H. R. H.‘s political views — Bred a Tory — Cross-bench mind — Strong Imperialist — Asked to stand for King’s Lynn — Declined — Co-director of African Review — Undertook later to contest East Norfolk — Difficult constituency for Conservative — Beaten by 198 votes — Stood in the agricultural interest — Specially interested in S. African affairs — Cecil Rhodes — Retired from African Review — Death of H. R. H.‘s father — Elected chairman of local bench — Major Burnham — Some of his adventures — Major Cheyne.
Ever since I came to manhood I have taken an interest in politics, though at first it was the foreign branch of the subject that attracted me most. Like most country squires my father was a Tory to the backbone, and, although one of them broke away, all his sons were brought up in the strictest sect of that somewhat fossilised creed. People generally remain in the political fold wherein they chance to be born, much as they generally remain Protestants or Roman Catholics, or Wesleyans or Unitarians, according to the faith of their fathers. Now I understand that I never was a real Tory — that, in short, as a party man I am the most miserable failure. As a politician I should have been useless from any whip’s point of view. He would — well, have struck me off his list as neither hot nor cold, as a dangerous and undesirable individual who, refusing to swallow the shibboleths of his tribe with shut eyes, actually dared to think for himself and to possess that hateful thing, “a cross-bench mind.”
I believe in conscription. I think it would be the grandest gift that Heaven could give to Britain; that it would lighten the terrible burden of anxiety which haunts many of us25 by at least one-half; that it would make men of tens of thousands among us who are now but loafers without ambition, without prospects, save such as the relief that State or private charity may afford; that it would inculcate patriotism and the sense of discipline, lacking which every country must in time come to an inglorious end. Indeed my greatest grudge against Mr. Balfour and his colleagues is that they did not take the opportunity given to them during the dark days of the South African War to introduce this reform, which would then, I believe, have been passed without a murmur. Of course I understand that they feared lest a bold step of the sort should tell against them at the polls. How superfluous were their fears was shown by the ultimate disaster to which their do-nothing policy led the party at last. At the best, failure was in front of them; and it would have been better to fail with something done, if such should prove their fate, leaving a great name behind them which ere long their country would have crowned with the honour it deserved.
25 Written in 1912.
These are sentiments which, however much they were disapproved of by the party manager on the hunt for votes, would, if adequately presented, probably provoke a cheer from a Conservative audience. But suppose that I were the speaker on such an occasion, and followed that up by stating that I had grave misgivings as to the authorised programme of Protection, alias Tariff Reform? Suppose I pointed out that in my view, which is possibly quite erroneous, duties on food-stuffs are scarcely practicable in this land of city-dwellers, who not unnaturally object to paying more for the necessaries of life, as, however moderate those duties might be, the British middle-man would be careful to see they did? Suppose, further, that I showed what I take to be an unanswerable fact, that any scheme of Tariff Reform which omitted duties on food-stuffs would result in the final ruin of British agriculture, and in the consequent progressive deterioration of the race, what would the Conservative Party say then? That they had no use for me, I imagine!
In the same way, what place is there in politics for a man like myself who has the most earnest sympathies with the poor and who desires to advance their lot in every reasonable way, but who loathes and detests the Radical method of attempting to set class against class, and of aiming all their artillery at the middle section of society — the real prop of the race — for the reason that it is Conservative in its instincts and votes against them at the polls? Again, what would be thought of one who, posing as a member of the Tory party, yet earnestly advocated the division of the land amongst about ten times as many as hold it at present, thereby spoiling a great many great estates, and often enough interfering with the interests and pleasures of those who shoot and hunt, or who seek this road to social success? Assuredly for such a one there is no standing-room upon any of our political platforms. “Away with him!” would be the cry. Therefore he must be content to remain outside, doing whatever work may come to his hand which he conceives to be clean and, in however humble a measure, useful. It is hard to be an out-and-out party politician and yet remain honest — or at least some of us find it so, though the consciences of others are more accommodating. Perhaps, however, this saying is not true in every sense, since some minds cannot consider a subject in all its aspects; to them light has but a single colour. What they want to believe, that they believe.
Such are the views to which I have attained at my present age. Five-and-twenty years ago, even fifteen years ago, they were different. For then I still smarted from the whip of Mr. Gladstone’s Colonial policy, and had less practical experience of social questions than I have today. The great wrongs which Radicals were capable of working upon loyal Englishmen to serve their party interests dominated my mind. In short, Mr. Gladstone turned one who in all essentials would have been a moderate Liberal into an Imperialist who made the mistake, that is common to those who “think in continents,” of underrating the needs and circumstances of the Home Country. The Empire is very large and England is very small. So is the heart small in proportion to a great body, but after all it is an important organ, and if it becomes diseased or stops — what happens to the body? Even today, when the Colonies are more powerful than they were a score of years ago, they would find this question awkward to answer, since there are peoples who, in such an event as the stoppage of our national heart, might be anxious to possess themselves of a limb or two of that weakened or paralysed body. Indeed, as we see by many signs, this is a fact whereof the Dominions have become painfully aware in these latter days. Realising that an empire cannot be kept together merely by taxing the Mother Country’s goods and affording homes for such of her surplus population as it suits them to receive, they now show themselves eager to adopt a scheme of Imperial Preference and to bear some share of the cost of her armaments. There they are surely wise, since if England falls, say within the next fifty years, then — God help these half-empty lands, one of which at least has been reduced to the strange expedient of offering a money bonus for every child born within its coasts!
In the future, however, all this may change; it is even possible that they may become the protectors of the worn-out and decrepit parent from which they sprang. Absit omen!
My first chance of entering Parliament occurred in 1893, when, in consequence of some speeches that I had made and certain letters I had written in the papers, I was asked if I would contest King’s Lynn. I declined because of the expense and the difficulty of getting backwards and forwards between my home and the borough, since this was before the day of motors. Herein I was foolish, that is if I wished to enter politics, since I think I could have won that seat easily enough, and it would have been much less costly to fight and hold than a county constituency.
A couple of years later the question arose again. By this time, as I have explained, I was utterly weary of a retired life and of the writing of books, from which I sought eagerly for some avenue of escape.
My letters in The Times on matters connected with South Africa had attracted some notice, and as a result I was again brought into contact with those interested in the affairs of that country. Ultimately I was elected Chairman of the Anglo–African Writer’s Club, a pleasant and useful dining society that is now defunct. Also I became co-director of a weekly paper called the African Review, which some years ago was absorbed by another journal. It was a very good paper of its sort — too good for the market to which it appealed — and run on the most straightforward lines. The end of these activities was that, greatly daring, I entered into a partnership with my fellow-director, who was a financier in the African market, with whom it was understood that I should stand for Parliament, with the general idea of giving my attention to African affairs in the House of Commons.
Mercifully the thing miscarried, for had it been otherwise I might have had to bear upon my shoulders much of the burden of the Parliamentary defence of the inspirers and perpetrators of the Jameson Raid, which would have been neither a pleasant nor an easy task.
The constituency which I was weak enough to undertake to contest was, and still remains, one of the most difficult in the kingdom from the Conservative point of view — namely, East Norfolk. In the old days before the lowering of the franchise it was represented by the late Sir Edward Birkbeck, who, however, after that event was defeated by a majority of 440 by Mr. (now Sir R. J.) Price, a gentleman unconnected with the county. Seeing the hopelessness of winning the seat, Sir Edward Birkbeck made no further attempt in that direction, and the late Colonel MacCalmont was invited to take his place. He came, he saw, and he retired, like a wise man, leaving me to fill his shoes.
I may as well state the result at once. I reduced the adverse majority to 198. Since that time sundry other Unionists have fought the place, with the result that on each occasion it has risen. I believe that at the last election it reached the grand total of somewhere about 1200.
My programme was Unionist and Agricultural. I quote a few lines from the speech which I made when I was selected as a Conservative candidate, as it puts my position in a nutshell.
These are the measures that I would suggest as a means towards that remedial legislation to which you are entitled. First I am of opinion that the 60,000 pounds per annum at present raised by Land-tax in this country should be kept at home and should go to the relief of the Poor-rate in the districts in which it is collected. Secondly I would advocate that foreign barley coming into this country, unless it be crushed barley to be used as food for cattle, should be subjected to an import duty. Such a duty could in no way raise the price of food-stuffs, for men do not eat barley, and even when it was at nearly double its present cost, the price of beer was very much what it is today. But I do not suggest that the millions of money to be raised by such a tax should go into the pockets of the landlords. I suggest that it should go into the pockets of the people; I suggest that every farthing of it should be devoted to a most truly democratic end, to the end of an Old Age Pension Scheme. This, I think, might be worked through the aid of the present Friendly Societies. I think that through this means the State might be able to put down an extra shilling for every shilling that has been saved by individual industry and invested with those Societies, and might thereby save many a deserving man from penury and the workhouse whose only crime against society is that he has grown old and feeble in its service. I suggest again that a bill should be passed to relieve pure beer of a proportion of the taxation upon it, and to impose that proportion of taxation so remitted on impure beer — that is, beer made of other materials than malt and hops. I propose again that foreign flour should be taxed. In saying this I do not wish to be misunderstood. I do not wish to see an impost put upon food-stuffs — let the corn come in free by all means, I say, but do not let it come in free in a manufactured condition. Why should not our millers have the benefit of the grinding of that corn? Why should not our farmers have the benefit of the offal and other products?
I think that is enough to quote, for, oh! what dreary things are old political speeches. Not for five shillings would I read through all the columns of this one of mine that once upon a time seemed to me about the most important thing in the whole world!
I hope, however, that the reader will note the allusion to Old Age Pensions. Now these have come about, but on easier terms than I suggested. The Protective part of my policy was moderate enough and, I think, would have been useful. But it did me more harm than good, since what I had said was of course distorted in the usual fashion.
The fight raged for some months and was very severely contested, especially during the last six weeks or so after the Government had gone out, which I spent on board a wherry cruising from part to part of that wide and awkward constituency. I believe there are persons who take to wherrying as a pastime, but so unpleasant are my associations with that form of locomotion that never would I again willingly set foot upon one of those lumbering boats. Sometimes I had to address three meetings a day, and always there was one or more, besides innumerable visits and much letter-writing. My old friend Arthur Cochrane was my companion in this adventure, as in many others, and nobly did he work.
The burden of the meetings and, still worse, of the smoking concerts fell mostly on us two, for, a General Election being in progress, but little help was forthcoming from outside. I would speak for half an hour or forty minutes to an audience mainly composed of agricultural labourers, some of whom — they were nearly all partisans of the other side — were wont to express their active dislike of me and my opinions by making hideous noises resembling those of the lower animals in pain. One man used to follow me about and “baa” like a sheep in the front row. He only stopped when Cochrane began his comic songs, which I suppose appealed to such intelligence as he possessed.
I think these comic songs were the most popular part of the proceedings. Also they were necessary, as my opponent was a master of this form of entertainment and was said to owe much of his popularity to a ditty called “The Baby on the Shore.” Alas! in this matter I could not hope to compete with him. When the meeting was over my wife and I, with Cochrane and some other ladies, used to emerge and face the booing without, which sometimes was accompanied by hustling and stone-throwing.
The odd thing is that, but for an accident, or rather a piece of carelessness, I should, I believe, have won after all. When I was making my tour of the constituency on the day of the election I called in at the head office at Yarmouth and chanced to notice a huge pile of letters which stood as high as the writing-desk in the room — there must have been several hundreds of them. I asked the agent what they were. He replied with some hesitation that they were polling-cards returned by the Dead Letter Office marked “Not known.” It seemed that the addresses of the out-voters had not been checked for years, and therefore these persons, of whom practically every one, as owners of property and Conservatives, would have voted for me, had never received my polling-card and, consequently, did not put in an appearance. Moreover, there were individuals in the constituency itself who did not receive their polling-cards, while other out-voters who did receive them were sent to the wrong polling-places, and arrived there too late to reach the stations at which their votes could be legally recorded. I remember a piteous letter from a gentleman who had travelled all the way from Cornwall, reaching Norwich somewhere about 7 P.M., only to discover that he must vote at Yarmouth within an hour, which of course he was unable to do. When one considers how comparatively small was the number of votes necessary to turn the scale in my favour, it is easy to understand what this blundering meant to me. Still, for reasons that I have already given, I do honestly believe that all was for the best.
Although I might have done so more than once, never again have I stood for Parliament. To tell the truth, the whole business disgusts me with its atmosphere of falsehood, or at the least of prevarication, and its humiliating quest of support. In such struggles in Britain there is, it is true, little actual corruption, but of indirect corruption there is still a great deal. From the moment a candidate appears on the field he is fair game, and every man’s hand is in his pocket. Demands for “your patronage and support” fall on him, thick as leaves in Vallombrosa. I remember that I was even pestered to supply voters with wooden legs! Why should an election in a county division cost, as this one did, something over 2000 pounds in all?
Some years before this time my brother Alfred conceived the plan of obtaining some great concession of land and minerals from Lobengula. He was, I recollect, angry with me because I would not enter into his scheme with enthusiasm, and I think has never quite forgiven me my backwardness. But I knew a good deal about the Matabele; also I held that Lobengula would never grant him what he wanted unless it was wrung from him by force of arms. Indeed I am convinced to this day that no one except Cecil Rhodes, with his vast command of money, could have dispossessed this tyrant and annexed those great territories.
I did not know Cecil Rhodes in Africa, where we never crossed each other’s paths; indeed I think he arrived there only towards the end of my time. We first met in London, I believe somewhere about the year 1888, when I was asked to meet him at the National Liberal Club. At that time he was little known; I do not think that I had ever heard of him before. He impressed me a good deal, and I remember his explaining to me in great detail the provisions of a measure he was introducing into the Cape Parliament — I think it was the Glen Grey Act — in such detail, indeed, that I lost the thread of the thing and grew bewildered. Rhodes could rarely be persuaded to write a letter, but my recollection is that he could talk at a great pace when he was in the mood.
When he was in England, just before the Jameson Raid, I saw Rhodes several times, for it was then that the African people were anxious that I should stand for Parliament. I remember going to breakfast with him at the Burlington Hotel. He was then at the height of his success, and the scene was very curious. Already before breakfast a number of people, some of them well known, who were not asked to that meal, were waiting about in ante-rooms on the chance of getting a word with or favour from the great man. It reminded me of a picture I have seen of Dr. Johnson and others hanging about in the vestibule of, I think, Lord Chesterfield’s apartment for a like object. There was the same air of patient expectancy upon their faces. In a china bowl on a table I observed a great accumulation of unopened letters, most of which had a kind of society look about them; probably they were invitations and so forth. It was, I have understood, one of the habits of the Rhodes entourage not to trouble to open letters that came by post. Unless these were of known importance they only attended to those that were sent by hand, or to telegrams, and the replies were generally verbal or telegraphic. Perhaps this was owing to press of business, or perhaps to a pose, or to a combination of both.
The last time that I ever saw Rhodes must have been about a year later, probably when he was in England after the Jameson Raid affair. I went to call on him on some matter — I entirely forget what it was — at the Burlington Hotel, and found him alone. We talked for a long while, though again I forget the subject of our conversation. What I remember is the appearance of the man as he paced restlessly up and down the long room like a lion in a cage, throwing out his words in jerky, isolated sentences, and in a curious high voice that sometimes almost attained to a falsetto. He gave me the idea of being in a very nervous state, as I dare say was the case.
His was one of those big, mixed natures of which it is extremely difficult to form a just opinion. My own, for what it is worth, is that he loved his country and desired above all things to advance her interests; also that he was personally very ambitious. He set great ends before himself and went to work to attain them at any cost. To begin with, he saw that money was necessary, so he rubbed shoulders with speculators, with Jews, with anybody who was useful, and by means of this deal or that deal made the money, not for its own sake, but that he might use it to fulfil the purposes of his busy and far-reaching brain. He outwitted Kruger; he destroyed the Matabele; he seized the vast territories of Rhodesia, and persuaded the British public to find him the gold wherewith to finance them, most of which the British public has, I imagine, lost. But the Empire has gained, for Rhodesia does not run away, like the capital, in over-financed and unremunerative companies. One day it may be a great asset of the Crown, if the Imperial possessions hold together.
It would almost seem as though Rhodes was one of those men who have been and still are raised up by that Power, of the existence of which he seems to have been dubious, to fulfil certain designs of Its own. There have been a good many with somewhat similar characteristics. Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, Chaka, come to my mind as I write. Roosevelt, though his is a finer mind, may or may not prove another: at the moment it rather looks as though his cards were played; but who knows?
Had it not been for Rhodes I incline to the belief that the Germans would have taken Rhodesia, perhaps after a preliminary occupation by the Boers. That danger, I think, was present to his thoughts and was one of the reasons which induced him to strike, and strike hard, caring nothing for the blood that splashed up from the blow. In the same way he wished to seize the Transvaal by a coup de main, or rather a coup d’epee, but here he miscalculated the strength of the opposing forces. Or perhaps, as he himself said, Jameson — whom I also knew and who possesses, I think, in some ways a higher nature than did Rhodes — upset his “apple-cart.” At least, whatever his faults, he was a great figure in his generation, and his name must always be remembered if only by that of the vast territory he seized, which he still surveys from his tomb-eyrie on the Matoppos.
Rhodes had his weaknesses, like other men. A few years ago I was staying with Lord Carrington, now the Marquis of Lincolnshire. He told me a little story with reference to Rhodes’ declaration, which Lord Carrington said he had often made, to the effect that he would accept no title or favour from Royalty. They were both of them commanded to Windsor at the same time, and Lord Carrington gave me a lively description of the intense amusement of the company when the late Queen came down to dinner and in a very marked manner asked one of the gentlemen-inwaiting whether he had been careful to see that the “Right Honourable gentleman,” pointing to Cecil Rhodes, had been made comfortable in every way, thereby indicating the conferring of a Privy Councillorship upon him, which he had not refused.
My City labours endured but for nine months, after which time I was delivered. During those tumultuous days I toiled in a fine office in London, where thousands were talked of as of no account. It was the period of the great African boom, and the business machine hummed merrily. We made money, I remember; also we lost money. But it was all much too speculative and nerve-racking for me, while the burden of those companies weighed upon my mind heavily. The true-bred City man cares little for such things, which to him are all part of the day’s work, as writing a chapter of a book might be to me. He is accustomed to take risks, and an adept at getting out of difficult situations.
At last came a time in my own instance when my partner, an excellent and very able gentleman in his own way and one for whom I retain the most friendly feelings, announced that he meant to depart for South Africa for a year or so, leaving me to conduct all the extremely intricate affairs with which he was connected. This was too much for me, and then and there I had the presence of mind to strike.
All men make mistakes, but afterwards, so far as my observation goes, they may be divided into two classes: those who know when to get out of them, and those who do not.
Well, in this case I had sufficient sense and courage to appreciate my mistake and to retire while there was yet time. Of course there was some difficulty, as under the deed of partnership I was bound for a period. But, when he saw that I was determined to go, my partner behaved very well and kindly signed a dissolution.
I should add that the period which this chapter covers was marked by several events that were more or less important to me. In 1893 my dear father died as the result of a chill which he caught in waiting about for the poll to be declared at an election in cold weather. It was sad to see a man of his great strength and energy fading away and becoming so subdued and gentle, qualities which were not natural to him. After one extraordinary recovery from the jaundice, or whatever it was that had attacked him, believing himself to be strong again, he began to travel and pay visits in winter, and thus brought on a return of his ailment. I was not actually present at his death-bed, as I could only reach Bradenham on the following day. He left me one of his executors and, as he was dying, told our old servant Hocking to give me his watch and chain, which I think had been his father’s before him. I have it now, still marking the hour at which it ran down under his pillow on that night. His last words, spoken almost as he expired, were:
“God is everywhere! He is in this room, is He not?”
He looked fine and peaceful in death; as I think I have said, he was very handsome, and in many ways a remarkable man. I never knew anyone who resembled him in the least or who was the possessor of half his energy. God rest him!
Sir Theophilus Shepstone died in the same year, and, I think, at almost exactly the same age. I mourned my old chief very sincerely.
In 1893 or the previous year I was elected Chairman of my local bench of magistrates, an office which I have filled ever since. Indeed, when I wished to resign it the other day, on my appointment to the Dominions Royal Commission, that, all being well, will necessitate long absences from England during which I shall be unable to attend to the business of the bench, my colleagues unanimously requested me to retain the position and appointed my old friend and neighbour, Captain Meade of Earsham Hall, to act for me when I was away. I was touched at this evidence of their regard and confidence.
In 1895 the Committee did me the honour to elect me to the Athenaeum Club under Rule 2, and in the following year I was chosen Chairman of Committee of the Society of Authors, a post which I held until 1898.
About this time I made the acquaintance of one of the most interesting of all my friends, Major F. R. Burnham, D.S.O., concerning whom and whose career I should like to say a few words. Burnham is an American, born among the Indians on the frontiers of Minnesota in 1861, and one of the best specimens of that great people whom I have ever met. Indeed, taking him altogether, I am not sure that when the circumstances of his upbringing and life are considered, he is not the most remarkable man whom it has been my privilege to know. He belongs to the seventh generation of pioneers, as his family went to America from England in 1635.
In personal appearance he is small and quiet-mannered, with steady, grey-blue eyes that have in them a far-away look such as those acquire whose occupation has caused them to watch continually at sea or on great plains. He does not smoke, fearing, as he told me, lest it should injure the acuteness of his sense of smell, and he drinks less liquid perhaps than anyone else. One wineglass of water, or perhaps claret, is the amount he will consume during a long meal. He has trained himself to this abstinence in order that, when scouting or travelling where there is no water, he may still be able to exist, with the result that on one occasion at least he survived when all or nearly all of his companions died, I think in the deserts of Arizona. He is not at all communicative; indeed I remember his telling me that I was one of the very few people to whom he had imparted any information concerning his many adventures.
When he was in England Charles Longman was very anxious that he should write his Life, but although he offered him a handsome sum on account and, to my knowledge, Burnham at the time was not too well supplied with money, in spite of my entreaties and offers of assistance, this, to my lasting regret, he absolutely refused to do. Therefore, if he still lives, as I believe to be the case — although somewhat to my surprise I have heard nothing from him for the last three or four years — when he dies the record of all his extraordinary adventures, of which he has experienced more in fact than Allan Quatermain himself in fiction, will, I fear, perish with him. Of those adventures, of course, I can only repeat a few specimens from memory, as he has told them to me walking about the land or sitting together over the fire in this house.
His first recollection is of being carried away by his mother when the savage Indians attacked the place where they lived, somewhere on the Mexican border. He was then about three years old, and at last his mother, unable to bear him any farther, hid him in a shock of maize, telling him that he must keep quite silent. From between the stalks of the maize presently he saw the pursuing Indians pass. Next day his mother returned and rescued him.
Later on, as a married man, he found his way with some members of his family to Rhodesia, attracted by the magic name of Cecil Rhodes, and took part in the settlement of that colony. Prospecting and the management of mines were their occupations. Here his little girl was born, the first white child that saw the light in Buluwayo. He named her Nada after the heroine of my Zulu tale. Poor infant, she did not live long, as the following dedication to one of my stories shows:
To the Memory of the Child
who “bound all to her” and, while her father cut his way through the hordes of the Ingubu Regiment, perished of the hardships of war at Buluwayo on May 22nd, 1896, I dedicate this tale of Faith triumphant over savagery and death.
Burnham was with Wilson when he was wiped out on the banks of the Shangani, together with all his companions, except Burnham himself and his brother-inlaw, Ingram, who had been sent back to try to bring help from the column. All that tale I have told in the “Red True Story Book” (Longmans), so I need not repeat it here. I shall never forget Burnham’s account of how he tracked the missing men in the darkness, by feeling the spoor with his fingers and by smell, or of how, still in the darkness, he counted the Matabele impi as they passed him close enough to touch them.
Subsequently Burnham took service as a scout under our flag in the Boer War. Indeed I believe that Lord Roberts cabled to him in the Klondike. Here many things befell him. Thus he was out scouting from Headquarters at the time of the Sannah’s Post affair, saw the Boers post their ambuscade, saw the British walking into the trap. He rode to a hill and, with a large red pocket-handkerchief which he always carried, tried to signal to them to keep back. But nobody would take the slightest notice of his signals. Even the Boers were puzzled by so barefaced a performance, and for quite a long while did not interfere with him. So the catastrophe occurred — because it was nobody’s business to take notice of Burnham’s signals! Ultimately some Boers rode out and made him a prisoner. They led him to a stone-walled cattle kraal where a number of them were ensconced, whence he saw everything.
When the British were snared a Boer lad took some sighting shots at them, and at length said laconically, “Sechzen hondert!” whereon the Boers sighted their rifles to that range and began to use them with deadly effect. A whole battery of English guns opened fire upon this kraal. The air screamed with shells. Some fell short and exploded against the wall; some went high, some hit upon the top of the wall. The net result of that terrific bombardment was — one horse blown to bits. The practice was not bad, but those behind the wall remained quite comfortable.
When everything was over Burnham was taken off as a prisoner. A change of guard enabled him to pretend a wound, so he was placed on an ox-waggon. He sat on the fore-part of the waggon, and just before day the guards nodding in their saddles gave him the chance to drop down between the wheels, letting the waggon trek away over him. Then he rolled himself into a little gully near the road, and, as he dared not stand up, lay cooking there during the whole of the following day with the fierce sun beating on his back. When night came again he walked back to the English camp, a distance of nearly a hundred miles, and reported himself.
This exploit was equalled, if not surpassed, by one of my sons-inlaw, Major Reginald Cheyne of the Indian Army. He was posted on a ridge with a few men in one of the affairs of this war when an overwhelming force of Boers opened fire on them. He held out until all but two of those with him were dead or wounded and the ammunition — even of the wounded — exhausted. Then, having been shot through the face behind the nose, in another part of the head, and also cut by a bullet all along the forehead, which caused the blood to flow down into his eyes and blind him, he surrendered. He was taken prisoner, and in this dreadful state carried off in a waggon. At night he pretended that it was necessary for him to retire. The Boer guard showed him his revolver, which he tapped significantly. Cheyne nodded and, taking his risks, made a bolt for it. In due course he, too, staggered into the British camp, where he recovered. I hope I have given the details right, but Cheyne, like Burnham, is not given to talking of such things. It was only after much urging on the part of my daughter that he told me the story, of which I had heard rumours from a brother officer, who spoke of him as “a hero.” He was recommended, together with his Colonel, for a V.C. or a D.S.O. — I forget which — but, unfortunately for him, the Boers captured and burnt the despatch, so that nothing was known at home of his services until too late. However, they made him a brevet-major. Such are the fortunes of war.
After Pretoria was occupied Burnham was sent out to cut the railway line by which the Boers were retreating. He exploded part of his gun-cotton and destroyed the line, and then rode over a ridge — straight into a Boer bivouac! He turned his horse and, lying flat on the saddle, galloped off under a heavy fire. He thought he was safe, but the Boers had got his range against the skyline — it was night — and suddenly he remembered no more. When he came to himself the sun was shining, and he lay alone upon the veld. The horse was gone, where to he never learned. He felt himself all over and found that he had no wound, also that he was injured internally, probably owing to the horse falling on him when it was struck by a bullet. Near by was a little cattle or goat kraal, into which he crept and lay down. From this kraal he saw the Boers come and mend the line. When night fell again he crawled upon his hands and knees — he could not walk — down to the line and destroyed it afresh, for his gun-cotton cartridges remained in a bag upon his shoulders. I am not certain whether he did this once or twice. At any rate in the end, feeling that he was a dead man if he remained where he was, he tore up the bag, tied the sacking round his wrists and knees, and, thus protected against the stones and grass stumps, dragged himself out into the veld, where, by the mercy of Providence, an English patrol found him. It turned out that his stomach had been ruptured, and that, had it not been for his long abstinence from food, he must have expired. No treatment could possibly have been better for him, and as it was the break in the tissues found time to heal. In the end he recovered, though that was the last service which he did in South Africa. It was rewarded with a D.S.O. and the rank of major in the British Army. Lord Roberts gave him a remarkable letter of thanks and appreciation: it sets forth his admiration of Burnham’s skill, endurance and ability in difficult scouting inside the lines of the enemy.
Burnham told me that during that war on many occasions he passed through the sentries of both the British and the Boer forces without being seen. Once he penetrated into a Boer camp and came to a waggon where a fat old Dutchman lay snoring. To the trek-tow were tied sixteen beautiful black oxen, no doubt that Dutchman’s especial pride. With his knife he cut them loose and drove them away back into the British lines. Often, he told me, he had speculated as to what the old Boer said when he woke up and found them gone for ever. On another occasion when he was scouting he was absolutely surrounded by the Boers and could find no cover in which to hide. With the help of an old Kaffir blanket and a stick he made himself up as a beggar and limped away between them without even being questioned.
In all such matters he seems to possess a kind of sixth sense, evolved no doubt in the course of his long training in Indian warfare. He was one of the pioneers in the Klondike, whither he travelled across the winter snows on a sledge drawn by dogs, which for some weeks were his sole companions. These dogs he watched very closely, and as a result of his observations informed me that he was sure from their conduct at night that they possessed some elementary instinct of prayer. His reasons are too long to set out, but they were very striking.
In Rhodesia he discovered a large amount of treasure buried in one of the prehistoric ruins and old forts, with the skeletons of unknown ancients. I have a gold bead from it which he gave me, mounted as a pin; also some iron arrow-heads which he found amidst the bones, showing that these men died in an attack by enemies.
Such are a few of the incidents of Major Burnham’s career. The reader might judge from them that he is a rough and uncultured man, but this is far from being the case. Like old Allan Quatermain, he is an extremely polished and thoughtful person, and one with an extraordinarily wide outlook on affairs in general. I remember, for instance, that he took a most lively interest in parish councils, their constitution and business. This, after all the vast issues of life and death in which he had been engaged for many years, struck me as strange — though, as we know, elephants are adepts at the picking up of pins.
When I was Commissioner in America in 1905 I stayed with the Burnhams at their charming house in Pasadena, Los Angeles. After I parted from them I travelled with another remarkable man, Mr. Hays Hammond — who was once condemned to death with Jameson at Pretoria — across America in his private car, and spoke with him of Burnham. Also I told him the strange tale of a certain odd gentleman of the name of Carmichael, now I believe long dead, who thought that he had discovered the secret of the hidden city of the Aztecs, that lies somewhere at the back of Chiapas, in which treasure to the value of three million sterling is supposed to have been concealed by Montezuma on the approach of the Spaniards.26 Thinking, from the documentary evidence, that there was something in this tale, a friend and I furnished Carmichael with a moderate sum of money to enable him to locate the place. He set out, and after incredible hardships found the wrong city, or the wrong part of the right city, where his Indian carriers deserted him, leaving him suffering from fever to support life upon catfish, which he caught with a bent nail. Ultimately he was rescued and brought back to civilisation.
26 This was the sacred treasure held by Montezuma as High Priest, which it took 1500 men to carry in bars of gold. It must not be mixed up with the private royal treasure whereof I have already spoken, that was buried by Guatemoc — also to save it from the Spaniards. — H. R. H.
Hays Hammond was so taken with this exciting narrative that he determined to send Burnham to look for the Aztec city, and telegraphed to him to come from San Francisco to New York to see him. Needless to say, Burnham was quite ready for the adventure, and followed me to England to get particulars, among other business. Whilst here a terrible thing befell him. He had taken a little villa on the Thames, where he was living with his wife and a fine little boy, the brother of the child Nada. One day the boy was missing. His body was found in the Thames. I was informed that when Burnham saw it he fell to the ground senseless as though he had been shot.
Afterwards he returned to America and started to look for the Aztec city, but was prevented from getting very far by a rebellion among the Indians. His last letter to me was written from that district some four years ago. I answered it, but since then have heard nothing from him. I do not think that he is dead, as such news would probably have reached me one way or another, or Hays Hammond would have mentioned it when I had a hurried interview with him at the time of the King’s Coronation, which he attended as Special Ambassador from the United States. I conclude, therefore, that Burnham is probably now engaged in all the Mexican fighting that has ensued upon the deposition of President Diaz, which leaves him no time for correspondence; or perhaps he is disinterring the treasure from the hidden city! One day I hope that he will appear again and greet me in his quiet fashion as though we had parted but yesterday — I mean, of course, on this bank of the great “Divide.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09