Mafeking, February 7th, 1900.
At a moment when the entire garrison, perhaps, excluding the military chiefs, was eagerly anticipating some announcement which would determine the date of an immediate relief, intelligence has come to hand, in a communication from Field-Marshal Lord Roberts himself, informing the inhabitants of Mafeking that he expects them to hold out until the middle of May. Since the beginning of the year the town has lulled itself into a sense of security by endeavouring to believe that at some early date the garrison would be relieved. But now, if it were possible to find "a last straw" to break the spirits of the townsmen, it is contained in the unfortunate telegram which Colonel Baden-Powell received from Lord Roberts. To hold out until the middle of May, it can well be longer, is to ask us to endure further privations, and to maintain an existence in a condition which is already little removed from starvation, and at a moment when the great majority of the civilian combatants, if not of all classes, are "full up" of the siege. For the past month we have been living upon horseflesh, although at first these unfortunate animals were slaughtered only in the interests of the foodless natives, and whatever gastronomic satisfaction may be culled by us now in eating what in more ordinary circumstances has done duty as a horse, it is none the less a hardship and a damned and disagreeable dish.
The effect of the announcement has been to increase the gloom and depression which for some weeks has been noticeable among those civilians whose businesses have been ruined; who are separated from and unable to communicate with their families, and who themselves have been impressed into the defence of the town. During this state of war they are unable to earn anything, and it is quite beyond their power to pay even the most perfunctory attention to their businesses; but now with this statement buzzing in the brain like an angry bee, can they not be excused if they cry out, "Enough, enough," and feel depressed and sick of the whole siege? Within a few weeks we shall be entering the sixth month of the siege, and already the severity of our daily life is beginning to tell, and indeed has already told upon many. But now that we have come so far through the wood, when we have fought by day and by night, when we have been sick with fever and pressed by hunger, when we have been harassed by bad news, and the conviction, through the absence of any cheering information, that all was not well with us down below, it would be a monstrous misfortune if we cannot survive the pangs of hunger and the torments of starvation until the long-promised relief arrives in the middle of May. If we do succeed, those who come through alive will have a tale to tell, in which there will be much which will remain buried, since there are experiences which, when they have been lived through, it is impossible to talk about.
If we were only just ourselves, merely the defenders of a town against an enemy, we could endure our privations, our short rations, and our condemned water with even greater fortitude. The men live hard lives in Africa, and their constitutions are strong, their nerves firm. But they hate, as all men hate, in all parts of the world, that their womenfolk should suffer, and here is the misery of our situation, more especially that these gentle creatures should suffer before their own eyes, when they themselves can do nothing for them. Aye, indeed, there's the rub. A hard life is always hardest upon women, and, unlike the Australasian colonies, and Canada, or the Western States of America, and all places where women who lead colonial life have no black labour to rely upon, the women in Africa are curiously incapable, delegating a multitudinous variety of domestic duties to the natives they employ. Their sphere of daily activity, so far as it is in relation to their household, is reduced to a minimum, while consciously or through the absence of some active pursuit by which they could occupy their mind and exercise their bodies, their view of life is petty and impressed with prejudices and absurd jealousies. Moreover, they are abnormally lazy; indeed, to one who has lived in Australasia, America, Africa, India, and elsewhere, and has experience of life in those colonies, the lassitude and indolence of the South African woman is one of the most striking aspects of the daily life in Africa. In Natal this weariness is called the "Natal sickness," and in Mafeking at the present juncture it is responsible for a great deal of the discontent, the unwillingness to make the best of an exceedingly trying situation.
Without the feminine element in Mafeking, the civil and military authorities would be in better accord, but with a pack of women and children in an insanitary laager, caring nothing for the exigencies of the situation, firmly believing that they are oppressed by design and deliberately maltreated, and, rising up in their wrath, smiting the Colonel, the Chief Staff Officer, indeed, the entire Headquarters' Staff, or any military and official unit that comes unfortunately into contact with them, the worry and annoyance caused to the garrison at large by their presence here at this juncture is eminently worse than the most fearsome thing it is possible to conceive. Of course, one sympathises in all sincerity with these unfortunate non-combatants, for they live amid conditions which produce and promote typhoid, malaria, and diphtheria—diseases that have been peculiarly virulent, and from which many women and children have died.
Apart from the fatalities from shell and rifle fire, there is the list of those who have died from the hardships which they have had to experience. Strong men have dropped off from typhoid, women and children contracting the same disease, or one which by its nature is similarly fatal, have been unable to bear up. The smiling and happy children that one knew in the early days are no longer such; they are thin, emaciated, bloodless, and live amid conditions which have already wrought sad havoc among their companions. The mortality among the women and children must form part of the general conditions of the siege, but it is peculiarly disheartening to the townsmen as they stand to their posts and their trenches to be compelled to ponder and to reflect sadly that the fell diseases which have killed the wives and children of so many might, at any moment, attack those members of their own family who are confined in the pestilential trenches of the laager. The unfortunate condition of these poor people here, as well as in Kimberley, has brought the suggestion to my mind that it should not be too late for either the Commander-in-Chief, or some one identified with his authority, to make overtures to the Boers, so that we, and even the garrison in Kimberley, might be permitted to send, in the one case our women and children to Bulawayo, and in the other case, to Capetown. It could surely be arranged, and if it were possible it would ensure a little greater happiness, a little greater comfort, falling to the lot of these poor people, who are unable to take, through lack of adequate remedies, the simplest precautions against the dangers which assail their own health and the lives of their children. But if our friends the Boers think that because of these straits we are disheartened they make a very grievous mistake. We propose to endure and we intend to carry the siege on until the end. Nothing so exemplifies the true tone of the garrison and the spirit of the men as this determination in which we one and all share and for which we mutually agree to co-operate.
Despite the heavy burden of domestic trouble which presses down upon the townspeople, there has been a remarkable absence of any open friction between the civilian element and military at present gathered in Mafeking. The military authorities should be the first to recognise this and to appreciate the ready acquiescence and assistance which they have received from the inhabitants of the town. That at least they do acknowledge the importance of duties fulfilled, and the spirit with which they have been carried out, should be a conclusion against which it would be absurd to tilt. Nothing can underestimate the consideration which the townspeople, under conditions adverse to their interests, and for which the military authorities are entirely responsible, have shown for the vigours of martial law and the present military domination. Compensation would be so materially insufficient that it cannot be said that any one individual has stayed here for the purpose of receiving such emoluments as would be to him some kind of a profit. The economy of Governmental compensation is never known to be satisfactory—Government in its impersonal attributes being universally recognised as a most niggardly paymaster. They therefore, those who have stayed, apart from the delusions under which they suffered, can be said to have remained because they wished, as colonists, to prove their loyalty; and yet, when one looks back upon the siege and considers carefully the manner in which they have been imposed upon by their own Government, it is very questionable if ever so great a test was applied to the spirit of mind and body which constitutes allegiance to a sovereign. Fortunately the town cannot say that it has performed more than its share of the defence work. Indeed, for the most part the services of the townsmen have been restricted, so far as was possible, to a connection with forts which have been constructed upon the boundaries of the town, and have not been thrust forward in preference to the men of the Protectorate Regiment, who, following the profession of arms, can properly be expected to bear the brunt of the fighting. It was thought at one time that the strange assortment of human nature which had collected in or was drawn to Mafeking might be difficult of management; but mixed as is the population here at present, the doubtful element, which is one that sympathising with the enemy might create dissatisfaction among others, has been singularly subdued. There are many instances here in Mafeking of men who have taken up arms in defence of the town in which their business and their domestic ties are centred, and who, to do this, have had to fight against their own blood relatives. We have had therefore, in a sense, many men who, while apparently loyal and engaged in manning the trenches, were yet under constant supervision, lest they should give way to their feelings and too openly proclaim their sympathies with the Boer cause; but there have been few desertions, and affairs in general between Englishman and Dutchman, between the civilian and military, have passed off with greater harmony than was altogether anticipated. Mistrust between Englishmen of pronounced Imperial sympathies and colonials suspected of Dutch leanings has been the cause of a certain amount of jealousy, which tended to make the defence of Mafeking a work of, by no means, a pleasant nature. However much this feeling of difference, creating and causing in itself an acute tension between the pro-Imperial and the colonial, has given rise to, or has been the sole cause of, any ill-feeling which may have marked the relations between the civil and military, it has at no time assumed proportions grave enough to foster the opinion that its prevalence might endanger in time the commonweal of the inhabitants and threaten with strife the daily intercourse of the various units in the garrison.