Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Boer Wars: Part II

Terrain of the Country

by Capt. Alfred Mahan

The mention of this migration leads naturally and immediately to a summary of the physical conditions of the country, by which, as well as by derivation of blood, the apartness of the two races has been emphasized. Between the narrow margin of land belonging, as it were, to the sea, and the high interior plateau, there runs from the extreme west of the British dominions a chain of lofty mountains, parallel, roughly, to the coastline, and terminating only when abreast of Delagoa Bay. These reach an elevation of from six to eight thousand feet, and in places on the border between Natal and Basutoland heights of eleven thousand are attained.

On the side toward the sea the ascent is comparatively rapid and difficult, though often broken into precipitous terraces. Inland the descent is less, and more regular, issuing in a plateau from three to five thousand feet above the sea, and presenting almost throughout a comparatively level or undulating surface that offers no serious difficulty to transit.

The territory of the Orange Free State and of the Transvaal lies wholly within this tableland. In this region, and throughout Africa south of 25 degrees there are river beds, but no navigable rivers. The country is generally treeless, and there is a great deficiency of steady natural water supply. During the rainy season, from October to March, the naked ground fails to retard the running off of the waters, which therefore escape rapidly by the rivers, swelling them to momentary torrents that quickly and fruitlessly subside. During the long dry season the exposed herbage dries to the roots.

From these conditions it results that not only is agriculture generally impracticable, economically, but that cattle and sheep, the chief wealth of the Boer farmers, require an unusual proportion of ground per head for pasture; and the mobility of bodies of horsemen, expecting to subsist their beasts upon local pasturage, is greatly affected by the seasons-an important military consideration.

The large holdings introduce large spaces between the holders, who dwell therefore alone, each man with his family. So it has come to pass that the descendants of one of the most mercantile and gregarious of races, whose artists have won some of their chiefst triumphs in depicting the joyous episodes of crowded social life, have, through calling and environment, become lovers or solitude, austere, self-dependent, disposed rather to repel than to seek their kind.