Kruger and De Wet

NOBODY is likely to turn to The Memoirs of Paul Kruger1 in search of an impartial review of the causes and events of the South African war. The aged President of the South African Republic took no part in the actual fighting, and his account of the steps that led to it, while evidently sincere enough, is colored by a natural prejudice and suspicion. In his eyes Cecil Rhodes was “capital incarnate,” “ the curse of South Africa; ” and he is firmly convinced that the British government wished the peace negotiations of 1899 to fail. Of such questions “Oom Paul, ” while an uncommonly interesting witness, is disqualified to serve as the historian. His book will not change the opinion of many people with regard to the exact distribution of blame to both Boer and Briton for the lamentable struggle in the Transvaal.

But the story of his life does afford a perspective by means of which the final act in the drama of the republics can be more perfectly comprehended. In his adventurous earlier years, filled as they were with lion shooting, rhinocerous hunting, and Kaffir fighting, the “great Trek” taught him hatred of England. This farmer, who could outrun any Kaffir, and bear starvation and multilation with stolid fortitude, soon developed that sheer contempt for his antagonists which has accounted for so much of the reckless hardihood of the campaigning Boers. Sometimes it breaks out in these Memoirs into passages of Plutarchan brevity and pith. Here, for instance, is Kruger’s dialogue with General Sir Evelyn Wood, after the close of the war of independence in 1881: —

“He [Wood] asked among other things:—

What were the two hundred men for, whom you were sending to the Biggarsberg? ’

“ We heard that you were marching there with twelve thousand.’

“ ‘ And you sent your two hundred ? ’ Yes, we had no more to send ; but I have seen that they would have been enough. ’ ”

Nothing could be better in its way than this, unless it be the apologetic remark in De Wet’s book about the Boers’ lack of ammunition in the last stages of the late war: “Although the ammunition had for a long time been scarce, nevertheless, after every fight, there had been enough to begin the next with.”

The essential shrewdness of the frontiersman, and his seasoned distrust of the methods of civilized diplomacy, is well illustrated in Kruger’s reply to an urgent invitation extended to Joubert and himself to pay a visit to Sir Bartle Frere at Cape Town. “We refused; but when the invitation was repeated, and it was added that Sir Bartle wished to speak to us privately, I said: ' I will come, if you can tell me which Sir Bartle Frere it is that wishes to see us; for I know four of them. The first came to us at Kleinfontein, and assured us that he had not come with the sword, but as a messenger of peace. But, later on, I read in an English Blue Book that, on the same day, a Sir Bartle Frere, the second, therefore, had written to the British government, “ If only I had had enough guns and men, I would soon have dispersed the rebels.” I made the acquaintance of the third Sir Bartle Frere through his answer to our petition for the repeal of the annexation: he then said that he had informed the British government that he had met some five thousand of the best Boers at Kleinfontein, and that he recommended their petition to the government’s earnest consideration. Afterwards, I saw in the English Blue Book that, on the same day, a Sir Bartle Frere, obviously a fourth, had informed the British government that he had met only a handful of rebels. Now these four cannot possibly be one and the same man; if, therefore, you can tell me which of the four Sir Bartles wishes to see us, we will think about it.’ ”

Not the least interesting portion of the Memoirs is the appendix, containing speeches and proclamations, particularly the exhaustive speech on the issues leading to the war, which was delivered by President Kruger at his fourth inauguration in May, 1898. The book contains two portraits: a rare one taken about 1865, when Kruger was forty, and showing a face where a certain sweetness, as of the religious mystic, is mingled with the obstinate peasant strength; the other, the familiar photograph of recent date, with features heavy, drooping, leonine.

It is a portrait, likewise, which first arrests the attention of the reader of De Wet’s Three Years’ War.2 Sargent’s drawing of the brilliant Free State leader is a masterpiece of interpretative portraiture. Self-control, coolness, humor, modesty are in those eyes and lips, unless Sargent’s brush is for once evasive. For opening a council of war with prayer, or dashing through the line of forts at Springhaansnek at the head of eight thousand burghers without losing one of them, here is the man ! “I am no book-writer,” he declares in his preface, but Grant, whose Memoirs possess some of the highest literary excellencies, thought himself no book-writer either. De Wet’s story does not display the American general’s ability to reject or subordinate masses of intrusive detail. Yet it is a straightforward, soldier-like narrative, beginning with the equipment of the volunteer private in September, 1899, and closing with the acceptance of the British terms of peace on May 31, 1902.

The book gives a clear impression of the imperfect discipline against which De Wet had to struggle from first to last. The burghers were often an unmalleable aggregation of stubborn units. They mastered their larger military problems slowly, if at all; held obstinately by their ox-wagons long after it was manifest that their only chance of success lay in swiftness of movement; and could never be depended upon to carry out with precision a preconcerted plan. Occasionally they bolted under fire like the veriest raw recruits. De Wet was terribly tried by all this, but rarely ventures upon criticism of his comrades. He does speak plainly of Cronje’s fatal obduracy in refusing to abandon his laager at Paardeburg. Yet the tone of his comment is chivalric: “If I presume to criticise his conduct on this occasion, it is only because I believe that he ought to have sacrificed his own ideas for the good of the nation, and that he should not have been courageous at the expense of his country’s independence, to which he was as fiercely attached as I.”

Throughout De Wet’s memoirs, as well as Kruger’s, there is the constant evidence of unassumed piety and iron faith. “ If the reader is eager to know how it was that I kept out of the enemy’s hands until the end of the war, I can only answer, although I may not be understood, that I ascribed it to nothing else than this: it was not God’s will that I should fall into their hands. ” Moralizing upon the outcome of the struggle, he exclaims: “We have done our best, and to ask any one to do more is unreasonable. May it be the cry of every one, ‘ God willed it so — his name be praised! ’ ” Paul Kruger’s closing paragraph is keyed to this same note of simple resignation. One wonders how far that note will indeed be understood in our modern Western world. Perhaps more widely than De Wet would think.

But at least there can be no doubt of the world-wide sympathy for the gallant “reconstructed ” spirit of De Wet’s dedication: “To my fellow-subjects of the British Empire. ” Those words give good omen for the future of South Africa. There is no better proof of the temper in which patriotic men of both races can together face and master a difficult situation than may be found in the appendix to Three Years’ War. In the verbatim reports of the long conferences between the Boer generals and Lords Milner and Kitchener concerning the terms of peace, all the better qualities of the victorious combatants are manifest. Tact, patience, firm holding to essentials, a willingness to yield the smaller matters in controversy, make a pleasant picture as one closes the book. In the tragic conflict of which General De Wet has written, most of the glory went to the burghers and all of the territory to the British, but it is encouraging to note that, in the reconstruction of South Africa, Boer and Briton are working side by side for the common good. B. P.

  1. The Memoirs of Paul Kruger. Told by Himself. New York : The Century Co. 1902.
  2. Three Years’ War. By CHRISTIAAN RUDOLF DE WET. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1902.