When the Eighth Division was skirting the borders of Basutoland I thought it would not be a waste of time to cross the border, and if possible interview one of the chiefs. My opportunity came at last. Our general decided to give his weary men a few days' rest, so getting into the saddle at Willow Grange I rode to Ficksburg, and there crossed the River Caledon, whose yellow waters, like an orange ribbon, divide Basutoland from the Free State. At this point the river runs between steep banks, and when I crossed it was about deep enough to kiss my horse's girths, though I could well believe that in the flood season it becomes a most formidable torrent. An artificial cutting has been made on both sides to facilitate the passage of traders, black and white, but even there the ford is so constituted that the Boers on the one side and the blacks on the other could successfully dispute the passage of an invading army with a mere handful of men.
Once across the river one soon felt the influence of Jonathan, the "black prince." The niggers, naked except for the loin cloth, swaggered along with arms in their hands, and grinned with insolent familiarity into our faces. They may have an intense respect and an unbounded love for the British--I have read scores of times that they have--but I beg leave to doubt it. Physically speaking they are a superb race of men, these sable subjects of our Queen. Their heads sit upon their necks with a bold, defiant poise, their throats are full, round, and muscular, their chests magnificent, broad and deep, tapering swiftly towards the waist. Their arms and legs are beautifully fashioned for strong, swift deeds. Strip an ordinary white man and put him amongst those black warriors, and he would look like a human clothes rack. They walk with a quick, springy step, and gave me the impression that they could march at the double for a week without tiring. But they are at their best on horseback. To see them barebacked dash down the side of a sheer cliff, plunge into the river, swim their horses over, and then climb the opposite bank when the face of the bank is like the face of a wall is a sight worth travelling far to see.
There are many things in this world that I know nothing at all about, but I do know a horseman when I see him, for I was bred in a land where nine-tenths of the boys can ride. But nowhere have I seen a whole male population ride as these Basuto warriors ride, and the best use England can make of them is to turn them into mounted infantry. Give them six months' drill, and they will be fit to face any troops in Europe. I never saw them do any fighting, but they carry the fighting brand on every lineament--the bold, keen eye, the prominent cheek-bone, the hard-set mouth, the massive jaw, the quivering nostril, the swing and spring of every movement, all speak the fighting race.
And their women; what of them? From the back of the head to the back of the heel you could place a lance shaft, so straight are they in their carriage. Their dress is a bunch of feathers and the third of a silk pocket handkerchief, with a copper ring around the ankle and another around the wrist. They do most of the daily toil, such as it is, though I know of no peasant population in any other part of the world who get a living as easily as these folk. The men allow the women to do most of the field labour, but when the grain is bagged the males place it in single bags across the back of a pony, and so take it to market. They walk beside the tiny little ponies and balance the grain slung crosswise on the animal's back, and when the grain has been sold or bartered they bound on to their ponies and career madly homewards, each one trying to outdo his neighbour in deeds of recklessness in the hope of winning favour in the eyes of the dusky maidens. They are mean in regard to money or gifts, and know the intrinsic value of things just as well as any pedlar in all England. Judging the "nigger" merely as a human being, irrespective of sentiment, colour, and so forth, I can only say that in my estimation he and his are far better off in every respect than the average white labourer and his family in England. These folk have plenty to eat, little to do, and are very jolly. They would be perfectly happy if they only had a sufficient number of rifles and a large enough supply of ammunition to enable them to drive every white man clean away from their borders.
When I arrived at Jonathan's village that warrior was away with a band of his young men, so that I could not see him, though I saw his son at a wedding which was being held when I reached the scene. I was taken through rows of naked, grinning savages, of both sexes, to be introduced to the bride and bridegroom, whom I found to be a pair of mission converts. When I saw the pair the shock nearly shook my boots off. The bride, a full-blooded young negress, was dressed in a beautiful white satin dress, which fitted her as if it had been fired at her out of a gun. It would not meet in front by about three inches, and the bodice was laced up by narrow bands of red silk, like a foot-baller's jersey. In her short, woolly hair she had pinned a wreath of artificial orange blossoms, which looked like a diadem of snow on a mid-winter mudheap. Down her broad back there hung a great gauzy lace veil, big enough to make a fly-net for a cow camel in summer. It was not fixed on to her dress, nor to her wreath, but was tied on to two little kinky curls at each side of her head by bright green ribbons, after the fashion of a prize filly of the draught order at a country fair. Her hands were encased in a pair of white kid gloves, man's size, and a pretty big man at that, for she had a gentle little fist that would have scared John L. Sullivan in his palmiest days.
When I was introduced to the newly shackled matron she put one of those gloved hands into mine with a simpering air of coyness that made me feel cold all over, for that hand in the kid glove reminded me of the day I took my first lesson from Laurence Foley, Australia's champion boxer, and he had an eight-ounce glove on (thank Heaven!) on that occasion. In her right hand the bride carried a fan of splendid ostrich feathers, with which she brushed the flies off the groom. It was vast enough to have brushed away a toy terrier, to say nothing of flies, but it looked a toy in that giant fist.
The groom hung on to his bride's arm like a fly to a sugar-stick. He was a tall young man, dressed in a black frock coat, light trousers, braced up to show that he wore socks, shoes, white gloves, and a high-crowned hat. He carried his bride's white silk gingham in one hand, and an enormous bunch of flowers in the other. He tried to look meek, but only succeeded in looking sly, hypocritical, and awfully uncomfortable. At times he would look at his new spouse, and then a most unsaintly expression would cross his foxy face; he would push out his great thick lips until they threw a shadow all round him; open his dazzling white teeth and let his great blood-red tongue loll out until the chasm in his face looked like a rent in a black velvet gown with a Cardinal's red hat stuffed in the centre. He may have been full of saving grace--full up, and running over--but it was not the brand of Christianity that I should care to invest my money in. When he caught my gaze riveted upon him, he tried to look like a brand plucked from the burning; he rolled his great velvet-black eyes skyward, screwed up the sluit which ran across his face, and which he called a mouth, until it looked like a crumpled doormat, folded his hands meekly over his breast, and comported himself generally like a fraudulent advertisement for a London mission society.
From him I glanced to his "Pa," who had given him away, and seemed mighty glad to get rid of him. "Pa" was dressed in pure black from head to heel--just the same old suit that he had worn when he struck this planet, only more of it. He was guiltless of anything and everything in the shape of dress except for a large ring of horn which he wore on top of his head. He did not carry any parasols, or fans, or geegaws of any kind in his great muscular fists. One hand grasped an iron-shod assegai, and the other lovingly fondled a battle-axe, and both weapons looked at home where they rested. He was not just the sort of father-in-law I should have hankered for if I had been out on a matrimonial venture; but I would rather have had one limb of that old heathen than the whole body of his "civilised" son, for with all his faults he looked a man. A chum of mine who knew the ways of these people had advised me to purchase a horn of snuff before being presented to the bride and groom, and I had acted accordingly.
When the ceremony of introduction was over, and I had managed to turn my blushing face away from "Ma" and the bevy of damsels, as airily clothed as herself, I offered the snuff box to the happy pair. The groom took a tiny pinch and smiled sadly, as though committing some deadly sin. The bride, however, poured a little heap in the palm of her hand about as big as a hen's egg, regardless of her nice white kid gloves. This she proceeded to snuff up her capacious nostrils with savage delight, until the tears streamed down her cheeks like rain down a coal heap. Then she threw back her head, spread her hands out palm downwards, like a mammoth duck treading water, and sneezed. I never heard a human sneeze like that before; it was like the effort of a horse after a two-mile gallop through a dust storm. And each time she sneezed something connected with her wedding gear ripped or gave way, until I began to be afraid for her. But the wreck was not quite so awful as I had anticipated, and when she had done sneezing she laughed. All the crowd except the groom laughed, and the sound of their laughter was like the sound of the sea on a cliff-crowned coast.
A little later one of the bridesmaids, whose toilet consisted of a dainty necklace of beads and a copper ring around one ankle, invited me to drink a draught of native beer. The beer was in a large calabash, and I felt constrained to drink some of it. These natives know how to make love, and they know how to make war, but, as my soul liveth, they don't know how to make beer. The stuff they gave me to drink was about as thick as boardinghouse cocoa; in colour it was like unto milk that a very dirty maid of all work had been stirring round in a soiled soup dish with an unwashed forefinger. It had neither body nor soul in it, and was as insipid as a policeman at a prayer meeting. Some of the niggers got gloriously merry on it, and sang songs and danced weird, unholy dances under its influence. But it did not appeal to me in that way, possibly I was not educated up to its niceties. All I know is that I became possessed of a strange yearning to get rid of what had been given me--and get rid of it early.
The wedding joys were of a peculiar nature. Bride and bridegroom, linked arm in arm, marched up and down on a pad about twenty yards in length, a nude minstrel marched in front, and drew unearthly music from a kind of mouth organ. Girls squatting in the dust en route clapped their hands and chanted a chorus. The groom hopped first on one leg and then on the other, and tried to look gorgeously happy; the bride kicked her satin skirts out behind, pranced along the track as gracefully as a lady camel in the mating season; behind the principal actors in the drama came a regiment of youths and girls, and the antics they cut were worthy of the occasion. Now and again some dusky Don Juan would dig his thumb into the ribs of a daughter of Ham. The lady would promptly squeal, and try to look coy. It is not easy to look coy when you have not got enough clothes on your whole body to make a patch to cover a black eye; but still they tried it, for the sex seem to me to be much alike on the inside, whether they dress in a coat of paint or a coat of sealskin.
By-and-by the groom took his bride by the arm, and made an effort to induce her to leave her maids of honour and "trek" towards the cabin which henceforth was to be her home. The lady pouted, and shook his hand off her arm; whilst the maidens laughed and clapped their hands, dancing in the dust-strewn sunlight with such high kicking action as would win fame for any ballet dancer in Europe. The young men jeered the groom, and incited him to take charge of his own. He hung down his ebony head and looked sillily sullen, and the bride continued to "pout." Have you ever seen a savage nigger wench pout, my masters? Verily it is a sight worth travelling far to see. First of all she wraps her mouth in a simper, and her lips look like a fold in a badly doubled blanket. Then slowly, she draws the corners towards, the centre, just as the universe will be crumpled up on the Day of Judgment. It is a beautiful sight. The mouth, which, when she smiled, looked like a sword wound on the flank of a horse, now, when the "pout" is complete, looks like a crumpled concertina. The groom again timidly advanced his hand towards the satin-covered arm of his spouse, and the "pout" became more pronounced than ever. The white of one eye was slyly turned towards the bridesmaids, the other rolled with infinite subtlety in the direction of him who was to be her lord and master; and the "pout" grew larger and larger, until I was constrained to push my way amidst the maids to get a look behind the bride, for I fancied the back of her neck must surely have got somehow into the front of her face. When I got to the front again the "pout" was still growing, the rich red lips in their midnight setting looking like some giant rose in full bloom that an elephant's hoof had trodden upon. So the show proceeded. At last one of the bridesmaids stepped from amidst her sisters, and playfully pushed the bride in the direction of her home. Then the "pout" gave way to a smile, the white teeth gleaming in the gap like tombstones in a Highland churchyard. I had been a bit scared of her "pout," but when she smiled I looked round anxiously for my horse. After a little manoeuvring, the blissful pair marched cabinwards, with the whole group of naked men and maids circling round them, stamping their bare feet, kicking up clouds of dust like a mob of travelling cattle. The men yelled some barbarous melody, flourished their arms, smote upon their breasts, and anon gripping a damsel by the waist circled afar like goats on a green grass hill slope. The maids twisted and turned in fantastic figures, swaying their nobly fashioned bodies hither and thither, whilst they kept up a continuous wailing, sing-song cry. So they passed from my sight into the regions of the honeymoon, and the clubbings and general hidings which follow it.
I only stayed a few days amongst these savages, but, short as my stay was, I arrived at the conclusion that the sooner they are disarmed the better. There are hundreds of white women living upon isolated farms within easy riding distance of the Basuto villages, and as we are disarming the husbands and brothers of these women it is our solemn duty to see that the savage warriors have not the means within their reach to injure or outrage those whom we have left practically defenceless. It is true that these women are the wives, daughters, and sisters of our enemy, but surely in all England there does not breathe a man so poor in spirit as to wish to place them at the mercy of a horde of barbarians. Ours is a grave responsibility in regard to this matter. Just at present the native warriors are quiet in their kraals, but a day will surely dawn when the younger and more turbulent fighting men will lust for the excitement of war. They look upon the Boer farmers who dwell near their borders as so many interlopers, whose title deeds were signed by the rifle, and they long for the time to come when they can sweep them backwards with the strong arm. They never speak of the land close to their border as the Free State. They call it with deadly significance the "conquered territory," and the idea of reconquest is strong in their minds. Of old time the Boer farmers stood ever ready to defend what they had conquered with the rifle, and the nigger had learned to dread the Dutch rifle as he dreads few things in this world. To-day he knows that the Boer is helpless, and is unsparing in his insolence to his old-time foe. Later on friction between the white man and the black is certain to ensue, and if he has the upper hand the black man will not stop at mere insolence.
I don't know how the Imperial Parliament may feel about it, but I do know that if there is wrong done the Boers by the blacks, the South African farmers of British blood will rise like one man to defend the men and women of their own colour. They will never permit the black man to dominate the white, and that will cause friction between the Colonists and the Imperial Government. There is more in this than may meet the eye at the first glance, for if the Colonists rise to battle with the blacks the Imperial troops will have to assist them whether the Government of the day likes or dislikes it, or else we shall see the Colonists of our own blood clamouring for the withdrawal of British rule in South Africa, and we shall hear again the cry for a South African Republic. Not a "Dutch" South African Republic next time, but a blended nationality, and Colonial Britons and Colonial Dutchmen will be found fighting side by side under one flag, for one common cause.
Surely, if it is not wise to allow the whites to carry arms, it is not wise or right to allow sixty thousand fierce fighting men to remain fully equipped and mounted. To me it seems that now, whilst we have two hundred and fifty thousand fighting men in Africa to overawe and intimidate the warriors, we should take from them, by force if necessary, everything in the shape of warlike weapons. White men are not permitted in any of our Colonies to ride or strut about the country armed to the teeth. Therefore, I ask, why should these negroes be privileged to do what Australians or Canadians are forbidden to do? They have no valid excuse for being in possession of weapons of war. They have now no enemies capable of attacking them upon their borders. There is no animal life of a savage or dangerous character near them, and their armament is a menace to the public safety. If their young men will not settle down to the peaceful calling of husbandmen, tillers of the soil, and breeders of stock, let them be drafted into our Army for service abroad. If there is not enough for the more elderly men to do in the farming line, let them turn their energies towards the development of the diamond mines and gold mines that lie within their borders--mines which at present they will not work themselves nor allow any white man to work.
I have spent a good many years of my life exploring new mineral territory, and have seen much of the best auriferous country known to modern times; but that Basuto country, presided over and held by a mere gang of black barbarians, ought, in my estimation, to be one of the richest gems in the British diadem. That good payable gold-bearing rock exists there I know beyond question. I also know beyond all doubt that diamonds are to be easily won from the soil, and I am thoroughly cognisant of the fact that at least one, and I believe many, quicksilver mines can be located there. Others who know the country well have told me of coal and tin and silver mines, and samples have been shown to me which made my mouth water. Yet, all this wealth, which nature's generous hand has scattered so liberally for the use of mankind, is jealously locked away year by year by men who, in their savage state, have no use for it themselves, yet will not, upon any consideration whatever, grant a mining concession to a white man, no matter what that white man's nationality may be. Verily, the heathen badly want educating, and we have now 250,000 of the right kind of schoolmasters within handy reach of them.