ELIZABETH RUSSELL CAMERON:
AN EIGHTY YEAR OLD
by Win de Vos
In the Concentration Camp at Volksrust.
After the fear of a Swazi attack had died down, everything went on quietly at Amsterdam until 1898 when rumours of war with England became rife. Soon afterwards the Boers hold meetings and began commandeering.
When hostilities commenced Rod who was working in the Customs Office at Volksrust joined the Boer forces under Commandant Sassenberg, while Lionel who was in the Ermelo district joined up under Commandant Grobbelaar.
The Amsterdam Commando held an open air service before their departure for the front. They set out well provided with wagons, mattresses and food. Many bags of flour and meal had been made into bread and beskuit by the women for them.
Whenever a commando passed through the village, supplies of bread and beskuit were baked by the women for the burghers. Mrs. Cameron sent fruit from her orchard to some of the Ambulance Wagons which the Russians, the French and the Germans had fully equipped and sent out to South Africa for the use of the burghers.
She heard a great deal said in praise of a certain Russian who was in charge of one of these wagons. He was extremely handsome and had a really outstanding character. He always saw to the care of his horses first, then to that of his men, and only when this had been done, did he think of himself. It was said that he belonged to the nobility of Russia and was very wealthy, and that he had given up a life of luxury to come out to this country to help the Boers. Later on in the war he was killed. All along he had had a presentiment that he would lose his life, but even this did not deter him from carrying on his good work.
When the burghers had been forced to retreat in Natal, a great number of British troops went to Amsterdam as they had heard that a meeting of all the Boer generals was to be held there. The rumour, however, proved to be false.
Some of the British officers walked into Mrs. Cameron's home without knocking and this annoyed her intensely. A day or two after this had occurred she saw what appeared to be a party of officers approaching her house. She made up her mind that they would not be allowed to enter as the others had done, so she locked the front door, stood on the verandah with the key in her hand and waited for them. The man in advance of the ethers walked up to her and announced pompously: "I am General Campbell."
"And I am Mrs. Cameron," was the haughty reply as she drew herself up to her full height.
(Grins from the General's staff in the background.)
"Mrs. Cameron, are you not ashamed of yourself, you, an English woman, allowing your sons to fight on the Boer side?" asked the General.
"No, indeed I am not," was her reply, "as I claim no nationality. Did God allow you to choose your place of birth? He gave me no choice. Try to reckon out my nationality - my mother was Welsh, my father English, I was born in London, brought up in South Africa and married an American."
(Broader grins from the staff.)
She laughs with real enjoyment at the remembrance of the fact that the General and his staff departed without entering her house.
In 1901 the British troops took all the old men, the women and the children from Amsterdam to the Concentration Camps. Much food, clothing and other things were packed by the women on their wagons, but as soon as the column of vehicles had crossed the stream on the outskirts of the village, they were halted, outspanned, unpacked and searched. The officers considered that too many belongings were being taken along so they ordered most of the clothing to be put in a pile and burnt. A number of the women, among others Mrs. Cameron, donned as many as four or five dresses in order to save them. The top dresses gaped down the back as they could not meet over all the others, but the wearers overcame this difficulty by hanging shawls around their shoulders. One of the soldiers was heard to exclaim. "By Jove! they're fat," to the silent amusement of the women.
As they proceeded to Volksrust, many more wagons conveying old men, women and children from different places to the Camps joined their company until there were about seven hundred vehicles travelling together.
On the second day out from Amsterdam Mrs. Cameron was placed under guard for expressing her opinions too freely. Four soldiers were told off each day to act as her guard and she was not allowed to converse with the other women. These soldiers were always very considerate and fetched wood and water for her. At the outspans they often posted themselves near the water so as to give her an opportunity to speak to the other women when they came to fill their buckets.
At Rooihoogte a fight had taken place and some wounded soldiers and an officer were brought to the passing wagons. The officer was put into a spider so that he should be as comfortable as possible, while the soldiers were put on the bare boards of a tentless wagon and were covered with a tarpaulin.
Mrs. Cameron was indignant at this, as she considered officers and troopers were serving their country equally well, hence they deserved equal treatment when wounded. She could not bear to see the dreadful discomfort and suffering of the soldiers under the bucksail in the sweltering heat, so she suggested that a frame-work of branches in the form of a pitched roof should be made on the wagon over the wounded men, and that this should then be roughly thatched with grass to give them much-needed shade. She also pointed out that, if a thick layer of grass were to be spread on the floor of the wagon to serve as a mattress, it would greatly ease their suffering. Her suggestions, however, were not followed and the wounded must have suffered dreadfully on the journey.
The wagons stayed some time at the German Settlement, Bergen, near Piet Retief. Here the "meat corporal" sent her a message that she was to fetch her allowance of meat. She sent back the reply that she would do nothing of the kind. Upon his indignant enquiry as to the reason for her refusal to comply with regulations, she informed him that she objected to eating meat which she had seen pitched on to the ground floor of a tent and over which dogs and cats had walked.
"Well," exclaimed the corporal, "that's the only meat we have so what are you going to do about your ration?"
"I want a live sheep," was the prompt reply.
Though somewhat amused and taken aback by this request, he granted it, much to her satisfaction. She did not waste any time but immediately called the boy from her wagon and told him to pick out a big, fat sheep and slaughter it for her. He brought back a fine hamel. She shared the meat with her friends and also gave some of it to the soldiers who were guarding her, as they did not get too much in this line. After this she sent her boy several times to fetch a sheep while the wagons were at Bergen, and the corporal did not interfere.
Late one afternoon an English colonel in charge of several wagons loaded with bucksails arrived at the Settlement. Feeling sorry for those women and children who had tentless vehicles, he lent them some of the tarpaulins for the night, but these had to be returned when he resumed his journey next morning, as he was not authorised to give them away, much as he would have liked to have helped the women and children.
One of Mrs. Cameron's friends "pinched" a tarpaulin which he gave to her. She was indeed grateful to get this covering and cutting it in two she gave half to Mrs. Coetser. The following night it rained and these newly-acquired canvas roofs leaked, so the next morning Mrs. Cameron went to the military Supply Store and politely requested the sergeant in charge to give her a bucket of fat. In astonishment he exclaimed: "What on earth do you want to do with such a large quantity of fat?" She explained that she wished to smear her bucksail to make it waterproof. After some little delay she received the fat and shared it with Mrs. Coetser.
Mrs. Cameron showed the soldiers how to grind their ration of wheat in the coffee-mill she had brought with her from Amsterdam and she taught them how to make vetkoekies which she allowed them to fry in her pot. They were so eager to make these that they would wait in relays for the pot.
From Bergen the wagons went on to the other German Settlement, Luneberg, and thence to Volksrust. On to the way to the latter village there was a great shortage of food, and the soldiers often gave the major portion of their own rations to the women who had children. This was real generosity as the men did not get too plentiful a supply themselves.
The wagons arrived at Volksrust in the pouring rain, and all the women, the children and the old men were taken to the railway station, where so many of them were packed into the waiting-room adjoining the ticket-office that there was barely room to move, then the door was locked for the night and no one was allowed out, consequently, as may be imagined, the state of the room next morning was indescribable.
Mrs. Cameron and her two daughters did not spend the night there, as they, along with about thirty other women and children, were taken on a trolley to the Volksrust Hotel. There a policeman put twelve of them into a room which measured about twelve feet by fourteen. The only piece of furniture the room boasted of was an old, broken washstand with three legs. He turned this upside-down, lit a candle, stuck it on to one of the legs and remarking: "Ladies, I have made you as comfortable as I can," retired amidst amused laughter.
The women had no blankets, in fact they had nothing at all with them, so they sat down on the floor with their backs against the walls and their legs stretched out towards the centre of the room, and waited for day-break.
The next morning Mrs. Cameron stayed at the hotel with Mrs. Strauss' little girl whose mother went along with Mrs. Coetser and Annie to the station to pick out their belongings.
Most of the old men, the women and the children were put into tents which had been pitched in different parts of the village. The Camerons, the Coetsers and the Strausses had to share one small room at the hotel. There were ten people in all and they went to bed on the floor in relays. First three would settle down in a row in their blankets, then the next three would do likewise, to be followed in turn by the next three, while the remaining little boy slept in the doorway. This was the only way in which all ten could fit into the room. They got up in the mornings in relays too, only they reversed the order of procedure by starting with the little boy at the door.
Supplies were issued to the women at the Commissariat which had been fixed up in a house in Schoon Street. Often they had to stand for hours waiting for these and occasionally some of them fainted. Along with their rations they were given logs of fire-wood which they had to carry to wherever they were staying. One of their greatest difficulties was the scarcity of fuel. Mr. Lyon, who still lives at Volksrust, very kindly placed two of his forges, together with the necessary firing, at the service of the women, who greatly appreciated this assistance.
On one occasion Mrs. Cameron noticed an old wool-sack hanging on a tree in the hotel yard, and, having obtained permission to take it, used it to augment her stock of fuel. In this way she managed to bake several loaves of bread in a big, flat pot which she had brought from Amsterdam.
If the women left the Camp for any purpose, they were obliged to carry permits, but she disapproved of this regulation and refused to comply with it, so she came and went as she pleased and the sentries did not worry her.
She strongly objected to being called a refugee, for she looked upon herself and all the other inmates of the Camps as prisoners of war, as they had been taken thence and had not gone of their own accord. She was not afraid of saying what she thought and voiced her opinions freely. Every time she left the hotel her daughters awaited her return in fear and trembling that she would be arrested. However, she went on expressing her opinions as freely as ever for she was determined not to be trampled on as long as she had breath left in her body.
Copyright Win de Vos.
Put onto the web by Joan Marsh(2002) a great-grand-daughter of ERCameron