Oom Paul's People - Howard Hillegas

The Boer of To-Day

The wholesale slander and misrepresentation with which the Boers of South Africa have been pursued can not be outlived by them in a hundred years. It originated when the British forces took possession of the Cape of Good Hope, and it has continued with unabated vigour ever since. Recently the chief writers of fiction have been prominent Englishmen, who, on hunting expeditions or rapid tours through the country, saw the object of their venom from car windows or in the less favourable environments of a trackless veldt.

In earlier days the outside world gleaned its knowledge of the Boers from certain British statesmen, who, by grace of Downing Street, controlled the country's colonial policy, and consequently felt obliged to conjure up weird descriptions of their far-distant subjects in order to make the application of certain harsh policies appear more applicable and necessary. Missionaries to South Africa, traders, and, not least of all, speculators, all found it convenient to traduce the Boers to the people in England, and the object in almost every case was the attainment of some personal end. Had there been any variety in the complaints, there might have been reason to suppose they were justifiable, but the similarity of the reports led to the conclusion that the British in South Africa were conducting the campaign of misrepresentation for the single purpose of arousing the enmity of the home people against the Boers. The unbiased reports were generally of such a nature that they were drowned by the roar of the malicious ones, and, instead of creating a better popular opinion of the race, only assisted in stirring the opposition to greater flights of fancy.

American interests in South Africa having been so infinitesimal until the last decade, our own knowledge of the country and its people naturally was of the same proportions. When Americans learned anything concerning South Africa or the Boers it came by way of London, which had vaster interests in the country, and should have been able to give exact information. But, like other colonial information, it was discoloured with London additions, and the result was that American views of the Boers tallied with those of the Englishman.

Among the more prominent Englishmen who have recently studied the Boers from a car window, and have given the world the benefit of their opinions, is a man who has declared that the Boer blocked the way in South Africa, and must go. Among other declarations with which this usually well-informed writer has taken up the cudgel in behalf of his friend Mr. Rhodes, he has called the Boers "utterly detestable," "guilty of indecencies and family immorality," and even so "benighted and uncivilized " as to preclude the possibility of writing about them. All this he is reported to have said about a race that has been lauded beyond measure by the editors of every country in the world except those under the English flag. The real cause of it all is found in the Boers' disposition to carry their own burdens, and their disinclination to allow England to be their keeper. Their opinions of justice and right were formed years ago in Cape Colony, and so long as their fighting ability has not been proved in a negative manner, so long will the Boers be reviled by the covetous Englishmen of South Africa and their friends.

The Boer of to-day is a man who loves solitude above all things. He and his ancestors have enjoyed that chief product of South Africa for so many generations that it is his greatest delight to be alone. The nomadic spirit of the early settler courses in his veins, and will not be eradicated though cities be built up all around him and railroads hem him in on all sides.

He loves to be out on the veldt, where nothing but the tall grass obstructs his view of the horizon, and his happiness is complete when, gun in hand, he can stalk the buck or raise the covey on soil never upturned by the share of a plough. The real Boer is a real son of the soil. It is his natural environment, and he chafes when he is compelled to go where there are more than a dozen dwellings in the same square mile of area.

The pastoral life he and his ancestors have been leading has endowed him with a happy-go-lucky disposition. Some call him lazy and sluggish because he has plenty of time at his disposal and "counts ten" before acting. Others might call that disposition a realization of his necessities, and his chosen method of providing for them.

The watching of herds of cattle and flocks of sheep has since biblical times been considered an easier business than the digging of minerals or the manufacture of iron, and the Boer has realized that many years ago. He has also realized the utter uselessness of digging for minerals and the manufacture of iron when the products of either were valueless at a distance of a thousand miles from the nearest market. Taking these facts in consideration, the Boer has done what other less nomadic people have done. He has improved the opportunities which lay before him, and has allowed the others to pass untouched.

The Boers are not an agricultural people, because the nature of the country affords no encouragement for the following of that pursuit. The great heat of the summer removes rivers in a week and leaves rivulets hardly big enough to quench the thirst of the cattle. Irrigation is out of the question, as the great rivers are too far distant and the country too level to warrant the building of artificial waterways. Taking all things into consideration, there is nothing for a Boer to do but raise cattle and sheep, and he may regard himself particularly fortunate at the end of each year if drought and disease have not carried away one half of this wealth.

The Boer's habits and mode of life are similar to those of the American ranchman, and in reality there is not much difference between the two except that the latter is not so far removed from civilization. The Boer likes to be out of the sight of the smoke of his neighbour's house, and to live fifteen or twenty miles from another dwelling is a matter of satisfaction rather than regret to him. The patriarchal custom of the people provides against the lack of companionship which naturally would follow this custom.

When a Boer's children marry they settle within a short distance of the original family homestead; generally several hundred yards distant. In this way, in a few years, a small village is formed on the family estates, which may consist of from five hundred to ten thousand acres of uninclosed grazing ground. Every son when he marries is entitled to a share of the estate, which he is supposed to use for the support of himself and his family, and in that way the various estates grow smaller each generation. When an estate grows too small to support the owner, he "treks" to another part of the country, and receives from the state such an amount of territory as he may require.

Boer houses, as a rule, are situated a long distance away from the tracks of the transport wagons, in order that passing infected animals may not introduce disease into the flocks and herds of the farmer. Strangers are seldom seen as a result of this isolation, and news from the outer world does not reach the Boers unless they travel to the towns to make the annual purchases of necessaries.

Their chief recreation is the shooting of game, which abounds in almost all parts of the country. Besides being their recreation, it is also their duty, for it is much cheaper to kill a buck and use it to supply the family larder than to kill an ox or a sheep for the same purpose. It is seldom that a Boer misses his aim, be the target a deer or an Englishman, and he has ample time to become proficient in the use of the rifle. His gun is his constant companion on the veldt and at his home, and the long alliance has resulted in earning for him the distinction of being the best marksman and the best irregular soldier in the world. The Boer is not a sportsman in the American sense of the word. He is a hunter, pure and simple, and finds no delight in following the Englishman's example of spending many weeks in the Zambezi forests or the dangerous Kalahari Desert, and returning with a giraffe tail and a few horns and feathers as trophies of the chase. He hunts because he needs meat for his family and leather for sjam-bok whips with which to drive his cattle, and not because it gives him personal gratification to be able to demonstrate his supreme skill in the tracking of game.

The dress of the Boer is of the roughest description and material, and suited to his occupation. Corduroy and flannel for the body, a wide-brimmed felt hat for the head, and soft leather-soled boots fitted for walking on the grass, complete the regulation Boer costume, which is picturesque as well as serviceable. The clothing, which is generally made by the Boer's vrouw, or wife, makes no pretension of fit or style, and is quite satisfactory to the wearer if it clings to the body. In most instances it is built on plans made and approved by the Voortrekkers of 1835, and quite satisfactory to the present Boers, their sons, and grandsons.

Physically, the Boers are the equals, if not the superiors, of their old-time enemy, the Zulus. It would be difficult to find anywhere an entire race of such physical giants as the Boers of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The roving existence, the life in the open air, and the freedom from disturbing cares have combined to make of the Boers a race that is almost physically perfect. If an average height of all the full-grown males in the country were taken, it would be found to be not less than six feet two inches, and probably more. Their physique, notwithstanding their comparatively idle mode of living, is magnificently developed.

The action of the almost abnormally developed muscles of the legs and arms, discernible through their closely fitting garments, gives an idea of the remarkable powers of endurance which the Boers have displayed on many occasions when engaged in native and other campaigns. They can withstand almost any amount of physical pain and discomfort, and can live for a remarkably long time on the smallest quantity of food. It is a matter of common knowledge that a Boer can subsist on a five-pound slice of "biltong"—beef that has been dried in the sun until it is almost as hard as stone—for from ten to fifteen days without suffering any pangs of hunger. In times of war, "biltong" is the principal item in the army rations, and in peace, when he is following his flocks, it also is the Boer shepherd's chief article of diet.

The religion of the Boers is one of their greatest characteristics, and one that can hardly be understood when it is taken into consideration that they have been separated for almost two hundred years from the refining influences of a higher civilization. The simple faith in a Supreme Being, which the original emigrants from Europe carried to South Africa, has been handed down from one generation to another, and in two centuries of fighting, trekking, and ranching has lost none of its pristine depth and fervour.



With the Boer his religion is his first and uppermost thought. The Old Testament is the pattern which he strives to follow. The father of the family reads from its pages every day, and from it he formulates his ideas of right and wrong as they are to be applied to the work of the day. Whether he wishes to exchange cattle with his neighbour or give his daughter in marriage to a neighbour's son, he consults the Testament, and finds therein the advice that is applicable to the situation. He reads nothing but the Bible, and consequently his belief in its teachings is indestructible and supreme.

His religious temperament is portrayed in almost every sentence he utters, and his repetition of biblical parables and sayings is a custom which so impresses itself upon the mind of the stranger that it is but natural that those who are unacquainted with the Boer should declare it a sure sign of his hypocrisy. He does not quote Scripture merely to impress upon the mind of his hearer the fact that he is a devout Christian, but does it for the same reasons that a sailor speaks the language of the sea-farer.

The Boer is a low churchman among low churchmen. He abhors anything that has the slightest tendency toward show or outward signs of display in religious worship. He is simple in his other habits, and in his religious observances he is almost primitively simple. To him the wearing of gorgeous raiment, special attitudes, musical accompaniment to hymns, and special demonstrations are the rankest sacrilege. Of the nine legal holidays in the Transvaal, five—Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whit Monday, and Christmas—are Church festival days, and are strictly observed by every Boer in the country.

The Dutch Reformed Church has been the state Church since 1835, when the Boers commenced emigrating from Cape Colony. The "trekkers" had no regularly ordained ministers, but depended upon the elders for their religious training, as well as for leadership in all temporal affairs. One of the first clergymen to preach to the Boers was an American, the Rev. Daniel Lindley, who was one of the earliest missionaries ever sent to South Africa. The state controls the Church, and, conversely, the Church controls the state, for it is necessary for a man to become a factor in religious affairs before he can become of any political importance. As a result of this custom, the politicians are necessarily the most active church members.

The Hervormde Dopper branch of the Dutch Reformed Church is the result of a disagreement in 1883 with the Gereformeerde branch over the singing of hymns during a religious service. The Doppers, led by Paul Kruger, peaceably withdrew, and started a congregation of their own when the more progressive faction insisted on singing hymns, which the Doppers declared was extremely worldly.

Since then the two chief political parties are practically based on the differences in religion. The Progressive party is composed of those who sing hymns, and the members of the Conservative party are those who are more Calvinistic in their tendencies. As the Conservatives have been in power for the last decade, it follows that the majority of the Boers are opposed to the singing of hymns in church. The greatest festival in the Boer calendar is that of Nachtmaal, or Communion, which is generally held in Pretoria the latter part of the year.

The majority of the Boers living in remote parts of the country, where established congregations or churches are an impossibility, it behooves every Boer to journey to the capital once a year to partake of communion. Pretoria then becomes the Mecca of all Boers, and the pretty little town is filled to overflowing with pilgrims and their "trekking" wagons and cattle. Those who live in remote parts of the country are obliged to start several weeks before the Nachtmaal in order to be there at the appointed time, and the whole journey to and fro in many instances requires six weeks' time. When they reach Pretoria they bivouac in the open square surrounding the old brick church in the centre of the town, and spend almost all their time in the church. It is one of the grandest scenes in South Africa to observe the pilgrims camping in the open square under the shade of the patriarchal church, which to them is the most sacred edifice in the world.

The home life of the Boers is as distinctive a feature of these rough, simple peoples as is their deep religious enthusiasm. If there is anything that his falsifiers have attacked, it is the Boer's home life, and those who have had the opportunity to study it will vouch that none more admirable exists anywhere. The Boer heart is filled with an intense feeling of family affection. He loves his wife and children above all things, and he is never too busy to eulogize them. He will allow his flocks to wander a mile away while he relates a trifling incident of family life, and he would rather miss an hour's sleep than not take advantage of an opportunity to talk on domestic topics.

He does not gossip, because he sees his neighbours too rarely for that, but he will lay before you the detailed history and distinctive features of every one of his ancestors, relations, and descendants. He is hospitable to a degree that is astonishing, and he will give to a stranger the best room in the house, the use of his best horse, and his finest food. Naturally he will not give an effusive welcome to an Englishman, because he is the natural enemy of the Boer, but to strangers of other nationalities he opens his heart and house.

The programme of the Boer's day is hardly ever marred by any changes. He rises with the sun, and works among the sheep and cattle until breakfast. There at the table he meets his family and conducts the family worship. If the parents of the married couple are present, they receive the best seats at the table, and are treated with great reverence.

After breakfast he makes his plans for the day's work, which may consist of a forward "trek" or a hunting trip. He attends to the little plot of cultivated ground, which provides all the vegetables and grain for the table, and spends the remainder of the day in attending to the cattle and sheep. Toward night he gathers his family around him, and reads to them selected chapters from the Bible. From the same book he teaches his children to read until twilight is ended, whereupon the Boer's day is ended, and he seeks his bed.

During the dry season the programme varies only as far as his place of abode is concerned. With the arrival of that season the Boer closes his house and becomes a wanderer in pursuit of water. The sheep and cattle are driven to the rivers, and the family follows in big transport wagons, not unlike the American prairie-schooner, propelled by eight spans of oxen. The family moves from place to place as the necessity for new pasturage arises. With the approach of the wet season the nomads prepare for the return to the deserted homestead, and, as soon as the first rain has fallen and the grass has changed the colour of the landscape, the Boer and his vast herds are homeward bound.

The Boer homestead is as unpretentious as its owner. Generally it is a low, one-story stone structure, with a steep tile roof and a small annex in the rear, which is used as a kitchen. The door is on a level with the ground, and four windows afford all the light that is required in the four square rooms in the interior. A dining room and three bedrooms suffice for a family, however large. The floors are of hardened clay, liberally coated with manure, which is designed to ward off the pestiferous insects that swarm over the plains.

The house is usually situated in a valley and close to a stream, and, in rare instances, is sheltered by a few trees that have been brought from the coast country. Native trees are such a rarity that the traveller may go five hundred miles without seeing a single specimen. The Boer vrouw feels no need of firewood, however, for her ancestors taught her to cook her meals over a fire of the dry product of the cattle-decked plains.

Personal uncleanliness is one of the great failings that has been attributed to the Boer, but when it is taken into consideration that water is a priceless possession on the plains of South Africa, no further explanation is needed. The canard that the Boers go to bed without undressing is as absurd as the one of like origin that an entire family sleeps in one bed. Yet these fictions constantly appear, and frequently over the names of persons who have penetrated into South Africa no farther than Cape Town.

The Boer here depicted is the representative Boer—the one who shoulders his rifle and fights for his country; the one who watches his cattle on the plains and pays his taxes; the one who tries to improve his condition, and takes advantage of every opportunity for advancement that is offered. There is a worthless Boer, as there is a worthless Englishman, a worthless German, and a worthless American, but he is so far in the minority that he need not be analyzed.

There is, however, a Boer who lives in the towns and cities, and he compares favourably with other men of South African birth. He has had the advantage of better schools, and can speak one or more languages besides his own. He is not so nomadic in his tendencies as his rural countryman, and he has absorbed more of the modernisms. He can conduct a philosophic argument, and his wife and daughters can play the piano. If he is wealthy, his son is a student at a European university and his daughter flirting on the beach at Durban or attending a ladies' seminary at Bloemfontein or Grahamstown.

He is as progressive as any white man cares to be under that generous South African sun, and when it comes to driving a bargain he is a match for any of the money sharks of Johannesburg. For the youthful Boer who reaches the city directly from the country, without any trade or profession, the prospects are gloomy. He is at a great disadvantage when put into competition with almost any class of residents. The occupations to which he can turn are few, and these have been still further restricted in late years by the destruction of cattle by the rinderpest and the substitution of railways for road transport. His lack of education unfits him for most of the openings provided in such a city as Johannesburg, even when business is at its highest tide, and a small increase in the tension of business brings him to absolute want.

The Boer of to-day is a creature of circumstance. He is outstripped because he has had no opportunities for development. Driven from Cape Colony, where he was rapidly developing a national character, he was compelled to wander into lands that offered no opportunities of any description. He has been cut off for almost a hundred years from an older and more energetic civilization, and even from his neighbours; it is no wonder that he is a century behind the van. No other civilized race on earth has been handicapped in such a manner, and if there had been one it is a matter for conjecture whether it would have held its own, as the Boer has done, or whether it would have fallen to the level of the savage.

Had the Boer Voortrekkers been fortunate enough to settle in a fertile country bordering on the sea, where they might have had communication with the outer world, their descendants would undoubtedly to-day be growing cane and wheat instead of herding cattle and driving transport wagons. Their love of freedom could not have been greater under those circumstances, but they might have averted the conditions which now threaten to erase their nation from the face of the earth.