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The Boers are very much like the Scotch—they are clannish. Every Boer has a solid belief in himself, to begin with, and every Boer has a profound belief in his brother. This characteristic has many advantages: it not only welds a people together, it is a sufficient guarantee of success in times of trouble and difficulty, and it has stood the Boer in good stead. He likes to tell you that no difficulty is insurmountable in his eyes—nay, further, he does not believe in the existence of any difficulty which he is not competent to overcome. Rumours of trouble with natives do not appal him, because he knows before he slings his gun over his shoulder that he is going forth to inflict due punishment upon the insurgents. He does not in any instance entertain the thought of a repulse. He marches to the front with a firm, determined step, and he does not rest until he has conclusively settled the matter.
The march to the front is a sort of family concern. I have tried occasionally to unravel the relations of the numerous families in certain districts, but it seems to me that the complications are too great to admit of analysis. For instance, it will be found that the family of Wessels is closely allied to the family of Odendaals, and the Odendaals, on the other hand, are related to the De Jagers. This kind of thing worries and tantalizes a man, and the only safe conclusion to arrive at is that the entire nation is linked together in some way or other by family ties. This may account for the fact that it is seldom necessary to introduce one Boer to another—they are very well acquainted without such formalities; if they are not, they very soon strike up an acquaintance.
Of course there are exceptions, and I remember one in particular. The instance I refer to occurred in a store. One of the gentlemen in question was leaning heavily against the counter, and one could observe at a glance that he, at least, had a good opinion of himself. Presently Boer number two entered. He was small in stature, like the other man, but there was a note of uncertainty about him which seemed to betoken that his opinion of himself did not measure up in proportion to that of the other Boer. Number two looked about him a bit, and occasionally directed a furtive glance at number one, who, on the other hand, stolidly regarded the array of goods spread out before him. Number two seemed to have settled the question in his own mind at last, for he approached the other party and held out his hand.
'I am Britz,' he said laconically, as the other touched the outstretched hand indifferently.
'Ja!' said number one; 'I am Papenfus.'
The conversation ended here, and number two made a silent departure.
The preliminary salutations of another pair of Boers are probably as interesting. It was during a prolonged drought, and both gentlemen had evidently experienced a difficulty in finding a sufficiency of water for the purposes of ablution. They had not met for a number of years, but the recognition was mutual.
'Almachtig, Gert, you are still as ugly as ever!'
'Ja!' replied the other readily; 'and you are still alive with that face!'
The Boer is coarse in his conversation, although he prefers to regard it as wit. He likes to participate in a conversation bristling with this sort of wit, but when you come to tell him a really good thing, he fails entirely to grasp the point, and your joke falls flat, resulting usually in a painful silence.
He is also very chary of complications in the handling of money. He brings his wool into town once, and sometimes twice, a year, and that staple comprises the current coin of the country. His clip is weighed off in due course, and he proceeds to the store and sits down while the clerk figures up the amount. You may be foolish enough to ask him if he will buy a plough or a bag of coffee, but he continues to smoke hard and expectorate all over the floor without giving a definite reply. He wants to handle the money first, and then he will arrange about his purchases. Within half an hour he will probably have in his pocket two or three hundred golden sovereigns (he does not look upon bank-notes with favour; he wants something hard and substantial), and he will at once proceed to the matter of buying. At the end of the day his waggon is loaded up with a variety of household and agricultural necessities, for which he has paid, say, £150 of the money received for his wool. This is his way of doing things, and he thinks it is the right one.
During the Boer War of 1880 merchants in the Free State had a bad time of it. The Boers were, of course, very much excited, and the English merchant was looked upon scornfully and contemptuously. One Boer had already drawn up a memorandum of what he considered should be the modus operandi in dealing with the storekeepers. Two or three were to be hanged, and the others were to be tied up in front of their own buildings and shot down like crows. That was in Harrismith.
The Boer has not much to boast of in the matter of brains, but what he does possess he is careful not to abuse. A man can abuse his brains in many ways—by taking to strong drink, for instance. I have been among Boers for some years, and I can honestly say that I never yet saw a Boer the worse for drink. He may indulge occasionally, but he very seldom carries the practice to excess. When he does take it he likes it strong—as strong as he can get it. He scorns the idea of mixing it in water. He reckons that he did not go to the canteen or hotel to pay for water. He wants the full value of his money, and he takes it.
I have said that the Boer is suspicious; he is likewise jealous by nature. If there happens to be rinderpest on the next farm to his, he is never contented until he gets his full share. He does not mind if the visitation plays extreme havoc among his stock so long as he is not left in the lurch. I remember some time ago hearing of a Boer who had decided to build a large dwelling-house on his farm in place of the wretched little building he and his family had hitherto occupied.
This Boer had made some money, and contact with English people in the towns had resulted in more advanced ideas. He determined, therefore, to spare no expense on this new project—he even included a bath-room. The building was scarcely completed, when about a dozen Boers, who were also capitalists in a way, immediately set about making arrangements for similar structures. This form of jealousy is, of course, good where trade is concerned.
If the Boer is nothing else, he is at least talked about. I say nothing else advisedly, because he is nothing else. In his own country he is nothing, and out of it he is less, if that were possible. It may seem out of place on the part of a Scotsman to make such an assertion, because a Scotsman (and a Yorkshireman, too, by the way) is, in the eyes of the Boer, a friendly being, and far removed above a mere Englishman. A Boer will give a Scotsman the best in the house, and put up his horse comfortably, but an Englishman in the same circumstances fares differently. It is, of course, unnecessary to say that while a Scotsman makes no objection to exceptional hospitality, his views of the Boer do not differ materially from those of any other person of whatever nationality. He drinks the Boer's coffee, and shakes hands with him and all his family, but there may be, and usually is, a great deal of deception mixed up with such extreme good-feeling. I could never understand, nor has it been explained to me, why the Boer is so partial towards Scotsmen, unless it be that a great many Scotch words resemble words in the Dutch language. Perhaps that may in some degree account for it, although I do not think there is anything to be proud of on the Scottish side.
It is necessary to reside in the Boer Republics to place one in the position of knowing something of the Boer, and a mere fortnight won't do it. Of course, there are Boers and Boers, as there are Englishmen and Englishmen. There are Boers who are competent to rank with any English gentleman, and whose education and abilities are of no mean order. Unfortunately, however, these are altogether in the minority.
The Boers are all farmers, and, according to their own statements, a poverty-stricken people. They plead poverty before an English merchant because they fancy it will have the effect of reducing prices. Fortunately, the merchants possess rather an accurate knowledge of such customers, and in consequence they lose nothing. One would as soon believe the generality of Boers, as walk into the shaft of a coal mine. He has a reputation for lying, and he never brings discredit upon that reputation. When he lies, which, on an average, is every alternate time he opens his mouth, he does so with great enthusiasm, and the while he is delivering one lie, he is carefully considering the next. When he can't think of any more lies, he starts on the truth, but in this he is a decided failure. He is afraid of being found out. For instance, a merchant will approach a Boer respecting an overdue account. The Boer will at once plead poverty, and speculate on how he can possibly manage to liquidate his liability. If the merchant knows the ropes sufficiently (and the majority of merchants do), he will drop the subject for half an hour, at the end of which time he will ask the Boer if he wants to sell any cattle or produce, as he (the merchant) can find an outlet for either or both. The Boer's diplomacy is weak, and he falls into the trap. He has fifty cattle to dispose of; the merchant buys them, and the overdue account, with interest, is paid.
The Boers are very superstitious in a great many things. For instance, they regard locusts as a direct visitation from the Almighty. When the pest settles down upon ground occupied by Kaffirs, all the available tin cans and empty paraffin tins are requisitioned, and there is a mighty noise, that ought to frighten off any respectable locust swarm; but the Boer, when he sees them coming, goes into his house and lays hold of his Bible, and reads and prays until he thinks there ought to be some good result. The Boer is gifted with great and abiding patience (in such cases only), and, no matter if the locusts stop long enough to eat up every green blade on his farm, he will continue to study his Bible and pray. But, as I have remarked parenthetically, it is only in cases of emergency where he evinces such a display of patience and exercises such a pious disposition. When he is not praying, he is putting ten-pound stones in his bales of wool to be ready for the merchant's scales, and transacting other little matters of business of a like nature.
The Boer is not particular in the matter of cleanliness. It suits him just as well to be dirty as to be clean. It is no exaggeration to say that numbers of Boers do not wash themselves from one week's end to another; and they wear their clothes until they drop off. It is always a matter for speculation what the womenfolks do. It is certain that they do not exert themselves too much, if at all, in their own homes. They generally do all the cooking and eating in one room, and in the other end of the house you will probably find a litter of pigs, a score of hens, etc. And the one room is about as clean as the other—most people would prefer to sleep alongside the pigs and the fowls.
The most painful proceeding is to dine in such a place. Unless you are blessed with a cast-iron constitution and a stomach of the same pattern, you are not likely to survive. Usually they put down boiled meat first, after which comes the soup. The chief regret in your case is that the soup had not come first, so that you could have disposed of it right away and had something on top of it. Coffee, of course, is never forgotten, and it would be a direct insult to refuse it. Coffee is a great thing with the Boer. He would as soon be without house and home, as his bag of coffee. Before selling his wool to the merchant, almost the first thing he asks is: 'What is your price for coffee?' If a satisfactory quotation is forthcoming, he does not hesitate long in disposing of his staple, although, of course, at the highest price obtainable.
The story goes that once upon a time a Boer, whose conscience had remained dormant from his birth, came to a certain town to purchase goods in exchange for produce. One of the articles he bought was, naturally, coffee, and of that he took half a bag. While the clerk was engaged in attending to some other matters, the Boer quietly and, as he thought, unobserved, undid the cord which secured the mouth of the coffee bag, and slipped in a quarter of a hundred-weight of lead which was lying in the vicinity and which he evidently calculated on finding useful. The clerk observed this movement without betraying the fact, and when the order was completed his eye fell upon the coffee bag casually.
'Oh! wait a moment,' he remarked. 'I fancy I have forgotten to weigh that coffee.'
He weighed it over again and carefully noted down the figures in his little book, no doubt much to the chagrin of the silent Boer, who probably had not reckoned on paying for his lead in the same proportion as the cost of his coffee per pound.
On another occasion, a Boer, the extent of whose wealth was probably unknown to himself, found it necessary to dispute certain items in his account with his storekeeper. This sort of thing, by the way, is the rule and by no means the exception. It seems natural also when it is noted that the majority of Boers run twelve-monthly accounts, and by the time they come to square up, they find a difficulty in recognising some of the articles purchased eleven or twelve months previously. This particular gentleman's argument had reference to a pair of spurs, which he deposed had been given to him as a present by the manager, and his hitherto good opinion of the clerk who had charged the spurs in his account was permanently damaged. He said he wasn't a man of that sort. If he wanted to buy spurs, he could pay cash down for about fifteen thousand pairs and, in short, he could buy up all the spurs in the country! He would pay for those spurs now: he wouldn't take a pair of anything, gratis or otherwise, from that merchant as long as he lived. He would go home and put eight horses into his wagonette and drive round the country and tell all his friends about that pair of spurs, and he wouldn't rest until he had completed the task to his own satisfaction.
The book-keeper tried in vain to calm him down by presenting him with a bunch of grapes, but he only regarded the peace-offering with extreme contempt. He wanted to know what else he had been charged with, and the clerk, in conciliatory tones, proceeded to read over the several items. He came to 'one pound of tea.' That was the last straw.
'What! a pound of tea—a pound! Almachtig! Ik koop thee bij de zak (I buy tea by the bag).'
The suspicious nature of the Boer is always in evidence, although the Englishman must perforce humour it. It would be interesting to learn, for instance, how many thousands of pounds are sewn up in mattresses all over the country because the owners are chary concerning the integrity of bank-managers. They have no doubt whatever but that a bank is a paying concern (one Boer entered a bank recently and wanted to see the place where they made the money), but they would much rather keep their own money out of it, in case it should get mixed up with the earnings and savings of other people and be lost. The story runs that one old vrouw journeyed to town in her waggon one day for the express purpose of depositing £300 with the local bank, but when she found that they wanted to give her so much for keeping it (interest) instead of asking her to pay a small amount by way of compensation for taking charge of her money, she became suspicious and took her £300 back to the farm and the double grass mattress once more. It is unnecessary to state that this particular lady never trusted another banking institution.
And so it is with other things. When once you have aroused suspicion in the Boer—and it sleeps lightly—you can safely say good-bye to him for ever. He knows within his heart that the English are bent upon taking advantage of him, and when a man makes up his mind like that he is seldom disappointed.
There is one characteristic of the Boer which the most casual observer cannot fail to notice. It is his entire indifference to personal appearance. He likes to see his vrouw gorgeous in all the colours of the rainbow (pink and green being the favourites), and he doesn't mind if the material costs a little over ninepence a yard; but he evinces no desire to discard the suit he has himself worn for three or four years without a change. So long as it holds together, he is content to wear it, and he does not in the least mind what other people may say about it. It may be supposed that this applies exclusively to the poorer classes, but I can assure my readers that I have known it to be the case with scores of men who could well afford to wear a brand-new suit every day of the week and every month of the year. And what does this characteristic indicate? It indicates the man. He has no desire to advance beyond what he is—what his forefathers were. The latter manufactured their own clothing; they made their own shoes, and, had they been presented with a cast-off suit belonging to the Prince of Wales, they could not possibly have appreciated it, and they certainly would never have thought of wearing it. The Boer does not care to dress respectably; he prefers to finger the coin and sit down and watch the increase in his stock. He would have everything converted into stock, because that is his great ambition.
Another thing—he lacks taste. His clothes never by any chance fit him (in the eyes of more refined people), and his boots are always three sizes too large; but then he thinks he is getting more for his money. If he must needs buy boots, he takes care that he invests his money in quantity, not quality, or style.