Cape Town, September 20th, 1899.
To be in Cape Town in September would seem to be visiting the capital of Cape Colony in its least enjoyable month; since, more especially than at any other time in the year, the place be thronged with bustling people, who plough their way through streets which, by the stress of recent bad weather, are choked with mud and broken by pools of slush and rain-scourings. The rain is falling with a determination and force of penetration which soaks the pedestrian in a few minutes and makes life altogether miserable. Moreover, there are signs of further foul weather. There is a white mist upon the mountain and a sea fog enshrouds the shipping in the harbour: everywhere it is cold, colourless and damp. Everywhere the people are depressed. It is as though the wet has drenched the population of the town to the bone and drowned their spirits in the cheerless prospect which the rainy season in Cape Town provides. If the sun were to shine the aspect might be brighter, a little warmth might be infused in the character and disposition of the constantly shifting streams of mud-splashed, bedraggled pedestrians who, despite the rain and mud and an air of general despondency, impart some little animation to the dirty thoroughfares.
Other than this air of depression there is but little external evidence of the momentous crisis which impends. It may be that the Cape Town colonist has forgotten the responsibilities of his colony in the cares of his own office, and is become that mechanical development of commerce, a money-making man. Who can tell? Is it even fair to hazard an estimation of the man in his present environment? But it would assuredly seem that the troubles of the Government, the menace which is imposed upon the colony by the Bond Ministry, do not touch him, do not even stir his loyalty to the ebullition of a little doubtful enthusiasm. Just now, although there may be war upon his borders, although the spirit of disturbed patriotism be in the air, and although his neighbours may be thinking of joining some one of the Irregular Corps who are advertising for recruits, the ordinary inhabitant of Cape Town is unmoved. He is too lethargic, or is it that his loyalty is not of that degree which regards with concern the arming of the border republics, the near outbreak of bloody war? It would seem that each, after his own caste, be happy if he be left alone; the money grubber to gain more shekels, the idler and the casual to bore each other with their stupendous, even studied indifference to the propinquity of the latest national crisis. Within a few days, it may even be within a few hours, our questions with the Pretorian Government will have reached their final adjustment or their perpetual confusion, and it may be that we shall be at war. It may be also, although it be difficult to believe, that a peaceful solution will be derived. At this moment the services of such pacific measures as can be adopted should be utilised, since if war should come within a brief measure the position of the people of this country will indeed be grave—the utter absence of adequate defensive measures, the entire lack of efficient military preparations being factors which are calculated to incite to rebellion those who incline to the Dutch cause, and indeed, most positively, their name is Legion. There is, I think, the essence of revolt beneath this heavy and depressed condition of the people: it were not possible otherwise, to exist within such intimate proximity to a state of war and be unmoved; it is not possible either to find other explanation. It may be that in their hearts, as in their heads, they are weighing the consequences of revolt, succouring one another in their distress of mind and body with seditious sympathies, maintaining a spirit of antagonism to the Imperial fusion under pretence of the mere expression of a lip loyalty. And in their immediate prospect there is everything which may be calculated to disturb their equanimity, and to force upon them the consciousness of their impotency. It is perhaps this knowledge of their actual weakness which subdues them since they cannot afford to openly avow feelings which are inimical to us and which would betoken their own hostility. Nevertheless, Great Britain can do nothing which could encourage these people in their loyalty; nor can they themselves, in reality, assist to remove their unfortunate predicament, since they must needs sacrifice their possessions to substantiate their views, and to do this implies complete disintegration of their fortunes. This they will not do; since they cannot suffer it. They will remain discontented partisans, however; slaves of commerce, restrained by the possibilities of further aggrandisement from declaring their mutual connection, and manacled by the bonds of free trade and crooked dealings. They will be neutral, as indeed the greater proportion of the inhabitants of the towns along the coast and within the littoral zone will be, since with every feeling of unctuous rectitude in relation to the values of their trade, they will leave to the provincial areas, which lie between the borders of the Orange Free State and the metropolitan circuits, the onus of the situation, the work of supplying active and more potential supporters of the Republican arms.
This is the middle of September, and I am assured that the crisis should not be expected before the middle of October, inclining to the first two weeks of the coming month. If this be possible, and the information is difficult to discount, our sin of indifference is the greater, our apathy the more criminal. Indeed, everywhere there is nothing doing—God forbid that the steady warlike preparations of the Transvaal Government should intimidate us, but let us at least be heedful and not over sleepy. If we can gauge the situation by the public press of the Empire it is most critical, and the time is rather overripe in which we also should indulge in a few military exercises. There is a situation to be faced which will tax all the resources of the Castle, and strain even the vaunted excellence of the home administration—that army for which Lord Wolseley has claimed such splendid mobilisation, such insensate volition. If these fifty thousand men were here now the turns of the political wheel would not be regarded with such intense apprehension, while in their absence there lies perhaps the answer to the rain-drenched dulness of the population. The land is naked; from Basutoland to Buluwayo and back to Beira, mile upon mile of smiling frontier rests without protection of any sort. We are inviting invasion, and it is impossible that such a movement will not be attempted. To invade our territory—it will sound so well round the camp fires of the Boer laagers—a mere scamper across the frontier, a pell-mell, hell-for-leather retreat to their own lines, and the manœuvres would be executed felicitously and with every sign of success. But such a contingency is submerged under an accumulation of theories and official explanations each of which deny the possibility of the Boer taking upon himself the responsibility of rushing the situation. Moreover, it does not seem that the Boers require much instigation to attempt such an act. We have laid open our borders to such an enterprise, even taking the trouble to leave unguarded many towns whose adjacency to the border is singularly perilous. In many cases a Boer force need only make a short march to arrive in the very heart of some one of these border towns, when, should they appear, the turn of affairs could be said to be complex; and some emotions might be felt by those worthy and effete military noodles who so persistently shout down the "pessimists" who, knowing the country, the ambition and resourcefulness of the Boers, persist in declaiming upon the hideous neglect which characterises our frontier defences, and strenuously assert the probability of Boer invasion into those districts which superimpose themselves upon the borders of the Transvaal and Orange Free State Republics, and which, possessing values of their own, can be held as hostages against the slings and arrows of an outrageous fortune elsewhere.
It is the duty of the Crown at the present juncture to bear this contingency in mind, to confront it with the determined resolution to repair the negligence of the past at once and at all costs, and to allow neither the opinion of the Bond Ministry, nor the ignorance of the existing military advisers to the Governor, to persuade the Executive from adopting the only course which remains to us, which is to push men and materials of war to the border with the least possible delay. If we do not take these steps now it will be too late in a little time, and the course of the war must necessarily be the more protracted. There are many who would have us delay lest our premature acts should expedite the despatch of the ultimatum, and we should lose the opportunity, which the next few days will give to us, of receiving delivery of the troops who are already upon the water. But the presence of these men means little and forebodes, in reality, a slight accentuation of the gravity of the actual situation. It is with the forces that we can control at this moment that we must count, and it is with them that we must deal. It does not suffice to have parade-ground drills in Cape Town as a preliminary flourish; we should at least show ourselves as ready as the Boers be willing. This of course we cannot do, since, with a handful of exceptions, we have not a modern piece of artillery in the country. Moreover we do not quite know what armaments the Transvaal Government possess; it is with a pretty display of pretence that we conceal the nakedness of our borders and bolster up the situation. There is Kimberley, Ramathlabama, and Buluwayo—what is to happen upon the western frontier?—and although it be doubtful if the Boers would pierce the Rhodesian border and seize Buluwayo, it is not too much to expect that if they should inaugurate any movement into the Colony from the Orange Free State, even if their activity only should assume the shape of a demonstration against Kimberley, that this southern advance would receive sympathetic co-operation from a parallel movement in a northerly direction by which they might temporarily secure possession of our line of communication and menace Buluwayo by encroaching upon Rhodesia.
Then there is the position of Natal, which must be more or less hampered by the war in the Transvaal if it does not become actually and potentially concerned. That Natal will play an important rôle is elaborately evident from the Boer patrols who, even now, are reported to be in possession of all strategical points in the mountains, and who are also said to be busily engaged in fortifying the rocky fastnesses of the Drakensburg Mountains, and to dominate Laing's Nek tunnel as well as the line of railway which curvets through the chain, by having emplaced some heavy ordnance upon prominent and immediate commanding slopes. It would seem as though Natal may play a part, so distinctive and so vitally important in its own history as a colonial dependency, that the prospect of the war there may become a campaign in itself, and one which will be almost detached and isolated from the movements in the Orange Free State and Transvaal, where I have reason to believe there is some intention of formulating, what may be regarded as a dual campaign, which will avoid all invasion of the Transvaal territory until the Orange Free State has been completely pacified and the lines of communication effectively and securely held. In support of this scheme it is generally conceded that it will be impossible to carry war into the Transvaal until every provision has been made against the risk of local rising in the areas of the Orange Free State, and thus endangering our lines of communication, as well as our flanks.
These, then, are the signs of the day, and in such signs do we read something of the terrible struggle upon which we are so soon to be engaged, and in appreciation of which, local opinion is in such marked contrast—I almost wrote conflict—with the opinion and views of the special service officers from India and England. To whom, then, belongs the honours of accurate estimation; to the man from home as it were, or to the man who has passed his life in South Africa and understands the Dutchman as the mere military interloper can never hope to understand him? There is, I think, no doubt as to what point of view be erroneous, and it is because we so persistently ignore the worth and reliability of the men who are upon the spot, that we shall have the falsity of our intelligence some day brought home to us by the tidings of a terrible disaster. South Africa is already the grave of too many fine reputations; but let us, at least, hope that we shall not add to the disgrace of the private individual any loss of national prestige. The wind soughs ominously just now, however, while there is a note in it which I do not like, and which I cannot understand. At the Castle they talk airily of being home by Christmas! If they be sailing within twelve months they will be lucky, and at Government House Sir Alfred Milner is beset with the difficulties of his very onerous position. For the moment he takes—I am glad to be able to say it, since I would have him upon the side of sound common sense—a somewhat depressed view of the general outlook. Kimberley and Ramathlabama were his especial concerns when I called there to-day, insomuch that they extend an especial invitation to the mobility of a Boer commando, while it is quite beyond his powers to save them from their fate. It seemed to me that he despairs of these towns in particular, but I will withhold his remarks upon them until I myself have been there. Yet it may be taken as granted that, should Sir Alfred Milner be concerned for their immediate and eventual safety, the gravity of their situation is extreme, pointing even to the closeness of the danger which would arise from a Boer invasion into those areas.
But in this hurried letter I am dealing with the colony, and singularly enough we have to consider how our colonists will behave, what may be their attitude, and how near are we to rebellion? It is of course an all-important question, and one which, in relation to a British colony, is untoward. If I were asked to localise the possible area of revolt I should decline, since the question be so serious and infringes so much upon the life and existence—the central forces—of the colony that it would be difficult, definitely and evenly, to demarcate any zone of loyalty, as opposed to any area of disaffection, without unduly trespassing upon the sentiments of less favoured districts. But I do think that the possibilities of this question are enormous, emanating as it does from the life teachings and doctrines of the people of the country, and however much we try to draw a line between what constitutes due loyalty and what infringes the spirit as well as the letter of the individual's allegiance, we must unconsciously perpetrate much injustice either upon the one or upon the other side of the question, which, owing to the dualistic temperament and inclinations of no small majority of the people, it is impossible to avoid, and which will have to be endured by individuals, loyal or disloyal, as their penalty. The spirit of the Dutch pioneers still impregnates much of Cape Colony; its presence south of the Orange Free State and in the actual territory of the colony receiving direct support and sympathy by the increasing numbers of the Dutch population in these African Republics; an increase which, being unrestricted in its development, has spread far and wide until it has created a partial exodus from the recognised centres of Dutch influence and Dutch population into those areas from which the traces of the earliest Dutch occupation were rapidly vanishing—if they have not altogether disappeared—and which has been the medium of resuscitating a feeling of sympathy and clanship which, augmented by still closer ties of commerce, has promoted the functions of matrimony and friendship and gradually released a current of feeling throughout the district which was avowedly Dutch, and, equally avowedly, in silent and semi-subdued opposition to the instincts and ideals of the Anglo-Saxon colonist. And it is against the rapid spread of this feeling which we have to contend, much as we must guard against the conversion of these prejudices into tacit support and effective co-operation with the armed burghers of the sister Republics should their arms secure any initial successes. With this danger in our midst, in itself an almost insurmountable obstacle, no precaution which could render the safety of these districts the less precarious should be omitted; and to effect this—and it is quite essential to our temporal salvation—men and materials of war should be in readiness to forestall, or, at least, to circumvent, the consummation of the Boer operations. If we can accomplish even so little, it maybe possible to prevent the no small proportion of the colonists discharging their obligations to the Crown by combining with the Boer forces. To this end our efforts will have to be seriously directed, and the sooner this simple fact is realised by the authorities in South Africa as in London, the more convincing will the scope and measures of our policy become. At present it is chimerical, and we hesitate.