Central South Africa forms an immense plateau, covering nearly a million square miles, and situated at an average height of four thousand feet above the sea-level. Nature has provided access to this great table-land from the southern shores of the continent by three mighty steps — the coast-land, the Little Karroo, and the Great Karroo. The coastal region, lying under mountain ranges which intercept and condense the moisture arising from the ocean, rejoices in an abundant and regular rainfall. The Little Karroo is a very much drier area, but it can at least boast of rivers which even in the height of summer are never wholly destitute of running water. But the Great Karroo forms another and quite different feature in the geography and hydrography of South Africa. The Hottentot word karroo signifies dry, hard, barren, and this precisely is the nature of the forbidding plains which form the Great Karroo. These plains have been described as a country of mountains without summits, rivers without water, trees without shade, and herbage without verdure. They have exercised a marked influence upon the history of South Africa and the character of its inhabitants. We shall strive in vain to understand the general movement of Cape history, the slow expansion northward and eastward, and the spirit of sturdy independence which animated the pioneer as he roamed ever further afield in the search for pasture, unless we picture clearly to ourselves these burning plains, bounded by distant blue mountains, shimmering in the hot sunshine, and covered with deceptive mirage. The Great Karroo was for generations the limit of habitable South Africa. To the colonist it was a boundary, a horizon and a challenge. It was the region of privation and thirst, of danger and disease, of wild beasts and wilder Bushmen. Beyond it lay a grass-covered country, with a rich soil and a plentiful water supply, eminently adapted to agricultural and pastoral pursuits. But as yet no white man had crossed the dreaded Karroo and looked upon that land of promise. More than a century elapsed after the first settlement of the Cape before an enterprising expedition, travelling along the west coast, reached the Great River, now known as the Orange, and yet another fifty years passed before the middle Orange was crossed, and the fertile regions of Central South Africa became known to Europeans.
It is important to remember that the Cape was for a century and a half a Dutch possession. When in 1652 Jan van Riebeeck founded the earliest European settlement at the foot of Table Mountain, Holland was at the flood-tide of its political influence and commercial prosperity. The eighty years’ conflict with Spain had resulted in the complete triumph of the Dutch arms. Dutch admirals disputed with English the control of the English Channel, and a few years subsequent to van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape a Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames and destroyed British men-of-war anchored in the Medway. The Dutch East India Company had acquired a practical monopoly of the sea-borne traffic with India and the East. And it was in order to provide a port of call for the outgoing and returning vessels of this Company that a township was established and a castle built at the Cape of Good Hope, under the name and title of “the frontier fortress of India.”
It was only under the stress of circumstances and in consequence of the independent spirit of the colonists that the settlement was slowly extended beyond the narrow limits of the Cape peninsula. The East India Company itself had no desire or intention to colonise the country. All it wanted was a haven at which its fleets could recuperate for a week or two, and lay in fresh supplies of water, meat and vegetables. But the class of men who found their way to the shores of South Africa had been nurtured amid the industrious life and the free institutions of Holland. They were ill content to toil for the Company upon the hard terms which the latter offered, and claimed the rights of free burghers. They crossed the downs by which the Cape peninsula is shut in, and moving ever further eastwards built up new communities at Stellenbosch and Drakenstein, Zwartland and Tulbagh, Swellendam and Graaff-Reinet. In 1688 the ranks of these free burghers were powerfully reinforced by the arrival of a number of Huguenot refugees, who, driven forth from their own fair France by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, sought a new home in these southern climes. The French emigrés soon lost the use of their own language, which the Company forbade them to employ, and within two or three generations were completely merged in the colonists of Dutch or German descent. It has been calculated that towards the close of the eighteenth century the population of South Africa was composed, roughly speaking, of about one-half of Dutch blood, one-sixth of French, one-sixth of German, and the remainder of other nationalities. All these spoke a form of simplified Dutch known as Cape Dutch, which has lost almost all the inflectional endings of the Dutch of Holland, and in vocabulary exhibits many affinities with the Dutch of the seventeenth century.
During the wars which convulsed Europe at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century Holland and England were ranged on opposite sides. The days of the Dutch East India Company were already numbered, and the British Government, intent upon the control of the trade route to India, landed a body of troops at the Cape, and with very little difficulty secured the capitulation of the Dutch garrison and the surrender of the country to the English crown (1795). The first British occupation of the Cape lasted for eight years. Hostilities in Europe were then temporarily suspended by the Treaty of Amiens, which also provided that the Cape should be restored to the Netherlands, or, as it was then called, the Batavian Republic. Thus for three years South Africa fell again under Dutch rule, but in 1806 it was captured for the second time by an English force, and passed finally under the dominion of Great Britain. The claim of the latter to the rightful possession of the country rests partly upon conquest and partly upon purchase. By a convention signed in London in 1814 the British Sovereign agreed to return to the Prince of the Netherlands all colonies and settlements which had been wrested from Holland during the Napoleonic wars, excepting only the Cape of Good Hope and Demerara in South America, for which latter possessions the Prince of the Netherlands agreed to accept an indemnity of six million pounds sterling. The Cape colonists were not consulted when their destinies were disposed of, but, though they regretted the withdrawal of the friendly Batavian rule, they were for the most part indifferent to the form of government under which they lived, provided only their liberty of action remained unimpeded and no obnoxious taxes were imposed.
When the Cape of Good Hope passed into the hands of the British, the colonists were almost to a man a Dutch-speaking community. Out of the twenty-five thousand individuals who composed the population in 1805 there were not more than seventy or eighty British subjects. The earliest administrators under the English régime, by retaining the use of the Dutch language in Church and State, and reinstating as civil officials a number of men who had been in the service of the Batavian Republic, did much to reconcile the burghers to the change of government. Twenty years subsequently, however, a later Governor, Lord Charles Henry Somerset, decreed that the English language alone should be legal for all public documents and judicial proceedings — a measure which soon became a fertile cause of misunderstanding and resentment. There was apparently some reason for the change. Up to 1820 the only individuals of British descent resident in the Colony were the chief personages on the civil establishment, the naval staff at Simon’s Town, some Cape Town merchants, a certain number of missionaries, chiefly of the London Missionary Society, and a few hundred mechanics and labourers. But in that year immigration on an extensive scale was undertaken. The British Government voted a considerable sum of money for the settlement of suitable families in South Africa, and nearly five thousand emigrants of British birth were conveyed to the Cape, and received grants of land on the eastern border of the Colony. For these the use of the English language was indispensable; but the old Dutch population, who still outnumbered the new-comers in the proportion of eight to one, counted it a serious grievance that they could no longer approach the Government through the medium of a language which had prevailed in the country for nigh on two centuries.
But though the language had been suppressed in the State, it still held its own in the Church. The forty thousand colonists who in 1820 retained the use of the Dutch language were without exception members of the Dutch Reformed Church. This Church occupied, during practically the whole of the nineteenth century, a unique and influential position in South Africa. For a long period it was in receipt of State support, its ministers being wholly or partially salaried from the public funds. As the Church of the Dutch-speaking colonists, the repository of their ancient traditions, the guardian of their cherished language, and the expression of the national strivings of a people to whom a share in the political life of the country was denied, it wielded a wide-spread and on the whole a salutary influence. We shall do well to grasp firmly these three important factors in the situation when Andrew Murray entered upon his life-task — a predominantly Dutch-speaking population, the Dutch language banished from Government offices and law courts, and the Dutch Reformed Church as the guardian of the language, and the outward and visible bond of union between the scattered elements of the Dutch population.
We find then, settled upon the soil of South Africa for good or ill, two white races, sprung originally from the same racial stock, animated by the same love of liberty, professing the same form of religion, but distinct in temperament and training, in political aims and national ideals, and separated above all by the insuperable barrier of language, which made their complete fusion an apparent impossibility. In the veins of Andrew Murray flowed the blood of both these races, and he was in a real sense the embodiment of the highest ideals both of the older Dutch and the newer British strains. It was his constant endeavour to promote a better understanding and a heartier good will between the two classes of colonists. For this he possessed special gifts. He spoke both languages with equal ease. He moved among both peoples with equal familiarity. He was large-hearted enough to sympathize with both sections in their attempts to live their own lives and shape their own destinies. He was broad-minded enough to recognize what was noble and praiseworthy in the aims and objects of either race. And he had discernment enough to see that the national ambitions of English and Dutch were not at bottom incompatible, and could be harmonized by the exercise of patience, forbearance and mutual regard.
Andrew Murray’s ministerial career, as the following pages will show, was cast in the most stirring and by far the most important period in the history of South Africa. His public life covered two-thirds of a century, when English and Dutch were feeling after their true position and part in the scheme of things South African, and consciously or unconsciously endeavouring to adjust their relations to each other. During these years the contest between the two racial ideals continued without intermission, sometimes in the form of mere passive suspicion and antagonism, but also rising sometimes to angry disputes and actual hostilities. When Andrew Murray was a boy of eight, a wide-spread emigration into Central South Africa commenced on the part of those Dutch colonists who were determined to throw off their allegiance to the British Crown. This remarkable movement, which is known as the Great Trek, (for a fuller description of the Great Trek, see chapter 4) led to the founding of the Boer (the word Boer means simply farmer - it was subsequently used as a general designation for the rural, as distinct from the urban, population, and has now become a proper name denoting a Dutch-speaking South African) republics north of the Orange and the Vaal rivers. A series of important events followed during the second half of the century. Representative institutions and responsible government were introduced into British South Africa. The discovery of diamonds on the borders of the Orange Free State and of gold in the Transvaal brought about an economic revolution in South Africa, and profoundly modified the course of its future history. The Transvaal in 1877 was surreptitiously annexed to Great Britain, but the stout burghers, rising in protest, won back their independence after a few short and sharp encounters with the British forces. The British South Africa Company (better known as the Chartered Company) was founded in 1889, and a vast territory to the north of the Transvaal, stretching right across the Zambesi as far as the Great Lakes of Central Africa, was secured to Great Britain by the foresight and enterprise of Cecil John Rhodes. Soon afterwards the inevitable and tragic conflict between Briton and Boer came to a climax. Envy of the wealth which had come to the Transvaal through its gold mines precipitated first the Jameson Raid, and then the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, which issued in the extinction of the republics. But when the union of the States of South Africa under the British flag was consummated in 1910, the Boer rose again to power, like the phoenix from its ashes, and obtained political control of the destinies of South Africa. And thus at present matters stand, the British being the possessors and nominal lords of the country, and the Boers its real masters.
It must not be assumed that Andrew Murray had a direct share in all the events and movements outlined above. He was first and foremost a servant of Jesus Christ, devoting himself heart and soul to spiritual labours for the welfare of the flock committed to his care. But it was impossible, for one who sympathized so deeply with the people among whom he lived and laboured, to remain indifferent to their social and national development. During the first years of his career, when he was the sole minister of a population scattered over an area considerably larger than that of Great Britain and Ireland, circumstances compelled him to take an active interest in civil affairs. There were at that time hardly any men of education and ability who were conversant with both the Dutch and English languages, and Andrew Murray, by virtue of his intellectual qualifications and high Christian character, wielded great influence with both sections of the community. In this manner he was forced, almost against his will, to enter the political arena, and once at least to engage in a political mission to England. But in later years and under altered conditions he stood more and more resolutely aloof from political life, and only on rare occasions, when some great national crisis seemed to call for a word of warning or appeal, did he venture to intervene in public affairs.
It but remains to describe in brief fashion the general situation when Andrew Murray’s career commenced. At the close of 1848 there occurred a brief pause in the history of the Cape Colony. The seventh Kaffir War had been concluded; the eighth and most serious was still concealed by the curtain of futurity. The grant of representative institutions was in the air, but the British Government had not as yet passed any definite promise to introduce them. The determined resistance protracted during the whole of 1849, to the scheme of making the Cape a penal settlement, had not yet, begun. Sir Harry Smith, Governor and High Commissioner, who had recently returned from a triumphal tour through South and Central South Africa, during which he had annexed fifty thousand square miles between the Orange and the Vaal to the Queen’s dominions, was at the height of his great popularity. The Cape Colony counted at this time some one hundred and twenty-five thousand white inhabitants, at least three-fourths of whom were Dutch-speaking. Across the Orange River, in the newly-annexed Orange River Sovereignty, were found about twelve thousand Dutch farmers, very half-heartedly attached to British rule; and beyond the Vaal River there lived another eight or ten thousand independent Boers, under a by no means stable form of republican government. These twenty thousand emigrants constituted Andrew Murray’s first parish.
The whole country already settled by white people was of vast extent. Between Cape Town, in the extreme west, and Graaff-Reinet, the most considerable town in the east, stretched a distance of five hundred miles; from Graaff-Reinet to Bloemfontein, the centre of Andrew Murray’s great parish, it was another three hundred miles. Three hundred miles further north lay Pretoria, subsequently the capital of the Transvaal Republic, which extended northward for yet another two hundred and fifty miles to the Zoutpansberg range. In all this great territory there was not, in 1848, a single mile of railroad. The immense distances had to be traversed, frequently over very indifferent roads and through flooded rivers, by the uncomfortable Cape cart, the roomier horse-waggon, or the slow-moving, springless ox-waggon. In such a country, under such circumstances, and amongst primitive farmers, whom Sir Benjamin D’Urban, a former Cape Governor, once described as “a brave, patient, industrious, orderly and religious people,” Andrew Murray commenced his life-work.