by Frank R Bradlow
The battle was a direct consequence of the personal and precipitate action of Sir Harry Smith, who, on 3 February 1848, declared the area between the Orange and the Vaal rivers, British - the so-called Orange River Sovereignty. The white burghers of the area resented this declaration and they called on Commandant-General Andries Pretorius to help them to regain their independence. In June 1848, Pretorius marched with a thousand men to the Orange River to confront Sir Harry Smith. This commando evicted the British Resident, Major Warden, and his small garrison from Bloemfontein.
Sir Harry Smith crossed the Orange River with about 1 200 troops as well as 200-250 Griquas under Andries Waterboer and Adam Kok. The governor was under the delusion that the Boers would not attack his forces, but the Boer Commando, whose numbers had by then declined to between 300 and 500, retreated and decided to ambush him at the farm Boomplaats. On 29 August 1848, a sharp engagement lasting about four hours took place, with the Boers retreating to Winburg and Smith marching on to Bloemfontein and restoring the British authority.
This then was the background to the erection of the three memorials, the first of which was the memorial at the corner of Wale and Queen Victoria streets in Cape Town.
The monument at the corner of Wale and Queen Victoria streets, Cape Town
Very few people walking up Wale Street in Cape Town and turning left into Queen Victoria Street bestow more than a casual glance at the obelisk-shaped monument at the corner of the two streets. Unless they are interested in history - and South African history in particular - they are not even aware that there are several singular features about this monument. Despite its shape, it is not, in the true sense, an obelisk, because it is constructed of metal, not stone or concrete. (The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines an obelisk as 'a tapering shaft of stone, usually monolithic, and square or rectangular in section, with a pyramidal apex: a type of monument especially characteristic of ancient Egypt.')
The fact that this monument is made of cast-iron panels is its first unusual feature. It consists of 'four upright panels fastened edge to edge to make an obelisk' [sic] (one panel bearing the inscription), with a small pyramid-shaped "coping stone" and a base likewise all made of cast iron. It stands a few feet high...'(1)
The inscription, which is painted in black on the metal
'In remembrance of Captain Arthur Stormont Murray of the Rifle Brigade. This memorial is erected by his affectionate wife, Elizabeth Mary. He died on the 30th of August 1848 of wounds received in action at BLOEM PLAATS. There also rest six men of his company:
John Barrett Charles Martin John Dannahy
James Day James Thomas George Hollister
who, emulating the example of their Captain, fell in the performance of their duty.'
Another interesting feature of the monument is embodied in this inscription. The date on which Captain Arthur Stormont Murray died is the day after the battle, which took place on 29 August 1848. Moreover, the correct name of the 'battle' (or skirmish as it actually was) is Boomplaats, not 'Bloem Plaats' as is shown on the memorial.
Prior to 1986, the monument stood on what is now the parking area of St George's Cathedral, about 25 metres from the Cathedral itself, but not in its present position. By 1984, the condition of the memorial 'had deteriorated to a point where the panels were coming apart and the base was disintegrating'.(2)
In November 1984, its condition had 'for some time been causing the people of the Cathedral a little concern'.(3) As a result of this concern, the Very Reverend E L King, Dean of Cape Town, wrote to the National Monuments Council, asking for their help in approaching the Rifle Brigade Headquarters in England for assistance in restoring the memorial, as the Cathedral's own letter to this organisation had received no reply.
After a protracted correspondence, it was ascertained that the Rifle Brigade no longer existed as a separate regiment, having been amalgamated with two other regiments to form the Royal Green Jackets. They 'still, however, had a regimental association' which, when it was approached, offered a sum of £100 towards the restoration of the memorial. In the meantime, the then British Ambassador, Sir Patrick Moberly had, at the request of the Cathedral, also approached the officer commanding the Royal Green Jackets in Winchester in England and, as a result of his intervention, the regiment increased its contribution to £200. The Friends of the Cathedral made a similar contribution equivalent to half of the restoration costs.(4)
Detail of the monument on the corner of Wale and Queen
Victoria streets, Cape Town.
Inset: A full view of the obelisk-shaped monument. (Photo: FR Bradlow)
The National Monuments Council which has, as 'part of its organisation, the British War Graves section', undertook the actual restoration. At their suggestion and with the agreement of the Cathedral authorities, the monument was resited and placed in its present position at the corner of Wale and Queen Victoria streets.(5)
Wall tablet in St George's Cathedral
On the wall of the St George's Cathedral crypt, about 30 m from the memorial to Captain Arthur Stormont Murray and his companions, is a less well known, large, white marble tablet. This tablet was erected, as will be seen, by 'the companions in arms' of the men of the Rifle Brigade, the 45th Regiment, the Cape Mounted Riflemen, and the Royal Artillery. Its inscription reads:
This tablet lists a total of 16 killed, but it does not mention, among the 'Corps Engaged', the 200-250 Griquas under Andries Waterboer and Adam Kok, six of whom had died in the skirmish.
The tablet in the Cathedral is 1 x 0,95 metres in size and on each side of the wording is portrayed a rifleman 'resting on his arms reversed' (to use military terminology).
The wall tablet in the crypt of the St George's Cathedral, Cape Town (Photo: FR Bradlow)
Griqua participation in the battle and the shooting of Dreyer
The casualties suffered by the Griqua allies in the battle
of Boomplaats were proportionally very high. There is
no record of the Griqua wounded.
The support provided by the Griquas to the British
Army units at Boomplaats was to become a fairly
significant factor in race relations between the British and
the emigrant Boer farmers, causing considerable
resentment on the Boer side. This was primarily
because, in the course of the action, the Griquas had
captured two prisoners who were sentenced to death by
a court-martial and who were paraded in front of the
assembled troops and shot. 'One of these prisoners was
a British deserter from the 45th Regiment, and the other
was a young Boer named Dreyer who was regarded as a
rebel because he had presumably been born at the Cape.'(6)
The shooting of the Boer prisoner was particularly
resented by the Boers. Manfred Nathan wrote in his
book, The Voortrekkers of South Africa, that in 'the very
strictest technical sense he may have been a rebel, being
taken in arms against England, under whose flag
(presumably) he was born; but the Voortrekkers had cut
themselves adrift for years, and genuinely regarded
themselves as independent. Here, as at Slagter's Nek,
mercy might have been shown. But the military mind
seldom tempers justice with mercy, though it is perfectly
honest in its opinions. For years the Boer people sang a
Neither the tablet in the Cathedral, nor the memorial mention the wounded on either side, but, according to Nathan, 'five officers (of the British forces) and thirty-three men were severely wounded, others sustained slight wounds.'(8) Nathan wrote that the Boers, in addition to nine killed, had five wounded.
The forces involved in the battle
The British colonial forces, including the Griquas, far outnumbered the Boer forces. Under the command of the Cape Governor, Sir Harry Smith, the colonial forces numbered about 1 200. This figure included the garrison at Bloemfontein, four companies of the Cape Mounted Riflemen, two companies of the Rifle Brigade, two companies of the 45th Regiment and two companies of the 91st Regiment. There was also a small contingent of Royal Artillery. In addition, there were, as noted, 200 to 250 Griquas and a few burghers under Piet Erasmus and J T Snyman. The Boer forces were estimated at between 700 and 1 000 men, according to Nathan(9), but it seems more probable that they numbered only between 300 and 500 men at the time of the action.
In his book, Sir Harry Smith - bungling hero, A L Harington describes how Smith 'deliberately conspicuous in the blue jacket and white trousers he had worn at the Tugela conference, accompanied the advance guard. The Boers were sure to recognise him and as soon as they had done that they would, presumably, be ready to talk."(10) He was, of course, wrong.
Sir Harry Smith, himself a veteran of many actions, described the 'battle', in a despatch to the Secretary of State, as 'one of the most severe skirmishes that had ever been witnessed'. This was possibly an exaggeration, as was his estimate of Boer casualties.
A noteworthy incident occurred when Commandant Adrian Stander of the Boer commandos narrowly escaped death. 'A cannon ball passed so close by his head that he fell off his horse and blood gushed from his mouth and ears. He was rescued by an adopted son, a young Englishman named John Jack, who bathed his head in water and brought him to.'(11)
There are several excellent descriptions of the battle, the most graphic being that of Manfred Nathan in his book, The Voortrekkers of South Africa.(12) There is also Sir Harry Smith's official report which was published in the SA Commercial Advertiser of Saturday, 9 September 1848, and which is provided as an appendix to this article. It will be noted that this report also refers to 'Boem Plaats' (Boomplaats). A L Harington also provides a description in his book.(13) For a more personal description of the action, there are also two informative articles in the Cape Monthly Magazine of October and December 1871, entitled 'The Battle of Boomplaats and what it led to'(14) and its follow-up article, 'The Battle of Boomplaats and what followed it'.(15) There are, in addition, a number of other sources which do not really add much to the available information. The Commercial Advertiser of 9 September 1848 says that 'a private note from an eye-witness notices one or two incidents which His Excellency may possibly forget in his dispatches', namely that 'He was always seen in the thickest of the fight - was struck on the leg - only a graze - and his horse hit on the nose.'
Interestingly, in the same comment on 'the latest news from beyond the Orange River', the Commercial Advertiser remarks, of the Griquas, that Sir Harry Smith 'was supported in the engagement by 250 Griquas, under Waterboer and Kok, who proved most useful and loyal'.(16)
The site of the battle
The geographical siting of the battlefield is important. The most exact description of its location was given in the Trompsburg Magistrate's report to the Secretary of the Historical Monument's Commission (now the National Monuments Council) on 23 January 1940.(17)
In his report, the Magistrate stated that:
'according to information given the battle took place on the low koppies [sic] immediately to the South of the Kromellenboog River and also on the koppies [sic] on the North. The site is 100 yards [91,4 metres] north of the river and 350 [yards] [320 metres] South-West of the homestead. The site is a few hundred yards from the public road leading from Edenburg to the main road Trompsburg-Jagersfontein. The latter road is about 3 miles [4,8 km] from the site. The farm is 22 miles [35,4 km] from Edenburg, 19 miles [30,6 km] from Trompsburg and 19 miles from Jagersfontein.'
The SA Commercial Advertiser's contemporary account of 9 September 1848, provides a slightly different description: 'Boem Plaats, where this action took place, is on a branch of the Riet River'. This account places this about two miles (3,2 km) from Bethany Mission Station, which 'is about twelve hours (72 miles [116 km]) from the Orange River, and six hours (36 miles [58 km]) from Bloem Fontein.'
At Boomplaats itself there is a third, burgher monument. The farm Boomplaats, where the action occurred, was owned in the 1940s by Mr Herbert Draper Wentworth, whose mother, grandmother and grandfather were resident at Boomplaats at the time of the battle. According to the previously mentioned report of the Trompsburg Magistrate, this monument, known as the 'Burger Monument Boomplaats', was erected to the memory of the burghers of the Orange Free State who fell in the action of the battle of Boomplaats.(18)
The Trompsburg Magistrate described the monument as
follows in his report:
The Burgher Memorial at Boomplaats. (Photo: FR Bradlow)
In June 1989, the Monuments Commission held a
lengthy discussion regarding this burgher monument.
The district representative, Miss H H Gous, reported in
some detail to the Commission that:
'Die Britse grafte is nie op die terreine van die RNG geleë nie, maar ten minste oos daarvan op die Restant van die plaas Boomplaats. Die grafte is omring met 'n netjiese muur van blou ysterklip wat van 'n ysterhekkie voorsien is. Daar is altesaam 6 grafte binne die ommuurde begraafplaas. Daar is ook grafsteenbrokke van 'n persoon wat 21 jaar oud was tydens sy afsterwe. Slegs twee van die grafte het inskripsies, op, nl die van: [The British graves are not situated on National Monuments Council terrain, but east of it, on the Farm Boomplaats. The graves are encircled by a neat stone wall with an iron gate. There are six graves in the cemetery. There are also fragments of a headstone of a person who died at the age of 21 years. Only two of the graves have inscriptions:]
"Ensign M.B. Steele, CMR, wounded 29th Aug. 1848 and died in consequence of his wounds, 30th November 1848".
"Captain Arthur Murray, Rifle Brigade, killed in action, 29th August 1848".
Die grafte, muur en hekkie verkeer in 'n goeie toestand. Die begraafplaas is egter met gras en onkruid oorgroei en behoort skoongemaak te word.'(19) [The graves, wall, and gate are in a good condition, but the cemetery is overgrown with grass and weeds and deserves attention.]
In a further memorandum dated 4th September 1990, Miss Gous recommended that the then owner of Boomplaats Farm, Mr H C Jacobs, be approached to donate or sell the area of the Monument to a public organisation such as the Rapportryerskorps or Die Geloftefees.
The Rifle Brigade crossing the Orange River
Painting by Thomas Baines
(Courtesy of the Bradlow Collection, University of Cape Town)
The Monuments Commission ultimately decided that
a bronze plaque in both English and Afrikaans should be
affixed to two pillars at the entrance to the Monument.
The plaque reads as follows:
Following the annexation of the territory between the Orange River, the Vaal River and the Drakensberg by Sir Harry Smith, Governor of the Cape Colony, a British force under his command was stubbornly opppsed here by a commando of emigrant farmers led by Gen. A.W.J. Pretorius. The Boers were dispersed with a loss of nine killed. The British losses were sixteen killed.'(20)
Again the role of the Griquas was ignored and their casualties were not noted among the British losses.
Journal of Thomas Baines
The artist, Thomas Baines, has given a contemporary account of the events over the Orange River in his Journal of Residence in Africa.(21) When he and his colleague, Joseph McCabe, tried, in June 1849, to pass through the Boer settlement in the then Orange River Sovereignty in order to reach Lake Ngami, the Boers prevented them from doing so. Baines relates how a 'Boer who was trekking towards the Mariqua' subjected him 'to a severe examination'. This individual alleged that he 'perfectly remembered having seen and nearly shot [Baines] at Boom Plants, though [Baines] had bought a new hat since [the Boer had] put a bullet through the rim of [his] old one, and promised, should another war arise, to be more particular in his aim'. Baines adds that, 'to deny this - would have been useless trouble'.(22)
Deneys Reitz: Commando
Many years later Deneys Reitz in his book, Commando: A Boer Journal of Boer War, tells how he and his companions were trying to evade the British during that war.
'We had barely time to get our horses saddled before a hundred or more troopers came racing at us, but, riding fast, we got safely into the hills at Boomplaats, my Shetland pony going surprisingly well. As the English horsemen turned back after a while, we halted by the little cemetery where those English soldiers lie buried who were killed at the battle here between Sir Harry Smith and the Boers in 1848. This graveyard was of some personal interest to me, because it had almost caused my father the loss of his position as President of the Free State when I was a boy. The British Government many years before had erected headstones over the fallen soldiers inscribed with the words: "Killed in action against the Rebel Boers". Many of these stones, in course of time, fell to pieces, so my father ordered replicas with the original inscription faithfully copied. This gave rise to much ill-feeling, for there were indignant patriots who considered the epithet "Rebel" an insult to the Boers, and my father very nearly lost the next presidential election in consequence.'(23)
In the annals of military history, the 'battle' of Boomplaats is a minor event. Even in the annals of South African military history, it has ceased to be regarded as an important incident. Today, very few people, other than historians, know about this action and its significance in South African history. If much was written about it in the nineteenth century, little has been written recently. Yet the battle is not without significance.
The battle of Boomplaats was only the second major military confrontation between the British and the emigrant Boers. The first action took place in Natal in 1842 when the British sent a small force to enforce the British belief that the Voortrekkers were not independent and remained British subjects. This was the occasion when Dick King made his ride to Grahamstown to get help for the beleaguered British force.
Apart from a minor skirmish between the 7th Dragoon Guards and the Free State Boers at Driekoppen, near Zwartkoppies, in 1845, the next important encounter between the two forces was at Boomplaats.
The results of the skirmish at Boomplaats were long lasting. The shooting of the Boer prisoner, Dreyer, caused a long lasting resentment among the Boers, as has been noted above. Had Sir Harry Smith exercised leniency on this occasion, much subsequent bitterness could probably have been averted and the relationship between the British and the Boers much improved.
'SUPPLEMENT TO THE "S.A. Commercial Advertiser"
Vol XXIV. Saturday, September 9, 1948 No. 2217
His Excellency, the Governor has directed the publication of the following account of the Action which took place on the 29th inst., at Boem Plants, between the Troops under his command and the Rebel Boers beyond the Orange River, and which ended in the total rout, and subsequent flight of the Rebels.
The Notice published on the 30th ult. gave information of the passage of the Orange River by nearly all the troops, on the 23rd of that month, whereupon PRETORIUS, the Rebel Chief, together with those under his command, in number exceeding 1,000 men, had fallen back towards Winburg, with a degree of precipitation which rendered the prospect of a general action improbable. All the Troops had arrived on the 25th, when His Excellency crossed the River in person at their head, and by incredible exertions the passage of the river was completed by them on the 26th instant. His Excellency then moved the Troops with the greatest rapidity, in the direction of Hloem Fontein, in pursuit of the Rebels, whom on the 29th instant, he found posted in a very strong position at "Boem Plaats," on the Krom Elleboog River. There is here a succession of ridges of low hills, backed by a higher range, through a pass in which the road runs.
On a reconnoitring party, accompanied by His Excellency, approaching the first ridge, the Rebels suddenly sprung up, and opened a heavy fire upon them. The left of their position was, however, quickly carried by the Rifle Brigade, 45th, and 91st Regts., the Artillery (six pounders) opening at the same time a very effective fire. The Rebels' right having been considerably thrown forward, was gallantly attacked by the Cape Mounted Rifles, under the orders of Lieut. Col. Huller; and driven back towards the Pass, in the direction of which, the enemy were now at every point hurrying, pursued from ridge to ridge of the low hills, by Her Majesty's Troops, and suffering great losses as they retired, from the Guns which opened upon them wherever they could be brought to bear. It was afterwards found that 12 men had been killed by one well-directed round shot. On reaching the summit of the Pass, - the Enemy made a bold, though fruitless effort to maintain their position, but by a combined attack of the Cape Mounted Rifles, with a body of the Griqua Auxiliaries, they were at length driven from this, their last position; on abandoning which they fled in the utmost disorder, and in all directions over the plain beyond, leaving behind them many horses, and various articles of dress, &c.
His Excellency continued the pursuit for several miles, and until dark; but it being evident that the Rebels were completely broken, halted for the night at "Calver Fontein." In the hope of overtaking, and capturing the train of wagons, he marched next morning, the 30th inst., at 2 o'clock, for Bethany, which he reached early in the day, and then ascertained that the Enemy's Camp no longer existed; they having fled with their wagons in all directions. On the march, evidence was everywhere afforded of the precipitate retreat of the Rebels, numbers of horses, &c. having been left on the road. Forty-nine of the enemy were counted dead upon the field; their wounded may be considered upwards of one hundred and fifty. Owing to the nature of the ground, which afforded great advantage to the Rebels, the loss on the side of Her Majesty's Troops is unfortunately rather heavy, as will be seen by the following Return.
(Signed) JOHN MONTAGU,
Secretary to Government.'
|45th Regt (Res. Battn.)||-/-||1/19||-/-|
|91st Regt (Res. Battn.)||-/1||-/2||-/-|
|Cape Mounted Rifles||-/4||4/6||9/11|
KA = Killed in Action.
W = Wounded.
Lieut. Colonel Huller, Rifle Brigade, severely.
Capt. Murray, do., mortally - (since dead.)
Capt. Armstrong, C.M.Rifles, severely.
Lieut. Sails, do. Dangerously.
Lieut. Mill, do. Severely.
Ensign Steele, do. Dangerously.
Ensign Crampton, 91St Regt., Dangerously.
The author had the willing assistance of several librarians at the South African Library in Cape Town in the research for this paper and would particularly mention Arlene Fanaroff and Kathy Drake. His friend and colleague, Prof Arthur Davey provided him with valuable advice. He would also like to thank Mr George Hofmeyer and his staff of the National Monuments Council. The author is grateful to Mr Alexander D'Angelo, Archivist of the Department of History of Art at the University of Cape Town, who willingly helped him to get the photograph of the Baines' picture.
1. Letter from Sir Patrick Moberley, British Ambassador in South
Africa, to the Officer Commanding the Royal Green Jackets, Sir John
Moore Barracks, Winchester, Hants, 9 July 1985.
2. Letter from Sir Patrick Moberley to the OC the Royal Green Jackets, 9 July 1985.
3. Letter from The Very Reverend Edward L King, Dean of Cape Town, to the National Monuments Council, 20 November 1984.
4. Various correspondence between the National Monuments Council, the Dean of Cape Town, and the OC Royal Green Jackets.
5. Letter from the National Monuments Council to the Dean of Cape Town, 8 November 1985.
6. Nathan, M, The Voortrekkers in South Africa (CNA and Gordon Gotch, London, 1937), p 379.
7. Theal, G M, History of South Africa (Swan Sonnenschein, London, 1897-1901), Vol V, p 202.
8. Nathan, The Voortrekkers in South Africa, p 376.
9. Nathan, The lbortrekkers in South Africa, p 377.
10. Harington, P, Sir Harry Smith: Bungling hero, (Tafelberg, 1980), p 136.
11. Nathan, The Voortrekkera in South Africa, p 378.
12. Nathan, The Voortrekkerr in South Africa, pp 370-8.
13. Harington, Sir Harry Smith, pp 136-7.
14. Cape Monthly Magazine, October 1871, pp 193-208.
15. Cape Monthly Magazine, December 1871, pp 321-330.
16. SA Commercial Advertiser, 9 September 1848.
17. Report from the Magistrate, J M Cowling, to the Historical Monuments Commission, Milner Park, Johannesburg, 23 January 1940. (Made available to the writer by the National Monuments Council).
18. Report from the Magistrate, J M Cowling, to the Historical Monuments Commission, Milner Park, Johannesburg, 23 January 1940.
19. 'Inspeksieverslag: Burger Monument en Britse Grafte, Boomplaats, Distrik Edenburg, deur die Streekverteenwoordiger OVS, Mej H H Gous, l2 Junie 1989'.
20. Resolution of the Historical Monuments Commission, 3 October 1966.
21. Baines, T, Journal of Residence in South Africa, 1842-1853 (Van Riebeeck Society, Cape Town, 1961 and 1964), two volumes.
22. Baines, Journal of Residence in South Africa, Volume 2, p 108.
23. Reitz, Deneys, Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War, (Faber and Faber, 1929).
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