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Chapter XIV The Boer

“FETCH us Kruger's scalp!” said the crowd that lined the streets, as we struggled hotly to Woolloomooloo Bay on a sweating afternoon in January. “Don't take any notice of white flags; play 'em at their own game; wipe 'em out; give 'em hell!”—they cried as we led our horses up the gangway. “Good-bye, boys,” screeched an excited lady on the wharf; “put their blanky lights out!”

There had been Stormberg, and Magersfontein, and Colenso—and Spion Kop was to come. The facile pen of the paragraphist had described the incidents of treacherous ambush. The tame leader-writers of the most respectable morning paper in the wide world had, with all deference to possible varieties of opinion—which they would not for all the riches of Mount Morgan unwittingly offend—given it as their unalterable dictum that the Boer was an excrescence upon the fact of all humanity, that he should, without doubt, be made to feel the ‘iron hand,’ that this war was none of your common, bloody, uninviting

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struggles, but a holy crusade against infamous wrong, and injustice, and unreasonable tyranny. Most touchingly symbolical of its righteous approval of our going, the enthusiastic crowd had given us to drink of raw whisky, as we shoved, and pushed, and panted thirstily through it. And doubtful damsels, to whom one would never before have attributed any of the broad feeling that leads to publicly expressed emotion, had clung weepingly about our necks, and kissed us lovingly, as they implored us to go forth and battle for what was right, and good, and noble, against oppressive wrong and wretched, heartless cruelty.

And so, by the time that we were up the shrouds, and the crowd was a mere blur along the shore, expressive only by points of waving white and a murmuring roar that lost itself across the widening waters, we really did feel enthusiastic admiration for ourselves. We honestly understood ourselves to be, as it were, knights-errant of no mean order, going forth to wrest the fair maiden of African freedom from the vile clutches of the Boer dragon.

It was a splendid feeling to possess—you can have no idea as to how very noble and estimable our souls felt themselves to be. The Holy Grail itself was in Pretoria, or Johannesburg, and we were going to get it.

In Adelaide the people had again gone mad. Men of the Stock Exchange—fat, worthy members of

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Society—had clutched us frantically by the arms, and given us to drink of choice vintages. The North Terrace and the railway station had farewelled us with more delightful fervour than even if we had been an Australian Eleven driving round in drags, ere it sought Largs Bay and the track to victories in English cricket-grounds. Fremantle had been a little madder. Truly, it was something to be a soldier.

And we sailed away knowing all about everything. There was no possibility of our having made any mistake as to the Boer. We had him at our finger ends. He was a low liar, a cunning, unscrupulous cheat, an oppressor of the unfortunate philanthropists who had come to make his country rich.

The Uitlander, for whom we were going to do battle, was indeed a long-suffering, overburdened martyr. Purely for philanthropy he had sought to do the Transvaal a good turn. He had toiled, with some success, to wrest the golden treasure of the unwilling Rand from its hidden depths. He had made a bankrupt State into a rich one. He was the kind of man who shoved the world along. And they wouldn't give him a vote. So we were going to get it for him. The Boer had been weighed in the balance and found wanting. We would adjust the scale.

And even as we thought we were right, and just, and ethically correct in assisting the mother country to

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make war in Africa, so do we still to-day—after we have been, and learned what war really is, and sobered ourselves in scenes of misery from the drunkenness of the ‘hurrahing’ streets, and the hysteric quays, and the lying newspapers. But it is upon other grounds that we so justify ourselves. And we have learned to think a little differently of the Boer.

There is a dreadful crime against all moral decency, a hopeless offence against all that is right, and just, and proper. It is so serious an offence that one may reasonably hesitate before laying oneself open to the charge of having been guilty of it. In its most abandoned state of depravity and perversion it does not merely suggest, it confirms and makes positive the fact that the offender against all good and worthy codes of political thought is a treasonable plotter and outcast conspirator against his country too. He is an enemy of England, an insidious foe to the welfare of the Empire. He has committed the unpardonable sin. Henceforth he should be treated mercilessly as a pariah. He is an ‘Ishmael’ amongst his fellows. He is incapable of reason—he is hopelessly insane. We should ‘cut’ him in the street, if he be an acquaintance. We should bestir ourselves to put him down, to expose him, to hold him up to ridicule, to make his life a weary burden. He is not even worth reforming.

And so the writer hopes, and prays, and ponders within himself as he writes—almost overwhelmed by the nightmare fear that he may be charged, too, with

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this unspeakable wrong-doing, that little boys, and old women, and worthy men may arise and point the finger of scorn at him, and damn him, soul and body, with the awful accusation of ‘Pro-Boer’.

It is so easy to have this cry hurled at you. You have but to say that the African Dutch do not all live in pig-styes, that some few of them can read and write, that there are even some who do not play with white flags perpetually. To assert that the Devil is not so black as he is painted is wicked and untrue—because every one knows that he is as black as black can be, even though no one has ever seen him.

Well—but it can't be helped. With a full knowledge of all the dreadful meaning of ‘Pro-Boer,’ and what he lays himself open to by reason of his saying so, the writer cannot but state that, as we found him, the Boer was not such a bad fellow after all—not nearly so black as he has been painted. He was, indeed, not one whit better than he should have been, but, in the actual waging of war, he was not nearly so bad as he might have been.

Books, and magazines, and newspapers had almost taught us to believe that we should meet in Africa some kind of a sub-tropical Esquimo—a hairy, primitive ‘loafer,’ with the manners of a cave-dweller and the principles of a gorilla. We had looked for a species of debased creature unpossessed of any powers of thinking, with no perception of anything that lay beyond the narrow horizon of his

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straitened intellectual outlook. We had taken ‘Boer’ to be synonymous with ‘boor’. We had been unable to understand why, or how, he had made matters so uncomfortable at Magersfontein for such men as the Highlanders, led by such skilled and quick-witted men as we had supposed the English officers to be. It was inexplicable to us how such a creature could possibly have ‘enough in him’ to make the Empire look so foolish as he had undoubtedly been doing for the few months in which it had waged war with him. Buller was to have eaten his Christmas dinner in Pretoria. It seemed to be rather by good luck than anything else that Joubert was prevented from eating his in Durban.

Now, how could it come about that such a people as these were said to be—a so slow, dull, unprogressive, shiftless people—could give our armies so much trouble, could kill our men by the hundred, and capture them by the thousand? When we made the better acquaintance of the Boer we learned why it was.

It is a far cry from Fremantle to the Orange River. You have time to think and consider matters, with a good deal of attention to detail, in the time that elapses between your departure from one and your arrival at the other. There is the blue solitude of the Indian Ocean, for two clear weeks at least, and after that the speedless journey in the train. But it was first at Orange River station that we made the acquaintance

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of the Boer in any quantity, and it was there that we first began to doubt the fixity and unchanging nature of our ideas about him. There, too, we first had a glimpse of insight as to the reasons why he had given our Generals and their armies such a deal of trouble.

When our long string of cattle-trucks containing horses, and second-class carriages containing Cornstalks, had jolted and bumped into the station, they had relegated us to a siding, and left the main line beside the platform clear and open—evidently for a more important train than ours. In course of time it had rolled in beside us, and from our windows we looked out upon an excursion train-load of shearers, or ‘cockies,’ or ordinary ‘bush hands’ going down, en masse, with their coats off, to ‘blue their cheques’. But in each carriage was the glimmer of bayonets, and, as the train stopped, more bayonets came along beside the carriages and took up positions of vantage in the space between us.

Who were these people? Ah! possibly the poor of Kimberley just relieved, and being taken to Capetown for a change. No, that couldn't be correct. Were they Boers? we ventured to ask the supporter of a bayonet below our window.

“Yes, they be Cronjy's men—seven hundred of 'em, an' they stinks 'orrid.”

Boers!—Boers!—these men Boers? Oh, no; they could not be, surely! Where were the brutal faces

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of the English illustrated papers? There were a few, a very few, who came up to our conception of a Boer, but the majority seemed decent, intelligent men enough. Their clothes were dirty and clay-stained. They wore moleskins, and riding breeches, and weather-worn tweed coats, and their beards were mostly untrimmed, but where were the ‘wild-men-from-Borneo’ kind whom we knew well were the only genuine Boers? A great proportion of their train-load were beardless boys or venerable greyheads. Where were the savage beast-like creatures whom we knew we should expect? These men could not be the real Boers. They were not at all like the pictures we had seen.

But, yes—there was no doubt. These were the men from Paardeberg. These were the ferocious creatures who had lived for more than a week upon the smell of lyddite fumes, in a place that was the first cousin to the Hobs of Hell. These boys, and patriarchs, and smaller proportion of able-bodied men, had indeed seen more than ever we had done of war, and felt its cruel weight more heavily than we hoped would fall to our lot to feel. These quiet, orderly, rather good-humoured people! We watched their train roll away with a curious feeling of having been somehow deceived.

Yes, those were the Boers of Boerdom—Transvaalers mostly, who were reputed to be even more wild and unkempt than the Freestaters, who lived

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very close to the Basutos, and might reasonably be supposed to have acquired their ways. Somehow we were disappointed in them. It was rather like going to see some much advertised entertainment, and finding, when you had paid your money and gone inside, that the reality fell very far short of the posters. We had seen infinitely better specimens of the real Boer in some of the back creeks and dark gullies at home on the Hunter.

And so we went on, and finally, at the end of months, we came to Pretoria—much more educated people than when we had shipped ourselves at Woolloomooloo. We had fought him, chased him, taken him prisoner, narrowly escaped from the tricky snares he set for us, seen him in his home, drawn his fire from his own beloved kopjes, played him at his own game, looked upon his dead—and our opinion of him was quite a different matter altogether from the ideas with which we had equipped ourselves before leaving Sydney. We had seen how he lived; we had learned what manner of slothfulness had kept him from using aright the good land which God had given him, and recognised how little he deserved to keep it therefore—since no man has a right to any good thing unless he use it well. We had talked and argued with him, had got to know his peculiar ways of thinking, had faintly understood his mental state, had discovered for ourselves some of his many faults, had seen how the white flag trick was played—and—one confesses

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it almost apologetically in view of the possible charge of ‘Pro-Boerism’ referred to above—had come to respect him, in the mass, as a very gallant man, and to envy in him the possession of hardy virtues such as we had never expected to find, and which we would not mind feeling quite sure that we possessed ourselves.

There lives upon the outskirts of Pretoria, in a little iron cottage, a gaunt old Boer of many years and much experience, with whom the writer chanced to become, in a measure, friendly—as friendly as any hated rooinek may become with one of his uncompromising sort. He was a tall, dark man, grizzled and iron-grey, with the whipcord neck muscles that you see in thin old men who have lived much in the sunlight. He was as spare, and lank, and brown as any Queenslander. And he loved his country with a fervent love that would hear no evil of it. He seemed to like speaking about its troubles to any one who would listen, and was pitiably anxious to make at least one ‘Englander,’ as he included all of us, think less hardly of his people than he supposed they did.

Sitting in the shade of a paling fence, we discussed many things through rank clouds of Transvaal tobacco. He had been a fighting man all his life, but had come home when Pretoria fell—stiff with rheumatism—to find his wife but just recovering from the shock of his reputed death whilst on commando, and his little daughter seven weeks dead of typhoid. So

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there was to be no more war for him, though he never would admit the overthrow of his beloved Republic. Were not the Russians at war with England over China? Would they not bombard Capetown and Durban? Were not the Cape Dutch about to rise, and cut us off from the sea?

He had been at Bronkhurst Spruit in '81, and over the crest of Majuba in time to see Colley fall. His story of the storming of Majuba was curiously interesting.

“Ja! in the morning, there were the English above us. We could see them walk about and stand against the sky. The Boers they were all frighten'. It was bad, very bad. Piet Joubert was angry. He call us young men to him, and he say: ‘This is not good. You have not done well. I am angry for it. You have let rooibaatjes come up there, and now you must drive them down again.’ Ja—he was very angry—the so careful Piet. So we went up. No, there were not so many tree—a few bushes, and many rocks, and the grass was long. We take a long time, and it was very steep. But we go so carefully, so very slowly, from rock to rock. They stand up to shoot us, and we shoot them—so. Ah, you do not have the white hats now, or red coats! It is not so easy. We get up close, very close—the officers come and stand against the sky to shoot their pistols at us. We laugh, and shoot them. It is so funny, what you English did in that war. You play bands when you fight. That

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is wrong. It is not hard to hear the bands coming. And the flags to shoot at! It is not so now. But we come to the top of the kop, and they are all together like frightened buck——” But it was not a pleasant story. And Bronkhurst Spruit was less so.

There was much to learn from the old man. He would admit many things. Personally, he deplored the white flag incidents, but stoutly maintained that our guns had shelled their ambulance waggons. He was willing to admit that distance does not sometimes help to distinguish an impromptu hospital van from an ammunition cart, but claimed the same reason for occasional lapses on the part of the Staats Artillerie. For the white flag he shrugged his shoulders. “If I steal oxen, it is not that every one in the country will steal oxen too. There are bad men always. I know the commandants do not like it. Louis Botha it has sometimes make very angry. But the Boers have not orders like the English. Every burgher does as he wishes. It is not always possible to watch them all. I have not done it.”

As to expanding ammunition, he made a statement which startled the writer.

“Ah, yes,” he said, “you say we have used it! So —we have done so—but why? I will tell you why—and then you shall tell me what you think. When we drive the English from Dundee, to shut them up in Ladysmith, they go so very quick that they have not time to take all with them. They do not even

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have time to burn all that they leave behind. So, we find biscuits, and beef, and whisky—ja!—plenty of things that are very good for us. And also there is much ammunition in boxes—what you call it, sof' nose, eh? Dum-dum? Almighty! I tell you, the Boers are very angry. They say, ‘If the English use it, we shall use it too! Why not? It is right for us, if it is right for you.’ I think myself it is bad to use—but if you, then the Boers also. We know you use it first of all, because we find it in Dundee when the English have trekked away so quickly. What of that, tell me, mine friend?”

His friend could not explain. Was it that, in the hasty retreat of Yule's column, the possible Dum-dum ammunition brought from India by the troops which came from there at the earliest outbreak of hostilities, and withdrawn from them, as we know it was, had been by some oversight left undestroyed in store at Dundee? That seemed to be the only explanation, but, unfortunately, it did not find ready acceptance with the Boers. The writer rashly questioned a Commandant in Wynberg Hospital as to the same thing, and, to his humiliation, heard the same depressing story.

Expanding ammunition, one is quite certain, was never countenanced by the British authorities; but it is always possible to suppose that our own men, finding it in the bandoliers of dead Boers, may have used an occasional cartridge without their officers' knowledge.

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Of Boer inhumanity we have heard many stories. Some of them may possibly be true. Any story is true until it is disproved, despite the English maxim as to a man's innocence being taken for granted until his guilt be clearly established. That may hold good in law, but it does not in scandal-mongering. But this much the writer can unhesitatingly affirm—that, though he read many accounts in English and Australian newspapers of dastardly acts committed by the Boers upon prisoners and wounded, he never once, whilst at the front, could learn of any genuine instance where such things happened. Indeed, men of his own corps, who were wounded and taken prisoners at Zand River in May, speak gratefully of the kind treatment meted out to them by their captors. One is inclined to believe that much of the odium cast upon the Boers arises from the unfortunate lying that seems to be engendered in a war, upon both sides.

But, even admitting that there may be a foundation of truthfulness in much that has been charged against them, there is one unhappy fact which it would be well for us to recollect, and that is that to the average Boer an Englishman is a being who ranks lower than a Kaffir. He is one to whom, if you may do so safely, you may quite permissibly extend the harshest treatment. No one who has not spoken with them, and had opportunity of gathering some notion as to the hatred and contempt and distrust with which they

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regard everything English, can quite realise this in its full significance.

One day a patrol of Australians, riding through the country between Boesman's Kop and the Bloemfontein waterworks, called at a farmhouse to see whether its members could purchase anything in the way of provisions. There were no menkind there except a couple of Kaffir ‘boys’. The mistress of the house could only sell them a glass of milk each, which they were glad enough to get. Afterwards, in course of conversation, she admitted that she was sick of the war, and expressed a fervent wish that it would soon be over. Her husband was away on commando, and her eldest son—a boy of fifteen—had been killed at Modder River. Of her husband she had had no word for three months. He had gone northward in the flight from Bloemfontein, and, for all she knew, might be dead also. Some one asked her how she thought the English and Dutch would get on with one another—would they forget all past ill-feeling, and settle down quietly and happily together for the good of the country when once the war was over? Had she herself anything against the English? “Ah, no,” she said bitterly; “I have not anything against them—oh, no—they have only killed my little Piet! That is nothing. My man's oxen are all gone—that also is nothing!” Then, with sudden fierceness, pointing to the child on her lap, “You see my little girl here; well, if I ever thought she would grow up

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and marry one of your English, I would take her now and dash her brains out against the door-post!”

That is how they hate us. And it will be many years before the hatred dies away. Blood is a hard thing to forget. The smell of it remains with you afterwards. Wives who have lost their breadwinners, mothers who have lost their sons—be they Dutch or English—do not reason overmuch about the ethics of their losses. It is nothing to them whether the war was a just one, whether their beloved died for a righteous cause. They only know that the cruel English, or the cruel Dutch, have robbed them of some one whom all the fine arguments in the world will not bring back, and so, for years and years, the sad women of those countries will loathe and detest all things English more bitterly than before. Their hatred of us already dates from before the Great Trek, from before the hanging of Slachter's Nek, and comes across the war of '81. Now it will have all the hard misery of this war to add to its rankling bitterness. There is a difficult task before the coming rulers of the two late Republics.

And so, when we hear that the Boers have been unduly lax in honourable dealings with our kinsfolk, we must remember how they regard them. What an invasion and conquering of our country by Chinese would mean to us, the invasion and taking of theirs by the English means to them.

A state of war does not usually exhibit the non-combatants

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of an invaded country to their best advantage, although naturally there are many opportunities for the display of heroism and self-sacrifice of a high order. The type of Boer with which one came in contact was not always the best. He was usually a prisoner, or sick or wounded in hospital, or one of those not very noble beings—a burgher-on-parole. One cannot but feel the highest personal respect for the men who have uncompromisingly kept the field, as contrasted with those who have surrendered early, and are busily employed in making money out of their country's enemies. But, as a rule, one finds them such an interesting and many-sided people, that there is some regret at not having made their acquaintance years ago in peace-time, so that one might be the better qualified to judge of them. They have, one suspects, been frequently the victims of too hasty judgment. It would possibly have been easier to understand them better, had one been able to mix with them in their laagers. But, in the marching and fighting of the war itself, one was really able to make only a superficial acquaintance with them. Their habits of cunning warfare were really their most striking characteristic. And these taught you, that in Africa one must always be ready to distrust the obvious. Perhaps, indeed, that is one explanation of their noted ‘slimness’.

Of Paul Kruger, and the Pretoria clique, and Dr. Leyds the writer knows little save what he has

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read. Better informed people have dealt with them. But this much is quite certain—that no matter how the Pretorian party plotted, or the Africander Bond dabbled in treason in the Cape Colony, the commoner Boer knew only that he fought for his independence. And Boer independence in South Africa does not merely mean autonomy for the two Republics. It means one Dutch State, and no English, save on sufferance. Knowing this, can we not extend some generosity of feeling towards brave men, who have fought pluckily against overwhelming forces in what was, to them, a sacred cause?

The writer hopes sincerely that this chapter may not draw upon him the reader's scorn and contempt as being another of those strange people—the ‘Pro-Boers’. But possibly the fact of having ‘chanced one's hide’ a few times in action with them will render apology needless. One has small sympathy with Englishmen who, once the country having been involved in war, wilfully admire and encourage the enemy. ‘A long rope and a short shrift’ for those who are traitors to their country is unfortunately out of date. This much he would be glad if he could feel that he may possibly have made clear in the foregoing pages—that because you are at war with a people it makes your case no better to libel them; that there are as likely to be justice and reason upon their side as yours; that, even if you kill a country, there is no reason why you should traduce its memory also.

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One might write indefinitely as to the Boers. From the point of view of the picturesque, at least, they are worth ten volumes, rather than one meagre chapter. But here space forbids.

Let us, however, try to remember so much as this. These people are much of the same kind as we. They have the open air to live in just as we have. They are not monsters of iniquity and treachery altogether. They have fought bravely and well against odds that might have well overwhelmed them in the contemplation—and it was not because they were ignorant. They may be liars by nature, they may be cunning, they have not used their country as they might have done. We were quite justified in fighting them to a finish—but let us at least act the manly part of giving them what credit is their due, of refusing to believe the cruel lies which interested parties have put forth. Let us be fair, and just, and generous—if we can.