Harold Stephens to Frederick Chesson, 5 March 1883

Harold Stephens to Frederick Chesson, 5 March 1883

Archive location: Bodleian Libraries, MSS. Brit. Emp. s. 18 / C148 – 70

Author(s): Harold Stephens

Recipient(s): Frederick Chesson

Sent from: Cape Colony

Date: 5 March 1883

… Chambers


5 March/83


Dear Sir,


I am in receipt of your letter of the 1st Feby last. I am unable to get any one to communicate with you who would not object to having his name appear. This may seem strange, but on examination you will see that there is good reason for this.


In the first place the English government by its past action in discrediting any statements made by loyal people and by leaving them to shift for themselves as best they could, has so shaken the confidence of people generally that no one in his sense would risk making an enemy of the Boer government under which he lives and which is already greatly pledged against Englishmen for the purpose of placing information in the hands of a government far away, unwilling to believe the information … and one which from past experience would do nothing in the way of affording protection.


Most people who could give reliable information here are either living in the Transvaal or have interests there in the same way that I have.


Those who do not belong to either of these classes can only give second hand information which the government would be the first to point out as on that account unreliable. Many people in the Transvaal have written to the newspapers or to some one of influence, but finding little encouragement have discontinued to do so. I have myself written to the Standard thrice or four times only one letter of which they have published. The English government have now been made away or the atrocities against the Bechuanas for the last two years and during the greater part of that time their efforts have been confined to endeavouring to hush up the matter and when this was no longer possible they have contented themselves with mild remonstrations which to people out here have the appearance of timidity. Such being the case can it be expected that people here should expose themselves to the certainty of enmity of the Boer government which would in many cases mean their ruin, for the very difficult purpose of trying to convince the English government of that which they have up to the present time shown every disposition not to believe, and which they have the means of verifying themselves if they only chose to make enquiries.


What would it cost the English government to send some person of position and known integrity and humanity to go direct to the scenes of the fighting and send in their report. This, or something of the kind, is so obviously the right way to obtain correct information that in not adopting it one can come to only one conclusion, i.e. that the government don’t want any enquiry!


The Boers have taken a great part of Montsioa’s country and have set up an independent government of their own and called the country Stellaland. They have done something similar in Mankoroane’s country and these little independent republics as they are called are only so in name, in order to diver the attention of the English government from the Transvaal government, which is the real aggressor.


Numerous things crop up every day to show that the Transvaal government are directly concerned in what have taken place. Only the other day Commandent Fourier in commandeering men for the war against Mapoch exempted those who had served as volunteers against Montsioa, showing how the government openly encourage and sympathize with the Boer volunteers as otherwise they would never have exempted them from serving in a war which is already taking their utmost energies to carry on successfully.


With regard to Mapoch he is in the Transvaal proper and so his case does not allow room for the intervention of the English government in the same way as the case of the other chiefs mentioned. Mapoch’s … is a very hard case and as he has no newspapers or methods of making his case known, while his enemies the Boers have every opportunity of giving publicity to their statements true or false, without fear of contradiction, I may as well say a few words of what I do know.


The Boers say that they are making war on Mapoch to force him to pay them taxes and this as it sounds to the uninitiated seems very plausible. In reality, however, Mapoch knows that under the guise of collecting taxes the Boers threaten his very existence. Mapoch would never have made any objection to pay taxes to the English government. Once submit to the Boer demands and the end would not be far off! When Boers collect taxes they send in men without any character who, so long as they collect enough and under the colour of taxes rob the natives sufficiently, are never asked any questions. Of course if Mapoch complained who would there be to listen to his complaints? Not surely the tax collectors nor the government who profited by the robbery! Then when the robberies and insults become so great that flesh and blood could stand it no longer Mapoch seeing no hope of redress might be driven to commit some rash act. This would be just what the government would want, and they would take care not to lose the opportunity of completing his destruction. What would the people of England say if the government under the pretext of collecting taxes allowed the tax collectors to take anything they liked besides taking three or four years taxes in advance. Under such a system as this how long would it be before the people of England would refuse to pay taxes? The natives know that if they once submit to such demands as these that they must give up all ideas of living except in sufference.


Their homes are broken up, their country and property taken away from them and they themselves reduced to a dependant position not much better than slavery, for you must bear in mind that no natives under the Boers are allowed any titles to hold land.


Added to the unjust cause of the war the fact that Mapoch’s is a small tribe with say about 1200 fighting men, badly armed, and that the Boers have four or five times this number well armed with breech loaders, and you have sufficient to enlist the sympathies of all impartial people on the side of the natives.


The true facts, however seldom applied…as I before stated, that the natives have no means of making their case known nor of refuting the false statements of those interested in bringing about their ruin. 


One of the most fruitful causes of these wars by the Boers on the natives has been the ease with which the Boers have learnt to defeat them. Once let it be known that your neighbour is too weak to make a successful resistance and you have (among such people as the Boers) a very powerful inducement for spoliation. If the natives had anything like the same weapons as the Boers they would be quite, if not more than, a match for them, and native wars would be less frequent in consequence. As it is at present however, in spite of the … of the natives they stand no chance against their enemies, except in a hand to hand encounter which the Boers are too cowardly to engage in. The natives being killed by the Boers at long rifle range while the latter are in comparative safety.


The Boers said that they would subdue Mapoch in a month or so but the war has lasted very much longer than this, and there is reason to believe that in spite of rifles and dynamite Mapoch would be able to hold his own, were it not for the pangs of hunger which must sooner or later make itself felt among his people. I should be heartily glad if the English government could by any means stop this war for should the Boers take Mapoch’s country they will give no quarter to the unfortunate natives.


Troubles with the natives seem to be the order of the day with the Boers, as it is now rumoured that there is likely to be some difficulty with the Swazies (a branch of the Zulus on the eastern frontier of the Transvaal). It is hoped that the English government will not allow the Boers to interfere with them as in the Convention there were certain provisions entered into having the effect of preserving the country of the latter from the Boers. Government by a little decided action might, if matters do not right themselves, prevent hostilities and enforce the Convention which would have a good effect on both Boers and natives! The government have ample powers under the convention for the protection of the natives, but those powers I regret to say they have never yet exercised.


The whole system of Boer government is calculated to lead to troubles with the natives for years to come unless the Boers are check in a firm and decided manner. I see by a telegram that the English government propose to grant small pensions to Mankoroane and Montsioa and remove their tribes into British territory. This … I think is a foolish measure as it will practically leave the Boers masters of the situation and encourage them to spoliate other tribes living beyond those chiefs and besides having the effect of destroying British influence by showing the natives and Boers that they are afraid to interfere and thus provide and pave the way for a continuous army of Boer marauders. In the end the system proposed by the government will be the most expensive of any and only increase the evil. If the government would only do as I recommended in a former letter and send a reliable man out to the spot, such as Govt Warren, they would be enabled to arrive at a satisfactory way of dealing with the question. 


The latest news is that there is a combination of native chiefs being formed against the Boers and if so this combination with a very little assistance in the way of arms and ammunition would be able to hold their own, costing the British government next to nothing. In fact the most exasperating thing in this disgraceful affair is that the British government had been one of the chief causes in bringing about the ruin of these chiefs and their tribes by refusing to allow them to buy arms and ammunition. Even now little more is wanted than to allow them to obtain these, and if the natives can hold their own it would be far better and cheaper than the ridiculous proposal made by the government.


I see also that the government have somewhere said that they have no right to interfere. This I think was said by Lord Derby or some influential member of the govenrment and only shows a lamentable amount of ignorance. The Convention specially marks out the boundaries of the Transvaal which the Boers are not to overstep, and gives the British government power to move troops hroughout the Transvaal and do a number of things pertaining to the suzerainty. If some one would get a copy of the Convention they would be in a position to see what are the responsibilities entered into by the British government and the Boers.


The Boers are themselves reaping a good deal of discomfort by their action against the natives and turn only on hopes that the British government will not take any action that may help them out of their difficulties. Mapoch by his gallant resistance has caused the Transvaal great expense. The government begin to find that men refuse to be commandeered for the war and unless Mapoch is subdued soon which is very unlikely there will be something like a collapse on the part of the Transvaal government. Already it is very unpopular on … of the … success of the war against Mapoch. Money is scare and if it goes on will not unlikely bring about its own ruin. A consummation … to be wished by all lovers of freedom and justice!


The government set up in Stellaland part of Mankoroane’s country, have been shooting some Englishmen and committing more atrocities according to latest reports. I will now conclude this already too long and rambling letter by urging the necessity of sending a reliable man to the spot to report, before any measures are taken government cannot decide everything out here in a satisfactory way from Downing street. If you could get some of the newspaper extracts I sent you published in the public newspapers as also anything from my letters I think it would go far towards arousing public indignation which is the great lever by which government are made to do their duty.


Thanking you for the interest you have taken in this matter and hoping that a satisfactory settlement may be the result of your labours in the cause of humanity.


I remain

Dear Sir,

Faithfully yours

H Stephens


I have no objection to your showing my name to any one who will treat it as confidential, but I cannot for obvious reasons allow it to become public at present.


The sooner the government curtail the power of the Boers the easier it will be, for whenever they are allowed to extend their territory there they being innumerable troubles. I am almost afraid that the English government may take some action that will tend to help the Boers. I would rather the did nothing than this as the downfall of Boer government means peace!