H.M. Hyndman

Further Reminiscences

Chapter VII
The South African War

I HAVE always had a bitter aversion from the policy of drift in public affairs, and more especially in foreign and colonial business. Lord Melbourne’s “ Can’t you leave it alone? “ may be a very suggestive and valuable question for an otiose cynic to propound in quiet times: the game of procrastination is frequently, though not always, successful in home politics. But when matters which are dependent upon others are concerned, in which their ideas, their wishes, and even their prejudices, are involved, it is well to have some sort of notion what line you intend to take from the start, and to vary your course, though you do not change your aim, in accordance with circumstances as they arise. All that seems to me common sense degenerating into platitude.

When the late Max O’Rell wrote about South Africa, after his visit to that part of the world, he commented upon the admirable patience and quiet determination with which our policy was being conducted there. John Bull was lying low, he said; but he could afford to wait for the gradual working out of natural causes, which all told in his favour. In this way, without force, and almost without pressure, J.B. would come into his heritage of the southern portion of the great African Continent. And so, no doubt, it would have been, but for the most exasperating sequence of blunders and crimes of which our history shows any record.

From the mere State policy point of view, that Great Britain should have destroyed the fine fighting organisation of the great Kaffir tribes for the benefit of the Boers, whose power we thus strengthened, without having made any arrangement whatever with the two Dutch Republics beforehand, was a piece of folly so palpable that it is marvellous even today that it should ever have been committed. So long as the Kaffir Kingdom lasted, the Kaffirs served as a makeweight against the Dutch, who had seized their land and had enslaved many of their people. The possibility of an arrangement between the two races was inconceivable, and the Dutch stood in the front rank of defence against Kaffir attack. This calculation of forces may have been unscrupulous, but it was upright policy compared to what followed.

It so happens that I had the opportunity of looking at what was going on in South Africa, from quite an independent point of view, long before the great gold-field of the Rand was developed, and before even the consolidation of the mines at Kimberley had put the markets of the world in diamonds at the disposal of the de Beers combination. It interests me, however, to recall that my friend Alfred Renshaw, the solicitor, with some others, tried hard but vainly to bring about that very understanding as to diamond sales which afterwards was so extraordinarily successful and advantageous to its promoters, some years before this result was achieved. What, however, directed my attention specially to South Africa was the fact that Mr. Moody, who had, or thought he had, some very extensive and valuable concessions from the Portuguese Government, came to me in the early ’seventies and endeavoured to induce me to take an interest in the Delagoa Bay Railroad, with the lands granted in connection with it – a project which was afterwards taken up by the American Colonel McMurdo.

I was an Imperialist in those days, believed in the beneficent influence of the British flag and the glories of British rule all over the world, considering, indeed, that our expansion was good alike for governors and governed. The scheme also seemed to me likely to be extremely profitable. So I went thoroughly into the whole subject of South Africa as it then stood, and studied the situation as well as I could. In this, of course, for his own objects, I had all the assistance Mr. Moody, who knew the country well, could give me. The Portuguese, however, were as reluctant then as they were later to put the concessions upon proper lines, and the whole thing fell through.

But my study of the Transvaal and its relations to surrounding peoples and territories was by no means useless; for it taught me, among other things, that the Boers were just as likely to yield to any attempt to impose British rule upon them as their forbears and themselves were, when they trekked out into the wilderness to get away from us long ago; that the disaster of Majuba Hill was no such accident as it appeared to be at the time; and that, as with the American Colonists more than a century before, we should make a very great mistake if we imagined that these farmers were not fully a match on their own ground for British troops in much greater numbers, who had no more experience of fighting on the Veldt than their forerunners had in the American backwoods.

But all this is now of the past, and is well put in Sir William Butler’s warnings and in the reports of the much-abused Intelligence Department just before the Transvaal War. I only refer to it now because there is nothing I have ever done that I look back upon with more genuine satisfaction than my opposition to that shameful and disastrous campaign. All can see today that it was as unnecessary as it was foolish and costly. A more hollow agitation than that about the unfair treatment of the Europeans and Jews at Johannesburg never was started even in the English press. The best evidence of that is that the white workers were quite satisfied, and I never could get any trustworthy evidence of wrong done by the Boers, even from those who were most vehemently attacking them.

The white miners and other white employees on the Rand were, I say, quite contented with Boer rule. They were more than contented: they were strongly in favour of it, and for very good reasons. The local Boer Courts were always fair to the wage-earners, restricted the hours of labour, favoured a living rate of wages, and took the side of the labourers rather than that of the employers in any dispute which might arise. We Socialists had frequent letters to this effect, and it is not too much to say that the whole of the white population of Johannesburg not directly interested in reducing wages and extending the hours of labour, were opposed to putting the control of the mines, to say nothing of the whole government of the Transvaal, at the mercy of the millionaire magnates of the Rand, who were not only distrusted but disliked and contemned. Yet, for a long time prior to the raid, the English papers, supplied with information by the clique on the Board of the Chartered Company, consisting of Lord Grey, Mr. Rochfort Macguire, and their friends, who, at the instigation of Mr. Cecil Rhodes and Mr. Alfred Beit, were preparing for an attack upon Boer independence, continually asserted that the whole white population of Johannesburg was boiling over with indignation at the shameful tyranny of President Kruger and his friends. This, as the event proved, was a lie – a lie which some of us tried hard at the time to expose by simply telling the truth.

The extraordinary part of the matter is that the agitation in the first instance was not got up with a view to extending the influence of the British Government at all. On the contrary, the idea then in vogue, to be carried out after the Rhodes-Beit plot had succeeded, was to establish a great South African Republic, with Cecil Rhodes as its first President. Dr. Jameson, who, since Mr. Rhodes’s death, has been the leading Imperialist hero, actually had the impudence to put this quite plainly in a speech he delivered at a banquet at the Imperial Institute at the end of 1894, when the late King, then Prince of Wales, was present, speaking of the “Imperial factor” as a most objectionable influence. But nobody protested.

The intrigues and agitation went on. Machine guns and other arms were bought by the Chartered Company, after Lobengula had been defeated and his power crushed, for no purpose which could be disclosed. Everything, in fact, was being worked up for a sudden rush on Johannesburg, and it was absurd to suppose that the Boers were not aware of what was being prepared for them. It was still declared by the plotters that, when the prospect of deliverance loomed up on the horizon, the whole white population of Johannesburg would rise in revolt as one man. A friend of mine who was well aware that those with whom he was associated were playing a desperate game, did his best to check this” 1 conspiracy against a friendly and independent State. The Colonial Office was, of course, entirely opposed to the whole rash enterprise, but apparently would not use its power to prevent the development of the scheme, by threatening the Chartered Company with the loss of its Charter if any of its Directors or Agents pursued this mad policy any further. The ring of conspirators carried on their settled plans, therefore, quite regardless of good faith, the welfare of the country, or even of the Company’s real interests in South Africa.

And so the notorious and infamous piratical adventure known as the Jameson Raid occurred. Thanks to the prompt repudiation of its Chairman, the Company saved its Charter when the raid took place; but now that the mass of the people in this island seem likely to have a word to say ere long as to how their business shall be conducted in the future, it might be well that all the incidents connected with the steps that led up to the South African War should be examined into and published. Such an investigation would show the entire absence of any control over the machinations of high-placed “Imperialists.”

No expedition more ridiculous in its beginning or more cowardly in its end than the Jameson Raid was ever heard of. Its leaders, as I was myself informed by one who could scarcely have failed to know the truth, inasmuch that he went from Johannesburg to urge them to go back, and saw them and spoke to them both before and after their surrender to a mere handful of Boers – its leaders, I say, were drunk on the march and gave in the moment they were challenged by the men whom they had come from the border to rout. A boozy gang of piratical adventurers indeed, as destitute of courage as they were devoid of conduct!

The Boers, with weak magnanimity, did not shoot or hang the chief miscreants. They handed them over to the British Government, confident that justice would be done to them. So Dr. Jameson and Major Willoughby were brought to England, and instead of being condemned as they ought to have been to penal servitude for life, they were sentenced to a light and comfortable detention, and came out to be made the heroes of London Society. Nothing more detestable or disloyal was ever done.

Then, naturally enough, the Boers believed that the British Government and the British people were favourable to the marauders, and would next employ the British forces to crush their independence and seize their country. They therefore, naturally too, used the funds which they derived from taxes on the mines in their territory to purchase quantities of arms, and to put themselves generally in a posture of defence.

What followed is known to all the world. At first nobody believed it was possible that a war for the sake of the gold-mines in the Transvaal could be waged. Not only was the Cabinet as a whole against it, seeing that campaign would be entered upon solely in the interest of a set of the most unscrupulous international financiers and mineexploiters that ever was known, but Mr. Chamberlain, on his appointment to the Colonial Office when the Tories came into power, showed he was by no means inclined to give way to the policy of Mr. Cecil Rhodes and his clique. There was quite a feeling of relief when this was discovered, and many who had previously distrusted the Birmingham politician were bound to admit they had misread his character. Unluckily this policy of fair dealing as between the Boers and the British gave way by degrees to a totally different method.

The various causes which brought about the change it would be useless, even if it were possible, now to investigate. Certain it is, however, that the Colonial Secretary was persuaded, and persuaded himself, that the Boer leaders would probably give way if sufficiently threatened; that if they did not they would only carry on hostilities until the crops were ready to carry; and that in any case the Orange Free State would not join with the Transvaal. Consequently, when the Boers continued surreptitiously to arm as completely as they could, Mr. Chamberlain, relying upon the information received from Messrs. Wernher, Beit & Co., and others, upon whom he ought not to have relied, steadily drifted towards war.

How contemptibly shortsighted the whole of the action of the Minister really responsible was at this time is apparent from one single instance. President Kruger paid his private Secretary £700 a year. It was of the last importance to know what Kruger was actually doing. So the Secretary was paid £1,400 to betray Kruger. He took his £1,400 a year comfortably enough and – carefully betrayed his foreign paymasters. In this way: The great question when the situation became critical was whether President Steyn of the Orange Free State and the rulers of that Republic would forget their quarrels with the Transvaal Boers and join with them in resistance to the British, or whether they would remain neutral during the struggle. The British Agent in the Orange Free State, a well-known officer, kept on warning his Government that whatever they might imagine or be told, President Steyn had made up his mind to fight side by side with the Transvaal Boers. The Cape Government and the Home Government, relying upon their superior bought information, were quite as certain that no such combination would come about and that the Boers would only hold out for a few months at the outside. So Mr. Chamberlain began his campaign of bluff which culminated in a campaign of blood and disaster.

Ugly rumours began to fly around in the summer of 1899 as to the sinister intentions of Mr. Chamberlain and Lord Milner. It was believed, rightly or wrongly, by those who had excellent sources of information, that so early as May 1899 war against the Boers had been virtually resolved upon by the Colonial Secretary, and that he was actively engaged in exciting public opinion and in finding an excuse for the commencement of hostilities should, in spite of everything, his bluff fail.

For this reason, in July 1899, the Social-Democratic Federation held a demonstration in Trafalgar Square, passed resolutions strongly urging that peace should be maintained at all hazards, and protesting against Mr. Chamberlain being left in sole control of the situation during the Parliamentary recess. Many members of Parliament who were known to be bitterly hostile to any aggressive action were invited to come. Only two came. At that time Mr. Chamberlain was still giving in private his vehement assurances to Liberal leaders and others that peace would certainly be preserved. Throughout the whole of this period, however, as already said, his bought information from the Boer side was wholly untrustworthy, and it is possible he honestly believed he could win by the sheer bluff which had stood him in such good stead throughout his business experience and in his political career. If so, he was completely deceived. But all Social-Democratic and Radical protest was quite unavailing. Mr. Chamberlain was practically left by the Government in complete control, and, at the most critical moment of all, Lord Milner was sent up to negotiate with Mr. Kruger at Bloemfontein.

This was fatal. Lord Milner is one of those men who are by nature and training prigs. His entire career, up to the time of his being unexpectedly pitchforked by personal intrigue into the most difficult administrative and diplomatic post in the British Empire, had been that of a well-spoken and accommodating deskman. He had been journalist, private secretary, accountant, and so on, and that was all. He knew no more of the business of governing than he did of the practice of diplomacy. Perfectly honest in money matters no doubt, but combining in his own person all the drawbacks of the German bureaucrat with the learned ignorance of Balliol superiority, he was precisely the worst exponent of British policy who could have been chosen to send to negotiate with the wily old Dutch peasant Kruger, even if he had not already shown himself bitterly prejudiced against the Boers. War was certain if he went.

So strongly did I feel about this that, as a mere outsider but still a taxpaying Englishman, I wrote to Lord Salisbury, who had gone out of his way to be very friendly to me, through Sir George Kellner, many years before, imploring him as Prime Minister, and therefore chiefly responsible for the policy pursued in South Africa, to take this matter into his own hands, and to send quite a different man to talk with the President of the Dutch Republic. It so happened there was at that time, unemployed and open for the work, an English peer who was likewise that very rare bird in the world, a Dutch nobleman: who was so much Dutch that he spoke, and for aught I know, speaks today, our language with a strong Dutch accent.

He had been brought up to diplomacy, had filled successfully the position of Governor of an important province, was extremely urbane, courteous, and open-minded, was eager for peace and certain to carry out even unpleasant instructions in a pleasant way. In spite of the fact that he was a Liberal, he had also the reputation of being an honest and straightforward man of affairs. This was Lord Reay. I therefore begged Lord Salisbury in my letter to substitute Lord Reay for Lord Milner in this mission to Paul Kruger.

I had reason to know that the old Dutch President would have regarded such a special envoy from England with favour, and his going would have greatly strengthened the hands of Joubert and others on the Boer side, who, notwithstanding foreign semi-assurances of support, were entirely opposed to war. It did not need much imagination, I thought, to comprehend that the Dutch nobleman, Baron Mackay, as Lord Reay was, would have an infinitely better chance of success with a man who was a Hollander by descent, than a narrow-minded and obstinate “superior person” like Lord Milner, if a peaceful settlement were really desired. Lord Salisbury would not interfere. Mr. Chamberlain was resolved upon having war at all costs. So Lord Milner went his way to make that war certain. He succeeded.

It was in a second endeavour on the part of Social-Democrats and extreme Radicals to prevent war that I had a narrow escape of losing the number of my mess. The incident arose thus: Our meeting of protest in July had been peaceful and unanimous, though very numerous. The arrangements were in our hands, and feeling then was not hot. The meeting of September 1899, also in Trafalgar Square, was called and organised by the Radicals, and feeling by that time had become very hot indeed. Moreover, the Jingoes were naturally anxious to show that the peace party had no real support among the people of London. I heard that an attempt would be made to break up the meeting, and I suggested to the Radical organisers that it would be well to take special precautions. It was a great mistake on the part of us Social-Democrats not to have taken those precautions ourselves. We ought to have had in the Square enough men of our own to keep order some time before the gathering, which we could easily have done.

Unfortunately for us, what the Radicals failed to do and we had omitted to arrange, was done by our opponents. When the speakers ascended to the base of Nelson’s Monument they found that they were face to face with a hostile and a howling mob. I did not like the look of things at all to begin with. I liked it still less when these people, many of whom were half-drunk – they had been brought up from the East End at the cost of half-a-crown or so a head and unlimited liquor – began to throw open knives at us. Soutter, who organised the meeting and behaved with admirable coolness and courage throughout, endeavoured to get a hearing and to appeal for decent conduct. Then each of us had a try in turn. It was quite useless. The crowd had evidently been brought there to shout us down and shout us down they did; while, their supply of more lethal missiles being exhausted, potatoes, apples, etc., rained upon us in quantity.

At last it became quite clear that we should never get a hearing that day, and I for one began to consider seriously how we were to get away safely through the mob. Much as I have frequented crowds, I am never at ease in them, even when they are quite peaceful and friendly. This crowd was very much the reverse of being either, and as I was pretty well known as a vehement anti-war man and wore besides that distinguishing, though certainly not distinguished, headgear known to the French as a chapeau à huit reflêts, I felt pretty sure that I should have an ugly time of it when I descended. So it turned out. Directly I got down a lot of roughs made for me, and if it had not been for the late H.R. Taylor and another Socialist whose name I never knew, I should have been knocked down and seriously injured before I got out of the Square. Then the mounted police took a hand in the business, and, escorted by a few friends, I, in company with Mr. Felix Moscheles, who took the whole thing very philosophically, got first to the Hôtel Victoria, where the guests jeered at us and the porters shut the doors in my face, and then, still accompanied by the mob and protected by police, I found myself in the police station hard by old Scotland Yard. It was not a very dignified ending to an attempt to stem a mad and wicked war-mania, and recalled similar experiences, notably one at Battersea, when I first began to speak on Socialism in the very early days of the movement. It is quite possible to have adventures even in prosaic London, if you will persist in acting upon principle and in taking the unpopular side.

But I am glad and proud to say this misadventure, though it greatly encouraged Mr. Joseph Chamberlain’s fire-eating and firewater-drinking fuglemen, did not in the least daunt us. On the contrary, we made up our minds to oppose this infamous war to the last; but we also made up our minds that those who next attacked us, either indoors or out of doors, should have something to remember us by. We had not long to wait for the opportunity. A big indoor meeting, at which I was to speak, was held at Mile End. The hall was attacked in force by a very large body of people of similar character and opinions to those who assailed us in Trafalgar Square, more sober though not less vicious. Happily, a double staircase led up to the hall above, by which our infuriated anti-Boers could alone obtain access to the meeting. This staircase was occupied by our people and a very pretty fight indeed followed the attempted assault. I rejoice even now to remember that quite a number of Jingoes were sent to hospital on that occasion, and the memory of the conflict still lingers in the minds of men on both sides. It was indeed an admirably managed affair on our side, our men of peace coming up in disciplined relays to the fray as those in front got weary of pummelling the Jingo stormers.

Some of them boxed beautifully. The performance of one comrade, Simms, was particularly gratifying, and, I believe, gained quite a harvest of fees for dentists in the immediate neighbourhood next morning. So successful was our fighting brigade then and shortly thereafter that the word went round to let Social-Democratic meetings alone, except in cases where trained pugilists could be cheaply hired to support the principles of Birmingham and the Cecils. In fact to such an extent did the fame of our people for keeping the peace by effective argument spread in the Metropolis that Radicals used to beg us to come and protect their meetings for them. This, when those meetings were really serious, we frequently did, as both at the time and since they have themselves handsomely acknowledged.

One of the best-managed of our meetings in the matter of interruption and also in dealing with interrupters was that held at Shoreditch Town Hall. There too a mob tried to force an entrance and were dealt with as faithfully as their forerunners at Mile End. But the arrangements inside, conducted by George Lansbury, then an active member of the SDF, were the best I ever saw. It was known that some disturbers were present. They were given fair warning, and then, the moment they started to make a noise, the stewards, told off for their respective portions of the hall, just ran them out and threw them down to the Jingoes in attendance. However, all our efforts of protest were vain. Furious chauvinism seemed to have got hold of a large proportion of the people, and there we were, a great Empire involved in a “ great “ war with a population of farming folk no bigger than that of Brighton all told.

I suppose all wars involve a vast amount of malversation, but the South African War was unusually prolific in priggery in high places. I myself possess conclusive evidence as to the nefarious practices which went on for the benefit of men and women occupying the very highest and most influential positions, and engaged at the time, that was the irony of it, in vehemently denouncing all who opposed the commencement and the continuance of the war as unpatriotic little Englanders who ought to be strung up. I could, if I chose, name and expose at least one person who, accepting a dominant post when in debt to the tune of fully 80,000, left it, from no source whatever that could be honourably disclosed, a very rich man. And there are many others. But the law of libel in this country has been so artfully composted, in the sole interest of eminent misappropriates, that I confess I am not prepared to sacrifice myself on this issue. I will only state one of the numerous cases of pilfery and corruption which came under my own eye – one of actual fact which can easily be verified, and which, as I here personally state, is only a mild specimen of what went on.

The Government wanted a large supply of tinware for the campaign. A friend of mine who was thoroughly versed in this department offered the whole quantity needed at the rate of 8s. 6d. for a fixed amount of ware. His proposal was curtly declined. A little later a gentleman – all the agents of official malefaction are technically “gentlemen” – came to him, and asked him the lowest price of these very same goods. My friend told him the rate – 8s. 6d. This “Man in the Moon” at once contracted for the whole lot, and dumped it all in upon the nation at the rate of a neat and compact sovereign for what cost him less than half this sum. This worthy had, of course, approached the actual purchasers “through the proper quarters.” As to the woman influence, that too was sinister enough. It was a matter of common knowledge that society dames of the most irreproachable elegance and virtue were in receipt of heavy bribes during the whole of this shameful business. Here again, though proof is not so easy, I could give some very interesting, not to say entertaining, facts. I confine myself only to hearsay. At the height of the war fever I was dining at the Carlton Hotel, which that evening was crowded with well-known and, in a sense, eminent, or, at any rate, prominent, people. A very old friend with whom I had been intimate from my youth up, and whose knowledge of the inner circle of the high society into which he was born was second to that of no man in England, was dining there too. Capable, wellread, cynical, and rich, of the self-indulgent but self-controlled type depicted by more than one novelist, accident had thus thrown in my way a very good chance of getting incidental confirmation of that which in other fashion I knew better than he. Our people, I may say, do not go about everywhere with the words “I am a Social-Democrat” emblazoned across their abdomens. They are not always eager for self-advertisement in that capacity. The man I speak of caught sight of me, and at once came over to speak to me. We had a longish chat together, and I asked him towards the end of it, in an offhand way, how many of the highly-cultured and charming ladies present that evening were, in his opinion, more or less indebted to the South African gang. Looking round carefully, he replied, “A goodish lot, I should say.” – ”Twenty per cent?” – ”More than that certainly,” after taking a still more careful survey.

The answer was what I anticipated; but as we stood there a vision of the poor “Mafeking” dupes belonging to the working class rose up before me. Not only were they being heavily taxed to wage this abominable war on behalf of German-Jew mine-owners and other international interlopers, but the money so provided was being squandered in bribes and commissions, in buying bad mules, inferior horses, and worse food at outrageous prices, and in subsidising these well-got-up women I saw around me. And among those who were most eager for the war and most jubilant at the slightest success were the wage-earners themselves in the very poorest localities. The insanitary, pauper-inhabited court, then still standing at the end of the street I live in, was more decorated with flags at the news of some “victory” than were all the fashionable parts of Westminster put together. Patriots indeed!

One of the worst features of the whole campaign, too, was the position in which it placed us with respect to continental powers. Our unpleasant and dangerous relations with the German Empire date from that period. The antagonism between the two Empires would very likely have developed in any case out of commercial rivalry and Prussian aggressive militarism. But that might, on the other hand, have been conceivably avoided as a more sensible view of the situation gained influence owing to Social-Democratic propaganda on both sides of the North Sea. Nobody nowadays, I judge, would dispute that, rash as the message may have been, the Kaiser – for whom, most assuredly, I have not the very slightest admiration or respect – was quite justified in declaring his sympathy with the Dutch Republics, as against the piratical policy of Great Britain.

He but expressed the universal opinion of all men of common sense and decent morality in Europe and America. That Germany should have been unable to lead civilised public opinion in a definite pronouncement against the Chamberlainite policy of brutality and arrogance, owing to the overwhelming superiority of the British fleet, gave German statesmen good reason for deciding that such a state of things should never arise again, quite independently of the teachings of Captain Mahan. And I say this, though I am and always have been in favour of an extremely powerful navy for this country, recognising as I do that this is essential to our national existence, to say nothing of our food-supply. Moreover, I have upheld that opinion against the most vehement attacks from my own side, and for the time being to the serious detriment of my personal influence. Pacifism and anti-nationalism find no champion in me. But our attack on the South African Boers was as impolitic and injurious as it was immoral and cowardly. The effect of our action was seen when Austria swept aside the conventions of the Treaty of Berlin by annexing Bosnia and the Herzegovina, when our ally Japan took unscrupulous possession of the kingdom of Korea, and when our dear friend Russia takes what action she pleases in Persia and Central Asia. Our chickens of 1899 and 1900 have come to roost as vultures, and the end of it is not yet by any means.

Let us not forget also that France took the same view as Germany of our conduct The steps which most turned French statesmen, French publicists, and the French people against us were the pouring of Indian troops into Natal while negotiations were going forward, thus forcing the Boer leaders to declare war, and then our parading that Declaration before the world as evidence that we were in the right. This was regarded by every Frenchman I met at that time as to the full as mean and contemptible as our whole proceedings had been high-handed. Not content with disregarding European public opinion in general, and French sentiment in particular, we went so far as to state, in nearly the whole of our press, that France was a decadent nation; that the French had lost all their high faculties; that thenceforward they were a factor which could be safely neglected in world policy. Nay, our journalists went so far as to implore their countrymen to boycott the International Exhibition in Paris – the finest Exhibition that ever was held, or probably ever will be held, under the capitalist régime.

As I had from early youth greatly admired French literature, French art, French culture, French vivacity, French initiative, French wit, French vigour, and I knew right well that these invaluable qualities were the salt of European civilisation, no matter what might be their accompanying defects, these attempts to represent France as played out and her people decadent made me furiously angry. They were malignant lies from end to end, and many of the men who uttered them and wrote them knew this quite well. As a persistent advocate, also, of a French alliance, and as one who bitterly regretted that the influence of our German Court had prevented us from calling a halt to Germany after the disaster of Sedan, I feared that these gross misrepresentations and insults sent across the Channel to one of the proudest and not the least touchy of nations might render impossible a close understanding and friendship between the two countries. What is more, I believe it would have done so but for the action of the late King Edward VII. Whatever the defects of that monarch may have been, it will, to my mind, ever be counted to him for righteousness that, at the very height of this international misunderstanding, he lost no opportunity of manifesting his friendship and his love for France; that he took the risk of a very bad reception from the people of Paris and all that might have followed thereupon in order to show his sympathy for France; and that he never rested until he had greatly helped, by all the pressure he could exert as Prince and King, to bring about the happy entente cordiale now existing with the French Republic.

It is strange to recall today all that was said and done on the other side during that ugly period. I rejoice to remember that I did my little best to abate the ill-feeling, Some well-known Frenchmen, friends of mine, came to London just then. They declared that England was all against them. I told them it was nothing of the kind; that France was more popular here, in spite of all the abuse by the arm-chair fire-eaters of the capitalist press, than any other country. They laughed at me. “Well,” I said, “you will admit that if chauvinism is likely to be rampant anywhere it is bound to show itself at a music hall.” They agreed. “Come with me, then,” I went on, “to the Alhambra tonight, if I can get seats, and see what happens when the tricolour flag is brought on the stage.” They accepted my invitation. I knew very well I risked nothing, for I was aware of what was occurring nightly. So they dined with me, and to the Alhambra we went. In the stage parade which was then on the bill, the flags of all nations were brought forward to the accompaniment of the national air of each country. Many of these flags were well received, but when the tricolour was waved to the strains of the Marseillaise, the whole audience burst out into enthusiastic cheering, and many of those present rose up in their places. “What do you think of that?” I asked. “Mais,” replied one of them who spoke English as well as I did, “il me semble que votre journalisme ici est one big humbug.”

And yet I ought not to speak contemptuously of English journalism, for at that very time the Morning Post printed two long letters from me, strongly protesting against the tone which was being adopted against France, and especially against the statements that she was decadent. I pointed out – this was twelve years ago – that, so far from being decadent, France still led the world in many departments of science and art; that a new life had been breathed into the people since the establishment of the Republic; that in spite of all scandal and all petty jealousies and class and religious hatreds, the feeling for the greatness, the glory, the dignity of France was growing all the time among her people; that the physical status of the population was steadily rising in every section; and that the young men of the new period, in town and country alike, were taking to those open-air games which their fathers had given up, and which we English had adopted and improved from France. Within fortyeight hours of the appearance of my second letter, cards from the editors of several of the great Paris papers, as well as from many private friends, lay upon my table. Much more important, independent Tories backed up my representations, and declared against this policy of detraction which had been pursued up to that time. And when full account is taken of Major Marchand and the Fashoda incident, all this lamentable misunderstanding was due mainly to the South African War. Fortunate is it that the mutual distrust has been overcome, and that the two most civilised nations in Europe have now resolved to make common cause against militarist aggression.

But nothing will ever wipe away the memory of that war for those who lived through it. The downright cowardice so often displayed by our troops, the neglect of all warnings from men of experience, the horrors of the concentration camps, the sacrifice of valuable lives to as little purpose as the losses in the fatal Walcheren expedition, – all remain a record of blundering fatuity unsurpassed in our annals. Many of those who fell were as strongly against the war as I was. One case struck me as very sad. Upon going down to St. James’s Park Station on the Underground one day, I saw a number of guardsmen of the reserve, some of whom I knew and spoke to, ranged up in line. Having chatted to those I was acquainted with while waiting for the train, and learned they were off, naturally not very eagerly, to South Africa to fight in a cause they strongly disliked, I turned round. Then the officer in charge addressed me by name. He was a man of title and wealth. “Why,” I said in surprise, “I thought you were dead against the war and had left the army.” As we were speaking we jumped into a carriage together. “I am as much against the war as ever I was, and I think Jameson and Willoughby ought to have been shot, but I am obliged to go out now others are going.” Poor fellow, he was shot through the head himself at Magersfontein. Thousands fell who held the same opinion as he did about the whole wretched business, and his life was of course no more valuable to the country than those of the men under his command.

My friend, Mr. George Cawston, who had as much to do with the Royal Chartered Company as anybody throughout its earlier stages, who possesses what I take to be quite an unequalled collection of documents and letters from all the leading personages in the business from Mr. Cecil Rhodes downwards, and who, to his honour be it said, opposed the whole shameful plot against the two Dutch Republics from the start, tells me the following of his own knowledge. The whole of the difficulties with President Kruger had been arranged by negotiation in the City, the final agreement having been come to at the Rothschilds’ offices, and a despatch accepted by the entire Cabinet had been prepared and sent off. All danger of war had been averted, and things would have settled down peaceably. This did not suit Mr. Chamberlain at all. He went down to Birmingham, and delivered a speech full of menace to the Boers.

Thereupon President Kruger decided that Mr. Chamberlain was the person with whom he had to reckon, and never ceased to arm, or to negotiate for complete harmony of action between the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in defence of Boer independence, from then onwards. This confirms what Greenwood told me at the time as coming direct from the Cabinet, namely, that Mr. Chamberlain bullied the whole of them, and his threats to resign always ended in the surrender of the majority. Anything more cowardly and disgraceful it is impossible to conceive. But the truth is they all thought that, even if it came to hostilities, it would be a nice easy little war, and success would wipe out all memory of unscrupulous or pusillanimous conduct. Not success but practical defeat achieved this. Even the Committee appointed to examine into all this wholesale political rascality burked the inquiry they were appointed to conduct, and the true history of this dirty business has still to be written.

And the middle and the end of the struggle were as bad as the beginning. Victory under such circumstances, and celebrated as it was, seemed even more humiliating than defeat. The display of hysterical and even maniacal joy and exuberance on Mafeking night in London surpassed in unseemly indecency anything I could have imagined. The whole manifestation spoke of a people in decay. Our fathers and grandfathers were infinitely less demonstrative, and, though not averse from strong liquor, far more sober in their rejoicings, when the news came of Trafalgar or Waterloo. It was nothing short of an orgy. I myself saw girls of respectable appearance, and ordinarily, no doubt, of modest demeanour, carrying on with men whom they did not know after a fashion that women of the loosest life would have hesitated to adopt. This, too, early in the day and in the open street.

As night came on matters grew worse, until it really did seem as if London had gone mad. Disaster, to be just, had been taken coolly, but even temporary success on a small scale was too exciting for these neurotic modern inhabitants of the great and ancient city which had welcomed the return of Fairfax’s conquering citizen army with stern and calm enthusiasm, and had withstood Elizabeth and Cromwell at the height of their power. The rejoicings at the peace were, happily, nothing to this. And what a peace! The full truth about it will probably never be known. The Boer side of the story has not yet been made public. Certain it is, that the English were much more eager for a settlement than the Dutch farmers, greatly as these latter had suffered. The efforts made to find the man who was known to possess the confidence of the most dashing of the Boer leaders, De Wet, and the eagerness displayed to pay such compensation as was demanded, showed to all who knew what was taking place how afraid were our rulers of the long, dragging, costly and dangerous guerilla warfare which would follow if the Dutch farmers, infuriated by the inhuman treatment of prisoners, men, women, and children alike, had sought refuge in their mountain fastnesses, already provisioned and ammunitioned for their reception. Happily peace was made; but our prestige as a fighting people had gone, and our character for uprightness and magnanimity had been irreparably destroyed. And the outcome of it all is that the Dutch are now obtaining an ascendancy in South Africa which they could never have attained under any other circumstances, and which they will keep until the native races understand that the future must be to them, and organise and educate themselves to secure it. [1]


1. It should be borne in mind that the Kaffirs in the Rand Mines are being treated at this very moment after a similar fashion to that described by ancient writers as the fate of the miserable slaves in the mines of Laurium and Sicily. They are worked literally to death in a few short years. And this under a Liberal Government!

Last updated on 1.11.2007