I was recently made aware of an online discussion featuring one of the more blinkered and ignorant of the True Believers. A character called Pieter Cloete was endeavouring to promote a book he had written – a work so poorly researched that it, of course, met with the resounding approval of the leading Defenders of the Myth. Alas for the poor author, and unlike his cheerleaders, I am only interested in historical reality, not Apartheid-era myths, and have already ripped it to pieces in this blog article:
Anyway, as you can see below, Mr Cloete was attempting to promote his error-ridden book on a forum which was actually exclusively for colour photos of the Boer War – a fact which someone remarked upon, also pointing out just what a terrible, ahistorical, self-pitying piece of work it is. This caused the author to swing into action, frantic as always to keep his much-cherished myths alive:
It is unclear quite what ‘handicap’ Mr Cloete is accusing this fellow of: not mindlessly believing AWB propaganda, perhaps? The ‘handicap’ of being British? Surely such blatant prejudice wouldn’t be tolerated on such a forum?
Anyway, it was then pointed out to Mr Cloete that I had torn his nonsense apart, and exposed it as the utter rubbish it is, with the example of his pulled-out-of-the-air Brigade ORBAT cited:
To which, rather than in any way trying to defend his pie-in-the-sky claims, Mr Cloete instead rather bizarrely responded:
This brilliantly sums up the sheer ignorance and delusion of a True Believer; he doesn’t for a moment attempt to defend his waffle… instead, he seems proud that he ‘made me work’ to totally and utterly disprove his rantings. Such are the dire straits that True Believers find themselves in these days, that apparently making Ash ‘work’ for 2 minutes counts as a ‘win’ in their circles; that would be like me declaring that the Earth is bigger than Jupiter, and then being proud of myself when someone who actually knows about the subject proves me wrong.
Either way, Mr Cloete quickly made it clear that he knew he would be humiliated in any such debate with me, bizarrely declaring:
Yes, there you have it folks: Mr Cloete’s “logic” for not daring to defend his fallacious claims is that, over 120 years ago, elements of the Highland Brigade broke at Magersfontein (this, after the Boers ran from their positions at Belmont, Graspan and Modder River, of course, and just a few weeks before over 4,000 of them surrendered at Paardeberg).
We are then assured by Mr Cloete that the ‘republicans chose their battles’. Presumably, in the wacky world of Mr Cloete, and as just mentioned, the Boers cunningly ‘chose’ to be cut off and surrender at Paardeberg? Similarly, are we meant to admire the way that the clever old republicans ‘chose’ to stupidly back themselves into a corner, and surrender with another 4000+ men at the Brandwater Basin? And no doubt Mr Cloete basks in his belief that the Boers ‘chose’ to have their defensive lines shattered at the Tugela Heights, Driefontein, Diamond Hill and Bergendal? Perhaps it also helps Mr Cloete to sleep at night to pretend that the Boers ‘chose’ to be routed and charged down at Elandslaagte, or that De Wet’s slumbering commando ‘chose’ to be smashed by the MI at Bothaville (an action in which De Wet himself immediately fled from).
Such is the sheer lunacy required to remain faithful to the National Party myths.
And, seemingly desperate to cram as much stupidity as possible into a single paragraph, Mr Cloete then sagely assures us that the gallant, noble Boers ‘did not need methods of barbarism’ – thus confirming beyond all doubt that Mr Cloete has never seriously researched the Boer War.
In reality, the republicans started the war with a looting and pillaging spree in Natal, with the sacking of Dundee being well documented. Indeed, the invading Boers were far more interested in rampaging through the streets on a looting binge than in following up the retreating British troops:
‘There was no attempt at exercising any control over the Burghers, who ran riot in the town and camp, drinking, plundering and wrecking. Even the hospital failed to escape the attention of the looters. The orgy went on all night and next morning. In order to put an end to it, Erasmus ordered all spirituous liquors in the town to be destroyed.’
Deneys Reitz took part in this lawless free-for-all, gleefully recalling:
‘1,500 men were whooping through the streets and behaving in a very undisciplined manner. Officers tried to stem the rush but we were not to be denied, and we plundered shops and dwelling houses … the joy of ransacking other people’s property is hard to resist.’
Others remembered the chaos visited upon the sleepy little town by the invaders:
‘Every house they could get into was looted… They made no distinctions. The convent house of the Roman Catholic Sisters, and the residences of the Presbyterian and Wesleyan ministers suffered with the rest. The work of destruction and robbery was carried on in several ways. There were those who entered the houses and out of pure wickedness smashed and broke up everything they saw fit, even going so far as to wrench mantelpieces from their place and break them up. There were others who came with wagons and carted away furniture wholesale… I am sorry to say that the nurses of the Boer ambulances were as big a thieves of any. Of this I have plenty of proof. The Boers, especially the women, appeared to look upon the town as legitimate spoil.’
The eastern prong of Boer invasion force rampaged their way to Pomeroy, which they burned and looted before being halted by the Umvoti Mounted Rifles at the Tugela. Other raids were made into neighbouring Zululand where the trading post at Mhlatuze was targeted and a magistrate’s office at Ingwavuma was burned down. These were followed up by the seizing of the whole Ingwavuma district by a 400-strong commando. Further raids were launched against the trading posts at Rorke’s Drift and Vaant’s Drift, both of which were looted.
This extract from a letter gives more details on the barbarism the invading Boers visited on Natal:
It is almost impossible to know how to begin a letter when placed in the position that we Loyalists occupy in Natal, and, I may as well say, the whole of South Africa. To say that we have been ruined is practically nothing. The circumstances of each individual case are far more heartrending than the total result. Not only does there seem to be very little sympathy in the hearts of those who hold the high offices in this country and at home, but, further, the military authorities both here and at the Cape have peculiar methods of their own in dealing with the several matters entrusted to them. We who are loyal are expected to sit down and be content, although we have no homes, very little food, less clothing, and no money. Some details may be of interest. Imagine yourself in a newly-built house, with every room neatly and comfortably furnished, your business bringing in sufficient to enable you to live without anxiety. Then try, if it be possible, to imagine yourself and family flying for your life with less than an hour’s notice, leaving everything and escaping with only the clothes you stand upright in, to tramp sixty miles through a country such as this without the slightest shelter, and with only what food could be placed in your pockets before starting. Hurrying through the terrible heat of the day, walking through rivers, and lying on the grass for a bed, with a heavy rain descending to add to its discomfort, we finally arrive at a town where we are allowed a shilling each adult per day to provide for all our wants.
On returning to our homes, we find that after the semi-savage Boer has occupied them for a time the best of our furniture has been taken into the Transvaal, even by some of the members of the First Raad—that is to say, the Boers’ House of Lords. Other furniture has been taken by the disloyal Natal Boer, and what could not be taken has been destroyed for fire purposes. To add to our distress and disgust, sick horses or cattle have been taken into our houses and starved to death, so that they should die inside, and the terrible remains of these poor animals have floated about our floors, so that the rooms cannot again be used without new woodwork. Not only so, but the wretches have violated all decency in every room, so much so that it will be sickening ever to remember it. The walls have been plastered with the same filth as lies upon the floors. The window-sashes are smashed, doors broken down and burned, ceilings destroyed, and sometimes floors broken up to provide fuel for the fire. The kitchen range is smashed, the garden devastated, choice fruit-trees, grape vines, etc., chopped down, and fences destroyed. The wreckage is beyond description, and all this by the saintly Boer, so much worshipped by the ignorant in our own country.’
The Boer invasion of the Cape Colony was slightly different from that of Natal, in that significant numbers of Cape Dutch threw their lots in with the invaders. While many of these traitors were motivated by genuine enthusiasm for an Afrikaans South African empire, others were intimidated, or joined for fear of seeing their properties torched and their belongings seized. This fear was not irrational, with loyalist civilians were driven from their homes by the invaders, forced to abandon everything they owned and make their own way to the British lines, often arriving as destitute refugees.
What is more surprising still is that Transvaal Boers even looted from farms in the Orange Free State as they retreated in the face of the later, British counter-invasion. One war correspondent who accompanied the Imperial forces on the Western Front was astounded to find farms:
‘…lying in the heart of the enemy’s country, already not only deserted, but almost stripped of portable valuables; and it was much later that we heard how the Transvaal burghers, who had come south to repel the British, had levied toll of stock and chattels upon the unhappy Free Stater who had rushed into the Transvaal quarrel, not only to take all the ordinary risks of war, but even to be robbed and pilfered by his allies.’
And when it comes to the atrocities committed by the ‘noble’ Boers against non-whites, I would prefer to think that Mr Cloete is simply utterly ignorant, rather than that he considers such things to be of no importance.
It may – or may not – interest Mr Cloete to learn that blacks and coloureds could expect especially savage treatment from the bittereinders. In August 1901 a detachment of British auxiliaries was defeated near the village of the Shangane chief, Mpisana, for example. The fifty blacks who were taken prisoner were all subsequently murdered by General Viljoen’s men. In other incidents, forty native auxiliaries captured near Queenstown were lined up and shot in November 1900, thirty-seven unarmed scouts were murdered near de Aar in August 1901, and the following month, sixteen black dispatch riders attached to the 17th Lancers were killed in a variety of horrific ways, including disembowelment and mutilation. It is remarkable that this ugly aspect of the war is not better known, as the bittereinders’ mass-murder of blacks is far from being a recent discovery; writing well over a century ago, Conan-Doyle described how:
‘…a small party of twenty-one Imperial Yeomanry was captured, after a gallant resistance, by a large force of Boers at the Doorn River on the other side of the [Cape] Colony. The Kaffir scouts of the British were shot dead in cold blood by their captors after the action. There seems to be no possible excuse for the repeated murders of coloured men by the Boers, as they had themselves from the beginning of the war used their Kaffirs for every purpose short of actually fighting.’
And it wasn’t just those blacks who actively served the Empire in some way who could expect to be butchered. One of the leading missionaries in the Transvaal, Canon Farmer, wrote of the murderous terror inflicted on the natives of that area by the bittereinders. The blacks welcomed the security of the British columns, but when the Tommies were not around to protect them, they faced a stark choice between abandoning their livestock and fleeing to British-held towns, or being killed. The missionary concluded that the Boers ‘look upon the Kaffirs as dogs & the killing of them as hardly a crime’.
One example of this butchery occurred in July 1901 when Veldkornet Dirk Brits murdered 29 blacks—men, women and children—at Dordrecht. Brits declared these poor devils were ‘in league with the British’ and, when he cruelly turned their bodies over to their families, the rest of the settlement bolted for the hills. This penchant for off-the-cuff brutality against blacks had long been reported: veteran war reporter Bennet Burleigh described the Boers has having a ‘notorious and almost innate habit of terrorizing, beating, and even killing without mercy, any native who may have happened to have aroused his suspicions or incurred his ire’.
In addition to this casual mass-murder, rural non-whites could expect the bittereinders to descend on their settlements and commandeer anything they fancied. Upon being ordered by raiders to pay tribute, one plucky native police constable in Barkly East replied, ‘Kruger is not baas here and I am not going to pay him a penny, he can do what he wish I am a Government man and not yours, and I am under the English Government, not him. I am sick of these Boers with their nuisance towards me.’
Among many others, raiders paid unwelcome visits to the towns of Maraisburg, Steynsburg, Colesberg, Molteno, Albert, Dordrecht and Aliwal North, stealing wagons from the locals and often forcing them into slave labour as drivers. One victim of such raids was Jonas Mungawara, who testified in November 1901:
‘…the Boers came here some time ago and took from me one mare, nineteen horses, thirty-five bags of grain, my Cape carts and mule spans, and two of my servants. For four weeks they made me drive for them, saying they would shoot me if I did not do so.’
Whenever these forced labourers managed to escape they were cruelly hunted down by pursuit parties. Those who did manage to escape often staggered into Imperial territory in such a shocking condition that even British military doctors were distressed.
Many of these native escapees proved very useful to the Imperial intelligence services and later served as scouts, spies, interpreters, and even interrogators—despite the horrific retribution they could expect if recaptured. Some even formed their own irregular mounted unit and waging a private war against the guerrillas around Beaufort West during 1901.
Coloured ‘Bastards’, who were used as scouts and in defensive positions in what is now the Northern Cape could expect no quarter from Boer raiders either: as far as they were concerned, it was a ‘war to the knife’.
Coloured civilians also suffered, the most famous such incident being the torture and murder of a blacksmith called Abraham Esau who lived in the small town of Calvinia in Namaqualand. As the guerrilla war spluttered on, there were ongoing Boer raids in the area, and demands for tribute, whippings, looting, and even exemplary executions were common. Staunchly pro-British, Esau was blessed with formidable leadership skills and became a prominent figure in his small town, rallying and organizing a militia to resist these incursions. His patriotism and bravery brought him to the attention of the raiding Free State bittereinders and local rebel Boers and he quickly became a marked man.
When a commando fell on Calvinia on 7 January 1901 Esau was one of those sought out amidst the wholesale plunder of the town. The Boer raiding party (which grew to 600 strong) occupied Calvinia and terrorized the local population for some weeks while local rebels took the chance to settle old scores—real and imagined—with the coloured community. During this period Esau was beaten, bludgeoned, and lashed. Incredibly, this astonishing man endured this torture until 5 February when he was shackled in irons, dragged for five miles behind a pair of horses, and, after a final beating, shot dead. The following day the raiders fled Calvinia as an Imperial relief column approached.
True to form, Pakenham (a man even keener to perpetuate myths than Mr Cloete) ignores this incident altogether, while other modern accounts suggest that the British latched onto it as a propaganda coup, almost as though this in some way excused the weeks of torture Esau had endured. Another historian states that Lord Milner ‘made a great show of revulsion and immediately seized upon the atrocity story as a suitably decent stick with which to beat the Boer Republics as bloody and barbarous’. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to this writer that Milner, like any other civilized and decent man, might genuinely have been revolted or that the ‘atrocity story’ made a ‘suitably decent stick’ precisely because the bittereinders did indeed prove, time and time again, to be ‘bloody and barbarous’.
Rural violence became endemic in the Cape as bands of guerrillas and rebels roamed the countryside, seizing produce and livestock from natives—either for their own use or for redistribution to local Afrikaner farmers. ‘These were roaming, thieving bands of rebels, grouped roughly under Conroy, Van Zyl, and Jan Louw, parties with no aim but looting.’
There was no discernible military objective behind this: it was pure banditry. Mission stations were a particularly favoured target for the bittereinders and many were brutally attacked. When the Reverend C. Schröder returned to his Gordonia congregation after the war, he was horrified to find that most of his flock had been killed by Boer raiders. A bittereinder attack on the Methodist mission station at Leliefontein in Namaqualand was especially savage. The indiscriminate violence with which it had been razed and plundered by guerrillas and local rebels even shocked the young Deneys Reitz:
‘We found the place sacked and gutted, and, among the rocks beyond the burning houses, lay twenty or thirty dead Hottentots … Maritz had wiped out the settlement, which seemed to many of us a ruthless and unjustifiable act … we lived in an atmosphere of rotting corpses for some days.’
The wretched refugees of this massacre were pitilessly hunted down by parties of Boers. Those unfortunate enough to be captured were brought back to work as slave labourers. Indeed, they were even shackled in irons forged at the mission station’s smithy.
These barbaric attacks on black and coloured farmers are instructive. Contrary to their carefully cultivated latter-day image, many of the bittereinders hailed from the poorest and least educated whites, those with nothing to lose by dragging on the guerrilla war. Paul Botha, ex-volksraad member for Kroonstad, described his frustration at the situation:
‘It is impossible to reason with the men who are now at the front. With the exception of a few officials, these men consist almost exclusively of the poorest and most ignorant class of bywoners [sharecroppers / poor whites / white trash], augmented by the desperate class of men from the Cape Colony, who have nothing to lose, and who lead a jolly, rollicking life on commando—stealing and looting from the farmers who have surrendered, and whom they opprobriously call Hendsoppers but doing very little damage to the English’.
These examples of savage brutality were not just occasional excess by the rank and file; they were official—or, at least, semi-official—policy. On being captured, one particularly brutal commandant testified:
‘General Smuts personally gave me orders to shoot all unarmed natives who might be working for the British who should fall into my path.’
Likewise, in July 1901, bittereinder General Kritzinger issued a proclamation ordering that all blacks captured in the service of the British, whether armed or not, should be summarily executed. During November a further proclamation was issued, ordering that any black or coloured persons betraying the whereabouts of Boer commandos to the British should be executed when caught. One rabidly pro-Boer history of the conflict states with the indignation:
‘The British reacted to this proclamation by executing all Boers found guilty of ‘murdering’ [note the quotation marks] coloured people or blacks.’
This was the level the bittereinders sank to (and the level their current apologists will go to) to defend their ghastly actions. No wonder the shockingly ill-read Mr Cloete appears to have absolutely no idea that these things happened.
One Boer leader who did face British justice, however, was Commandant Gideon Scheepers. This young man was an especially loathsome fellow who raided all over the Cape, train-wrecking, looting, burning down public buildings and houses belonging to loyalists, and murdering native policemen because of their colour. Scheepers also attempted to rob the Murraysburg branch of Standard Bank, sjambokking the manager when he refused to cooperate.
He avoided pitched battle where possible and instead:
‘…confined his attention to the more genial work of robbing, burning and devastating. In his operations there was no military object; he meant, he said, to make Cape Colony a desert.’
Even as Imperial columns began cutting up his raiding parties and running his gang to ground, Scheepers found time to commit one last atrocity. When two coloured scouts were captured, Scheepers decided it was his right to murder them, despite their being in uniform. The two were forced to draw lots, and the loser was immediately shot. The other was beaten and released to stagger to the nearest British outpost.
Scheepers was finally captured and tried at Graaff-Reinet:
‘…for repeated breaches of the laws of war, including the murder of several natives. He was condemned to death and executed in December. Much sympathy was excited by his gallantry and his youth—he was only twenty-three. On the other hand, our word was pledged to protect the natives, and if he whose hand had been so heavy upon them escaped, all confidence would have been lost in our promises and our justice.’
Despite his horrific catalogue of murder and mayhem, the pro-Boer press in Britain shrieked that he should be spared. More recently the author of Innocent Blood, defended him using the curious argument, ‘The fact that Scheepers admitted to the execution of some spies did not make him guilty of murder.’ Quite how a scout wearing military uniform can be classed as a ‘spy’ is anyone’s guess, and if the justification is that they were not wearing uniform then, by that token, virtually every Boer taken prisoner could equally have been executed by Imperial forces.
While it is difficult for a rational person to feel much sympathy for Commandant Scheepers, other, more senior, Boers literally got away with murder. When Jan Smuts’ commando fell on the native village at Modderfontein, for example, they butchered the 200 or so black inhabitants and left their bodies strewn around, unburied. Smuts would never be punished for this; indeed, he would later become a field marshal in the Imperial service.
Even General Kritzinger himself, one of the leaders of the Boers within the Cape Colony and the man who had issued the odious order mentioned above, somehow managed to escape the hangman’s noose. His fate turned upon how responsible he was for the misdeeds of his subordinates. His defence team somehow managed to prove that he could not be held accountable for the excesses of his scattered command, and he was acquitted by the military court.
And even the chivalry of de la Rey—who most regarded as a gentleman at the time and who has since been built up into a Saintly figure—extended only to white prisoners. After his victory at Tweebosch on 7 March 1902, de la Rey famously ensured that the badly wounded Lord Methuen was taken care of. What is not often mentioned is that he did nothing to stop his burghers murdering:
‘…the whole Indian and Kaffir establishment of the F.V.H. [Field Veterinary Hospital]… One Farrier Sergeant of the Indian Native Cavalry and two Indian Veterinary Assistants (men carrying no arms) were ruthlessly shot dead after the surrender, and nine Hospital Kaffirs were either killed in action or murdered later.’
Small wonder that Mr Cloete doesn’t even attempt to defend his unpleasant claims, and instead completes his utter humiliation by referring to the Boer War (ie. the one which was started by the Boers invading and annexing British territory, and in which the British seized no gold mines from their owners) as ‘the Gold War’:
If the best the Defenders of the Myth can produce are men like Mr Cloete, then the days of the ghoulish, self-pitying, Apartheid-regime fables are most certainly numbered.
 It is, indeed, unlikely that he did any research whatsoever, as so much is simply pulled out of thin air
 Selby, The Boer War: A Study in Cowardice and Courage, p. 66
 Maurice & Grant et al, The Official History of the War in South Africa 1899–1902, Vol. 1, p. 45
 Reitz, Commando p. 32
 Rethman, Friends and Enemies, p. 202
 Stott, The Boer Invasion of Natal, p. 215
 Warwick, Black People and the South African War, 1899‒1902, p. 82
 Rorke’s Drift is much more famous as the site of the 1879 battle depicted in the 1964 film, Zulu
 Daily Chronicle, 31 May 1900
 Amery, The Times History of the War in South Africa, Vol. 2, p. 294
 Maydon, French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 79
 Warwick, p. 101
 Nasson, Abraham Esau’s War, p. 103
 Conan-Doyle, The Great Boer War, p. 648
 Pakenham, The Boer War, p. 573
 Nasson, Abraham Esau’s War, p. 106
 Burleigh, The Natal Campaign, p. 62
 Nasson, Abraham Esau’s War, p. 118
 Renamed Hofmeyr in 1911
 Nasson, Abraham Esau’s War, p. 103
 Ibid, p. 102
 Ibid, p. 101
 Carver, The National Army Museum Book of the Boer War, p. 211
 Nasson, Abraham Esau’s War, p. 122
 Ibid, p. 128
 Ibid, p. 131
 Ibid, p. 132
 Warwick, p. 121
 Maurice & Grant, Vol. 4, p. 468
 Warwick, p. 122
 Nasson, Abraham Esau’s War, p. 112
 Botha, From Boer to Boer and Englishman, p. 29
 Nasson, Abraham Esau’s War, p. 107
 Warwick, p. 121
 Jooste, Innocent Blood, p. 152
 Wilson, After Pretoria: The Guerrilla War, p. 76
 Ibid, p. 78
 Ibid, p. 80
 Conan-Doyle, p. 655
 Jooste, p. 152
 Pakenham, p. 573
 Conan-Doyle, p. 655
 The Marquess of Anglesey, A History of the British Cavalry 1816–1919, Volume 4, p. 270