South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

Slachter's Nek

All those who know anything of the history of South Africa have heard of Slachter's Nek. The very name has something of evil omen about it, and it is the gallows-tree on which the ravens of discord have sat and croaked ever since the five rebels were hanged in the memorable year of Waterloo.

To this day a great many people believe that the rebellion, which goes by the name of Slachter's Nek, was a righteous rising against the tyranny of a harsh Governor, who had goaded the Dutch colonists into revolt by unjust laws, that the victims were martyrs and patriots in the cause of freedom against English usurpers, and that their execution was an act of monstrous brutality. The official papers which give the true story have all been published by Mr. Liebbrandt; but very few people like to read a thousand pages of old letters and legal evidence, and, unfortunately, the writer who should have made the truth clear, Dr. Theal, has only been one more raven croaking on the tree.

To say that the rebellion was the result of English tyranny on the one side and Dutch patriotism on the other, is the most preposterous fable that ever was invented. The truth is that the crime for which the rebels were hanged was as detestable to the Dutch as to the English. It was a plot to murder a great many innocent people of both nationalities. The rebels tried to persuade the savages to slaughter all who would not join them in a raid upon the colony. After this, is it necessary to say that all right-minded Dutch people were indignant? As a matter of fact, the Dutch were as much concerned in hanging the rebels as the English. Dutchmen were in command of the forces that attacked them; Dutch burghers helped to capture them; a Dutch official prosecuted them; a Dutch judge sentenced them; a Dutch magistrate hanged them; and all that the English Governor did was to pardon one of them.

But it is always better to tell a story than to argue; so let me tell once more the sad, strange story of Slachter's Nek.

You will remember that in the time of the van der Stels, there was in the colony a class of settler which lived by robbing and murdering the natives. In the great struggle of those days this class won, and from that day to the coming of the English these people continued their bad old customs. Of course there were faults on both sides. The Kafirs and the Hottentots were by no means the innocent people that some good folks suppose them to be. If they were raided they raided back; but the fact remains that, instead of the justice of the white man, which it has always been the British aim to give them, they were shot and their land and cattle taken from them at the will of the settlers.

The British Governors tried to stop these bad practices, and very soon we have the same old quarrels as we have seen between van der Stel and Huysing a hundred years before. But the scene was changed. Stellenbosch and the Drakenstein were now quiet and settled districts. The turbulent frontiersmen had gone north and east. The Hottentots as a nation were now a thing of the past. Those who remained were slaves on the farms of the Dutchmen. The farmers had eaten them up, as the natives say, and were now fighting with the Kafirs for the rich valleys and pastures of the Eastern Province. The older war of extermination against the bushmen was carried on as fiercely as ever. The nature of these wars will be shown by two incidents.

One was an expedition against the bushmen, under a frontier burgher called van Jaarsveld. Van Jaarsveld reports to his magistrate that his party shot some hippopotamuses and left them lying as a bait for the bushmen. They then surrounded the place at night and fired into the crowd in the morning. On searching," says van Jaarsveld, "we found one hundred and twenty-two dead; five escaped by swimming across the river. After counting the slain, we examined their goods, to see whether anything could be found whereby it might be ascertained that they were the plunderers: when ox-hides and horns were found which they were carrying with them for daily use."

Again the Boers, on another occasion, invited a tribe of Kafirs to discuss mutual grievances. The wily Boers laid presents of tobacco and beads on the ground and shot the Kafirs down as the savages were scrambling for these fatal gifts.

Both these massacres occurred before the British came on the scene, and I need hardly say that no British Governor would tolerate this kind of thing.

And so the trouble began. The British tried to stop the raiding, and put the charge of native affairs into the hands of good magistrates with the authority of the law behind them. If Boers were caught ill-treating or murdering their slaves, or making private raids, they were punished; and, on the other hand, the British spent thousands of pounds in keeping soldiers and police on the frontier to protect the burghers and recover their cattle when they were stolen.

But the Boers of the frontier did not like interference. Under the old Dutch rule they did as they pleased, and compelled whom they had a mind to, and they were soon busy rebelling against the English. At first the English were firm but lenient, and the little rebellions were put down without much trouble, though we can see from the despatches that the Government realised that with their small force, a great wild country, and countless savages just over the border, they were sitting on a barrel of gunpowder. Still they went on in the dogged old British way, settling the land question, fixing boundaries, pacifying the Kafirs, protecting the Hottentots, though not by any means spoiling them, and doing all that they could for the good of the country.

There was on the frontier a farmer, called Frederick Bezuidenhout. He did what seemed good in his own eyes, and was known as a dangerous and turbulent character. On one occasion he kept a Hottentot servant against his will, or so the Hottentot alleged. The servant complained to the magistrate—or rather, the deputy Landdrost, a good Dutchman called Andries Stockenstrom. The farmer was summoned to appear before the court. He refused. He was summoned again. He refused again, and so the judges ordered him to be arrested. Opperman, the field-cornet of the district, was afraid to tackle the job, so he was provided with a small body of Hottentot soldiers. These Hottentot soldiers were usually half-breeds, or bastards, as they are called at the Cape. Dr. Theal would like us to believe that the real grievance with the farmers was the employment of these brown-skinned men to arrest a white man, and that this was regarded as the blackest disgrace by the high-spirited Dutchmen. He also tells us that the object of the subsequent rebellion was to drive these Hottentots out of the country. Now, to begin with, the authorities were not so foolish as to ask a white man to surrender to a black. The Hottentot corps had to be used on the frontier for the simple reason that there were not enough white troops for the work, and also because they were cheaper, and, for some purposes, better soldiers. In this case, the warrant was presented by a white man, the Hottentots were only there as a guard, in case the high-spirited farmer should attempt to shoot the white man. As a matter of fact, through the whole course of the proceedings in the rebellion trial, there is not one word of complaint on what Dr. Theal suggests was the real cause of the trouble.

But to get back, to our story. Johannes Londt, the under-bailiff, was accompanied by Lieutenant Rousseau, a Dutchman, Lieutenant Mackay, a Scotchman, a sergeant, and fourteen men. They marched all night, and when they arrived they saw Bezuidenhout, with two others, all loaded with guns, getting behind a kind of natural rampart formed by some large rocks. The embattled farmer told the minions of the law to get out or he would shoot them. For answer, Lieutenant Rousseau ordered his men to fix bayonets, spread out, and rush forward, adding the words, "Don't fire!"

Bezuidenhout and his men, however, fired ten or twelve shots, so that at last the lieutenant was forced to give the command. When the soldiers got up to the rocks, they found that the defenders had beaten a retreat. The soldiers searched the river beyond, and as they were doing so, were fired on from above. Looking up, they saw that the farmer had taken refuge in a cave on the face of a rocky precipice some ten feet above them. It was a strong place, for it could be entered by only one man at a time. The two lieutenants climbed up to the top of the precipice, where they were quite safe from being shot, and from there, time after time, called upon Bezuidenhout to surrender, promising that no violence should be used, and that he might go to the court with his own wagon and horses. This the farmer refused to do, "execrating them with the most cruel oaths," so that at last Rousseau ordered his men to rush the place. The sergeant, a man called Joseph, very bravely went first. As he clambered up the face of the rock his men below watched him anxiously. Now he had reached the hole, and had pulled himself up till his chest was on a level with the floor of the cave. The men below saw the point of a rifle protrude from the hole. "Sergeant," they cried out, "he will shoot you." But the sergeant was too quick. Like a flash he fired, and the bullet passed through Bezuidenhout's left arm and chest, going out at his back.

There was a cry from within. It was a half-breed servant begging for mercy. He came out, bringing with him arms and ammunition. In another hole they discovered a young Dutchman, who also came out, and three more guns were taken, with a large quantity of bullets. They left the body covered, and were going home with their prisoners, when they were met by six men on horseback, five of whom had guns. This was Gerrit Bezuidenhout with four of his sons and a servant, and they demanded what the shooting had been about. Lieutenant Rousseau gave no answer, and the party marched on. This was the beginning of the Slachter's Nek rebellion.

Frederick Bezuidenhout's funeral was a great affair. Friends gathered from all the country round, and Johannes Bezuidenhout, Frederick's brother, made a speech, in which he swore to be revenged. Then the friends of the Bezuidenhouts began to preach revolt among the farmers—not by any means a new gospel, to be sure—and to plan a rising. Fortunately, the Government officials were wide awake, and a Dutchman, called van der Graaff, the deputy Landdrost of the district of Cradock, intercepted a letter from one rebel to another and sent it on to Major Frazer, the deputy Landdrost of Albany, who, in his turn, transmitted it to Colonel Cuyler, who was the Landdrost of Uitenhage. The letter, which was signed H. F. Prinsloo, one of the principal ringleaders, was addressed to Jacobus Kruger reminding them of an oath which, he said, they had taken, "to remove the God-forgotten tyrants and villains." At the same time van der Graaff reported that the vagabonds of his district were busy collecting people to attack the magistrates, and that they were at the same time trying to get a large body of Kafirs to assist them. Prinsloo was immediately arrested by Major Frazer, and the fat was in the fire.

Now Dr. Theal is naturally a little ashamed of his friends the rebels for asking the Kafirs to come and fight white people. In one of his books, indeed, he leaves out this fact altogether, or only says that the Boers asked "others" to join them, while in another book he says that they justified themselves on the ground that the English were employing Hottentots against them. But before we go farther let us look at what the plans of the rebels really were, as they themselves confessed afterwards.

Shortly before, the Government had taken a large tract of land called the Zuurveld from the Kafirs with the intention of settling farms upon it. The rebels sent messengers to Gaika, the Kafir chief, asking him to help, the plan being to attack all the military posts in a single night. Lieutenant Rousseau was to be murdered, and so was van der Graaff; the troops were to be driven from the country; the Kafirs were to be allowed to take the cattle belonging to the troops, and also such cattle as belonged to those burghers who should remain loyal to the Government. The Kafirs were to be given back the Zuurveld, while the rebels were to be given a piece of Kafir-land. Thus the rebels designed to bring a vast horde of murdering savages into a peaceful colony, to burn the farms of the settlers, and to slay their fellow-colonists.

Bezuidenhout and his friends threatened that all those who did not join would be murdered by the Kafirs, with their wives and children. The tortures which the Kafirs inflicted were described in lurid language. "The one punishment is that they split a tree and put you in the middle of it, and the other is to make your hands and feet fast, then having made a large fire, to put you before the same, and after the flame is burnt out they will lay you on the coals." At the same time these simple farmers told Gaika that Colonel Cuyler intended to visit him at his kraal and shoot him treacherously. I need hardly say how dangerous the plot was. Major Frazer says there were at one time two hundred burghers in arms against the Government (though here he exaggerates), and the Kafirs could muster ten thousand spears. Fortunately, the arrest of Prinsloo came at the nick of time. At the very moment the rebels were endeavouring to persuade Gaika, that chief got news of the arrest; while the rebels were forced to come out into the open before their plans were ripe in order to rescue their leader.

By this time Opperman, the field-cornet of the Baviaans River, whom I have already mentioned, had fled under a threat of murder, appointing in his stead an old farmer called Kruger, who was acting as field-cornet. This William Kruger seems to have been a man without much backbone, who joined the conspiracy more through fear than bad intention. However, the ringleaders were wily enough to make him their commander, and he may be said to have commanded with a pistol at his head. Prinsloo's remark about him at the beginning that he "would draw his blood with as much pleasure as a spigot out of a cask," serves to show how he was regarded by the chief conspirators.

Prinsloo was a prisoner at a military post commanded by Captain Andrews, and thither a large body of rebels repaired with arms in their hands to demand his release. They had already been civilly warned of the trouble they were bringing upon themselves, and when they made their demand, Major Frazer replied that he could not listen to a request from armed men. Field-commandant Nel, a Dutchman who was thought to have influence with the farmers, rode up to the band and begged of them to disperse, telling them that if Prinsloo were innocent he would not be punished. In reply, they seized Nel's bridle, asked him to join them, and when he refused, called him a traitor and threatened to shoot him. They then formed a ring, and, before dispersing, took a solemn oath to stand by one another. They sent more messengers throughout the borders threatening the settlers with murder by the Kafirs if they did not join in the rebellion. But the authorities were by this time thoroughly on the alert. The burghers were called to arms; troops were concentrated, and Colonel Cuyler sent the rebels an address, in which he begged of them to return to their duty. "Spare your blood," he said, "it depends on yourselves. It is now my friendly request, that you all immediately return to your families and properties; the Landdrost Frazer has shown every indulgence, and has endeavoured by mildness to pacify you, but your deluded thoughts have prevented you from accepting his offer. . . . Judge of yourselves, burghers, whether any injury or injustice has been done you; let two of your most sensible men come to me, and I shall do you justice whenever you bring a just case before me. The two persons who may come to me shall be sent back without any hindrance."

In the meantime Gaika was behaving like the guileful Kafir he was, blowing hot and cold; first he would, and then he wouldn't, and the more timorous of the rebels were beginning to slink away home. But this and several other attempts at pacification failing, Cuyler marched against them, accompanied by Major Frazer, with thirty burghers and forty dragoons. The forces were not far from equal; the rebels were encamped on a strong hill, and Colonel Cuyler owned afterwards that he doubted, if it had come to a fight, whether his burghers would have fired upon the rebels.

Cuyler, however, was a brave man. He showed no sign of hesitating, summoned the rebels to surrender, and advanced upon the hill.

The rebels knelt down and presented their guns, while they shouted to the burghers to move to one side so that they might have a clear shot at the dragoons. The burghers wavered; it was a hazardous moment; but just at this time the rebels received a staggering blow which took all the fight out of them.

A group of horsemen were seen riding up the hill. They were the envoys that had been sent to Gaika, and at this dramatic moment they returned with the polite but disheartening message from the great chief on whose help they had set so much store, that if the rebels "wanted to fight, they might do so."

Then came a panic. Poor old Kruger was the first to give in. With a number of others he had been weeping copiously, and now he called out, "Let me go down, in God's name, and receive my punishment." He was joined by nearly twenty others, who ran down the hill, threw away their arms, and, falling on their knees, besought forgiveness. The rest fled, and so ended the bloodless battle of Slachter's Nek.

Major Frazer, with a hundred men of the Cape Regiment, and Commandant Nel, with twenty-two armed burghers, set out in pursuit of the fugitives. They got on the tracks of the Bezuidenhout gang, and, marching day and night, got to a kloof or pass in the wild Winterbergs, through which the rebels had to pass with their wagons. Unfortunately, Major Frazer fell from his horse and broke his arm, so that his command was given over to Lieutenant M'Innes, who, with Ensign Mackay, took up their positions so as to command the road. Nel and another party went farther up the river, where they waited in ambush until the rebels should pass.

Presently—it is easy to imagine the scene—the fugitives came along the rough track. Wagon followed wagon, with great straining of oxen, shouting, and cracking of whips, we may be sure. There were the three ringleaders, Bezuidenh out, Bothma, and Faber, with their wives and families, their cattle, sheep, and horses. Unsuspectingly they walked into the trap and outspanned within the ring of enemies.

Then Bothma and Faber, the one unarmed and on foot, the other armed and on horseback, went down the river, examining the spoor of the soldiers. When they had got within thirty paces of the hiding-place, the word of command rang out, and the rebels faced a line of soldiers with muskets ready.

They were told to stand; but Faber turned his horse and went off at a gallop, while Bothma took to his heels. Mackay fired a shot over Faber's head; but as he would not stop, the soldiers fired upon him. He dismounted and was just in the act of lifting his gun, when he was bowled over with a ball in his shoulder. Bothma crept into a hole and was there caught by the soldiers.

While this was going on, Bezuidenhout, with his gun across his saddle, rode towards a little kloof, but seeing soldiers there, turned back to the wagons and dismounted. M'Innes, with his hat on his gun, beckoned him to surrender, and Nel and another burgher also shouted their advice that he should give himself up. But Bezuidenhout refused and began to fire, his wife keeping him supplied with loaded muskets. Dr. Theal draws a heroic picture of this last stand. "His code of honour," says that historian, "was in some respects different from that of modern Englishmen, but it contained at least one principle common to the noblest minds in all sections of the race to which he belonged; to die rather than to do that which is degrading. And for him it would have been unutterable degradation to have surrendered to the Pandours." Now, as a matter of cold, hard fact, Bezuidenhout was asked to surrender, not to the Hottentots, but to Commandant Nel and two British officers. By resisting, he was placing the women and children in the wagon in a position of great danger. His wife and his young son were both wounded. This is not the sort of courage that the truly chivalrous will much admire. However, Bezuidenhout paid for his rashness with his life, for after killing a soldier, he himself was mortally wounded.

We need not delay long over the end of this miserable story. The prisoners, thirty-nine in number, got a fair trial. Six of them were condemned to death, and five were actually hanged, the sixth being pardoned by Lord Charles Somerset. Most of the others were let off with very light punishments—a small fine, or a month in prison—and among those who received a free pardon was poor old William Kruger, the unwilling leader of the conspiracy.

The Governor seems to have left the whole business in the hands of Colonel Cuyler, a brave and loyal Dutchman, who had proved himself, time and again, a good friend of the Boers, but who had certainly never been any friend of the Hottentots. He saw the danger of the position. Though he says that only sixty-five had been in arms, those that remained in their homes were in a wavering state. "Fancy to yourself," he writes, in one of his despatches, a people of the description of the Boers, all marksmen, well-mounted, and the knowledge of the country they possess! Foreign troops cannot act against them. We now see when one brother is brought against another, how he acts. Whom, then, are we to depend on? The Hottentots are the only people." Again he points to the fact that all the families who were engaged in the former disturbances were implicated in the rebellion.

This calls for example, as in the first affair they were all pardoned. . . . Something severe must be done and that without much delay to ensure the tranquillity of the borders."

Thus, so far from the Slachter's Nek business being a brutal piece of tyranny on the part of an English Governor, it was the result of the savagery of a pack of border ruffians, who were determined, in their own words, "to extirpate the villains of Englishmen out of our country"; who refused to listen to friendly warning, and who were punished very leniently for one of the most dastardly plots ever hatched by white men against their fellow-countrymen.