The things I needed most after my escape at Graspan were clothes, for all I possessed had been on the spider that I had had to leave behind. But even had I been able to rescue it, I should have found very little in it; for although I had heard an officer ordering the soldiers to lay their hands on nothing belonging to the burghers except arms and ammunition, from the Kaffir huts, in which I was held captive, I saw them removing from time to time from the spider, first one and then another article of clothing and concealing it about their saddles.
To provide, therefore, for my wants as far as clothes were concerned, I went to Fouriesburg. Not all at once could I recover my equanimity. The excitement of my capture and the fight at Graspan had, as may be well conceived, affected my nerves, and it was as if I could not clearly realise my escape. But when on the following Sunday, on the farm of Mr. Heymans, not far from Slabbert's Nek, I again saw a congregation before me, I once more completely regained my serenity of mind. It was clear to me that God had shown me that He held my fate in His Hand, and that I owed to His Mercy my liberty until the day of my capture. It was as if He had said, "Behold, I delivered you over to the enemy, and closed his hand upon you so that there was no deliverance. There is therefore nothing for you to be vain of in that you were the only one of your colleagues in the Free State who had up to that time not been taken prisoner. But I have delivered you because I have further work for you to do. Go forth, and do good to your people. Encourage the burghers. Seek out the neglected ones. Comfort the defenceless women and children in their oppression. Preach the gospel."
And I must declare it, that since the unfortunate occurrence at Nauwpoort I never had more courage than now, nor had I been able till then to address the burghers with more pleasure than now.
I arrived at Fouriesburg on Monday, the 10th of June, and was there most kindly entertained by Mr. Jacobus Bester and his wife. The English—so I heard there—had just quitted the village, and had in the previous month laid waste everything behind the Roodebergen. In the newspapers they published how many women and children they had captured, how many burghers they had killed, how many cattle they had carried off, how many tons of grain they had burned, how many ovens and stoves they had destroyed. Thus the British Generals, stern iconoclasts, had become the takers of ovens by storm. I discovered that not so many burghers by far had been captured or killed as the English accounts had stated. It was also surprising how much grain there was left, how much even had been rescued from the flames, and when on the Sunday after my arrival I held service in the church, I found the building nearly full of worshippers, and all were in fairly good spirits. There was, notwithstanding all the destruction, no thought of surrender. What advantage would we gain thereby? Should we get the looted cattle back? should we see the burnt-down houses rebuilt?—No. Then let the enemy do his worst. Let him ruin us completely if it was our fate to be overwhelmed. The English had to do with a people who were no barbarians, but with a race sprung from the same stock as themselves—with the offspring of ancestors who had sacrificed everything for their Faith—with descendants of forefathers who had contended for eighty years against a great world-power. Such means, therefore, as Great Britain had for the last fifty years been in the habit of employing against barbarous or semi-barbarous races had till now failed signally when applied to the people of South Africa.
I visited our people on their farms. At one place the family was living in a waggon-shed, at another in a stable, and again at another in a house restored sufficiently to make it to some extent habitable.
Some farms had not been visited by the enemy, whilst at others no damage had been done, excepting the destruction of the grain and the stoves! At one farm which I visited everything had been left as it had been. There was still a piano, and we spent the evening pleasantly. What thoughts passed in my mind when one of the young ladies sang well-known songs to the accompaniment of the piano, and when I remembered that the same girl, with her mother and sisters, had shortly before, whilst fleeing before the enemy, passed the night under the open sky. Both the mother and her daughters were cheerful here, and not here only, but everywhere I went. No wonder, then, that the hope that sooner or later we would gain our independence grew stronger and stronger in me. While I was at Fouriesburg the landdrost, Mr. M. Fourie, came from the Ficksburg Commando, and told me that he, Commandant Steyn, and Field-Cornet J. J. van Niekerk would be pleased if I could visit their commando. What else was I living for? I went gladly, and addressed the burghers, on week days as well as on Sundays. Amongst the Ficksburgers I found the song, written by the Rev. G. Thom, which has since become well known.
"Hope on, hope on, my brothers, In our beloved land, We're waiting for deliverance, Deliverance by God's hand.
Hope on, hope on, my brothers, Though war's dark clouds increase; 'Tis but a short time longer, Then He will give us peace.
Hope on, hope on, my brothers, The daylight is not far; When the long night is ended Will rise the Morning Star.
Hope on, hope on, my sisters, In our beloved land, We too lament your sorrows, We on this far-off strand.
Hope on, hope on, my sisters, Your tears, your sighs, your pain By Him are not forgotten, To whom all things are plain.
Hope on, hope on, my sisters, And still again hope on; Through seas of blood and treasure Our freedom must be won!"
This song was not sent out by the Rev. G. Thom for any special purpose, but it seems that, as it was often sung by the prisoners-of-war in Ceylon, it was sent out in its entirety or in portions by different burghers to their relatives as their contribution to the scanty news they had to send.
Had the censor known how this song would be circulated among us, and sung everywhere, he would certainly not have let it pass. But perhaps we have a proof here that the censor, like Homer of old, was also occasionally apt to nod.
The song was sung by the burghers of Field-Cornet J. J. van Niekerk to the tune of the old Voortrekkers' hymn, "How pleasant are the days."
I afterwards had this sung wherever I held a service, always requesting the girls to make copies of it before the service. Mr. Mels' J. Meyers, then editor of the Brandwacht, afterwards printed a number of copies, which helped me much to spread the song. I have no doubt that these verses aided in a large measure to keep alive the courage of our people. While I was in these parts letters came regularly from British territory through Basutoland to the farm Brindisi, under the kind care of Mr. Middleton, the owner of the farm. I availed myself of the opportunity and sent letters to my wife, and received replies by the same means.
The relatives of the captives who had been sent to Ceylon often got news from that island, and it encouraged us much to see what a good spirit reigned amongst the exiles. Our ministers there seemed to be effecting much good by their services, and the younger captives attended schools which had been erected for them. Others passed their time in the making of beautiful handiwork of all descriptions out of suitable stone, such as brooches and similar articles, while others again worked on the roads for small wages, and in this manner obtained enough money to purchase paper and postage stamps, as one of them stated in his letter. But what particularly impressed me was the firm conviction they all had of the ultimate deliverance of our nation. Here is an extract from a letter of a young man to his mother:—
"We are full of courage, and do not mind how long we have to remain here, if only our people get the upper hand—which they certainly will."
From the Ficksburgers I went to the Ladybrand Commando, and held services for the burghers and the women.
On the farm Peru, belonging to Mrs. A. Ecksteen, senior, I heard that the English wanted to remove, on the 19th of April 1901, the mother-in-law of Mrs. Ecksteen. As the old lady was eighty years of age, and, moreover, suffered from a weak heart, Mrs. Ecksteen protested against this deportation, whereupon the officer in command said, "She will have to go, even if she were dead." And so the old woman was forced to go on the waggon. At Karba, not far from there, the English deported Mrs. A. Ecksteen, junior, on the same day, notwithstanding her repeated assurances that she could not possibly go. A son of Dr. Wilson, the practitioner at Karba, had carried a letter from his father to the military, acquainting them with Mrs. Ecksteen's condition. But the lad got his ears boxed, and was taken prisoner (he was, however, released on the following day); and the officer said to the woman, "You'll have to go." Mrs. Ecksteen was thereupon taken to the mine on the farm Monastery, along with the other Ecksteens; she there found shelter under a waggon, but was taken during the night into a tin shanty, of which all the doors and windows had been destroyed, and under such circumstances she gave birth to a daughter!
The following morning the English realised what an inhuman act they had committed, and left the Ecksteens there with the following note:—
"Monastery, 20th April 1901.
"Mrs. A. Ecksteen, junior, having to our regret been moved from her house by mistake, when she was not in a condition to travel, Dr. Wilson has been left to take charge of her, and also her mother-in-law and grandmother to care of her. All these persons must remain on the farm Karba.
"J. (?) Halkett, A.P.M., Pilcher's Horse."
By mistake! and that with the woman before their eyes and the letter of the doctor in their hands!
But this is by no means the only case of this sort. A British officer had also, shortly before, taken away Mrs. Greyling, an old woman aged eighty-five, from her farm, Magermanshoek, at Korannaberg. The poor old woman could no longer walk and was totally blind. When her son inquired whether she could not travel in her spider, his request was refused and the vehicle burnt. She was carried to a waggon on a chair, and conveyed to Winburg.
I mention these cases not as exceptions, but as examples of what continually took place.
Having returned to the Ficksburg Commando on the 1st of July, I found that my son had had an accident through the explosion of a Martini-Henry cartridge in his face. This forced us to remain till the 16th at the farm Franschhoek, belonging to Field-Cornet J. J. van Niekerk. I wish here to record my thanks for the kindness of all the families there, and especially for that shown by Mrs. J. J. van Niekerk and Mrs. Meyer in nursing my son. Before leaving Franschhoek I heard of the narrow escape of our President at Reitz. He had gone thither with his staff on the evening of the 10th of July. Early the next morning his cook, a coloured boy named Ruiter, rushed into the tent where the President was sleeping, shouting, "The English are here." The President then hastily went out, without a jacket and with a nightcap on his head, and ran to the stable where his horse was. The saddle was not near at hand, and Mr. Curlewis hurriedly put his own saddle on the horse. Without bridle or bit, and with only the riem of the halter in the horse's mouth, the President galloped away. A soldier followed and shot at him; but the President's horse was fresh, and gained on the tired steed of the soldier, until he was out of danger. Ruiter wanted to follow the President, but when fired on he allowed himself to be captured. Subsequently, however, he escaped, and related that, when they had asked him who it was that had ridden off, he had answered, "It's only a Boer." On a former occasion the President had slept in a house, and it seems that the majority of the English had surrounded that same house, and thus they had given him the chance of escaping.
But the whole of his staff were taken prisoners, with the exception of the Government Secretary, Mr. J. W. C. Brebner, who was absent on leave. The brave Commandant, Mr. Davel, who was chief of the bodyguard, was also captured. Besides the President only seven men of the bodyguard escaped. An English officer called it luck. We call it by another name.
All the money and State documents fell into the hands of the English. What made the loss of the documents a serious matter for us, was that amongst them was a letter from the Government of the South African Republic giving expression to a very despondent spirit about the condition of affairs, and saying that there was danger that the continuation of the struggle would only tend more and more to the ruin of our people, and that the time was gone by when matters could be allowed to drift on.
To this President Steyn wrote a long reply, dated 15th May 1901, in which he expressed his great regret at this despatch of the Transvaal Government. He said that although in the Free State they had also had to see men laying down their arms, yet that it had been surmounted; also that although ammunition had for a long time been scarce, yet there was still after every fight enough to begin the next one with.
As to the question, what prospect there was of continuing the struggle any longer, he would ask, what prospect two little Republics had had from the beginning of winning in a struggle against the mighty England? And if at the commencement we had put our trust in God, why should we now not continue to do so? He also pointed out that if our cause were utterly hopeless in Europe, we should certainly have heard of it from our Deputation. He further assured the Transvaal Government that even if, in case of an armistice, the people of the Free State were consulted, the resolution of those men who still stood their ground would be not to lay down their arms.
He also disapproved of the resolution of the Transvaal Government, to ask Lord Kitchener to be allowed to send somebody to Europe, because thereby we exposed our hand to the enemy; and he added that he was very sorry such a resolution had been taken without first consulting the Free State.
As regards the fear expressed by the Transvaal Government that they and the officers would be left without burghers in the field, the President said that in the Free State, even if the Government and the officers surrendered themselves, the people would not do so. He also showed how disastrous it would be if the Free State, which had offered up not only its blood and its treasure, but had also thrown its independence into the scale on behalf of the sister Republic, were deserted by that Republic. That then all reliance of Africander upon Africander, and also all co-operation, would be for ever destroyed, and that it was a chimera to believe that thereafter the nation would rise again. If we wished to remain a people, now was the time to endure to the end.
After referring to some matter which he had read of in the newspapers, he continued in the following forcible language: "All these things make me believe that we should commit national suicide if we now give in. Therefore, brothers, continue to stand firm! Do not make our suffering and all our efforts in the past to no purpose, and our trust in the God of our fathers be turned to mockery. Encourage rather your weaker brethren." The President concluded this very remarkable letter with the question whether we were to desert the colonial burghers a second time. "May God forbid it!" he said.
Although the unfortunate letter of the Government of the South African Republic was three months old, and the feeling in the Transvaal had since its date utterly changed, this sad correspondence, as was to be expected, gave fresh courage to the English.
Both letters were telegraphed, abbreviated and mutilated, to England, and the Transvaal letter had, as I subsequently read in the newspapers, a beneficial influence (for England) in parliamentary circles. But, as I have already said, a different spirit had arisen in the Transvaal. This President Steyn found when immediately after the fight at Graspan he, together with General de Wet, Judge Hertzog, and General de la Rey, visited the South African Republic. He had not rested, after receipt of the letter from the Transvaal Government, but had immediately summoned not only General de Wet and Judge Hertzog, but also the Transvaal General de la Rey (who had not been present at the Transvaal meeting), to accompany him to the South African Republic. When he arrived in that Republic he found that the Government had quite recovered from its despondency. This had been brought about especially by the following circumstance: the Government had carried out its resolution to ask Lord Kitchener's leave to send a delegate to Europe for the purpose of acquainting President Kruger and the Deputation with our condition, and to consult with them as to the continuance of the struggle. Lord Kitchener had refused to grant this, but had given permission to send a cablegram in the code of the Netherlands consul. The State Attorney, General Smuts, and Advocate de Wet had gone to Standerton, and sent a telegram in which the state of affairs was represented in as dark a light as possible. After a fortnight the reply came. It was short, and stated that although there was then no chance of intervention, we should nevertheless continue: the telegram said also that the two Republics should co-operate. This was said in reference to a statement in the Transvaal telegram saying that President Steyn did not approve of giving in. Moreover, two fights, in which our arms had been victorious and which took place just at that period of despondency, had served to encourage the Transvaal Government. One at Vlakfontein, where General Kemp, and the other at Welmanrust, where Commandant Muller had engaged the English. These were important fights, and refuted what had been stated in the letter of the Transvaal Government to the effect that no battle of any importance could any more be fought. Thus one thing and another had brought about such a change in the minds of the Transvaal Government, that when the President and his party met them there was no sign of dejection, and it was difficult to believe that they were the same persons who had instructed the State Secretary to write the letter of the 10th of May.