The conditions under which Sir Alfred Milner found himself compelled to shape his policy of conciliation were beset with obstacles and difficulties. An understanding of these is indispensable to the one who would read aright the history of that period of Imperial evolution.
The question of the refugees who overwhelmed Cape Colony with their lamentations, after they had been obliged to leave the Transvaal at the beginning of the hostilities—the claims of the Rand multi-millionaires—the indignation of the Dutch Colonists confined in concentration camps by order of the military authorities—the Jingoes who thought it would be only right to shoot down every Dutch sympathiser in the country: these were among the things agitating the South African public mind, and setting up conflicting claims impossible of adjustment without bitter censure on one hand or the other. The wonder is that, amid all these antagonistic elements, Sir Alfred Milner contrived to fulfil the larger part of the tasks which he had sketched out for himself before he left England.
The programme which Sir Alfred planned to carry out proved, in the long run, to have been thoroughly sound in conception and practice, because it contained in embryo all the conditions under which South Africa became united. It is remarkable, indeed, that such a very short time after a war which seemed altogether to have compromised any hope of coalescing, the Union of South Africa should have become an accomplished fact.
Yet, strange as it may appear, it is certain that up to his retirement from office Sir Alfred Milner was very little known in South Africa. He had been so well compelled by force of circumstances to lead an isolated life that very few had opportunity to study his character or gain insight into his personality. In Cape Town he was judged by his policy. People forgot that all the time he was at Government House, Cape Town, he was a man as well as a politician: a man whose efforts and work in behalf of his country deserved some kind of consideration even from his enemies. It is useless to discuss whether Sir Alfred did or did not make mistakes before the beginning of the war. Why waste words over events which cannot be helped, and about which there will always be two opinions? Personally, I think that his errors were essentially of the kind which could not have been avoided, and that none of them ever compromised ultimately the great work which he was to bring to a triumphant close.
What I do think it is of value to point out is the calmness which he contrived always to preserve under circumstances which must have been particularly trying for him. Another outstanding characteristic was the quiet dignity with which he withstood unjustifiable attacks when dealing with not-to-be-foreseen difficulties which arose while carrying on his gigantic task. Very few would have had the courage to remain silent and undaunted whilst condemned or judged for things he had been unable to alter or to banish. And yet this was precisely the attitude to which Sir Alfred Milner faithfully adhered. It stands out among the many proofs which the present Viscount Milner has given of his strong character as one of its most characteristic features, for it affords a brilliant illustration of what will, mastered by reason, can do.
Since those perilous days I have heard many differing criticisms of Lord Milner's administration as High Commissioner in South Africa. What those who express opinions without understanding that which lies under the surface of history fail to take into account is the peculiar, almost invidious position and the loneliness in which Sir Alfred had to stand from the very first day that he landed in Table Bay. He could not make friends, dared not ask anyone's advice, was forced always to rely entirely upon his own judgment. He would not have been human had he not sometimes felt misgivings as to the wisdom of what he was doing. He never had the help of a Ministry upon whom he could rely or with whom he could sympathise. The Cabinet presided over by Sir Gordon Sprigg was composed of very well-intentioned men. But, with perhaps one single exception, it did not possess any strongly individualistic personage capable of assisting Sir Alfred in framing a policy acceptable to all shades of public opinion in the Colony, or even to discuss with him whether such a policy could have been invented. As for the administration of which Mr. Schreiner was the head, it was distinctly hostile to the policy inaugurated by Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, which Sir Alfred represented. Its members, indeed, put every obstacle in the Governor's way, and this fact becoming known encouraged a certain spirit of rebellion among the Dutch section of the population. Neither one Ministry nor the other was able to be of any serious use to Milner, who, thus hampered, could neither frame a programme which accorded with his own judgment nor show himself in his true light.
All these circumstances were never taken into consideration by friends or foes, and, in consequence, he was made responsible for blunders which he could not help and for mistakes which he was probably the first to deplore. The world forgot that Sir Alfred never really had a free hand, was always thwarted, either openly or in secret, by some kind of authority, be it civil or military, which was in conflict with his own.
It was next to an impossibility to judge a man fairly under such conditions. All that one could say was that he deserved a good deal of praise for having, so successfully as he did, steered through the manifold difficulties and delicate susceptibilities with which he had to contend in unravelling a great tangle in the history of the British Empire.
The Afrikander Bond hated him, that was a recognised fact, but this hatred did Sir Alfred more good than anything else. The attacks directed against him were so mean that they only won him friends among the very people to whom his policy had not been acceptable. The abuse showered by certain newspapers upon the High Commissioner not only strengthened his hands and his authority, but transformed what ought to have remained a personal question into one in which the dignity as well as the prestige of the Empire was involved. To have recalled him after he had been subjected to such treatment would have been equivalent to a confession that the State was in the wrong. I have never been able to understand how men of such undoubted perception as Mr. Sauer or Mr. Merriman, or other leaders of the Bond, did not grasp this fact. Sir Alfred himself put the aspect very cleverly before the public in an able and dignified speech which he made at the lunch offered to Lord Roberts by the Mayor and Corporation of Cape Town when he said, "To vilify her representative is a strange way to show one's loyalty to the Queen."
A feature in Sir Alfred Milner's character, which was little known outside the extremely small circle of his personal friends, was that when he was in the wrong he never hesitated to acknowledge the fact with straightforward frankness. His judgments were sometimes hasty, but he was always willing to amend an opinion on just grounds. There was a good deal of dogged firmness in his character, but not a shred of stubbornness or obstinacy. He never yielded one inch of his ground when he believed himself to be in the right, but he was always amenable to reason, and he never refused to allow himself to be convinced, even though it may be that his natural sympathies were not on the side of those with whom he had got to deal. Very few statesmen could boast of such qualities, and they surely ought to weigh considerably in the balance of any judgment passed upon Viscount Milner.
The welfare of South Africa and the reputation of Sir Alfred would have been substantially enhanced had he been able to assert his own authority according to his own judgment, without overrulings from Whitehall, and with absolute freedom as to choice of colleagues. His position was most difficult, and though he showed no outward sign of this fact, it is impossible to believe that he did not feel its crushing weight. Between the Bond, Mr. Hofmeyr, the race hatred which the Dutch accused him of fomenting, the question of the refugees, the clamours of the Jingo Colonials, and the extreme seriousness of the military situation at one time, it was perfectly marvellous that he did not break down. Instead, as very few men could have done, he kept a clear-headed shrewdness, owing to which the Empire most certainly contracted an immense debt of gratitude toward him for not having allowed himself to yield to the temptation of retaliating upon those who had made his task such a particularly hard one. His forbearance ought never to be lost sight of in judging the circumstances which brought about and attended the South African War. Whilst the war was going on it was not realised that Sir Alfred Milner was the only man who—when the time arrived—could allay the passions arising from the conflict. But, without vanity, he knew, and could well afford to wait for his reward until history rather than men had judged him.
In the meanwhile Sir Alfred had to struggle against a sea of obstacles in which he was probably the only man clever enough not to drown himself—a danger which overtook others who had tried to plunge into the complicated politics of South Africa. A succession of administrators at Government House in Cape Town ended their political career there, and left, broken in spirit, damaged in reputation.
As for the local politicians, they were mostly honest mediocrities or adventurous spirits, who used their influence for their personal advantage. An exception was Mr. Hofmeyr. But he was far too absorbed in securing the recognition of Dutch supremacy at the Cape to be able to work on the milder plane necessary to bring about the one great result. The popularity of Mr. Hofmeyr was immense and his influence indisputable; but it was not a broad influence. He shuddered at the mere possibility of the Transvaal falling into the hands of the British.
Whilst touching upon the subject of the Transvaal, I may say a word concerning the strangely mixed population, for the sake of whom, officially, Britain went to war. The war was entirely the work of the Uitlanders, as they called themselves with a certain pride, but very few of whom possessed a drop of English blood. The British public at home was told that it was necessary to fight President Kruger because Englishmen in the Transvaal were being ill-treated and denied their legitimate rights. In reality, this was one of those conventional reasons, lacking common sense and veracity, upon which nations are so often fed. If we enter closely into the details of existence in the Transvaal, and examine who were those who shouted so loudly for the franchise, we find that the majority were either foreigners or Jews hailing from Frankfurt or Hamburg. Many of them had, to be sure, become naturalised British subjects, but I doubt very much whether, among all the magnates of Johannesburg or of Kimberley, more than one or two pure-blooded Englishmen could be found. Rhodes, of course, was an exception, but one which confirmed the rule. Those others whose names can still be conjured with in South Africa were Jews, mostly of Teutonic descent, who pretended that they were Englishmen or Colonials; nothing certain was known about their origin beyond the fact that such or such small shops in Grahamstown, Durban or Cape Town had witnessed their childish romps. The Beits, the Neumanns and the Wernhers were German Jews; Barney Barnato was supposed to have been born under the shade of a Portuguese synagogue, and considered the fact as being just as glorious a one as would have been that of having in his veins "all the blood of all the Howards." The Joels were Hebrews; the Rudds supposed to belong to the same race through some remote ancestor; the Mosenthals, Abrahams, Phillipps, and other notabilities of the Rand and Kimberley, were Jews, and one among the so-called Reformers, associated with the Jameson Raid, was an American engineer, John Hays Hammond.
The war, which was supposed to win the franchise for Englishmen in the Transvaal, was in reality fought for the advantage of foreigners. Most people honestly believed that President Kruger was aiming at destroying English prestige throughout the vast dark continent, and would have been horrified had they known what was going on in that distant land. Fortunes were made on the Rand in a few days, but very few Englishmen were among the number of those who contrived to acquire millions. Englishmen, indeed, were not congenial to the Transvaal, whilst foreigners, claiming to be Englishmen because they murdered the English language, abounded and prospered, and in time came sincerely to believe that they were British subjects, owing to the fact that they continually kept repeating that Britain ought to possess the Rand.
When Britain came really to rule the Rand the adventurers found it did not in the least secure the advantages which they had imagined would derive from a war they fostered. This question of the Uitlanders was as embarrassing for the English Government as it had been for that of the Transvaal. These adventurers, who composed the mass of the motley population which flourished on the Rand, would prove a source of annoyance to any State in the world. On the other hand, the importance acquired by the so-called financial magnates was daily becoming a public danger, inasmuch as it tended to substitute the reign of a particular class of individuals for the ruling of those responsible for the welfare of the country. These persons individually believed that they each understood better than the Government the conditions prevailing in South Africa, and perpetually accused Downing Street of not realising and never protecting British interests there.
Amidst their recriminations and the publicity they could command from the Press, it is no wonder that Sir Alfred Milner felt bewildered. It is to his everlasting honour that he did not allow himself to be overpowered. He was polite to everybody; listened carefully to all the many wonderful tales that were being related to him, and, without compromising himself, proceeded to a work of quiet mental elimination that very soon made him thoroughly grasp the intricacies of any situation. He quickly came to the conclusion that President Kruger was not the principal obstacle to a peaceful development of British Imperialism in South Africa. If ever a conflict was foisted on two countries for mercenary motives it was the Transvaal War, and a shrewd and impartial mind like Milner's did not take long to discover that such was the case.
He was not, however, a man capable of lending himself meekly to schemes of greed, however wilily they were cloaked. His was not the kind of nature that for the sake of peace submits to things of which it does not approve. This man, who was represented as an oppressor of the Dutch, was in reality their best friend, and perhaps the one who believed the most in their eventual loyalty to the English Crown. It is a thousand pities that when the famous Bloemfontein Conference took place Sir Alfred Milner, as he still was at that time, had not yet acquired the experience which later became his concerning the true state of things in the Transvaal. Had he at that time possessed the knowledge which he was later to gain, when the beginning of hostilities obliged so many of the ruling spirits of Johannesburg to migrate to the Cape, it is likely that he would have acted differently. It was not easy for the High Commissioner to shake off the influence of all that he heard, whether told with a good or bad intention, and it was still harder for him in those first days of his office to discern who was right or who was wrong among those who crowded their advice upon him—and never forgave him when he did not follow their ill-balanced counsels.
Concerning the outstanding personality of Cecil Rhodes, the position of Sir Alfred Milner was even more difficult and entangled than in regard to anyone else. It is useless to deny that he had arrived at Cape Town with considerable prejudice against Rhodes. He could not but look interrogatively upon the political career of a man who at the very time he occupied the position of Prime Minister had lent himself to a conspiracy against the independence of another land. Moreover, Rhodes was supposed, perhaps not without reason, to be continually intriguing to return to power, and to be chafing in secret at the political inaction which had been imposed upon him, and for which he was himself responsible more than anyone else. The fact that after the Raid Rhodes had been abandoned by his former friends harmed him considerably as a political man by destroying his renown as a statesman to whom the destinies of an Empire might be entrusted with safety. One can truly say, when writing the story of those years, that it resolved itself, into the vain struggle of Rhodes to recover his lost prestige. Sir Alfred was continually being made responsible for things of which he had not only been innocent, but of which, also, he had disapproved most emphatically. To mention only one—the famous concentration camps. A great deal of fuss was made about them at the time, and it was generally believed that they had been instituted at the instigation of the High Commissioner. When consulted on the subject Sir Alfred Milner had, on the contrary, not at all shared the opinion of those who had believed that they were a necessity, although ultimately, for lack of earlier steps, they became so.
The Colony at that time found its effective government vested in the hands of the military authorities, who not infrequently acted upon opinions which were not based upon experience or upon any local conditions. They believed, too, implicitly what they were told, and when they heard people protest, with tears in their eyes, their devotion to the British Crown, and lament over the leniency with which the Governor of Cape Colony looked upon rebellion, they could not possibly think that they were listening to a tissue of lies, told for a purpose, nor guess that they were being made use of. Under such conditions the only wonder is the few mistakes which were made. To come back to the Boers' concentration camps, Sir Alfred Milner was not a sanguinary man by any means, and his character was far too firm to use violence as a means of government. It is probable that, left alone, he would have found some other means to secure strict obedience from the refugees to orders which most never thought of resisting. Unfortunately for everybody concerned, he could do nothing beyond expressing his opinion, and the circumstance that, out of a feeling of duty, he made no protestations against things of which he could not approve was exploited against him, both by the Jingo English party and by the Dutch, all over South Africa. At Groote Schuur especially, no secret was made by the friends of Rhodes of their disgust at the state of things prevailing in concentration camps, and it was adroitly brought to the knowledge of all the partisans of the Boers that, had Rhodes been master of the situation, such an outrage on individual liberty would never have taken place. Sir Alfred Milner was subjected to unfair, ill-natured criticisms which were as cunning as they were bitter. The concentration camps afford only one instance of the secret antagonisms and injustices which Sir Alfred Milner had to bear and combat. No wonder thoughts of his days in South Africa are still, to him, a bitter memory!