“ Are we pledged to craven silence? O fling it to the wind!
The parchment wall that bars us from the least of human kind—
That makes us cringe and temporise, and dumbly stand at rest,
While Pity’s burning flood of words is red-hot in the breast! ”
James Russell Lowell,
Those to whom the social structure of South Africa is familiar, will at once understand the effect produced in Cape Colony by the events of 1900. Family and religious ties bound the people of the old colony to those of their race in the younger States. This was not only the case along the borders, where constantly members of the same family were found living on either side of the boundary, but throughout the Cape Colony there was hardly a family without blood relations who had settled in the north, and become full burghers of one or other of the two Republics. As family after family became destitute, anxiety deepened. It was the anxiety of those whose kith and kin were suffering. News was hard to get, and the strain was intense. A stray letter, a traveller from the north, or a soldier’s story—these brought bits and scraps of news, worse in their effects than a whole knowledge of the truth would have been. As the months rolled on, feeling could no longer be restrained, and the women of Cape Colony were driven to break through their usual domestic habits, to organise meetings, and speak their mind. From June to August sixteen meetings were held, and more followed. Letters which came from the Cape at that time indicate the depth of the feeling aroused.
“ In the balance,” wrote one lady, [Aug. 29, 1900.] “ hangs—not whether the Republics will preserve their independence—in the balance hangs whether England shall continue to be a great nation. Just as personal acts of dishonour and dishonesty shut out individuals from the society of the honourable, so with nations. England will pronounce her own doom by the behaviour she shows to the Republics. She is at a turning-point of her political exist- \ ence. May the good and true and noble prevail, the preserving : salt to save the nation from ruin. . . . And now you have us to think of in the Cape Colony. England kills our brothers, and now she is on the point of killing our respect for her. From Zoutpansberg to the Cape Town docks there will be a solid phalanx of men and women and children — the women the bitterest because we feel our loved ones have been treated needlessly hard. It is not thus that a Boer is subdued. At such acts one’s anger against England for the moment vanishes and one begins to pity her.
“Do you not feel how almost impossible it becomes for colonists to keep calm ? . . . We look to the good amongst you women whose influence is boundless, for if there is a force against which even the devil is in the long run powerless it is a good woman.”
And in the same strain writes another [Sept. 1900]—
“ I cannot tell you what a real drop of comfort it is to us who have been brought up to love and honour England, and who have had such a rude awakening, to feel that she still holds women who will work for justice and England’s honour. I am a South African of Dutch and French Huguenot descent, and have never left this country, but my education and ideals were based on an almost entirely English foundation. Judge what it means to have all that swept away. Not only have our eyes been opened to England’s present policy of injustice, but we feel compelled to lift the veil behind us as well, and we see there former acts of wrong. Ireland’s years of oppression, the seizure of the Kimberley Diamond Fields, the Jameson Raid— Our blindness was the blindness of love; our children will not be blind.”
The debate in the Cape Parliament gave an opportunity, embraced by several prominent members, for strong protest against the devastation proceeding in the north. But it was not until November [Nov. 10, 1900.] that the profound sorrow and disapprobation of the bulk of Cape Colony found expression if not relief in a remarkable gathering held at the Paarl. This was a Women’s Congress, and upwards of 1500 women of Dutch and English race were present; while from far and wide letters and telegrams expressed the regret of those who could not attend. The condition and treatment of the women who were their kindred formed the subject of the Resolutions which were carried unanimously:—
“I. This meeting of South African women desires to enter its solemn protest against the imprisonment and deportation of unprotected women and children without investigation, in defiance of all the laws and usages of modem warfare.
“ II. This meeting earnestly protests against the burning, plunder, and destruction of private property, whereby women and children are rendered destitute, and claims that this is in contravention of the resolutions of the Peace Conference at the Hague — resolutions which England supported, and to which she subscribed.”
The Congress will be long remembered. It was held in the open air beneath the great oak trees of the Paarl. The speeches, delivered though they were by women wholly unversed in public speaking, had the unconscious eloquence which is born of deep feeling. It was a solemn protest, solemnly recorded.
The following month [Dec. 6, 1900] a great People’s Congress gathered at Worcester, and here beneath the mouths of English guns another protest was made against the treatment to which women and children were subjected, which would “ leave a lasting heritage of bitterness and hatred, while seriously endangering the future relations between civilisation and barbarism in South Africa.”
But the feelings of the Colonial women were not satisfied with empty words. Relief was active. The Prisoners of War Fund, started in the previous April, now extended its work to aid the wives and children homeless and alone. In November twenty-seven cases of clothing were despatched to Port Elizabeth, and in December twenty cases to Norval’s Pont, and forty-one cases to Bloemfontein. Feeling it impossible to stem the tide of distress from the overtaxed resources of the Cape Colony, the Committee issued an appeal [Oct. 12.] to the women of the civilised world. European countries and the United States responded generously to this appeal. In various Colonial centres small local societies were formed to collect funds. At Kimberley, where there were destitute families scattered on each side of the boundary, the difficulties of relief work were thus described in October [Oct. 19, 1900. South African Mothers’ Christian Union.]. The Committee went out with waggon-loads of supplies wherever possible—
“It is,” they wrote, “the only way in which we can reach the people whose farmhouses have been burnt and everything taken from them by the British. . . . We must go to them personally, and this means traversing whole districts which have been simply devastated of everything. The farms are so scattered that people (colonists) cannot get to assistance. They simply watch their houses being burnt, and are then left on the veld. . . . We had a permit from the military authorities a month ago to go over the border and traverse the districts, but the country round here is in such an unsettled state just at present, that the military authorities have given strict orders not to allow any person to go out of the town.”
In England the year was well advanced before relief work was begun. So little news relative to farm-burning was permitted in the Press, and so little sympathetic imagination was brought to bear upon what was known, that only the few who had followed the fortunes of the South Africans with appreciative intelligence had formed any conception of the straits to which women and children were reduced. Very quietly a few local collections were made and forwarded to the Holland or Cape Town Funds, but no public subscription list had been set on foot.
In the late summer I read of the hundreds of Boer women who, having been made homeless by our military operations, were deported from the towns we occupied, where they had collected for sustenance, and sent to the Boer lines. A picture of wretchedness lay beneath the bald telegraphic words! That these poor families, bandied from pillar to post, must need protection and organised relief, was certain, and from that moment I determined to go to South Africa in order to help them. Late in September I tried to start a fund on the broad grounds of pure and simple benevolence towards those made homeless by the war. For some weeks it was difficult to persuade even those most interested either that there was any real need, or if so, that any considerable sum could be collected, or if collected could be administered. Mr. Stephen Gladstone in a kind letter [Oct 11] was-the first to give real encouragement — a name that ensured success. Lord Lansdowne was approached and asked whether, in the event of the formation of a fund, facilities for distribution could be given. The application was transferred to the Colonial Office as more properly belonging to that department. At that moment the war was considered at an end, and the people we desired to help were our fellow - subjects of two annexed colonies.
A small Provisional Committee met and agreed to adopt the following outline as a basis for their proposed fund, and this was forwarded to the Colonial Office. The South African Women and Children’s Distress Fund, as it was named, was purely benevolent and non-political. Its objects were—
“To feed, clothe, shelter and rescue women and children, Boer, British, or others, who had been rendered destitute and homeless by the destruction of property, deportation, or other incidents of the military operations.” Its distribution was to be placed in the hands of persons deputed by the Committee, and not to run counter to the requirements of the local, civil, and military authorities.
The reply from the Colonial Office informed us that Mr. Chamberlain “sympathised with the object in view,” and a later letter communicated Sir Alfred Milner’s message that such a fund might be useful, as though the people i received military rations they were “in want of everything beyond the bare necessities of life.”
A large number of influential people of all shades of thought, who it was hoped would unite in a work of mercy, were invited to be signatories or to join the Committee of such a fund. The replies received were most discouraging. Practically all refused to give their names or help the cause unless they happened to belong to the party who had been in opposition to the war throughout. It was most unfortunate, for the movement was entirely outside of politics, had no political aims, and has maintained a purely philanthropic attitude from the beginning. The refusals were, however, characteristic of English sentiment at that date. One prominent clergyman thought that to keep Boer women and children alive might “prolong the war." Another eminent preacher was apprehensive lest such a charitable fund would reflect on the “honour of our soldiers,” and had not Lord Roberts said they were all gentlemen ? Such was the tenour of the replies received.
Privately, many people sent me sums for the assistance of the women and children whom I might reach, and as it was my wish to go to South Africa in a private capacity, and independent of any body of people, I did not wait for the complete formation of the Executive Committee, but left England in the first days of December.
The Society of Friends started their fund about this time, and work parties were also organised by a separate Committee which dealt only with clothing. Though the charitable help of England has fallen far short of that from other countries, yet from that time to this hardly a ship has left the docks which did not carry one or more bales of material and clothing for the victims of the war.