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From Capetown to Ladysmith: An Unfinished Record of the South African War By G. W. Steevens Characters: 8129

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Burghersdorp, Oct. 14.

The village lies compact and clean-cut, a dot in the wilderness. No fields or orchards break the transition from man to nature; step out of the street and you are at once on rock-ribbed kopje or raw veldt. As you stand on one of the bare lines of hill that squeeze it into a narrow valley, Burghersdorp is a chequer-board of white house, green tree, and grey iron roof; beyond its edges everything is the changeless yellow brown of South African landscape.

Go down into the streets, and Burghersdorp is an ideal of Arcady. The broad, dusty, unmetalled roads are steeped in sunshine. The houses are all one-storeyed, some brick, some mud, some the eternal corrugated iron, most faced with whitewash, many fronted with shady verandahs. As blinds against the sun they have lattices of trees down every street-white-blossoming laburnum, poplars, sycamores.

Despite verandahs and trees, the sunshine soaks down into every corner-genially, languorously warm. All Burghersdorp basks. You see half-a-dozen yoke of bullocks with a waggon, standing placidly in the street, too lazy even to swish their tails against the flies; pass by an hour later, and they are still there, and the black man lounging by the leaders has hardly shifted one leg; pass by at evening, and they have moved on three hundred yards, and are resting again. In the daytime hens peck and cackle in every street; at nightfall the bordering veldt hums with crickets and bullfrogs. At morn come a flight of locusts-first, yellow-white scouts whirring down every street, then a pelting snowstorm of them high up over the houses, spangling the blue heaven. But Burghersdorp cared nothing. "There is nothing for them," said a farmer, with cosy satisfaction; "the frost killed everything last week."

British and Dutch salute and exchange the news with lazy mutual tolerance. The British are storekeepers and men of business; the Boers ride in from their farms. They are big, bearded men, loose of limb, shabbily dressed in broad-brimmed hats, corduroy trousers, and brown shoes; they sit their ponies at a rocking-chair canter erect and easy; unkempt, rough, half-savage, their tanned faces and blue eyes express lazy good-nature, sluggish stubbornness, dormant fierceness. They ask the news in soft, lisping Dutch that might be a woman's; but the lazy imperiousness of their bearing stamps them as free men. A people hard to rouse, you say-and as hard, when roused, to subdue.

A loitering Arcady-and then you hear with astonishment that Burghersdorp is famous throughout South Africa as a stronghold of bitter Dutch partisanship. "Rebel Burghersdorp" they call it in the British centres, and Capetown turns anxious ears towards it for the first muttering of insurrection. What history its stagnant annals record is purely anti-British. Its two principal monuments, after the Jubilee fountain, are the tombstone of the founder of the Dopper Church-the Ironsides of South Africa-and a statue with inscribed pedestal complete put up to commemorate the introduction of the Dutch tongue into the Cape Parliament. Malicious comments add that Afrikander patriotism swindled the stone-mason out of £30, and it is certain that one of the gentlemen whose names appear thereon most prominently, now languishes in jail for fraud. Leaving that point for thought, I find that the rest of Burghersdorp's history consists in the fact that the Afrikander Bond was founded here in 1881. And at this moment Burghersdorp is out-Bonding the Bond: the reverend gentleman who edits its Dutch paper and dictates its Dutch policy sluices out weekly vials of wrath upon Hofmeyr and Schreiner for machinating to keep patriot Afrikanders off the oppressing Briton's throat.

I went to see this reverend pastor, who is professor of a school of Dopper theology. He was short, but thick-set, with a short but shaggy grey beard; in deference to his calling, he wore a collar over his gr

ey flannel shirt, but no tie. Nevertheless, he turned out a very charming, courteous old gentleman, well informed, and his political bias was mellowed with an irresistible sense of humour. He took his own side strongly, and allowed that it was most proper for a Briton to be equally strong on his own. And this is more or less what he said:-

"Information? No, I shall not give you any; you are the enemy, you see. Ha, ha! They call me rebel. But I ask you, my friend, is it natural that I-I, Hollander born, Dutch Afrikander since '60-should be as loyal to the British Government as a Britisher should be? No, I say; one can be loyal only to one's own country. I am law-abiding subject of the Queen, and that is all that they can ask of me.

"How will the war go? That it is impossible, quite impossible, to say. The Boer might run away at the first shot and he might fight to the death. All troops are liable to panic; even regular troop; much more than irregular. But I have been on commando many times with Boer, and I cannot think him other than brave man. Fighting is not his business; he wishes always to be back on his farm with his people; but he is brave man.

"I look on this war as the sequel of 1881. I have told them all these years, it is not finish; war must come. Mr Gladstone, whom I look on as greatest British statesman, did wrong in 1881. If he had kept promises and given back country before the war, we would have been grateful; but he only give it after war, and we were not grateful. And English did not feel that they were generous, only giving independence after war, though they had a large army in Natal; they have always wished to recommence.

"The trouble is because the Boer have never had confidence in the English Government, just as you have never had confidence in us. The Boer have no feeling about Cape Colony, but they have about Natal; they were driven out of it, and they think it still their own country. Then you took the diamond-fields from the Free State. You gave the Free State independence only because you did not want trouble of Basuto war; then we beat the Basutos-I myself was there, and it was very hard, and it lasted three years-and then you would not let us take Basutoland. Then came annexation of the Transvaal; up to that I was strong advocate of federation, but after that I was one of founders of the Bond. After that the Afrikander trusted Rhodes-not I, though; I always write I distrust Rhodes-and so came the Jameson raid. Now how could we have confidence after all this in British Government?

"I do not think Transvaal Government have been wise; I have many times told them so. They made great mistake when they let people come in to the mines. I told them, 'This gold will be your ruin; to remain independent you must remain poor.' But when that was done, what could they do? If they gave the franchise, then the Republic is governed by three four men from Johannesburg, and they will govern it for their own pocket. The Transvaal Boer would rather be British colony than Johannesburg Republic.

"Well, well; it is the law of South Africa that the Boer drive the native north and the English drive the Boer north. But now the Boer can go north no more; two things stop him: the tsetse fly and the fever. So if he must perish, it is his duty-yes, I, minister, say it is his duty-to perish fighting.

"But here in the Colony we have no race hatred. Not between man and man; but when many men get together there is race hatred. If we fight here on this border it is civil war-the same Dutch and English are across the Orange as here in Albert. My son is on commando in Free State; the other day he ride thirteen hours and have no food for two days. I say to him, 'You are Free State burgher; you have the benefit of the country; your wife is Boer girl; it is your duty to fight for it.' I am law-abiding British subject, but I hope my son will not be hurt. You, sir, I wish you good luck-good luck for yourself and your corresponding. Not for your side: that I cannot wish you."

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