It is an article of faith with many people that a Boer commando is a mere mob, that its leaders exercise no control over men in laager or on the field, and that punishment for crimes is a thing unknown. But this is far from being the case. It is quite true that a Boer soldier does not know how to click his heels together, turn his toes to an acute angle, stiffen his back, and salute every time an officer runs against him. He could not properly perform any of the very simplest military evolutions common to all European soldiers if his immortal welfare depended upon it. That is why he is such a failure as an attacking agent. Still, in spite of these things, the Boer on commando has to submit to very rigid laws. The penalty for outrage, or attempted outrage, on a woman is instant death on conviction, no matter what the woman's nationality may be. For sleeping on sentry duty the punishment is unique; it is a punishment born of long dwelling in the wilderness. It is of such a nature that no man who has once undergone it is calculated ever to forget. When a clear case is made out against a burgher by trial before his commandant the whole commando in laager is summoned to witness the criminal's reward. He is taken out beyond the lines to a spot where the sun shines in all its unprotected fierceness. He is led to an ant-hill full of busy, wicked, little crawlers; the top of the ant-hill is cut off with a spade, leaving a honeycombed surface for the sleepy one to stand upon (not much fear of him sleeping whilst he is there). He is ordered to mount the hill and stand with feet close together. His rifle is placed in his hands, the butt resting between his toes, the muzzle clasped in both hands. Two men are then told off to watch him. They are picked men, noted for their stern, unyielding sense of duty and love for the cause they fight for.
These guards lie down in the veldt twenty-five yards away from the victim. They have their loaded Mausers with them, and their orders are, if the prisoner lifts a leg, to put a bullet into it; if he lifts an arm, a bullet goes into that defaulting member; if he jumps down from his perch altogether, the leaden messengers sent from both rifles will cancel all his earthly obligations. The sun shines down in savage mockery; it strikes upon the bare neck of the quivering wretch, who dare not lift a hand to shift his hat to cover the blistering skin. It strikes in his eyes and burns his lips until they swell and feel like bursting. The barrel of his rifle grows hotter and hotter, until his fingers feel as if glued to a gridiron. The very clothes upon his body burn the skin beneath. He feels desperate; he must shift one arm, for the anguish is intolerable. He makes an almost imperceptible movement of his shoulder, and glances towards his guards. The man on his right front lays his pipe quickly in the grass, and swiftly lifts his Mauser to his shoulder. The wretch on the ant-heap closes his eyes with a groan, and stands as still as a Japanese god carved out of jute-wood. The guard lays down his rifle and picks up his pipe.
The sun climbs higher and higher, until it gleams down straight into the ant-heap; the scorching heat penetrates into the unprotected cells, and enrages the dwellers inside. They swarm out full of fight, like an army lusting for battle. Their home has been ravished of the protection they had raised with half a lifetime of labour, and in their puny way they want vengeance. They find a foe on top, a man ready to their wrath. They crawl into his scorched boots, over his baked feet, guiltless of stockings; they charge up the legs, on which the trousers hang loosely, and as they charge they bite, because they are out for business, not for a picnic. The very stillness of their victim seems to enrage them. The first legion retires at full speed down into the ant-heap again. They have gone for recruits. In a few seconds up they come again, until the very top of the heap is alive with them. They climb one over another in their eagerness to get in their individual moiety of revenge. Down into the veldtschoon, up the bare, hairy legs, over the hips, round the waist, over the lean ribs, along the spine, under the arms, round the neck, over the whole man they go, as the Mongolian hordes will some day go over the Western world. And each one digs his tiny prongs into the smarting, burning, itching poor devil on top of their homestead. He shifts a leg the hundredth part of an inch. The guard on the left gives his bandolier a warning twist, and glances along the long brown barrel that nestles in the hollow of his left hand.
The commandant comes out of the circle of burghers, looks at the victim, sees that the eyes are bloodshot and protruding far beyond the normal position. He is not a hard man, but he knows that the culprit has endangered the lives and liberties of all. "You will remember this," he says sternly; "you will not again sleep when it is your turn to watch." "Never, so help me God!" gasps the prisoner. "Stand down, then; you are free." Quicker than a swallow's flight is the movement of the liberated man. He drops his rifle with a gasp of relief, tears every stitch of clothing from his body, throws the garments from him, and pelts his veldtschoon after them. Some sympathetic veteran, who has possibly, in earlier wars, been through the ordeal himself, runs up with a drink of blessed water. He does not drink it; he pours it down his burning throat, then sits on the grass, drawing his breath in long, sobbing sighs, all the more terrible because they are tearless. From head to heel he is covered with tiny red marks, just like a schoolboy who has had the measles; in three days there will not be a mark on him, but he won't forget them, all the same, not in thirty-three years, or three hundred and thirty-three, if he happens to have a memory of any kind at that period.
This mode of punishing recalcitrant persons was picked up, I am told, from one of the savage tribes. I do not know if this is so or not, but there is no doubt that the niggers know all about it, because one day, when I found that one of my niggers had been helping himself lavishly to my tobacco, I promised to stand him on an ant-heap as soon as I had finished shaving. Five minutes later my other nigger, Lazarus, came into my tent and informed me that Johnnie had bolted. I went out, and by the aid of my glasses I could just espy a black dot away out on the veldt, making a rapid and direct line for the land of the Basutos; and that was the last I ever saw or heard of tobacco-loving, work-dodging, truth-twisting Johnnie.
There is a distinctly humorous side to the Boer character, which crops out sometimes in his methods of dealing out justice to those who have done the thing that seems evil in his sight. If there is a fellow in laager who is not amenable to orders, one of those malcontents who desires to have everything his own way--and there generally is one of these cherubs in every large gathering of men all the world over--the commandant first calls him up and warns him that he is making himself a pest to the whole commando, and exhorts him to mend his manners. As a general thing the commandant throws a few slabs of Scripture appropriate to the occasion at the disturber's ears, and mixes it judiciously with a good deal of worldly wisdom, all of which tending to teach the fellow that he is about as desirable as a comrade as a sore eye in a sand-storm. Should the exhortation not have the desired effect, and the offender continue to stir up strife in laager, as a lame mule stirs up mud in midstream, then the commandant sends a guard of young men to gather in the unruly one. He is captured with as little ceremony as a nigger captures a hog in the midst of his mealy patch. They strip him bare to the waist, and put a bridle on his head; the bit is jammed into his mouth, and firmly buckled there, and then the circus begins. One of the guards takes the reins, usually a couple of long lengths of raw hide; another flicks the human steed on the bare ribs with a sjambok, and he is ordered to show his paces. He has to walk, trot, canter, gallop, and "tripple" all around the laager several times, amidst the badinage and laughter of the burghers, and he gets enough "chaff" during the journey to last the biggest horse in England a lifetime.
It is bad enough when there are only men there, but when there are, as is often the case, a dozen or two of women and girls present his woe is served up to him full measure and brimming over. The men roar with laughter, and pelt him with crusts of rusks, but the women and girls make his life an agony for the time being. They smile at him sweetly, and ask him if he feels lonely without a cart, or they pull up a handful of grass and offer it to him on the end of a stick, making a lot of "stage aside" remarks concerning the length of his ears the while, until the fellow's face crimsons with shame.
They are wonderfully patriotic, these Boer girls and women, and are merciless in their contempt for a man who will not do his share of fighting, marching, and watching cheerfully and uncomplainingly. The hardships and privations they themselves undergo without murmuring, in order to assist their husbands, brothers, and lovers, is worthy of being chronicled in the pages of history, for they are the Spartans of the nineteenth century. They are swift to help those who need help, but unsparing with their scorn for those who are unworthy. The treatment meted out to the grumbler and mischief-maker usually presents more of the elements of comedy than anything else, and it is his own fault if he does not get off lightly. But if he cuts up rough, tries to strike or kick his drivers or tormentors, or if he goes in for a course of sulks, and flops himself down, refusing to be driven, then the comic element disappears from the scene. Out come the sjamboks, and he is treated precisely as a vicious or sulky horse would be treated under similar circumstances. As a rule, it does not take long to bring a man of that kind to his proper senses. Should he talk of deserting or of avenging himself later on, he is watched, and a deserter soon learns that a rifle bullet can travel faster than he can. As for revenge, the sooner he forgets desires or designs of that kind the better for his own health.
For minor offences, such as laziness, neglecting to keep the rifle clean and in good shooting order, attempting to strike up a flirtation with a married woman, to the annoyance of the lady, or any other little matter of the kind, the wayward one is "tossed." Tossing is not the sort of pastime any fellow would choose for fun, not if he were the party to be tossed, though it is a beanfeast for the onlookers. They manage it this way. A hide, freshly stripped from a bullock, smoking, bloody, and limber as a bowstring, is requisitioned; the hairy side is turned downwards, two strong men get hold of each corner, cutting holes in the green hide for their hands to have a good grip; they allow the hide to sag until it forms a sort of cradle, into which the unlucky one is dumped neck and crop. Then the signal is given, the hide sways to and fro for a few seconds, and then, with a skilful jerk, it is drawn as taut as eight pairs of strong arms can draw it. If the executioners are skilful at the business the victim shoots upwards from the blood-smeared surface like a dude's hat in a gale of wind. Sometimes he comes down on his feet, sometimes on his head, or he may sprawl face downwards, clutching at the slimy surface as eagerly as a politician clutches at a place in power. But his efforts are vain; a couple more swings and another jerk, and up he goes, turning and twisting like a soiled shirt on a wire fence. This time he comes down on his hands and knees, and promptly commences to plead for pity, but before he can open his heart a neat little jerk sends him out on his back, where he claws and kicks like a jackal in a gin case, whilst the more ribald amongst the onlookers sing songs appropriate to the occasion, but the more devout chant some such hymn as this:
Lord, let me linger here, For this is bliss.
A man is very seldom hurt at this game, though how he escapes without a broken neck is one of the wonders of gravitation to me. One second you see the poor beggar in mid air, going like a circular saw through soft pine. Just when you are beginning to wonder if he has converted himself into a catherine-wheel or a corkscrew, he straightens himself out horizontally, remains poised for the millionth part of a second like a he-angel that has moulted his wings; then down he dives perpendicularly like a tornado in trousers, skinning forehead, nose, and chin as he kisses the drum-like surface of the hide. No, on the whole, I do not consider it healthy to try to fool with a married woman in a Boer fighting laager, apart altogether from the moral aspect of the affair. If some of the amorous dandies I wot of, who claim kindred with us, got the same sort of treatment in Old England, many a merry matron would be saved much annoyance.
For rank disobedience of orders, brutality of conduct, cowardice in the face of the enemy, flagrant neglect of the wounded, or any other very serious military crime, the punishment is sjamboking, which is simply flogging, as it existed in our Army and Navy not so many years ago. On board ship they used to use the "cat," a genteel instrument with a handle attached. The Boer sjambok is a different article altogether; it has not nine tails, but it gets there just the same. The sjambok dear to the Boer soul is that made out of rhinoceros hide. It is a plain piece of hide, not twisted in any way; just clean cut out and trimmed round all the way down. It is about three feet long, and at the end which the flogger holds it is about two and a half inches in circumference, tapering down gradually to a rat-tail point. It is a terrible weapon when the person who wields it is bent on business, and is not manufacturing poetry or mingling thoughts of home and mother with the flogging. Truth to tell, I don't think they do much flogging--not half as much as they are credited with--but when they do flog, the party who gets it wants a soft shirt for a month after, and it's quite a while before he will lie on his back for the mere pleasure of seeing the moon rise.