From No Outspan
by Deneys Reitz
We had interesting companions, and the long hours spent on board our official train passed quickly enough with discussions and debates and lectures.
My father excelled at these. No matter how widely the talk ranged, he always held his own and embellished the subject of each conversation from his inexhaustible store of general knowledge. And as for South Africa, he spoke with authority on every phase of its history and its economic conditions. From the way his hearers kept jotting down notes, I should think the bulk of the information they took back with them was furnished by him during the course of our travels.
Also, he possessed a keen sense of humour, and often he would round off his observations with some witty tale to illustrate his meaning. At Pretoria, after a day spent showing our guests around the Union Buildings and other places, including President Kruger’s old home, the discussions that evening naturally enough ran upon the days prior to the Anglo-Boer War, when my father was Secretary of State of the Transvaal. He gave us a vivid account of Paul Kruger and his times: of his giant physical strength, his rugged personality, and the simplicity of his ways.
To demonstrate this last, he said that shortly before the outbreak of hostilities in 1899, they were holding an important Cabinet meeting to discuss the approaching crisis. In the midst of their deliberations, the door suddenly flew open and a breathless servant burst unannounced into the council chamber and cried out to the President. ‘Baas, baas, the old missus says you must come at once, someone has stolen all the biltong from the clothesline in the backyard.’ On hearing this, Paul Kruger sprang to his feet, jammed on his stovepipe hat, and without a word to his colleagues, rushed off to look into the domestic tragedy; and that was the last they saw of him until the next morning.
In speaking of those times, the name of Mr Joseph Chamberlain inevitably cropped up. He it was who had penned the despatches from the British Government to the Transvaal that led to the war. My father had to reply, and their correspondence became increasingly acrimonious.
I remember how my father used to return home from office fuming against Mr Chamberlain and all his works until my brothers and I regarded him as a sort of Corsican ogre. In both republics he was held in execration as the man who was responsible for the disasters that overtook us.
My father enlarged on Chamberlain’s iniquities until some of the British delegates began to take up the cudgels on the other side, and a rather uncomfortable argument started. So he created a diversion. He said, ‘Gentlemen, I must tell you of the other Mr Chamberlain,’ and he went on to relate that in addition to the Colonial Secretary there had been a man of the same name who manufactured a popular remedy known as ‘Chamberlain’s Cough Mixture’. The Boers were under the impression that the vendor of the patent medicine and the writer of the peremptory despatches were identical, and he said he once heard an old burgher say to President Kruger: ‘Chamberlain’s politics are damned rotten, but we must admit that his cough mixture (hoes druppels) is very good.’ There was hearty laughter at this joke, and the talk drifted into calmer waters.