The position of affairs in South Africa was at this time a very serious one. In order to understand the task which George White had been called upon to undertake it seems necessary to examine in some detail the nature of the country, and the political and military conditions as they stood in September 1899, just before the outbreak of war.
The name "South Africa" is somewhat vague, and has been used in various senses, but as used in this book it means the country lying between the sea on the south and the frontier of Rhodesia on the north. It is a vast tract of country, with an area about equal to the combined areas of Germany, France, Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal, but its population is small. In 1899 it contained perhaps a million and a quarter of white people, and five times that number of blacks. Of the white people about half were of British extraction and half of Dutch, though there were some of other blood.
The political condition of South Africa at this time was remarkable. For reasons upon which it is unnecessary to enter here, the country, which had once been united under the British flag, was now split up. In the northern part of it was an independent state, the Transvaal, or South African Republic, which was essentially Dutch, but contained also a considerable foreign population, chiefly British, attracted to it by the discovery that it was rich in gold and diamonds. This foreign population, the so-called Uitlanders, had developed the wealth of the Transvaal to an extraordinary degree; but the whole political power was in the hands of the Dutch Boers, or farmers, headed by their famous President, Kruger, who were passionately attached to their independence, and intensely suspicious of any interference on the part of Great Britain. A war between the British and the Boers of the Transvaal in 1881 had been closed by the British defeat at Majuba, and a hasty peace, which had left the Boers with a feeling of contempt for the fighting power of the British soldier and the tenacity of his Government.
Immediately to the south of the Transvaal was the Orange Free State, also independent and Dutch. This state was smaller and less populous than the Transvaal, and had been regarded as more friendly to the British, but of late years it had tended to gravitate towards the kindred Boer state.
The two Boer states between them contained an area considerably larger than Great Britain, and a population estimated at no more than 350,000. They occupied the inner belt of South Africa, and were surrounded almost on all sides by British territory, or by native territory under British protection. Their country consisted mainly of broad plains, the High Veldt, at an altitude of 4000 feet or so above the sea, with occasional " kopjes," or rugged stony hills, breaking the flat here and there. But there was some mountainous country, and there were also some districts of lower elevation than the High Veldt.
The British territory and protectorates which surrounded the Boer states consisted of two colonies, Cape Colony on the south and Natal on the east, together with the Bechuanaland protectorate on the west and Rhodesia on the north. On one side, the north-east, the Transvaal touched Portuguese territory; and here the British encircling ring was broken, so that the Transvaal could communicate directly with the outer world, and import or export goods without passing through the British sphere of influence. Natal was a colony mainly British in blood and in feeling, though it contained a certain admixture of Dutch. It was a comparatively small territory, and the northern part of it formed an angle wedged in between the two Boer Republics. Its western frontier towards the Orange Free State was formed by the great mountain - range of the Drakensberg, and for a portion of the frontier the territory of the Basuto tribe also lay between Natal and the Free State. Much larger than Natal, Cape Colony marched with the southern border of the Free State. In this colony many districts were Dutch in blood and sentiment.
In 1899 the relations between the Boer Republics and Great Britain had become extremely delicate. It is needless to enter here upon the merits of the questions which were at issue between them. But these were numerous and difficult, and on both sides there had arisen a feeling of strong resentment and suspicion. The Boers apparently believed that, in pressing the claims of the Uitlanders to a share of political power in the Transvaal, the British were encroaching upon their rights and threatening their independence. The British not only thought that their countrymen were being unjustly treated by the Boers, but further believed, from the military preparations made by the two Republics, especially the Transvaal, and the tone adopted by them, that they aimed at nothing less than the total exclusion of the British flag from South Africa, and the creation of a great independent Dutch State, which should include Cape Colony and Natal.
The difficulties in the way of a settlement were increased by the fact that the Boer Republics had sought and gained a considerable measure of sympathy, both among foreign nations and even within the British Empire, which greatly encouraged them in their attitude of opposition to British claims, and weakened the hands of the British Government in dealing with them. Moreover, it was well known that in Cape Colony the sentiment of the Dutch population was strongly in their favour, and that in case of hostilities breaking out, not only would the Orange Free State probably make common cause with the Transvaal, but the forces of the Republics would be swelled by thousands of Dutchmen from within the British frontier.
Those forces were, even without such aid, sufficiently formidable. While the British troops in South Africa had been allowed to remain at a very low figure, the Republics, whether as a measure of defence against aggression or with more ambitious views, had been for some time importing large quantities of modern guns and munitions of war. They had also elaborated a complete system of mobilisation, which enabled them at short notice to place considerable numbers in the field. In the early summer of 1899, when the negotiations between the Transvaal and Great Britain were becoming daily more unpromising, it was estimated that the two Republics could, in case of need, mobilise more than 50,000 armed Burghers, while the total British forces in South Africa consisted of little more than a fifth of that number. The fighting value of the Boer mounted rifleman was underestimated, but it was known that he could ride and shoot, and that the nature of the country was all in favour of his method of fighting, so that the disparity of force was great. And the British Government was reluctant to take any measures to redress that disparity, for fear of bringing about the very contingency which they hoped to avoid. The despatch of large reinforcements to South Africa, even of reinforcements sufficient merely to ensure the safety of the British colonies from Boer invasion, would, they knew, be represented as a threat, and would not only tempt the Boers to strike, but also bring about an explosion of anti-British feeling in Europe which might have very embarrassing results. It was difficult to make foreign nations, or even the people of the King's oversea dominions, believe that the "little" South African Republics were contemplating aggression. Naturally enough, the tendency everywhere was to suppose that they could not wish to come into conflict with the power of Great Britain, and that if they went to war it would be only as a last desperate attempt to defend their independence It had apparently been forgotten, except by the Boers themselves, that the action which terminated the war of 1881, and won them their independence, had been fought on British soil. The Boers themselves remembered this, and knew that they were much better prepared than in 1881. They confidently expected that if another war occurred it would open with Boer victories beyond their own frontiers, and be followed by another surrender on the part of Great Britain. And undoubtedly many of them believed, not without reason, that the Boer forces were sufficient to sweep Natal and Cape Colony down to the sea.
It was in these circumstances that the British Government decided to make the military arrangements described in the preceding chapter. They were defensive arrangements, which it was hoped would not provoke war; but if war did break out, offensive action was to follow. The actual line of advance in that event could not then be definitely settled, because there was still just a chance that even if the Transvaal went to war the Orange Free State might remain neutral, in which case the most direct and promising line, northward from Cape Colony to the Free State capital, Bloemfontein, and thence to Pretoria, could hardly be taken. There remained only two other possible lines of advance : one from Natal direct upon Pretoria; the other, along the railway line to Kimberley, and thence to the westward of the Transvaal by way of Mafeking. Both had serious disadvantages. The final choice could not be made until all doubt about the Free State was at an end; but the doubt was so small that it was in fact practically decided to adopt the first of the three routes, that by Bloemfontein.