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The War in South Africa, Its Cause and Conduct By Arthur Conan Doyle Characters: 25066

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

This is not an attempt to write the history of the war, which I have done elsewhere, but only to touch upon those various points upon which attempts have been made to mislead continental and American opinion. I will endeavour to treat each of these subjects in turn, not in the spirit of a lawyer preparing a brief, but with an honest endeavour to depict the matter as it is, even when I venture to differ from the action either of the British Government or of the generals in the field. In this chapter I will deal with the question of making peace, and examine how far the British are to blame for not having brought those negotiations which have twice been opened to a successful conclusion.

The outset of the war saw the Boers aggressive and victorious. They flocked into British territory, drove the small forces opposed to them into entrenched positions, and held them there at Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking. At the same time they drove back at Colenso and at Magersfontein the forces which were sent to relieve these places. During this long period of their predominance from October 1899 to February 1900, there was no word of peace. On the contrary, every yard of British territory which was occupied was instantly annexed either by the Transvaal or by the Orange Free State. This is admitted and beyond dispute. What becomes then of the theory of a defensive war, and what can they urge against the justice which awarded the same fate to the land of the Boers when it in turn was occupied by us? The Boers did not use their temporary victory in any moderate spirit. At the end of January 1900, Dr. Leyds, while on his visit to Berlin, said:

'I believe that England will have to give us back a good part of the territory formerly snatched away from us.... The Boers will probably demand the cession of the strip of coast between Durban and Delagoa Bay, with the harbours of Lucia and Kosi. The Orange Free State and the Transvaal are to be united and to form one State, together with parts of Natal and the northern districts of Cape Colony.'-(Daily News Berlin correspondent, February 1, March 16, 1900.)

They were to go to the sea, and nothing but going to the sea would satisfy them. The war would end when their flag flew over Cape Town. But there came a turn of the tide. The resistance of the garrisons, the tenacity of the relieving forces, and the genius of Lord Roberts altered the whole situation. The Boers were driven back to the first of their capitals. Then for the first time there came from them those proposals for peace, which were never heard when the game was going in their favour. Here is President Kruger's telegram:



'Bloemfontein: March 5, 1900.

'The blood and the tears of the thousands who have suffered by this war, and the prospect of all the moral and economic ruin with which South Africa is now threatened, make it necessary for both belligerents to ask themselves dispassionately, and as in the sight of the Triune God, for what they are fighting, and whether the aim of each justifies all this appalling misery and devastation.

'With this object, and in view of the assertions of various British statesmen to the effect that this war was begun and is being carried on with the set purpose of undermining Her Majesty's authority in South Africa, and of setting up an Administration over all South Africa independent of Her Majesty's Government, we consider it our duty solemnly to declare that this war was undertaken solely as a defensive measure to safeguard the threatened independence of the South African Republic, and is only continued in order to secure and safeguard the incontestable independence of both Republics as Sovereign International States, and to obtain the assurance that those of Her Majesty's subjects who have taken part with us in this war shall suffer no harm whatsoever in person or property.

'On these conditions, but on these conditions alone, are we now, as in the past, desirous of seeing peace re-established in South Africa, and of putting an end to the evils now reigning over South Africa; while, if Her Majesty's Government is determined to destroy the independence of the Republics, there is nothing left to us and to our people but to persevere to the end in the course already begun, in spite of the overwhelming pre-eminence of the British Empire, confident that that God who lighted the unextinguishable fire of the love of freedom in the hearts of ourselves and of our fathers will not forsake us, but will accomplish His work in us and in our descendants.

'We hesitated to make this declaration earlier to Your Excellency, as we feared that as long as the advantage was always on our side, and as long as our forces held defensive positions far in Her Majesty's colonies, such a declaration might hurt the feelings of honour of the British people; but now that the prestige of the British Empire may be considered to be assured by the capture of one of our forces by Her Majesty's troops, and that we are thereby forced to evacuate other positions which our forces had occupied, that difficulty is over, and we can no longer hesitate clearly to inform your Government and people in the sight of the whole civilised world why we are fighting, and on what conditions we are ready to restore peace.'

Here is Lord Salisbury's reply:

'Foreign Office: March 11, 1900.

'I have the honour to acknowledge Your Honours' telegram dated the 5th of March from Bloemfontein, of which the purport is principally to demand that Her Majesty's Government shall recognise the "incontestable independence" of the South African Republic and Orange Free State "as Sovereign International States," and to offer, on those terms, to bring the war to a conclusion.

'In the beginning of October last peace existed between Her Majesty and the two Republics under the Conventions which then were in existence. A discussion had been proceeding for some months between Her Majesty's Government and the South African Republic, of which the object was to obtain redress for certain very serious grievances under which British residents in the South African Republic were suffering. In the course of those negotiations the South African Republic had, to the knowledge of Her Majesty's Government, made considerable armaments, and the latter had, consequently, taken steps to provide corresponding reinforcements to the British garrisons of Cape Town and Natal. No infringement of the rights guaranteed by the Conventions had up to that point taken place on the British side. Suddenly, at two days' notice, the South African Republic, after issuing an insulting ultimatum, declared war upon Her Majesty, and the Orange Free State, with whom there had not even been any discussion, took a similar step. Her Majesty's dominions were immediately invaded by the two Republics, siege was laid to three towns within the British frontier, a large portion of the two colonies was overrun, with great destruction to property and life, and the Republics claimed to treat the inhabitants of extensive portions of Her Majesty's dominions as if those dominions had been annexed to one or other of them. In anticipation of these operations, the South African Republic had been accumulating for many years past military stores on an enormous scale, which by their character could only have been intended for use against Great Britain.

'Your Honours make some observations of a negative character upon the object with which these preparations were made. I do not think it necessary to discuss the question you have raised. But the result of these preparations, carried on with great secrecy, has been that the British Empire has been compelled to confront an invasion which has entailed upon the Empire a costly war and the loss of thousands of precious lives. This great calamity has been the penalty which Great Britain has suffered for having in recent years acquiesced in the existence of the two Republics.

'In view of the use to which the two Republics have put the position which was given to them, and the calamities which their unprovoked attack has inflicted upon Her Majesty's dominions, Her Majesty's Government can only answer Your Honours' telegram by saying that they are not prepared to assent to the independence either of the South African Republic or of the Orange Free State.'

Is there any sane man of any nation who can contend that a British statesman could possibly have taken any other view? From the firing of the first shot the irresistible logic of events showed that either the Republics must dominate Africa or they must cease to exist. For the sparing of the Orange Free State there might, I think, be a fair argument, but they had put themselves out of court by annexing every foot of British territory which they could lay their hands upon. For the sparing of the Transvaal there could be no possible reason. Had that State been reconstituted we should instantly have been faced once more with the Franchise question, the Uitlander question, the corrupt oligarchy, the anti-British conspiracy, and everything which we had spent so much blood and money to set right. The desperate situation from which the British power was only just emerging was so fresh in our minds that we could not feel justified in leaving the possibility-indeed the certainty-of its recurrence to our children. Remember, you who judge us, that we had done all this before. Once before within our own memories we had patched up an inconclusive peace, and left these people the power to hurt us. And what had come of it? Eternal trouble ending in a great war which strained the resources of the Empire. Could we be asked to do the same again? Would any nation on earth have done the same again? From the day of the signing of peace we should know that we had an implacable and formidable foe to the north of us, nursing his wrath and preparing his strength for the day when he might strike us at an advantage. Our colonies would lie ever in the shadow of its menace. Who can blame us for deciding that the job should be done now in such a way that it should never, so far as we could help it, need to be done once more?

Such was the end of the first negotiations for peace. The war was resumed, and in time the second capital of the Boers was taken and President Kruger withdrew to Europe, leaving South Africa in the welter to which he had reduced it. Then, for the second time, negotiations for peace were opened on the initiative of General Botha, which led to a meeting upon February 28, 1901, between Kitchener and Botha. Kitchener had already explained that for the reasons given above the restoration of independence was impossible, and the negotiations were carried through on that understanding. Here is Lord Kitchener's own account of the interview and of the points at issue:

[Telegram.]'Pretoria: March 1, 1901, 2.20 P.M.

'28th February.-I have had a long interview with Botha, who showed very good feeling and seemed anxious to bring about peace. He asked for information on a number of subjects which he said that he should submit to his Government and people, and if they agreed he should visit Orange River Colony and get them to agree. They should all then hand in their arms and finish the war. He told me that they could go on for some time, and that he was not sure of being able to bring about peace without independence. He tried very hard for some kind of independence, but I declined to discuss such a point, and said that a modified form of independence would be most dangerous and likely to lead to war in the future. Subject was then dropped, and-

'Firstly.-The nature of future government of Colonies asked about. He wanted more details than were given by Colonial Secretary, and I said that, subject to correction from home, I understood that when hostilities ceased military guard would be replaced by Crown Colony administration, consisting of nominated Executive, with elected assembly to advise administration, to be followed after a period by representative government. He would have liked representative government at once, but seemed satisfied with above.

'Secondly.-Whether a Boer would be able to have a rifle to protect him from native? I said I thought he would be by a licence and on registration.

'Thirdly.-He asked whether Dutch language would be allowed? I said that English

and Dutch would, I thought, have equal rights. He expressed hope that officials dealing with farmers would know Dutch.

'Fourthly.-The Kaffir question. This turned at once on franchise of Kaffirs, and a solution seemed to be that franchise should not be given to Kaffirs until after representative government was granted to Colonies. Orange Free State laws for Kaffirs were considered good.

'Fifthly.-That Dutch Church property should remain untouched.

'Sixthly.-Public trusts and orphan funds to be left intact. He asked whether British Government, in taking over the assets of Republics, would also take over legal debts. This he made rather a strong point of, and he intended it to include debts legally contracted since the war began. He referred to notes issued amounting to less than a million.

'Seventhly.-He asked if any war tax would be imposed on farmers? I said I thought not.

'Eighthly.-When would prisoners of war return?

'Ninthly.-He referred to pecuniary assistance to repair burnt farms, and enable farmers to start afresh. I said I thought some assistance would be given.

'Tenthly.-Amnesty to all at end of war. We spoke of Colonials who joined Republics, and he seemed not adverse to their being disfranchised.

'I arranged with him that I should write and let him know the view of the Government on these points. All I said during the interview was qualified by being subject to confirmation from home. He was anxious to get an answer soon.'

There followed some correspondence between Lord Kitchener, Sir Alfred Milner, and Mr. Chamberlain upon the exact terms which could be given to Botha. They ended in the following offer, which was submitted to him upon March 7. That, in consideration of a complete military surrender,

'1. There should be a complete amnesty for all bona fide acts of war for all burghers of the Republics. In the case of Colonial rebels, if they returned to their Colonies some inquiry must be held on their conduct.

'2. All prisoners to be at once sent back.

'3. Crown Colony government to be given as soon as possible; this in turn to change to representative government, as in all other free British possessions. The courts of law to be independent of the government.

'4. The Dutch and English languages to be put upon an equality.

'5. That the Government should help to replace the farmers on their farms, to restore their buildings, should pledge itself not to specially tax them, and should pay as an act of grace one million pounds to meet the debt incurred by the Republican governments to their own people during the war.

'6. That the burghers be allowed sporting fire-arms.

'7. That the Kaffirs should have the protection of the law, but should not have the vote.

'In conclusion,' says Lord Kitchener, 'I must inform your honour that if the terms are not accepted after a reasonable delay for consideration, they must be regarded as cancelled.'

But the wise and chivalrous Botha was overruled by the men around him, many of whom had little to lose by a continuance of the struggle. It was evident that he did not himself consider independence vital, since he had gravely discussed terms which were based upon loss of independence. But other influences had been brought to bear upon him, and this was his reply-a reply which has already cost the lives of so many of each side:

'I have the honour to acknowledge receipt of Your Excellency's letter stating what steps Your Excellency's Government is prepared to take in the event of a general and total cessation of hostilities. I have advised my Government of Your Excellency's said letter; but, after the mutual exchange of views at our interview at Middelburg on 28th February last, it will certainly not surprise Your Excellency to know that I do not feel disposed to recommend that the terms of the said letter shall have the earnest consideration of my Government. I may add also that my Government and my chief officers here entirely agree to my views.'

It will be observed that in this reply Botha bases his refusal upon his own views as expressed in the original interview with Kitchener; and we have his own authority, therefore, to show that they were not determined by any changes which Chamberlain may have made in the terms-a favourite charge of that gentleman's enemies.

It is impossible to say how, short of independence, Great Britain could have improved upon these terms, and it has already been shown that to offer independence would mean having to fight the war over again. It has been suggested that Great Britain might have offered a definite date upon which representative institutions should come in force, but such a promise must be disingenuous, for it must evidently depend not upon a date, but upon the state of the country. The offers of loans to the farmers towards the stocking and rebuilding the farms were surely generous to our defeated foes, and, indeed, it is clear now that in some respects our generosity went too far, and that the interests of the Empire would have suffered severely had these terms been accepted. To have given more would certainly seem not to have offered peace, but to have implored it.

Whatever the final terms of peace may prove to be, it is to be earnestly hoped that 40,000 male prisoners will not be returned, as a matter of right, without any guarantee for their future conduct. It is also much to be desired that the bastard taal language, which has no literature and is almost as unintelligible to a Hollander as to an Englishman, will cease to be officially recognised. These two omissions may repay in the long run for weary months of extra war since, upon Botha's refusal, the British Government withdrew these terms and the hand moved onwards upon the dial of fate, never to turn back.

De Wet had said in reference to Kitchener's terms of peace, 'What is the use of examining all the points, as the only object for which we are fighting is our independence and our national existence?' It is evident, however, that Botha did not consider this an absolute bar to renewing the negotiations, for upon May 10, two months later, he wrote the following letter to Lord Kitchener:

'Commandant-General's Camp, May 10, 1901.

'Excellency,-As I have already assured Your Excellency I am very desirous of terminating this war, and its sad consequences. It is, however, necessary, in order to comply with the "Grondwet" of this Republic and otherwise, that, before any steps are taken in that direction, the condition of our country and our cause be brought to the notice of His Honour, State President Kruger, in Europe; and I therefore wish to send two persons to him in order to acquaint him fully with that condition.

'As speed in this matter is of great consequence to both contending parties, and as such despatch without Your Excellency's assistance would take a considerable time, I should like to hear from Your Excellency whether Your Excellency is prepared to assist me in expediting this matter by allowing such person or persons to journey there and back unhindered, if necessary by the traffic medium within Your Excellency's control.-I have, &c.,

'Louis Botha, Commandant-General.'

To this Kitchener answered:

'Army Headquarters, South Africa, Pretoria, May 16, 1901.

'Your Honour,-I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of Your Honour's letter of 10th instant, and, in reply, beg to state that I can only deal with you and your superior officers in the field in regard to the cessation of hostilities, and that I do not recognise the official status of any other persons in the late Republics of the Orange River and Transvaal.

'If, however, Your Honour desires, with the object of bringing hostilities to a close, to consult with any person in Europe, I will forward any telegram Your Honour desires on the subject, and let you have the reply. Should, however, Your Honour still desire to send messengers, and will inform me of their names and status, I will refer the matter to His Majesty's Government for decision.-I have, &c.,

'Kitchener, General,

'Commanding-in-Chief, British Troops, South Africa.'

At this period, the second week of May, the Boer cause was in very low water, as on the same date we have Botha reopening negotiations which he had declared to be definitely closed, and Reitz (the man who used to regard the whole matter as a great joke) writing a despairing letter to Steyn to the effect that the game was up and that it was time to take the last final step. A reply was received from Kruger encouraging the Boers to continue their hopeless and fatal resistance. His reply was to the effect that there were still great hopes of a successful issue of the war, and that he had taken steps to make proper provision for the Boer prisoners and for the refugee women. These steps, and very efficient ones, too, were to leave them to the generosity of that Government which he was so fond of reviling. There are signs that something else had occurred to give them fresh hope and also fresh material supplies. It looks, upon the face of it, as if, about that time, large supplies of rifles, ammunition, and possibly recruits must have reached them from some quarter, either from German Damaraland or the Portuguese coast. At any rate there has been so much ammunition used since, that either Reitz must have been raving or else large supplies have reached the Boers from some unknown source.

So much for the official attempts at peace.

They have been given in some detail in order to prove how false it is that the British Government has insisted upon an unconditional surrender. Far from this being so, the terms offered by the British Government have been so generous that they have aroused the strongest distrust and criticism in this country, where they have seemed to be surrendering by the pen all that had been won by the sword. Nothing has been refused the enemy, save only independence, and that can never be given, if the war has to continue until the last Boer is deported out of Africa.

It is only necessary to refer briefly to the unofficial Boer attempts at peace. A considerable body of the Boers, including many men of influence and of intelligence, were disposed to accept the British flag and to settle down in peace. The leaders of this party were the brave Piet de Wet, brother of Christian, Paul Botha of Kroonstad, Fraser of Bloemfontein, and others. Piet de Wet, who had fought against us as hard as any man, wrote to his brother: 'Which is better, for the Republics to continue the struggle and run the risk of total ruin as a nation, or to submit? Could we for a moment think of taking back the country, if it were offered to us, with thousands of people to be supported by a Government which has not a farthing? Put passionate feeling aside for a moment and use common-sense, and you will then agree with me that the best thing for the people and the country is to give in, to be loyal to the new Government, and to get responsible government.' Such were the sentiments of many of the best of the burghers, and they endeavoured to persuade their fellows. Both in the Transvaal and in the Free State, Peace Committees were formed among the burghers, who sent deputies to lay the facts of the situation before their brethren on commando. The results were tragic. Two of the envoys, Morgendaal and de Koch, were shot in cold blood, the former having been first beaten. Several of the others were beaten, and all were ill-used.

This severity did not, however, stop the movement, but gave it a fiercer turn. The burghers who were in favour of peace, finding it useless to argue with their fellow-countrymen and knowing that their country was being hopelessly ruined by the insensate resistance, took the extreme course at last of bearing arms against them. There are at present three strong commandos of burghers fighting upon the British side, commanded by three Boer Generals-Marais, Celliers, and the younger Cronje, all of whom had made their names in fighting against us. This fact alone goes far to dispel those stories of British barbarity with which I shall presently deal. They are believed in by political fanatics in England and by dupes abroad, but the answer which many of the Boers upon the spot make to them is to enlist and fight under the British flag. They are in the best position for knowing the truth, and how can they show in a stronger way what they believe that truth to be?

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