South African Military History 


Newsletter No 62 /Nuusbrief Nr 62 November 2009

Richard Tomlinson started the meeting on 12 October 2009 with his series on British fortifications of the Anglo-Boer War on a design of mortared stone blockhouses which he has termed the 'Vereeniging Pattern'. These were built to defend the main railway line from Vereeniging to Elandsfontein (present-day Germiston). The sole surviving example is at Witkop, next to the Blockhouse Service Area on the R59 Alberton - Vereeniging highway. Three storeys high, this building is notable for having low, flat-roofed masonry angle bastions at two diagonal corners in place of the top floor steel galleries found in the Standard and Daspoortrant Patterns, to give covering fire along its walls. It had no windows and an enclosed top floor, which must have made it very dark inside. It has a corrugated iron gabled roof, which had a lookout turret near one end of the ridge. The roof was badly damaged in a storm in 2002 and has been restored, but without the turret. The blockhouse has lost its internal timber floors and its walls have been steel banded for strength. The others at Daleside (2-storeyed) and Vereeniging have been demolished.

The curtain raiser by Stephen Bowker was on the parachute descent by his father, an air-gunner in 24 Squadron SAAF, over El Alamein on the first day of the battle. The squadron was to lay a smoke screen in support of ground forces. Two Bostons collided over the target. The one in which Sgt Bowker was a crew member was so damaged that it had to break formation and was later shot down by an enemy fighter. The pilot and the observer, Lts H.H. Roberts and T.C.M. Browning, were killed, but the two gunners, Sgts Geyser and Bowker, parachuted safely. Sgt Bowker re-joined the squadron three days later, earning him membership The Late Arrivals Club, an informal club for airmen who had had to abandon their aircraft in the air or on the ground under enemy fire and proceed to base on foot or by any other means. Members wore an unofficial emblem of a winged flying boot. His parachute descent also earned Sgt Bowker membership of the Caterpillar Club, an informal association of airmen who had successfully parachuted from a disabled aircraft. The caterpillar emblem is in recognition of role of silkworms in producing the silk used for making parachutes. Stephen has a detailed account of the sortie and subsequent events in letters written by his father to his parents. He has also been able to trace the service records of the German pilot who shot his father's Boston down.

The main lecture by Peter Gordon was on the Xhosa Cattle Killing of 1856-7. Deaths in the resulting famine spelt the end of the Xhosa as a military force. The amaXhosa of the time beleived in uMdali, the creator of all, including Man. When Man emerged from the ground at a place of reeds, cattle were already on earth. Man was allowed to stay as long as he took care of the cattle. Health and fertility were the natural order. Any deficiency was due to dereliction of duty or witchcraft. The amaXhosa did not have a clear understanding of death. When first exposed to Christian teaching, they were receptive to the doctrine of eternal life and resurrection.

It is through early Christian Xhosa prophets that Christian missionary teaching began to permeate Xhosa discourse. Ntsikana (1780-1821) was initiated into Christianity by Dr van der Kemp of Bethelsdorp. He was a pacifist, preaching salvation through obedience to God's word. Nxele (1790-1820, also known as Makana)'s father had been at Bethelsdorp. He preached an amalgam of the Bible message and traditional Xhosa custom, whereby there were two Gods - one for whites & one for blacks. The whites had killed the son of their God, for which they were driven from their own country on to the sea. They searched for a new land, but the God of the black people would now help the Xhosa to push them back into the sea. He, Nxele, had been sent to expel the whites and to bring back to life the Xhosa ancestors and their cattle. He claimed to be the younger brother of Christ. In 1817, he summoned the people to Gompo (Cove Rock near East London) to witness the resurrection of the dead. They waited all day, but nothing happened. Mlanjeni (c 1832-c 1853, The Riverman) was sickly healer/priest who claimed to be the reincarnation of Nxele. He preached that if the Xhosas would kill their yellow and dun-coloured cattle, there would there would be a resurrection of Xhosa ancestors, bringing the herds of old with them. In 1850-51, his Great Cattle-Killing contributed to the outbreak of the 8th Frontier War, resulting, inter alia, in the largest evacuation of land by farmers since the Great Trek. Mlanjeni said he was going across the sea to meet Christ. The Xhosa knew of the war in the Crimea and that former Cape Governor Cathcart had been killed by the Russians. They believed the Russians to be a black race of risen Xhosa warriors who had died in wars in the Cape Colony, who were beating the English over the water.

After the 8th Frontier War, Paramount Chief Sahrili was greatly troubled. Xhosa land was being gobbled up by the Cape Colony. Cattle were dying of lung sickness. What was he doing wrong? How could things be rectified? By mid-April 1856, Nongqawuse began to prophesy. She said that she was approached at a pool by the Gxarha River by two men, who gave her a message for her people. Nongqawuse told her uncle, Mhlakaza, the message from the two men. He was sceptical at first. He accompanied Nongqawuse when next she went to the pool. He didn't see the new people, but Nongqawuse told him what they were saying: The cattle were defiled as they had been herded by people who indulged in witchcraft All living cattle must be got rid of . Grain must be scattered There must be no cultivation. Kill your defiled cattle, enlarge your cattle kraals. Scatter your corn and dig greater grain pits. A 'new people' were waiting to rise, bringing with them cattle and every other kind of animal one desires and corn in abundance. News of the prophesies was disseminated among the Xhosa, who soon began to kill their cattle and dispose of their crops. Many Xhosa expected the resurrection as early as the full moon of June 1856. By the end of June, those who had killed cattle were starting to get anxious. In early July 1856, Sahrili visited the Gxarha to see for himself. Sarhili saw what he believed to be a favourite horse which had died and his brother recently deceased - now risen. No date was set initially for the great day of resurrection, but soon Nongqawuse and Mhlakaza were under pressure and nominated the full moon in August 1856. The promised day came and went as usual. Further disappointments followed in November 1856, January 1857, February 1857 and finally May 1857. In the subesequent famine, many thousand Xhosas died. Nongqawuse was taken to Fort Murray and later to Cape Town 'for her own safety'. Mhlakaza was reported in November 1857 to have died of starvation. Nongqawuse was later released and lived the rest of her life near Alexandria.

SAMHSEC's next meeting will be at 1930 on Monday 9 November 2009 at the Eastern Province Veteran Car Club in Port Elizabeth. Richard Tomlinson will present the next in his series on British Fortifications of the Anglo-Boer War. The curtain rasier by Ian Pringle will be on the Dedication of the Grey High School War Memorial. The main lecture will be by Malcolm Kinghorn on The Queen's Scarves.

Malcolm Kinghorn.
082 331 6223

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