27 JANUARY 1900
The main road to the Transvaal now-a-days starts at Delagoa Bay. There are other roads, but God alone knows where they begin—at least the clever commanders of the British Cape squadron say so.
Delagoa Bay is not strikingly pretty, but it is one of the finest bays in the world. If Portugal were a great Power, and capable of fortifying Inyack Island at its mouth, Portugal would dominate the Indian Ocean. Portugal, however, is not a great Power, though she bravely protests she is a military, and not a commercial nation, when the enterprising Britisher and Yankee raise Cain at Delagoa over the slipshod way business is carried on. I admire the Portuguese for their supreme contempt for commercial nations. Commercial nations are soulless.
Lourenco Marques on the shores of the bay has little to recommend it. It is not ugly, but neither is it beautiful. It is the resort of the South African outlaw, desperado, and the adventurer. Yet the Portuguese maintain good order, as a rule, for the Portuguese, though a little fellow, stands no nonsense. Some years ago Lourenco Marques was a veritable death-trap. The malarial fever killed off its scores weekly. It is, however, much healthier since the planting of the blue gum. In the old days the main business of the Portuguese soldiers was the burying of the dead. Coffins were scarce in those days, in fact there was only one coffin in Lourenco Marques. It had a hinged bottom, and served for all funerals. One day the burying squad picked up a supposed corpse on the veldt. They shoved it in the coffin, dug a hole, and dropped it in. The drop wakened up the corpse, and he cursed Portugal and its people in the American language. This irritate the soldiers, and they brought him before the Alcade, and the Alcade sentenced him to six months’ imprisonment for disturbing a funeral. I don’t vouch for the truth of this story—it was told me by Englishmen.
The Transvaal border lies 45 miles north of Lourenco Marques in the fever country. You can live very healthily in the fever country after sunset. When they were building the railway through it every yard cost a life. It takes a good while to get over that 45 miles in a Portuguese train. The engine-driver and guard usually alight at every station to smoke a cigarette, and have a chat with the stationmaster. It is pleasant, it is glorious, in this wretched world of rush, roar, and bustle, to meet people who take their time.
The Boers take over the train at Komati Poort, some 250 miles from Pretoria. It is a steep climb for 100 up to Belfast—the pinnacle of the Hoog-veldt—the highest town in the Transvaal, nearly 7,000 feet above the level of the sea. Belfast was founded by Anthony O’Neill, one-time Chief Constable of Barberton, who hailed from the Northern City, and his sons control the rich coal-mines around which the town has sprung up. Its population is about 700—a fair-sized town for the Transvaal—about one-fourth of whom are Irish or of Irish descent. The number of men of Irish blood to be found in Africa is surprising. Middleburg, forty miles further on the road to Pretoria, also has a fair sprinkling of Irishmen. It is the centre of the Transvaal coal and iron district, and will one of these days be the great manufacturing town of South Africa.
Half-way between Middleburg and Pretoria lies Bronkhurst Spruit—a name of ill-omen to Englishmen. From the train one can see the spot where Anstruther’s troops fell like chaff before the sharpshooters of Franz Joubert. Thence onward to Pretoria the country is fairly flat, though kopje-studded. Pretoria, itself, lies in a valley encircled by hills. If the English ever get to Pretoria, they’ll have lively times around those hills.
And when the Irishman walks into Pretoria and looks at the names over the shop doors and great business houses, he will not feel altogether in a strange land, for he will find Burke, Harrington, Gillingham, Dunne and O’Brien, side by side with Van Heerden or Spiekermann, and when he comes to know that in the Transvaal there are towns named after Dublin, Killarney, Avoca, and other parts of the old land, he begins to feel a real affections for the country of the simple, brave, and kindly Boer.