The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging



Military History Journal
Vol 11 No 3/4 - October 1999

The day the War came to Cape Town

Owen C Coetzer

Owen Coetzer is a former journalist, now author, who has completed two books on the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) The first was The Road to Infamy, published in 1994 (second edition on the way), vindicating Sir Charles Warren from nearly 100 years of blame for 'losing' Spioenkop, and the second, due to appear later this year, is called Fire in the Sky and deals with the deliberate destruction of the Orange Free State and the incarceration of women and children into British concentration camps.

It was a gloomy forecast. Rain was expected, but when the good - and the bad - citizens of Cape Town awoke on Tuesday, 10 October 899, more than just rain was in the air. For months the news had not been good. War was in the air and while Capetonians stirred their first cups of coffee (or milky tea) and peered anxiously at their mist-shrouded mountain, others at the Castle, behind the barrack gates, rubbed their smarting eyes. The avalanche of wire telegrams 'from the North' - to say nothing of London - had kept many from sleep. Besides, the high commissioner and governor of the Cape, Sir Alfred Milner, had cracked the whip. Things were mightily on the move up north and his finger was right on the spot. It had to be kept that way.

Telegrams from the British Resident in Pretoria, Sir William Conyngham Greene, were dismal. The 'Ultimatum', then in the form of a memo issued days before by President Steyn of the Orange Free State, and communicated to Milner jointly by the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) and the Republiek of the Orange Free State, was expected to be turned that day into a formal threat: Remove the British troops from the country, stop the influx of others on the high seas, or else ... Conyngham Greene was to meet inter in the day with President Paul Kruger and the Transvaal Secretary of State, F W Reitz, in the newly-built Pretoria Raadzaal. The 'Ultimatum' was then expected to be officially delivered. And Milner knew very well what was meant by the words 'or else'.

For days the Castle, with its grimy, muddy walls, had been turned into a nursery for war. The British troops already at the Cape were preparing for the conflict, and the dusty roadway between the Castle's environs and the Drill Hall in Darling Street had already been turned into a quagmire of oozing slush, churned by horses' hooves and gun-wheels. Paddocks on the Darling Street side were seas of thick brown, making it an effort to get the horses going, and angry shouts from handlers rent the air.

First photo

South African Light Horse, coming down Adderley Street
to entrain for the front, Cape Town (SANMMH)

There were, however, more shouts at the Adderley Street Railway Station. Train passengers from up-country, relieved to be on 'safe' British ground at last, spun lurid tales of being horse-whipped ('sjambokked', some of them said) by angry Transvaal and Free State burghers at stations up and down the main line before the train finally crossed the long iron bridge at Norval's Pont, before it was blown up. A few from the north headed directly to the Cape Times offices to tell their story. Others went to the Cape Argus. They told of a dreadful journey in the burning heat and bitter cold, of being shouted at as the train sped through 'Boer' stations, of interminable delays while the engine driver stopped to reconnoitre the line ahead in case it had been blown up or damaged. So badly had they allegedly been treated that questions were immediately asked at the Cape House. Free State Railways authorities were quizzed at once but the answers, telegraphed immediately from Bloemfontein, told a different story - a story of provocation, abusive language, and of Boer commandos whose preparations for their own war effort were interrupted by 'rude' Britons. Be that as it may, at least one passenger was missing a piece of an ear.

'Uitlanders' (refugee miners fresh from the underground workings of the burgeoning gold mines of the Reef), self-righteously explained how they had also been 'mistreated' by the 'wily Boer' who would not allow them their God-given right of a vote in Kruger's Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek. These were men whose very hands, they shouted, had wrested the gold-bearing ore from the very bowels of the Earth. For what? they asked indignantly. And indeed, that very day, as more and more arrived, grubby and dirty after spending three days and terrible nights aboard the puffing, snarling mechanical monster, they were exhorted by 'runners', sent especially to the station, to register themselves immediately at No 4 Atkinson's Buildings in St George's Street. There they were informed that, at a meeting of Uitlanders held three days before, it had been decided to open a 'register of all male Uitlanders from the Transvaal and Free State now residing in or in the neighbourhood of Cape Town, with the following objectives: To get addresses of Uitlanders for the purpose of reference; to open a registration office for such as may require work and to procure employment for the same; and to get a complete list of those who are willing to assist in the Uitlander cause.' Many, carrying their bags and possessions, found themselves eager to sign up.

That morning, too, the Port Office staff found themselves in a quandary. There were too many ships - some standing in, but most at anchor, listing sharply to the grey swells. The view from the stone buildings on the hillock above the harbour where the time ball hung, was impressive. Through the lenses of their telescopes shot an array of vessels - many newly-built steamships with thin funnels and foremasts which still sprouted sailing ship spars as if the new-fangled expansion engines with which many were equipped could not yet be trusted. For the Port Office staff, it was not going to be a 'ship-shape and Bristol-fashion' day and, if the war came, it would only get worse - a lot worse. Already news had been received that a great armada was on its way from Great Britain and Australia and New Zealand, even from Canada. And warships, stubby grey funnels reaching out from flat superstructures, enclosed it seemed by huge guns, were passing by, some in Table Bay waiting to be coaled, to Simon's Town on the other side of the peninsula. The harbour was small and the Port Administration could foresee disaster looming. Besides, its control over shipping movements was about to be relinquished officially, under orders from Milner. No longer would they be responsible for the strictly monitored loading and discharging of cargoes. Sooner or later, it would become a military affair. And where would the mountains of supplies be located? Certainly not in the meagre wharfside warehouses. These problems would later become impossible.

What was to become of the poor upright citizen, who had donned his neat suit and wing collar, pecked his wife on her rosy cheek, and taken himself off to work? Not party to the inner secrets that were being dissected within the walls of the Castle, he had no inkling that day that his entire world was about to change. Yes, war talk was everywhere, but the war was a long way away - almost in another country.

In Plein Street, Nannucci's 'high class cleaners and dyers' had opened their doors that very morning and, in their head office on the corner of Long and Church Streets, managers were discussing the advertisement they had placed in that day's edition of the Cape Argus. It read: 'It has been brought to our attention that some unprincipled patrons have been canvassing for work in our name. We do not canvass but call for orders when requested. Notices sent to any of our offices receive immediate attention.'

If Cape Town's citizen woke up with toothache, banishing all thoughts of any other war, he might have gone to the Afro-American Dental Company at 46 Strand Street, where, for a mere two shillings and sixpence, he could have had the troubling gnasher painlessly extracted. (Afro-American had no other connotation than being a company owned jointly by South African and American citizens).

Many, no doubt, went to 'draw an overdraft on the Bank of Life' and bought Enos (fruit salts) from the chemist on the way. Others, feeling peckish as the morning grew older, may have headed for Snowball's Restaurant in Longmarket Street for 'our celebrated beefsteak pudding and two vegetables for nine pence'. Kloof Supply Store at the Tram Terminus in Kloof Street was looking for a 'strong boy' to whom they would pay 'good wages' for his 'industrious work'. And if one fancied real milk, one could head out to Woodstock and buy one of ten 'superior animals, seven just calved' from Mr Nelson at 37 Victoria Road.

If he had the money - stashed away, say, from one or two quiet deals on the Reef, 'Uitlanders' notwithstanding - the newcomer to Cape Town could purchase a 'terrace of ten houses' in Loader Street for 3 500, or, if that price was above him, he could settle for a shop and two dwellings in Waterkant Street for 750, or a 'lovely residence with every convenience' in Upper Orange Street for 1 500, or a 'splendid dwelling of four rooms in Mill Street for 2 500. Should he be tied up with business affairs, Messrs J T Pocock in Shortmarket Street would deliver, 'by motor car', parcels, household furniture, and pianos. The Capetonian of 1899 could also buy yet another triumph of science, the Edison and Swann United Electric Light System. There had been some words a year earlier that electric light was not good for the complexions of young, beautiful ladies, who were advised to take sunshades with them and, indeed, open them beneath the harsh light.

Perhaps the good citizen felt the need to take care of his sartorial appearance. He could buy a Norfolk jacket for 37 shillings ("for cyclists") or fashion shirts with starched collars and cuffs for two shillings. Beneath it all, he could wear a flannel undershirt, which would also cost him two shillings.

As the day drew to a close, the good citizen might have felt the need for entertainment as the rumours of the 'Ultimatum' began to circulate. Perhaps the opera? That night, it was Guonod's Faust, with Mrs Arthur Rousbey, Signor Sindona, Mr Frank Land and Mr Arthur Rousbey. The opera was being staged at the Opera House in Adderley Street, and the Gallery and Pit were opening at 9.00. The following night would see a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, to be followed on Thursday, Friday and Saturday with performances of Martha, 'Lucy of Lammermoor' and Carmen. For the more genial, there was always the Music Hall. That night's performance at the Good Hope Hall was by the 'world-renowned Payne family, musicians and bellringers' with 'almost every item encored'. Family prices were three shillings, children half price.

By the end of that day, Tuesday l 0 October 1 899, as the lamplights spread their rosy, peaceful glow, the face of South African history had changed forever. The official 'Ultimatum' had been delivered. Conyngham Greene, having met Kruger and Reitz, and having shaken hands with them, was on his way by special train to Cape Town. British interests in the Transvaal were left in the hands of the Americans and, as the commandos saddled up and climbed aboard other trains, heading for Natal hopefully to wrest Durban from British control, night came on, and, with it, war.

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