One of the greatest difficulties with which the Imperial Government found themselves confronted when relations between Great Britain and the Transvaal became strained was the influx of refugees who at the first hint of impending trouble left Johannesburg and the Rand, and flocked to Cape Town.
The greater number were aliens. From Russia in particular they had flocked to the Transvaal when they heard of its treasures. Adventurers from other parts of Europe, with a sprinkling of remittance men, also deserted Johannesburg. Only the few were real English residents who, from the time the Rand had begun to develop, had been living and toiling there in order to win sufficient for the maintenance of their families. All this mass of humanity, which passed unnoticed when scattered over wide areas in the vicinity of Pretoria or Johannesburg, had lived for many years in the expectation of the day when the power of the Transvaal Republic would be broken. They had discounted it perhaps more than they should have done had the dictates of prudence been allowed to take the lead against the wishes of their hearts.
When war became imminent the big mining houses considered it wiser to close their offices and mines, and for these unfortunate beings, deprived of their means of existence, the position became truly a lamentable one. They could not very well remain where they were, because the Burghers, who had never taken kindly to them, made no secret of their hostility, and gave them to understand very clearly that as soon as war had been declared they would simply turn them out without warning and confiscate their property. Prudence advised no delay, and the consequence was that, beginning with the month of August, and, indeed, the very first days which followed upon the failure of the Bloemfontein Conference, a stream of people from the Transvaal began migrating toward Cape Colony, which was supposed to be the place where their sufferings would find a measure of relief that they vainly imagined would prove adequate to their needs. At the Cape, strangely enough, no one had ever given a thought to the possibility of such a thing happening. In consequence, the public were surprised by this persisting stream of humanity which was being poured into the Colony; the authorities, too, began to feel a despair as to what could be done. It is no exaggeration to say that for months many hundreds of people arrived daily from the north, and that so long as communications were kept open they continued to do so.
At first the refugees inundated the lodging-houses in Cape Town, but these soon being full to overflowing, some other means had to be devised to house and feed them. Committees were formed, with whom the Government officials in the Colony worked with great zeal and considerable success toward alleviating the misery with which they found themselves confronted in such an unexpected manner. The Municipal Council, the various religious communities, the Medical men—one and all applied themselves to relief measures, even though they could not comprehend the reason of the blind rush to the Cape. Nor, in the main, could the refugees explain more lucidly than the one phrase which could, be heard on all sides, no matter what might have been the social position: "We had to go away because we did not feel safe on the Rand." In many cases it would have been far nearer to the truth to say that they had to go because they could no longer lead the happy-go-lucky existence they had been used to.
The most to be pitied among these people were most certainly the Polish Jews, who originally had been expelled from Russia, and had come to seek their fortunes at Johannesburg. They had absolutely no one to whom they could apply, and, what was sadder still, no claim on anyone; on the English Government least of all. One could see them huddling together on the platform of Cape Town railway station, surrounded by bundles of rags which constituted the whole of their earthly belongings, not knowing at all what to do, or where to go to. Of course they were looked after, because English charity has never stopped before differences of race and creed, but still it was impossible to deny that their constantly increasing number added considerably to the difficulties of the situation.
A Jewish Committee headed by the Chief Rabbi of Cape Town, the Rev. Dr. Bender, worked indefatigably toward the relief of these unfortunate creatures, and did wonders. A considerable number were sent to Europe, but a good many elected to remain where they were, and had to be provided for in some way till work could be found for them, which would at least allow them to exist without being entirely dependent on public charity. Among the aliens who showed a desire to remain in South Africa were many in possession of resources of their own; but they carefully concealed the fact, as, upon whatever it amounted to, they counted to rebuild their fortunes when Britain became sole and absolute mistress on the Rand.
The most dangerous element in the situation was that group of easygoing loafers who lived on the fringe of finance and picked up a living by doing the odd things needed by the bigger speculators. When things began to be critical, these idlers were unable to make money without working, and while prating of their patriotism, made the British Government responsible for their present state of penury. These men had some kind of instruction, if not education, and pretended they understood all about politics, the government of nations, and last, but not least, the conduct of the war. Their free talk, inflamed with an enthusiasm got up for the occasion, gave to the stranger an entirely incorrect idea of the position, and was calculated to give rise to sharp and absolutely undeserved criticisms concerning the conduct of the administration at home, and of the authorities in the Colony. They also fomented hatred and spite between the English and the Dutch.
The harm done by these people, at a moment when the efforts of the whole community ought to have been directed toward allaying race hatred, and smoothing down the differences which had arisen between the two white sections of the population, is almost impossible of realisation for one who was not in South Africa at the time, and who could not watch the slow and gradual growth of the atmosphere of lies and calumny which gradually divided like a crevasse the very people who, in unison, might have contributed more than anything else to bring the war to a close. One must not forget that among these refugees who poisoned the minds of their neighbours with foundationless tales of horror, there were people who one might have expected to display sound judgment in their appreciation of the situation, and whose relatively long sojourn in South Africa entitled them to be heard by those who found themselves for the first time in that country. They were mostly men who could talk well, even eloquently; and they discussed with such apparent knowledge all the circumstances which, according to them, had brought about the war, that it was next to impossible for the new-comers not to be impressed by their language—it seemed bubbling over with the most intense patriotism.
The observer must take into account that among these people there happened to be a good many who, as the war went on, enrolled themselves in the various Volunteer Corps which were formed. These gave the benefit of their experience to the British officers, who relied on the knowledge and perception of their informants because of themselves, especially during the first months which followed upon their landing, they could not come to a clearly focused, impartial judgment of the difficulties with which they found their efforts confronted. One must also remember that these officers were mostly quite young men, full of enthusiasm, who flamed up whenever the word rebellion was mentioned in their presence, and who, having arrived in South Africa with the firm determination to win the war at all costs, must not be blamed if in some cases they allowed their minds to be poisoned by those who painted the plight of the country in such a lugubrious tint. If, therefore, acts of what appeared to be cruelty were committed by these officers, it would be very wrong to make them alone responsible, because they were mostly done out of a spirit of self-defence against an enemy whom they believed to be totally different from what he was in reality, and who if only he had not been exasperated, would have proved of better and healthier stuff than, superficially, his acts seemed to indicate.
There was still another class of refugee, composed of what I would call the rich elements of the Rand: the financiers, directors of companies; managers and engineers of the different concerns to which Kimberley and Johannesburg owed their celebrity. From the very first these rightly weighed up the situation, and had been determined to secure all the advantages which it held for anyone who gave himself the trouble to examine it rationally. They came to Cape Town under the pretence of putting their families out of harm's way, but in reality because they wanted to be able to watch the development of the situation at its centre. They hired houses at exorbitant prices in Cape Town itself, or the suburbs, and lived the same kind of hospitable existence which had been theirs in Johannesburg. Their intention was to be at hand at the settlement, to put in their word when the question of the different financial interests with which they were connected would crop up—as it was bound to do.
The well-to-do executive class forming the last group had the greatest cause to feel alarmed at the consequences which might follow upon the war. Although they hoped that they would be able to maintain themselves on the Rand in the same important positions which they had occupied previous to the war, yet they had enough common sense to understand that they would not be allowed under a British administration the same free hand that President Kruger had given, or which they had been able to obtain from him by means of "refreshers" administered in some shape or other. It is true that they had always the alternative of retiring from South Africa to Park Lane, whence they would be able to astonish Society, but they preferred to wait, in case the crash were still delayed for some little time.
The big houses, such as Wernher, Beit and Co.—the head of which, at Johannesburg, was Mr. Fred Eckstein, a man of decided ability, who perhaps was one of those in South Africa who had judged the situation with accuracy—would have preferred to see the crisis delayed. Mr. Eckstein and other leading people knew very well that sooner or later the Transvaal was bound to fall to England, and they would have felt quite content to wait quietly until this event had been accomplished as a matter of course, by the force of circumstances, without violence. President Kruger was such an old man that one could, in a certain sense, discuss the consequences which his demise was bound to bring to South Africa. There was no real necessity to hurry on events, nor would they have been hurried had it not been for the efforts of the Rhodesians, whose complaints had had more than anything else to do with the failure of the Bloemfontein Conference, and all that followed upon that regrettable incident. It was the Rhodesians, and not the big houses of the Rand, who were most eager for the war.
The exploitation of Rhodesia, the principal aim of which was the foundation of another Kimberley, had turned out to be a disappointment in that respect, and there remained nothing but making the best of it, particularly as countless companies had been formed all with a distinctly mineral character to their prospectuses. Now, if the Rand, with all its wealth and its still unexplored treasures, became an appanage of Kimberley, it would be relatively easy to effect an amalgamation between gold and diamond mines, which existed there, and the Rhodesian companies. Under these conditions it was but natural that despite an intelligent comprehension of the situation, Sir Alfred Milner was nevertheless unable to push forward his own plans in regard to the Transvaal and its aged President, Mr. Kruger.
The misfortune of the whole situation, as I have already pointed out, was that the men who had attempted to play a high game of politics, in reality understood very little about them, and that instead of thinking of the interests of the Empire to which they professed themselves to be so deeply attached, they thought in terms of their personal outlook. Rhodes alone of those not in official position saw the ultimate aim of all these entangled politics. But unfortunately, though he had the capacities and experience of a statesman, he was not a patient man; indeed, throughout his life he had acted like a big spoiled child, to whom must be given at once whatever he desires. Too often he acted in the present, marring the future by thinking only of the immediate success of his plans, and brutally starting to work, regardless of consequences and of his personal reputation. Though his soul was essentially that of a financier and he would ride rough-shod over those who conducted their business affairs by gentler methods, yet at the same time, by a kind of curious contrast, he was always ready, nay, eager, to come to the material help of his neighbour—maybe out of affection for him; maybe out of that special sort of contempt which makes one sometimes throw a bone to a starving dog one has never seen before. The greatest misfortune in Rhodes' life was his faculty, too often applied upon occasions when it were best suppressed, of seeing the mean and sordid aspects of an action, and of imagining that every man could be bought, provided one knew the price. He was so entirely convinced of this latter fact that it always caused him a kind of impatience he did not even give himself the trouble to dissimulate, to find that he had been mistaken. This happened to him once or twice in the course of his career.
The English party in the Colony regretted until the end of Rhodes' life the strange aberration that allowed the Raid, and made him sacrifice his reputation for the sake of hastening an event which, without his interference, would almost surely soon have come to pass. The salient feature of the Raid was its terrible stupidity; in that respect it was worse than a crime, for crime is forgotten, but nothing can efface from the memory of the world or the condemnation of history a colossally stupid political blunder.
After the foolish attempt to seize hold of their country, the Boers distrusted British honour and British integrity; and doubting the word or promises of England, they made her responsible for this mistake of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes, however, refused to recognise the sad fact. The big magnates of Johannesburg said that the wisest thing Rhodes could have done at this critical juncture would have been to go to Europe, there to remain until after the war, thus dissociating himself from the whole question of the settlement, instead of intriguing to be entrusted with it.
The fact of Cecil Rhodes' absence would have cleared the whole situation, relieved Sir Alfred Milner, and given to the Boers a kind of political and financial security that peace would not be subject to the ambitions and prejudices of their enemies, but concluded with a view to the general interests of the country.