We have noted in former pages that the Boers' ancestry some two centuries ago was composed of about two-thirds of sturdy Dutch peasants, artizans, etc., while the other third consisted mostly of French Huguenots.
It is known that the immigrant class, though generally somewhat poor, are uniformly men and women endowed with an adventurous, self-reliant spirit and with unimpaired health. Naturally none but robust persons were permitted to join the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope.
We see in that combination the patient, resolute quality prevailing in Holland and the more ardent, vivacious, and chivalrous character found with the French people. The Huguenot refugees belonged undisputably to the cream of that impulsive nation—intellectual, educated, and fearless—whilst both portions were pervaded with deep-rooted religious fervour and habituated to moral and temperate lives.
Those combined qualities and habits would naturally be transmitted to the progeny; prosperity and splendid climatic conditions tended still further to develop a virile physique of first order. The moral and physical standards were maintained by the practice of men and women marrying early in life, and by occupations which required the people to pass most of their time in the open. Educationally, there was unavoidably some retrogression, but there is always plenty of scope in the existence of colonists in a new country for the exercise of a vigorous mind in the study of nature, in overcoming difficulties and in cultivating the faculty of resourcefulness.
Whilst missing the intellectual benefits of advanced civilization, the people escaped the dangers of its vitiating tendencies, thus preserving a healthy mental calibre as well as robust physical health. In addition may be mentioned a very notable fecundal power, which accounts for the phenomenally rapid increase of the people. All those conditions have continued to be maintained with the successive generations up to now.
Those who joined in the exodus north of the Orange River in 1835 and the years following comprised the most indomitable and best endowed of that stalwart race. Twenty years of a nomadic life after that and until they got somewhat settled down served to weed out the weaklings among them; since then their mode of life accorded well to keep up the highest physical standard, not pampered with many comforts, inured to hardships and to out-of-door exercise, with a diet consisting very largely of meat and venison, coupled with energetic exercise of mind and body (the women sharing in the less arduous duties). All this constituted a regimen and training which did not fail to keep the people in a constant condition of high efficiency and equipoise for the performance of tasks and for surmounting difficulties needing more than usual strength, endurance, and fortitude.
The rough labour all over South Africa is done mostly by Kaffirs and other coloured people. A Boer farmer will have from two to ten or more Kaffirs (men and women) employed for out-of-door work and for domestic drudgery. Often absent from home on hunting trips and sometimes on commando, the men entrust their work on such occasions (as is now the case during the present war) to the care of their wives and daughters, assisted by some younger sons, if the family includes any, or else simply with the aid of Kaffir servants. Sometimes they are without any such help, when they take a pride in doing it alone.
Girls as well as boys learn to ride on horseback when quite young. It is quite a usual thing to see women riding astride fashion, collecting sheep and cattle, or driving their horse carts and spiders (carriages), unattended by males, over distances of over twenty and thirty miles—women spanning in ox-teams to their travelling wagons, driving them with long whips on journeys occupying one or more days. During the Kaffir wars the Boers used to trek (travel) in bodies with their wagons, which would serve to form a laager or fort, their families and belongings being placed in the centre. During an attack the women would attend to the men's wants, reload their rifles, and even take a more active part in repelling the enemy, many of them being also crack shots. The above-stated efficient and hardy habits with men and women apply more to the people in the two Republics, and particularly so to those of the Transvaal, while the Colonial Boers on the whole have had no such experience, but instead have lived in uninterrupted peace and comfort for generations, and may be classed with farmers of any other well-governed and protected country or colony. The Boer farmers in the northern portions of the Cape Colony, however, approximate to those of the Orange Free State in hardy habits and ability to fend for themselves when in difficulty. But with the Transvaal Boers the training incident to wars, hunting, and nomadic movements has been more sustained, and they are thus in best form and fitness of efficiency compared with all the rest.
In the Orange Free State nearly every man above fifty years of age has had the experience of the three years' Basuto war in 1865-67, and almost all above forty are very expert huntsmen and crack shots. Quite a good number have also taken part in the Transvaal war against the English in 1880; the rest have been trained by the elder veterans, and, though not so well seasoned, are good horsemen, expert with the rifle, and competent in the field. As to the Transvaalers, the men have all had plenty of field practice before the previous war with England and since, in subduing formidable Kaffir rebellions, the last being the operations against the Magato chief, which terminated just before the outbreak of the present Anglo-Boer war.
Besides this, game had continued longer in abundance in the Transvaal, and is still hunted with success in the northern low veldt and in the adjacent Portuguese territory. Added to this, the young Boers in the Cape Colony, Natal, Orange Free State, and Transvaal have been encouraged to attain proficiency in rifle practice and competence in the field, ostensibly for the gratification of keeping up old traditions, but in reality to be prepared for the struggle against England meditated by the Afrikaner Bond.
About thirty odd years ago the Orange Free State and Transvaal were still swarming with all sorts of game. Venison was the staple diet. Lions and leopards also infested those States, but these and the game have been pretty well extirpated since, except in some of the lower parts of the Transvaal. In the earlier days ammunition was costly and hard to procure, and the use had to be husbanded accordingly. It became thus a practice never to pull a trigger unless with intense aim and the certainty of an effective shot. A man would go out stalking for an hour or so with perhaps but one or two charges, and would rarely fail in bringing home the kind of game wanted—either a springbock, blesbock, or wildebeest (gnu). In hunting lions, the lads would form part of the company for the purpose of being taught. The boys would learn that if a lion meant to attack he would approach to within twenty or thirty yards, and then straighten himself up before making the final charge. It was during that short halt that the disabling or killing shot would have to be delivered. Father and son would then be standing ready—the son to fire first; if unsuccessful, the animal would be brought down by the father. If there were a larger party and the lions numerous, the lessons would be learnt so much better by way of emulation. The boys soon realized that a lion, means business only when he advances silently and with smoothed gait, but that bristling up and roaring is a sure prelude to his skulking off. What we read of the terror-inspiring roar is to the Boer stripling pure romance and non-sense; but what he does realize is that he must hit the animal in a vital spot at the right moment or else run the risk of being clawed and bitten. The confidence, however, which he has in his gun gives him all the requisite nerve, and mishaps are of very rare occurrence. Those lion hunts used to be very profitable, not only for the valuable skins, but especially when a number of young cubs were also caught, which would realize considerably high prices from menagerie purveyors.
At the age of about eight years a boy would be taught to ride on horseback; when twelve years old he would be an expert horseman and a deadly rifle shot as well; at sixteen he would be able to perform all farm duties and rank with pride and confidence as an efficient burgher to take the field against any enemy. His brain is not addled with school lore, but is thoroughly versed and taught from nature's book. Hardened to the fatigue of long rides over unfamiliar country in search of stray cattle, the Boer youth has often to subsist upon a bit of dried biltong (junked beef or venison), endure at intervals scorching heat and drenching rains, swim rivers, and pass the night with a stone for a pillow and his saddle as the only shelter, while his horse, securely hobbled, feeds upon the grass around. Never will he lose his way; if landmarks fail him and clouds hide moon and stars, he is guided by wind, the run of water or his horse's instincts. Accustomed to wide horizons, he can promptly distinguish objects at a distance, which, to an ordinarily good eyesight, would need careful scanning through a field-glass.
He is expert in finding and following any trail, and can promptly tell the imprint from whatever animal it might be, or of whatever human origin; an ideal scout and unsurpassed as a pioneer. When travelling over roadless country the Boer's instinct will direct him in tracing the most practicable route for his wagons, and with his experience he can foretell what kind of topography he will in succession have to traverse, avoiding unnegotiable spots and unnecessary detours, and when about to halt, a surveying gaze will locate the safest and most suitable position for his temporary camp. Such capacities serve with obvious advantage in defensive and offensive war tactics. Prompt in seizing an advantage and in avoiding danger, he has also learnt to be an adept in ruses to decoy and mislead an enemy, and as for self-help and resourcefulness, there is hardly a situation or difficulty conceivable which will not be successfully surmounted. The usual Boer can also fend for himself and cope with the minor perplexities of every-day life in the field, which would strand a less initiated man. He can cook, bake bread, mend clothes, make boots, repair saddles, harness, and vehicles, and is full of expedients and able to make shift. Most of them know how to shoe their horses, whilst many of them are expert also in working wood and metals and similar handicrafts. In short, the Boers make ideal scouts and are unique as colonizing pioneers. In their nomadic wanderings and frequent wars, the Boers have gained much useful experience in tactics, strategy, and in the wiles of diplomacy too. They also learnt to adopt methods of organization, of cohesion, combined action, and a certain amount of discipline among themselves.
They elect as subordinate and chief leaders men whose abilities and influence have commended them for such responsible appointments. Before committing themselves to any very important step these leaders would first confer with the people, who in turn would generally be easily swayed to their opinions, and who found by experience that it was safest to follow their judgment. It thus also became a habit to leave the main thinking over to those leaders, which enhanced unanimity and led to a self-imposed obedience and discipline recognised as necessary for the common welfare and also indispensable for common safety.
So prevalent had the practice become of deferring to the opinions of their leaders that it engendered an apathy among the people against considering political and public matters which were not altogether of engrossing importance. Public meetings would be poorly attended, and at elections not half the votes were recorded. "Let the elected heads see to it; they are paid for doing the controlling and thinking work"—that used to be the general feeling. But during the past twenty years public interest has by degrees been successfully aroused by the activities of the Afrikaner Bond; the former apathy and distaste to the consideration of public concerns have given place to a more lively identification even with politics, but the tendency of being swayed by men of influence of their own kind remains unchanged.
The Boers are great smokers—tobacco appears to have no hurtful effects whatever upon them, but seems rather to serve as a grateful sedative. The first thing offered on meeting a Boer is his tobacco pouch, and if one is a guest at his house, this is followed by one or more cups of coffee. This is drunk by men and women in large quantities, often without sugar, but very weak. The people are justly famed for cordial hospitality to strangers, and the pleasing tact and unostentatious correct politeness met with from the most ordinary and uneducated Boer are only accountable for on the theory that that particular culture of manners has been transmitted from his noble French ancestry of a couple of hundred years ago.
In stature the men near the average of six feet (say five feet ten inches)—full-bearded, brawny-limbed, and of stalwart build, suggesting a homeric capacity for aggression and resistance. They present a standard of sturdy and active manhood, which would have delighted the critical eye of Frederick the Great for the formation of his very best regiments. What is really singular is the infinitesimally small proportion of ineffective and sickly men found left behind when all the commandoes are called out, and also the considerable number of hale old men above sixty who voluntarily join the field. And when the hardy training and general high efficiency are considered down to the youth of sixteen, one may estimate the formidableness of such a foe, all well mounted on tough and nimble horses, well provisioned and provided with the best weapons extant, guided by very competent chiefs and European advisers —withal self-reliant and conscious of a superior aggressive and defensive capability for repeating their splendid ancestral records of prowess. Add to this inbred patriotism stimulated to an enthusiasm approaching fanaticism by a mind fashioned to the belief that their war is against an unjust usurper destined to be overthrown; it all sums up a long way towards balancing numerical inferiority and inexperience in the science of modern warfare. As to military science, they are apt to become quickly tutored into proficiency by daily observation and experience, and by the coaching of the numerous military officers who have joined their ranks.
Another advantage upon the Boer side consists in complete acclimatization and perfect knowledge of the country. Lastly, but by no means less important, is the rational practice of always going as light and unencumbered as at all possible, preferably with stripped saddle, and to subsist mostly upon meat when in the field, both serving to enhance staying power and to provide a reserve of stamina and of energy for occasions of supreme effort, which often decide the fate of battle against combatants, however courageous, who are fagged out with marching on foot, and through being overladen with accoutrements and pack and a lumbersome diet as well. What can such panting, unsteadied men do in conflict with Boers who are fresh and in well-preserved form, and whose steady sharp-shooting simply results in Calvaries for their opponents, however brave, disciplined and well equipped they may be?
Yet to be noted is the small commissariat needed for Boer horses and mules. These are accustomed to subsist altogether on grass, and when it is plentiful, during summer and fall, to keep in good condition, working six to ten hours daily, if only allowed to graze during the rest of the time. They are then usually knee-haltered, i.e., one foreleg tied to the halter, with about eighteen inches space between. A few feeds of dry mealies (maize) will be amply supplementary when the pasture is inferior, or if the animals have to be picketed much.
As said before, alcoholism does not prevail among the Boers, and any tendency to it is sedulously checked by legislation and public reprobation. President Krüger is an absolute abstainer from intoxicants, and even at banquets he will sip water only when joining in a toast. His contention is that the effects generally go beyond a harmlessly exhilarating point; the action of alcohol unbalances the nervous equilibrium, producing in most cases an excitement above the normal level, followed by a corresponding depressive reaction below it, creating an appetite for repeating the potation, with exactly similar and progressively aggravated results. Then man's moral standard and general efficiency and dignity become impaired, to the serious damage of his own welfare and involving the common weal as well. When at the outbreak of the war the sale of intoxicants became totally prohibited the measure was received with willing submission and hailed with general approval, which speaks volumes for the burgher population and without doubt also tends to preserve their efficiency and stamina.