Speaker: Dr Taffy Shearing
Today I have been asked to talk about aspects of the South African War from the Cape Colony perspective. And I have decided to stick to ‘Cape Rebels 1899-1902’; and to introduce you all to The Rebel Record, which David and I have just published in three volumes. By definition a Cape Rebel was a Cape colonist who joined the Transvaal and Orange Free State forces and fought against British field forces; and whose rebellion sadly almost led to civil war in the Cape Colony.
When the Boer forces invaded the Cape Colony north of the Orange River – notably leading to the sieges of Mafeking (now Mafikeng) and Kimberley – they either recruited or more forcibly commandeered Afrikaners to fight on their side.
H J de Koker. The very first rebel I dated from Mafeking was David Hermanus de Koker, 55. When the Boer forces were gathering to invade Griqualand West and to lay siege to Mafeking, he boasted he would join the Boers in the Transvaal and return as a Commandant. He did in fact return as a Veld Cornet, with a mauser, two bandoleers and an ammunition waistcoat. He forcibly recruited Colonists, rounded up cattle and wrecked long stretches of the railway line. De Koker fled to the Transvaal prior to the relief of Mafikeng. There he gave a false Transvaal address when captured, so went to Ceylon as a Transvaal prisoner-of-war (PoW 17095). When he returned there was warrant out for his arrest; and that is all I know.
The Cape Colony north of the Orange had been devastated by the Rinderpest – Mafeking had lost 96 percent of its cattle – and many of those who joined the Boers had said they had heavy mortgages, so having made it a condition that the Transvaal would agree to cancel these debts. The Boers said okay, ‘but first drive the Englishman into the sea!
David de Wet. South of the Orange River the Free Staters soon invaded the Stormberg region, from Lady Grey and right through to Colesberg. The well known David de Wet of Buffelsvlei, who owned the Aliwal North Hot Springs and had previously been the Member for Aliwal North in the House of Assembly, joined the rebellion in his former constituency, acted as a guide, attended meetings and urged people to join the Free Staters.
Piet de Villiers. An unknown number of rebels fought with the Boers in the battles along the Modder River – Piet de Villiers of Egmont Herbert with such distinction at the battle of Belmont that General de la Rey promoted him to a fighting general.
The Long Tom gun that had shelled Kimberley fired its last shell on 15 February 1900, the day on which the siege was relieved by General French. In the chaos the Boers could not find oxen to pull the gun and the Warrenton rebels spanned themselves into the traces to do just that until a team of oxen was found.
Bart van Aswegen of Barkly West was later praised as a ‘stout-hearted rebel’ when he held the rebel laager at Dronfield and fought off the guns from three British Army batteries. He kept up such rapid fire that French ordered his men to pull back. The rebels had to abandon the gun, but slipped away in a dust storm.
After the Boer victory at Stormberg the burghers and the rebels quarreled over the spoils. The former took the captured Lee Metford, leaving the Martini-Henrys (which kicked) to the rebels.
Die groot vlug. At the end of February 1900 the situation changed when General Piet Cronje was defeated at Paardeberg. The result of this stunning defeat was that the Boer forces in Natal and the Cape Colony soon turned for home – heading back to the Free State and the Transvaal. The date on which they left, 8 March, became known as die groot vlug, now a firmly forgotten event in Afrikaner history. Olivier had left the defence of Dordrecht, Barkly East and Lady Grey to the rebels who were still holding Labuschagnes Nek outside Dordrecht when the Boer leader crossed the Aliwal North Bridge. The Free Staters had built drifts through the Orange River and had driven huge herds of commandeered sheep and cattle into the Free State.
Gustav van Aardt, Jotham Joubert, Ignatius van der Walt. Some rebels and Boers gave up the war and entered Mozambique, among them Comdt Gustav van Aardt, who had been the rebel commandant of Aliwal North. They were treated sympathetically by the Portuguese. In mid-1900 about 50 rebels from the Cape and Natal arrived as refugees in Amsterdam – these including Jotham Joubert (MLA for Albert) and Ignatius van der Walt (MLA for Colesberg).
Octavius Vermooten. While some rebels followed the Boers over the border, the remainder laid down arms. More than 5000 Cape rebels had been left high and dry – a tricky situation for the British in the middle of a war. David de Wet, who, like many older rebels had not been on commando, was sent by the British to live at Beaufort West under house arrest; with numerous others scattered in villages throughout the Cape.
A leading rebel of Dordrecht – Octavius Vermooten, a lawyer – found himself arrested when he went to Queenstown under the false impression that professional representation of a client gave him immunity from prosecution. He was sentenced to four years in Tokai Gaol and released only in November 1902.
Johannes de Wet. Lord Roberts, General Officer Commanding, divided these surrendered rebels into Class 1 – leaders – and Class 2 – followers or rank and file. As they were Cape Colonists, the Cape Parliament had to deal with the situation and it was October 1900 before the Special Tribunals Act was passed. The leaders were fined and gaoled. Johannes be Wet of Moshesh Ford, Barkly East, fought against Brabants Horse; was seriously wounded in a skirmish near Jamestown in December 1899; was sentenced to three years imprisonment and fined ₤1000; served time at Tokai jail; and was a Convicted Class 1 rebel.
The Class 2 rebels were only sentenced to be disenfranchised for five years – meaning they would not be able to vote whatever their age. The measure was a mild one. And as there were high hopes the war would be over in a matter of months – by Christmas – the Special Tribunals Act was set to run for six months until April 1901.
But the war wasn’t over by Christmas. In December 1900 President Steyn of the Orange Free State sent fresh mounted commandoes under General Hertzog, Commandant Pieter Kritzinger and Captains Willem Fouché, Gideon Scheepers and Johannes Smith racing to the Cape Colony to recruit and to commandeer horses and clothing. Colonists sent their sons to join the commandos – for weren’t they under the protection of Parliament? One youngster went off having been told by his Pa: ‘as daar bloed is, moet daar nie trane wees nie’ and ‘ as hulle jou in a wa huistoe bring moet die koël van voor en nie agter wees nie’.
Most of these rebels joined near the Boer Republics – for instance from the Burghersdorp district there were 1048 rebels, and from Aliwal North and Lady Grey 1268. Nearer to this part of the colony, George produced 11 rebels, Knysna 8, Mossel Bay 3, Willowmore 64 and Uniondale 66.
Coupled with the De Wet invasion, the Cape Colony was in so much of an uproar by April 1901 that the military took over when the Special Tribunals were suspended. Martial Law was again enforced and rebels under arms were facing death sentences for High Treason. The Military Courts tried 800 cases. Few, just a year earlier would have thought that 44 Cape Colonists, as well as some Republicans and Aliens, would be hanged or shot, while 409 of the younger rebels were shipped to St Helena and Bermuda to face sentences of penal servitude for life.
Johannes Petrus Coetzee of Paardekraal, Cradock, 21 years old, was the first to be executed. He was tried in Dordrecht on 26 June 1901 and was hanged in Cradock on 13 September 1901 having been found guilty of High Treason under arms and attempted murder. His body was later reburied in the Cradock cemetery. There was a strong protest by Earl Grey in the British Parliament about the public manner of his death.
The war sadly dragged on and it was May 1902 before the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed between the British and the Boer republics. The rebels could not attend the Peace Talks, as they were not legitimate belligerents. Later the surrender of 3442 rebels was accepted under Proclamation 100 of 1902. Between 700 and 800 did not lay down arms, but fled over the borders. The prisoners of war from Bermuda and St Helena returned in early-1903; then all the rebels were given partial amnesty in March 1903 and sent home. It was 1905 before a General Amnesty for the Cape rebels was declared and they became eligible to vote again.
Boy de Bruin. I heard about Boy de Bruin of Abrahamskraal, Victoria West, some 50 years ago. Boy was 16 when he stole a neighbour’s horse and went off to join the commandos. He simply vanished and was never heard of again. His younger brother, Hugo, who told us the story, was then in his late sixties, and said his parents thought Boy had been drowned in the Orange River – but that it was really only a guess and nobody actually knew his fate. Over the years I learnt just how foolish it was to go looking for a Boer commando alone: there were deserters on both sides who were desperate for a fresh horse.
To start with I collected the names of rebels in a shoebox, but when I did an MA on guerilla warfare through Natal University, in the 1980s, I discovered lists of rebels for every town that had had to be sent in by the colonial magistrates to the Attorney General. In due course these went on to my first Apple computer; and eventually the collection became a database for my PhD on The Cape Rebels of the South African War 1899-1902 at Stellenbosch University in 2005. But without my husband David’s devoted help and expertise we would never have documented 15 433 Cape Rebels covering 984 pages in three volumes. Next year marks our Golden Wedding , so we decided it was time to stop. A 50-year project is enough.
Many aNel/Nell, Kruger, Botha, Jacobs, Marais, van der Merwe, Coetsee/Coetzee. Our greatest problem in documenting this section of South African history was that there are comparatively few surnames among Afrikaners. It became a huge task to sort out the 304 Nells/Nels. The same applied to the 297 Krugers, 184 Bothas, 163 Jacobs, 164 Marais rebels , 288 van der Merwes and the 342 Coetsees/Coetzees – to give only a few examples. Because of this we have included voter numbers, ward numbers and physical descriptions where we have found them.
We were puzzled that comparatively few rebels became PoWs – until I found a leather-bound volume in the Cape Archives (AG3558), which gave the rebel’s name and correct colonial address, as well as a false address in the Transvaal or the OFS which the rebel gave when he was captured. In this way he had hoped to avoid the heavy sentences meted out to rebels who were harshly treated under Martial Law. Frequently it appears that letters from home gave the game away.
Hendrik Bernadus C Aucamp, 23, Knapdaar, Albert, captured at Zuurfontein on 15th March 1900, giving the false address of Vlakplaas, Bethulie, in the Boschiesspruit cornetcy. PoW 5018. To St Helena with OFS PoWs. Warrant of arrest issued on his return to the Cape Colony, 17 July 1902.
Johannes Hendrik Barnard, 63, Bellock. Barkly East, captured at Klipplaat on 7th February 1901, where he gave the false address of Klipkop, Rouxville, in the Groot Rivier cornetcy. PoW 18395. To Bermuda, returning on 18 September 1902.
Johannes Adriaan Bester, 59, Pniel, Barkly West, captured at Hoopstad on 7th May 1900, where he gave the false address of Niekerk’s Kuil, Hoopstad , but was unable to name the veldcornetcy. PoW 7158. Sent to Simonstown.
When we farmed at Fraserburg I used to ask the local people about the rebels and then discovered that there were two South African wars. One went by the name of the Boer War, in which Kruger was sone dirt and the Brits wanted the gold mines. But other people talked of the Transvaal War and said it had taken place because the Transvalers had made trouble for everybody – and that they had invaded a perfectly contented Cape Colony and ruined it out of revenge. Either way, I heard, nobody knew which was worst. If you saw a cloud of dust coming down the road, it was either the Khakis or the Transvalers; they were hungry; and their horses ate up the farmers’ lucerne.
One and all said it was easy to become a rebel, but to stay alive, find food, and to have the Khakis after you month by month was bitter. And when the rebels returned they all said they were just thankful to have made it home in one piece.
Izak Vorster. Mr Crouse of Richmond told me about his grandfather Izak Vorster, a Colesberg Rebel. In the Murraysburg district in 1902 they were forced to eat dogs, they were so hungry. They starved them, cut them up, cooked them and slept well; but forever after there were times when he would hear the dogs barking and feel them jumping up on his legs.
Ockie van Schalkwyk told me that after some months he, too, wanted to join the rebels. Next thing, a couple of uncles on commando rode up, gave him the biggest hiding he had ever had and telling him not to rebel. His older cousin, who had watched it all sitting on his horse, rode over saying: Ockie kan jy dan nie sien nie dat die pad voor eindeloos is? (Can’t you see the road ahead is endless?) And rode away.
Karl Steyn and sons. I became interested in certain families, especially the Steyns of Kaalplaas, Cradock. Karl Steyn and his sons Willem and Hendrik were all imprisoned on Bermuda. The sons had joined Smith’s Commando; their mother tried to get them to come home on being warned the military were taking over the courts. Hendrik was prepared to listen, but his brother persuaded him the Khakis were stupid and that life on commando was exciting. Four months later the Cape Mounted Rifles captured the boys at Wildefontein near Barkly East and they were given death sentences, later commuted to life imprisonment.
Who should they find in Bermuda but their father, who had been captured with Lötter in the Tandjesberg and had lost an eye on commando. First Carl (49) died, then Hendrik (20) succumbed to pneumonia; and only Willem returned to the farm in 1903. All he had was a photograph, plus his British Army warm coat bearing his PoW line and tent numbers. His son Carl told us his mother had made the coat into a blanket that she used in bread-making; and that he had grown up seeing those numbers on the kitchen table.
Daan Scheepers. I discovered I knew another rebel, Daan Scheepers of Upsal, Somerset East, when I was small. He used to call me ‘Gerlie’ and was kind to my mother when my father was ‘Up North’ in the 1940s, as a chaplain to the Troops.
Scheepers said they knew in August 1901 the situation was critical. Kritzinger’s Commando was being forced northwards by about six columns. During the fight at Ruiterskraal near Venterstad that followed his horse slipped and fell. Scheepers landed on a rock and shattered his femur. His friends put him on a horse and led him away. He was in such pain that for a couple of days he did not dare dismount. The fleeing Boers hid in the Bamboesberg and two Van Wyk children from a Boer family brought him food – Daan later paid for their education. After nine days he set his own leg with splints they cut from a besembos.
Daan Scheepers lay stoically in the open veld in the depth of winter, never making a fire or using a candle. A troop of baboons became his sentries. There was a reward of £250 on his head and soldiers camped nearby while he lay quietly under a koenie bush. However the Khakis gave up the search.
In November he set off to join Comdt Fouché. It was, he recalled, awkward riding with a crutch and a rifle, but he was sick of doing nothing and was glad to be going back to make war on the Khakis. He laid down arms in Cradock in June 1902.
It had taken some doing to lien the open veld in the Steynsburg district between August and November during the fierce winter of 1901. The Boers weren’t decorated for gallantry, but many deserved medals.
Joseph Erasmus. The Erasmus family from Cradock sent me this story.
In August 1901 Cmdt Piet van der Merwe was approaching the Doorn River at Herold and had dismounted for breakfast. Unbeknown to them, the 12th Lancers had been planning a surprise further on; and they suddenly appeared over a rise, sabres glittering in the morning light.
“To a man’, Erasmus told his son, “we jumped straight from the ground into the saddle and scattered; there was no time for stirrups that day!”
A Liebenberg. With the Lancers pounding behind them, Erasmus saw a tall slim chap named Liebenberg riding a white pony that lifted its back legs noticeably high. Galloping ahead of the line came an Englishman on a brown horse, holding his sabre aloft and aiming at Liebenberg’s head, hoping to chop it off. The Tommy missed, fell back and would then try again as the horses galloped madly on. Somehow Liebenberg escaped seemingly certain death by stretching himself out horizontally on the back of his mount. And a sabre with its point broken off was later taken in triumph into George, along with some shell casings.
These stories appear in our book The Brave Boer Boy.
In our three-volume Rebel Record there is a short history and foreword by Professor Albert Grundling of Stellenbosch University and six pages of reference giving the sources of the information – such as official archives; most museums in what had at one time been the Cape Colony; and endless published material.