I have come to the end of what I intended at first to be a book of recollections but which has resolved itself into one of impressions. A more competent pen than mine will one day write the inner history of this South African War, which by an anomaly of destiny had quite different results from those expected. So many things have occurred since it happened that the whole sequence of events, including the war, is now looked upon by many people as a simple incident in a long story.
In reality the episode was something more than that. It was a manifestation of the great strength of the British Empire and of the wonderful spirit of vitality which has carried England triumphantly through crises that would have wrecked any other nation. The incidents which followed the war proved the generosity that lies at the bottom of the English character and the grandeur that comes out of it in those grave moments when the welfare of a nation appears to be at stake and its rulers are unable to apply to a succession of evils and dangers the right remedy to bring about peace and contentment. No other nations possess this remarkable and distinctive feature. England very wisely refused to notice the bitterness which still persisted in the early days after the conclusion of peace, and devoted her energies to the one immense and immediate work of Federation.
The colossal work of Union had been conceived in the shape which it was eventually to assume by Sir Alfred Milner, who, after having laid the foundations, was patriot enough to allow others to achieve its consummation, because he feared the unjust estimate of his character, disseminated by interested persons, might compromise the desired object and far-reaching possibilities of an enterprise which the most sanguine had never imagined could be accomplished within so short a space of time. He had toiled courageously toward the founding of a new State where the rights of every white as well as of every coloured man should be respected and taken into account, and where it would be impossible for a handful of rich men by the mere power of riches to control the lives and consciences of others.
The time of Sir Alfred Milner's administration was the transitory period between the primitive and the civilised that no nation escapes, and this period Sir Alfred used in working toward the establishment of a strong and wise government. Whether the one which started its course of existence on the day when the Federation of South Africa became an accomplished fact was strong and wise it is not for me to say. At least it was a patriotic government, one which worked sincerely at the abolition of the race hatred which the war had not entirely killed, and also one which recognised that after all it was the principle of Imperial government that alone could bring back prosperity and security to unfortunate and bleeding South Africa.
The war gave to the Empire the loyal support and co-operation of the Dutch population at the Cape and also in the Transvaal, and the fidelity with which General Botha fulfilled his duty toward the Mother Country in the difficult moments of 1914 proved the strong link forged in 1902 between the British Empire and South Africa. Now that years have passed it is possible to look with a less passionate eye upon the past and upon the men who took a leading part in the events which gave to the British Empire another fair dominion. They appear to us as they really were, and we can more justly accord them their proper valuation. The personality of Cecil Rhodes will always remain a great one; his merits and his defects will be reduced to their proper relative proportions, and the atmosphere of adulation or antagonism which, as the occasion suited, was poured upon him, be dissipated by time's clarifying influences. His real work consisted in the opening of new sources of wealth and new spheres of activity to a whole multitude of his fellow-countrymen, and of giving his native land an extension of its dominions in regions it had never penetrated before Cecil Rhodes' enterprising spirit of adventure and of conquest sent him into the wilderness of Africa to open a new and radiating centre of activity and development for his country. The conception of the Cape to Cairo Railway was one of those projects for which his country will ever remain grateful.
Yes! Rhodes was a great Englishman in spite of his faults, and perhaps on account of his faults. Beside the genius of a Darwin or of a Pasteur, the talent of a Shakespeare or of a Milton, the science of a Newton or of a Lister, his figure seems a small one indeed, and it is absurd to raise him to the same level as these truly wonderful men. The fact that the activity of Cecil Rhodes lay in quite a different direction does not, however, diminish the real importance of the work which he did, nor of the services which he rendered to his country. The mistake is to judge him as a universal genius. His genius had a particular bent; it was always directed toward one point and one only, that of material advantages to be acquired for the nation to which he belonged and of which he was so proud to be the son. Without him South Africa would possibly have been lost for the British Empire, which owes him most certainly a great debt in that respect.
The years which have gone by since his death have proved that in many things Rhodes had been absolutely mistaken. Always he was an attractive, and at times even a lovable, personality; a noble character marred by small acts, a generous man and an unscrupulous foe; violent in temper, unjust in his view of facts that displeased him, understanding chiefly his personal interests, true to those whom he considered his friends, but implacable toward the people whom he himself had wronged. He was a living enigma to which no one had ever found a solution; because he presented constantly new and unexpected sides that appeared suddenly and shattered the conclusion to which one had previously arrived.
In Europe Rhodes would not only have been impossible, but he would never have found the opportunity to give full rein to his faculties of organisation and of conquest. He knew no obstacles and would admit none in his way; he was of the type of Pizarro and of Fernando Cortez, with fewer prejudices, far more knowledge, and that clear sense of civilisation which only an Englishman born and bred amid the traditions of liberty can possess. But he was lacking in the fine political conception of government which Sir Alfred Milner possessed, and whilst refusing to admit the thought of compromise in matters where a little yielding to the wishes and desires of others might have secured him considerable advantage, he yet allowed himself to become entangled in intrigues which he denied as soon as he perceived that they could not be successful, but for which the world always condemned and never forgave, and even in some cases despised him.
Notwithstanding the great brilliance of his intelligence and the strength of his mind, Cecil Rhodes will always be found inferior to the present Viscount Milner as a statesman. Rhodes could not and would not wait. Milner spent his whole existence in waiting, and waited so successfully that he lived to see the realisation of the plans which he had made and which so many, even among his friends, had declared to be quite impossible for him to realise. Milner, about whose tact and mental greatness so many false notions existed in South Africa as well as elsewhere, had been the one man who had seen clearly the consequences of the war. As he told me one day when we were talking about the regrettable race-hatred which lent such animosity to the struggle: "It will cease sooner than one thinks."The wise administrator, who had studied human nature so closely as he had done politics, had based his judgments on the knowledge which he had acquired of the spirit of colonisation which makes Great Britain so superior to any other nation in the world, and his belief that her marvellous spirit of adaptation was bound to make itself felt in South Africa as it had elsewhere. Sir Alfred Milner knew that as time went on the Afrikanders would realise that their erstwhile enemies had given them the position to which they had always aspired, a position which entitled them to take a place among the other great nations of the world. He knew, too, that their natural spirit of pride and of vanity would make them cherish the Empire that had allowed them to realise their ambitions of the past. Until the war they had been proud of their gold and of their diamonds; after the war they would be proud of their country. And by the consciousness which would gradually come to them of the advantages which their Federation under the British flag had brought to them they would become also ardent British patriots—blessing the day when, in a passing fit of insanity, goaded into it by people who had never seen clearly the situation, President Kruger had declared war on England.