome churches for natives in South Africa are those built by the Dutch. The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa has more representatives in the foreign mission field than all the other English denominations in South Africa together.
If necessary, more facts bearing on this subject of native treatment could be adduced. One could, for example, point out how the aboriginal Tasmanians and Australians have been almost completely extirpated; how, in the name of civilization, thousands of Dervishes have been mowed down in Egypt, and how South African soil itself has been stained from time to time by the blood of Zulus, Basutos, Matabeles and other coloured races, who became the victims of British, and not Boer, arms. Remembering all this and much more, we claim that England has no right to cast the first stone at the Boer in regard to the treatment of coloured races.
The Boer's nature does not admit of such tyrannical actions of which he has constantly been accused. His native servants are treated almost as members of his own family, and often serve him voluntarily for several years in succession.
[Illustration: THE LATE COMMANDANT DANIE THERON.
Photo by Duffus Bros., Capetown.]
Mr. Chamberlain in a Parliamentary Debate has expressed himself on this matter as follows:--
"Members of Parliament appear to be under the impression that the Boers in the Transvaal were fierce and unjust aggressors, and that they dispossessed the natives of their territory and brutally ill-treated them afterwards. I wish honourable members would read the papers before they came to this rash and inconsiderate conclusion. The absolute reverse of that was the fact."
The Boers, as a people and as individuals, are thoroughly hospitable, indeed we do not hesitate to affirm that no nation is more hospitable. To meet them, dwell in their midst, associate with them and know them, is to like, if not to love them.
The respectable traveller that lights on a Boer farm will invariably receive a cordial welcome. The farmer will politely invite him to his house, and will try to make his guest feel quite at home. Should it be late in the day, the guest will be expected to stay the night. A plain but substantial supper will fall to his share. The best bedroom and most comfortable bed will be at his disposal for the night, while his horses will receive every attention. In the morning he will be invited to breakfast before setting out on his day's journey. Should the traveller, on leaving, offer to pay the farmer for the night's accommodation, the latter will, as a rule, decline to accept any payment, nay, will regard it rather as an insult to be offered payment for his hospitality. Callous and unappreciative characters have abused such hospitality, and construed it as a mark of ignorance on the part of the Boer. He is, so they say, hospitable and ready to entertain because he is so stupid and ignorant. There may be a grain of truth in this assertion, but to attribute Boer hospitality exclusively to this is as false as it is mean.
"... I never want to meet kinder, more hospitable, and more comfortable people than the Boers. True, some of them are poor and ignorant, but the general run of them live comfortably, rear their families well and with fair education. They are the reverse of what we have been taught to consider them. It will be a happy day for Australia when our pastoral country is settled by as fine a class of people."
Thus wrote a Queensland officer, Major Spencer Browne, while Mr. R.H. Davis, an Englishman who had resided for some time in Pretoria, offers the following testimony:--
"I left Pretoria with every reason for regret. I had come to it a stranger, and had found friends among men whom I had learned to like for themselves and for their cause. I had come prejudiced against them, believing them to be all the English Press and my English friends had painted them--semi-barbarous, uncouth, money-loving, and treacherous in warfare. I found them simple to the limit of their own disadvantage, magnanimous to their enemies, independent and kindly."
The trait that we admire and cherish most in the Boer character is their hospitality. We shall ever gratefully remember how kindly our burghers were received by many a colonial farmer, such as the Van der Merwes of Toutelboschkoek and Bamuur, Calvinia district, the Therons of Rietpoort, Richmond, the two Miss Van der Merwes of Badsfontein, Murraysburg, and a host of others whose names we cannot mention here, as well as non-combatant farmers of the late Republics. Weary and worn out by the fierce and unequal contest we were often refreshed at their tables, and were so invigorated by their kindness and hospitality that, after a brief respite, we could once more resume the struggle with fresh determination and revived energies.
Never shall we forget the kindness shown to us personally during the years of strife. And here we would express our sincere thanks to all such as alleviated so greatly the burdens war had imposed upon us--alleviated these by friendly sympathies, which found expression in deeds of kindness and love, and that at a time and in circumstances when the sword of Damocles was suspended over their heads, for to give an enemy a drop of cold water was then considered a great crime!
The Boers are passionately fond of their homes and families. The little cottage, with the garden, the flocks and herds--in these they take pleasure. To accumulate and hoard up wealth is not their sole ambition or ideal of life. If they possess enough to live comfortably, give their children a fair education and meet their bills, they are content.
Now this passionate devotion to their homes and families, however commendable a virtue it may be, proved most detrimental to their best interests when the waters of strife were set in commotion. Nothing was so trying to the Boers than to be separated from their families for months and months. Up to the commencement of the war the Boer farmer hardly knew what it meant to be away from his family for a long time. Owing to this strong attachment to, one might almost say weakness for, their homes, the burghers often insisted on obtaining leave of absence to visit their families, and that at times when their services were most needed on the battlefield.
This love of home and property must account for a great number of voluntary surrenders to the British. When the enemy entered the Republics the farmers had to choose between surrender or sacrificing hearth and home, property and all they had--entrusting these to the mercy of the foe. Many, be it said to their honour, deliberately chose to sacrifice all rather than their independence. Others lay down arms, to protect or save, as they thought, their families, homes and property. Sadly and bitterly were they disappointed; for their homes were still burned, and their families confined in the concentration camps.
These, then, are some of the more striking features of the Boer character. To summarize them in one sentence: the Boer loves his Country and Freedom, his Bible and Rifle, his Neighbour and Family.
Are these not qualities which recommend themselves as worthy of admiration? Are they not indications of much that is noble and good, even though the foe be vanquished? Do not the English pride themselves in possessing these very qualities, qualities which, they say, have made them a great and mighty nation? Be it so; let them gently deal with the Boer, who is possessed of these noble attributes in common with themselves. We hope that they will treat their new subjects with due consideration. What a happy day will it be for South Africa when Boer and Briton, through the length and breadth of that blood-stained land, have learned the secret of living as friends and brothers, respecting one another, as befits Christian people. Will that happy day ever dawn, or is South Africa doomed to be a land of discord? Let us hope that the unhappy past will gradually be effaced from the memory of both Dutch and English. Let the English Government exercise discretion in introducing a South African policy which shall tend to reconcile and unite, not embitter and sever.
What about the faults and defects of the Boer? some may be asking. While commenting on the different phases of the Boer character, we have alluded to and admitted many of these; for they are many. There is indeed much which we lament in the character of our people, and which we would, if it were possible, gladly alter or improve upon. Not all of them are good patriots, saints and heroes. Neither are all resourceful, kind-hearted, hospitable, and attached to their homes. There were "National Scouts," traitors, renegades, among the burghers! Among the women there were, alas! some, not many, who yielded to temptation. Such characters are found among all nations. Among the Boers they formed a small minority, and were the exceptions and not the general rule.