ELIZABETH RUSSELL CAMERON:
AN EIGHTY YEAR OLD
by Win de Vos
Mrs. Cameron Recalls the Campaign at Potchefstroom (1880-1881).
For three months the Camerons waited for their goods. It was during this time that they heard of the murder of Mr. Bell, the manager of the Settlements established by Mc.Corkindale on the large tract of land, New Scotland, which had been conceded to him by President Pretorius.
On one occasion Bell spent a night at a Durban hotel and there he dreamt that he was being murdered by kaffirs. Just as this nightmare reached its climax and he thought his last moment had come, he was awakened by the boy with the early morning coffee. His dreadful dream came true. Some ten or twelve years later, when Sir Theophilus Shepstone sent him, accompanied by several policemen, to collect taxes from the natives, the whole party was murdered with the exception of one of the policemen, who, though badly wounded, managed to escape and on his return recounted how Bell and the others had been done to death. A number of men were sent out to fetch the dead bodies.
Twice the sailing-vessel, carrying as part of its cargo the goods the Camerons were waiting for, came into sight, but the weather was so stormy that each time it was driven out to sea again. At the third attempt it succeeded in entering the harbour and dropping anchor.
As soon as their belongings had been packed on three wagons which were drawn by horses, they started off up country. When they reached Heidelberg Mrs. Cameron and little Annie stayed there, while Mr. Cameron went about looking for a suitable place in which to set up his mill. It was in this dorp, some time later, that Roderick, their eldest son was born. He was christened by the Rev. van Warmelo, the father of Mrs. Johanna Brandt, an author whose several books are well-known in South Africa.
Mrs. Cameron was very much interested in the old Dutch custom of members of the congregation bringing presents to their parson. So many gifts of sheep, butter, vegetables, meal and so forth were given to the Rev. van Warmelo that his stipend was certainly very materially augmented by them. This practice has gradually fallen into disuse. Dutch ministers now-a-days do not receive a quarter of the gifts that their forerunners did.
The meal given to Rev. van Warmelo was mostly ground by hand, and beautiful meal it was too. When visiting her Dutch friends, Mrs. Cameron would often stand by watching the process of grinding. On a gebreide skin spread out on the ground, a round, flat stone was placed and on top of this a smaller stone, which had a hole through the centre of it, was fixed in such a way that it could be freely moved by the handle attached to it. Into the hole one native boy dropped the wheat slowly, while another worked the handle and ground the grain into fine meal between the two stones.
Mr. Cameron decided to start business at Potchefstroom, the oldest town in the Transvaal, and when he had had his mill built his wife and two children joined him.
The mill was one of several which stood on the banks of the Mooi River and which were water-driven. It was close to the bridge so all vehicles going along the main road had to pass it. From the start it prospered as much wheat was grown in the district and farmers came from far and near to have their grain ground in the dorp.
The Camerons' home was near that of Ex-president Pretorius and his wife and, in spite of the great disparity in their ages, the two women became intimate friends.
Two or three years after the Camerons had taken up their residence at Potchefstroom, President Burgers' rule became a much-discussed topic of conversation. Besides having seen him at her wedding, Mrs. Cameron once attended a public meeting addressed by him. She recalls vividly his very attractive personality and great gift of oratory which gained him such unbounded popularity at the beginning of his presidency.
In her opinion the one time that the Boers really stood united was, when he, having first brought the Transvaal almost to ruin by his rule, aided and abetted Sir Theophilus Shepstone in the annexation of the Republic. When they realized how they had been duped by their President, in whom most of them had already lost confidence, they seethed with indignation and held meetings from one end of the Transvaal to the other. Mrs. Cameron, whose sympathies were entirely with them, received much inside information, especially from her great friend, Mrs. Pretorius.
When the British entered the country, the Boers decided to raise the price of their stock and produce, with the idea of making the troops turn back for lack of food.
Fox and James undertook a contract to supply the troops with meat and produce. They soon found, however, that they could not continue at the prices they had quoted as the Boers raised the price of everything and would sell for cash only. There was nothing to be done but give them the prices they demanded, and in a short while Fox and James went bankrupt. The money the Boers made thus they spent in buying arms and ammunition, with the idea of retaking their country as soon as they had a sufficient supply of these.
The British authorities sent a number of summonses to those who had failed to pay their taxes since the Transvaal had been annexed. They had not paid these because they reckoned if they did so it would be acknowledging that they had become reconciled to the annexation of their country. Between three and four hundred of them, mounted and armed, came into Potchefstroom from their farms to see the landdrost about the matter. They agreed to pay the taxes demanded of them provided it was stated on the receipts that they did so under protest. The landdrost, however, assured them that it was not in his power to comply with this request, so they refused to pay and returned to their homes.
Shortly after this, Scheepers, a well-educated man originally from the Cape Colony, came into the village with an armed band of men, and, going to Hollands and Holder's, a general store which like all the other shops sold ammunition, he ordered the clerks to bring forth all the gun-powder, lead and caps they had in stock. He was asked to produce his permit for the buying of these goods but he did not have one so the owners of the store, who had come on the scene by then, refused to serve him, whereupon he immediately commanded his followers to haul out all the ammunition they could find and place it on the counter. When this had been done he paid Hollands and Holder's full value for the goods, all of which he took with him.
The owners of the store had in the meantime sent to the landdrost to ask for assistance. He, however, replied that he had no force, only a small number of policemen, so he could not prevent Scheepers from carrying out his plan.
A few days later the British authorities sent out some men to attach Veldcornet Bezuidenhout's furniture. The wagon, piled high with household goods, passed Mrs. Cameron's home, and upon enquiry she elicited the information from the kaffir driver that Mr. Bezuidennout had not paid his taxes so the English were going to sell his furniture.
The wagon came to a halt at the market-place and the sheriff, having climbed up on to it to sell the goods by auction, was just about to begin when a number of armed, mounted Boers appeared from seemingly nowhere. One of these snatched the wagon-whip from the astonished native driver, gave his horse into this boy's care, jumped on to the wagon and drove off with the furniture and the sheriff. The rest of the burghers formed an armed escort. After proceeding thus for a few hundred yards they allowed the sheriff to get down and return on foot. They took the wagon with its load back to the Veldcornet's house.
The British ordered the arrest of the leader of these burghers and also that of Bezuidenhout. This order, however, was not carried out as matters were hurried forward and fighting began.
The Boers held a mass meeting at Paardekraal, near the site of the present pretty township of Krugersdorp. At this meeting they decided to fight to regain their independence and they discussed their plan of campaign. It was arranged that the different commandos were to be at certain places at the same time on a fixed day so that a united effort could be made to retake their country. They carried out this programme excellently considering the difficulties of transport in those days.
In the early part of December, 1880, some British troops with two cannon arrived at Potchefstroom and ensconced themselves on a randjie on the western side of the village. These troops, under Colonel Winsloe, had with them a small body of Boer volunteers under the leadership of one Ferreira. There was a number of natives too in the camp but they did not take part in the fighting. They herded the cattle and the sheep and did other work in the fort.
A few days before hostilities commenced Vice-president Paul Kruger went to Potchefstroom and divided the dorp into wards. He had all the supplies of edibles commandeered from the local stores and also from private people who had anything in the way of produce. These provisions were divided up proportionately for the different wards. He put men in charge and gave them orders that, as long as the stores of food lasted, everyone, whether European or native, was to receive a fair share.
"Now there was a real man," ejaculates Mrs. Cameron, "if only all Afrikaners would follow in Oom Paul's footsteps!"
When the troops arrived at Potchefstroom, a small body of them under an officer named Falls took possession of the gaol, the court house and a shop built of stone. The last two buildings overlooked the big public square in the centre of the village. The convicts were set free, and the soldiers spent the whole night in barricading these three buildings and in making a breastwork of sandbags on the flat roof of the gaol.
On the 15th. of December Mrs. Cameron was standing outside the mill when a municipal employe approached and asked her about some grinding he wanted done. As they stood talking they faced the Settlements which were just outside the village on the tract of ground that had at one time belonged to a certain Captain Bailey, and where to-day a government Experimental Farm is established. Suddenly they saw a number of indistinct figures moving among the thorn trees. The employe pointing to them exclaimed: "I wonder what on earth those are." Mrs. Cameron, who was in the know, remained silent, watching the figures interestedly. For a while her companion stood gazing intently then he shouted out excitedly, "By Jove! it's the Boers," and bolted back to the village as fast as he could go.
Shortly afterwards the armed burghers, for it was they right enough, came into the dorp. They had been caught in a heavy downpour of rain and had dried in their saddles so were indeed a sorry-looking troop of men, but their hearts beat high with hopes of winning back their country. They were very poorly equipped, many of them not even possessing overcoats, and they had to supply themselves with provisions which consisted chiefly of coffee, biltong and beskuit. They received no pay for their services. They off-saddled in different parts of the village and posted sentinels to keep watch in all directions so that they should not be attacked unawares.
Mr. Cameron, a staunch pro-Boer, had joined the Potchefstroom Commando under Commandant Piet Cronje, later General Cronje. When the burghers arrived Mrs. Cameron went to one group who were busy off-saddling to see if perchance her husband was with them. He was not there, however, so she approached another group who had dismounted under some willow trees and here she learnt that he had entered the dorp with the first contingent of Boers who, under the leadership of Cronje, had taken possession of Borrius' Printing Works and were guarding the building while proclamations to the effect that the Government of the South African Republic had resumed its duties were being printed. She proceeded thither and found him on guard with several hundred other burghers.
Christian Woite, a resident of Potchefstroom, his son, Willie, and a man named van der Linden tried to give the British in the camp certain information but they were captured by the Boers between the dorp and the fort. They were court-martialled and the two men were shot and buried at the foot of some hills on the outskirts of the village. Willie was set free on account of his youth.
The same morning that the burghers arrived at the dorp, Ferreira, the leader of the volunteers, was in the Standard Bank on business, and while there he started chatting about the state of affairs. He said he reckoned it was all talk on the part of the Boers and that they would never get to actual fighting. He had scarcely voiced these opinions when he happened to look up and saw two armed burghers in the shade of the big oak tree in front of the bank. Without another word he went quickly and quietly out the back way, to the great amusement of the clerks, and so managed to reach camp safely.
A dance took place at the fort the evening before hostilities started. Several of the Potchefstroom ladies, among others Mrs. Fossman (wife of Chevalier Fossman) and her daughters attended this ball. When they wanted to return home in the early hours of the morning the burghers prevented them from doing so, and dressed in all their evening finery, there was nothing else for them to do but go back to the camp, where they had to remain for some weeks.
On the night of the 15th. many people flocked to the fortified court-house, the shop and the gaol for protection. Early next morning Commandant Robberts with a handful of men went out to reconnoitre. When they neared the camp they were challenged and then fired on and the Commandant's arm was shattered. This little band of men returned under cover of the trees in the neighbourhood to the village and went to Dr. Poortman' s house. While the latter was busy dressing Robberts' wound a bomb from the camp destroyed one room of the house. The Commandant was immediately removed to a near-by cottage which the doctor often used for patients. The following day Robberts was taken to Ex-president Pretorius' home where all the sick and wounded were tended during the campaign at Potchefstroom.
On the 16th., the day on which Robberts had been wounded, fighting began in earnest. That morning some women had gone to shop, and, when the British opened fire on the village, they crawled home on all fours in dire fear.
When the fighting had ceased, Mrs. Cameron locked her children up in a back room and set out for the Ex-president's house to find out what had taken place. Thinking of the protection afforded by the white flag, she opened a white sunshade over her head in the hopes that this would ensure her safety. She shakes with laughter when she calls it to mind now. On reaching her friends' home she learnt that one man had been shot through the foot and about six or seven horses had been killed.
The burghers, while shooting at the port-holes in the barricaded buildings, made use of every available place of shelter to protect themselves from the enemy's fire. After two days' fighting, a number of them under the leadership of van Graan, a Potchefstroom farmer, stormed the court-house. Tn this attack Falls was killed and van Graan was wounded, though not seriously. The latter threatened to fire the thatched roof if the people inside did not vacate the building immediately. The soldiers and the different families which had taken refuge there then came out into the open and the Boers took possession. The fortified shop also fell into their hands.
Among the people who had sought shelter in the court-house was a German and his family. He promised the burghers that he would fight on their side if they would give his wife and children safe conduct to a certain place he named. This was done and he carried out his premise faithfully, even unto death, for some weeks later he was called upon to make the supreme sacrifice.
A few days after the court-house and the shop had been captured, the burghers succeeded in taking the gaol too so the village fell into their hands. They cut off the main water supply of the camp and the next day the troops were forced to turn out the cattle they had with them. The burghers who were on the watch for this captured the animals at the watering-place, under heavy fire but there were no casualties.
A day or two later the soldiers let out their mounts. Mrs. Cameron, a great lover of horses, saw some really magnificent animals among them. She noticed one particularly which was a perfect beauty. The burghers allowed the thirsty animals to drink their fill, then drove them off under a fusilade from the fort without losing a man. At that time Potchefstroom district was not a good one for horses, and, as the season was a particularly bad one for them on account of the unusually heavy rainfall that year, most of the beautiful creatures died.
There was fighting every day and often at night too but every Sunday there was a truce.
One day a certain Buitendach, while firing from a port-hole in the gaol, had a portion of one of his ears shot away. This so angered him that he rushed out on to the roof exposing himself fully, and, swearing and shouting, fired at the British camp until he had no ammunition left. His mates standing spell-bound expected to see him fall every minute, but, strange to say, although a hail of bullets was sent at him several times, he escaped unscathed. When his ammunition was exhausted he entered the gaol - still cursing.
To make their firing more effective the burghers planned to get nearer the fort by digging a trench. This had to pass through a cemetery that lay between them and their objective. One day to their horror the diggers brought up some bones with their spades. They dropped their tools and refused to proceed with the work. However, a little later on, they resumed their task which was carried on under intermittent fire and there were several casualties. It was here that the German, whose family had obtained safe conduct, lost his life. When the trench was quite close up to the camp, the soldiers often called out to the Boers in its shelter such remarks as: "Say, matey, throw us a bit of tabak."
Towards the middle of February the white flag was hoisted in the fort, and two men bearing this token of truce came down to the village and asked to see Commandant Cronje. When they had been taken to him, they enquired if he would permit them to procure some medicine as many in their camp were sick, some being seriously ill with dysentery. He allowed them to go to the shops to obtain the necessary medicine - there was no chemist in the village then - and he sent up a quantity of fruit to the camp for the sick.
Colonel Winsloe was notified that if any of the women, who had had to remain there since the dance, wished to come back to their homes, they were at liberty to do go. Some of them returned but others, including the Fossmans and Mrs. Sketchley (wife of Dr. Sketchley), preferred to stay at the fort. The latter became ill and died there shortly afterwards.
A number of prisoners were exchanged and with that the truce ended and fighting was resumed.
Soon after this a cannon belonging to the Boers was sent from Rustenburg to the burghers at Potchefstroom. The men made the balls themselves. A small piece of iron formed the centre and round this lead was moulded into the required shape. This lead, however, was too soft for the purpose, and as a consequence when the missiles were moved from one place to another they often received dents which affected their balance and so made it impossible for them to travel in a direct line.
On its arrival, Tant Grietjie, as the cannon was called, was placed behind a breastwork of sandbags and van Graan, who had recovered from his slight wound, was put in charge of it. One day a bomb from the fort hit the breastwork and van Graan was almost smothered by the sand. However, he managed to crawl out leaving his coat behind, and Ou Grietjie was not damaged. The parapet was speedily renewed and the gunner resumed his activities.
After the war was over the troops from the camp declared that they feared Tant Grietjie more than anything else, for one ball would fall in one place and the next in quite a different spot, owing to their not being evenly balanced. The soldiers never knew where the next missile was going to land.
Two brothers, Nelson by name, had joined the British troops and were in the camp at Potchefstroom. Their father was an old English soldier and their mother was a Dutch woman. When rations became scarce in the fort, one of these youths set out under heavy fire to secure help from General Colley. He got through safely only to find on reaching Colley's camp that the General had been killed in battle at Majuba.
One day in March, when the inhabitants of Potchefstroom awakened in the morning, they saw that white flags had been hoisted in the camp. Soon several men with the flag of truce held aloft were seen approaching the village. On their arrival they asked to see Commandant Cronje as they wished to have a consultation with him. The result of this was that the British at Potchefstroom surrendered. Cronje allowed the officers to retain their side-arms.
The residents of the village, including Mrs. Cameron, all turned out to see the troops leave the dorp. Cronje and the British officers rode at the head of the procession, the soldiers came next followed by the transport-wagons, while the Dutch volunteers and the kaffirs brought up the rear. The Boers arranged the column thus to put a stigma on the volunteers for their disloyalty.
When the procession reached the outskirts of the village, Cronje returned and the troops went on to the Settlements where they were allowed to remain for a fortnight to recuperate for many of them were ill and some were wounded. Everybody in the dorp sent eggs, butter, fruit and other supplies to the sick soldiers.
Mrs. Cameron points out that there was no animosity between the opposing parties after hostilities had ceased. She found it vastly different after the Anglo-Boer War when great bitterness of feeling existed between the two nations.
When the fortnight was over the troops resumed their journey and went to Natal.
Mrs. Cameron firmly believes that if one does what is right one will come out top every time, hard though the way may be. She considers that the Boers had right on their side, and ascribes their victory to their great faith in God, their singleness of purpose, and their abstention from unnecessary damage to property during this war.
Towards the end of hostilities at Potchefstroom there was a great shortage of groceries and the inhabitants welcomed the first wagons that arrived from Natal with fresh supplies.
Soon after peace had been declared everything became normal again and business resumed its usual course in the village.
Copyright Win de Vos.
Put onto the web by Joan Marsh(2002) a great-grand-daughter of ERCameron