South African Military History Society

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The monthly meeting was opened by the new National President, Bob Smith, who welcomed all present and introduced the new committee members. He then announced the recent death of Lt Gen Andrew Masondo and, after a brief tribute delivered by Hamish Paterson, asked all present to rise and observe one minute's silence in the General's honour. General Masondo had a strong past connection with the museum and the museum library bears his name.

The usual notices were then delivered and members' attention is drawn to the next outing on 28 June at 14h00, which will take the form of a two-and-a-half hour heritage walking tour of historic Johannesburg. The tour will commence and end at the Sunnyside Park Hotel, where free parking is available, and will be led by the well-known local historian and author, Mr Dennis Adams. The cost will be R35 per person and those interested should contact Bob Smith at 011-675-0836 after hours or cell 082-858-6616.

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Bob then introduced our curtain raiser speaker, Mr Nick Cowley, who was going to speak on "Three Braggart Soldiers Of The 19th Century." Born locally in Benoni, Mr Cowley graduated from the University of Natal and then made his career at the South African Broadcasting Corporation, where he is still employed. Nick had as his assistant, or "mouse jockey", Mr Ray White who handled his Power Point presentation.

The first of the three "braggarts" in question was General Antonio Lopez Santa Anna, who figured prominently in the history of Mexico over the period 1833 to 1855. Santa Anna was Commander-in-Chief of the Mexican Army during the Texan War of 1836 and made his military reputation in a very one-sided victory over the rebel Texas forces at the famous battle of the Alamo. He was cruel, volatile, lecherous and greedy and, after authorising the massacre of a large number of prisoners at a subsequent engagement, was soundly defeated and captured by General Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto. Santa Anna and his force were taken completely by surprise during their afternoon siesta and Santa Anna himself was at the time engaged in an afternoon dalliance with a mulatto slave by the name of Emily West Morgan, thereafter immortalised in song as "The Yellow Rose Of Texas". Houston rather surprisingly allowed Santa Anna to go free and subsequently he was defeated by a French invasion force in Mexico. During the course of this action he lost a leg but, remaining a national figure, became President of Mexico. In this position he became involved in a very shady land deal that saw the modern US states of New Mexico and Arizona sold to the USA. For this he was exiled to Venezuela but eventually returned to Mexico where he died.

The second "braggart" was that well-known customer by the name of General George Armstrong Custer. He was self-opinionated, vain, headstrong and reckless and had already displayed all these traits during the US Civil War. He also had a cruel streak in his handling of the American Indians that he had shown while in command of the 7th Cavalry. In 1876 Custer was in command of an American force that came up against the combined forces of a number of Indian tribes, led by, amongst others, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. The two opposing forces met at the Little Big Horn in the Black Hills of Dakota and Custer, refusing to listen to better counsel and displaying his usual foolhardy recklessness, was killed along with all his men at what became known as "Custer's Last Stand". This action was romanticised by Buffalo Bill in his "Wild West Show", which actually starred Sitting Bull, and again later by Errol Flynn in the film "They Died With Their Boots On" but was actually an episode of stupidity by a vain man.

The last "braggart" was General Henry von Brusawitz, an archetypical German military bully. He became famous when, while having a drink in a tavern in the German city of Karlsruhe, he was accidentally nudged by a passing civilian. Taking umbrage at this, von Brusewitz followed the civilian outside and cut him down with his sword, stating that by nudging him the civilian "had besmirched the uniform of a German officer". The case caused quite a furore and even involved the Kaiser, but eventually von Brusawitz appeared before a military court and was sentenced to a period of 3 years and 20 days in jail. He served half this sentence and then popped up again in history as a member of the German Corps fighting on the side of the Boers in the Second Anglo-Boer War. He became immortalised by Denys Reitz who, in his book "On Commando", states how von Brusawitz at the battle of Spioen Kop refused to take cover and strode around recklessly exposing himself to enemy fire. At one stage he stopped to light a cigarette, to show his nonchalance, and was promptly shot through the head, thus ending a life notable only for its arrogance and stupidity. All three of these representative generals shared in an ABC of disaster for them and the troops under their command - Arrogance, Bravado, and Carelessness.

Bob thanked Nick for a well-delivered and humorous talk and then introduced the next speaker, Dr Org de Bruyn, who, after graduating at the University of Pretoria, has had a distinguished medical career in the field of micro-biology and is one of South Africa's leading coin collectors.

Org has been collecting coins for 50 years and specialises in coins found in shipwrecks, so it was no surprise that the subject of his talk was "The Story That Coins Tell". There has been a vast expansion in the field of marine archaeology and wreck salvage since the invention of the Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (Scuba) and Org showed us, with the aid of a power point presentation ably managed by a young assistant, the whereabouts of a large number of wrecks dived on between 1966 and 1986. Amongst these were the East Indiamen Fame and Merestijn and Org showed us the British East India coins recovered from the Fame in 1966 and the VOC coins recovered from the Merestijn in 1972.

The large number of shipwrecks along the South African coast, particularly amongst ships homeward bound, was because of inaccurate charts brought about by poor surveying. The poor surveying was in turn brought about by an inability to calculate longitude, a problem that would only be corrected with the invention of the marine chronometer.

Org then went back in time to show how coins were minted with a process that remained basically unchanged until 1469, when the Spaniards defeated the Moors and unified Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella. This was followed by Christopher Columbus' discovery of America in 1492 and the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. This last-named event divided the world into two spheres of influence between the Portuguese and Spanish, thus bringing about the Portuguese African exploration. In the meantime, the Spaniards had found silver at Potosi in Bolivia and between 1550 and 1650 exported 16 000 tons of silver from those mines. For practical reasons these were minted into coins on site but instead of roughly shaped "cobs" of metal were properly milled coins that were to become the basis of the world monetary system. Known as "Pieces of Eight", as each coin represented eight reals of Spanish coinage, they were the forerunner of the dollar. The twin Pillars of Hercules entwined with the motto "Plus Ultra" gave rise to the US dollar symbol and a Northern European version of the coin known as a "Thaler" had its name corrupted to "dollar".

From 1604 onwards ships rounding the Cape were heavily armed with at least 28 guns that helps to date wrecks and this, coupled with the coins found, can be a good indication of the ship itself. Although between 1600 and 1800 at least two million seamen died of shipwreck, and more particularly scurvy, no human remains are ever found in these wrecks. An interesting wreck was the Santiago of 1585 that was dived on in 1984. It is the only wreck of an outward bound Indiaman, showing that the West Coast was well charted but the East Coast was charted as much as 200 miles west of where it actually is, hence the fatalities amongst homeward bound ships. The Santiago was carrying a large number of coins known as double ducats. At this time the European nations were standardising their coinage and a large number of old coins were being carried East as trading bullion and among these coins were ducats and pieces of eight. Among two of the best-known wrecks on the South African coast are the Merestijn and Grosvenor. The Grosvenor was wrecked in 1782 and many attempts were made to find the so-called treasure she was known to be carrying. All were unsuccessful until 1982 when some coins were found washed up on some rocks a distance away from the river mouth where the ship was supposed to have foundered. In 1999 further relics were found in an inlet to the north of the popularly supposed wreck site but to date nothing further has come to light.

As a final indication of how coins can tell a story, Org brought our attention to the recent find by Namdeb of a Portuguese caravel buried under the sand of their diamond diggings in Namibia. The coins immediately place the time period as that of Ferdinand and Isabella, which means that the ship is very possibly that of Bartholomew Diaz who went missing in the South Atlantic in 1500. If so, this is a tremendous historical find that will have first to be ratified by marine archaeologists.

After an interesting question period, Dr de Bruyn was thanked by John Parkinson for his most interesting talk, after which members were invited by Bob to view specimens of Org's collection, to enjoy tea with us and to rummage amongst the books for sale.

On a final note, members might be interested to know that one of our past National Presidents, Martin Ayres, is now settled in Flintshire in the UK where he and his wife Lesley are resident in the village of Buckley. They would like to maintain contact with members of the Society and their e-mail address is

I would also like to thank Bob Smith for standing in for me as Scribe during my absence and for doing such a good job of the previous two newsletters.

Ivor C Little (Scribe) 012-660-3243

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For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Mike Laing 031-205-1951 (
For Cape Town details contact Bob Buser (Sec'y/Treas) 021-689-1639 (
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469 (

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