A PREFACE usually comments on the text and gives reasons for its publication. The former I cannot do, as I do not know what this book contains, nor shall I have any opportunity of seeing the proofs. As to the latter, I can give no better apology than that in the hard times through which my poor diocese has passed the Publishers' offer was not one to be declined.
Since I left England, in October, 1893, it has been my daily habit to scribble an unpremeditated record of events, and to post this weekly batch of diary to my home circle in place of letter. This diary is written in odd moments, in the early morning or late at night after a tiring day; and I take no special pains as to its form, but write down a bare record of facts. Comments, reflections, emotions of a higher or deeper kind, if committed to writing at all, are reserved for the more personal medium of letters.
Rough in form, however, as my diary is, and bare and unedifying in matter, the Publishers have thought that it may contain enough of general interest during these last interesting months to be worth printing, and in response to their request my sister has undertaken the selection of extracts.
The roughest sketch which gives the local colouring sometimes conveys a truer impression than the most accurate photograph, and possibly this diary, written on the spot, may have this small merit. My own experience has been that there are some things one only gets a proper view of on the spot. For instance, before I came to South Africa I had a settled impression that Cape Town was at the extreme southern point of the Continent, and that Table Mountain looked out over it straight towards the South Pole. It was only when I got there that I found Table Mountain facing almost due north, staring at me as I approached from England. It is just possible that my diary may serve to correct a few such a priori and erroneous impressions.
But there is one respect in which even we who lived on the spot were quite at fault. Some of us, indeed, were at fault on two points. We never believed, till just before the event, that there would be war, and we never dreamed that if there were it would be anything very big. As I look back to a year ago, I seem to see quite a different South Africa from that which I see now. There was Johannesburg with its anomalies, it is true. No one had any doubt that the existing condition of things could not go on permanently. The grievances of the Uitlanders were undoubted. And it was an impossible position that the paramount power in South Africa should always suffer its subjects to be treated like naughty children, surrounded with prohibitions and restrictions, and allowed none of the rights of citizenship. But, on the other hand, these grievances did not seem so very pressing. It was doubtful how far they really weighed on the majority of the Englishmen of the Rand, and especially on the working class, how far they were reaching the point of becoming intolerable. And, again, the deplorable blunder of the Jameson Raid was felt to have tied our hands-no one could say exactly for how long. And, thirdly, we (I speak, of course, for myself) did not really believe that, when the time came for firm pressure to be applied, Pretoria would hold out at the risk of war.
It was the Bloemfontein Conference that first began to open our eyes. Then it did begin to look as if the Transvaal had a stiffer backbone than we had supposed. Still, it might be bluff, and not really backbone at all. But a visit to Government House, Cape Town, at the end of last July, completed the awakening in my own case. Then I began to perceive that signs of any inclination seriously to meet the grievances were altogether wanting; and that in this, and many other directions, there were unmistakable signs coming into view of a spirit very far removed from conciliation or yielding on the part of the South African Republic. It seemed plain that it was no longer a question of a five years' or a seven years' franchise. It was a question which was to be the power that was to dictate to South Africa. And if that was the question at issue, there was little chance for conferences to settle it.
Still, even so we were at fault. I, at least, smiled when I was told that this was going to be the biggest affair since the Crimea. I confess to such ignorance that I could not understand why we did not at once occupy Laing's Nek, never doubting that we could hold it and so prevent the Boers from barring our advance at such a formidable barricade. If anyone had told me then that, so far from being able to hold Laing's Nek, we should not be able to hold Dundee and the Biggarsberg, nor indeed to maintain our communications between Maritzburg and Ladysmith, I think I should have laughed outright.
This is a startling confession to make. But others, with far better opportunities of knowing, appear to have shared the ignorance. On June 12th, 1899, Mr. Schreiner, the Premier of the Cape, wrote to the Mayor of Kimberley: "I wish to assure you without delay that no reason whatever exists for apprehending that Kimberley, or any part of this Colony, either is, or in any contemplated event will be, in any danger of attack. I am officially informed that representatives of the South African League have professed to the Civil Commissioner of Kimberley fear of invasion from the Orange Free State or South African Republics. Such fears are absolutely groundless." Mr. Rhodes said to me himself: "You see if I am not right; there will not be a shot fired." And the late Mr. Escombe, ex-Premier of Natal, whose sincerity no one would question, said the same.
And as to the dimensions of the war, people in high position said that from 40,000 to 50,000 men would be sufficient for the job. And many military men to whom I spoke seemed to think that it was worth while to allow the Boers to occupy Laing's Nek, in order to get them to make a stand where we could attack them together, as it seemed unlikely otherwise that we should ever have anything but a desultory guerilla warfare. The fear was that, so far from invading, they would not even stand to receive a serious attack or fight a pitched battle. If those prophets could only have looked across the little gap of weeks that hid the coming events at Colenso and Stormberg and Magersfontein!
And if there was little expectation of war, or of a war of huge proportions, there was equally little desire for it even among many of those whose business is righting. I remember well walking down from Mess at Fort Napier one night in last June, or thereabouts, with poor General Symons, and his saying to me: "It would be indeed a grievous thing; we none of us want to be sent to kill the ignorant Boer farmers."
However, there were a few who better gauged the chances of the future. Some older colonists, and among them my own brothers-in-law, not only said that there would be war, but warned us that Maritzburg itself would be by no means safe, that the Boers would overrun Natal, and that they would be far too mobile to be deterred by fears of having their communications cut off. At that time these pessimistic forecasts seemed to us as idle tales, but they were much nearer the truth than our easy-going optimism.
So the months of uncertainty flowed silently by till in a moment the awakening came. The startling Ultimatum rudely banished the idea that the Boers would not fight, and the big gun on Imparti, and the consequent retreat of General Yule, woke us from the dream that if there were war it would be a short and easy one.
I may perhaps be allowed to add to the mere record of outward events some words on their inner significance which I have already addressed to my own diocese. ["Natal Diocesan Magazine," March, 1900.]