Oom Paul's People - Howard Hillegas

Interview with President Kruger

As is the rule with them everywhere, Englishmen in South Africa speak of Mr. Kruger with contempt and derision. Unprejudiced Americans and other foreigners in South Africa admire him for his patriotism, his courage in opposing the dictatorial policy of England's Colonial Office, and his efforts to establish a republic as nearly like that of the United States of America as possible. My desire to see Mr. Kruger was almost obliterated a week after my arrival in the country by the words of condemnation which were heaped upon him by Englishmen whenever his name was mentioned. In nearly every Englishman's mind the name of "Oom Paul" was a synonym for all that was corrupt and vile; few gave him a word of commendation.

When I came into the pretty little town of Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal, where the President lives and where he mingles daily with the populace with as much freedom and informality as a country squire, there was a rapid transformation in my opinion of the man. The Boers worship their leader; to them he is a second George Washington, and even a few Englishmen there speak with admiration of him.

The day before my arrival in the town John McCann, of Johannesburg, who is a former New-Yorker and a friend of the President, informed Mr. Kruger of my intention to visit Pretoria. The President had refused interviews to three representatives of influential London newspapers who had been in the town three months waiting for the opportunity, but he expressed a desire to see an American.

"The Americans won't lie about me," he said to Mr. McCann. "I want America to learn our side of the story from me. They have had only the English point of view." I had scarcely reached my hotel when an emissary from the President called and made an appointment for me to meet him in the afternoon. The emissary conducted me to the Government Building, where the Volksraad was in session, and it required only a short time for it to become known that a representative from the great sister republic across the Atlantic desired to learn the truth about the Boers.

I was overwhelmed with information. Cabinet members, Raad members, the Commissioner of War, the Postmaster General, the most honoured and influential men of the republic—men who had more than once risked their lives in fighting for their country's preservation—gathered around me and were so eager to have me tell America of the wrongs they had suffered at the hands of the British that the scene was highly pathetic.

One after another spoke of the severe trials through which their young republic had passed, the efforts that had been made to disrupt it, and the constant harassment to which they had been subjected by enemies working under the cloak of friendship. The majority spoke English, but such as knew only the Boer taal were given an opportunity by their more fortunate friends to add to the testimony, and spoke through an interpreter. Such earnest, such honest conversation it had never been my lot to hear before. It was a memorable hour that I spent listening to the plaints of those plain, good-hearted Boers in the heart of South Africa. It was the voice of the downtrodden, the weak crying out against the strong.

When the hour of my appointment with the President arrived there was a unanimous desire among the Boers gathered around to accompany me. It was finally decided by them that six would be a sufficient number, and among those chosen were Postmaster-General Van Alpen, who was a representative at the Postal Congress in Washington several years ago; Commissioner of Mines P. Kroebler, Commissioner of War J. J. Smidt, Justice of the Peace Dillingham, and former Commandant-General Stephanne Schoeman.

When our party reached the little white-washed cottage in which the President lives a score or more of tall and soil-stained farmers were standing in a circular group on the low piazza. They were laughing hilariously at something that had been said by a shorter, fat man who was nearly hidden from view by the surrounding circle of patriarchs. A breach in the circle disclosed the President of the republic with his left arm on the shoulder of a long-whiskered Boer, and his right hand swinging lightly in the hand of another of his countrymen. It was democracy in its highest exemplification.

Catching a glimpse of us as we were entering on the lawn, the President hastily withdrew into the cottage. The Boers he deserted seated themselves on benches and chairs on the piazza, relighted their pipes, and puffed contentedly, without paying more attention to us than to nod to several of my companions as we passed them.

The front door of the cottage, or "White House," as they call it, was wide open. There was no flunkey in livery to take our cards, no white-aproned servant girls to tra-la-la our names. The executive mansion of the President was as free and open to visitors as the farmhouse of the humblest burgher of the republic. In their efforts to display their qualities of politeness my companions urged me into the President's private reception room, while they lingered for a short time at the threshold. The President rose from his chair in the opposite end, met me in the centre of the room, and had grasped my hand before my companions had an opportunity of going through the process of an introduction.

There was less formality and red tape in meeting "Oom Paul " than would be required to have a word with Queen Victoria's butcher or President McKinley's office-boy.

While Mr. Kruger's small fat hand was holding mine in its grasp and shaking it vehemently, he spoke something in Boer, to which I replied, "Heel goed, danke," meaning "Very well, I thank you." Some one had told me that he would first ask concerning my health, and also gave me the formula for an answer. The President laughed heartily at my reply, and made a remark in Boer "taal." The interpreter came up in the meantime and straightened out the tangle by telling me that the President's first question had been "Have you any English blood in your veins?"

The President, still laughing at my reply, seated himself in a big armchair at the head of a table on which was a heavy pipe and a large tobacco box. He filled the pipe, lighted the tobacco, and blew great clouds of smoke toward the ceiling. My companions took turns in filling their pipes from the President's tobacco box, and in a few minutes the smoke was so dense as nearly to obscure my view of the persons in front of me.

The President crossed his short, thin legs and blew quick, spirited puffs of smoke while an interpreter translated to him my expression of the admiration which the American people had for him, and how well known the title "Oom Paul" was in America. This delighted the old man immeasurably. His big, fat body seemed to resolve itself into waves which started in his shoes and gradually worked upward until the fat rings under his eyes hid the little black orbits from view. Then he slapped his knees with his hands, opened his large mouth, and roared with laughter.

It was almost a minute before he regained his composure sufficiently to take another puff at the pipe which is his constant companion. During the old man's fit of laughter one of my companions nudged me and advised me: "Now ask him anything you wish. He is in better humour than I have ever seen him before." The President checked a second outburst of laughter rather suddenly and asked, "Are you a friend of Cecil Rhodes?" If there is any one whom "Oom Paul" detests it is the great colonizer. The President invariably asks this question of strangers, and if the answer is an affirmative one he refuses to continue the conversation.

Being assured that such was not the case, Mr. Kruger's mind appeared to be greatly relieved—as he is very suspicious of all strangers—and he asked another question which is indicative of the religious side of his nature: "To what Church do you belong?" A speaking acquaintanceship was claimed with the Dutch Reformed Church, of which the President is a most devout member, and this served to dissipate all suspicions he might have had concerning me.

The interpreter was repeating a question to him when the President suddenly interrupted, as is frequently his custom during a conversation, and asked: "Do the American people know the history of our people? I will tell you truthfully and briefly. You have heard the English version always; now I will given you ours."

The President proceeded slowly and, between puffs at his great pipe, spoke determinedly: "When I was a child we were so maltreated by the English in Cape Colony that we could no longer bear the abuses to which we were subjected. In 1835 we migrated northward with our cattle and possessions and settled in Natal, just south of Zululand, where by unavoidable fighting we acquired territory from the Zulus. We had hardly settled that country and established ourselves and a local form of government when our old enemies followed, and by various high-handed methods made life so unendurable that we were again compelled to move our families and possessions. This time we travelled five hundred miles inland over the trackless veldt and across the Vaal River, and after many hardships and trials settled in the Transvaal. The country was so poor, so uninviting, that the English colonists did not think it worth their while to settle in the land which we had chosen for our abiding-place.

"Our people increased in number, and, as the years passed, established a form of government such as yours in America. The British thought they were better able to govern us than we were ourselves, and once took our country from us. Their defeats at Laing's Nek and Majuba Hill taught them that we were fighters, and they gave us our independence and allowed us to live peaceably for a number of years. They did not think the country valuable enough to warrant the repetition of the fighting for it. When it became known all over the world twelve years ago that the most extensive gold fields on the globe had been discovered in our apparently worthless country, England became envious and laid plans to annex such a valuable prize. Thousands of people were attracted hither by our wonderful gold mines at Johannesburg, and the English statesmen renewed their attacks on us. They made all sorts of pretexts to rob us of our country, and when they could not do it in a way that was honest and would be commended by other nations, they planned the Jameson raid, which was merely a bold attempt to steal our country."

At this point Kruger paused for a moment and then added, "You Americans know how well they succeeded." This sally amused him and my companions hugely, and they all joined in hearty laughter.

The President declared that England's attitude toward them had changed completely since the discovery of the gold fields. "Up to that time we had been living in harmony with every one. We always tried to be peaceable and to prevent strife between our neighbours, but we have been continually harassed since the natural wealth of our land has been uncovered."

Here he relighted his pipe, which had grown cold while he was detailing the history of the Transvaal Boers, and then drew a parable, which is one of his distinguishing traits: "The gold fields may be compared to a pretty girl who is young and wealthy. You all admire her and want her to be yours, but when she rejects you your anger rises and you want to destroy her." By implication England is the rejected suitor, and the Transvaal the rich young girl.

Comparing the Boers' conduct in South Africa with that of the English, the President said: "Ever since we left Cape Colony in 1835 we have not taken any territory from the natives by conquest except that of one chief whose murderous maraudings compelled us to drive him away from his country. We bartered and bought every inch of land we now have. England has taken all the land she has in South Africa at the muzzles of repeating rifles and machine guns. That is the civilized method of extending the bounds of the empire they talk about so much."

The Englishmen's plaint is that the republic will tax them, but allow them no representation in the affairs of government. The President explained his side in this manner: "Every man, be he Englishman, Chinaman, or Eskimo, can become a naturalized citizen of our country and have all the privileges of a burgher in nine years. If we should have a war, a foreigner can become a citizen in a minute if he will fight with our army. The difficulty with the Englishmen here is that they want to be burghers and at the same time retain their English citizenship.

"A man can not serve two masters; either he will hate the one and love the other, or hold to the one and despise the other. We have a law for bigamy in our country, and it is necessary to dispose of an old love before it is possible to marry a new."

"Oom Paul" is very bitter in his feeling against the English, whom he calls his natural enemies, but it is seldom that he says anything against them except in private to his most intimate friends. The present great distress in the Johannesburg gold fields is attributed by the English residents to the high protective duties imposed by the Government and the high freight charges for the transmission of machinery and coal. Mr. Kruger explained that those taxes were less than in the other colonies in the country.

"We are high protectionists because ours is a young country. These new mines have cost the Government great amounts of money, and it is necessary for us to raise as much as we expend. They want us to give them everything gratuitously, so that we may become bankrupt and they can take our country for the debt. If they don't like our laws, why don't they stay away?"

Nowhere in the world is the American Republic admired as much outside of its own territory as in South Africa. Both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State Constitutions are patterned after that of the United States, and there is a desire lurking in the breasts of thousands of South Africans to convert the whole of the country south of the Zambezi into one grand United States of South Africa. Sir Alfred Milner, the Queen's Commissioner to South Africa, said to me several days before I saw Mr. Kruger that such a thing might come to pass within the next twenty years. The President hesitated when I asked him if he favoured such a proposition to unite all the colonies and republics in the country. "If I should say 'Yes,' the English would declare war on us to-morrow." He appeared to be very cautious on this subject for a few minutes, but after a consultation with my companions he spoke more freely.

"We admire your Government very much," he said, "and think there is none better in the world. At the present time there are so many conflicting affairs in this country as to make the discussion of an amalgamation inadvisable. A republic formed on the principle of the United States would be most advantageous to all concerned, but South Africa is not yet ripe for such a government. I shall not live to see it."

According to those around him, the President had not been in such a talkative mood for a long time, and, acting upon that information, I asked him to tell me concerning the Boers' ability to defend themselves in case of war with England. Many successes against British arms have caused the Boers to regard their prowess very highly, and they generally speak of themselves as well able to protect their country. The two countries have been on the very verge of war several times during the last three years, and it was only through the greatest diplomacy that the thousands of English soldiers were not sent over the border of the Transvaal, near which they have been stationed ever since the memorable raid of Jameson's troopers.

The President's reply was guarded: "The English say they can starve us out of our country by placing barriers of soldiers along the borders. Starve us they can, if it is the will of God that such should be our fate. If God is on our side they can build a big wall around us and we can still live and flourish. We don't want war. My wish is to live in peace with everybody."

It was evident that the subject was not pleasant to him, and he requested me to ask Commissioner of War Smidt, a war-scarred hero of Majuba Hill, to speak to me on the ability of the Boers to take care of themselves in case of a conflict.

Commissioner Smidt became very enthusiastic as he progressed with the expression of his opinion, and the President frequently nodded assent to what the head of the War Department said.

"It is contrary to our national feeling to engage in war," said Mr. Smidt, "and we will do all in our power to avert strife. If, however, we are forced into fighting, we must defend ourselves as best we are able. There is not one Boer in the Transvaal who will not fight until death for his country. We have demonstrated our ability several times, and we shall try to retain our reputation. The English must fight us in our own country, where we know every rock, every valley, and every hill. They fight at a disadvantage in a country which they do not know and in a climate to which they are strangers.

"The Boers are born sharpshooters, and from infancy are taught to put a bullet in a buzzard's skull at a hundred yards. One Boer is equal in a war in our own country to five Englishmen, and that has been proved a number of times. We have rugged constitutions, are accustomed to an outdoor life, and can live on a piece of biltong for days, while the Queen's soldiers have none of these advantages.

"They can not starve us out in fifty years, for we have sources of provender of which they can not deprive us. We have fortifications around Pretoria that make it an impossibility for any army of less than fifty thousand men to take, and the ammunition we have on hand is sufficient for a three years' war. We are not afraid of the English in Africa, and not until every Boer in the Transvaal is killed will we stop fighting if they ever begin. Should war come, and I pray that it will not, the Boers will march through English territory to the Cape of Good Hope, or be erased from the face of the earth."

Never was a man more sincere in his statements than the commissioner, and his companions supported his every sentence by look and gesture. Even the President gave silent approval to the sentiments expressed.

"Have you ever had any intention of securing Delagoa Bay from the Portuguese, in order that you might have a seacoast, as has been rumoured many times?" I asked the President. Delagoa Bay, the finest harbour in Africa, is within a few miles of the Transvaal, and might be of great service to it in the event of war.

"'Cursed be he who removes the landmarks of his neighbour,'" quoted he. "I never want to do anything that would bring the vengeance of God on me. We want our country, nothing more, nothing less."

Asked to give an explanation of the causes of the troubles between England and the Transvaal, he said:

"Mr. Rhodes is the cause of all the troubles between our country and England. He desires to form all the country south of the Zambezi River into a United States of South Africa, and before he can do this he must have possession of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. His aim in life is to be President of the United States of South Africa. He initiated the Jameson raid, and he has stirred up the spirit of discontent which is being shown by the Englishmen in the Transvaal. Our Government endeavours to treat every one with like favour, but these Englishmen are never satisfied with anything we do. They want the English flag to wave over the Transvaal territory, and nothing less. Rhodes spent millions of pounds in efforts to steal our country, and will probably spend millions more. But we will never leave this land, which we found, settled, and protected."

Then, rising from his chair and raising his voice, he continued slowly and deliberately:

"We will fight until not one Boer remains to defend our flag and country; our women and children will fight for their liberties; and even I, an old man, will take the gun which I have used against them twice before and use it again to defend the country I love. But I hope there will be no war. I want none and the Boers want none. If war comes, we shall not be to blame. I have done all in my power for peace, and have taken many insults from Englishmen merely that my people might not be plunged into war. I want no war. I hope that I may spend the rest of my days in peace."

The President's carriage had arrived in front of the cottage to convey him to the Government Building, and the time had arrived for him to appear before one of the Volksraads. He displayed no eagerness to end the interview, and continued it by asking me to describe the personality and ability of President McKinley. He expressed his admiration of former President Cleveland, with whose Department of State he had some dealings while John Hays Hammond was confined in the Pretoria prison for complicity in the Jameson raid.

His opinion of the Americans in South Africa was characteristic of the man. "I like and trust true Americans. They are a magnificent people, because they favour justice. When those in our country are untainted with English ideas I trust them implicitly, but there were a number of them here in Jameson's time who were Americans in name only."

He hesitated to send any message to the sister republic in America, lest his English enemies might construe it to mean that he curried America's favour. His friends finally persuaded him to make a statement, and he dictated this expression of good fellowship and respect:

"So long as the different sections of the United States live in peace and harmony, so long will they be happy and prosperous. My wish is that the great republic in America may become the greatest nation on earth, and that she may continue to act as the great peace nation. I wish that prosperity may be hers and her people's, and in my daily prayers I ask that God may protect her and bless her bounteously."

It being far past the time for his appearance at the Government Building, the President ended the interview abruptly. He refilled his pipe, bade farewell to us, and bustled from the room with all the vigour of a young man. On the piazza he met his little, silver-haired wife, who, with a half-knit stocking pendant from her fingers, was conversing with the countrymen sitting on the benches. The President bent down and kissed her affectionately, then jumped into the carriage and was rapidly conveyed to the Government Building. When the dust obscured the carriage and the cavalrymen attending it, one of my companions turned to me and remarked:

"Ah! there goes a great man!"