Boer War

Boer War
Book: By A. Conan Doyle
Author: Doyle, A. Conan


In more than one respect the war in South Africa was a surprise to the
world. It was surprising to see two little republics present a defiant
ultimatum to a great empire. It was surprising with what skill and deadly
effect the few fought against the many. It was surprising to see some of the
British colonies, which were supposed to be most nearly independent, eagerly
raising volunteer regiments to aid the mother country. It was surprising that
regular armies led by experienced generals met with so many serious reverses
and the war was so prolonged. It was surprising that the causes and motive of
the struggle were so little understood in the United States, whose people are
a nation of readers. Aside from its political significance, the combat was
interesting as one of the most unique and picturesque that ever were waged,
and for its complete history the pencil of the artist is needed as well as the
pen of the writer. Probably any account now attainable is necessarily
one-sided, and the best the reader can do is to retain his own preconceptions,
but let them be modified, if possible, by reading what is said by the best
writers on the other side.


At the time of the Convention of Pretoria (1881) the rights of
burghership might be obtained by one year's residence. In 1882 the time was
raised to five years, the reasonable limit that obtains both in Great Britain
and in the United States. Had it remained so, it is safe to say that there
would never have been either a Uitlander question or a Boer war. Grievances
would have been righted from the inside without external interference.

In 1890 the inrush of outsiders alarmed the Boers, and the franchise was
raised so as to be attainable only by those who had lived fourteen years in
the country. The Uitlanders, who were increasing rapidly in numbers and were
suffering from a formidable list of grievances, perceived that their wrongs
were so numerous it was hopeless to have them set right seriatim, and that
only by obtaining the leverage of the franchise could they hope to move the
heavy burden that weighed them down. In 1893 a petition of thirteen thousand
Uitlanders, couched in most respectful terms, was submitted to the Raad, but
it was met with contemptuous neglect. Undeterred by this failure, the
National Reform Union, an association that organized the agitation, came back
to the attack in 1894. They drew up a petition, which was signed by
thirty-five thousand adult male Uitlanders - a greater number than the total
Boer population of the country. A small liberal body in the Raad supported
this memorial and endeavored in vain to obtain some justice for the
new-comers. Mr. Jeppe was the mouthpiece of this select band. "They own half
the soil, they pay at least three-quarters of the taxes," said he. "They are
men who in capital, energy, and education are at least our equals. What will
become of us or our children on that day when we may find ourselves in a
minority of one in twenty without a single friend among the other nineteen,
among those who will then tell us that they wished to be brothers, but that we
by our own act have made them strangers to the republic?"

Such reasonable and liberal sentiments were combated by members who
asserted that the signatures could not belong to law-abiding citizens, since
they were actually agitating against the law of the franchise, and by others
whose intolerance was expressed by defiance of the member already quoted, and
who challenged the Uitlanders to come out and fight. The champions of
exclusiveness and racial hatred won the day. The memorial was rejected by
sixteen votes to eight, and the franchise law was, on the initiative of
President Kruger, actually made more stringent than ever, being framed in such
a way that during the fourteen years of probation the applicant should give up
his previous nationality, so that for that period he would really belong to no
country at all. No hopes were held out that any possible attitude on the part
of the Uitlanders would soften the determination of the President and his
burghers. One who remonstrated was led outside the State buildings by the
President, who pointed up at the national flag. "You see that flag?" said he.
"If I grant the franchise, I may as well pull it down." His animosity against
the immigrants was bitter. "Burghers, friends, thieves, murderers,
new-comers, and others," is the conciliatory opening of one of his public
addresses. Though Johannesburg is only thirty-two miles from Pretoria, and
though the State of which he was the head depended for its revenue upon the
gold-fields, he paid it only three visits in nine years.

This settled animosity was deplorable, but not unnatural. A man imbued
with the idea of a chosen people, and unread in any book save the one which
cultivates this very idea, could not be expected to have learned the
historical lessons of the advantages a State reaps from a liberal policy. To
him it was as if the Ammonites and Moabites had demanded admission into the
twelve tribes. He mistook an agitation against the exclusive policy of the
State for one against the existence of the State itself. A wide franchise
would have made his republic firm-based and permanent. Only a small minority
of the Uitlanders had any desire to come into the British system. They were a
cosmopolitan set, united only by the bond of a common justice. But when every
other method had failed, and their petition for the rights of freemen had been
flung back at them, it was natural that their eyes should turn to that flag
which waved to the north, the west, and the south of them - the flag which
means purity of government with equal rights and equal duties for all men.
Constitutional agitation was laid aside, arms were smuggled in, and everything
was prepared for an organized rising.

The events that followed at the beginning of 1896 [the Jameson raid] have
been so thoroughly threshed out that there is, perhaps, nothing left to tell -
except the truth. So far as the Uitlanders themselves are concerned, their
action was most natural and justifiable, and they have no reason to exculpate
themselves for rising against such oppression as no men of our race have ever
been submitted to. Had they trusted only to themselves and the justice of
their cause, their moral and even their material position would have been
infinitely stronger. But unfortunately forces were behind them which were
more questionable, the nature and extent of which have never yet, in spite of
two commissions of investigation, been properly revealed.

It had been arranged that the town was to rise upon a certain night; that
Pretoria should be attacked, the fort seized, and the rifles and ammunition
used to arm the Uitlanders. It was a feasible device, though it must seem to
us, who have had some experience of the military virtues of the burghers, very
desperate. But it is conceivable that the rebels might have held Johannesburg
until the universal sympathy which their cause excited throughout South Africa
would have caused Great Britain to intervene. Unfortunately they had
complicated matters by asking for outside help. Mr. Cecil Rhodes was Premier
of the Cape, a man of immense energy, who had rendered great services to the
empire. The motives of his action are obscure - certainly, we may say that
they were not sordid, for his thoughts always had been large and his habits
simple. But whatever that may have been - whether an ill-regulated desire to
consolidate South Africa under British rule, or a burning sympathy with the
Uitlanders in their fight against injustice - it is certain that he allowed
his lieutenant, Dr. Jameson, to assemble the mounted police of the Chartered
Company, of which Rhodes was founder and director, for the purpose of
cooperating with the rebels at Johannesburg. Moreover, when the revolt at
Johannesburg was postponed on account of a disagreement as to which flag they
were to rise under, it appears that Jameson (with or without the orders of
Rhodes) forced the hand of the conspirators by invading the country with a
company absurdly inadequate to the work he had in hand. Five hundred
policemen and three field-guns made up the forlorn hope that set out from
Mafeking and crossed the Transvaal border December 29, 1895. On January 2d
they were surrounded by the Boers amid the broken country near Dornkop, and
after losing many of their number, killed or wounded, without food and with
spent horses, they were compelled to lay down their arms. Six burghers lost
their lives in the skirmish.

On the other hand, the British Government disowned Jameson entirely, and
did all it could to discourage the rising; on the other, the President had the
raiders in his keeping at Pretoria, and their fate depended upon the behavior
of the Uitlanders. They were led to believe that Jameson would be shot unless
they laid down their arms, though, as a matter of fact, Jameson and his people
had surrendered upon a promise of quarter. So skilfully did Kruger use his
hostages that he succeeded, with the help of the British Commissioner, in
getting the thousands of excited Johannesburgers to lay down their arms
without bloodshed. Completely outmanoeuvred by the astute old President, the
leaders of the reform movement used all their influence in the direction of
peace, thinking that a general amnesty would follow; but the moment that they
and their people were helpless the detectives and armed burghers occupied the
town, and sixty of their number were hurried to Pretoria jail.

To the raiders themselves the President behaved with great generosity.
Perhaps he could not find it in his heart to be harsh to the men who had
managed to put him in the right and won for him the sympathy of the world. His
own illiberal and oppressive treatment of new-comers was forgotten in the face
of this illegal inroad of filibusters. The true issues were so obscured by
this intrusion that it has taken years to clear them, and perhaps they never
will be wholly cleared. Many persons forgot that it was the bad government of
the country which was the real cause of the unfortunate raid. From that time
the government might grow worse and worse, but it was always possible to point
to the raid as justifying everything. Were the Uitlanders to have the
franchise? How could they expect it after the raid? Would Britain object to
the enormous importation of arms and obvious preparations for war? They were
only precautions against a second raid. For years the raid stood in the way,
not only of all progress, but of all remonstrance. Through an action over
which they had no control, and which they had done their best to prevent, the
British Government was left with a bad case and a weakened moral authority.

The raiders were sent home, where the rank and file were very properly
released, and the chief officers were condemned to terms of imprisonment which
certainly did not err upon the side of severity. Cecil Rhodes was left
unpunished; he retained his place in the Privy Council, and his Chartered
Company continued to have a corporate existence. This was illogical and
inconclusive. As Kruger said, "It is not the dog that should be beaten, but
the man that set him on to me." Public opinion - in spite of, or on account
of, a crowd of witnesses - was ill informed upon the exact bearings of the
question, and it was obvious that as Dutch sentiment at the Cape appeared
already to be thoroughly hostile to England it would be dangerous to alienate
the British Africanders also by making a martyr of their favorite leader. But
whatever arguments may be founded upon expediency, it is clear that the Boers
bitterly resented, with justice, the immunity of Rhodes.

In the mean time both President Kruger and his burghers had shown a
greater severity to the political prisoners from Johannesburg than to the
armed followers of Jameson. The nationality of these prisoners is interesting
and suggestive. There were twenty-three Englishmen, sixteen South Africans,
nine Scotchmen, six Americans, two Welshmen, one Irishman, one Australian, one
Hollander, one Bavarian, one Canadian, one Swiss, and one Turk. The prisoners
were arrested in January, but the trial did not take place until the end of
April. All were found guilty of high treason. Mr. Lionel Phillips, Colonel
Rhodes (brother of Mr. Cecil Rhodes), George Farrar, and Mr. Hammond, the
American engineer, were condemned to death, a sentence which was commuted to
the payment of an enormous fine. The other prisoners were condemned to two
years' imprisonment, with a fine of two thousand pounds each. The
imprisonment was of the most arduous and trying sort, and was embittered by
the harshness of the jailer, Du Plessis. One of the unfortunate men cut his
throat, and several fell seriously ill, the diet and the sanitary conditions
being equally unhealthful. At last, at the end of May, all the prisoners but
six were released. Four of the six soon followed, two stalwarts, Sampson and
Davies, refusing to sign any petition and remaining in prison until they were
set free in 1897. Altogether the Transvaal Government received in fines from
the reform prisoners the enormous sum of two hundred twelve thousand pounds.
A certain comic relief was immediately afterward given to so grave an episode
by the presentation of a bill to Great Britain for one million six hundred
seventy-seven thousand nine hundred thirty-eight pounds three shillings three
pence - the greater part of which was under the heading of moral and
intellectual damage.

The grievances of the Uitlanders became heavier than ever. The one power
in the land to which they had been able to appeal for some sort of redress
amid their grievances was the law courts. Now it was decreed that the courts
should be dependent on the Volksraad. The Chief Justice protested against
such a degradation of his high office, and he was dismissed in consequence
without a pension. The judge who had condemned the reformers was chosen to
fill the vacancy, and the protection of a fixed law was withdrawn from the

A commission appointed by the State was sent to examine into the
condition of the mining industry and the grievances from which the new-comers
suffered. The chairman was Mr. Schalk Burger, one of the most liberal of the
Boers, and the proceedings were thorough and impartial. The result was a
report which would have gone a long way toward satisfying the Uitlanders. With
such enlightened legislation their motives for seeking the franchise would
have been less pressing. But the President and his Raad would have none of
the recommendations of the commission. The rugged old autocrat declared that
Schalk Burger was a traitor to his country because he had signed such a
document, and a new reactionary committee was chosen to report upon the
report. Words and papers were the only outcome of the affair. No
amelioration came to the new-comers. But they at least had again put their
case publicly upon record, and it had been approved by the most respected of
the burghers. Gradually in the press of the English-speaking countries the
raid was ceasing to obscure the issue. More and more clearly it was coming
out that no permanent settlement was possible where the majority of the
population was oppressed by the minority. They had tried peaceful means and
failed. They had tried warlike means and failed. What was left for them to
do? Their own country, the paramount power of South Africa, had never helped
them. Perhaps if it were directly appealed to it might do so. It could not,
if only for the sake of its own imperial prestige, leave its children forever
in a state of subjection. The Uitlanders determined upon a petition to the
Queen, and in doing so they brought their grievances out of the limits of a
local controversy into the broader field of international politics. Great
Britain must either protect them or acknowledge that their protection was
beyond her power. A direct petition to the Queen praying for protection was
signed in April, 1899, by twenty-one thousand Uitlanders. From that time
events moved inevitably toward the one end. Sometimes the surface was
troubled and sometimes smooth, but the stream always ran swiftly and the roar
of the fall sounded ever louder in the ears.

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