Dora B. Montefiore, New Age April 1903
Source: New Age, p.283, 30 April 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford
Mr. Labouchere in Truth lifts the curtain for one instant on the tragi-comedy that is being played out in South Africa anent the fate of two at least of the women emigrants sent on recently by that fussy modern press-gang, The British Women’s Emigration Society. THE NEW AGE did its best some months ago to warn women of the dangers and troubles that awaited them in a country still under military rule; and to set before them facts wherewith to counteract roseate imaginings, and interested alluring misrepresentations. Now we read of two servant girls, new arrivals in Cape Colony, who when the yoke of servitude galled left their situation abruptly, and were forthwith given into custody by their mistress, who charged them with “desertion” and detained their boxes. These girls were publicly marched through the streets as prisoners in custody, though the police refused to listen to the full demands of their exasperated employer to handcuff the prisoners. Domestic service is no doubt too often a drudgery in England, and it is high time that domestic helps should organise and stand for shorter hours and more human conditions; but employers over here are at least not haunted with the old bad traditions and prejudices of enforced black labour. I remember whilst the late war was at its height talking to an ultra loyalist lady from Cape Colony, who bemoaned the “Kaffir servant difficulty” out there, much as a woman of her class and intelligence would over here bemoan the “servant girl difficulty.” Incidentally she let out, what I had not known till then, that Cape Colony law made it obligatory on Kaffirs to provide a certain amount of labour when required for the proprietor on whose land they lived. It was of course paid for at a very low rate, and therefore was not slavery in its full sense; but this legal obligation appeared to the lady who described it, as entirely just and of almost divine sanctity. No wonder the Cape Colony “mistress,” bred in such a faith, is prepared to deny ordinary human rights to any employee, black or white, whom the fortunes of war — in a literal sense — throw in her way.
If any woman is anxious to read an unvarnished tale of the fate of women in still unsettled countries, let her get a series of Bush Stories, by a woman (Barbara Baynton), published by Messrs. Duckworth in their Greenback Library series. The novel, and the Short Story, par excellence, are the Art expression of life of modern times; just as Sculpture was the expression of Greek life, Architecture that of medievalism, and Painting that of the Renaissance. In this art of novel writing, woman is the equal — perhaps more — of the man, and it is through the novel and the short story that woman will become fully articulate. Barbara Baynton, is a woman of her day, a woman who has the courage to tear out bits of life, no matter how unlovely they may be, and offer them to us as an artistic message of our own time. She has lived in the Bush, therefore she writes of the Bush, and of its inhabitants, white, black, and yellow, whom she knows — just as Gorki knows the tramps, unskilled labourers, and criminals, with whom he has herded, and whom he interprets for us. The unblinking heart of the Never Never land, and the unblushing soullessness of many of its inhabitants, cause Barbara Baynton’s descriptions of the ring-barked wastes called sheep runs, and of the crudely animal lives of the cockatoo selector and his family, to be written in lines that scorch and shrivel and wither, as do the long quivering days of drought. But what is of intense interest in her writings is the psychology of certain disinherited female atoms, caught from the woman standpoint.
In the last story The Chosen Vessel, one’s heart stands still, and then beats with wild terror, as one follows the agony of the lonely young wife, with her one year old baby sleeping on her arm, listening in the dead of night to the stealthy tread of the drink-inflamed swagman, as he roams round the settler’s cabin, hunting for a weak spot in the log walls through which he can get at his panting human prey. The husband is away shearing, “fifteen miles as the crow flies separates them.” Finally, the poor young creature, maddened with terror, rushes out into the night, and calls for help from a passing horseman; but the distance, as he galloped unheeding on, “grew greater between them, and when she reached the creek, her prayers turned to wild shrieks, for there crouched the man she feared, with outstretched arms, that taught her as she fell.” “A boundary rider, guided by hovering crows, found her body in the morning, the child still clinging to the mother’s dead breast.” “Jesus Christy” he said, covering his eyes. He told afterwards how the little child held out its arms to him, and how he was forced to cut its gown that the dead hand held. “.... Squeaker’s mate is the story of a woman” whom the men agreed was the “best long-haired mate that ever stepped in petticoats.” She worked with the weakling and coward Squeaker at tree felling, till one day a failing branch caught her, and laid her aside for ever a helpless cripple. She did not at first, as she lay in the stifling bark hut, realise all the horror of her fate, but spoke of the days when she would be about again. “Yer’ won’t. Yer back’s broke,” said Squeaker laconically. “No good not to tell yer, ‘cos I can’t be doing everythin’.” A wild look grew on her face, and she tried to sit up. “Erh,” said he, “See! yer cant, yer jess the same as a snake w'en ees back’s broke, on'y yer don’t bite yerself like a snake does w'en ‘e can’t crawl.” Squeaker soon gets tired of making damper, tending their few sheep, and minding the house, so after some weeks of neglectful brutality he removes the injured woman and her dog to a lean-to shed outside the one-roomed cabin, and imports another woman from the town. This story, and that of Billy Skywonker, should be read by all women who think of going as house-keepers or “mates” to men far removed from centres of civilisation, where, as Kipling puts it, “The best is as the worst.”
Lady Florence Dixie has asked me to make known through this column to the many enquirers who have written to her concerning the pamphlet from her pen, to which I recently referred, that it was published by the publisher of the Malthusian, of which Dr. Drysdale is the Editor. Roosevelt’s letter appears in the March issue of that paper, and Lady Florence Dixie’s letter, to Dr. Drysdale is in the April issue. Both numbers can be obtained for the sum of threepence from Mr. W.H. Reynolds, New Cross, London, S.E.