"Oh that mine adversary had written a book!"—JOB xxxi. 35.
The above words, written by one of the greatest philosophers of olden time, have often impressed me, and I have frequently quoted them when asked why I did not write an account of the interesting travels and adventures I have had in my life. It has therefore required a great deal of courage to take up my pen and record a few recollections of South Africa. I felt that, were they ever to be written at all, it must be before the rapidly passing years diminish the interest in that land, which in the past has been the object of such engrossing attention; and that at the present time, when the impending Federation of South Africa has at length crowned the hopes of those patriots who have laboured patiently and hopefully to bring about this great result, it might be appropriate to recall those days when Englishmen, who had made South Africa their home, had much to contend with, even before the fierce struggle to keep "the flag flying" in the years of 1899-1902.
During that period, which commenced after the disaster at Majuba Hill, "equal rights" were a golden dream which only the most optimistic ever hoped to see realized. From then onwards, as old colonists have so often told me, the Boers brought up the younger generation in the belief that the "Roinek" was a coward, and in consequence their arrogance in the country districts became wellnigh intolerable, while at the Cape the Bond party grew so strong it bid fair to elbow out the English altogether. Now, while the country is still young, the fair prospect opens out of Briton and Boer living in amity and peace together, and mutually supplying, in the government of their vast inheritance, such elements as are wanting in the character of each.
My first visit to South Africa was a short one, and took place at the end of 1895. During the foregoing summer everyone's attention had been directed to the Transvaal, and more especially towards the Rand, by reason of the unprecedented and, as it turned out, totally unwarranted rise in the gold-mining shares of that district; in this boom, people both at home and in Johannesburg madly gambled, and large fortunes were quickly made by those who had foresight enough not to hold on too long. For already the political horizon was darkening, and the wrongs of the "Uitlanders," real and apparent as they were, became a parrot-cry, which waxed and waned, but never died away, till the ultimatum of President Kruger, in October, 1899, brought matters to a climax.
We sailed from Southampton in December, 1895, in the Tantallon Castle, then one of the most modern and up-to-date of the Castle liners. The ship was crowded to its utmost capacity, and among the passengers, as I afterwards learned, were many deeply concerned in the plotting which was known to be going on at Johannesburg, either to extort concessions from President Kruger, or, failing this, to remove him altogether. I knew very little about all this then, but before I had been many days on board it was not difficult to discover that much mystery filled the air, and I was greatly excited at arriving in South Africa in such stirring times. There is no such place for getting to know people well as on a sea-voyage of eighteen days. Somehow the sea inspires confidence, and one knows that information imparted cannot, anyway, be posted off by the same day's mail. So those who were helping to pull the strings of this ill-fated rebellion talked pretty freely of their hopes and fears during the long, dark tropical evenings.
I became familiar with their grievances—their unfair taxation; no education for their children except in Dutch; no representation in Parliament—and this in a population in which, at that time, the English and Afrikanders at Johannesburg and in the surrounding districts outnumbered the Dutch in the proportion of about 6 to 1. They laid stress on the fact that neither the Boers nor their children were, or desired to become, miners, and, further, that for the enormous sums spent on developing and working the mines no proper security existed. I must admit it was the fiery-headed followers who talked the loudest—those who had nothing to lose and much to gain. The financiers, while directing and encouraging their zeal, seemed almost with the same hand to wish to put on the brake and damp their martial ardour. In any case, all were so eloquent that by the time our voyage was ended I felt as great a rebel against "Oom Paul" and his Government as any one of them.
Before leaving the Tantallon Castle, however, I must pass in review some of those whose home it had been with ourselves for the best part of three weeks. First I remember the late Mr. Alfred Beit, interesting as the man who had made the most colossal fortune of all the South African magnates, and who was then already said to be the most generous of philanthropists and the kindest of friends; this reputation he fully sustained in the subsequent years of his life and in the generous disposition of his vast wealth. I have often been told that Mr. Cecil Rhodes owed the inspiration of some of his colossal ideas to his friend Mr. Beit, and when it came to financing the same, the latter was always ready to assist in carrying out projects to extend and consolidate the Empire. In these latter years, and since his comparatively early death, I have heard those who still bear the brunt of the battle lament his loss, and remark, when a railway was to be built or a new part of the country opened up, how much more expeditiously it would be done were Mr. Beit still alive.
Other names that occur to me are Mr. Abe Bailey, well known in racing circles to-day, and then reputed a millionaire, the foundation of whose fortune consisted in a ten-pound note borrowed from a friend. Mr. Wools Sampson, who subsequently so greatly distinguished himself at Ladysmith, where he was dangerously wounded, had an individuality all his own; he had seen every side of life as a soldier of fortune, attached to different regiments, during all the fighting in South Africa of the preceding years. He was then a mining expert, associated with Mr. Bailey in Lydenburg, but his heart evidently lay in fighting and in pursuing the different kinds of wild animals that make their home on the African veldt. Dr. Rutherford Harris, then the Secretary of the Chartered Company; Mr. Henry Milner, an old friend; Mr. Geoffrey Glyn and Mr. F. Guest, are others whom I specially remember; besides many more, some of whom have joined the vast majority, and others whom I have altogether lost sight of, but who helped to make the voyage a very pleasant one.
We landed at Cape Town shortly before Christmas Day. As I have since learnt by the experience of many voyages, it is nearly always at dawn that a liner is brought alongside the quay at the conclusion of a long voyage; in consequence, sleep is almost out of the question the last night at sea, owing to the noisy manipulations of the mail-bags and luggage. However, one is always so glad to get on shore that it is of very little import, and on this occasion we were all anxious to glean the latest news after being cut off from the world for so many days. The papers contained gloomy accounts of the markets. "King Slump" still held his sway, and things abroad looked very unsettled; so most of our friends appeared, when we met later, with very long faces. After breakfast, leaving our luggage to the tender mercies of some officious agent, who professed to see it "through the Customs," we took a hansom and drove to the Grand Hotel, en route to the hotel, in the suburb of Newlands, where we had taken rooms. My first impressions of Cape Town certainly were not prepossessing, and well I remember them, even after all these years. The dust was blowing in clouds, stirred up by the "south-easter" one hears so much about—an icy blast which appears to come straight from the South Pole, and which often makes its appearance in the height of summer, which season it then was. The hansom, of the oldest-fashioned type, shook and jolted beyond belief, and threatened every moment to fall to pieces. The streets from the docks to the town were unfinished, untidy, and vilely paved, and I remember comparing them very unfavourably with Melbourne or Sydney. However, I soon modified my somewhat hasty judgment. We had seen the town's worst aspects, and later I noticed some attractive-looking shops; the imposing Houses of Parliament, in their enclosed grounds, standing out sharply defined against the hazy background of Table Mountain; and the Standard Bank and Railway-station, which would hold their own in any city. At the same time, as a place of residence in the summer months, I can well understand Cape Town being wellnigh deserted. Those who can boast of even the most moderate means have their residences in the attractive suburbs of Rondebosch, Newlands, or Wynberg, and innumerable are the pretty little villas and gardens one sees in these vicinities. There the country is beautifully wooded, thick arching avenues of oak extending for miles, interspersed with tracts of Scotch firs and pines, the latter exhaling a delicious perfume under the sun's powerful rays. Everywhere green foliage and abundant vegetation, which, combined with the setting of the bluest sky that can be imagined, make the drives round Cape Town some of the most beautiful in the world. At Newlands, the Governor's summer residence, a pretty but unpretentious abode, Sir Hercules and Lady Robinson then dispensed generous hospitality, only regretting their house was too small to accommodate visitors, besides their married daughters. We stayed at the Vineyard Hotel in the immediate neighbourhood—a funny old-fashioned hostelry, standing in its own grounds, and not in the least like an hotel as we understand the word. There whole families seemed to reside for months, and very comfortable it was, if somewhat primitive, appearing to keep itself far apart from the rush of modern improvements, and allowing the world to go by it unheeded. Only half a mile away, at Rondebosch, was situated then, as now, on the lower slopes of Table Mountain, the princely domain of the late Mr. Cecil Rhodes. At the moment of which I write the house itself was only approaching completion, and I must now record a few particulars of our introduction to this great Englishman and his world-famed home. We drove to Groot Schuurr, or "Great Barn," one afternoon with Mr. Beit. The house is approached by a long avenue of enormously high Scotch firs, which almost meet aloft, and remind one of the nave of some mighty cathedral, such is the subdued effect produced by the sunlight even on the brightest summer day. A slight rise in the road, a serpentine sweep, and the house itself comes into view, white, low, and rambling, with many gables and a thatched roof. The right wing was then hidden by scaffolding, and workmen were also busy putting in a new front-door, of which more anon; for a tall, burly gentleman in a homely costume of flannels and a slouch hat emerged from the unfinished room, where he would seem to have been directing the workmen, and we were introduced to Cecil John Rhodes, the Prime Minister of Cape Colony.
I looked at the man, of whom I had heard so much, with a great deal of curiosity. Shy and diffident with strangers, his manner even somewhat abrupt, one could not fail to be impressed with the expression of power, resolution, and kindness, on the rugged countenance, and with the keen, piercing glance of the blue eyes, which seemed to read one through in an instant. He greeted us, as he did every newcomer, most warmly, and under his guidance we passed into the completed portion of the house, the rooms of which were not only most comfortable, but also perfect in every detail as regards the model he wished to copy—viz., a Dutch house of 200 years ago, even down to the massive door aforementioned, which he had just purchased for £200 from a colonial family mansion, and which seemed to afford him immense pleasure. As a first fleeting memory of the interior of Groot Schuurr, I call to mind Dutch armoires, all incontestably old and of lovely designs, Dutch chests, inlaid high-backed chairs, costly Oriental rugs, and everywhere teak panelling—the whole producing a vision of perfect taste and old-world repose. It was then Mr. Rhodes's intention to have no electric light, or even lamps, and burn nothing but tallow candles, so as to keep up the illusion of antiquity; but whether he would have adhered to this determination it is impossible to say, as the house we saw was burnt to the ground later on, and is now rebuilt on exactly the same lines, but with electric light, every modern comfort, and lovely old red tiles to replace the quaint thatched roof.
Passing through the rooms, we came to the wide verandah, or stoep, on the other or eastern side. This ran the whole length of the edifice, and was used as a delightful lounge, being provided with luxurious settees and armchairs. From here Mr. Rhodes pointed out the view he loved so well, and which comes vividly to my mind to-day. In front three terraces rise immediately beyond the gravel courtyard, which is enclosed on three sides by the stoep. These, bright with flowers, lead to a great grass plateau, on which some more splendid specimens of Scotch firs rear their lofty heads; while behind, covered with trees and vegetation, its brilliant green veiled by misty heat, Table Mountain forms a glorious background, in striking contrast to the cobalt of the heavens. To the right of the terraces is a glade, entirely covered with vivid blue hydrangeas in full bloom, giving the appearance of a tract of azure ground. Lower down the hillside, in little valleys, amidst oak and other English forest trees, a carpet is formed of cannas of many hues, interspersed with masses of gleaming white arum lilies, which grow here wild in very great profusion.
Our time was too short on this occasion to see any portion of Mr. Rhodes's estate or the animals—antelope of many kinds, wildebeestes, elands, and zebras—which roamed through his woods. We lunched with him two days later on Christmas Eve, and then the weather was so hot that we only lazily enjoyed the shade and breezes on the stoep. Well do I remember on that occasion how preoccupied was our host, and how incessantly the talk turned to Johannesburg and the raging discontent there. In truth, Mr. Rhodes's position was then a very difficult one: he was Prime Minister of Cape Colony, and therefore officially neutral; but in his heart he remained the keen champion of the oppressed Uitlanders, having nominated his brother, Frank Rhodes, to be one of the leaders of the Reform Committee at Johannesburg. No wonder he was graver than was his wont, with many complications overshadowing him, as one afterwards so fully realized. His kindness as a host, however, suffered no diminution, and I remember how warmly he pressed us to stay with him when we returned from the north, though he did add, "My plans are a little unsettled." This suggested visit, however, was never paid; Mr. Rhodes a few weeks afterwards was starting for England, to, as he termed it, "face the music." I shall have occasion to describe him in his home, and the life at Groot Schuurr, more fully later on, when I passed many happy and never-to-be-forgotten weeks beneath his hospitable roof. As years went on, his kindness to both friends and political foes grew almost proverbial, but even in 1895 Groot Schuurr, barely finished, was already known to be one of the pleasantest places near Cape Town—a meeting-place for all the men of the colony either on their way to and from England, or on the occasion of their flying visits to the capital.
Red neck, or Englishman.
Now Sir A. Wools Sampson, K.C.B.