Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Coming of the French

For a good many years nothing very important happened. The colony grew slowly, and every year became more and more useful to the Dutch as a calling station. Indeed it came to be looked upon as the outpost to India. So in 1665 war being declared between Great Britain and Holland, the Dutch began to build a stone castle to take the place of the little mud fort. For the fort, although strong enough to withstand any number of savages, would have been useless against British guns. The building got on very slowly, however, so slowly, indeed, that one day the governor and his wife and little boy, with all the chief inhabitants and their wives, set to work to help to carry earth out of the moat. The governor carried twelve basketfuls and his wife six, and after that a law was made that every one who passed the castle should do as much to help on the work. But even then peace was proclaimed before the castle was finished. It was solid enough, however, when it was finished, and still stands almost unchanged to this day, and is used as the headquarters of the British army in South Africa.

When the Dutch first came to the Cape they simply took possession of the land they wanted, and when the Hottentots objected they fought them, and kept the land. But after a time they began to think that that was perhaps not quite right, and in 1672 they made a treaty with some of the leading chiefs.

By this treaty they bought all the great tract of land from Saldanah Bay to False Bay for the value of about £10 paid in tobacco, beads, trinkets, and other trifles. They agreed to pay £1600, but all they did pay was £10. It was not perhaps a very honest bargain, but the chiefs were quite pleased. They had no idea of the value of the goods which they were given. They had no idea of the value of the land, besides which, they had already lost it, and were now being paid for what they had little hope of ever getting back again.

But the treaty did not put an end to the wars, and the very next year there was fighting with a tribe under a chief called the Black Captain. He was so called because he painted himself with soot instead of with red clay like the other warriors.

The fight was begun by the Black Captain seizing wagons and other things belonging to some farmers who had gone on a hunting expedition. Soldiers and burghers turned out to punish the Black Captain, and some friendly natives joined too. It was by no means easy, however, to catch the Hottentots, and make them fight a battle, for they moved quickly, swooping down upon the Dutch unexpectedly, and vanishing silently in the night to hide in the mountains where the Dutch could not follow them. Thus for four years the country was kept in unrest. Besides fighting with the Dutch, the Black Captain kept other tribes from bringing cattle to the Cape to trade. So the colonists had no fresh meat for the ships when they called, and sometimes little enough for themselves, and the colony suffered in every way. But at length the Black Captain grew tired of living in the mountains, and asked for peace. This was granted; Dutch and Hottentot exchanged presents, and once more agreed to live quietly together.

But still the colony grew very slowly, for the people of Holland found enough work to do at home, and it was hard to persuade them to leave all their friends behind, and go far away to live in an unknown country among savages. But about this time something happened which shows how the history of one country helps to make the history of another.

You know that long ago when people first began to be divided into Protestants and Catholics, they hated each other because of their religion, and whichever side was stronger in a country, treated the other side cruelly. In France the Protestants were called Huguenots, and they were often hardly treated, until one of their kings made a law called the Edict of Nantes. By this law the Protestants were allowed to live in peace and worship God in their own way. For more than eighty years they lived quietly, growing rich and prosperous, for the Huguenots were, for the most part, thrifty, industrious farmers and manufacturers.

Then another king recalled this law, and once more the Huguenots had to suffer terrible things. They were forbidden to worship God in their own way; they were also forbidden to leave the country to seek freedom elsewhere. But in spite of that many did flee away. They dressed up in all sorts of ways and tried to escape to England, Switzerland, and Holland. Ladies stained their faces and their hands, put on old clothes and tried to make themselves look like peasants. Children were hidden in empty wine casks, and put down into the holds of ships till they got out of sight of the shores of France. Gentlemen trudged along the road begging from door to door like tramps. And thus many escaped, but many too were caught. Then the men were sent to the galleys to work in chains beside thieves and cut-throats, and the women were put into convents, where they were often treated more cruelly than they would have been in prison.

It was perhaps easier to escape from France to Holland than to any other country, and a great many Huguenots fled there. The Dutch were kind to these refugees as they were called, but Holland was small and the Dutch did not want any more people in their little country at home. They did want them at the Cape, however, so about two hundred French Huguenots were persuaded to go out. They arrived at the Cape in April 1688, just thirty-six years after the first Dutch had settled there. They were given farms like the Free Burghers, and the place where most of them settled down came to be called Franche Hoek, or French Corner.

The Huguenots had fled from tyranny at home, but they found that the Dutch East India Company which ruled the Cape was a tyrant as great as their own king. The Dutch, it is true, were Protestants like themselves, but in everything else they were different, yet they were bent on making the French colonists live like themselves. The governor—not now van Riebeck, but another—had asked the Government to send more farmers, but he made up his mind not to have anything but Dutch farmers, and he set about turning the French into Dutch as quickly as possible.

So the new colonists were hardly allowed to speak French. The children at school learned only Dutch. Dutch ministers preached to them on Sunday, and, when the French begged to be allowed to have a church of their own, the governor flew into a rage. He called it French impertinence and talked of their rebellious conduct. So it came about that, in a few years, only the older people could speak French. The children forgot the sunny land from which they had come, and their pretty native tongue, and nothing about them remained French except their names. So, although the colony grew much larger, it remained as thoroughly Dutch as before.

But it was not the Huguenots alone who felt the tyranny of the Dutch Company. The Dutch farmers themselves felt it, for they could neither buy nor sell without the leave of the Company. Their whole life indeed was bound with rules and laws about every little thing. Some of these laws seem very funny to us now. In spite of the fact that in South Africa the sun is very hot, only a few people were allowed to use umbrellas for shade. Very few ladies were allowed to wear silk dresses, and no woman at all, high or low, was allowed to wear a train. If any person, driving, met the governor, he had to stop his carriage, get out, and stand hat in hand, until the governor had passed, or even sometimes he was expected to turn his own carriage out of the way, so that the governor might have plenty of room. Only the governor might drive a gilded coach, and few except him might have two horses.

All these laws and many besides became very tiresome to the Dutch farmers, and to get away from them they moved farther and farther from Cape Town. As the Dutch were nearly all farmers they came to be called Boers, as boer is the Dutch word for farmer. And when many years had passed, people almost forgot how the name first arose, and we talk now of the Boers as of the French or the Germans, forgetting, or perhaps not knowing, that the word really means farmer.

When the Boers moved from place to place they called it trekking, from another Dutch word trekken, to draw or remove, and they themselves were called Trek Boers. And the great plains of South Africa over which they trekked, they called the veldt, from another Dutch word meaning field.

And as they trekked away into the solitudes of the vast rolling plains a race of stern, silent, freedom-loving farmers arose—men who loved loneliness and who hated rules and restraints. These Trek Boers were very ignorant of everything but farm work, for travelling about as they did the children could not go to school, and often the only book they possessed was the Dutch Bible. Their houses were poor, and they had few goods of any kind. For, living far from their fellows, surrounded only by wild natives, they might at any time be attacked and robbed, so it was not worth while for them to have many possessions. Sometimes, indeed, the Trek Boer had no house at all, but he and his family lived in the covered wagons in which they moved about from place to place. But if the life was hard and full of dangers both from natives and wild beasts, it was at least free. And freedom to do as he liked, came to be the chief desire of the Boer.

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