Upon his return Lord Milner found that the storm clouds had gathered in the Transvaal. In a despatch of January 13th, 1899, Mr. Chamberlain had informed the Pretoria Executive that the proposed extension of the dynamite contract in its new form (i.e. as, in effect, a "privileged importation by one firm," although nominally "a State undertaking") was held by the law officers of the Crown to be as much a violation of the Convention as the original monopoly, which had been cancelled on the representations of the Imperial Government in 1892. Mr. Reitz's reply, which Lord Milner transmitted to the Colonial Office not long after his arrival at Capetown, was a blunt assertion that, in the opinion of his Government, the Imperial Government had no right to interfere. But in the meantime the whole question of the position of the British residents in the Transvaal had been raised directly by the agitation which had arisen out of the shooting of Edgar at Johannesburg on December 18th, 1898. This event was followed by the petition for protection, which Sir William Butler (who was General-in-Command, and during Lord Milner's absence Acting High Commissioner) refused to transmit to the Secretary of State (January 4th, 1899); by the arrest of Messrs. Webb and Dodd and the breaking up of the Amphitheatre meeting (January 14th); by the attempt of the Pretoria Executive to buy off the capitalists (February 27th-April 14th); by the presentation of the second petition to the Queen (March 24th); by the agitation on the Rand in favour of the reforms for which it prayed; and lastly by the public meetings held in the Cape Colony and Natal for, and against, the intervention of the Imperial Government.
[Footnote 50: "On the Sunday night before Christmas, a
British subject named Tom Jackson Edgar was shot dead in his
own house by a Boer policeman. Edgar, who was a man of
singularly fine physique, and both able and accustomed to
take care of himself, was returning home at about midnight,
when one of three men standing by, who, as it afterwards
transpired, was both ill and intoxicated, made an offensive
remark. Edgar resented it with a blow which dropped the other
insensible to the ground. The man's friends called for the
police, and Edgar, meanwhile, entered his own house a few
yards off. There was no attempt at concealment or escape;
Edgar was an old resident and perfectly well known. Four
policemen came.... The fact, however, upon which all
witnesses agree is that, as the police burst open the door,
Constable Jones [there are scores of Boers unable to speak a
word of English who, nevertheless, own very characteristic
English, Scotch, and Irish names] fired at Edgar and dropped
him dead in the arms of his wife, who was standing in the
passage a foot or so behind him."--FITZPATRICK'S The
Transvaal from Within.]
[Footnote 51: For particulars of these events the reader is
referred to The Transvaal from Within.]
[Sidenote: The Uitlanders' petition.]
Within three months of his return Lord Milner cabled the masterly statement in which he endorsed the petition of the Uitlanders with the memorable words: "The case for intervention is overwhelming." Like the Graaf Reinet speech, this despatch of May 4th was written at white heat, but the opinions which it expressed were in no less a degree the mature and measured judgments of a mind fully informed upon every detail germane to the issue. So much is this the fact that all that is essential for the full comprehension of the second Reform Movement at Johannesburg--the salient features of which have been outlined above--is to be found within the limits of this brief and notable State document:
[Footnote 52: The petition, with its 21,684 signatures,
reached Lord Milner through Sir W. (then Mr.) Greene, the
British Agent at Pretoria, on March 27th. It was forwarded by
the High Commissioner to England in the mail of March 29th.
The same ship, the Carisbrook Castle, carried Dr. Leyds,
who was returning to Europe after a visit to Pretoria. Sir W.
Greene had returned to South Africa in the same ship with
Lord Milner (February 14th), and had stayed at Government
Cottage (Newlands) with him for some days, discussing
Transvaal matters, before proceeding to Pretoria on February
[Sidenote: The intervention despatch.]
"Having regard to the critical character of the South African
situation and the likelihood of an early reply by Her Majesty's
Government to the Petition, I am telegraphing remarks which under
ordinary circumstances I should have made by despatch. Events of
importance have followed so fast on each other since my return to
South Africa, and my time has been so occupied in dealing with
each incident severally, that I have had no time for reviewing
the whole position.
"The present crisis undoubtedly arises out of the Edgar incident.
But that incident merely precipitated a struggle which was
certain to come. It is possible to make too much of the killing
of Edgar. It was a shocking and, in my judgment, a criminal
blunder, such as would have caused a popular outcry anywhere. It
was made much worse by the light way in which it was first dealt
with by the Public Prosecutor and then by the judge at the
trial. By itself, however, it would not have justified, nor, in
fact, provoked the present storm. But it happened to touch a
particularly sore place. There is no grievance which rankles more
in the breasts of the Uitlander population than the conduct of
the police, who, while they have proved singularly incompetent to
deal with gross scandals like the illicit liquor trade, are harsh
and arbitrary in their treatment of individuals whom they happen
to dislike, as must have become evident to you from the recurrent
ill-treatment of coloured people. There are absolutely no grounds
for supposing that the excitement which the death of Edgar caused
was factitious. It has been laid to the door of the South African
League, but the officials of the League were forced into action
by Edgar's fellow-workmen. And, the consideration of grievances
once started by the police grievance, it was inevitable that the
smouldering but profound discontent of the population who
constantly find their affairs mismanaged, their protests
disregarded, and their attitude misunderstood, by a Government on
which they have absolutely no means of exercising any influence,
should once more break into flame.
"We have, therefore, simply to deal with a popular movement of a
similar kind to that of 1894 and 1895 before it was perverted and
ruined by a conspiracy of which the great body of the Uitlanders
were totally innocent. None of the grievances then complained of,
and which then excited universal sympathy, have been remedied,
and others have been added. The case is much stronger. It is
impossible to overlook the tremendous change for the worse, which
has been effected by the lowering of the status of the High Court
of Judicature and by the establishment of the principle embodied
in the new draft Grondwet that any resolution of the Volksraad
is equivalent to a law. The instability of the laws has always
been one of the most serious grievances. The new Constitution
provides for their permanent instability, the judges being bound
by their oath to accept every Volksraad resolution as equally
binding with a law passed in the regular form, and with the
provisions of the Constitution itself. The law prescribing this
oath is one of which the present Chief Justice said that no
self-respecting man could sit on the Bench while it was on the
Statute Book. Formerly the foreign population, however bitterly
they might resent the action of the Legislature and of the
Administration, had yet confidence in the High Court of
Judicature. It cannot be expected that they should feel the same
confidence to-day. Seeing no hope in any other quarter, a number
of Uitlanders who happen to be British subjects have addressed a
petition to Her Majesty the Queen. I have already expressed my
opinion of its substantial genuineness and the absolute bona
fides of its promoters. But the petition is only one proof among
many of the profound discontent of the unenfranchised population,
who are a great majority of the white inhabitants of the State."
"The public meeting of the 14th January was indeed broken up by
workmen, many of them poor burghers, in the employment of the
Government and instigated by Government officials, and it is
impossible at present to hold another meeting of a great size.
Open-air meetings are prohibited by law, and by one means or
another all large public buildings have been rendered
unavailable. But smaller meetings are being held almost nightly
along the Rand, and are unanimous in their demand for
enfranchisement. The movement is steadily growing in force and
[Sidenote: The movement not artificial.]
"With regard to the attempt to represent that movement as
artificial, the work of scheming capitalists or professional
agitators, I regard it as a wilful perversion of the truth. The
defenceless people who are clamouring for a redress of grievances
are doing so at great personal risk. It is notorious that many
capitalists regard political agitation with disfavour because of
its effect on the markets. It is equally notorious that the
lowest class of Uitlanders, and especially the illicit liquor
dealers, have no sympathy whatever with the cause of reform.
Moreover, there are in all classes a considerable number who only
want to make money and clear out, and who, while possibly
sympathising with reform, feel no great interest in a matter
which may only concern them temporarily. But a very large and
constantly increasing proportion of the Uitlanders are not birds
of passage; they contemplate a long residence in the country, or
to make it their permanent home. These people are the mainstay of
the reform movement as they are of the prosperity of the country.
They would make excellent citizens if they had the chance.
"A busy industrial community is not naturally prone to political
unrest. But they bear the chief burden of taxation; they
constantly feel in their business and daily lives the effects of
chaotic local legislation and of incompetent and unsympathetic
administration; they have many grievances, but they believe all
these could gradually be removed if they had only a fair share of
political power. This is the meaning of their vehement demand for
enfranchisement. Moreover, they are mostly British subjects,
accustomed to a free system and equal rights; they feel deeply
the personal indignity involved in a position of permanent
subjection to the ruling caste, which owes its wealth and power
to their exertion. The political turmoil in the Transvaal
Republic will never end till the permanent Uitlander population
is admitted to a share in the government, and while that turmoil
lasts there will be no tranquillity or adequate progress in Her
Majesty's South African dominions.
"The relations between the British Colonies and the two Republics
are intimate to a degree which one must live in South Africa in
order fully to realise. Socially, economically, ethnologically,
they are all one country. The two principal white races are
everywhere inextricably mixed up; it is absurd for either to
dream of subjugating the other. The only condition on which they
can live in harmony, and the country progress, is equality all
round. South Africa can prosper under two, three, or six
Governments; but not under two absolutely conflicting social and
political systems--perfect equality for Dutch and British in the
British Colonies side by side with the permanent subjection of
the British to the Dutch in one of the Republics. It is idle to
talk of peace and unity under such a state of affairs.
"It is this which makes the internal condition of the Transvaal
Republic a matter of vital interest to Her Majesty's Government.
No merely local question affects so deeply the welfare and peace
of her own South African possessions. And the right of Great
Britain to intervene to secure fair treatment to the Uitlanders
is fully equal to her supreme interest in securing it. The
majority of them are her subjects, whom she is bound to protect.
But the enormous number of British subjects, the endless series
of their grievances, and the nature of those grievances, which
are not less serious because they are not individually
sensational, makes protection by the ordinary diplomatic means
impossible. We are, as you know, for ever remonstrating about
this, that, and the other injury to British subjects. Only in
rare cases, and only when we are very emphatic, do we obtain any
redress. The sore between us and the Transvaal Republic is thus
inevitably kept up, while the result in the way of protection to
our subjects is lamentably small. For these reasons it has been,
as you know, my constant endeavour to reduce the number of our
complaints. I may sometimes have abstained when I ought to have
protested from my great dislike of ineffectual nagging. But I
feel that the attempt to remedy the hundred-and-one wrongs
springing from a hopeless system by taking up isolated cases, is
perfectly vain. It may easily lead to war, but will never lead to
[Sidenote: Enfranchisement the remedy.]
"The true remedy is to strike at the root of all these
injuries--the political impotence of the injured. What diplomatic
protests will never accomplish, a fair measure of Uitlander
representation would gradually but surely bring about. It seems a
paradox, but it is true, that the only effective way of
protecting our subjects is to help them to cease to be our
subjects. The admission of the Uitlanders to a fair share of
political power would no doubt give stability to the Republic.
But it would, at the same time, remove most of our causes of
difference with it, and modify and, in the long run, entirely
remove that intense suspicion and bitter hostility to Great
Britain which at present dominates its internal and external
"The case for intervention is overwhelming. The only attempted
answer is that things will right themselves if left alone. But,
in fact, the policy of leaving things alone has been tried for
years, and it has led to their going from bad to worse. It is not
true that this is owing to the Raid. They were going from bad to
worse before the Raid. We were on the verge of war before the
Raid, and the Transvaal was on the verge of revolution. The
effect of the Raid has been to give the policy of leaving things
alone a new lease of life, and with the old consequences.
"The spectacle of thousands of British subjects kept permanently
in the position of helots, constantly chafing under undoubted
grievances, and calling vainly to Her Majesty's Government for
redress, does steadily undermine the influence and reputation of
Great Britain, and the respect for the British Government within
the Queen's dominions. A certain section of the Press, not in the
Transvaal only, preaches openly and constantly the doctrine of a
republic embracing all South Africa, and supports it by menacing
references to the armaments of the Transvaal, its alliance with
the Orange Free State, and the active sympathy which, in case of
war, it would receive from a section of Her Majesty's subjects. I
regret to say that this doctrine, supported as it is by a
ceaseless stream of malignant lies about the intentions of the
British Government, is producing a great effect upon a large
number of our Dutch fellow-colonists. Language is frequently used
which seems to imply that the Dutch have some superior right,
even in this Colony, to their fellow-citizens of British birth.
Thousands of men peacefully disposed, and, if left alone,
perfectly satisfied with their position as British subjects, are
being drawn into disaffection, and there is a corresponding
exasperation on the side of the British.
"I can see nothing which will put a stop to this mischievous
propaganda but some striking proof of the intention of Her
Majesty's Government not to be ousted from its position in South
Africa. And the best proof alike of its power and its justice
would be to obtain for the Uitlanders in the Transvaal a fair
share in the government of the country which owes everything to
their exertions. It could be made perfectly clear that our
action was not directed against the existence of the Republic. We
should only be demanding the re-establishment of rights which now
exist in the Orange Free State, and which existed in the
Transvaal itself at the time of, and long after, the withdrawal
of British sovereignty. It would be no selfish demand, as other
Uitlanders besides those of British birth would benefit by it. It
is asking for nothing from others which we do not give ourselves.
And it would certainly go to the root of the political unrest in
South Africa, and, though temporarily it might aggravate, it
would ultimately extinguish the race feud, which is the great
bane of the country."
[Footnote 53: C. 9,345.]
It was Lord Milner's intention that the text of this despatch should have been made public upon its receipt in England. It contained the essential facts of the South African situation; and, what is more, it exhibited with perfect frankness the connection between Dutch ascendancy in the Cape Colony and Dutch tyranny in the Transvaal--a matter which was very imperfectly understood. The circumstance that these essential facts were before the British people, and, moreover, the circumstance that President Krüger knew that they were before the British people, would, he believed, greatly increase the effect of the strong demand for reforms which the Imperial Government had determined to address to the Pretoria Executive in response to the petition to the Queen.
[Sidenote: Hofmeyr's intervention.]
Nor was he alone in this opinion. Mr. Hofmeyr knew that a despatch of grave importance had gone home. He had gathered, no doubt, a fairly accurate notion of its tenor from Mr. Schreiner, whom Lord Milner had warned some time before of "the gravity of the situation." It is not going beyond the limits of probability to assume that the Master of the Bond realised the effect which the publication of these plain truths, backed by the authority of the High Commissioner, would produce upon the mind of the English people, and that he thereupon determined to take steps to prevent a turn of affairs which, as he conceived, would be most unfavourable to the nationalist cause. Surmises apart, it is certain, at least, that five days sufficed to place Mr. Hofmeyr in a position to ask Lord Milner if he would favourably consider an invitation to meet President Krüger in conference at Bloemfontein; and that within three days more (May 12th) a definite proposal to this effect had been made through the agency of President Steyn and accepted by Mr. Chamberlain. Nor, is it any less certain that, in view of the friendly discussion which was to take place so soon, the Secretary of State decided to postpone the publication of Lord Milner's despatch. This is the short history of the Bloemfontein Conference. It was a counter-stroke dealt by one of those "formidable personalities" of which Mr. Asquith spoke, and in all respects worthy of Mr. Hofmeyr's statesmanship. Indeed, the methods which he employed for paralysing the machinery of British administration in South Africa were always subtle: infinitely more subtle than those which Parnell adopted in the not very dissimilar circumstances of the Home Rule campaign.
[Footnote 54: C. 9,345. See forward, p. 155.]
The decision to postpone the publication of Lord Milner's despatch of May 4th was a serious mistake, the injurious effect of which was felt both at the Conference and afterwards. But before we observe the incidents by which this central event was immediately preceded, it is necessary to examine more fully the political environment in which Lord Milner found himself established now that the April elections had given the Afrikander party an assured tenure of power, and, at the same time, the moment had arrived for the Imperial Government to fulfil the pledge given on February 4th, 1896, for the redress of the "admitted grievances" of the Uitlanders.
[Footnote 55: See p. 125.]
[Sidenote: The Bond and the ministry.]
The Schreiner Ministry was the agent of the Bond; it could not exist for a day if the Bond withdrew its support. The Bond majority in the Legislative Assembly had been returned by the Dutch inhabitants of the Colony for the avowed purpose of preventing the intervention of the Imperial Government in the affairs of the Transvaal. The Ministry and its supporters had begun by ranging themselves definitely on the side of the Transvaal. And, therefore, in all that was done by either party from the Bloemfontein Conference to the Ultimatum, it followed, ex hypothesi, that, in their opinion, the Transvaal was right, and England was wrong. Twice, as we shall see, Mr. Schreiner, on behalf of the Cape Ministry, hastened to declare publicly that the proposals of the Transvaal were all that was satisfactory, before he even knew what those proposals were. The Cape nationalists represented themselves as "mediators." They had as little intention of mediating between the Pretoria Executive and the British Government as a barrister, heavily feed and primed with his client's case, has of mediating between his client and his client's opponent at the hearing of a case in court.
But the Bond was "loyal." The Bond members of the Cabinet--T. Nicholas German Te Water, and Albertus Johannes Herholdt, no less than William Philip Schreiner, John Xavier Merriman, Jacobus Wilhelmus Sauer, and Richard Solomon--had sworn, upon taking office, "to be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty."
[Sidenote: The Schreiner ministry.]
The situation in which Lord Milner now found himself was thus one of so extraordinary a character that it would be difficult to find a parallel to it in the annals of our colonial administration. As High Commissioner, he had advocated in the most emphatic terms the exercise of the authority of Great Britain, as paramount Power, in the Transvaal. As Governor of the Cape Colony, he was bound to administer the affairs of the Colony in accordance with the advice tendered by his ministers. And the advice which ministers were pledged to give him was the direct opposite of that which he himself, as High Commissioner, had given to the Imperial Government. To dismiss his ministers--the alternative to accepting this advice--would have been an extreme measure, to be justified only upon clear evidence that they had failed in the duty which they, no less than he himself, owed to the Crown. Whether Mr. Schreiner's Cabinet did so fail is a matter that the reader must determine for himself; possibly it would be difficult to show that, collectively or individually, the Cape ministers did anything more injurious to British interests than was done by the Liberal Opposition--again collectively or individually--in England. One thing is certain: the action of the Afrikander Cabinet, whether within or beyond the letter of its allegiance, lessened--and was intended to lessen--the force of an effort on the part of the Imperial Government, which might otherwise have averted the necessity for war.
And here certain questions which will arise inevitably to the mind that pursues the narrative of the next few months, must be anticipated. What was the position of Mr. Schreiner? What was his real standpoint, and what was his relationship to Lord Milner? How was it that two Englishmen, Mr. Merriman and Sir (then Mr.) Richard Solomon, came to be in this Afrikander Cabinet, and what were their respective motives in thus associating themselves with the objects of the Bond?
[Sidenote: The prime minister.]
Mr. Philip Schreiner was the son of a German by birth, a missionary of the London Missionary Society, who had married an Englishwoman, and afterwards settled in the Orange Free State. He had himself married a sister of Mr. F. W. Reitz, formerly President of the Free State, and now State Secretary of the South African Republic. The Schreiner family was remarkable for intellectual power. Of his sisters one is the authoress of The Story of an African Farm, and a second, Mrs. Lewis, like her brother Theophilus, was an active Imperialist and a determined opponent of the Bond. Mr. Schreiner himself was educated at the South African College at Capetown, and subsequently at Cambridge, where he was placed first in the First Class of the Law Tripos, and afterwards elected a Fellow of Downing. After a successful career at the Cape Bar he was appointed Attorney-General in Mr. Rhodes's Ministry, a position which he held at the time of the Raid. He was prevented by his strong disapproval of the part then played by Mr. Rhodes from joining the Progressive party; and, having accepted the position of Parliamentary leader of the Bond, he had become, as we have seen, Prime Minister through the Bond victory in the Cape General Election of 1898. It is characteristic alike of Mr. Schreiner and of his political position that the only word of sympathy with the British connection, uttered from first to last during this election by the Bond candidates or their supporters, was the conventional reference to the greatness of the British Empire which, as we have noticed, occurred in his address to the electors of Malmesbury. With these political and social ties, Mr. Schreiner was compelled to be a South African first and a British subject second. His is precisely the kind of case where true allegiance can be expected only when a federal constitution has been created for the Empire.
"See," said Lord Milner, in his farewell speech at Johannesburg,
"how such a consummation would solve, and, indeed, can alone
solve, the most difficult and most persistent of the problems of
South Africa; how it would unite its white races as nothing else
can. The Dutch can never own a perfect allegiance merely to Great
Britain. The British can never, without moral injury, accept
allegiance to any body politic which excludes their motherland.
But British and Dutch alike could, without loss of integrity,
without any sacrifice of their several traditions, unite in loyal
devotion to an empire-state, in which Great Britain and South
Africa would be partners, and could work cordially together for
the good of South Africa as a member of that greater whole."
[Footnote 56: The Johannesburg Star, April 1st, 1905.]
With Schreiner, and such as he, loyalty to the Crown was for the moment the product of intellectual judgment or considerations of policy. All, or almost all, the instinctive feelings, born of pleasant associations with persons and places, which enter so largely into the sentiment of patriotism seem to have drawn him, as they drew his sister, Mrs. Cronwright-Schreiner, into sympathy with the cause of Afrikander nationalism. What his view was upon the particular issue now agitating South Africa may be gathered from an answer which he gave to a question put to him by Mr. Chamberlain in the course of the inquiry into the Raid (1897):
MR. CHAMBERLAIN: I suppose your view is that the Imperial
Government should adopt the same policy as the Cape Government,
and should refrain from even friendly representations as not
being calculated to advance the cause of the Uitlanders?
MR. SCHREINER: Yes, decidedly, so far as purely internal concerns
[Footnote 57: Proceedings of the Select Committee on British
South Africa (Q. 4,385).]
In other words, Mr. Schreiner was a consistent and convinced opponent of Imperial intervention. But there was a difference between his motive and that of the Bond leaders. Schreiner desired to prevent intervention, not because he did not recognise the justice of the claims of the Uitlanders, but because he believed that the Imperial Government was devoid of any right to intervene under the Conventions; while, at the same time, his instinctive sympathy with the Afrikander nationalists made him blind to the existence of any moral right of interference that England might possess, as the Power responsible for the well-being of South Africa as a whole. And so, partly by force of environment and partly by a narrow and erroneous interpretation of the principles of international law, the Boer and Hollander oligarchy in the Transvaal, with all its moral obliquity and administrative incompetence, had become, as it were, a thing sacrosanct in his eyes. Mr. Hofmeyr and the Bond leaders, on the other hand, desired to prevent intervention because they were perfectly satisfied to see the British Uitlanders in a position of political inferiority, and perfectly content with the whole situation, the continuance of which, as they knew, was directly calculated to bring about the supremacy of the Dutch race in South Africa. Therefore Hofmeyr made no effort to improve the state of affairs in the Transvaal until he saw the storm bursting. And when, at a later stage, he set himself to work in earnest to induce President Krüger to grant reforms, he did so to save the cause of Afrikander nationalism and not to assist the British Government in winning justice for the Uitlanders.
[Footnote 58: For the position of Great Britain from the
point of view of international law see some remarks in the
note on page 580 (Chapter XII.).]
[Sidenote: Sir Richard Solomon.]
Sir Richard Solomon, who was a nephew of Saul Solomon, the prominent radical politician chiefly instrumental in carrying the vote for Responsible Government through the Legislative Council of the Cape Colony (1872), was the leader of the Bar at Kimberley. His presence, at first sight, formed a wholly incongruous element in such a ministry. On the native question, in his fiscal views, as a supporter of the Redistribution Bill, and in his sympathy with the Uitlanders, he was in direct conflict with the characteristic principles of the Bond. His one link with the Afrikander party was his distrust of Rhodes; and in view of his unquestioned loyalty to the British connection, his decision to join the Schreiner Ministry is probably to be attributed to his personal friendship for the Prime Minister. On the other hand, his ability, detachment from local parties, and the respect which he commanded, made him a valuable asset to Mr. Schreiner.
[Sidenote: Messrs. Merriman and Sauer.]
Mr. Merriman, whose close political associate was Mr. Sauer, had twice held office under Mr. Rhodes (1890-96); but his separation from Rhodes, consequent upon the Raid, had thrown him into the arms of the Bond. Some of the more striking incidents in Mr. Merriman's political career have been already mentioned. Fifteen years ago more Imperialist than Rhodes, he was soon to show himself more Bondsman than the Bond. Once the resolute, almost inspired, castigator of the separatist aims of that organisation, he was now in close and sympathetic association with the leaders of Afrikander nationalism in the Republics and the Cape Colony. The denunciations of "capitalism" and "capitalists" with which he now regaled his Afrikander allies, had an ill savour in the mouth of the man who had tried to amalgamate the Diamond Mines at Kimberley--failing where Rhodes and Beit afterwards succeeded--and who, attracted by the magnet of gold discovery, for a short time had acted as manager of the Langlaagte Estate and Mr. J. B. Robinson's interests at Johannesburg. With political principles thus unstable and a mind strangely sensitive to any emotional appeal, it is not surprising that Mr. Merriman displayed the proverbial enthusiasm of the convert in his new political creed. His original perception of the imprudence and administrative incompetency of President Krüger's régime was rapidly obliterated by a growing partizanship, which in turn gave place to an unreasoning sympathy with the Boer cause, combined with a bitter antipathy against all who were concerned, whether in a civil or military capacity, in giving effect to the intervention of the Imperial Government on behalf of the British industrial community in the Transvaal. Mr. J. W. Sauer was destined to exhibit his political convictions in a manner so demonstrative that his words and acts, as recorded in the sequel, will leave the reader in no doubt as to the reality of his sympathy with the Boer and Afrikander cause. For the moment, therefore, it is sufficient to notice that, although he shared Mr. Merriman's present abhorrence of "capitalism" and "capitalists," he was for many years of his life a promoter and director of mining and other companies.
[Footnote 59: See pp. 61, 69, and 93.]
Of the two Bondsmen in the Cabinet, Mr. Herholdt was a member of the Legislative Council, and a Dutch farmer of moderate views and good repute; while Dr. Te Water was the friend and confidant of Mr. Hofmeyr, and, as such, the intermediary between the Bond and the Afrikander nationalists in the Free State and in the Transvaal.
The Schreiner Cabinet was the velvet glove which covered the mailed hand of Mr. Hofmeyr. Dr. Te Water had been Colonial Secretary in the Sprigg Ministry up to the crisis of May, 1898. He was now "minister without portfolio" in the Schreiner Ministry. His presence was the sign and instrument of the domination of the Bond; and the domination of the Bond was as yet the permanent and controlling factor in the administration of the Colony under Responsible Government. The fact that only two out of six members of the Ministry were Bondsmen, is to be referred to the circumstance that the actual business of administration had been hitherto mainly in the hands of a small group of British colonial politicians, who were prepared to bid against each other for the all-important support of the Dutch vote. With the majority of these men, to be in office was an object for the attainment of which they were prepared to make a considerable sacrifice in respect of their somewhat elastic political principles. The denial of political rights to the British population in the Transvaal, by threatening the maintenance of British supremacy in South Africa, had now for the first time created a British party in the Cape Colony--the Progressives--strong enough to act in independence of the Bond. The existence of this British party, not only free from the Bond, but determined (although it was in a minority) to challenge the Bond predominance, was a new phenomenon in Cape politics. In itself it constituted an appreciable improvement upon the previously existing state of affairs; since the British population was thus no longer hopelessly weakened by being divided into two parties of almost equal strength, nor were its leaders any longer obliged to subordinate their regard for British interests to the primary necessity of obtaining office by Bond support.
[Sidenote: Policy of the ministry.]
Mr. Schreiner's Ministry, however, in spite of a difference of motives on the part of its individual members, was unanimous in its desire to prevent that intervention of the Imperial Government for which, in Lord Milner's judgment, there was "overwhelming" necessity. The idea of inducing President Krüger to grant such a "colourable measure of reform" as would satisfy the Imperial Government, or at least deprive it of any justification for interference by force of arms, was in contemplation some months before the Bloemfontein Conference took place. On January 1st, 1899, Mr. Merriman wrote to President Steyn with this object in view. "Is there no opportunity," he said, "of bringing about a rapprochement between us, in which the Free State might play the part of honest broker? We, i.e., the Colony and Free State, have common material interests in our railway, apart from our anxiety to see the common welfare of South Africa increase from the removal of the one great cause of unrest and the pretext for outside interference."
[Footnote 60: Mr. Merriman's expression. See his letter to
Mr. Fischer at p. 161.]
[Footnote 61: Cd. 369.]
And Lord Milner, very soon after his return from England, was sounded by Mr. Schreiner as to the possibility of settling the franchise question by means of a South African Conference. Early in March--when Mr. Smuts was in Capetown, and the Pretoria Executive was engaged in the abortive attempt to separate the leaders of the mining industry from the rank and file of the Uitlander population by offering them certain fiscal and industrial reforms, if only they would undertake to discourage the agitation for political rights--the same subject was brought before the High Commissioner by Mr. Merriman himself. In pursuance of the real purpose of the Afrikander Ministry--i.e. to obtain a fictitious concession from President Krüger, instead of the "fair share in the government of the country" required by the Imperial Government--it was proposed originally to exclude Lord Milner altogether from the negotiations by arranging that the Transvaal Government should bring forward proposals for reform at an inter-State Conference consisting of representatives of the governments of the two Republics and the self-governing British Colonies. But Lord Milner was, happily, High Commissioner as well as Governor of the Cape. As High Commissioner, he declared that at any such Conference the Imperial Government must be separately represented. Neither the Transvaal nor the Free State was willing to enter a Conference on these terms, although they were acceptable to the Cape Government; and the plan fell to the ground.
It was then that Mr. Hofmeyr intervened, in view of Lord Milner's despatch of May 4th; and President Steyn, persuaded with dramatic swiftness to accept the rôle of peace-maker, which his predecessor, Sir John Brand, had played with such success in 1881, secured the grudging consent of President Krüger to meet the High Commissioner at Bloemfontein.
[Sidenote: Hofmeyr's tour de force.]
The incidents which led to the accomplishment of Hofmeyr's tour de force are singularly instructive. Lord Milner's despatch was telegraphed from Capetown about midday on May 4th. It was soon apparent that there was a leakage, legitimate or illegitimate, from the Colonial Office. On Saturday, the 6th, Mr. Schreiner received warning telegrams from trusted sources in London, including "Hofmeyr's best friends"; and on this day he wrote a letter to President Steyn containing a "proposition" of so confidential a character that it could not be telegraphed in spite of the urgent need of haste. On Monday, the 8th, Mr. Schreiner received more warning telegrams, and Dr. Te Water, in writing to President Steyn, expressed his hope that the proposition, made by Schreiner in his letter of Saturday, might by this time "have been accepted, or that something had been done which would achieve the same purpose." On the same day the Cape papers published an alarming telegram reproducing from The Daily Chronicle a statement that the South African situation was very serious, and that the British Government was prepared to "take some risk of war." On Tuesday, the 9th, Lord Milner was present at a dinner given by the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly; and Mr. Hofmeyr, who was among the guests, in the course of a long conversation with him after dinner, broached the idea of his meeting President Krüger at Bloemfontein. On Wednesday, the 10th, Lord Milner sent for Mr. Hofmeyr and discussed the subject more at length; and, a little later, when he had gone to the Governor's Office, Mr. Schreiner came in with a telegram from President Steyn, in which the Cape Prime Minister was requested to ascertain formally whether the High Commissioner would be willing to accept an invitation to meet President Krüger. This telegram Lord Milner forwarded to Mr. Chamberlain, adding that the Cape Cabinet was "strongly" in favour of acceptance, and that Schreiner himself had declared that the invitation was the result of the "influence which he (Schreiner) had been using with the Transvaal Government ever since I had warned him of the gravity of the situation." Mr. Chamberlain's reply (May 12th), authorised Lord Milner to accept President Steyn's invitation, and in doing so, to state that a despatch was already on its way which contained a similar proposal made by the Imperial Government--
[Footnote 62: Letter of Te Water to Steyn. See forward, p.
162, where this letter is given.]
[Footnote 63: Ibid.]
[Footnote 64: Then under the editorship of Mr. Massingham.]
[Footnote 65: C. 9,345.]
[Sidenote: The conference arranged.]
"in the hope that, in concert with the President, you may arrive
at such an arrangement as Her Majesty's Government could accept
and recommend to the Uitlander population as a reasonable
concession to their just demands and a settlement of the
difficulties which have threatened the good relations"
between the two Governments. This was the famous despatch of May 10th, in which Mr. Chamberlain reviewed carefully and exhaustively the whole situation as between the Transvaal and the Imperial Government, and formally accepted the Uitlanders' Petition to the Queen. It was not published until June 14th, i.e., after the Bloemfontein Conference had been held. It was then issued, together with Lord Milner's despatch of May 4th, in a Blue-book containing the complete record of all discussions of Transvaal affairs subsequent to Lord Milner's appointment.
In the course of the next few days communications passed rapidly between Lord Milner, Mr. Chamberlain, President Steyn, and President Krüger, with the result that, on May 18th, President Steyn's invitation was formally accepted, and on the following day it was arranged that the Conference should begin on May 31st. Never was intervention more effective, or less obtrusive. Mr. Hofmeyr's part in the affair was confined apparently to an after-dinner conversation with the High Commissioner. Nor was the directing hand of the Master of the Bond revealed more fully until Lord Roberts's occupation of Bloemfontein placed the British authorities in possession of part of the communications which passed at this time, and during the four succeeding months, between the Cape nationalists and their republican confederates. And even in these documents Hofmeyr's name is rarely found at the end of a letter or telegram. It is Schreiner or Te Water who writes or telegraphs to Steyn or Fischer, adding sometimes, by way of emphasis, "Hofmeyr says" this or that. In the meantime (May 22nd), Lord Milner had telegraphed, for "an indication of the line" which Mr. Chamberlain wished him to take at the Conference. He himself suggested that the franchise question should be put in the foreground; since it would be useless to discuss other matters in dispute until a satisfactory settlement of this all-important question had been achieved. Mr. Chamberlain replied (May 24th), agreeing with the line indicated by Lord Milner:
"I think personally that you should lay all the stress," he
telegraphed, "on the question of the franchise in the first
instance. Other reforms are less pressing, and will come in time
if this can be arranged satisfactorily, and the form of oath
Mr. Chamberlain at the same time authorised Lord Milner to inform the Uitlander petitioners that they might rely upon obtaining the general sympathy of the Imperial Government in the prayers which they had addressed to the Queen.
[Sidenote: Motives of Afrikander leaders.]
There was no doubt in Lord Milner's mind as to the real motives which had prompted the Afrikander nationalist leaders to make this effort. They recognised at length that he was in earnest, and that Mr. Chamberlain was in earnest, and they desired, above all things, to avoid a crisis which would force a conflict before their ultimate plans had fully matured. Lord Milner knew that any delay which involved the continuance of the present position--a position which was one of moral superiority for the Dutch--would unite the whole of the Dutch, with a section of the British population, against Great Britain within a measurable period. He recognised that the franchise question was the one issue which could be raised between the paramount Power and the South African Republic in which the whole of the Cape Dutch would not throw in their lot bodily with their republican kinsmen. This very anxiety on the part of Mr. Hofmeyr to prevent the decisive action of the Imperial Government was evidence of the truth of his estimate. But as a response to the appeal of the Graaf Reinet speech, this Afrikander mediation came too late. "Hands off" the Transvaal was the first plank in the platform of the Schreiner Ministry; "reform" was a second and subsidiary plank, adopted in place of the first only when they had been driven to abandon it by Lord Milner's resolution and statesmanship. But the purpose of the Ministry now, no less than before, was to hinder, and not to help, the British Government in obtaining justice for the Uitlanders. Moreover, the Transvaal armaments were well advanced, and the Pretoria Executive was too deeply committed to a policy of defiance to allow it to draw back without humiliation. Nevertheless, Lord Milner felt bound to avail himself of any prospect of peace that the Conference might afford. When, however, Mr. Schreiner, in bringing President Steyn's telegram, had said that he regarded the proposal as "a great step in advance on the part of President Krüger," Lord Milner had replied that he could "hardly take that view, as the invitation did not emanate from President Krüger himself," and contained no indication of "the basis or subject of discussion."
[Sidenote: Krüger's obduracy.]
The High Commissioner was right. The slight degree in which any appeal adequate to the occasion was likely to prove acceptable to President Krüger may be gathered from a passage in a letter of Sir Henry de Villiers to President Steyn (May 21st), in which the Chief Justice of the Cape refers to his recent experience in Pretoria when he was on this very errand of "mediation":
"On my recent visit to Pretoria I did not visit the President, as
I considered it hopeless to think of making any impression on
him; but I saw Reitz, Smuts, and Schalk Burger, who, I thought,
would be amenable to argument: but I fear that either my advice
had no effect on them, or else their opinion had no weight with
"I urged upon them to advise the President to open the Volksraad
with promises of a liberal franchise and drastic reforms.
"It would have been so much better if these had come voluntarily
from the Government, instead of being gradually forced from them.
In the former case, they would rally the greater number of the
malcontents around them; in the latter case, no gratitude will be
felt to the Republic for any concessions made by it. Besides,
there can be no doubt that, as the alien population increases, as
it undoubtedly will, their demands will increase with their
discontent, and ultimately a great deal more will have to be
conceded than will now satisfy them. The franchise proposal made
by the President seems to be simply ridiculous.
"I am quite certain that if in 1881 it had been known to my
fellow-Commissioners that the President would adopt his
retrogressive policy, neither President Brand nor I would ever
have induced them to consent to sign the Convention. They would
have advised the Secretary of State to let matters revert to the
condition in which they were before peace was concluded; in other
words, to recommence the war....
"I should like to have said a word about the dynamite monopoly,
but I fear I have already exhausted your patience. My sole object
in writing is to preserve the peace of South Africa. There are,
of course, many unreasonable demands; but the President's
position will be strengthened, and, at all events, his conscience
will be clear in case of war, if he has done everything that can
reasonably be expected from him. I feel sure that, having used
your influence to bring him and Sir Alfred together, you will
also do your best to make your efforts in favour of peace
successful. I feel sure also that Sir Alfred is anxious to make
his mission a success; but there can be no success unless the
arrangement arrived at is a permanent one, and not merely to tide
over immediate difficulties."
And again, in writing to his brother, Mr. Melius de Villiers, Chief Justice of the Free State, at a later date (July 31st), he says, in allusion to this same visit to Pretoria:
"From an intimate acquaintance with what was going on, I foresaw,
three months ago, that if President Krüger did not voluntarily
yield he would be made to do so, or else be prepared to meet the
whole power of England. I accordingly begged of Krüger's friends
to put the matter to him in this way: On the one side there is
war with England; on the other side there are concessions which
will avoid war or occupation of the country. Now, decide at once
how far you will ultimately go; adopt the English five years'
franchise; offer it voluntarily to the Uitlanders, make them your
friends, be a far-sighted statesman, and you will have a majority
of the Uitlanders with you when they become burghers. The answer
I got was: We have done too much already, and cannot do more. Yet
afterwards they did a great deal more. The same policy of doing
nothing except under pressure is still being pursued. The longer
the delay, the more they will have to yield."
[Sidenote: Afrikander advice.]
This was plain speaking and sound statesmanship. Nor was Mr. Merriman's appeal, written almost concurrently (May 26th) with Sir Henry's letter to President Steyn, any less emphatic. It was addressed to Mr. Abraham Fischer, a member of the Free State Executive and a convinced nationalist; and it is otherwise remarkable for an estimate of the economic conditions of the Boers which subsequent experience has completely justified:
"I most strongly urge you," he writes, "to use your utmost
influence to bear on President Krüger to concede some colourable
measure of reform, not so much in the interests of outsiders as
in those of his own State. Granted that he does nothing. What is
the future? His Boers, the backbone of the country, are perishing
off the land; hundreds have become impoverished loafers, landless
hangers-on of the town population. In his own interests he should
recruit his Republic with new blood--and the sands are running
out. I say this irrespective of agitation about Uitlanders. The
fabric will go to pieces of its own accord unless something is
done.... A moderate franchise reform and municipal privileges
would go far to satisfy any reasonable people, while a
maintenance of the oath ought to be sufficient safeguard against
the swamping of the old population."
[Footnote 66: All these letters are in Cd. 369.]
But the Schreiner Cabinet contained, as we have seen, a representative of Mr. Hofmeyr in the person of Dr. Te Water. Mr. Merriman could see that the position in the Transvaal was one that could not go on indefinitely--that "the fabric would go to pieces of its own accord, unless something was done." Dr. Te Water was blind even to this aspect of the question. The correspondence found after the occupation of Bloemfontein (March 13th, 1900), from which these letters are taken, contains also certain letters to President Steyn that disclose both the nature of the Afrikander mediation, as it was understood by the nationalist leaders of the Cape Colony, and the faithfulness with which Dr. Te Water served them.
The Te Water correspondence, as we have it, consists of three letters written respectively on May 8th, 17th, and 27th, from "the Colonial Secretary's Office, Capetown," to President Steyn. The replies of the latter have been withheld, not unnaturally, from the public eye. In the first of these letters Dr. Te Water "hopes heartily" that Schreiner's "proposition" for the Conference has been accepted, and then proceeds to impress upon him the advisability of President Krüger's yielding on the ground, not of justice, but of temporary expediency. In so doing, this Minister of the Crown completely identifies himself with the aspirations of the Afrikander nationalists, and he concludes by asking for "a private telegraphic code. The absence thereof was badly felt on Saturday, when Schreiner was obliged to write instead of telegraphing."
[Footnote 67: Cd. 369.]
"Circumstances appear to me now," he writes, "to be such that our
friends in Pretoria must be yielding; with their friends at the
head of the Government here, they have a better chance that
reasonable propositions made by them will be accepted than they
would have had if we had been unsuccessful at the late elections
and our enemies were advisers.
[Sidenote: "Play to win time".]
"Schreiner, who knows more than any one of us, feels strongly
that things are extremely critical.
"Telegrams from people in London, whom he thoroughly trusts, such
as J. H.'s best friends, received by him on Saturday and this
morning, strengthen him in his opinion. We must now play to win
time. Governments are not perpetual, and I pray that the present
team, so unjustly disposed towards us, may receive their reward
before long. Their successors, I am certain, will follow a less
hateful policy towards us. When we hear that you have succeeded
in Pretoria, then we must bring influence to bear here."
[Footnote 68: Mr. Hofmeyr.]
In the second letter Dr. Te Water regrets that he cannot share President Steyn's view that "all the noise about war is bluff." Then there follows a passage showing that Mr. Steyn had entertained expectations of assistance from the Schreiner Cabinet that even Dr. Te Water could not reconcile with his ideas of ministerial allegiance:
"But now I should like a few words of explanation," he writes,
"as to what you mean by saying that 'The Cape Ministry will be
able to do much more good.' In what respect do you think that we
can be of more use than before?"
Assuming, for the moment, that President Steyn had written, "In the event of war becoming inevitable, or having broken out, the Cape Ministry will be able to do much more good than it is doing now," or words to this effect, it would appear that he shared the erroneous views of Mr. Reitz, against which Sir Henry de Villiers had protested during his visit to Pretoria. In the letter to Mr. Melius de Villiers, from which we have quoted above, Sir Henry writes:
"When I was in the Transvaal three months ago, I found that Reitz
and others had the most extraordinary notions of the powers and
duties of a Cape Ministry in case of war. They are ministers of
the Crown, and it will be their duty to afford every possible
assistance to the British Government. Under normal conditions, a
responsible Ministry is perfectly independent in matters of
internal concern, but in case of war they are bound to place all
the resources of the Colony at the disposal of the British Crown;
at least if they did not do so they would be liable to
Dr. Te Water then continues:
"I would very much like to know your views, and if we are not
already working in that direction I will try, as far as possible,
to do what I can to give effect to your wishes, which may be for
the welfare of all. Please let me hear immediately and fully
[Sidenote: Te Water and Steyn.]
The last letter, written on the eve of the Conference, opens with a curiously significant passage. There were some things discussed between Steyn and Te Water that Mr. Schreiner was not to know. President Steyn has been getting nervous. Dr. Te Water, therefore, reassures him:
"Yours received on my return this morning from Aberdeen. Telegram
also reached me. I keep all your communications strictly private:
naturally you do not exclude my colleagues and our friend
Hofmeyr. I have often read extracts to them, but do not be
afraid; I shall not give you away."
It also contains the information that, as President Steyn had no private code available, Dr. Te Water has borrowed the private telegraphic code of the Cabinet for President Steyn's use.
"To-day, by post, I send you personally our private telegraphic
code for use. I borrowed one from Sauer; we have only three, and
I must, therefore, ask you to let me have it back in a couple of
weeks. Please keep it under lock, and use it yourself only. It
is quite possible that you will have to communicate with us, and
the telegraphic service is not entirely to be trusted. I am
afraid that things leak out there in one way or another."
And he then drives home the advice given before: "It is honestly now the time to yield a little, however one may later again tighten the rope."
One other letter must be given to complete this view of the circumstances in which the conference met. It was written on May 9th, 1899--that is to say, on the day on which Mr. Hofmeyr proposed to Lord Milner that he should accept President Steyn's good offices to arrange the conference with President Krüger. It is addressed to President Steyn, and, translated, runs as follows:
"DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS,
"GOVERNMENT OFFICES, PRETORIA.
"May 9th, 1899.
"DEAR MR. PRESIDENT,--
"I am sorry that I could not earlier fulfil my promise as to the
ammunition. The reason of it is that his honour the
Commandant-General [General Joubert] was away, and I could
consequently not get the desired information earlier.
"The General says that he has 15 to 20 (twenty) million Mauser
and 10 to 12 million Martini-Henry cartridges, and if needed will
be able to supply you with any of either sort.
"On that score your Excellency can accordingly be at rest.
"The situation looks very dark indeed, although nothing is as yet
officially known to us. I trust that some change may still come
in it through your proposed plan. The copies re dynamite will
be sent to you at the earliest opportunity. With best greeting,
"Your humble servant and friend,
[Footnote 69: The original of this letter is now in the
possession of Mr. E. B. Iwan Müller, by whom it was published
in his work, Lord Milner and South Africa. The translation
is that of the Department of Military Intelligence.]
The Cape nationalists had asked the Republics to "play for time," because they believed that, with the return of the Liberal party to power in England, it would be possible to achieve the aims of their policy without the risk of a conflict in arms. The Republics were "playing for time," but in another sense. They were waiting until their military preparations were sufficiently complete to allow them to defy the British Government.
[Sidenote: The Bloemfontein conference.]
It was in these circumstances that the High Commissioner met President Krüger in conference at Bloemfontein (May 31st--June 5th). He was accompanied only by his staff: Mr. G. V. Fiddes (Imperial Secretary), Mr. M. S. O. Walrond (Private Secretary), Colonel Hanbury Williams (Military Secretary) and Lord Belgrave (A.D.C.), with Mr. Silberbauer (the interpreter) and a shorthand writer. Mr. Schreiner had been very solicitous to attend the Conference; but Lord Milner, following his usual practice, had determined to keep the affairs of the High Commissionership completely distinct from those in which he was concerned as Governor of the Cape Colony. The absence both of the Prime Minister and Mr. Hofmeyr was not unnaturally a matter of "sincere regret" to Dr. Te Water, as he informed President Steyn on the eve of the Conference. Nor did Lord Milner avail himself of President Steyn's willingness to take part in the proceedings; but, at the High Commissioner's suggestion, Mr. Fischer (who was a member of the Free State Executive) was invited to act as interpreter--a duty which he discharged to the satisfaction of both parties. With President Krüger there went to Bloemfontein Mr. Schalk Burger and Mr. A. D. Wolmarans (members of the Transvaal Executive), Mr. J. C. Smuts (the State Attorney), and two other officials. All of these, the High Commissioner's Staff, and Mr. Fischer were present at the meetings of the Conference; but the actual discussion was confined to Lord Milner and President Krüger. As regards the business in hand, the failure to publish the despatch of May 4th had deprived Lord Milner of what would have proved a helpful influence. Mr. Hofmeyr's action had procured an opportunity for "friendly discussion." But the friendliness was to be all on the side of the Imperial Government. For the purpose of the Afrikander leaders was, as we have seen, to secure a fictitious concession on the part of President Krüger. Lord Milner's aim was to obtain by friendly discussion a genuine and substantial measure of reform; and the prospect of his success would have been greatly increased if this despatch and Mr. Chamberlain's reply to it had been before the public when the Conference took place. It was written with the object of making the British people and President Krüger alike aware how grave was the judgment which he had formed of the existing situation. With England alive to the near danger which threatened her supremacy in South Africa, and President Krüger brought to understand that the man with whom he had to deal was one who held these opinions, Lord Milner could have been "friendly" without the risk of having his friendliness mistaken for a readiness to accept the illusory concession which was all that the Afrikander mediation was intended to secure.
[Footnote 70: 2nd. Lieut. Royal Horse Guards. Exactly one
year after the last day of the Conference (June 5th), he
(then A.D.C. to Lord Roberts and Duke of Westminster) ran up
the British flag over the Raadzaal at Pretoria.]
[Footnote 71: Letter of May 27th (in Cd. 369).]
[Footnote 72: Lord Milner left Capetown by special train at
8.30 a.m. on Monday, May 29th, and reached Bloemfontein
punctually at 5 p.m. on Tuesday. Here he was met by President
Steyn and various officials of the Free State; and an address
of welcome was presented to him by the Mayor of Bloemfontein
upon his arrival at the private house which had been provided
for his accommodation during the Conference. At eleven
o'clock on the following morning, Wednesday, the 31st, the
High Commissioner went to the Presidency, where he was
introduced by Mr. Steyn to President Krüger, Mr. Schalk
Burger and Mr. Wolmarans. The first meeting of the Conference
took place in the afternoon at 2.30, in the new offices of
the Railway Department. In the evening a largely attended
reception was given by President Steyn, at which Mr. Krüger
was present for a short time and Lord Milner for about an
hour. The Conference closed on the afternoon of Monday, June
5th, and Lord Milner then paid a farewell visit to President
Steyn. The High Commissioner's special train left
Bloemfontein on the following morning at 10.30, and reached
Capetown at 6.45 on the evening of Wednesday, the 7th, where
he was received by a large crowd, including three of the Cape
Ministers and a number of Progressive Members of Parliament.
President Steyn, who was present at the station on Tuesday
morning to see the High Commissioner off, did everything
possible for the comfort and convenience of his state guest
during the week that he was in Bloemfontein. The proceedings
of the Conference, with the High Commissioner's report upon
them, are published in C. 9,404.]
[Sidenote: Lord Milner's attitude.]
As it was, Lord Milner was placed in a position of great embarrassment. If he "used plain language" he exposed himself to the charge of entering upon the discussion in an aggressive spirit, calculated to make agreement difficult. If he adopted a conciliatory tone, his arguments seemed to be nothing more than the abortive protests with which the grim old President had cheerfully filled the republican waste-paper basket for the last ten years. It has been suggested that Lord Milner might have obtained a better result if he had shown himself less "inflexible"; if, in short, he had been willing to accept a "compromise." But any such criticism is based upon an entire misunderstanding of the method which the High Commissioner did, in fact, adopt. The five years' franchise--the Bloemfontein minimum--was in itself a compromise. What Lord Milner said, in effect, to President Krüger was this: "I have a whole sheaf of grievances against you: the dynamite monopoly, excessive railway rates, interference with the independence of the judiciary, a vicious police system, administrative corruption, municipal abuses, and the rest. I will let all these go in exchange for one thing--a franchise reform which will give at once to a fair proportion of the Uitlander population some appreciable representation in the government of the Republic." Lord Milner not only offered a compromise, but a compromise that enormously reduced the area of dispute. His "inflexibility" arose from the simple fact that, having readily and frankly yielded all that could be yielded without sacrificing the paramount object of securing a permanent settlement of the Uitlander question, he had nothing further to concede, and said so.
[Sidenote: President Krüger.]
No two men more characteristic of the two utterly unlike and antagonistic political systems, which they respectively represented, could have been found. At the evening reception given by President Steyn on the opening day of the Conference, a big man, in a tightly buttoned frock-coat, stood just inside the door for ten minutes, and then moved awkwardly away. Above the frock-coat was a peasant's face, half-shrewd, half-furtive, with narrow eyes and a large, crooked mouth which somehow gave the man a look of power. This was President Krüger, ætat. 74. Once, doubtless, Paul Krüger's large and powerful frame had made him an impressive figure among a race of men as stalwart as the Boers. But he was now an old man: the powerful body had become shapeless and unwieldy; he had given up walking, and only left his stoep to drag himself clumsily into his carriage, and although he retained all his old tenacity of purpose, his mind had lost much of its former alertness. It needed all Mr. Smuts' mental resources--all that the young Afrikander had so recently learnt at Cambridge and the Temple--to enable the old President to maintain, even by the aid of his State-Attorney's ingenious paper pleadings, a decent show of defence against the perfect moderation and relentless logic with which the High Commissioner presented the British case. Lord Milner went to the Conference to make "one big straightforward effort to avert a great disaster"; Krüger to drive a "Kafir bargain." The end was as Lord Milner had foreseen. To yield the necessary instalment of reform seemed to President Krüger, in this mind, "worse than annexation"; and on June 5th Lord Milner declared, "The Conference is absolutely at an end, and there is no obligation on either side arising out of it."
The Bloemfontein Conference made retreat for ever impossible. Lord Milner himself was perfectly conscious that in holding President Krüger to the franchise question he had made the conference the pivotal occasion upon which turned the issue of peace or war. He knew, when he closed the proceedings with a declaration that his meeting with President Krüger had utterly failed to provide a solution of the franchise question, that from this day forward there could be no turning back for him or for the Imperial Government. But he knew, too, that poor as was the prospect of obtaining the minimum reforms by any subsequent negotiation, nothing could contribute more to the attainment of this object than the blunt rejection of the makeshift proposals put forward by President Krüger at Bloemfontein.
[Sidenote: After the conference.]
The result of the Conference, from this point of view, and its effect upon the British population in South Africa, may be gathered from the address presented to Lord Milner on his return to Capetown, and from his reply to it. By the mouth of Mr. Alfred Ebden, a veteran colonist, the British population of the Colony then (June 12th) expressed their "admiration" of Lord Milner's "firm stand" on behalf of the Uitlanders, offered him their "earnest support," and declared their "entire confidence in his fairness and ability to bring these unhappy differences to a satisfactory settlement." The essence of Lord Milner's reply lies in the words, "some remedy has still to be found." The nationality problem would be solved if the principle of equality could be established all round. The Transvaal is "the one State where inequality is the rule, which keeps the rest of South Africa in a fever." It is inconsistent, he says, with the position of Great Britain as paramount Power, and with the dignity of the white race, that a great community of white men "should continue in that state of subjection which is the lot of the immigrant white population of the Transvaal." And he concludes:
"I see it is suggested in some quarters that the policy of Her
Majesty's Government is one of aggression. I know better than any
man that their policy, so far from being one of aggression, has
been one of singular patience, and such, I doubt not, it will
continue. But it cannot relapse into indifference. Can any one
desire that it should? It would be disastrous that the present
period of stress and strain should not result in some settlement
to prevent the recurrence of similar crises in the future. Of
that I am still hopeful. It may be that the Government of the
South African Republic will yet see its way to adopt a measure
of reform more liberal than that proposed at Bloemfontein. If
not, there may be other means of achieving the desired result. In
any case, it is a source of strength to those who are fighting
the battle of reform, and will, I believe, contribute more than
anything else to a peaceful victory, to feel that they have
behind them, as they perhaps never had before, the unanimous
sympathy of the British people throughout the world."
[Footnote 73: C. 9,415.]
In the four months that followed the Bloemfontein Conference a burden of toil and responsibility was laid upon Lord Milner which would have crushed any lesser man into utter passivity or resignation. An Afrikander Cabinet, with a nationalist element reporting its confidential councils with the Governor to Mr. Hofmeyr, the Bond Master, and President Steyn, the secret ally of President Krüger, would have been sufficient in itself to paralyse the faculties of any ordinary administrator at such a crisis. But this was not the only adverse influence with which circumstances brought Lord Milner into collision. Incredible as it may seem, it is none the less the fact that Sir William Butler, the General-in-Command of the British forces in South Africa, and the military adviser of the High Commissioner, was in close political sympathy with Mr. Merriman and Mr. Sauer, and in complete agreement with their views. For General Butler held that a war to compel the Boer oligarchy to grant the elementary political rights to the British in the Transvaal, which even Mr. Gladstone's Cabinet intended to secure for them, would be the "greatest calamity that ever occurred in South Africa." And more than this, that if the Home Government did make war, it would be merely playing the game of "the party of the Raid, the South African League."
[Footnote 74: Evidence before War Commission. Cd. 1,791.]
[Sidenote: Milner and Butler.]
It is generally supposed that Lord Milner's disagreement with General Butler had its origin in the conduct of the latter, when Acting High Commissioner, in refusing the first Uitlander petition. This is quite untrue. Lord Milner's view of the Uitlander grievances was, of course, different from that of General Butler, who treated the appeal to the Queen as an unnecessary and artificial agitation against the Transvaal Government, and thereby placed the Acting British Agent, Mr. Edmund Fraser, in a position of extreme difficulty; since Mr. Fraser was, of course, desirous of carrying out his duties upon the general lines followed by Sir William Greene in accordance with the instructions of the Home Government. But the Transvaal question had never been discussed between Lord Milner and General Butler; and at the time of the Edgar incident Lord Milner was in England, and he had no means, therefore, of forming an opinion as to the significance which attached to this event, or the agitation to which it gave rise. On this particular point there was no opportunity for a conflict of opinion. Had Lord Milner been in South Africa he would, no doubt, have accepted the first petition to the Queen; but he made no complaint of General Butler's refusal to receive it. For the moment it was General Butler's business, as Acting High Commissioner, and not Lord Milner's. From a wider point of view, General Butler's action was injurious. It was one of the many instances in which their English sympathisers have led the Boers to destruction. But there was no friction, or argument, or unfriendliness between him and the High Commissioner on this account. This arose at a much later period; and arose, not on the general question of policy, but on the question of the necessity of military precautions in view of the imminence of war.
[Sidenote: Reinforcements requested.]
The friction between the High Commissioner and the General-in-Command in South Africa was the most disastrous manifestation of a disregard of the necessity for timely military preparations on the part of the Imperial Government, which, when war broke out, jeopardised the success of the British arms. For quite distinct reasons both General Butler and the Imperial Government were opposed to any preparations for war. The Salisbury Cabinet were reluctant to take any step that might seem to indicate that they considered that the door to a peaceful solution of the dispute was closed. In thus subordinating the needs of the military situation to those of the political, they acted in direct opposition to the maxim si pacem vis, bellum para. They carried this policy to such a point that they disregarded the advice of Lord Wolseley, the Commander-in-Chief, and that of the Intelligence Department, with the result that when the war did break out the available British forces in South Africa were found to be in a position of grave disadvantage. The motive of General Butler's opposition was entirely different. His view was that what made the situation dangerous was not President Krüger's obduracy, but what he called the "persistent effort" to "produce war" made by the British inhabitants who desired Imperial intervention in the Transvaal. And he, therefore, held that any reinforcements sent by the Home Government would "add largely to the ferment which he (General Butler) was endeavouring to reduce by every means." The position in June and July, from a military point of view, was as extraordinary as it was harassing to Lord Milner. In England the civil authority, the Cabinet, was refusing to make the preparations which its military adviser declared to be necessary. In South Africa the civil authority, the High Commissioner, was provided with a military adviser who cabled to the Home Government political reasons for not sending the reinforcements which the High Commissioner then urgently required. In these circumstances it is obvious that nothing but the supreme efforts of Lord Milner could have saved England from an overwhelming military defeat, or from a moral catastrophe even more injurious to the interests of the empire.
[Footnote 75: See p. 319 (note 2).]
[Footnote 76: Cd. 1,791.]
When Lord Milner saw, before the Bloemfontein Conference, that the situation was becoming dangerous--and still more after the Conference--he desired that preparations for war should be made by the Imperial Government as a precautionary measure. Between December 1st, 1896, and December, 1898, the South African garrison had been raised from 5,409 to 9,593 men. It remained at a little under 10,000 up to the end of August, 1899. Lord Milner had repeatedly impressed upon the Home Government, from the middle of 1897 onwards, that 10,000 men was the minimum force consistent with safety. In view of the increased tension after Bloemfontein and of the enormous armament of the South African Republic, he felt that this minimum had become inadequate, and that it was desirable, and would strengthen the chance of a peaceful submission of the Boers, to steadily but unostentatiously increase the garrison. And what he desired especially was that the general on the spot should do, locally and quietly, all that could be done to advance these preparations. The measures which he urged were that plans should be prepared for the defence of Kimberley and other towns on the colonial borders, and that all supplies and material of war necessary to put these plans into effect should be accumulated, and, as far as possible, distributed.
[Footnote 77: War Commission, Cd. 1,791.]
[Sidenote: General Butler's objections.]
General Butler, as we have seen, was opposed to all preparations for war; and it is not surprising, therefore, that everybody who offered assistance, or advice on the military situation, was coldly received by him. Mr. (now Sir) Aubrey Wools-Sampson, who, after the failure of the Bloemfontein Conference, threw up lucrative civil employment in Rhodesia in order to come to the Cape and place himself, as a volunteer, at the service of the military authorities in the event of war, was so completely discouraged that he went to Natal to form the nucleus of the splendid fighting force afterwards known as the Imperial Light Horse. When Colonel Nicholson, then head of the British South Africa Police in Rhodesia, suggested that, in the same event, an attack on the Transvaal, launched from the north, might prove valuable as a means of diverting a portion of the Burgher forces from employment against the Cape Colony and Natal, General Butler is said to have looked upon his proposal as another Jameson Raid. And when, after the Bloemfontein Conference had been held, the Home Government, in response to Lord Milner's repeated appeals, proposed to send out the very inadequate reinforcements which formed its first effort to strengthen the British military position in South Africa, General Butler immediately represented to the War Office that these additional troops were unnecessary, and protested against their being despatched.
[Footnote 78: This was precisely the rôle played by
Mafeking, only defensively, not offensively.]
General Butler's action at this crisis is so remarkable, and so unprecedented, that the circumstances must be related with some precision. In 1896, and again in 1897, General Goodenough had submitted to the War Office schemes for the defence of the British colonies, in which both the enormous extent of the frontiers to be protected and the great numerical superiority of the burgher forces to the then existing British garrison were fully exhibited. A memorandum of the Department of Military Intelligence, dated September 21st, 1898, urged "that defence schemes should be drawn up locally for the Cape and Natal"; that "the arrangements which would be made for the despatch of reinforcements from England, and for the provision of supplies and transport, be worked out fully in the War Office; and that the General Officer Commanding, South Africa, be informed what action under these arrangements would be required of him on the outbreak of war." On December 21st, 1898, General Butler, upon succeeding to the South African command, was requested to furnish, at an early date, a fresh scheme of defence embodying his own proposals for the distribution of the 9,500 British troops then in South Africa in the event of war. At the same time the latest information as to the military strength of the two Republics--showing, among other things, a total of 40,000 burghers--was forwarded to him, and his attention was directed to the fact that the troops under his command must be considered as a purely defensive force, whose rôle would be to repel invasion pending the arrival of reinforcements from England. In the absence of any reply to this communication General Butler was again requested, on June 6th, 1899 (i.e. after the failure of the Bloemfontein Conference), to report on the defence of the British colonies. He then sent his scheme of defence, cabling the substance in cipher, on June 9th, and sending the text by despatch on June 14th. On June 21st he received a War Office telegram informing him that it had been decided to "increase the efficiency of the existing force" in South Africa. And to this communication was added the question: "Do you desire to make any observations?"
[Footnote 79: Cd. 1,789 (War Commission).]
[Footnote 80: These were the figures of the D. M. I.
"Military Notes" of June, 1898; in the revised "Military
Notes" of June, 1899, the estimated total of the Boer force
was considerably greater--some 50,000 exclusive of colonial
[Sidenote: "Ringing the War Office bell".]
The sequel can be given in General Butler's words: "I looked on the one side," he said, in giving evidence before the War Commission, "and I saw what seemed to me a very serious political agitation going on with a Party that I had not alluded to yet, whom I had always looked upon as a Third Party; they were pressing on all they knew. The Government did not seem to be aware of that, and this telegram brought matters to such a point that I thought it gave me the opportunity to speak. So I took these words 'any observations,' and answered in a way which I thought would at least ring the War Office bell."
The telegram with which General Butler "rang the War Office bell" was this:
"You ask for my observations: present condition of opinion here
is highly excited, and doubtless the news quoting preparations
referred to in your telegram, if it transpires, will add largely
to the ferment which I am endeavouring to reduce by every means.
Persistent effort of a party to produce war forms, in my
estimation, gravest elements in situation here. Believe war
between white races, coming as sequel to Jameson Raid, and
subsequent events of last three years, would be greatest calamity
that ever occurred in South Africa."
This telegram elicited the following reply from the Home Government:
"You cannot understand too clearly that, whatever your private
opinions, it is your duty to be guided in all questions of policy
by the High Commissioner, who is fully aware of our views, and
whom you will, of course, loyally support."
In the course of his evidence before the War Commission General Butler gave some further explanation of the motives which had prompted his reply to the telegram of June 21st. In response to the question, "It was never in your contemplation that Mr. Krüger would declare war?" he replied:
[Sidenote: General Butler's view.]
"My view was this, that as long as I held the neck of the bottle,
so to speak, there would be no war ... but to my mind the minute
there was the least indication of the Imperial Government coming
in, in front of, or behind, that party [i.e. "the party of the
Raid, the South African League"], there would be a serious state
of things. Until then there was, to my mind, no probability--no
possibility--of an invasion. That was the state of my mind at the
time ... [and] I wished to point it out before final decisions
were arrived at."
And in a note which he desired to be appended to his evidence before the War Commission, General Butler wrote with reference to his failure to endorse Lord Milner's request for immediate reinforcements, that in his opinion "such a demand at such a time would be to force the hands of the Government, play into the hands of the 'Third Party,' and render [himself] liable to the accusation in the future that [he] had by this premature action produced or hastened hostilities."
[Footnote 81: All of these extracts will be found in Cd.
Here was an impasse from which obviously there was but one method of extrication. Either the High Commissioner or his military adviser must be recalled. That the Imperial Government did not recall General Butler then and there cannot be attributed to any ignorance on their part of Lord Milner's extreme anxiety for adequate military preparations. It arose, no doubt, from the circumstance that General Butler was known to be favourably inclined to the Boer cause, and that, therefore, his removal at this juncture would have been represented by the friends of the Boers in England, and by the official leader of the Opposition, as evidence of Mr. Chamberlain's alleged determination to force a war upon the Transvaal. General Butler was allowed, in these circumstances, to remain at the Cape until the latter part of August, when fresh employment was found for him, and Lieutenant-General Forestier-Walker was appointed to the Cape command. How General Butler was able to reconcile the opinions which he had expressed to the War Office with the discharge of his duties as military adviser to Lord Milner during these two critical months is a matter which need not be discussed. The decision to retain him in the South African command would seem, on the face of it, to have been a grave administrative error. It is enough for us to record the undoubted facts that Lord Milner was supremely dissatisfied with the action of General Butler as his military adviser, and that whereas the High Commissioner had requested the Home Government to provide him with a new military adviser in June, General Butler did in fact remain at the Cape until the latter part of August.
General Butler is reputed to be both an able man and a good soldier. It is interesting, therefore, to know what was his view, and to compare it with that of Lord Milner. In these opinions, which dominated General Butler during the period in question (May to August, 1899), there was only one point in which he and Lord Milner found themselves at one. This was the danger of the war; that is to say, the seriousness of the military task which would await Great Britain in the event of war with the Dutch in South Africa.
[Sidenote: What Lord Milner thought.]
As a great deal has been written on the subject of the military unpreparedness of England, and it has, moreover, been frequently stated in this connection that Sir William Butler was the only man to form a just estimate of the military strength of the burgher forces, it is very desirable to place on record what was really in Lord Milner's mind at this time. He agreed with General Butler in his estimate of the formidable character of the Boers; but he differed from him in everything else. To Lord Milner's mind the situation presented itself primarily from a political, and not from a military point of view. He believed that England was bound to struggle at least for political equality between the British and Dutch throughout South Africa. He felt that, after our bad record in the past, it would be absolutely fatal to begin to struggle for this equality unless we were prepared to carry our efforts to a successful issue. He thought that such a claim as this for the enfranchisement of the Uitlanders was one that admitted of only two alternatives--it must never be made, or, being made, it must never be abandoned. The whole weakness of our position in South Africa was a moral weakness. The contempt which the Dutch had learnt for England was writ large over the whole social and political fabric of South Africa. Englishmen could not look the Dutch in the face as equals. If, after all our previous humiliations and failures; after Majuba, and after the Raid, we were going to commence a struggle for equality--nothing more, and then not to get it, the shame would be too grave for any great Power to support, or for those who sympathised with us in South Africa to endure. We had raised the British party in South Africa from the dust by the stand which we had made against Dutch tyranny in the Transvaal. If we were going to retreat from that position, the discredit of our action would compel England to resign her claim to be paramount Power, and with the resignation of that claim England's rights in South Africa would inevitably shrink to the narrow limits of a naval base at Simon's Town, and a sub-tropical plantation in Natal. What was fundamental was not the possibility of war, but the impossibility of retreat.
[Sidenote: Retreat impossible.]
Lord Milner still thought it possible, though not probable, that, if the British Government took a perfectly strong and unwavering line, the Dutch would yield, not indeed everything, but something substantial. He also foresaw that it was possible, perhaps probable, that they would not yield, and that in this case a state of tension would be created which must end in war. His position was, therefore, definite and consistent from the first. As we are pursuing a policy from which we cannot retreat--a policy that may lead to war--it is wholly unjustifiable, he said, to remain unprepared, unarmed, without a plan, as if war were quite out of the question. And so far from thinking that the preparations which he urged upon the Imperial Government, and more especially upon General Butler, would make war more likely, he believed that they would make it less likely. But even if they did lead the Dutch to fight, it was not war but "retreat" that must be avoided at all costs.