‘Safes had been blown to pieces with dynamite; the lamps and furniture had been smashed to atoms; the papers, tickets and books had been torn to pieces and lay strewn over the floors. The farmhouses had also suffered in a like manner, valued trinkets and ornaments lying smashed among the debris of furniture etc. The doors and windows had been burst open and broken into pieces with crowbars. But it is impossible to adequately describe the heartrending scenes which were enacted. To understand fully the wanton devastation which had been made in many a happy country home, it would be necessary to witness the scene of desolation … the enemy had not restricted these wicked acts of destruction to the interiors of the farmhouses only, for in some cases orchards of young fruit trees had been chopped down and utterly destroyed, and iron rain-water tanks had been pierced through the sides, rendering them useless. Many a heart was bowed down with grief on beholding the home, which had meant years of work, thus destroyed in a few moments by a ruthless foe. Much of the livestock, that had not been driven away, had also been destroyed. Dead poultry were lying about in heaps at one farmstead, among them being fifty young turkeys. Cattle and sheep lay rotting in the paddocks. On another farm three hundred head of cattle and sheep had been destroyed with arsenical poison.’
At this point, most readers will indignantly be imagining the raiders as ruthlessly rapacious Brits, sweeping down onto Boer farmsteads to jubilantly visit destruction on the poor, downtrodden inhabitants. Photos of burning farms are iconic images of the war, and their power to enrage is only rivalled by those of the concentration camps. There is, however, rather more to this than meets the eye, as the above extract was written in 1900, describing the devastation inflicted on Natal by the invading republicans.
Though strangely ignored by most modern historians, and long before Imperial troops burned any farms, Boer invasion forces cheerfully looted and plundered those areas of Natal they had seized and declared to be part of the South African Republic. The commandos that streamed into British territory pillaged as they went and ransacked any farmsteads they came across driving terrified refugees before them.
‘Boer women followed the commandos, with their waggons, joyfully loading up with food and furniture, a splendid shopping-spree with nothing to pay! The piled-up carts and waggons passed through Bethal, arousing feelings of pleasure from the townspeople.’
When the town of Dundee was captured, the looting that followed was so bad that the republican commander, Commandant Joubert, furiously attempted to demote the leaders of one of the responsible commandos. Joubert had to back down, however, when the loot-laden men of the commando threatened to desert en masse if any action was taken against their leaders. Similarly, when Joubert tried to remonstrate with some Boers who had raided and pillaged a farm, they took the dressing-down light-heartedly, one admitting, ‘no one treated our Commandant in Chief very seriously’.
While he was generally regarded as a gentleman (assuming one overlooks his penchant for slavery), Joubert had little control over his forces, but the pillaging might have been even worse had a more dashing and aggressive leader been in command. As we know, with the vast majority of Natal’s Imperial forces bottled up in Ladysmith, the exasperatingly cautious Joubert inexplicably settled down to besiege them, ignoring the fact that the rest of Natal was open for the taking. Even when he was finally pricked into action by his more aggressive subordinates, Joubert still left some 18,000 of his men to continue the siege, leading a force of around only a few thousand to drive deeper into Natal towards Durban. As they advanced once more, federal raiding parties roamed the country, ‘capturing the whole of the livestock that they came across, and ruthlessly destroying the homesteads … the road going south from Mooi River to Nottingham Road presented a most remarkable appearance, for it was crowded with thousands of horses, cattle and sheep being driven by the flying farmers to positions of safety from the Boer raiders’.
Elements of the Piet Retief and Bethal commandos sacked the village of Pomeroy, leaving it almost entirely destroyed as the Boer raiders ‘looted every building, and burned down the gaol, post-office, hotel, and sundry other buildings’. The Boer capture of Weenen also saw the burghers indulging in a looting spree, loading their booty onto requisitioned wagons. They then smashed their way into the public houses and went on the sort of riotous drunken bender that is possible only when someone else is paying for the booze.
The wife of one Natalian farmer remembered a visit from a republican raiding party who interrupted the family at breakfast time. She ran outside to find them ‘cutting fences and riding in all directions, anywhere through the homestead, no discipline whatsoever, just like a pack of hounds when the fox is lost … three men came to commandeer our carriage horses, one riding-horse, and my youngest boy’s pony … when they entered the stable, I stood by my favourite and slated them. The men were not Boers, but some of the scum who have joined’. These raiders then helped themselves to ‘anything the wretches could lay hands on’. This plucky lady described how they had occupied a neighbouring farm and ‘broken and destroyed everything about this place, killed off his sheep etc. … the descriptions they themselves gave of wrecked homes was heart-rending. Some of them sported all sorts of loot, and were dressed in clothes that were never bought by them’.
Barely able to believe what the average burgher was capable of, reporter Bennet Burleigh recorded this ‘wild, criminal destruction of property’:
‘… the Boer was addicted to lifting cattle, confiscating forage, food and other articles belonging to private persons … he often wasted what he could not carry away, or pressed natives to ‘help themselves’. In this last raid of Joubert’s commando another stage has been reached. From Mooi River to Frere, not only has there been wholesale looting of cattle and all kinds of private property, but there have been repeated instances of wanton destructiveness. Judged by the canons of European or civilized warfare, the acts were those of brigandage, and the culprits, had they been caught red handed, deserved trial by drum-head court martial, and to be led out for execution.’
The diary of the Bishop of Natal, Arthur Baynes, is peppered with accounts of the looting and wanton vandalism suffered by his flock. He writes of one stud farm where the invaders helped themselves to £15,000-worth of high-quality horses —an enormous sum of money at the time. A few days later, the frustrated bishop angrily declared, ‘The Boers have been making free with my diocese and with all the farmers’ stock quite long enough.’ Later still, when the Imperial troops reoccupied Chieveley, the bishop described the state of the stationmaster’s house in which he had spent the night:
‘The house was in a sad state of dirt and disorder. The Boers had been in possession of it a little while back, and had ruthlessly destroyed everything they could lay hands on in the most wanton and brutal manner. They had hacked down the marble mantelpiece and left the pieces in the grate, had broken his cupboards and windows, torn the locks off his drawers and (most childish and wanton of all) had destroyed his cases of stuffed birds by pulling the heads off them all.’