Nurse, Nurse – it’s getting worse

Though their latter-day supporters desperately try to re-invent the Boers as the poor, innocent victims of the piece – honourable, peaceful men suddenly attacked by the wicked British Empire – the reality is, of course, rather different. Kruger’s marauding Commandos which started the war by invading Natal, Bechuanaland and the Cape Colony had an insatiable appetite for looting and pillage, and their intent was nothing less than to establish a vast Afrikaans Empire, supplanting the British as the dominant power in the region.

Here is a letter which was forwarded to me by a friend, and which appeared in the Aberdeen Journal on the 17th of January 1900. Written by a Scots girl who lived through the initial Boer invasions, it gives a good idea of how poorly the refugees fleeing the Transvaal were treated by these ‘noble’ republicans and is thus an eye-opening first-hand account of events… well, for any who are not still totally blinkered to reality by Apartheid-era propaganda, of course.



Miss Colina Macleay, daughter of Mr H.M. Macleay, merchant, Dingwall, who has been engaged as a nurse in Ladysmith, and latterly at the Government House Hospital at Martizburg, the base hospital for Buller’s army, sends home a long and interesting letter to her parents. Miss Macleay had not previously written since November last. In the course of her letter she writes:

I may tell you a few things in general since I left Johannesburg. I had come from the Free State, where I had been serving as a nurse. I was pounced upon by the Boer officials, and having on my nursing uniform, and as they thought they might commandeer me as a nurse for the Boer Army. I was taken specially in charge. I was put into the guard’s van as the train was crowded. Indeed many people were standing on the steps, while others were huddled in trucks and open wagons like sheep. When we got to Pretoria I was arrested, and was taken away by two filthy looking Dutch policemen, who put me into prison. Oh, what a night I spent. As I was dressed in my Nurse’s uniform I was taken before Kruger and other prominent men to be examined. I got the hint that I was to be sent off to’ nurse the Dutch. I resolved, if I was to be sent with their ambulance, that at the first chance I got I would try to escape over to the British ambulance on the field. Next morning after further examination I was allowed off. I caught the first train, crowded beyond anything you can imagine, and had to go into a coal truck with fifty white and black people, all mixed, including coolies, samies
[?], Kaffirs, Cornish miners, and other whites. On our way out of the Transvaal we were detained at lots of stations, and insulted everywhere. The heat was intense, with a broiling sun and nothing to protect us from it. And we also suffered from thirst. When we saw a water pump we would try to get out, but guns were pointed at us and we were threatened if we dared to move.   All the time the fellows at the stations were drinking and laughing and wasting the water to tempt us all the more. The only thing we had in our truck were two bottles of brandy, and they all came to the conclusion, as I was a nurse, that it should be handed to me to be doled out as medicine, and yet there was a funny side to our circumstances. You should see the people coming to me to feel their pulses, saying they had a bad heart (of course expecting brandy). I would carefully deal out half a teaspoonful. One poor child died in our truck, and our train stopped for a few minutes to bury the body at the railway side on the veldt.  I think I shall never forget the cries of the poor children for meat and drink. We were glad to take mealies from the coolies. After such a journey we came at last to Portuguese territory, to a village. Everyone in our train made for food and water. The inhabitants had not enough for us all, as every train of refugees passing that way raided the place. The men in out train went here and there begging for food or stealing it. The villagers piled on the price – 15s for a bottle of coffee. Still, it was acceptable, and it was wonderful to see how we all got on together, nobody eating more than his barest share of food which we managed to collect. At length we arrived at Delagoa Bay at one o’clock in the morning, only to find the place crowded, with people lying in the station, parks, and other available corners. A Committee of kind ladies and gentlemen and the Governor met all the refugee trains, and did the best they could for the poorer ones. As I was a nurse and in uniform I was taken to the Salvation Army Hall, and I had there to lie on the floor with hundreds of others (women and children). I paid a sovereign a night for the latter favour. Those who had no money got lodgings for nothings, but those who were supposed to have any cash were made to pay so as to support those who had none. The price of food again was dreadfully high. I stayed there for two nights, and for the next three or four nights I slept in the Governor’s house.  Well, I had only £5 in my possession which was  exactly the  fare by boat to Durban. We had to go out to the Durban boat in tugs, and the tug-men charged £1 for that. Fortunately I got out in the Governor’s boat, otherwise I would have been landed and in a fix. On board there hundreds lying on the deck and every corner was packed with human beings. There were many sad sights to be seen. One poor old man came on board dying of Bright’s disease. Nobody took any notice of him. He was poor, had no money, and no friends. I volunteered to nurse him, and did not leave him for two days and two nights, but he died and was buried at sea. Arriving in Durban, I did not know what to do. I had not a penny of money, but as I went to the station to inquire about trains I suddenly came across an old patient of mine, who told me a special was just starting with the Gordons and Dublins.  Not knowing I was penniless, this friend got me a pass to travel first class. A lady was sitting in the corner of the compartment in tears, and when I entered she got up her her arms around me, exclaiming, “Oh, nurse; are you going to the front?”  I said “Yes”.  Then she said “For God’s sake be kind to my husband if you come across him”. I found out afterwards she was the wife of Colonel Colquhoun, one of the Luss people.  At Martizburg I was so exhausted I felt I could go no further. It was eleven o’clock at night. I meant to go a hotel and give my watch and instruments as security for the pay. But I went from hotel to hotel and from house to house until two in the morning, and each one was fuller than the other, all the refugees sleeping on floors, billiard tables, chairs. Etc. I could not plead for even a chair, as I had no money. It was pouring rain all the time, so I went back to the station, but, alas, it was shut. I was just going to sit down by the roadside when I saw a park a short distance away. I crept in there, spread my rug, and lay down quite done up I neither laughed or cried, but slept. Next morning I went to the Governor, as I thought it best to tell him exactly how I stood. He gave me a pass or permit to travel to Ladysmith, and he also gave me my breakfast. I went to Ladysmith, and having been taken in hand by the doctors I was all right. Shortly afterwards I went on with the doctors and the troops to Dundee. I nursed the wounded off Talana Hill in the church and hall, and was then sent down with the Red Cross train to the wounded at Chieveley, then to Colenso. I was then sent out with the Red Cross train for the wounded of the famous armoured train; came back, and was then sent down here (Martizburg) where Government House has been turned into a hospital for our troops. Thus it is I escaped being shut up in Ladysmith.


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