Johannesburg, December 1889
My dad was a magistrate in the district of Woodstock in Cape Town. By the time when I decided on a career, my dad had educated me about the evils of humanity and the brutality of slavery. He was my best friend in the entire world and when I told him that I did not desire to study further, as he did after school, but rather choose to ride transport between Cape Town and Johannesburg, he did not like it, but he supported me. He saw why I had to do it.
I did not follow any particular passion other than a general quest for adventure. I knew that the wilderness of the interior of South Africa was disappearing on account of the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley and gold on the Rand, where a new city, Johannesburg, was fast developing. We lived in changing times and that I wanted to see the “old life” before it disappeared for good and only stories of it remained. When I told him about my plans he did not immediately give me a reply. Not for days and I could see that he was thinking about it. At night I heard my bedroom door in the old house open and I knew that he was standing in the doorway, watching me as I lay there half asleep.
A few days later, when I came home from the mountain with Minette, he called me to the stables. There was a mare, light brown with a white mark on her forehead. I never saw her before. My dad handed me the rains and said that I would need a good horse. We never spoke about it again.
The morning of my first expedition to Johannesburg came. The three wagons left at 2:00 in the morning. I could hear the driver call the name of the oxen and cracking the whip as they moved down the hill from our house towards the main road out of Cape Town, past the Shambles abattoir where David de Villiers Graaff now ran Combrink & Co. and the new city railway station. I was too excited to go back to sleep, as the plan was and as the custom developed. At 5:00 a.m. my mom called me. The coffee and rusks were ready.
The coal stove warmed the kitchen. My dad poured the coffee into the saucer and slurped it up. He continued doing this, as was his custom, till the cup of coffee was done. He walked over to the hat rack where he fetched his felt hat and cravats and said to me, “Come, I ride with you till you catch up with the wagons.” When we got to the wagons my dad stopped and I rode up next to him. We shook hands. Firm and warm. As if we would never see each other again. “Look after yourself! Be careful! Be vigilant! Bring back great stories to tell and when you are back – tell me everything. Leave out nothing!”
This became our routine. My dad would ride out with me till I get to the wagons. He would greet me in almost the exact same way every time. Many days upon my return to Cape Town, my dad would be waiting for me at the Durbanville hills and we would ride back together the last few hours. He would tell me about my brothers and how their studies are progressing, the health of my mom and he would have me recount in the greatest detail every detail of my trip. Even though he did not officially approve of how I chose to occupy myself, I knew that he was vicariously living every moment with me and through me. When I heard him re-tell my stories to Uncle Jacobus, sitting under the big trees next to his enormous home by large wooden tables, eating the finest bacon imported from C&T Harris in Wiltshire, England, I knew that he was proud of me and did not care that people frowned upon the choices I make.
We all knew that Johannesburg would soon be reached from Cape Town by a two-day train ride. (1) The advantage for the businessman and the material development of the continent was clear, but a deep sadness came upon me every time I think of that, knowing that I was part of the last generation to see this land unspoiled. My dad also knew this and when I told him one day how few elephants I saw between Cape Town and Worcester, he remarked that we came to build a new land but in reality, we are destroying God’s. “Soon”, he said, “the great beasts of the field who made the roads we travel and who sustained life here for untold years would be gone and we would be left having destroyed nature – on what will we pray then?” My dad was a great fan of Alexander von Humboldt, the Prussian naturalist who explored South America, who gave us the word “cosmos” and made the idea popular that everything in life is connected. He wrote with great passion on the devastating impact of colonialism in Latin America and my dad often remarked how the same devastation is happening across our land.
It was indeed the giant elephants who created the network of connecting roads across the entire Africa. No other animal has the ability to clear a road through rugged terrain like a herd of them. Ancient elephant migration paths across Africa have been used by other animals for migration since the dawn of time. They were the arteries that distributed humanity across this vast land acting as human migration routes. African tribes traveled on it to trade salt and copper. European settlers with their ox wagons used these paths to connect territories. Dutch farmers, disgruntled by the abolition of slavery and in general revolt against the Cape Government trecked along them out of the Colony into the interior to form a new people, the Boers. Along these ancient roads, I now transport material and supplies to farmers developing towns.
Not only are the animals disappearing but the way of life was changing for all the peoples who call this land home. There are the rugged Boers who farm in parts of this desolate land and who live semi-pastoral, semi-hunting existences. They are becoming completely subjected to European laws and customs. Soon, the only features that will set them apart from European trends will be their almost universal disdain for the English, their strict Calvinist religion, and their language.
I have heard stories, no doubt exaggerated, as these tales are, of Englishmen who lost their way and when they happen upon a Boer homestead, being turned away without food or water only to die in the wilderness. I wonder if these stories were fact or only fables intended as a warning for English would-be travelers to these lands. Theologically, they remained isolated and free from the softening that took place in Europe and England of the harsh positions following the reformation. In a way, it was much on account of their faith that they were able to endure the hardships of the frontier, as was the case in countries like America.
In any event, I wanted to travel through their lands and experience their warm culture, their openness to strangers (as long as you don’t speak English), their perseverance of their faith and their dedication to their own family and kind, before their way of life as frontiersmen change forever.
What is true for the Boer, was true for the indigenous African tribes. Their cultures have been in decline since the Dutch, German, French and the English arrived at the Cape of Good Hope and ventured into their lands. I grew up with the boys from all the different peoples of this land but often wondered about their beliefs and stories and language before they came to the Cape. Now they are Christian and Muslim and they speak English or Dutch, as I do. I wondered what was their language in Malaysia or India, in Madagascar and in Mozambique. What was the names of their gods and what stories did their parents tell them of their ancestors? What games did their people play which they don’t even know? I have seen the Khoi burial sites at the foot of Signal Hill. I heard the stories how they danced when the full moon appeared and how the mountain was sacred to them. It saddened me that I could not find a single Khoi boy who knew the story of Table Mountain or if their worriers and hunters ever climbed to the top. I knew the caves where escaped slave hid out; I heard from the old people how one could see their fires burn at night but these were sad stories, testimony to the cruelty of humans. The lost stories of the Khoi were the stories of a spirit world which existed in the dreams and trances of Sharma’s. These stories are lost.
It was as if I wanted to see what remained for myself so that I could one day tell the story of this land from my own first-hand account before it is gone forever and there is no one to remember or willing to re-tell it. My quest was not just for adventure, but to see and experience so that I could one day remember! It was spiritual!
This was not to say that riding transport was not financially rewarding. Some years I was able to come home with as much as GBP4000 ($20 000) in my pocket, every 6 months. Without knowing it, I was receiving a better education than any university could ever offer. I once stayed over on a farm in the district of Potchefstroom, owned by Petrus Jordaan. His father knew the legendary Boer leader after whom Pretoria was named, Andries Pretorius, personally. The Jordaan family was a traditional Boer family who lived exactly the kind of life that I wanted to observe up-close. The immediate and extended family all lived together. There was strength in numbers, something that was very useful in a frontier situation.
Everybody had their work for each day. There was no time to be idle, except on a Sunday, which was the Lords Day. Meal times were very important for the entire family. Everybody gathered for breakfast, lunch, and supper around Petrus Jordaan’s big dining room table. A bowl of water was poured and passed from one person to the next and everybody washed their hands in it. The water was never changed during the washing and the visitor always washed last. Only then was the water thrown out.
Each meal was an elaborate affair with food that people from the city could only dream of. At night, after supper, one of the kids would run to fetch the big family bible. It was handed down from generation to generation, translated into old Dutch. Petrus would read a passage and pray. After bible reading, the family lingered at the table and shared stories from the day until either Petrus or his dad, Stefanus, would get up and announce that it was a hard day and time to retire to bed.
One such evening, Petrus’ father, Oom Stefanus Jordaan told me about Andries Pretorius. Under his leadership, a group of Boers tried to set up a republic south of the Vaal River. A struggle for independence followed lasting seven or eight years until the British won a decisive battle at Boomplaats and Pretorius fled across the Vaal with a group of his followers to set up the Republic of the Transvaal (“Trans,” as in “across” and “Vaal,” as in “the Vaal river”)
The Khoi and the San had their beliefs which shaped their actions. I had mine and Pretorius had his. I wanted to understand why a faction of the Boers seemed so preoccupied with slavery. Oom Stefanus did not mind when I asked him about it. He explained that for Pretorius and some of his follower’s slavery is an inherent right and duty of the white man in this savage land. One of Pretorius’ favourite scriptures was from the Old Testament where Israel is commanded to either slay or enslave the surrounding nations. To him, the natives were the people of the cities who were “far off” and he had the Divine command to enslave them. His was the nation of God, the chosen, who would bring Gods light into a savage, godless land. The Boer had a God-given right to occupy the lands of these people. They were to him the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites whom the Lord had commanded to destroy. (2)
The policy has been carried out in a cruel and relentless way. Entire tribes were sometimes massacred. Adults were killed and children carried off and indentured on farms. Indenture was a savage replacement for slavery where the indentured person could be sold as a tradable commodity. They sometimes received a small allowance for their labour and sometimes not. The big supposed advantage over slavery was that the period of indenture had a definite end-date when they would be freed and when they would sometimes receive additional compensation for their labour, or sometimes, not. They would, sometimes, receive land from the farmer to settle permanently on at the end of the indenture, and, sometimes, nothing. Oom Stefanus told me how even leaders like Paul Kruger participated in these schemes and that the policy was almost universal in the Transvaal Republic. (3)
The English, despite their own atrocities against the indigenous tribes of Southern Africa, were fierce opponents of slavery and Oom Stefanus told me bluntly that the continuation of the practice of slavery in the Transvaal was the spiritual motivation for the English to annex it and for the Anglo-Boer war of 1880 and 1881. (3)
Visiting Boer farms in the Transvaal left me with a bitter-sweet taste in my mouth. On the one hand, these people were the warmest and heartiest people I knew. Rugged, industrious and hard working with a faith that almost moved mountains. On the other hand, I was angry to see the little black kids, indentured by people like the Jordaan’s on account of the fact that they were caught on his farm or captured when the Boers raided native villages or bought as “black ivory” on auctions like you would trade cattle.
An indignation rose up in my heart against this cruelest of practices when I hear things like Petrus Jordaan’s wife says that after a few years, these young ones accept their fate and become accustomed to their new life, as the memories of their parents fade. They become so loyal to the Boer family that they are prepared to fight against the English with the Boers. When I hear stories like these, my mind wonders back to the Cape and the many black friends I grew up with and call my friends to this day.
These are however not the only stories I heard on my many travels through the interior of this vast land. I can honestly say that I have heard similar stories of regular, unspeakable cruelty perpetrated by almost every people in Southern Africa against neighbours. Hottentot’s who raided Bushman villages and killed the adults and carried away the children. The British, waging war against the native tribes, dispossessing their lands without compensation. Another great lesson for me was that not all people think with one heart and mind. Among the English, there are people who support the Boer and have compassion for his course and there are those who oppose it. There are Boers who support slavery and those who are as fiercely opposed to it as some of the Brittish. Not all people are the same.
Of all the peoples of the interior, I feel closest to the Boers of the Orange Free State. Not only on account of the fact that they do not practice the indenture of native people but a family member on my mother’s side, Oom Piet Rademan, moved to the Northern Free State and now farms very near the point where I cross the Vaal River on my way to Johannesburg. I made it a habit to set up camp at Viljoensdrift and then undertake the 12 hour horse ride to their farm, Rooiwal, in the Vredefort district to spend a few days there before I return to my camp and cross the Vaal River on my way to Johannesburg
Oom Pieter Jacobus Rademan (born on 13 September 1838) grew up in Swellendam in the Cape Colony and moved North to the Orange Free State where he met and married Susanna Maria Geldenhuys from Kroonstad. He settled at Rooiwal in 1872 where they now live with their 10 children.
When I started the transport company, I used to camp on his farm and I bring him building material from the Cape. These days, his barns and homestead are all built and I carry the tobacco for Oom Piet that my dad sends him and spices for Aunt Santjie in my saddle bag. The trip to Rooiwal is a short and pleasant detour. Sometimes I will take Aunt Santjie thread from my mom or recipe books that she buys for her from a dealer in Adderley Street. (4)
Oom Piet lived to the ripe old age of 99. I was, in later years, told the story that when Oom Piet was advanced in years, he thought that his dominie (pastor) did not visit him often enough (home visitation by the pastor was very important to the Boers). He instructed his workers to harness the horses and prepare the carriage. He rode to Vredefort where he stopped in front of the pastor’s house. Ds. Van Vuuren invited him to get down and come in, but he refused. He told Ds. Van Vuuren that he is an old man and may pass away any day now. He is scared that he will die and when he gets to heaven, the Lord will ask him how it’s going with his servant in Vredefort and that he will have to tell the Lord that he does not know because Ds. Van Vuuren no longer visits him at his home! (5)
Oom Piet’s faith is of a milder nature than some of the extreme positions of the Transvaal Boers. His is a sincere faith similar to that of my Uncle, Dominie Jan (my mothers brother), who was heading up the school where David de Villiers Graaff did his night classes in Cape Town. Oom Piet was a simple man who tended his Afrikaner cattle and planted his corn on the rocky hills surrounding his simple but functional home. His children are the backbone of his workforce and the small number of natives who work for them are treated in fairness and allowed to live in the way that they have been accustomed to for hundreds of years, receiving a wage at the end of every week. (4) There are, for sure, stories doing the rounds in the family of him and his wife who could he hard taskmasters if the workers did not perform their duties up to standard but of the practice of indenture there was no sign and they desired nothing else but the peaceful existence of all peoples.
Oom Piet’s farm became a place where I would have some of my happiest times ever. I visited there as often as I could. In later years my grandfather, Oupa Eben, and grandmother, Ouma Susan, obtained the farm next to him, called Stillehoogte. (6) The northern Free State became my second home and from their farms, I could see the herds of wild animals starting to dwindle, even during the short time I rode transport.
Riding transport is by its very nature a lonely business and it afforded me much time to reflect on all these matters. I would sit at night, at my campfire and realise that there is much bad and much good in this land. In the end, I would think to myself, it all goes back to the heart of each individual man and woman. How it is that some of the Boers, the English, the local indigenous tribes, the coloured people, Indians and even some Chinese can treat others with unspeakable cruelty such people can rightfully be called “savages.”
On the other hand, I have seen that there are many good people in this world like Oom Piet and his family who desire nothing more than to have a quite life, tending to their own business and living in peace with all humans. These are the meek who will inherit the earth; the pure in heart, who will see God and the peacemakers who will be called children of God. Theirs are not the stories that they write about in England and America but it does not make it less true than the stories of cruelty.
Evil is not restricted to one nation or one people. One faction among any people may have grown more accustomed to evil or may have a greater lust for it and may even make it policy, as was done in the Transvaal, but I realised that it is hard to call them eviler than the British or even some of the native tribes.
These did not remain merely matters of curiosity to me. They became the force that drove me into a very particular direction. In a few short years, I would turn my back on riding transport and embark on an entirely different adventure.
In the ebb and flow of human affairs, I must determine my own place. I saw clearly that the seeds of the Anglo-Boer War of 1880 and 1881 were still germinating in the soil of Southern Africa. Despite the fact that the Boers were victorious against England, I could not see the pressure groups in London relenting on the issue of slavery. On the other hand, the Transvaal Boers’ view of the native was a matter of religion to them and I could not see this change easily. The powerful British Empire was dealt a bloody nose by a small group of Boers and this would certainly be redressed, especially in light of the discovery of gold at the Rand and the influx of English people (immigrants) lusting after the gold.
I saw many competing nations with many diametrically opposing goals and desires and many scores to settle. I could not see powerful black tribes ever exist in South Africa, independently, alongside the powerful British empire or the Boer republic of the Transvaal. The natives tribes, on the other hand, were humiliated, their men killed, their women and children carried off and their land taken. The resentment that is festering in such peoples cannot be ignored or suppressed forever before it turns into war.
Whichever way I think about it, peace was not something I saw for this land for the near future and I had to think deeply about what I wanted to dedicate my life to and how to make a living. In any event, it would be foolish to think that one would be able to ride transport through this land, uninterrupted while clouds of war gather.
As these things were becoming clear to me, I embarked on another trip to the Transvaal from Cape Town. Little did I know that this would be the trip where a most fortuitous event would occur. A problem that would lead to a meeting which would lead to a plan that would result in the rest of my life. On this trip, I met the most interesting Boer from Potchefstroom, Oscar Klynveld. This trip became the transition into the greatest adventure, ever, born from the seeds of war!
(c) eben van tonder
Stay in touch
Like our Facebook page and see the next post. Like, share, comment, contribute!
(1) The railway linking Johannesburg and Cape Town was completed in 1892.
(2) Recorded by Trollop in his history of South Africa; cited in a newspaper article about slavery in the Transvaal. Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), 30 December 1880, page 4, “The Revolt of the Pro-Slavery Boers.”
(3) From an article, setting out the case for the First Anglo-Boer war of 1880/ 1881 and the continued annexation of the Transvaal; published in The Times (London, Greater London, England), 22 Feb 1881, page 9.
(4) Information supplied by Nerine Rademan Leonard and Jan Kok.
(5) The story was told by Oom Jan Kok, my mothers oldest brother. Oom Pieter was their grandfather on their mothers side, which makes him my great grandfather. My grandmother, Ouma Susan, was taking care of Oom Piet till his death and was only allowed to marry my grandfather, Oupa Eben, after Oom Piet passed away. The day of his death, his pipe was still warm. He smoked till the day of his death.
(6) Stillehoogte was the farm of my grandparents, Oupa Eben and Ouma Susan. Every long-weekend and every school holiday we spent on the farm in the Northern Free State.
Stillehoogte belonged to Oom Piet Rademan and Ouma Santjie inhereted it from her father. My Ouma Susan Kok inhereted the farm since she had the Rademan (Geldenhuys name – Susanna Maria).
Aunt Meraai (Oom Sybrand and Oom Michiel Straus’s mom) had inherited the farm Leeuspruit because she had her Grandmom Uys’ name and Leeuspruit belonged to Oom Giel Uys.
As far as Oom Jan knows, the farm Stillehoogte was a farm on its own and not part of Rooiwal. The other Rademan children also inherited land in this area. Oom Jan is also not sure if this was part of Rooiwal. Oom Freek got the farm Rosebank. Oom Attie got the farm Goudinie , Oom Lourence the farm Windhoek. All these could have been one farm because they boarder each other.
The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio), 1 November 1908, Page 31.