09 FEBRUARY 1901
Three years ago I met Olive Schreiner—the greatest woman South Africa has produced—for one brief hour. She was an admirer of England, and I, to put it gently, was not. She believed, like our Union-of-Hearts people here in Ireland, in that strange and wonderful thing ‘the great heart of England.’ England, she told me, had erred in many ways, but the errors were of the head not of the heart. John Bull was a hasty, irascible, pig-headed old fellow, who when crossed or thwarted was liable to do things which he afterwards repented, but he really had a sweet tender bosom, and if one only humoured the old man and stroked him down gently, why—God bless you—he would then go even the length of putting his hand in his pocket for you. I suggested to Miss Schreiner that it was in the other fellow’s pocket John was in the habit of putting his hand, but she, in the most charming way—for she is a charming woman—assured me I was a prejudiced Irishman. ’Twas on the Rand I spoke with her, and sweeping my arm around I asked her whether John Bull’s hand was not busily engaged in picking the pocket of South Africa. But, shaking her head, she said no; it was the wicked wretches who gulled good John who were doing the picking and getting the old man a bad name. Then we talked of other things, and before she bade me good-bye she told me with a smile that within a few years I would come to see how unjust I was to Bull. ‘Within five years, Miss Schreiner,’ I said to her, ‘I believe you will admit that I was right in saying England is a soulless plutocracy without heart, without bowels of compassion, a menace to humanity, a curse to the earth.’ ‘We have both played the prophet,’ quoth she, laughing. ‘Let us see five years hence which of us will have honour.’ I claim the honour. Olive Scheiner addressed a meeting of South African women the other day, and this is what she said:—
‘Fourteen months ago, if any man had stated to me that it was possible for those things to take place which have taken place in the Colony under martial law, and in the neighbouring republics, during the last year, without arousing a passionate and determined protest from the bulk of the English people, I should have laughed him to scorn. That the bulk of the people of England could sit by silent and unmoved while private houses were burned down and woman and children turned homeless into the African wilds, in order that through wounding the affection and sympathies of the men their arms might be paralyzed for further warfare; while quiet private citizens were forced into threatened trains, that their presence might serve to guard the lives of English soldiers; while the honourable uniform of the British officer was pawned to civilians, that, masquerading in that guise, they might avenge themselves upon their political enemies—had one told me that these things could be, and the bulk of the English nation sit by silent and unmoved, I should have regarded him as one who dreams in a fever. That there might be war, that battlefields might run red, that fortified places would be bombarded—these things I had recognised as possible. But that the British Empire would expend its gold in purchasing informers; that in England itself the right to freedom of speech would be so dead that howling mobs of thousands would attack single individuals endeavouring to express their thought with regard to a public matter, and life be endangered; that in South Africa the man or woman who exercises that primary right of the Englishman, free speech, should be compelled to do so to-day with the vision of a manacle at his or her elbow; that even the prayers of the people should be listened to by the spies of the Government—this I had not dreamed possible.
‘To-day England stands naked before the nations, the mantle of assumed virtue which she had wrapped about her torn open and left hanging in fragments. She who cried aloud to the nations, “I am not as thou art; my arms are not as thine!” stands to-day exposed. Russia, Austria, France, Germany have no sinned as she has sinned. They never crossed six thousand miles of sea to find a small brave people, bound to them by the ties of a common religion of a common Aryan descent, and with the cry, “We seek no gold, we seek no land!” to seek to crush them to the earth, and grasp with greedy fingers at the gold to-day. In her unlovely and unlovable old age, all the nobler and more generous instincts of her youth extinguished within her, she stands shrivelled and naked before the nations with her name branded upon her forehead—“A hypocrite among the peoples.”
‘What South Africa has ultimately to fear is not the sword or the cannon or the rifle bullet or the match which sets alight the roof over the heads of women and children. These things but harden and anneal a strong people. That which South Africa has to fear is the corrupting, corroding, enervating power of wealth. While we, the people of South Africa, hold by the old, simple, brave ideals and manners of life of the founders of the South African race, the future of South Africa is assured. It is for you, the women of South Africa, to transmit these ideals to your children. Freedom first, and wealth, ease, luxury last, if at all. It has been said in South Africa that ‘every man has his price.’ He lied who said this. But it is for you, the women of South Africa, to show that the heart of South Africa is unpurchasable by any gold from blood-stained hands. The heart of its womanhood is the treasure-house of a nation where its freedom is stored. See that you guard the treasure of your people well. A fearless, indomitable womanhood, a fearless, indomitable race. Finally, there is one word more I would say. Bathed in blood and swathed in sorrow as South Africa is to-day, the time is yet coming when this land will be the home of a strong and independent nation. It will take its place beside France and Russia and Germany and the United States of America, among the nations of the future. I have a great ambition for that nation of ours in the future. I do not covet for it wealth, nor that it should stand first among the world’s people in size or density of population.
‘I have a loftier ambition for it than this. In one matter I would have it excel all nations and be excelled by none. When that day comes when we, a free and united people, dominate in these southern seas and on this southern continent, and other and weaker nations and race are thrown into our hands, I would have it that we, who in the youth of our people have drunk to its dregs the cup of sorrow and been ground beneath the oppressor’s heel, remembering what we had endured, should deal mercifully with all weak and subject peoples who may fall into our power. It is righteousness that exalteth a nation. I would have it that the name of South Africa should stand first among all the world’s peoples for justice and generosity to all small and oppressed races. This lofty ambition I have for my nation; and if so it be that, in our years of anguish and darkness beneath a foreign yoke, we have learned this lesson, we shall not have wept and bled in vain.’
So a peaceful calm pervades my soul to-day. The brilliant and noble-hearted Africander woman who believed in England now loathes and scorns it, seeing it the bloody, merciless, bestial thing it is. I have not been a false prophet.