The conquest of South Africa is one of the most curious episodes in English history. Begun through purely mercenary motives, it yet acquired a character of grandeur which, as time went on, divested it of all sordid and unworthy suspicions. South Africa has certainly been the land of adventurers, and many of them found there either fame or disgrace, unheard-of riches or the most abject poverty, power or humiliation. At the same time the Colony has had amongst its rulers statesmen of unblemished reputation and high honour, administrators of rare integrity, and men who saw beyond the fleeting interests of the hour into the far more important vista of the future.
When President Kruger was at its head the Transvaal Republic would have crumbled under the intrigues of some of its own citizens. The lust for riches which followed upon the discovery of the goldfields had, too, a drastic effect. The Transvaal was bound to fall into the hands of someone, and to be that Someone fell to the lot of England. This was a kindly throw of Fate, because England alone could administer all the wealth of the region without its becoming a danger, not only to the community at large, but also to the Transvaalers.
That this is so can be proved by the eloquence of facts rather than by words. It is sufficient to look upon what South Africa was twenty-five years ago, and upon what it has become since under the protection of British rule, to be convinced of the truth of my assertion. From a land of perennial unrest and perpetual strife it has been transformed into a prosperous and quiet colony, absorbed only in the thought of its economic and commercial progress. Its population, which twenty years ago was wasting its time and energy in useless wrangles, stands to-day united to the Mother Country and absorbed by the sole thought of how best to prove its devotion.
The Boer War has still some curious issues of which no notice has been taken by the public at large. One of the principal, perhaps indeed the most important of these, is that, though brought about by material ambitions of certain people, it ended by being fought against these very same people, and that its conclusion eliminated them from public life instead of adding to their influence and their power. The result is certainly a strange and an interesting one, but it is easily explained if one takes into account the fact that once England as a nation—and not as the nation to which belonged the handful of adventurers through whose intrigues the war was brought about—entered into the possession of the Transvaal and organised the long-talked-of Union of South Africa, the country started a normal existence free from the unhealthy symptoms which had hindered its progress. It became a useful member of the vast British Empire, as well as a prosperous country enjoying a good government, and launched itself upon a career it could never have entered upon but for the war. Destructive as it was, the Boer campaign was not a war of annihilation. On the contrary, without it it would have been impossible for the vast South African territories to become federated into a Union of its own and at the same time to take her place as a member of another Empire from which it derived its prosperity and its welfare. The grandeur of England and the soundness of its leaders has never come out in a more striking manner than in this conquest of South Africa—a blood-stained conquest which has become a love match.
During the concluding years of last century the possibility of union was seldom taken into consideration; few, indeed, were clever enough and wise enough to find out that it was bound to take place as a natural consequence of the South African War. The war cleared the air all over South Africa. It crushed and destroyed all the suspicious, unhealthy elements that had gathered around the gold mines of the Transvaal and the diamond fields of Cape Colony. It dispersed the coterie of adventurers who had hastened there with the intention of becoming rapidly rich at the expense of the inhabitants of the country. A few men had succeeded in building for themselves fortunes beyond the dreams of avarice, whilst the majority contrived to live more or less well at the expense of those naïve enough to trust to them in financial matters until the day when the war arrived to put an end to their plunderings.
The struggle into which President Kruger was compelled to rush was expected by some of the powerful intriguers in South Africa to result in increasing the influence of certain of the millionaires, who up to the time when the war broke out had ruled the Transvaal and indirectly the Cape Colony by the strength and importance of their riches. Instead, it weakened and then destroyed their power. Without the war South Africa would have grown more wicked, and matters there were bound soon to come to a crisis of some sort. The crux of the situation was whether this crisis was going to be brought about by a few unscrupulous people for their own benefit, or was to arise in consequence of the clever and far-seeing policy of wise politicians.
Happily for England, and I shall even say happily for the world at large, such a politician was found in the person of the then Sir Alfred Milner, who worked unselfishly toward the grand aim his far-sighted Imperialism saw in the distance.
History will give Viscount Milner—as he is to-day—the place which is due to him. His is indeed a great figure; he was courageous enough, sincere enough, and brave enough to give an account of the difficulties of the task he had accepted. His experience of Colonial politics was principally founded on what he had seen and studied when in Egypt and in India, which was a questionable equipment in the entirely new areas he was called upon to administer when he landed in Table Bay. Used to Eastern shrewdness and Eastern duplicity, he had not had opportunity to fight against the unscrupulousness of men who were neither born nor brought up in the country, but who had grown to consider it as their own, and exploited its resources not only to the utmost, but also to the detriment of the principles of common honesty.
The reader must not take my words as signifying a sweeping condemnation of the European population of South Africa. On the contrary, there existed in that distant part of the world many men of great integrity, high principles and unsullied honour who would never, under any condition whatsoever, have lent themselves to mean or dishonest action; men who held up high their national flag, and who gave the natives a splendid example of all that an Englishman could do or perform when called upon to maintain the reputation of his Mother Country abroad.
Some of the early English settlers have left great remembrance of their useful activity in the matter of the colonisation of the new continent to which they had emigrated, and their descendants, of whom I am happy to say there are a great number, have not shown themselves in any way unworthy of their forbears. South Africa has its statesmen and politicians who, having been born there, understand perfectly well its necessities and its wants. Unfortunately, for a time their voices were crushed by the new-comers who had invaded the country, and who considered themselves better able than anyone else to administer its affairs. They brought along with them fresh, strange ambitions, unscrupulousness, determination to obtain power for the furtherance of their personal aims, and a greed which the circumstances in which they found themselves placed was bound to develop into something even worse than a vice, because it made light of human life as well as of human property.
In any judgment on South Africa one must never forget that, after all, before the war did the work of a scavenger it was nothing else but a vast mining camp, with all its terrifying moods, its abject defects, and its indifference with regard to morals and to means. The first men who began to exploit the riches of that vast territory contrived in a relatively easy way to build up their fortunes upon a solid basis, but many of their followers, eager to walk in their steps, found difficulties upon which they had not reckoned or even thought about. In order to put them aside they used whatever means lay in their power, without hesitation as to whether these answered to the principles of honesty and straightforwardness. Their ruthless conduct was so far advantageous to their future schemes that it inspired disgust among those whose ancestors had sought a prosperity founded on hard work and conscientious toil. These good folk retired from the field, leaving it free to the adventurers who were to give such a bad name to England and who boasted loudly that they had been given full powers to do what they liked in the way of conquering a continent which, but for them, would have been only too glad to place itself under English protection and English rule. To these people, and to these alone, were due all the antagonisms which at last brought about the Boer War.
It was with these people that Sir Alfred Milner found himself out of harmony; from the first moment that he had set his foot on African soil they tried to put difficulties in his way, after they had convinced themselves that he would never consent to lend himself to their schemes.
Lord Milner has never belonged to the class of men who allow themselves to be influenced either by wealth or by the social position of anyone. He is perhaps one of the best judges of humanity it has been my fortune to meet, and though by no means an unkind judge, yet a very fair one. Intrigue is repulsive to him, and unless I am very much mistaken I venture to affirm that, in the 'nineties, because of the intrigues in which they indulged, he grew to loathe some of the men with whom he was thrown into contact. Yet he could not help seeing that these reckless speculators controlled public opinion in South Africa, and his political instinct compelled him to avail himself of their help, as without them he would not have been able to arrive at a proper understanding of the entanglements and complications of South African politics.
Previous to Sir Alfred's appointment as Governor of the Cape of Good Hope the office had been filled by men who, though of undoubted integrity and high standing, were yet unable to gauge the volume of intrigue with which they had to cope from those who had already established an iron—or, rather, golden—rule in South Africa.
Coteries of men whose sole aim was the amassing of quick fortunes were virtual rulers of Cape Colony, with more power than the Government to whom they simulated submission. All sorts of weird stories were in circulation. One popular belief was that the mutiny of the Dutch in Cape Colony just before the Boer War was at bottom due to the influence of money. This was followed by a feeling that, but for the aggressive operations of the outpost agents of certain commercial magnates, it would have been possible for England to realise the Union of South Africa by peaceful means instead of the bloody arbitrament of war.
In the minds of many Dutchmen—and Dutchmen who were sincerely patriotic Transvaalers—the conviction was strong that the natural capabilities of Boers did not lie in the direction of developing, as they could be, the amazing wealth-producing resources of the Transvaal and of the Orange Free State. By British help alone, such men believed, could their country hope to thrive as it ought.
Here, then, was the nucleus around which the peaceful union of Boer and English peoples in South Africa could be achieved without bloodshed. Indeed, had Queen Victoria been represented at the Cape by Sir Alfred Milner ten years before he was appointed Governor there, many things which had a disastrous influence on the Dutch elements in South Africa would not have occurred. The Jameson Raid would certainly not have been planned and attempted. To this incident can be ascribed much of the strife and unpleasantness which followed, by which was lost to the British Government the chance, then fast ripening, of bringing about without difficulty a reconciliation of Dutch and English all over South Africa. This reconciliation would have been achieved through Cecil Rhodes, and would have been a fitting crown to a great career.
At one time the most popular man from the Zambesi to Table Mountain, the name of Cecil Rhodes was surrounded by that magic of personal power without which it is hardly possible for any conqueror to obtain the material or moral successes that give him a place in history; that win for him the love, the respect, and sometimes the hatred, of his contemporaries. Sir Alfred Milner would have known how to make the work of Cecil Rhodes of permanent value to the British Empire. It was a thousand pities that when Sir Alfred Milner took office in South Africa the influence of Cecil Rhodes, at one time politically dominant, had so materially shrunk as a definitive political factor.
Sir Alfred Milner found himself in the presence of a position already compromised beyond redemption, and obliged to fight against evils which ought never to have been allowed to develop. Even at that time, however, it would have been possible for Sir Alfred Milner to find a way of disposing of the various difficulties connected with English rule in South Africa had he been properly seconded by Mr. Rhodes. Unfortunately for both of them, their antagonism to each other, in their conception of what ought or ought not to be done in political matters, was further aggravated by intrigues which tended to keep Rhodes apart from the Queen's High Commissioner in South Africa.
It would not at all have suited certain people had Sir Alfred contrived to acquire a definite influence over Mr. Rhodes, and assuredly this would have happened had the two men have been allowed unhindered to appreciate the mental standard of each other. Mr. Rhodes was at heart a sincere patriot, and it was sufficient to make an appeal to his feelings of attachment to his Mother Country to cause him to look at things from that point of view. Had there existed any real intimacy between Groote Schuur and Government House at Cape Town, the whole course of South African politics might have been very different.
Sir Alfred Milner arrived in Cape Town with a singularly free and unbiased mind, determined not to allow other people's opinions to influence his own, and also to use all the means at his disposal to uphold the authority of the Queen without entering into conflict with anyone. He had heard a deal about the enmity of English and Dutch, but though he perfectly well realised its cause he had made up his mind to examine the situation for himself. He was not one of those who thought that the raid alone was responsible; he knew very well that this lamentable affair had only fanned into an open blaze years-long smoulderings of discontent. The Raid had been a consequence, not an isolated spontaneous act. Little by little over a long span of years the ambitious and sordid overridings of various restless, and too often reckless, adventurers had come to be considered as representative of English rule, English opinions and, what was still more unfortunate, England's personality as an Empire and as a nation.
On the other side of the matter, the Dutch—who were inconceivably ignorant—thought their little domain the pivot of the world. Blind to realities, they had no idea of the legitimate relative comparison between the Transvaal and the British Empire, and so grew arrogantly oppressive in their attitude towards British settlers and the powers at Cape Town.
All this naturally tinctured native feeling. Suspicion was fostered among the tribes, guns and ammunition percolated through Boer channels, the blacks viewed with disdain the friendly advances made by the British, and the atmosphere was thick with mutual distrust. The knowledge that this was the situation could not but impress painfully a delicate and proud mind, and surely Lord Milner can be forgiven for the illusion which he at one time undoubtedly cherished that he would be able to dispel this false notion about his Mother Country that pervaded South Africa.
The Governor had not the least animosity against the Dutch, and at first the Boers had no feeling that Sir Alfred was prejudiced against them. Such a thought was drilled into their minds by subtle and cunning people who, for their own avaricious ends, desired to estrange the High Commissioner from the Afrikanders. Sir Alfred was represented as a tyrannical, unscrupulous man, whose one aim in life was the destruction of every vestige of Dutch independence, Dutch self-government and Dutch influence in Africa. Those who thus maligned him applied themselves to make him unpopular and to render his task so very uncongenial and unpleasant for him that he would at last give it up of his own accord, or else become the object of such violent hatreds that the Home Government would feel compelled to recall him. Thus they would be rid of the presence of a personage possessed of a sufficient energy to oppose them, and they would no longer need to fear his observant eyes. Sir Alfred Milner saw himself surrounded by all sorts of difficulties, and every attempt he made to bring forward his own plans for the settlement of the South African question crumbled to the ground almost before he could begin to work at it. Small wonder, therefore, if he felt discouraged and began to form a false opinion concerning the persons or the facts with whom he had to deal. Those who might have helped him were constrained, without it being his fault. Mr. Rhodes became persuaded that the new Governor of Cape Colony had arrived there with preconceived notions in regard to himself. He was led to believe that Milner's firm determination was to crush him; that, moreover, he was jealous of him and of the work he had done in South Africa.
Incredible as it appears, Rhodes believed this absurd fiction, and learned to look upon Sir Alfred Milner as a natural enemy, desirous of thwarting him at every step. The Bloemfontein Conference, at which the brilliant qualities and the conciliating spirit of the new Governor of Cape Colony were first made clearly manifest, was represented to Rhodes as a desire to present him before the eyes of the Dutch as a negligible quantity in South Africa. Rhodes was strangely susceptible and far too mindful of the opinions of people of absolutely no importance. He fell into the snare, and though he was careful to hide from the public his real feelings in regard to Sir Alfred Milner, yet it was impossible for anyone who knew him well not to perceive at once that he had made up his mind not to help the High Commissioner. There is such a thing as damning praise, and Rhodes poured a good deal of it on the head of Sir Alfred.
Fortunately, Sir Alfred was sufficiently conscious of the rectitude of his intentions and far too superior to feelings of petty spite. He never allowed himself to be troubled by these unpleasantnesses, but went on his way without giving his enemies the pleasure of noticing the measure of success which, unhappily, attended their campaign. He remained inflexible in his conduct, and, disdaining any justification, went on doing what he thought was right, and which was right, as events proved subsequently. Although Milner had at last to give up, yet it is very largely due to him that the South African Union was ultimately constituted, and that the much-talked-of reconciliation of the Dutch and English in Cape Colony and in the Transvaal became an accomplished fact. Had Sir Alfred been listened to from the very beginning it might have taken place sooner, and perhaps the Boer War altogether avoided.
It is a curious thing that England's colonising powers, which are so remarkable, took such a long time to work their way in South Africa. At least it would have been a curious thing if one did not remember that among the first white men who arrived there Englishmen were much in the minority. And of those Englishmen who were attracted by the enormous mineral wealth which the country contained, a good proportion were not of the best class of English colonists. Many a one who landed in Table Bay was an adventurer, drawn thither by the wish to make or retrieve his fortune. Few came, as did Rhodes, in search of health, and few, again, were drawn thither by the pure love of adventure. In Australia, or in New Zealand or other colonies, people arrived with the determination to begin a new life and to create for themselves new ties, new occupations, new duties, so as to leave to their children after them the result of their labours. In South Africa it was seldom that emigrants were animated by the desire to make their home in the solitudes of the vast and unexplored veldt. Those who got rich there, though they may have built for themselves splendid houses while they dwelt in the land, never looked upon South Africa as home, but aspired to spend their quickly gained millions in London and to forget all about Table Mountain or the shafts and factories of Johannesburg and Kimberley.
To such men as these England was a pretext but never a symbol. Their strange conception of patriotism jarred the most unpleasantly on the straightforward nature of Sir Alfred Milner, who had very quickly discerned the egotism that lay concealed beneath its cloak. He understood what patriotism meant, what love for one's own country signified. He had arrived in South Africa determined to spare neither his person nor his strength in her service, and the man who was repeatedly accused both by the Dutch and by the English party in the Colony of labouring under a misconception of its real political situation was the one who had from the very first appreciated it as it deserved, and had recognised its damning as well as its redeeming points.
Sir Alfred meant South Africa to become a member of the British Empire, to participate in its greatness, and to enjoy the benefits of its protection. He had absolutely no idea of exasperating the feelings of the Dutch part of its population. He had the best intentions in regard to President Kruger himself, and there was one moment, just at the time of the Bloemfontein Conference, when a modus vivendi between President Kruger and the Court of St. James's might have been established, notwithstanding the difficult question of the Uitlanders. It was frustrated by none other than these very Uitlanders, who, fondly believing that a war with England would establish them as absolute masters in the Gold Fields, brought it about, little realising that thereby was to be accomplished the one thing which they dreaded—the firm, just and far-seeing rule of England over all South Africa.
In a certain sense the Boer War was fought just as much against financiers as against President Kruger. It put an end to the arrogance of both.