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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LXIX. - The Britons


FROM its very beginning and all onwards British rule strove to introduce and establish a better order and more impartial justice than had existed in South Africa before. But the many opportunities which presented themselves, time after time, for giving that rule a firm hold were almost always thrown away, partly through the negligence or shortsightedness of Governors and local officials, but chiefly through the faults of the Imperial Government and the ill-instructed humanitarianism of the British people, which ended in producing the inhumanity of wars and rebellions that in most cases could have been easily evaded had British colonisation been early resorted to and persistently promoted. The Wesleyan colonisation of the Port Elizabeth and Grahamston region showed what should and could easily have been done. So did the British sugar-planters and farmers of the sea-board side of Natal. But what about the land taken from the Kaffirs after they had attempted to kill or drive all the whites of the Eastern Provinces into the sea  Free grants of land and free passages, with other help, could be found for the warriors of the German Legion, who had never seen the war for which they were raised; and they and their wives and families were settled in more comfort than they had ever enjoyed in their native land. Why then were not the other half-million acres distributed in a similar generous manner among British agricultural colonists instead of being sold in big grazing farms?

Besides being, as compared with the Boers inside and outside the colonies, in the minority, the Britons, in 1866, were badly distributed, being mainly collected about the towns, and only in a few places spread out as farmers. The people who are rooted in the soil as owners and occupiers are the real backbone in every land. British traders, mechanics, and other urban classes were good enough in their way where there were openings for them, but they were not at all the sort of people for amalgamating with and influencing the Boers so as to bring the kindred white races into something like the bonds of brotherhood, which, in the eye of reason, their position among the natives so emphatically recommended.

The great trekking bands of Boers, who, with bag and baggage, went away in hot rage at the abolition of slavery to attempt to take Natal, and to successfully found the Orange and Transvaal Republics, were allowed to go away without being obliged to take the British flag with them. That early fatal folly was even worse than the throwing away of chances for promoting British agricultural colonisation in Cape Colony and Natal. The new backland Boer Republics hardened the hostility of the colonial Boers to British rule, and when the mineral wealth of the Transvaal came to supply sinews of war to the empty Boer treasury, the widespread anti - British conspiracy passed from smaller aims to the grand one of making all South Africa a Boer State, and driving the British into the sea or the grave, and making the children of Ham obediently serve their masterful white brethren.

All who did not shut their eyes to facts, and cherished self-deception, understood perfectly well in 1866 that revolt was in the minds of the Boers, and that they were silently banded together, ecclesiastically, linguistically, socially, and politically, to obtain minor aims meanwhile, and to wait patiently for a great chance. There was, however, a section of them that did not expect nor wish for a great chance to be given to the would-be revolters. These were the better educated men and women, who had learned to speak English, and who intermarried with British men and women. The Anglicised Boers, like the generality of the Britons, little foresaw that a time would come when the Imperial Government should play into the hands of the anti- British Boers, and with the gold of the Transvaal, promote the scheme of conquest, which was so daringly undertaken at the end of the century. In 1866, no British colonist or English-speaking Boer thought it probable or in the least degree possible that the Imperial Government would ever commit the incredible blunders of unavenged Majuba, the cancellation of the Shepstone annexation of the Transvaal, and the infamy of the surrendering Conventions.

Up to 1868, or a year or two later, the South African Britons were confident their countrymen at home would never, in any time of trial, leave them unsupported. Before 1880 that trust was well founded, although Downing Street now and then blundered, and now and then by oversight and carelessness let affairs go wrong. One thing which they thought went wrong was the Delagoa Bay dispute with Portugal about the ownership of Delagoa Bay. They saw that the British Government, in the case submitted by them to the arbitration of Marshall MacMahon, was ridiculously imperfect, and so weakly expressed, as to justify the French President in giving the two sides of the Bay to Portugal, although it was quite clear that one side of it, by prior right of possession, belonged to the British Empire. At the time of the arbitration the future value of the then malarious region along the Bay was not foreseen by either party, and Portugal probably would have sold the whole for a very moderate sum. Marshal MacMahon indeed, taking the probability of sale in view, so far recognised the right to one side of the Bay as to give our country a right of pre-emption.

Trust in the firm backing of the Imperial Government was restored by the Zulu war, in which the Prince Imperial, Napoleon III.'s son, unfortunately, lost his life. But that confidence was shaken by the clamour raised by Nonconformist and Exeter Hall humanitarians against Sir Bartle Frere, whose bold policy was to bring all the wild unannexed regions up to the Zambesi under the British flag, leaving the two Boer Republics alone. It was a propitious time for carrying out that project, and had it been carried out, Dr Karl Peters and his filibustering band would not have been allowed to raise the German flag in Great Namaqualand and Damaraland, when Lord Granville delayed replying to Prince Bismarck's note of enquiry until it was too late. German policy is exhibited on the present day maps by the horn of their south-west African colony, which they pushed east-ward to the Zambesi ere Cecil Rhodes came on the scene as a British Empire builder, when the British flag was taken far north of the Zambesi.

Past damages were then, as far as possible, redeemed, and poor Sir Bartle Frere's policy was vindicated, after his Nonconformist enemies had hunted him into his grave. They tried the same persecuting game with Governor Eyre for daring to save Jamaica from negro rebels, but he was made of tougher stuff than Sir Bartle Frere, and lived to enjoy his pension for many years after his persecution.

As their treasury was empty, and as they were in peril from a native revolt, which a first failure to crush would make a general rising, the Transvaalers peacefully acquiesced in the Shepstone annexation of their country. The native rebels feared the Power that had defeated Kaffirs and Zulus, and their project of a general rising collapsed like a castle of cards when the Union Jack was hoisted at Pretoria. The annexation would assuredly have been maintained, and there would have been no Majuba, no surrendering Conventions, no indefensible Jameson raid, and no costly or bloody war between Boers and Britons, had the Conservatives not been, in 1880, replaced by Liberals under the inspired blundership of Mr Gladstone, whose great qualities were marred by what seemed the gift of some malicious fairy, unlimited in effect, to mislead himself and others, which, whenever a craving for heroic home legislation, or a mere desire for gaining new supporters, beset him, he was easily tempted to use, and think himself acting under divine command. His first patriotic impulse was to wipe off the stain on Britannia's war shield by avenging Majuba. An army to do so was gathered in Africa, and then, when all was ready, he suddenly changed his mind, and declared it would be "blood guiltiness" to employ that army for the purpose for which it had been gathered. His pseudo-humanity disgraced his country, and involved not only the surrendering Conventions, but made the recent Boer war inevitable. Foreigners believed that weakness and not humanity inspired this misguided, whirl-about policy. So did the Boers; and for the first time loyal colonists were driven to suspect that under a Liberal Ministry in London there would be small security for the Britains beyond the seas, and for the integrity of the British Empire. Ever since there has been mistrust of Liberal administration among loyal colonists and subjects abroad, and corresponding trust in getting chances for doing mischief among foreign and domestic foes.

The political sky of South Africa is yet far from clear, and is likely long to have some dark clouds on it. But the storm clouds between the two white peoples, that impended over the land from Majuba to the end of the late war, have, I hope, dispersed, never to return again. In the tough war-struggle, Boers and Britons learned to appreciate each others' good qualities better than they ever did before. Mutual respect has grown out of that better under- standing. The Boers of the two republics, and also the Boers of some parts of the colonies, who did not come much in contact with Britons of the higher moral stamp, cherished many fond delusions about the inferiority of the latter, which delusions the war has dispersed to the four winds. The coming of Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders to the help of the Mother Country impressed the Boers with the vastness of the British Empire and the strength of the ties of loyalty and common citizenship by which, although as yet unorganised, the various parts of it are held together. They were at one time persuaded by the encouragement given to them by noisy Irish disloyalists that the United Kingdom itself was on the eve of disintegration, and that self-governing colonies were hastening to proclaim themselves independent states. The German Kaiser flirted with them, and the German press assured them that the British Empire was in an advanced stage of decay and slowly bleeding to death. They have now gauged correctly the value of Irish encouragement, and the motives of the German flirtation. They know what is going on in German South-west Africa, and the knowledge tends to make them thankful, since their own project failed, to be under the British flag, and citizens of an Empire which girdles the world. For various reasons they lost faith during the war in the light and leading of office-seeking Hollanders of their own stock; and as for the Germans, Jews and Gentiles, who were attracted by the mineral wealth of the Rand, and who promoted companies and manipulated stocks and shares and war contracts, they have no good and much evil to say. The Britons with whom they have been acquainted for a century, now that fostered delusions are no longer tenable, have risen so high in Boer estimation, that combination with gradual amalgamation is quite possible; especially as all the backlands of Rhodesia are under British rule.

The situation of the whites as a small ruling oligarchy, spread out over an immense territory, among an overwhelming number of coloured people, is a compulsory cause for the political union of Boers and Britons, who have before them a harder task than our sentimental humanitarians appear to be capable of understanding. Things are different now from what they were in the early history of colonisation, or even in the time of the treks, when armed Boers could go boldly forward among tribes who fought with clubs and assegais. By no law and by no vigilance can the smuggling of fire-arms among the natives be wholly prevented. The French Protestant missionaries more than forty years ago taught the Basutos how to make tolerably good gunpowder. The materials necessary for its production are abundant in most districts of Africa, and the knowledge how to produce is dead sure to pass from tribe to tribe and district to district. But even without this home resource, the smuggling of ammunition is a much easier thing than the smuggling of rifles and revolvers.


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