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The Life and Times of Sir George Grey, K.C.B.

Chapter XXXIV. — Close of Princ'e Alfred's Visit

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Chapter XXXIV.
Close of Princ'e Alfred's Visit.

"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."

Peace hath her victories,
No less renowned than war."

Prince Alfred could only spend a few days at the Cape on his return from the tour through the colony. A great many ceremonies had to be compressed into that time. Landing on Friday, arrangements were immediately made for a fête and fancy fair in the Botanic Gardens, to be held next day, succeeded by a dinner and ball at Government House.

Monday, September 17th, was the most memorable day of the Prince's whole visit, for it was signalised by the commencement of the breakwater in Table Bay—the principal object with which he had come to Cape Colony.

The great drawback to the progress of Cape Town was its dangerous harbour. Without shelter from the westerly or southerly gales, all shipping was liable to destruction which might be caught in Table Bay by the fierce winds occasionally sweeping the surges of the Atlantic to the foot of Table Mountain. For two hundred years the Dutch and English colonists had suffered from this cause. Many a gallant bark, unable to put to sea, had, in the violent storms which burst upon that coast, strewn the beach with its timbers and its crew.

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From the moment of his first landing as Governor, Sir George had contemplated the possibility of constructing a breakwater, which would be at once a harbour of refuge, a convenience to commerce, and an inestimable public blessing. Busy as the Governor was with the many duties and engagements of his official life, he yet from time to time thought of the project with pleasure, but was unable to enter actively into its prosecution. Strolling one morning with some visitors along the beach to the eastward of Cape Town, his foot slipped from the crest of a little ridge of sand. Surprised at the circumstance, the Governor looked for the cause. A skull was partially uncovered where his foot had slipped, and from the bleached bone there floated a lock of golden hair.

The story was soon told. A ship bearing as its passengers a large number of female convicts sent abroad to New South Wales— many of them for incredibly trivial offences, had cast anchor in the Bay. During the night a gale sprang up—the ship dragged her anchors, and by the morning had gone to pieces—not a soul, it is believed, being saved. The bodies had been buried beneath the ridge on which they were then standing.

As Sir George looked at the silent skull and golden hair, he thought of the agony which must have wrung the heart of the poor girl and her comrades, and on the instant determined to lose no time, and spare no effort to raise a haven of safety in Table Bay for all future time.

He began to gather information. He sounded the public leaders so as to gain the opinions and wishes of the people. Estimates of expense, of labour, and of time were made, a correspondence with the great engineer, Sir John Coode, ensued, and all steps were taken which could lead to the commencement and final completion of this necessary public work.

When recalled by the despatch of Sir E. Bulwer Lytton, he left behind him a Bill which he had proposed to lay before the Parliament at its next sitting, providing for the construction of the harbour. It was one among the many causes of regret at his sudden departure from South Africa, that this project remained unfulfilled- He commended it to all public men, and left it as a sacred trust to his successor.

Upon his return from England he found the Parliament in page 269session, but to his surprise and mortification, a great disaster hud befallen his favourite plan. General Wynyard, the Acting-Governor, knowing the strong desire of Sir George Grey for the successful passage of the Act, and not being sure of the disposition of any Governor who might succeed him, and influenced, it may be, by a laudable ambition to have his name connected with the gift of a harbour to Cape Town, had pushed the Bill somewhat hurriedly in the Legislature.

A debate had arisen, during which it became evident that the conservative instinct of the Boers was very strong. Their fathers had been able to do without a harbour. Why should not they? Table Bay had afforded sufficient accommodation for the generations past. Why should it not still lie sufficient? The expense would be very great. Who was to bear it? Years would elapse before any benefit at all would be derived. Possibly the structure itself would be a failure, in which case the dangers of the harbour would be increased instead of lessened. Their fathers, who were as clever as people in these days, had failed to build. Were men nowadays likely to succeed? Finally the question went to a division, and the Bill was thrown out.

A few days after this, Sir George Grey arrived to resume his duties. With somewhat hesitating tones, General Wynyard told him of the ill-fate which had attended the Harbour Bill. But the Governor was equal to the occasion. He was determined that the breakwater should be built.

At the first Council meeting he made known his determination to his advisers. They were in despair. Having once resolved to refuse the Bill, they believed that the members would stubbornly adhere to their determination, and the probahilfty of a struggle between the Governor and the Parliament immediately after his triumphant return from England filled them with dismay. But Sir George was not to be denied. The estimates for the year had not yet been submitted to the Assembly. He inserted the amount necessary for the beginning of the work, and declared his resolution to pass no vote for the expenditure unless this item was included in it.

The much-feared struggle was soon ended. Many of the members, delighted at the return of their beloved Governor, were willing page 270to yield to his personal influence what they would not sanction in the prior debate. A single night's discussion ended the matter. The vote was carried by a small majority, and the estimates were passed.

On the 17th of September the most numerous assemblage of Europeans ever gathered together in South Africa stood upon the rising ground fronting the sea, to witness the laying of the first stone of the harbour by Prince Alfred. Sudden storms marred the beauty of the day, but they did not last long, and between them the sun shone out brilliantly. Beneath the shadow of that mountain whose flat crest had given the name to itself and the bay beneath it, twenty thousand people took part in a ceremony which was in the highest sense historical.

Before the proceedings commenced, amid a deep and reverential silence, a special prayer, composed for the occasion, was offered up to God. Then the Prince, pulling a trigger, dropped into the sea the first stones of that splendid breakwater which now gives safety and comfort to the commerce of South Africa.

On Tuesday morning the Prince laid the foundation stone of the "Alfred Sailors' Home," which was erected as a special memorial of his visit. in the afternoon he inaugurated the new Library and Museum. This building had been commenced three years before under the influence and encouragement of Sir George Grey. The collection of books numbered between thirty and forty thousand volumes. Sir John Herschel called it "the bright eye of the Cape."

Sir George Grey's address on this occasion was received with unbounded enthusiasm. He commenced by pointing put the full significance of Prince Alfred's visit, and particularly his action that day. "A youthful Prince has come to visit us here, upon the extremity of this ancient continent, which was the cradle of civilisation and art, when Egypt was in its glory and its prime, with its teeming populations, its skilful artisans, its gorgeous and massive buildings, while the greater part of Europe still slumbered in savage barbarism, He comes from a land which, when the north of this continent on which we stand was old in science and art, was regarded as almost beyond the confines of the habitable earth, and was only peopled by hordes of painted and lawless savages; and vet he comes to us, a poor, a scattered and still-struggling people, from page 271what is now the centre of Christianity and of civilisation—from that great heart, the ceaseless pulsations of which scatter truth, swarms of industrious immigrants, crowds of traders, and streams of commerce throughout the world. Europe, which in its comparative youth of civilisation adopted Christianity, has sent to us, as well as to so many other parts of the earth, all that can render this life valuable to man or prepare him for a future state. This ancient continent has sent us little to brighten or embellish life, but has strewn thickly with perils and difficulties, the path which lies before the now rising and future nations of South Africa." He then went on to show how time after time the slight beginnings of civilisation and learning had been swept away by ignorance, sloth, and barbarism in Africa; while in Europe gross superstition and degrading customs had been steadily replaced by Christianity and freedom.

"Yet, with apparently such slight encouragement before us, we here in the South of Africa have again boldly entered on the attempt to establish civilisation and Christianity in this continent, and to spread their blessings through he boundless territories which lie beyond our borders. … … We are a small and scattered people, with many dangers and enemies around us and in our front, and with a task before us requiring all our energies and well and ripely-matured plans if we hope to accomplish it. And we do not doubt that we shall succeed, for the cause we labour for is the promotion of truth and knowledge, and the carrying-out of God's service upon earth."

The first book placed upon the bookshelves by His Royal Highness was a rare and priceless MS. in Greek of the Gospels, the gift of Sir George Grey. After Prince Alfred had also presented Knight's Shakespeare and Pictorial History of England as his own gift to the institution, he returned to the dais, and gave through Sir George Grey to the people and legislature of the Cape Colony a splendid portrait of the Queen. The national anthem was sung, and the Prince declared the institution opened.

Mr. Porter, the Attorney-General, fittingly acknowledged, on behalf of the Library Committee and the public, the honour which the Prince had done them, and their gratitude to Sir George Grey. In the course of his remarks he said, "Of Sir George Grey I need page 272not speak. His character as a lover of learning is well and widely known; and a lover of learning he ought to be, because he is not merely one of the large class who write books, but one of the rarer class about whom books are written; and because independently of belonging to both these classes, he knows and feels that good books are great blessings, and that knowledge is not merely power but enjoyment. … Let His Royal Highness be assured that he carries away with him the heartiest good wishes of all ranks, races, creeds, and colours in South Africa; that the people here, confident that in after life he will tread no path but that of honour, will watch with interest his future career, and that they will ever reckon it as one of the many services rendered to them by their Governor, Sir George Grey (cheers), that through his instrumentality the auspicious visit of Prince Alfred was arranged —a visit which has, as it were, annihilated ocean spaces, and brought us in feeling so close to the old Mother Country that we seem to see her cliffs again." In concluding his address, he called upon all present to give way to their enthusiasm, and thus testify their gratitude to Prince Alfred and Sir George Grey. The response was given in such cheers as are seldom heard, while the large assembly, throwing off conventional restraints, gave way to unbounded joy.

Next morning (September 19th) the Prince embarked. Before leaving the shores of South Africa he took part in one final ceremony. That was to declare the recently finished Prince Alfred's Jetty open for public traffic. This he did after having driven in the last silver bolt. Then shaking hands with many of his new friends, he entered his barge and proceeded to the Euryalus, realising with regret that his visit to South Africa was at an end.

Among those who accompanied Prince Alfred to the end of the jetty was the old chief Sandilli. As the Royal party passed between the two lines of soldiery, these lines closed in behind them. Sandilli told Sir George afterwards that it was with terrible misgivings he saw that impenetrable military force blocking up the pathway by which he had come. Suspicious of treachery, and accustomed to the cunning strategy of his barbaric foes, he realised with a sinking heart how completely he was in the power of the Governor. If, when the boat was reached, Sir George Grey should order him to take his seat in it, he felt that resistance would be page 273vain. With every step he took, two more armed men closed in and added to the force which made retreat impossible. His fear was very real, though no trace of it appeared in the proud bearing of the old warrior.

The friendship cemented in South Africa between the Prince and the Governor has never been broken nor even disturbed. During the few months in which the guardianship of Prince Alfred was, as it were, confided to Sir George Grey, the latter made every effort to direct the mind of the Sailor Prince to the proper consideration of public affairs. In the Prince's presence, the Representative of the Queen received the native chiefs and discussed matters of state with them: When the Executive Council sat, Prince Alfred had a seat at the Council Board, and watched with interest the proceedings. To his hand was entrusted the commencement of those great public undertakings which made the history of that time memorable in Southern Africa. Nor did Sir George fail to impress upon the mind of his young and illustrious guest those lessons of wisdom and of faithfulness in government of which he himself had learned the value both in theory and practice.

Yet, amid this stately procession of wise counsels and great undertakings, the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh was one continued series of festivities and rejoicing. The universal welcome never ceased; the natural beauties of that part of the earth were seen and admired; and the pleasures of the chase were not forgotten nor neglected.

It is not surprising that the Queen and Prince Albert felt grateful to Sir George Grey for the care and kindness lavished upon their son. In the letter which Her Majesty addressed to Sir George the heart of the mother speaks more strongly than the voice of the Queen:

"Though Sir George Grey will receive the official expression of the Queen's high sense of the manner in which Prince Alfred has been received at the Cape, she is anxious to express personally both the Prince Consort's and her own thanks for the very great kindness Sir George Grey showed our child during his most interesting tour in that fine colony; and she trusts that the effect produced on the nation and people in general will be as lasting and beneficial as it must have been on Prince Alfred to have witnessed the manner in page 274which Sir George Grey devotes his whole time and energy to promote the happiness and welfare of his fellow-creatures."

The Queen sent to Sir George not merely a letter of thanks, which, though it would be remembered must be laid aside for preservation, but another memento which, being perpetually in the personal care and manual possession of the recipient, would always remind him of those days in South Africa when Prince Alfred and he were together—a pocket chronometer with an inscription such as a grateful Queen might indite to her faithful servant, was sent by Her Majesty to Sir George. For more than thirty years that timepiece has been his constant companion, and thus has continually reminded him of the pleasant past.

Nor will the Duke of Edinburgh, when he reads these pages, be displeased to hear that Sir George Grey has followed his career of public duty with increasing interest and pleasure.

It is strangely remarkable that the greatest chief of the native tribes in our South African dominions should instantly have recognised that the performance of the ordinary duties of the State by its princes, in common with and by the side of subjects of the Crown, is the surest evidence of public virtue, and the surest guarantee of public safety. Bearing this in mind, he observed that with the highest civilisation the necessity of the most noble setting such an example was recognised as a duty of paramount importance, although among uncivilised people such a thing was regarded as a terrible degradation.