Dora Montefiore

From a Victorian to a Modern

Suffragist and Socialist Work in S. Africa

THE “Themistocles” reached Melbourne on 31st January, 1912, and there I met many old friends, and the socialists gave me a send-off at their rooms, Hyatt being in the chair, and Scott Bennett speaking. On the 9th we reached Fremantle, where another socialist ovation awaited me; my health being proposed by Miller, one of the survivors of the Eureka Stockade business, after which they sang, “For she’s a jolly good fellow.” I also met Scaddon, the Labour Premier of Western Australia, who, on my arrival a year before, had cabled to me, asking me to go to W.A. and organise the women of that colony in the interests of the Labour Party; at the same time offering me a very handsome salary for my work. This, of course, was before he knew that, as a Socialist, I was bound to take up a very critical attitude on the programme of the Labour Party, which had not even then declared for the socialisation of the means of production and distribution. In my reply, regretting that I could not see my way to take up the suggested work, I pointed out this and other failures on the part of the Australian Labour Party to form a really class-conscious party, prepared to fight capitalism. It was interesting to me now to meet him and have a talk on these subjects, but I realised, while talking, that he had little vision of what a real Labour Party might be able to initiate and carry through.

We reached Durban on 23rd February, and I was met there by a party of Socialist comrades headed by H. Norrie, who told me that a room had been taken for me at the Hotel Edward, on the beach, and that a meeting of welcome had been arranged for me that evening. The next day I spoke with the comrades at their weekly meeting in the gardens in front of the Town Hall. Durban is, of course, semi-tropical in its climate, and February being late summer, the climate was very enervating, but in winter Durban beach is a great resort for jaded Rand dwellers. The bathing and refreshment facilities have been developed on the most modern lines, and the town buildings and hotels are very up-to-date. From Durban I went to stay for a day or two with some friends at Maritzburg, where I met, among others, a Dr. Vremundlich, who knew of my work on The New Age during the Boer War. On the 28th I left for Johannesburg, and was met at Park Station by a large contingent of Rand Socialists, among them Crawford, whom I had last seen in Sydney. He, with Mrs. Fitzgerald, were editing The Voice of Labour, and running a printing business. During my three months’ stay on the Rand I wrote regularly for their paper, and helped them in Socialist propaganda. I found in S. Africa, as I had found in Australia, much heart-searching about the militarism which the authorities were attempting to introduce; and the workers were fearing that some form of conscription might be enforced. I had not been in Joburg many days before a Mr. Helps, of the Labour Party, interviewed me on the subject of an anti-militarist demonstration, but I told him I had been too short a time in the country to feel justified in placing myself at the head of any movement, though I would give him help if the movement were conducted on Socialist class-war lines. As his idea was to get up the demonstration in conjunction with bourgeois members of other parties, he soon saw that my presence on his platform would not be desirable. On 6th March a formal Socialist reception was given me at West’s Rooms, which were crowded for the occasion. Comrade Crawford was in the chair, and I spoke for over an hour, giving my experience as an international Socialist. At this reception I met Mr. and Mrs. Wybergh, prominent members of the Labour Party, and later on Mrs. Wybergh stayed with me in England during the war. Mr. Cresswell was at that time the chairman of the Labour Party of S. Africa, and there were many interesting personalities, such as Andrews Percy Smith, Bains, etc., connected with it. I found people at Johannesburg extremely hospitable and kind, and very anxious that I should see everything of interest about the place and neighbourhood. One of my visits was to the Premier Mine, where the Cullinan diamond was found, and where I saw all the processes of the mining of diamonds, from the first explosions which loosened the “blue ground” to the final locking away in safes of the day’s yield. These explosions in an open vortex-shaped mine, occur twice in the 24 hours, at noon and at midnight. We heard them both, but only watched the process at noon. A signal is given and the native workers, mostly clad in sacks, with holes for the aim and neck, begin swarming out of the mine, like a colony of scrambling ants. Then comes the deep bo-o-om, and the upspringing fountain of stones and dust, which takes some time to settle; and then back into the mine swarm the ants, and begin feverishly to shovel the “blue ground” into skips which run on an endless wire rope, and carry the rough lumps to the upper works where the process of extracting the diamonds is carried on. My object in going over these and other works was not so much to see how diamonds were mined, as to study the conditions of native labour; and as in most places I found the native workers were separated from their families and forced to live in compounds, into several of which I penetrated (though warned that white women went there at their own risk as to what they saw and heard), I did not form a very high opinion of the capitalists who were making enormous dividends out of the exploitation and degradation of their fellow men. I went down a gold mine in Johannesburg, and I studied the appalling statistics of the curse of miners’ phthisis, which falls heavily on both black and white workers in these mines; and again I write with full consciousness of the heavy indictment I am making, that, as all sooner or later is paid for in this world, when the day of reckoning comes between the black races and the white, the descendants of the present exploiters will have to answer for the greed and inhumanity of their forefathers.

I made friends while in Johannesburg with three very delightful women, head mistresses of private girls’ schools—one a Miss Lawrence, a sister to the well known Miss Lawrence of Roedene; and the other two, Miss Fletcher and Miss Johnson, who have a large girls’ school at Parktown, where some of the girls belonging to the best families on the Rand were studying. I went in and out of these schools many times and at all hours, and one day, after I had been giving Miss Fletcher’s girls a little talk about the George Washington school in New York, I said to Miss Fletcher, “I notice you have only Kaffir boys as servants. Have you no women servants at all in the school?” “None,” she replied. “But I should have thought that no parents would have allowed their daughters to come to you as boarders under such conditions. The risk must be very great at times, as I have received such warnings, and been told such dreadful stories about the danger of walking about the Parktown roads after dusk.”

Miss Fletcher smiled and replied, “We have never had any trouble with our boys. They always behave as gentlemen, and we treat them as such. If one of them happens to be in the passage when I am crossing to my bath, he turns round till I have passed. The ordinary Kaffir or Zulu is a highly moral man. It is only when he is inflamed with vile drink (which it is illegal to sell to them) that trouble sometimes arises, but most of these boys have been in our employment for years, and we respect them just as they respect us.”

This seemed to me as fine a testimony as anyone could wish for as to the average of sex morality among the natives of S. Africa.

One of my most interesting experiences on the Rand was a debate, which was arranged in the Pretoria Town Hall, between Mr. Vere Stent, the editor of the Pretoria News and myself. Mr. Stent was the challenger. The Pretoria Socialist Society took up the challenge, and asked me to be his opponent, and I agreed. The debate was held on 30th May, and the Mayor was in the chair. We had each 20 minutes for our opening speeches; then 10 minutes, and finally five minutes. In my opening speech I took a quotation from a Bluebook on economic conditions in S. Africa, in which it was stated that under existing social conditions it was compulsory that from time to time both capital and labour should be unemployed; and I pointed out that though I was not so much concerned about the unemployment of capital, which had no stomach to feel hunger, yet I was much concerned about the compulsory unemployment of labour, which suffered in consequence from hunger and misery of every sort. I therefore believed that the socialisation of the means of life would lead to a fairer distribution of the wealth which labour produced, and I gave, necessarily, a very brief sketch of what that socialisation involved. Mr. Stent, when it came to his turn, poured forth a very incoherent and garbled account of Kaffir Communism, which he had evidently just been reading up, and implored his audience not to be led away by theories which only led backwards to barbarism, which he held Kaffir civilisation to be. When I rose for the second time I pointed out that Mr. Vere Stent’s address in no ways replied to the points I had raised, more especially to the point on compulsory unemployment under the present system of society, which capitalism itself acknowledged in its own Bluebook; that no one in their senses could compare a very primitive form of Communism, where the only industry was husbandry, the only tools employed were a few wooden picks and spades, and the only workers a few wives, with the complicated industrial system of our own days, when agriculture, industry, transport, etc., were ripe for socialisation; and I begged him in his second round to reply specially on this question of unemployment. But not a word of reasoned reply, worthy of .a debate, could be got out of Mr. Were Stent, who evidently had read nothing about modern socialism, but was mumbling the husks of primitive communism; and his 10 minutes was taken up with denouncing what no one nowadays was prepared to defend, except as a valuable stage in evolution. Again I reminded him, during my last five minutes, that I was waiting anxiously for an answer, but as it did not come during Mr. Stent’s last five minutes, the Mayor put the subject to the vote, and nine-tenths of the audience voted for the. Socialist affirmative. Though the triumph for Socialism was overwhelming, and the Mayor, while congratulating me had a wry face, I only regretted that I had not had a better adversary. The next day, on my return to Johannesburg, I had a very interesting meeting at the Jewish Workers’ Union, when I spoke of Jewish industrial organisations I had come across in various parts of the world. I also addressed whilst on the Rand, two or three meetings on the woman suffrage question, but whilst in S. Africa my lectures on that head were always given under the title of “Motherhood in the State.

On 15th June I returned to Durban, where there was shortly to be a parliamentary election, and I had promised to help Comrade Norrie in his fight as a Socialist against a Liberal and a Labour candidate. Eventually I was appointed his election agent, and on the 28th, election day, acted as one of the scrutineers of votes in the Durban Town Hall, the first time, I believe, a woman had acted in that capacity in the Southern Hemisphere. The Labour candidate was returned.

Lever Bros. had on the outskirts of Durban one of their large soap factories, and I managed to get an order to see over it. I take from my diary the following items: “Went over Sunlight Soap Works; girls’ minimum wage 10/-, maximum from 18/- to £1. One middle-aged woman I spoke to, who was wrapping up toilet soap, said it was not a living wage. There were a large number of coloured boys and men employed, and I did not see more than a dozen white men in the works. All the box-making was done by coloured boys. White girls were in some cases tending printing machines, with a Kaffir boy helping. In these departments an eight hours’ day was the rule, but the white engineers were working an 11 hours’ day. One engineer I spoke to had only been out two weeks from home. He said that, given the cost of living and the conditions of work, he was not better off than at home.”

During this visit to Durban I spoke under the auspices of the Women’s Enfranchisement League, and had a very enthusiastic meeting. On 18th July I left for Cape Town, where I had a series of engagements to speak for Woman Suffrage, and found my first meeting billed all over the town. Mrs. Solly, Mrs. Murray and Miss Molteno were some of the Suffrage leaders at the Cape, and at my first meeting on the 24th, Mr. Greer, a barrister, took the chair, and Sir Rose Innes and his wife were among the audience. In the intervals of my meetings, of which I held about half a dozen, both on Suffrage and on Socialism, I was shown over Cape Town and the surrounding country, spending a day with friends at Simon’s Bay, another day at the Solly’s place at Sir Lowrie’s Pass in the Hottentot Holland mountains, where the scenery and wild flowers are most wonderful. Then a day at Groote Schuur, the beautiful home of Cecil Rhodes, and now the town residence of the S. African Premiers. The place is crammed with the most exquisite old Dutch furniture, and I noticed in Rhodes’ bedroom that the only picture of a woman was that of an old shrivelled native, one of the wives of Lobengula’s father, who had been of help to Rhodes in his peace negotiations. Rather an interesting touch, it seemed to me. Rhodes did not die in this room. He said he felt suffocated at Groote Schuur, and must be moved down to the sea at Muizenburg. Here, in a little cottage, one side of which was almost removed to let in the air he needed, he passed away, after leaving the indelible impress of his personality, for good or for evil, on the country of his adoption.

On 24th August I left Cape Town with much regret and travelled in the “Prinz Regent,” a German ship, to England, which reached England on 14th September. The outstanding event of importance for me this autumn was that I went as delegate from the British Socialist Party to the Basle Peace Congress in November. It was advertised as a three days’ Congress, but all the proceedings were hurried over in one day, Monday, 25th November, by the passing without debate of what was called a “Peace Manifesto,” which I saw at once when I read it in French and German, was a lengthy climb down, signifying nothing, and not mentioning a general strike in the event of one of the European Powers declaring war. The Congress met at 10 a.m. Adler read the manifesto in German, and Jaures in French. It had not been translated into English, but Keir Hardie read his version of it in what he called a résumé, or summing up of its contents. But what he said did not represent the manifesto. The English translation was only put before the English comrades 10 minutes before it was put to the Congress, and a passage about recent industrial victories in England was mangled and slurred over. This made me very indignant, and I tried to get a hearing on the point of order; but by the standing orders no member of the Congress was allowed to speak; my point of order could only be put through Keir Hardie, and he would not put it. Many delegates from other countries were as exasperated as I was at having travelled to Basle for the express purpose of taking part in a Socialist Congress only to find themselves gagged, and feeling that they might as well have stayed at home, and not have wasted proletarian funds in appearing as sham delegates. The day before, being a Sunday, we had all marched as demonstrators to the Cathedral, of all places, where Jaures held forth in his usual florid periods from the pulpit. It was all done with the purpose of making the authorities believe that we were good boys and girls and would not in any organised way interfere with the plans of the War Lords. Hence the debacle of the International Socialist Party in August, 1914. In that Sunday Demonstration I walked between Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxembourg, and I told them something of what I had gone through in Australia and in S. Africa in my anti-militarist campaign. On hearing about the compulsory military training of all Australian and New Zealand boys over 12 years of age, Clara Zetkin arranged an evening meeting in one of the large halls in Basle in order that I might put before an international audience these facts of military preparation on the part of the British Empire, which, though known to European and other Governments, were not generally known among the people. The meeting was packed to the doors; I spoke in English, and Comrade Balibanoff translated with most wonderful fluency and fidelity. On my return to London I gave the Daily Herald an account of the Congress, emphasising what a fiasco I considered it was from the point of view of making clear to capitalist Governments that there was solidarity in the great Socialist International Movement, even to the point of using direct action in case of war being declared. At the next Executive Meeting of the British Socialist Party, at which I and another comrade had to report on the Basle Congress, Comrade Hyndman, with whom and his wife I had had a long-standing friendship, made a violent attack on me for my action at the Congress, and for writing to the Daily Herald about what went on there, and for criticising the terms of the Manifesto. I replied, restating my grounds for what I had done in the interests of the international proletariat; and he then and there dictated to the Secretary of the Int. Soc. Party a letter, as coming from the B.S.P. Executive, congratulating the International Bureau on the success of the Congress, and on the terms of the Manifesto. As Hyndman’s will appeared to be supreme in the Executive, there was nothing for me to do but resign, and on reaching home I wrote a letter resigning from the Executive of the B.S.P., and from the Party. I only returned to the Party after the split caused by the war, when Hyndman and his Imperialist followers seceded from the B.S.P. and supported wholeheartedly a war, which he, and I suppose they, declared WAS NOT AN IMPERIALIST WAR. I still cannot help thinking that subsequent events justified my conduct at Basle and afterwards. Who can say what effect a firm international socialist stand might have had on the Councils of the War Lords and War Financiers in the different countries.

At the end of February, 1913, I went once more to stay with my American Socialist friends in Florence, and found the Elbridge Rands—a young couple from California, he a nephew of Mrs. Herron’s—my fellow guests. I mention them here, because it was Mrs. Rand who eventually shared my adventures in Ireland, when we both were arrested on the charge of kidnapping children from their homes! My propaganda time during the year was filled up with speaking in various parts of England, mostly on anti-militarism, at the Hyde Park Demonstration on May day, and at various times in Trafalgar Square. I was a member of the Anti-militarist Committee and at their request wrote a pamphlet for them. In the autumn I spoke at a series of meetings which had been arranged at Swansea, Pontardowie, etc., and later on I, most unexpectedly, tumbled into the Irish adventure, which I have already alluded to, in which Mrs. Rand and I were both involved.

Next: Chapter XII. Experiences in Dublin