John Morley.

The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

. (page 26 of 91)
Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 26 of 91)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

pened, on the day on which this was despatched from
Downing Street, Colley suffered a second check at the
Ingogo River (Feb. 8). Let us note that he was always eager
in his recognition of the readiness and promptitude of the
military support from the government at home. 1

Then an important move took place from the other
quarter. The Boers made their first overture. It came
in a letter from Kruger to Colley (Feb. 12). Its pur-
port was fairly summarised by Colley in a telegram to
the colonial secretary, and the pith of it was that Kruger
and his Boers were so certain of the English government
being on their side if the truth only reached them, that they
would not fear the result of inquiry by a royal commission,
and were ready, if troops were ordered to withdraw from the
Transvaal, to retire from their position, and give such a
commission a free passage. This telegram reached London
on Feb. 13th, and on the 15th it was brought before the

Mr. Gladstone immediately informed the Queen (Feb. 15),
that viewing the likelihood of early and sanguinary actions,
Lord Eimberley thought that the receipt of such an overture
at such a juncture, although its terms were inadmissible,
made it a duty to examine whether it afforded any hope of
settlement. The cabinet were still more strongly inclined
towards coming to terms. Any other decision would have
broken up the government, for on at least one division in the
House on Transvaal affairs Mr. Bright and Mr. Chamberlain,
along with three other ministers not in the cabinet, had
abstained from voting. Colley was directed (Feb. 16)
to inform the Boers that on their desisting from armed
opposition, the government would be ready to send com-

1 'I do not know whether I am express; and can never forget H.M.'s

indebted to yon or to Mr. Childers gracious message of encouragement

or to both, for the continuance of at a time of great trouble.'— Colley

H.M.'s confidence, but I shall always to Kimberley, Jan. 31, 1881.
feel more deeply grateful than I can

Digitized by



BOOK missioners to develop a scheme of settlement, and that mean-
^ while if this proposal were accepted, Che English general

1881. wa8 au thorised to agree to the suspension of hostilities.
This was in substance a conditional acceptance of the Boer
overture. 1 On the same day the general was told from the
war office that, as respected the interval before receiving a
reply from Mr. Kruger, the government did not bind his
discretion, but ' we are anxious for your making arrange-
ments to avoid effusion of blood.' The spirit of these instruc-
tions was clear. A week later (Feb. 23) the general showed
that he understood this, for he wrote to Mr. Childers that
' he would not without strong reason undertake any opera-
tion likely to bring on another engagement, until Eruger's
reply was received.' 2 If he had only stood firm to this* a
tragedy would have been averted.

On receiving the telegram of Feb. 16, Colley was puzzled
to know what was the meaning of suspending hostilities if
armed opposition were abandoned by the Boers, and he asked
the plain question (Feb. 19) whether he was to leave Laing**
Nek (which was in Natal territory) in Boer occupation, and
our garrisons isolated and short of provisions, or was he
to occupy Laing's Nek and relieve the garrisons. Colley's in-
quiries were instantly considered by the cabinet, and the reply
settled The garrisons were to be free to provision them-
selves and peaceful intercourse allowed; 'but/ Eimberley
tells Colley, 'we do not mean that you should march to
the relief of garrisons or occupy Laing's Nek, if the arrange-
ment proceeds. Fix reasonable time within which answer
must be sent by Boers/

On Feb. 21 Colley despatched a letter to Kruger, stating
that cm the Boers ceasing from armed opposition, the Queen
would appoint a commission. He added that 'upon this
proposal being accepted within forty-eight hours from the
receipt of this letter, 9 he was authorised to agree to a sus-
pension of hostilities on the part of the British

* 'The directions to Colley,' says should be appointed to enter into

Mr. Bright in a cabinet minute, ' in- negotiations and arrangements with

tended to convey the offer of a bus- a view to peace.'

pension of hostilities on both sides, * L\ft of Childers, it p. 24.
with ft proposal that a commissioner

Digitized by



la this interval a calamity, destined to be historic, oc- -® r -7 2 -
eurred, trivial in a military sense, but formidable for many
years to come in the issues moral and political that it raised,
and in the passions for which it became a burning watch-
word. On the night of Feb. 26, Colley with a force of
359 men all told, made up of three different corps, marched
out of his camp and occupied Majuba HilL The general's
motives for this precipitancy are obscure. The best ex-
planation seems to be that he observed the Boers to be
pushing gradually forward on to advanced ground, and
thought it well, without waiting for Kruger's reply, to seize
a height lying between the Nek and his own little camp,
the possession of which would make Laing's Nek untenable*
He probably did not expect that his move would necessarily
lead to fighting, and in fact when they saw the height
occupied, the Boers did at first for a little time actually begin
to retire from the Nek, though they soon changed their
minds. 1 The British operation is held by military experts to
have been rash; proper steps were not taken by the general to
protect himself upon Majuba, the men were not well handled,
and the Boers showed determined intrepidity as they climbed
steadily up the hill from platform to platform, taking from
seven in the morning (Feb. 27) up to half-past eleven to
advance some three thousand yards and not losing a man,
until at last they scaled the crest and poured a deadly fire
upon the small British force, driving them headlong from
the summit, seasoned soldiers though most of them were.
The general who was responsible for the disaster paid the
penalty with his life. Some ninety others fell and sixty
were taken prisoners.

At home the sensation was profound. The hysterical
complaints about our men and officers, General Wood wrote
to Childers, ' are more like French character than English
used to be.' Mr. Gladstone and his colleagues had a political
question to consider. Colley could not be technically accused
of want of good faith in moving forward on the 26th, as the

1 Colley 1 ! letter to Childers, Feb. 23, Ltfa o/ChUder$, ii. p. 24.

Digitized by VjOOQlC


BOOK time that he had appointed had expired. But though
' - Majuba is just inside Natal — some four miles over the border

188L — his advance was, under the circumstances of the moment,
essentially an aggressive movement Could his defeat
justify us in withdrawing our previous proposals to the
Boers? Was a military miscarriage, of no magnitude in
itself, to be turned into a plea for abandoning a policy
deliberately adopted for what were thought powerful and
decisive reasons? 'Suppose, for argument's sake,' Mr,
Gladstone wrote to Lord Kimberley when the sinister
news arrived (Mar. 2), 'that at the moment when Colley
made the unhappy attack on Majuba Hill, there shall
turn out to have been decided on, and possibly on its way,
a satisfactory or friendly reply from the Boer govern-
ment to your telegram ? I fear the chances may be against
this ; but if it prove to be the case, we could not because we
had failed on Sunday last, insist on shedding more blood.'
As it happened, the Boer answer was decided on before the
attack at Majuba, and was sent to Colley by Kruger at
Heidelberg in ignorance of the event, the day after the ill-
fated general's death. The members of the Transvaal
government set out their gratitude for the declaration that
under certain conditions the government of the Queen was
inclined to cease hostilities; and expressed their opinion
that a meeting of representatives from both sides would
probably lead with all speed to a satisfactory result This
reply was despatched by Kruger on the day on which
Colley's letter of the 21st came into his hands (Feb. 28), and
it reached Colley's successor on March 7.

Sir Evelyn Wood, now after the death of Colley in chief
command, throughout recommended military action. Con-
sidering the disasters we had sustained, he thought the
happiest result would be that after a successful battle, which
he hoped to fight in about a fortnight, the Boers would
disperse without any guarantee, and many now in the field
against their will would readily settle down. He explained
that by happy result, he did not mean that a series of
actions fought by any six companies could affect our military
prestige, but that a British victory would enable the Boer

Digitized by



leaders to quench a fire that had got beyond their controL CHAP.
The next day after this recommendation to fight (March 6), <
he, of his own motion, accepted a proposal telegraphed from
Joubert at the instigation of the indefatigable Brand, for a
suspension of hostilities for eight days, for the purpose of
receiving Kruger's reply. There was a military reason
behind. General Wood knew that the garrison in Potchef-
strom must surrender unless the place were revictualled,
and three other beleaguered garrisons were in almost equal
danger. The government at once told him that his armi-
stice was approved. This armistice, though Wood's reasons
were military rather than diplomatic, virtually put a stop
to suggestions for further fighting, for it implied, and could
in truth mean nothing else, that if Kruger's reply were
promising, the next step would not be a fight, but the con-
tinuance of negotiation. Sir Evelyn Wood had not advised
a fight for the sake of restoring military prestige, but to
make it easier for the Boer leaders to break up bands that
were getting beyond their control. There was also present
in his mind the intention, if the government would sanction
it, of driving the Boers out of Natal, as soon as ever he had
got his men up across the swollen river. So far from
sanctioning it, the government expressly forbade him to
take offensive action. On March 8, General Wood tele-
graphed home: 'Do not imagine I wish to fight I know
the attending misery too well. But now you have so many
troops coming, I recommend decisive though lenient action ;
and I can, humanly speaking, promise victory. Sir G.
Colley never engaged more than six companies. I shall use
twenty and two regiments of cavalry in direction known to
myself only, and undertake to enforce dispersion.' This then
was General Wood's view. On the day before he sent this
telegram, the general already had received Kruger's reply
to the effect that they were anxious to negotiate, and it
would be best for commissioners from the two sides to meet
It is important to add that the government were at the
same time receiving urgent warnings from President Brand
that Dutch sympathy, both in the Cape Colony and in the
Orange Free State, with the Dutch in the Transvaal was

Digitized by




growing dangerous, and. that the prolongation of hostilities
would end in a formidable extension of their area. 1 Even in
January Lanyon had told Colley that men from the Free
State were in the field against him. Three days before
Majuba> Lord Kimberley had written to Colley (February 24),
' My great fear has been lest the Free State should take
part against us, or even some movement take place in the
Cape Colony. If our willingness to come to terms has
avoided such a calamity, I shall consider it will have been
a most important point gained/ 2

Two memoranda for the Queen show the views of the
cabinet on the new position of affairs : —

To the Queen.

March 8, 1881. — The cabinet considered with much care the
terms of the reply to Sir Evelyn Wood's telegram reporting
(not textually) the answer of the Boer leaders to the proposals
which Sir George Colley had sent to them. They felt justified
in construing the Boer answer as leaving the way open to
the appointment of commissioners, according to the telegram
previously seen and approved by your Majesty. They were
anxious to keep the question moving in this direction, and under
the extreme urgency of the circumstances as to time, they
have despatched a telegram to Sir Evelyn Wood accordingly. Mr.
Gladstone has always urged, and still feels, that the proposal of
the Boers for the appointment of commissioners was fortunate on
this among other grounds, that it involved a recognition of your
Majesty's de facto authority in the Transvaal.

March 12. — The cabinet determined, in order to obviate mis-
apprehension or suspicion, to desire Sir E. Wood to inform the
government from what quarter the suggestion of an armistice

1 See Selborne's Memorials, ii. p. 3, and partly not, were as one man

and also a speech by Lord Kimberley associated in feeling with the people

at Newcastle, Nov. 14, 1899. of the Transvaal ; and had we per-

1 In a speech at Edinburgh (Sept. sisted in that dishonourable attempt,

1, 1884) Mr. Gladstone put the same against all our own interests, to

argument — ' The people of the Trans- coerce the Transvaal as we attempted

vaal, few in number, were in close to coerce Afghanistan, we should

and strong sympathy with their have had the whole mass of the

brethren in race, language, and Dutch population at the Cape and

religion. Throughout South Africa throughout South Africa rising in

these men, partly British subjects arms against us. '

Digitized by



actually proceeded. They agreed that the proper persons to be CHAP,
appointed as commissioners were Sir H. Robinson, Sir £. Wood, >
and Mr. De Villiers, chief justice of the Cape ; together with Mr. iET * ^
Brand of the Free State as amicus curiae, should he be willing to
lend his good offices in the spirit in which he has hitherto acted.
The cabinet then considered fully the terms of the communication
to be made to the Boers by Sir K Wood. In this, which is matter
of extreme urgency, they prescribe a time for the reply of the
Boers not later than the 18th; renew the promise of amnesty;
require the dispersion of the Boers to their own homes ; and state
the general outlines of the permanent arrangement which they
would propose for the territory. . . The cabinet believe that in
requiring the dispersion of the Boers to their homes, they will have
made the necessary provision for the vindication of your Majesty's
authority, so as to open the way for considering terms of pacific

On March 22, under instructions from home, the general
concluded an agreement for peace. The Boers made some
preliminary requests to which the government declined to
assent Their proposal that the commission should be joint
was rejected; its members were named exclusively by the
crown. They agreed to withdraw from the Nek and disperse
to their homes ; we agreed not to occupy the Nek, and not
to follow them up with troops, though General Roberts with
a large force had sailed for the Cape on March 6. Then the
political negotiation went forward. Would it have been wise,
as the question was well put by the Duke of Argyll (not then
a member of the government), 'to stop the negotiation for
the sake of defeating a body of farmers who had succeeded
under accidental circumstances and by great rashness on
the part of our commanders, in gaining a victory over us ? '
This was the true point

The parliamentary attack was severe. The galling
argument was that government had conceded to three
defeats what they had refused to ten times as many
petitions, memorials, remonstrances; and we had given to
men with arms in their hands what we refused to their
peaceful prayers. A great lawyer in the House of Lords made

igitieedby Vj<


BOOK the speech that is expected from a great lawyer who is
VIIL * also a conspicuous party leader ; and ministers undoubtedly
1881. exposed an extent of surface that was not easy to defend,
not because they had made a peace, but because they had
failed to prevent the rising. High military authorities
found a curious plea for going on, in the fact that this was
our first contest with Europeans since the breech-loader
came in, and it was desirable to give our troops confidence
in the new-fashioned weapon. Reasons of a very different
sort from this were needed to overthrow the case for peaca
How could the miscarriage at Majuba, brought on by our
own action, warrant us in drawing back from an engage-
ment already deliberately proffered? Would not such a
proceeding, asked Lord Kimberley, have been little short
of an act of bad faith? Or were we, in Mr. Gladstone's
language, to say to the Boers, 'Although we might have
treated with you before these military miscarriages, we
cannot do so now, until we offer up a certain number of
victims in expiation of the blood that has been shed. Until
that has been done, the very things which we believed
before to be reasonable, which we were ready to discuss
with you, we refuse to discuss now, and we must wait until
Moloch has been appeased. 1 We had opened a door for
negotiation ; were we to close it again, because a handful
of our forces had rashly seized a post they could not hold ?
The action of the Boers had been defensive of the status quo,
for if we had established ourselves on Majuba, their camp
at Laing's Nek would have been untenable. The minister
protested in the face of the House of Commons that ' it would
have been most unjust and cruel, it would have been cowardly
and mean, if on account of these defensive operations we
had refused to go forward with the negotiations which, before
the first of these miscarriages had occurred, we had already
declared that we were willing to promote and undertake.' 1

The policy of the reversal of annexation is likely to remain
a topic of endless dispute. 2 As Sir Hercules Robinson put

1 July 25, 1881. Africa, changed his mind. 'The

3 One of the meet determined Dutch sentiment in the Cape Colony,'

enemies of the government in 1881, wrote Lord Randolph Churchill, ' had

ten years later, in a visit to South been so exasperated by what it con-

Digitized by



it in a letter to Lord Kimberley, written a week before
Majuba (Feb. 21), no possible course was free from grave <
objection. If you determine, he said, to hold by the annexa- iEr * 72 -
tion of the Transvaal, the country would have to be con-
quered and held in subjection for many years by a large
force. Free institutions and self-government under British
rule would be an impossibility. The only palliative would
be to dilute Dutch feeling by extensive English immigra-
tion, like that of 1820 to the Eastern Province. But that
would take time, and need careful watching; and in the
meantime the result of holding the Transvaal as a con-
quered colony would undoubtedly be to excite bitter hatred
between the English and Dutch throughout the Free State
and this colony, which would be a constant source of dis-
comfort and danger. On the other hand, he believed that
if they were, after a series of reverses and before any success,
to yield all the Boers asked for, they would be so overbearing
and quarrelsome that we should soon be at war with them
again. On the whole, Sir Hercules was disposed to think —
extraordinary as such a view must appear — that the best plan
would be to re-establish the supremacy of our arms, and
then let the malcontents go. He thought no middle course
any longer practicable. Yet surely this course was open to
all the objections. To hold on to annexation at any cost was
intelligible. But to face all the cost and all the risks of a
prolonged and a widely extended conflict, with the deliberate
intention of allowing the enemy to have his own way after
the conflict had been brought to an end, was not intelligible
and was not defensible.

Some have argued that we ought to have brought up an
overwhelming force, to demonstrate that we were able to
beat them, before we made peace. Unfortunately demon-
strations of this species easily turn into provocations, and
talk of this kind mostly comes from those who believe, not

sidered the unjust, faithless, and it from Great Britain. ... On the

arbitrary policy pursued towards the whole, I find myself free to confess,

free Dutchmen of the Transvaal by and without reluctance to admit,

Frere, Shepstone, and Lanyon, that that the English escaped from a

the final triumph of the British arms, wretched and discreditable muddle,

mainly by brute force, would have not without harm and damage, but

permanently and hopelessly alienated perhaps in the best possible manner.'

Digitized by



book that peace was made in the wrong way, but that a peaoe
t giving their country back to the Boers ought never to

1881 - have been made at all, on any terms or in any way.
This was not the point from which either cabinet or
parliament started. The government had decided that
annexation had been an error. The Boers had proposed
inquiry. The government assented on condition that the
Boers dispersed. Without waiting a reasonable time for a
reply, our general was worsted in a rash and trivial attack.
Did this cancel our proffered bargain ? The point was simple
and unmistakable, though party heat at home, race passion
in the colony, and our everlasting human proneness to mix
up different questions, and to answer one point by arguments
that belong to another, all combined to produce a confusion
of mind that a certain school of partisans have traded upon
ever since. Strange in mighty nations is moral cowardice,
disguised as a Roman pride. All the more may we admire
the moral courage of the minister. For moral courage may
be needed even where aversion to bloodshed fortunately
happens to coincide with high prudence and sound policy
of state.


The negotiations proceeded, if negotiation be the right
word. The Boers disbanded, a powerful British force was
encamped on the frontier, no Boer representative sat on, the
commission, and the terms of final agreement were in fact,
as the Boers afterwards alleged, dictated and imposed. Mr.
Gladstone watched with a closeness that, considering the
tremendous load of Ireland, parliamentary procedure, and
the incessant general business of a prime minister, is
amazing. When the Boers were over-pressing, he warned
them that it was only 'the unshorn strength' of the
administration that enabled the English cabinet, rather to
the surprise of the world, to spare them the sufferings of
a war. ' We could not/ he said to Lord Kimberley, ' have
carried our Transvaal policy, unless we had here a strong
government, and we spent some, if not much of our strength
in carrying it' A convention was concluded at Pretoria in

Digitized by



August, recognising the quasi-independenoe of the Trans-
vtal, subject to the suzerainty of the Queen, and with
certain specified reservations. The Pretoria convention of iET - 72 -
1881 did not work smoothly. Transvaal affairs were discussed
from time to time in the cabinet, and Mr. Chamberlain be-
came the spokesman of the government on a business where
he was destined many years after to make so conspicuous
and irreparable a mark. The Boers again sent Eruger
to London, and he made out a good enough case in the
opinion of Lord Derby, then secretary of state, to justify
a fresh arrangement By the London convention of 1884,
the Transvaal state was restored to its old title of the South
African Republic ; the assertion of suzerainty in the preamble
of the old convention did not appear in the new one ; 1 and
various other modifications were introduced — the most
important of them in the light of later events, being a
provision for white men to have full liberty to reside in any
part of the republic, to trade in it, and to be liable to the
same taxes only as those exacted from citizens of the

Whether we look at the Sand River Convention in 1852
which conferred independence ; or at Shepstone's proclama-
tion in 1877 which took independence away ; or at the con-
vention of Pretoria in 1881, which in a qualified shape gave
it back ; or at the convention of London in 1884, which quali-
fied the qualification over again, till independence, subject to
two or three specified conditions, was restored, — we can but

Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 26 of 91)