With the Boer Forces - Howard Hillegas

The Way to the Boer Country

Immediately after war was declared between Great Britain and the Boers of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, the two South African republics became ostracised, in a great measure, from the rest of the civilised world. The cables and the great ocean steamship lines, which connected South Africa with Europe and America, were owned by British companies, and naturally they were employed by the British Government for its own purposes. Nothing which might in any way benefit the Boers was allowed to pass over these lines and, so far as it was possible, the British Government attempted to isolate the republics so that the outside world could have no communication of any sort with them. With the exception of a small strip of coast-land on the Indian ocean, the two republics were completely surrounded by British territory, and consequently it was not a difficult matter for the great Empire to curtail the liberties of the Boers to as great an extent as it was pleasing to the men who conducted the campaign. The small strip of coast-land, however, was the property of a neutral nation, and, therefore, could not be used for British purposes of stifling the Boer countries, but the nation which "rules the waves" exhausted every means to make the Boers' air-hole as small as possible by placing a number of warships outside the entrance of Delagoa Bay, and by establishing a blockade of the port of Lorenzo Marques.

Lorenzo Marques, in itself, was valueless to the Boers, for it had always been nothing more than a vampire feeding upon the Transvaal, but as an outlet to the sea and as a haven for foreign ships bearing men, arms, and encouragement it was invaluable. In the hands of the Boers Delagoa Bay would have been worse than useless, for the warships could have taken possession of it and sealed it tightly on the first day of the war, but as a Portuguese possession it was the only friend that the Boers were able to find during their long period of need. Without it, the Boers would have been unable to hold any intercourse with foreign countries, no envoys could have been despatched, no volunteers could have entered the country, and they would have been ignorant of the opinion of the world—a factor in the brave resistance against their enemy which was by no means infinitesimal. Delagoa Bay was the Boers' one window through which they could look at the world, and through which the world could watch the brave struggle of the farmer-citizens of the veld-republics.

The Portuguese authorities at Delagoa Bay long ago established a reputation for adroitness in extracting revenues whenever and wherever it was possible to find a stranger within their gates, but the war afforded them such excellent opportunities as they had never enjoyed before. Being the gate of the Boer country was a humanitarian privilege, but it also was a remunerative business, and never since Vasco de Gama discovered the port were so many choice facilities afforded for increasing the revenue of the colony. Nor was the Latin's mind wanting in concocting schemes for filling the Portuguese coffers when the laws were lax on the subject, for it was the simplest arrangement to frame a regulation suitable for every new condition that arose. The Portuguese were willing to be the medium between the Boers and the people of other parts of the earth, but they asked for and received a large percentage of the profits.

When the mines of the Johannesburg gold district were closed down, and the Portuguese heard that they would no longer receive a compulsory contribution of four shillings from every native who crossed the border to work in the mines, the officials felt uneasy on account of the great decrease in the amount of public revenues, but it did not worry them for any great length of time. They met the situation by imposing a tax of eight shillings upon every one of the thousands of natives who returned from the mines to their homes in Portuguese territory. About the same time the Uitlanders from the Transvaal reached Lorenzo Marques, and, in order to calm the Portuguese mind, every one of the thousands of men and women who took part in that exodus was compelled to pay a transit tax, ranging from eight shillings to a sovereign, according to the size of the tip tendered to the official.

When the van of the foreign volunteers reached the port there was a new situation to be dealt with, and again the principle of "When in doubt impose a tax" was satisfactorily employed. Men who had just arrived in steamers, and who had never seen Portuguese territory, were obliged to secure a certificate, indicating that they had not been inhabitants of the local jail during the preceding six months; a certificate from the consular representative of their country, showing that they possessed good characters; another from the Governor-General to show that they did not purpose going into the Transvaal to carry arms; a fourth from the local Transvaal consul to indicate that he held no objections to the traveller's desire to enter the Boer country; and one or two other passports equally weighty in their bearing on the subject were necessary before a person was able to leave the town. Each one of these certificates was to be secured only upon the payment of a certain number of thousand reis and at an additional expenditure of time and nervous energy, for none of the officials could speak a word of any language except Portuguese, and all the applicants were men of other nationalities and tongues. The expenditure in connection with the certificates was more than a sovereign for every person, and as there were thousands of travellers into the Boer countries while the war continued the revenues of the Government were correspondingly great. To crown it all, the Portuguese imposed the same tax upon all travellers who came into the country from the Transvaal with the intention of sailing to other ports. The Government could not be charged with favouritism in the matter of taxation, for every man, woman, and child who stepped on Portuguese soil was similarly treated. There was no charge for entering the country, but the jail yawned for him who refused to pay when leaving it.

Not unlike the patriots in Cape Town and Durban, the hotel and shopkeepers of Lorenzo Marques took advantage of the presence of many strangers and made extraordinary efforts to secure the residue of the money which did not fall into the coffers of the Government. At the Cardoza Hotel, the only establishment worthy of the name, a tax of a sovereign was levied for sleeping on a bare floor; drivers of street cabs scorned any amount less than a golden sovereign for carrying one passenger to the consulates; lemonades were two shillings each at the kiosks; and physicians charged three pounds a call when travellers remained in the town several days and contracted the deadly coast-fever. At the Custom House duties of ten shillings were levied upon foreign flags, unless the officer was liberally tipped, in which event it was not necessary to open the luggage. It was a veritable harvest for every one who chose to take advantage of the opportunities offered, and there were but few who did not make the foreigners their victims.

The blockade by the British warships placed a premium upon dishonesty, and of those who gained most by it the majority were British subjects. The vessels which succeeded in passing the blockading warships were invariably consigned to Englishmen, and without exception these were unpatriotic enough to sell the supplies to agents employed by the Transvaal Government. Just as Britons sold guns and ammunition to the Boers before the war, these men of the same nation made exorbitant profits on supplies which were necessary to the burgher army. Lorenzo Marques was filled with men who were taking advantage of the state of affairs to grow wealthy by means which were not legitimate, and the leaders in almost every enterprise of that nature were British subjects, although there were not a few Germans, Americans, and Frenchmen who succeeded in making the fortunes they deserved for remaining in such a horrible pest-hole as Lorenzo Marques.

The railroad from Lorenzo Marques to Ressana Garcia, at the Transvaal border, was interesting only from the fact that it was more historical than comfortable for travelling purposes. As the train passed through the dry, dusty, and uninteresting country, which was even too poor and unhealthy for the blacks, the mind speculated upon the proposition whether the Swiss judges who decided the litigation concerning the road would have spent ten years in making a decision if they had been compelled to conduct their deliberation within sight of the railway. The land adjoining the railroad was level, well timbered and well watered, and the vast tracts of fine grass give the impression that it might be an excellent country for farming, but it was in the belt known as the fever district, and white men avoided it as they would a cholera-infested city. Shortly before the train arrived at the English river several lofty white-stone pyramids on either side of the railway were passed, and the Transvaal was reached. A long iron bridge spanning the river was crossed, and the train reached the first station in the Boer country, Koomatipoort.

Courteous Boer officials entered the train and requested the passengers to disembark with all their luggage, for the purpose of custom-examination. No gratuities were accepted there, as at Lorenzo Marques, and nothing escaped the vigilance of the bearded inspectors. Trunks and luggage were carefully scrutinised, letters read line by line and word for word; revolvers and ammunition promptly confiscated if not declared; and even the clothing of the passengers was faithfully examined. Passports were closely investigated, and, when all appeared to be thoroughly satisfactory, a white cross was chalked on the boots of the passengers, and they were free to proceed farther inland. The field-cornet of the district was one of the few Boers at the station, and he performed the duties of his office by introducing himself to certain passengers whom he believed to be foreign volunteers, and offering them gratuitous railway tickets to Pretoria. No effort was made to conceal the fact that the volunteers were welcome in the country, and nothing was left undone to make the foreigners realise that their presence was appreciated.

After Koomatipoort was passed the train crept slowly into the mountainous district, where huge peaks pierced the clouds and gigantic boulders overhung the tracks. Narrow defiles stretched away in all directions and the sounds of cataracts in the Crocodile River flowing alongside the iron path drowned the roar of the train. Flowering, vari-coloured plants, huge cacti, and thick tropical vegetation lined the banks of the river, and occasionally the thatched roof of a negro's hut peered out over the undergrowth, to indicate that a few human beings chose that wild region for their abode. Hour after hour the train crept along narrow ledges up the mountains' sides, then dashed down declines and out upon small level plains which, with their surrounding and towering eminences, had the appearance of vast green bowls. In that impregnable region lay the small town of Machadodorp, which, later, became the capital of the Transvaal. A few houses of corrugated iron, a pretty railway-station, and much scenery, serves as a worthy description of the town at the junction of the purposed railway to the gold-fields of Lydenberg.

After a journey of twelve hours through the fever country the train reached the western limit of that belt and rested for the night in a small, green, cup-shaped valley bearing the descriptive name of Waterval Onder—"under the waterfall." The weary passengers found more corrugated iron buildings and the best hotel in South Africa. The host, Monsieur Mathis, a French Boer, and his excellent establishment came as a breath of fresh air to a stifling traveller on the desert, and long will they live in the memories of the thousands of persons who journeyed over the railroad during the war. After the monotonous fare of an east-coast steamer and the mythical meals of a Lorenzo Marques hotel, the roast venison, the fresh milk and eggs of Mathis were as welcome as the odour of the roses that filled the valley.

The beginning of the second day's journey was characterised by a ride up and along the sides of a magnificent gorge through which the waters of the Crocodile River rushed from the lofty plateau of the high veld to the wildernesses of the fever country and filled that miniature South African Switzerland with myriads of rainbows. A long, curved, and inclined tunnel near the top of the mountain led to the undulating plains of the Transvaal—a marvellously rapid transition from a region filled with nature's wildest panoramas to one that contained not even a tree or rock or cliff to relieve the monotony of the landscape. On the one side of this natural boundary line was an immense territory every square mile of which contained mountain passes which a handful of Boers could hold against an invading army; on the other side there was hardly a rock behind which a burgher rifleman could conceal himself. Here herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, instead of wild beasts, sped away from the roar of the train; here there was the daub and wattle cottage of the farmer instead of the thatched hut of the native savage.

Small towns of corrugated iron and mud-brick homes and shops appeared at long intervals on the veld; grass-fires displayed the presence of the Boer farmer with his herds, and the long ox-teams slowly rolling over the plain signified that not all the peaceful pursuits of a small people at war with a great nation had been abandoned. The coal-mines at Belfast, with their towering stacks and clouds of smoke, gave the first evidence of the country's wondrous underground wealth, and then farther on in the journey came the small city of Middleburg with its slate-coloured corrugated iron roofs in marked contrast to the green veld grass surrounding it. There appeared armed and bandoliered Boers, prepared to join their countrymen in the field, with wounded friends and sad-faced women to bid farewell to them. While the train lay waiting at the station small commandos of burghers came dashing through the dusty streets, bustled their horses into trucks at the rear end of the passenger train, and in a few moments they were mingling with the foreign volunteers in the coaches. Grey-haired Boers gravely bade adieu to their wives and children, lovers embraced their weeping sweethearts, and the train moved on toward Pretoria and the battlefields where these men were to risk their lives for the life of their country.

Historic ground, where Briton and Boer had fought before, came in view. Bronkhorst Spruit, where a British commander led more than one hundred of his men to death in 1880, lay to the left of the road in a little wooded ravine. Farther on toward Pretoria appeared rocky kopjes, where afterwards the Boers, retreating from the capital city, gathered their disheartened forces, and resisted the advance of the enemy. Eerste Fabriken was a hamlet hardly large enough to make an impression upon the memory, but it marked a battlefield where the burghers fought desperately. Children were then gathering peaches from the trees, whose roots drank the blood of heroes months afterwards. Several miles farther on were the hills on the outskirts of Pretoria, where, in the war of 1881, the Boer laagers sent forth men to encompass the city and to prevent the British besieged in it from escaping. It was ground hallowed in Boer history since the early voortrekkers crossed the ridges of the Magaliesberg and sought protection from the savage hordes of Moselekatse in the fertile valley of the Aapjes River.

Pretoria in war-time was most peaceful. In the days before the commencement of hostilities it was a city of peace as contrasted with the metropolis, Johannesburg, and its warring citizens, but when cannon were roaring on the frontier, Pretoria itself seemed to escape even the echoes. After the first commandos had departed the city streets were deserted, and only women and children gathered at the bulletin boards to learn the fate of the burgher armies. The stoeps of houses and cottages were deserted of the bearded yeomanry, and the halls of the Government buildings resounded only with the tread of those who were not old or strong enough to bear arms. The long ox-waggons which in former times were so common in the streets were not so frequently to be seen, but whenever one of them rolled toward the market square, it was a Boer woman who cracked the raw-hide whip over the heads of the oxen. Pretoria was the same quaint city as of old, but it lacked the men who were its most distinguishing feature. The black-garbed Volksraad members, the officials, and the old retired farmers, who were wont to discuss politics on the stoeps of the capitol and the Transvaal Hotel were absent. Inquiries concerning them could be addressed only to women and children, and the replies invariably were: "They are on commando," or, "They were killed in battle."

The scenes of activity in the city were few in number, and they were chiefly in connection with the arrival of foreign volunteers and the transit of burgher commandos on the way to the field. The Grand Hotel and the Transvaal Hotel, the latter of which was conducted by the Government for the temporary entertainment of the volunteers, were constantly filled with throngs of foreigners, comprising soldiers of fortune, Red Cross delegations, visitors, correspondents, and contractors, and almost every language except that of the Boers could be heard in the corridors. Occasionally a Boer burgher on leave of absence from the front appeared at the hotels for a respite from army rations, or to attend the funeral of a comrade in arms, but the foreigners were always predominant. Across the street, in the War Department, there were busy scenes when the volunteers applied for their equipments, and frequently there were stormy actions when the European tastes of the men were offended by the equipment offered by the Department officials. Men who desired swords and artistic paraphernalia for themselves and their horses felt slighted when the scant but serviceable equipment of a Boer burgher was offered to them, but sulking could not remedy the matter, and usually they were content to accept whatever was given to them. Former officers in European armies, noblemen and even professional men were constantly arriving in the city, and all seemed to be of the same opinion that commissions in the Boer army could be had for the asking. Some of these had their minds disabused with good grace, and went to the field as common burghers; others sulked for several weeks, but finally joined a commando, and a few returned to their homes without having heard the report of a gun. For those who chose to remain behind and enjoy the peacefulness of Pretoria, there was always enough of novelty and excitement among the foreigners to compensate partly for missing the events in the field.

The army contractors make their presence felt in all countries which are engaged in war, and Pretoria was filled with them. They were in the railway trains running to and from Lorenzo Marques; in the hotel corridors, in all the Government departments, and everywhere in the city. A few of the naturalised Boers, who were most denunciatory of the British before the war and urged their fellow-countrymen to resort to arms, succeeded in evading the call to the field and were most energetic in supplying bread and supplies to the Government. Nor was their patriotism dimmed by many reverses of the army, and they selfishly demanded that the war should be continued indefinitely. Europeans and Americans who partook of the protection of the Government in times of peace, were transformed by war into grasping, insinuating contractors who revelled in the country's misfortune. Englishmen, unworthy of the name, enriched themselves by furnishing sinews of war to their country's enemy, and in order to secure greater wealth sought to prolong the war by cheering disheartened Boers and expressing faith in their final success. The chambers of the Government building were filled with men who had horses, waggons, flour, forage and clothing to offer at exorbitant prices, and in thousands of instances the embarrassed Government was obliged to pay whatever sums were demanded. Hand-in-hand with the contractors were the speculators who were taking advantage of the absence of the leading officials to secure valuable concessions, mining claims, and even gold mines. Before the war, when hordes of speculators and concession-seekers thronged the city, the scene was pathetic enough, but when all shrewd Raad members were at the front and unable to guard their country's interests the picture was dark and pitiful.

Pretoria seemed to have but one mood during the war. It was never deeply despondent nor gay. There was a sort of funereal atmosphere throughout the city, whether its residents were rejoicing over a Spion Kop or suffering from the dejection of a Paardeberg. It was the same grim throng of old men, women, and children who watched the processions of prisoners of war and attended the funerals at the quaint little Dutch church in the centre of the city. The finest victories of the army never changed the appearance of the city nor the mood of its inhabitants. There were no parades nor shouting when a victory was announced, and there was the same stoical indifference when the news of a bitter defeat was received. A victory was celebrated in the Dutch church by the singing of psalms, and a defeat by the offering of prayers for the success of the army.

The thousands of British subjects who were allowed to remain in the Transvaal, being of a less phlegmatic race, were not so calm when a victory of their nation's army was announced, and when the news of Cronje's surrender reached them they celebrated the event with almost as much gusto as if they had not been in the enemy's country. A fancy dress ball was held in Johannesburg in honour of the event, and a champagne dinner was given within a few yards of the Government buildings in Pretoria, but a few days later all the celebrants were transported across the border by order of the Government.

One of the pathetic features of Pretoria was the Boers' expression of faith in foreign mediation or intervention. At the outset of hostilities it seemed unreasonable that any European nation or America would risk a war with Great Britain for the purpose of assisting the Boers, yet there was hardly one burgher who did not cling steadfastly to the opinion that the war would be ended in such a manner. The idea had evidently been rooted in their mind that Russia would take advantage of Great Britain's entanglement in South Africa to occupy Herat and Northern India, and when a newspaper item to that effect appeared it was gravely presumed to indicate the beginning of the end. Some over-zealous Irishmen assured the Boers that, in the event of a South African war, their fellow-countrymen in the United States would invade Canada and involve Great Britain in an imbroglio over the Atlantic in order to save British America. For a few weeks the chimera buoyed up the Boers, but when nothing more than an occasional newspaper rumour was heard concerning it the rising in Ashanti was then looked upon as being the hoped-for boon. The departure of the three delegates to Europe and America was an encouraging sign to them, and it was firmly believed that they would be able to induce France, Russia, or America to offer mediation or intervention. The two Boer newspapers, the Pretoria Volksstem  and the Johannesburg Standard and Diggers' News, dwelt at length upon every favourable token of foreign assistance, however trifling, and attempted to strengthen hopes which at hardly any time seemed capable of realisation. It was not until after the war had been in progress for more than six months that the Boers saw the futility of placing faith in foreign aid, and afterwards they fought like stronger men.

The consuls who represented the foreign Governments at Pretoria, and through whom the Boers made representations for peace, were an exceptionally able body of men, and their duties were as varied as they were arduous. The French and German consuls were busied with the care of the vast mining interests of their countrymen, besides the partial guardianship of the hundreds of French and German volunteers in the Boer army. They were called upon to entertain noblemen as well as bankrupts; to bandage wounds and to bury the dead; to find lost relatives and to care for widows and orphans. In times of peace the duties of a consul in Pretoria were not light, but during hostilities they were tenfold heavier. To the American consul, Adelbert S. Hay, and his associate, John G. Coolidge, fell more work than to all the others combined. Besides caring for the American interests in the country, Consul Hay was charged with the guardianship of the six thousand British prisoners of war in the city as well as with the care of the financial interests of British citizens. Every one of the thousands of letters to and from the prisoners was examined in the American Consulate so that they might carry with them no breach of neutrality; almost twenty thousand pounds, as well as tons of luxuries, were distributed by him to the prisoners; while the letters and cablegrams concerning the health and whereabouts of soldiers which reached him every week were far in excess of the number of communications which arrived at the Consulate in a year of peaceful times. Consul Hay was in good favour with the Boer Government notwithstanding his earnest efforts to perform his duties with regard to the British prisoners and interests, and of the many consuls who have represented the United States in South Africa none performed his duties more intelligently or with more credit to his country.

One of the most interesting and important events in Pretoria before the British occupation of the city was the meeting of the Volksraads on May 7th. It was a gathering of the warriors who survived the war which they themselves had brought about seven months before, and, although the enemy to whom they had thrown down the gauntlet was at their gates, they were as resolute and determined as on that October day when they voted to pit the Boer farmer against the British lion. The seats of many of those who took part in that memorable meeting were filled with palms and evergreens to mark the patriots' deaths, but the vierkleur and the cause remained to spur the living. Generals, commandants, and burghers, no longer in the grimy costumes of the battlefield, but in the black garb of the legislator, filled the circles of chairs; bandoliered burghers, consuls and military attachés in spectacular uniform, business men, and women with tear-stained cheeks filled the auditorium; while on the official benches were the heads of departments and the Executive Council, State Secretary Reitz and General Schalk Burger. The Chairman of the Raad, General Lucas Meyer, fresh from the battlefield, attracted the attention of the throng by announcing the arrival of the President. Spectators, Raad members, officials, all rose to their feet, and Paul Kruger, the Lion of Rustenberg, the Afrikander captain, entered the Chamber and occupied a seat of honour.

Lucas J. Meyer


Grave affairs occupied the attention of the country and there were many pressing matters to be adjusted, was the burden of the meeting, but the most important work was the defence of the country, and all the members were as a unit that their proper places were to be found with the burghers in the field. There was no talk of ending the war, or of surrender; the President leading in the proposition to continue hostilities until a conclusion successful to the Boer cause was attained. "Shall we lose courage?" he demanded. "Never! Never!! Never!!!" and then added reverently: "May the people and the officers, animated and inspired by a Higher Power, realising their duty, not only to those brave ones who have already sacrificed their lives for their Fatherland, but also to posterity that expects a free country, continue and persevere in this war to the end." With these words of their aged chieftain engraved on their hearts to strengthen their resolution the members of the Volksraads doffed the garb of legislators and returned to their commandos to inspire them with new zeal and determination.

After that memorable meeting of the Volksraads Pretoria again assumed the appearance of a city of peace, but the rapid approach of the forces of the enemy soon transformed it into a scene of desperation and panic. Men with drawn faces dashed through the city to assist their hard-pressed countrymen in the field; tearful women with children on their arms filled the churches with their moans and prayers; deserters fleeing homeward exaggerated fresh disasters and increased the tension of the populace—tears and terror prevailed almost everywhere. Railway stations were filled with throngs intent on escaping from the coming disaster, commandos of breathless and blood-stained burghers entered the city, and soon the voice of the conquerors' cannon reverberated among the hills and valleys of the capital. Above the noise and din of the threatened city rose the calm assurance of Paul Kruger: "Have good cheer, God will be with our people in the end."