Bacon Curing Systems: From Antiquity till Now.

Bacon Curing Systems: From antiquity till Now.
Eben van Tonder
18 June 2021
(Revised 4 June 2023)


In the development of bacon curing technology, four iconic curing methods stand between the old dry-cured system and the modern system of the direct addition of nitrites to curing brines and the latest development which is the fermentation of meat creating nitric oxide directly from L-Arginine without the use of nitrate or nitrite. In my book on the history of bacon curing technology, Bacon & the Art of Living, the following chapters are dedicated to these different systems of curing.

In my book, I presented the story in narrative form. This style may be annoying to some but it proved to be a very useful investigative technique as it forced me to think through every process in the 1st person and allowed me to see relationships between seemingly unconnected bits of technology in a completely new and holistic way. By, as it were, “living in the moment,” I gained insights I would never have seen if I simply reported the features of each system separately.

Bacon by Robert Goodrich. A man who inspires me more than he can imagine!

The Progression of Curing Systems

Here are different chapters that deal with the various stages in the progression of curing systems.

– Dry Cured Bacon

The bacon curing system existed for hundreds of years and included only dry ingredients and later dry ingredients with wet brine added.

– The Empress of Russia’s Brine

During the time of Catherine, the Great of Russia, salt was heavily taxed. She had a lively interest in the latest developments in food technology and the excessive cost of salt was a major concern for her. It was under her rule that she or someone in her court suggested that instead of discarding old used brine, the brine should be boiled, impurities removed, and it should be used repeatedly. Her brine, called the Empress of Russia’s Brine contained salt, sugar and saltpetre. Bacterial reduction of saltpetre (nitrates) to nitrites in the old brine would have caused the curing of subsequent batches to be sped up considerably.

Westphalia hams were famous for their use of the Empress of Russia’s brine from a time before it was introduced in Ireland and the cold smoking process which was unlike anything being done at the time when “chimney smoking” was the order of the day.

– Mild Cured Bacon

Mild Cured Bacon is the industrialisation of bacon production. Invented by William Oake in Northern Ireland some time before 1837, a key concept namely the re-use of the old brine was a progression of the Russian brine of Catherine.

William Oake’s main progression of Catherina the Great’s brine was “not to boil” the brine between batches and all that was required was to replenish the salt, sugar and nitrates (saltpetre) as was prescribed by Catherine the Great. Interestingly enough, he managed to eliminate curing from a technical perspective by adding sal prunella to the brine which contains sulphites. The result was preservation, but not through curing. The bacteria were impacted by the sulphites and nitrate was not reduced to nitrite. This reduction happens microbially or through enzymes in mammalian physiology. In curing, these enzymes are active in bacteria which reduces the amino acids in the meat protein. This is unfortunately a long process as is witnessed in dry-cured systems where only salt is used. So, in Oake’s system curing did not take place and his bacon was pale.

At the time (mid-1800s) in the UK, a lot of work was done to convince the public that “paled bacon is healthy bacon”. One of the biggest curers to have ever lived, Aron Vecht, described why this was seen as healthier in an interview which I publish in “Interview with Aron Vecht 1894.” He lived through these marketing campaigns as a child in London and he reflects on this in his interview.

Bacteriology was in its infancy and the dissemination of knowledge of them was not universal and in England, the mechanisms and chemistry in curing and the effect of bacteria on the process were poorly understood as you will see if you read Vechts interview. The result of all of this was, as impactful as Oake’s system was on industrialising bacon production, the result was pale bacon.

– Sweet Cured Bacon

Invented by Harris in Calne, early in the 1840s, the “sweet” in the name for the system and Oake’s “mild” refers to the same thing namely a less harsh salty taste. Both Harris and Oake, at around the same time addressed the same issue in two different ways. Harris did not reuse the old brine but a combination of smokehouse development, the inclusion of brine soaking in the curing process and the injection of meat allowed them to reduce the salt levels, yielding a “sweeter”, less salty brine.

– Pale Dried Bacon and Wiltshire Curing or Tank Cured Bacon

Pale dried bacon was invented under John Harris in Calne in the 1890s and without a doubt in response to the success of mild cured bacon by William Oake and the marketing campaigns which persuaded the public that pale bacon is healthier bacon. In pale dried bacon, the bacon is dried without smoking it. Over time the curers in Wiltshire with the help of work from the University of Bristol “corrected” the Oake system by removing the sulphites and further used the system almost completely unchanged which yielded what became known as Wiltshire curing or Tank curing in the closing years of the 1800s or early 1900s.

Wiltshire Cured and Ice-Cured Bacon

Before the Wiltshire cure was firmly established, the Harris operation launched Ice Cured bacon which incorporates refrigeration technology into meat curing.

– Auto Cured-, Rapid Cured- and Tank Cured Bacon

Auto curing was invented by William Harwood Oake, the son of William Oake from Limerick in Ireland who invented mild curing. William Harwood Oake brought mild curing to England when he opened a curing operation with two partners in Gillingham, Dorset. He invented auto curing which is a progression of Rapid Cure invented by Robert Davison, an Englishman working in America.

– The Vecht’s Curing Method and Mild Curing by Henry Denny

Henry Denny from Ireland invented a mechanical method of singeing pork and used refrigeration to achieve less salty bacon. His process was effectively copied by the Dutch Orthodox Jewish master curer, Aron Vecht, who incorporated this into the Oake’s system, retaining the use of sal prunella and yielding pale meat. His intention was not always to produce bacon as he was responsible for supplying what was called mess pork to the shipping industries. He used the system to create bacon also and established curing operations and bacon brands in New Zealand and Australia. He did not only copy but also made important progressions based on the use of refrigeration.

– The Direct Addition of Nitrite

The work thus far was focussing on an “indirect” formation of nitrite. Ladislav NACHMÜLLNER invented the first curing brine legally sold containing sodium nitrites directly in 1915 in Prague. The system was made popular around the globe by the Griffiths Laboratories. The direct addition of nitrites to curing Brines is covered in two chapters namely:

– Grid Bacon

A system pioneered in Germany in the early 2000s. This final article of interest is not part of Bacon & the Art of Living, but it fits here because it represents the latest thinking about the most modern curing system.

– Bacterial Fermentation of Meat

Where nitrite was previously accessed in England through brine fermentation, it has been discovered in recent years that bacteria are able to ferment the meat itself and create Nitric Oxide from the proteins in the meat to effect curing. I dealt with this probably the most extensively in Chapter 02.00: The Curing Molecule.

Doing this summary made me realise that I need to add the following chapters.

  • A chapter dealing with the quest to “commercialise” a brine system using bacterial fermentation. Together with Richard Bosman in a South African company we appropriately called Oake Woods (Pty) Ltd, we are actively involved in this pursuit.
  • I realise that I also must do a chapter dealing with plant-based curing where nitrate is accessed through bacteria to produce nitrite and thus cure meat. There are major benefits to this system, but Richard and I are not satisfied with it but seek to provide nitrite-free bacon through continued bacterial action. Like the fermentation brine, our work is housed in Oake Woods. We commercialise this through BeetBacon.

From Antiquity Till Now: Health Considerations and History

The final chapters of Bacon & the Art of Living put the health considerations and the future development of bacon in perspective. Even though Richard and I are heavily involved in creating nitrite-free bacon, the fact is that nitrite itself is not something to be frowned upon under all circumstances. In the closing chapters, I deal head-on with this matter and provide the vision and road map to changing bacon into a super-food.

The Story of Bacon

I summarise the development of curing in one chapter in Bacon &the Art of Living:

Generally, what you have in Bacon & the Art of Living is the most complete work on the history of bacon in existence! I have to say something about the plotline. The story takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. The characters are modern people, most of whom are based on real people and they interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this. As the title indicates, it is far more than only the history of bacon as it relates these events to a personal quest to find purpose in life through the pursuit of bacon. In the process family, friends and concepts such as nationalism and faith are examined in a way relevant to the pursuit of excellence.

The index page to Bacon & the Art of Living: Bacon & the Art of Living

“Canadian Bacon” by Kevin Clees. A master at the art and a true inspiration!

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The complete history of bacon.

Chapter 11.03: The Jewish Master Curer and the Prince of Ireland

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting.  Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.

The Jewish Master Curer and the Prince of Ireland

1 April 1920

Dear children,

Since the Boer War ended Minette and I returned to New Zealand often. For a time, we even considered moving there. It would seem though, that our lives and times are tied to Africa. I did not mind this. The thought of being continents removed from you is too much to even contemplate. On the other hand, it is Africa I fell in love with from my youth when I crossed the interior of South Africa many times riding transport. The ancient cultures and technology of the mysterious peoples, closely connected to the land in a way which Europe has lost, mesmerised me as I could see in their comings and goings a way of life completely appealing to me. In the end, Africa did not push me away as it does so many Europeans – she welcomed me and introduced me to her innermost secrets. I don’t think this had anything to do with being born here – she initiated it when I responded with awe and thankfulness, and in doing so she continued to reveal more, drawing me ever closer. This is an experience I will write about when I’m done with the great work of Bacon & the Art of Living.

You know that from the time when you can remember, my great passion has been to understand bacon curing. It was the purpose of my trip to Denmark and England where I was introduced to much of the story of bacon. The most ancient development was dry-cured bacon. The bacon curing system existed for hundreds of years and included only dry ingredients and later dry ingredients with wet brine added. The principal objective was to dry the bacon quickly using copious amounts of salt to remove moisture before bacteria could and the breakdown of the flesh could overtake the curing process. (Dry Cured Bacon)

Mild Cured Bacon was probably the first major progression from this where the power of the old brine was used to speed up curing allowing for a “milder cure.” The invention was by the chemist William Oake from Northern Ireland sometime before 1837. (Mild Cured Bacon) The Harris family in Calne gave us Sweet Cured bacon in the 1840s which did not use the old brine but hot smoking was the key feature that sped curing sufficiently up that less salt was needed resulting in a piece of less dry and far less salty bacon. Sweeter! The result was Sweet Cured Harris Bacon. Pale Dried Bacon likewise came from the Harris family in Calne under John Harris in the 1890s. It was dried with no smoking and rendered pale and dry bacon that could keep a long time. Wiltshire Curing or Tank Cured Bacon was used by the Wiltshire curers in the closing years of the 1800s or early 1900s, which was identical in almost every way to the mild cured technique of William Oake from Ireland. (Harris Bacon – From Pale Dried to Tank Curing).

Auto Curing was invented by William Harwood Oake, the son of William Oake from Limerick in Ireland who invented mild curing. William Harwood Oake in all likelihood was one of the people who brought mild curing to England when he opened a curing operation with two partners in Gillingham, Dorset. Tank curing was probably independently incorporated into the Harris operation when they got the technology from Denmark. The basics of Auto Curing were, however, not developed by Oake him but by an English team of researchers in America under Robert Davison. American Auto cured system was developed by Davison in 1843 and Oake’s Auto Cure system was a progression of this system. (Oake Woods & Co., Ltd., Rapid – and Auto Cured Bacon)

A revolution followed that saw the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines under American leadership replacing all these systems. Ladislav Nachmüllner invented the first curing brine legally sold containing sodium nitrites in 1915 in Prague. The system was made popular around the globe by the Griffiths Laboratories. The direct addition of nitrites to curing Brines is covered in two letters in Bacon & the Art of Living, namely The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – the Master Butcher from Prague and The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – The Spoils of War.

Within the grand story of bacon, there are two other developments that fit into the time before Harris invented Pale Dried bacon in the 1890s namely the alternative methods for producing mild cured bacon by the Irish firm of Henry Denny and the system of the Dutch master curer, Aron Vecht. It’s best to deal with these two progressions together because Vecht’s method was essentially the same as what Henry Denny patented with a slight temperature adjustment in shipping. While Denny’s work was focused on Ireland and Denmark, Vecht took the system to the southern English colonies.

I learned about Vecht in New Zealand. It was these islands that he covered from north to south on horseback. When a New Zealander, Dr James Anderson asked me if I know him, I did not. It was Jim who told me not only about Vecht, the Dutch Master Curer, the travelling Jew and adventurer who fought in the Anglo Boer war on the side of the Boers against the English, who claim to have invented his own form of mild cured bacon, essentially copying the method of Henry Denny and adapted bacon transport conditions on cargo ships operating between New Zealand, Australia and England to suit bacon better. It was in studying his curing method that I discovered the true genius of Henry Denny, the prince of Irish bacon curers who established one of the largest curing operations on earth and did the last remaining work on bacon curing before Vecht incorporated bacon transport to frozen conditions as opposed to chilling the meat. It would only be the direct addition of nitrites to curing brines that would overtake these developments, but even then, Vecht’s work on refrigeration would stand.

Aron Vecht: His Life

Aron Vecht was born in a small village in Holland and educated in trade and Jewish orthodoxy. The Jewish Herald, Victoria described him as “one of the earliest pioneers of Zionism.” Physically he had an impressive posture. He is described as a “commanding figure, long, black beard, and [his] lustrous eyes gave him a close resemblance in appearance to the great Zionist leader, Theodor Herzl.” (Jewish Herald) He is tall, and well built with an excellent carriage, with a pair of blazing, big eyes, tinged with the melancholic brown. People described him as the most excellent travel companion. I imagine him to be very persuasive and charismatic. A born leader!

He soon moved from Holland to England. In London, he made a living buying and selling bacon. The curiosity of an orthodox Jew who consulted the Code of Jewish Law or the Shulchan Aruch frequently, being the bacon trade was explained by him “that he never saw nor handled the produce.” (Jewish Herald) A claim is made that Vecht married a member of the wealthy Van den Bergh clan in London. Records from the Cape Archive indicates that he married Bernadine Vecht (nee Coopman). Dr Anderson explained that she was part of the Van den Berg clan; she was the daughter of Jacob Coopman and Catharina van den Bergh. Vecht’s first venture is into journalism and he launches the now-defunct Jewish Standard newspaper, to combat the Jewish Chronicle. In London, he met a young and aspiring Jewish writer, Israel Zangwill who makes his debut writing for this newspaper with a weekly humorous column, “Morour and Charouseth.”

After the failure of the newspaper, Vecht developed a desire to travel. This led to a lifetime of wondering which earned him the nickname, “The Wandering Jew.” The Jewish Herald reports that “this wandering Jew’s first trip sent him to Australia. He went not single-handed, but with a large family. They travelled in a slow boat; their stock of Kosher provisions gave out but that was a mere incident. To keep up his family spirits, Wanderer-in-chief got the ship’s printer to print a most remarkable imaginary menu for a Purim dinner, whilst bread and coffee were the only elements of the actual repast on the festival. In the same sportive mood, he won all the ‘sweepstakes’ on the daily runs, the whits prize, as well as a prize for the best fancy dress at a ball given during tho voyage.” (Jewish Herald)

At some point, he moves his family to Argentina. Here he started a frozen kosher meat export business, approved by European rabbis. (Lebrecht, 2019) He eventually sets his head office up in Buenos Aires. He frequently returns to England and moves across Europe.

Vecht arrived in New Zealand in early 1893 (his ship may have docked in Australia on the way). Vecht’s family joined him later in New Zealand — they are listed as passengers on the Ruahine that left London in July 1893. There is a story that he explored the island’s top to bottom on horseback. This account seems to be a fabrication and dr James pointed out that a free railway pass was issued to him by the New Zealand government. Vecht, with his experience in refrigeration, sets up New Zealand’s first bacon-curing plant, charging one shilling for each carcass he treats. (Lebrecht, 2019) From New Zealand, he went to Australia (October 1894) and from there to South Africa (1900). (Correspondence with Dr. James Anderson)

In South Africa, he participated in an interesting scheme namely De Beers Cold Storage. It is alleged by some that he participated in the Anglo Boer War but after an extensive search at the Anglo Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein, I could find no record of this. The contrary seems to be true, namely that his time was initially spent in and around Cape Town till he was sent on a business trip through the country by Cecil John Rhodes. His skill in refrigeration caught the attention of Cecil John Rhodes who, at the time, was regarded as the wealthiest man in Britain. Rhodes asked him to assist in matters pertaining to refrigeration for his De Beers Cold Storage Co. which Rhodes set up in opposition to the refrigeration chambers of David De Villiers Graaff. The instruction from Rhodes to set such a company up came in 1889. From the records available to me it seems that the request from Rhodes came to him towards the end of the war since the Jewish herald reports that his contract with Rhodes included “a clause providing that he should do no manner of work on Jewish Sabbaths or festivals. Doing an expert in refrigeration, he got the British Secretary of the Colonies, and the Secretary for Foreign Affairs/ and the War Office, to conspire together against the military regulations and issue a pass to him to pass through the British lines during the Boer war — a thing permitted no other foreigner. Strangest of all, he cut all the strands of red tape of all these offices in one day, and that a short one, too, for it was a Friday in the winter of 1902. . .” (Jewish Herald) Records at the Cape Archive indicates a number of interesting facts about his stay in the Cape.

Due to business interests in the Cape, the death notices of both Vecht and his wife Bernadine was filed at the Cape to set in motion the winding up of their respective estates. Bernadine passed away on 21 July 1926 close to Antwerp at age 69. At least two of their children remained in South Africa for a time. Florance was appointed in the Cape as executor of her mother’s estate on 5 January 1927. Vecht’s oldest daughter, Rosa Vecht, married Jacob Politi in Wynberg in Cape Town on 3 February 1903. Jacobs occupation was listed as a manager for De Beers Cold Storage and he resided in Wellington where I assume he also worked. Rosa was listed as living in the upmarket suburb of Constantia, Cape Town, very close to Wynberg presumably with the rest of the Vecht family.

This bit of information leads to some interesting observations. Instead of the picture of a Boer supporter who partook in the Anglo Boer War, the picture that is emerging is one of a very well off family who resided in Constancia, Cape Town. If Vecht arrived in Cape Town in 1900, it did not give him much time to get involved in the Wellington operations of De Beers Cold Storage, sufficiently so for him to get to know Jacob Politi who at some point was introduced to Vecht’s daughter, Rosa. The image we have of Vecht is a sophisticated businessman, in the style of Rhodes and Dawid De Villiers Graaff who would later buy De Beers Cold Storage from Rhodes. Between Rhodes, Vecht and De Villiers Graaff, it would seem if Rhodes was the one who got the deepest involve in direct conflict during the siege of Kimberley and not Vecht as has been reported. Rhodes remained in Kimberley almost for the full duration of the siege and his De Beers was active in the manufacturing of articles for the war.

We will later see that the British commodity trader Trengrouse and Co., who is an interesting link between Vecht’s business and Phil Armour from Chicago’s packing plant, was also located in the Boland town of Wellington with a South African Canning company, Langeberg Foods. Langeberg Foods supplied canned fruits to Trengrouse and Co..

The relationship between De Beers Cold Storage and Langeberg Foods is something for further investigation since Langeberg had a requirement for cold storage facilities right at the time when refrigeration was introduced into South Africa. It is interesting that in this one location we find Vecht, Rhodes, Langeberg, De Beers Cold Storage and Trengrouse and Co. Could it have been Trengrouse who introduced Vecht to Rhodes? Could they have told Vecht about the opportunities which were emerging with the creation of De Beers Cold Storage? At the moment these are no more than tantalising possibilities but it definitely warrants further investigation.

The reported support that Vecht had for the Boer course, was in reality probably no more than sympathy, in the same way as Dawid de Villiers Graaff had sympathy for the Boer course, but never actively supported them in any way. After all, De Villiers Graaf’s company won the contract to supply the British army with meat during the war. If Vecht actively supported the Boers in any way, having lived in Constantia, it would probably have landed him in jail and would most certainly have been the end of his collaboration with Rhodes. Rhodes later sold De Beers Cold Storage to De Villiers Graaff, proving that supporting the English was financially a good decision as was the case with many wealthy Afrikaner business people at this time. I think that comparing Vecht’s emotional sympathy with the Boer course with that of De Villiers Graaff’s is a fair comparison. In any event, I seriously doubt if in Vecht’s case it was anything more than that.

Dr Anderson writes that “although residing in South Africa, in 1903 he represented Australia at the 6th Zionist congress in Basle, Switzerland. Shortly after this he moved with his family to Holland and then to Argentina for fifteen months (dates unclear) before finally settling in Belgium. (Infuriatingly, the Belgian immigration archives record the arrival of the Vecht family, but without a date – probably 1907 or early 1908). (Correspondence with Dr James Anderson)

Vecht’s children were not all born on one continent. “His eldest daughter was born in Holland (in Vecht’s hometown of Elburg); the next six children were all born in London, UK; his two youngest sons were born in Melbourne and Sydney, respectively. (Dr James Anderson) His children were Rosa (Roosje), Moses (Mozes), Florance, Jacob Emile, Constance, Nora, Deena, Victor and Phillip. Eventually part of the family returned to Antwerp. Here he underwent gall-bladder surgery. He passed away from complications following the surgery on 8 November 1908 at the age of 54. (Cape Archives) (Lebrecht, 2019)

Aron Vecht: His Business

Aron Vecht was involved in a number of business ventures, mainly related to refrigeration and meat. We know, for example, that sometime before 1889 he was in business with Samuel Hamburger, Ellias Levi, Aron Vecht, and Carolina Wolff in the Dutch town of Ede. “A New Zealand report claims that in Holland ‘he and his brother had successfully introduced the mess-pork industry in 1879’ (Dr James Anderson)

Vecht probably used several trademarks which were associated with his products. Dr James Anderson points out that one was “Morepork,” traded under Vecht & Stokvis. Vecht took out patents in 1894 in New Zealand related to the singeing of pigs and the preservation of meat. His method of preservation was called the “Vecht Mild Cure Process.” He masterfully tied the patent to his own bacon brand. One such brand was York Castle. The patents were presumably owned by his business in New Zealand which he had with William Stokes called the Christ Church Meat Company, Ltd. (1)

I was first alerted to the trademark from a liquidation sale advertised in The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW, Tue 29 Jun 1909).

The notice read as follows:

MESSRS. STEWART and MORTON, at NOWRA, on account of THOMAS MARRIOTT, Esq., Liquidator of the Shoalhaven Co-operative Bacon Curing Company, Limited in Liquidation).

BACON CURING FACTORY at Bomaderry, N.S.W., and other Assets of the above Company, consisting of the following:

  1. 4 acs 1 road 18 perches, being lots 9 and 10 of Section 33, on Deposited Plan No. 2880, in the Town of Bomaderry, Parish of Bunberra,county of Camden, TORRENS TITLE million to reservations in Crown Grant), withFactory premises and fixed plant and machinerythereon, as per schedule No. 1
  2. Movable Plant, Office Furniture, Horses, Wag-gone, Carts, and Harness, as per Schedule No. 2.
  3. License to use exclusively in NSW. process for curing Bacon known as “Vecht Mild Cure Process.
  4. “York Castle” Trade Mark for Bacon.

Items 1 and 3 are under mortgage, on which there is a Band of £2050, with Interest at a 5 per cent, per annum, from 2nd June 1900, owing, and will be sold subject thereto.

Item 3 Is held under certain Deeds and Documents, which, together with the Mortgagee over Items 1 and 3, may be inspected at the Offices of Messrs. Perkins. Stevenson, and Co., of 122 Pitt-street, Sydney, Solicitors.

The Vecht Mild Cure Process was tied to the Christ Church Meat Company and Vecht and Stokes individually as is clear from the further provision in the notice that “any Assignment of Item 3 is subject to consent of ARON VECHT, WILLIAM STOKES, and the CHRIST CHURCH CHURCH MEAT COMPANY, Limited.

Lists of the Plant, etc may be inspected, at the Office of THOMAS MARIOTT, Esq. and the Auctioneers, at Nowra, and at the Offices of Messrs. PERKINS, STEVENSON, and CO., Solicitors, Sydney.

So far then there is no direct link between the “York Castle” trademark for bacon and the Vecht Mild Cure Process even though the fact that they are joined in one notice raises the possibility that they were indeed somehow connected. The connection becomes clear when we examine events related to a trademark dispute after the passing of Vecht but related to Stokvis. William Stokvis of Brussels instituted legal action against Barnes Bacon Company Ltd. (Mr WJ Gale being the managing director at this time). The lawsuit related to the use of a secret curing formulation for bacon and hams in 1936. The plaintiff alleged the unlawful use of the trademark and he claimed that this secret method was alleged to be used for bacon made under this trade name when in reality, so he alleged, it was not always used. Two tradenames were involved in the agreement being “York Castle” and “More Pork. The lawsuit is reported in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 16 Jun 1936.

From a lawsuit related to the York Castle trademark in New South Wales, Australia, and despite it taking place sometime after Vecht’s passing, we get possible further insight into how he managed his intellectual property. The trademark and his secret method of curing went hand-in-hand. Only the Vecht Mild Cure Process could be used to produce the York Castle brand of bacon. Vecht would receive monetary compensation for every pig so cured in a territory. (2)

Dr Anderson wrote to me that Vecht used the “York Castle” trademark in NSW and the “Yorick” trademark in Victoria. He also sent me a copy of the Victoria Government Gazette from October 1900 where the trademark is published.

Victoria Government Gazette, October 1900, p 19.

I found the following Yorick poster from A Legal History of Lithography, Dr Amanda Scardamaglia. It shows that the brand was used before Vecht registered it in 1900. It could have been an older brand that he took over. It is a notable example of old bacon branding. Interestingly the bacon is advertised as “special mild”. It appeared before Vecht arrived in Australia in ’94. What the “English system” would be a reference to is a matter of great interest. It sets the background for Vecht’s presence in the Victorian market.

Yorick Bacon and Hams (circa 1881-1890) Printed by Troedel & Co, Lithographers & Printers, State Library Victoria

Let’s return for a moment to the publication in the Victorian Government Gazette in 1900. Dr Anderson made the interesting comment that “Vecht used the ‘York Castle’ trademark in NSW and the ‘Yorick’ trademark in Victoria.” The Victoria Government Gazette was published in October 1900 where the trademark appeared. Dr Anderson commented that “the date is interesting because the following month it was reported in New Zealand that Vecht was on his way to South Africa. Perhaps the Victorian government was slow to publish?” (Private correspondence with Dr Anderson) The timing was of great interest to me. What was happening in South Africa at this time that could have possibly created such an emergency or necessity for him to leave behind all the prospects and possibilities in New Zealand and Australia and move him to go to South Africa?

The backstory becomes very interesting. Cecil John Rhodes, the prime minister of the Cape from 1890 to 1896 had made refrigeration a primary focus. There were two main areas of direct interest to him. The one was the export of fruit. The first consignment of fourteen cases of peaches was loaded onto the Drummond Castle on Wednesday, 13 January 1892 for export to England. It arrived in London on 31 January. Rhodes appointed a select parliamentary committee on fruit culture and fruit exports in that same year. Merriman was the minister of Agriculture in Rhodes’ Government. He happened to be in London on 31 January when the peaches arrived aboard the Drummond Castle. Percy Molteno shared his recollections of this event in the Cape Times: “I remember mentioning to Mr Merriman that a shipment had arrived and invited him to accompany me to see the cases opened. This he readily did. With great delight, we saw case upon case opened up in splendid condition. The public sale of this fruit created a great sensation in the fruit world.” (De Beer, 2003)

Rhodes, after being forced to resign as Prime Minister in 1896 after the unsuccessful Jameson Raid set his sights squarely on the development of the fruit industry. He purchased twenty-nine farms in the Franschhoek, Tulbagh and Wellington districts. These were mainly wine farms, and he converted them to fruit farms. They, collectively, become known as the “Rhodes Fruit Farms” with Harry Pickstone as managing director. They plant approximately two hundred thousand trees on these farms. (De Beer, 2003)

With Rhodes backing the industry to this extent, not only did cold storage facilities become a major drive but steamship companies raced to increase their cold storage capacity. Shortly after the end of the Anglo Boer War, “Table Bay became the first harbour in the world to boast a cold storage terminal specially designed for fruit.” (De Beer, 2003)

The second point of application of cold storage was in relation to meat. The Anglo Boer war was the first time where frozen meat was used to provide an army with meat. David de Villiers Graaff’s company was ideally positioned to capitalise on this and his huge investments in the area of cold storage paid off handsomely when his company secured the contract to supply the English forces in South Africa with meat. This saga overshadows the creation of cold storage works related to the fruit export trade both in terms of its financial scope and the personal investment of Rhodes in the projects. Vecht must have been involved in the fruit project also through De Beers Cold Storage works in Wellington where the fruit was packed and canned as we have seen from the marriage of his oldest daughter to a manager of De Beers Cold Storage in Wellington, but that his prime focus was probably related to the meat contracts becomes clear.

De Villiers-Graaf installs the first refrigeration equipment in the new head office of his company, Combrinck & Co. in Strand Street in Cape Town in 1892. I have been inside these refrigerated rooms many times in my life. His focus was initially only restricted to meat, but soon they expanded to include butter and cheese in the product offering.

In March 1896 his firm Combrinck & Co. orders ice containers from a firm in New York. They order the first ammonia compressors from Glasgow. By 1897 his firm had eight ice and freezing facilities with six in the Cape Colony, one in Aliwal-Noord and one in Kimberley. One was in Beaufort-Wes, one in Piketbergweg (Gouda) and two more in Cape Town. One is in Port Elizabeth and one in Johannesburg.

The name on the building below was later changed to the Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Company but was the first refrigerated chambers erected by the Graaff brothers.

His agents in Australia is identified as Willoughby C. Devlin van Dunn & Co. in Queen’s Place, Sydney.
A suggestion that Graaff appoints a marine engineer now becomes of the greatest importance to our current discussion. In response to this suggestion, Graaff replies that he decided to appoint a properly trained refrigeration engineer from abroad since such expertise was lacking at this time in the Cape Colony. It is possibly this exact same thought, not from De Villiers Graaff, but from Rhodes which led to the seemingly abrupt move from Aron Vecht to the Cape of Good Hope in 1900. (Dommisse, 2011)

Rhodes gave instructions in 1889 that his Diamond company, De Beers must construct cold storage facilities in Kimberley and Cape Town. This happens when he tries to persuade the Schreiner government in the Cape to construct additional freezing space and they refused. He saw the cooling chambers of De Villiers Graaff as a monopoly. He remarked, “This close monopoly must not be allowed to go on.” Initially, De Villiers-Graaff was willing to work with Rhodes and Stephenson tried to convince Rhodes that such an arrangement would work well. (Dommisse, 2011)

In the end, Rhodes could not work with De Villiers-Graaff and gave instructions for the establishment of De Beers Cold Storage. Rhodes was known not to be shy to spend on the right equipment and saw to it that his cold rooms boast with the latest cooling equipment. Construction is completed in February 1900. I am fascinated to learn what Vecht’s contribution was to this building project. It remains an ongoing project! The Cape premises is hugely successful as was the Kimberly operation and four months after the opening of the Cape facility, the management recommends the packing facilities to be expanded from 160 000 cubic feet to 220 000. (Dommisse, 2011)

De Villiers-Graaff transformed his company, Combrinck & Co into the South African Supply and Cold Storage Company which is listed in London. De Beers Cold Storage tried to compete with the Graaff brothers, but the South African Supply and Cold Storage Company was so well entrenched in the supply and distribution of frozen products that De Beers Cold Storage stood no chance. A major stumbling point was that De Beers completely underestimated the importance of owning the refrigerated carriages to transport the meat. It was this exact point which I speculate De Villiers-Graaff learned from Phil Armour, and it would not surprise me if Vecht had any direct dealings with the Armour company, that they would have educated him on the importance of this exact point. De Villiers-Graaff returned from his only recorded visit to Chicago and copied Armour by constructing his own refrigerated railway carts for the transport of frozen products. He also ensured a close relationship with the railways.

De Beers Cold Storage had none of these and meat reported arrived at its destination in a rotten state. The desperation of the situation mimics the report from the Jewish Herald about the unprecedented travel authorisation given to Vecht in 1902 to travel through the country when it reported that Vecht “got the British Secretary of the Colonies, and the Secretary for Foreign Affairs/ and the War Office, to conspire together against the military regulations and issue a pass to him to pass through the British lines during the Boer war — a thing permitted no other foreigner. Strangest of all, he cut all the strands of red tape of all these offices in one day.”

Prospectus of the South African Supply and Cold Storage Company, Ltd.

During the late 1901 and early 1902, Rhodes were frantic in his efforts to win the British army contract to supply meat and to prove that his company was able to deliver. Rhodes never saw De Beers Cold Storage receive the lucrative meat contracts from the British army. He passes away in a small cottage in Kalk Bay on 26 Maart 1902. This is also a location that I often visited over the years and stood next to the bed in which he passed away many times. The meat contracts he wanted to win so desperately and for which Vecht was presumably dispatched throughout the country in 1902 were awarded to De Beers Cold Storage and come into effect on 1 April 1902. The peace treaty of Vereeniging was signed on 31 Mei bringing the devastating war to an end. (Dommisse, 2011)

The loss of the British meat contracts forces the Graaff brothers to reevaluate their strategy. The years 1898 to 1901 becomes the last years that when the South African Supply and Cold Storage Company had the lucrative Britse meat contracts. Trading in imported frozen meat escalated in this time from 1 965 000 pounds to just below 43 000 000 pounds from Australia. The Graaf’s created a new company, the South African & Australasian Supply and Cold Storage on 27 February 1902, only eight days after Rhodes registered the Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Company Limited in Pretoria to take over all cold storage works and the trading of meat from De Beers Consolidated Mines. Following the war, even the South African & Australian Supply and Cold Storage would cease trading and the Graaff’s would take large shareholding up in the Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Company. These events create a beautiful backdrop for the context of the work of Vecht in South Africa from the time he arrives in South Africa till his departure.

Dr Anderson wrote to me that Vecht seems to have moved around a lot during 1900/1901 before going to South Africa. This would probably mitigate against the picture of him “rushing” to South Africa, but once here, events in South Africa clearly shows that he had his work cut out for him.

Aron Vecht: The Incorporation of Temperature into Cured Transport

When refrigeration was introduced into international trade, its impact on meat quality was unknown. People opted for the less harsh conditions of chilling temperatures and tried to avoid freezing the meat. A drawback of mild cured bacon is that it did not last on long sea voyages under chilled conditions. The English market has, by the time Aron Vecht arrived on the scene, became used to mild cured bacon as opposed to heavy salted which was the kind of meat produced under the Rapid Cure process of Robert Davison. An attempt was made to use the sea voyage for the curing to take place and to pack the pork on ice. Famously the Harris brothers of Calne was involved in exactly this scheme. The Waikato Argus who reported on this in 1901 said that the lowering of the temperature below 32o Fahrenheit (0o C) has ‘invariably faded the flash into a pale, unpleasant colour and alienated the affections of the British matron.” What I think they meant was that lowering it to 0o C was ineffective in securing a good product that would arrive in London. At chilling schilling temperatures, when the meat has not been heated through hot smoking, the curing colour, resulting from the effect of nitric oxide on the meat proteins, giving it a bright pinkish/ reddish appearance would be reversed. If, however, the meat is frozen, such reversal would not take place. The meat would then be smoked when it arrived at its destination and the colour would be “fixed” through the unfolding of the proteins.

The Waikato Argus reported on this progression by Vecht as follows: “Now, however, by what may be called a triumph of transit and cure, a most promising and important trade has begun between New Zealand and England. By employing the Vecht curing process, a New Zealand firm is shipping pigs from that distant colony, placing them in refrigerators with a temperature of 20 deg Fahrenheit (-6 deg C), and curing them here on the banks of the Thames with apparently perfect success.

It was not well understood at the time and it was incorrectly believed that the method of sterilisation of the meat which was part of the Vecht process was responsible for preventing the cured colour from fading. What is true is not that it would have prevented the cured colour from fading, but that it would have stopped bacterial and enzymatic action which spoiled the meat and degraded the meat quality and this would undoubtedly also have affected the meat colour, even though it was by no means the only reason why the colour faded.

The article reported on this as follows. “This success is obtained by first treating the carcase*, before they leave New Zealand, by the Vecht curing process, which allays the action of the cold, and so sterilises the flesh as to prevent the changes which have hitherto interfered with the successful curing at Home of what is grown abroad.” (3)

The Waikato Argus which we quoted above related to the use of temperature and the curing of meat made also provides us with another very valuable bit of information related to the trading of bacon cured with the Vecht method. It reported that “Messrs Trengrouse and Co., who are colonial shippers on a huge scale and the British agents of Armours, of Chicago, are encouraging this new process, and prophesy for it a vast influence on the bacon trade.” (3) The mention of the agents of the legendary firm of Phil Armour is of extreme interest as is the link between Armour’s company and the propagation of Vecht’s method of curing. Armour was the pioneer of freezer technology for the distribution of meat in America and owned probably the largest curing works in Chicago in the world. Vecht was an expert in the refrigeration of meat in particular. Phil Armour was carefully plotting his way to introduce sodium nitrite directly as a curing brine but not wanting to be left out of the huge and lucrative international bacon trade, must have seen Vecht as a brilliant ally to secure bacon for his own trade while avoiding the expensive curing systems such as Auto Cure which Armour knew would be replaced by the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines.

Aron Vecht: His Curing Method

In New Zealand, Dr James Anderson elucidated the secret method of curing of Aron Vecht as follows. He told me that “his mild-cure method of preserving pork involved first roasting and cooling the carcass which was then injected with an antiseptic fluid invented and patented by him (Vecht). It involved hanging the carcass for 13 seconds in a furnace, bathing it in cold water and removing the two outer skin layers. ‘This removes the sweat glands of the pig … and the layer of fat next to the skin having been melted in the furnace saturates the thin paper-like inner skin, and when suddenly cooled hermetically seals the pig.’ The carcass is then split in two and the spine removed, allowing the serum to escape and finally treated with salt at such a temperature as to render the chloride constituent inoperative, thus retaining the albumen which is lost in the ordinary salting method. A newspaper article appeared in New Zealand on 18 September 1893 which reports an interview done by Aron Vecht where he describes his curing method first hand. (4)

In his description, he uses a phrase that stands out. He describes the process in similar terms as what Dr Anderson related to me. He mentions nothing of a vacuum vessel as in the Rapid Cure system of Robert Davison or the Auto Cure equipment of William Henry Oake. He simply states that his saltpetre based, patented brine is “pressure injected into the carcass, which becomes wholly impregnated, and the curing is complete.” (4)

I have often thought about what made Aron Vecht’s patented system unique and different from his compatriots. The singeing of the pork was undoubtedly something he got from the curing method of Henry Denny in Ireland. I will deal with this subsequently and you will see what I mean. Vecht gave the clue in the interview he did with a reporter in New Zealand. (4) He said that after slaughtering, the animal is allowed to cool down. His method of curing allowed for “year-round” application. His system cannot be confused with that of William Henry Oake or Robert Davison. That his patented blend of antiseptics would not have an impact on the meat colour is certain. Only one molecule can cure meat which is nitric oxide, derived in all quick curing systems from sodium nitrate which is turned into sodium nitrite. From the same interview (4) we know that his was saltpetre based (nitrate). At first, I suspected that Vecht probably incorporated the old brine into his process which, by this time was almost universally used in Australia. After I discovered the 1911 process description which fits his in every other way, I realised that he probably did not use old brine as was the cornerstone of William Oakes original mild cure system. I discuss the complete system below with particular reference to the brine he used. If he cooled the carcass down through refrigeration after slaughter, he most definitely did so after the brine was injected “under pressure.”

The fact that the carcasses were transported in refrigerated conditions meant that curing would not have progressed much further en-route to England. Once there, when they were hot smoked before sale, the curing reaction would undoubtedly have continued. Heating the carcass to around 50o C and keeping it at that temperature for as long as 60 minutes is a method that I use myself when there is not enough time to “rest” the cured meat before smoking. The heat allows the brine to be spread through the meat and the smoke materially contribute to nitric oxide formation which results in cured meat.

Messrs Trengrouse and Co

I told you that the one interesting aspect about Vecht was his method of curing. I referred you to the Waikato Argus which did an article on his life from where we got the all-important information on the temperature during the shipment of the meat. The same article mentions that Vecht’s products were sold through the firm of Messrs Trengrouse and Co.. They are described as colonial shippers on a huge scale and the British agents of the Armour Packing Company from Chicago, who are encouraging his new process. This brings us to the next fascinating aspect of this remarkable man’s life namely his link to the legendary provisions and general commission merchants of Messrs Trengrouse and Co.

The firm was officially called Trengrouse, H & Co., and was described as “Provision Agents and General Commission Merchants” Their address was 51, 55, Tooley Street, London, S.E. The firm was established in 1875 by Henry Trengrouse and his brother, who retired in 1908. They had agents in Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Dunedin, (N.Z.), Monte Video, Buenos Ayres and they specialised in butter, cheese, bacon, eggs and canned goods. They claim to have pioneered the trade in New Zealand and Australia in dairy products. Most importantly for our purposes is that they were the agents for Armour & Co. from Chicago and by 1914 they have been Armour’s agents for upwards of thirty years. (1914 Who’s Who in Business) This means that Phil Armour probably set them up himself and dealt directly with them. Phil passed away at the turn of the century.

The grandfather Henery Trengrouse after whom he was named was a legendary figure in his own right. He devoted his life to the invention of a number of methods to improve safety aboard ships after he witnessed the sinking of a ship with a tragic loss of life close to his hometown when he was a young man. (5) Adventure and perseverance ran in the family and, I am sure, accounted for their success in no small way!

Messrs Trengrouse and Co in South Africa

Years ago, when I wrote to you about David Graaff’s Armour – A Tale of Two Legends, I speculated that Philip Armours agents must have visited Cape Town. The basis of my speculation was the global reach of Armour’s network and the fact that Phil himself made his money starting out in the Californian Goldfields and I could not imagine that he sat idly by with the discovery of gold and diamonds on the Rand and Kimberley respectively in South Africa. Further, the link between De Villiers-Graaff visiting Chicago in 1892 where Armour pioneered refrigerated meat transport and refrigeration for the meat trade in general through cold storage works, coupled with De Villiers Graaf’s own focus on this from that time onwards is just too much to be coincidental. I have gone to great lengths over many years to find the details of the agents for Armour but with no luck whatsoever. Not even a hint!

Until Dr James Anderson informed me about Aron Vecht, I was unable to discover the name of the agents for Philip Armour. Introducing me to Vecht, led me to the discovery of the agents of Armour being Messrs Trengrouse and Co who did not do business with Combrinck & Co. (Later the Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Co. of De Villiers Graaff) as I suspected but with Langeberg Foods on canning, presumably from the Boland town of Wellington in the Cape Colony.

I know Langeberg Foods very well and will take this up with them directly as well as securing the book where the reference is made -> Langeberg: 50 Years of Canning Achievement, 1940-1990 – Page 27, D. J. Van Zyl, 1990

Developments in Ireland – 1866: The Patent of Henry Denny

Let’s first get some background on Denny. Ireland in the first half of the 1800s was a fertile field for innovation. An excellent example is found in the person of Henry Denny. Part of his remarkable legacy is a firm that once was the largest bacon producer in Europe, Henry Denny & Sons. Henry was born in Waterford, Ireland in 1790.

Denny started out as a provisioner merchant in Waterford. The first reference to him as a bacon merchant comes to us from 1846. In 1854 he started using ice in bacon curing which allowed him to cure meat all year round like his colleagues in Calne. The bacon he cured was also referred to as mild cured bacon and a patent was granted in 1857 on his process. I failed to discover the exact nature of his patented process till Aron Vecht introduced me to it. Like the process invented by C & T Harris, which they called Sweet Cured Bacon, Henry’s process used much less salt. The priority for inventing the first mild cured system, however, goes to William Oake from Ulster whom we know invented this at around the time when Denny had his merchant business or shortly after this and well before Denny entered the pork processing trade. Denny undoubtedly achieved mild cured bacon in a way different from William Oake.

Henry’s curing system is described in one source I consulted (Geocaching) which seems to be a copy from another work that is unfortunately not referenced and all my attempts to locate the original publication has been in vain. The author describes it as follows: “Until the early 19th century, pork was cured by soaking large chunks of the meat in barrels of brine for weeks. Shelf life was poor, as often as the inside of the chunks did not cure properly, and meat rotted from the inside out. Henry Denny and his youngest son Edward Denny introduced a number of new innovations – he used long flat pieces of meat instead of chunks; and they dispensed with brine in favour of a dry or ‘hard’ cure, sandwiching the meat in layers of dry salt. This produced well cured bacon with a good shelf life and revolutionised Ireland’s meat industry. Irish bacon and hams were soon exported to Britain, Paris, the Americas and India.“

Reference is made to the fact that Denny invented several curing techniques and if the description given is correct, it would be one of several inventions. Taken at face value I doubt the superiority of his system over Oake’s invention. It also comes so late in terms of dates that I seriously doubt if this could be the patent that was awarded in 1957. By this time meat injection was already well established which solved the shortcomings of William Oakes invention in his mild cured system of simply filling the curing tanks with brine to diffuse into the meat “naturally.” If this was in fact the patent that was granted in 1857, it would represent a serious step backwards.

A great contribution to my understanding of Denny’s system is the fact that he acquired a meat curing company in Denmark in 1894. The reference is Lets-Look-Again who also seems to quote an uncredited source. They make a statement that this purchase “introduced Irish meat curing techniques to Denmark.” I have over the years come across several authors who made the same claim that the Irish meat curing system was introduced to Denmark in the late 1800s after an Irish firm acquired a Danish processing company. They never gave the name of the Irish firm in question. The end of the 1800s is, however, the wrong time for the introduction of William Oake’s system to Denmark. By this time it was already well established in Denmark and the likely transfer of the technology to C & T Harris took place from Denmark either at this time (closing years of the 1800s) or in the opening few years of the 1900s. For this reason, I never used the reference but I was always curious who the Irish firm was, wrongly credited for the transfer of the original mild cure technology to Denmark. If, as I now suspect, the Irish firm referred to was that of Henry Denny, the question comes up as to exactly what the invention was that he took to Denmark!

Denny could very well have been the inventor of the pork rasher. Geocaching quotes an unnamed source that “the rasher (a piece of bacon to be cooked quickly or rashed) was reportedly invented in 1820 by Henry Denny, a Waterford butcher who patented several bacon curing techniques still used to this day.” It must be mentioned that Denny’s career only started in 1820 but that was not as a butcher. It was as a merchant and he entered the pork processing business only in 1854. There could still be credibility to the claim which I base on the widespread nature of the story in Ireland. Maybe he was a young man with unusual interest and creativity in selling pork at his trading business. The claim may however be apocryphal.

This now brings us to the link between Aron Vecht and Henry Denny which lead me to discover the real invention of Henry Denny and his mild curing process. One aspect of pork curing that I overlooked for years was the importance of singeing. Singeing pork was nothing new. Removing the hair off the carcass and retaining the “rind” was done with straws for centuries. The old method is beautifully illustrated by Тихомир Давчев in their set of photos featured below.

Henry Denny automated this process. He re-looked at the process in light of the latest industrialised equipment available. One publication from 1866 describes it as follows. “Each pig is hoisted by the hind leg, it is hooked on to a lever, which suspends the animal head downwards, and its throat is slit with a sharp knife; the blood caught in a receiver flows into an external tank, from whence it is carted away. The leg is then fixed to a hook, which slides on a round iron bar placed overhead on an incline. A push of the hand sends the dead pig with railway speed to the singeing furnace, a distance of 30 to 50 feet. Here it is taken by a crane, placed on a tramway, and run into the furnace, where the flame impinges on it, and in a moment all the hair is removed. The carcass is re-hooked by the leg, passes into another room, where it is disembowelled, the entrails being transferred to an underground region or be dealt with. The head is next removed, and then the backbone is cut out, thus dividing the carcass into two flitches, which pass, suspended on the round bars and without handling, into the cooling room, where it hangs until the meat is firm.” (Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Vol. LXXIV July to December 1866) 

Molander (1985)

His fame was in the first place due to his invention of the automated process of pork singeing. He may have, of course, also called his process “mild cured” as with the aid of refrigeration he would have obtained the same result as did William Oake who actually invented the original mild cured process. It is what I suspect Aron Vecht did and his claim that the key feature of his process is his secret antiseptic brine formulation. Since no brine formulation could secure the cooked/ cured look of bacon, I suspect that it was an attempt by him to divert attention from the fact that he essentially copied a patented process that was owned by Henry Denny. The real brilliance of Vecht was in the adjustment of cold storage temperatures from chilled to below freezing point.

Was this disingenuous for him to also have called it “mild cured”? I think not. It illustrates the inherent problem in using the result of the process (i.e. milder bacon) as the name of your product. If the result is the same but a different process was used to arrive at it, how would the consumer know (or care)! From a trademark perspective, it makes it tricky since the words seem to be difficult to protect as it would be the general way people would refer to the bacon, not heavily salted. It is like trying to trademark the phrase “well cooked.”

The one point, which as it stands right now, I believe, is that Denny invented the automated process of singeing the carcass. The publication I site above is the earliest mention of automating the process that I could find and I am now convinced that Vecht got his method from Denny. Auto Curing requires the use of pressure cylinders (autoclaves or retorts) which make the auto cure bacon’s production even more expensive than mild cured bacon. It is the only process that was really patentable because neither sweet cure nor mild cure nor Vecht’s process, neither Denny’s singe process is so unique that it cannot be copied by someone with even mediocre technical skills and is not really patentable. The existence of Aron Vecht and his process proves this.

In this regard it is similar to the refrigeration patent which Harris took out – may I add. Anybody could, and I am sure would make small changes to the system to show it to be unique and to overcome the trademark issue. This was not the case with Auto Cure which relied on unique equipment. To this day, people buy bacon and the exact process is, as it were, lost in the final product. Trade marks speak to consistent quality, but in the final analysis, bacon has always been and still is today a commodity that most people buy on price (given a relatively wide range of acceptable product quality)

I have personally been faced with this exact issue over the years. One invents a new process, but the protection of the process only lasts as long as your staff remains with you. The moment they move away, the process is gone! Till this day meat plants are notoriously shrouded in secrecy. From British producers to the largest bacon producer in South Africa (close and good friends) refuse me access to any of their plants because they are scared will see something I am not supposed to. Phil Armour was famous for trying to break the secrecy which existed even amongst this own plant managers. 

I wonder if this does not also explain why Vecht did this, not in Holland or in the USA or England, but in faraway New Zealand! Processors all claim that they invented processes! Whichever process one talks about!

Have a look at the article below, Effect of Singeing on the Texture and Histological Appearance of Pig Skin. (6) It beautifully describes the process, and it ascribes the tradition to be Danish. The reason I will still give priority to the invention of Denny is that Denny created bacon curing plants in Denmark. I believe that the technology was invented by Denny, transferred to Denmark where it was used on a large scale and subsequently made its way to the Harris operation in Calne and other Wiltshire curers (including Oake Woods – son of William Oake who invented Mild Curing).

There are many traditions that mild curing for example was invented by the Danes, but after 10 years of research, I know that this is incorrect. As I already discussed, I can imagine that through his process Denny also arrived at a “milder cured bacon” but he was by no means the first to have done so. The invention is Irish and was kept a secret till disgruntled Irish curers (on strike) were lured to Denmark under a Danish continual learning scheme where they were paid handsomely to train the Danes in Mild Curing.

1911 Description of what Denny and Vecht’s Process Looked Like

There is a further rear description from the Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts, 1911 describing mild cured bacon production without the use of curing baths or old brine. It has all the elements of the Denny/ Vecht system.

It, interestingly, says that it was not too long ago when curing methods were closely guarded secrets, handed down from one generation to the next orally. By 1911 this was not the case any longer and the account which follows is in this new tradition.

The animal is stunned and bled after which the carcass is placed in a tank with 70 – 85 deg C (160 to 185 deg F) water where the carcass is scalded and the hair removed.

The carcass is then pushed into the singeing furnace. It specifies that where Wiltshire bacon is produced, singeing is always used.

Sculping table to the singeing furnace. This furnace was invented by Denny and copied by Vecht.

The carcass is left in the furnace for 25 seconds. The subcutaneous fat which would be soft is changed to hard fat after the carcass has been removed and is cooled down in a cold water bath.

The carcass is hung on dressing bars where it’s cleaned and disembowelled. Singed and unsinged carcasses are from this point onwards treated in the same way.

They are cleaned with cold water and scraped clean. The intestinal offal is removed and handled separately. Kidney fat is still in the carcass at this point.

The carcass is now split and the backbone or vertebral column removed. Secondary offal is removed being the head, feet and kidney fat. It is the removal of the vertebral column which liberates the two sides. The sides were then hung until they sufficiently cooled down, to around 38o F or 3o C.

Scoring – remove the backbone and separate the sides.

The process following is described as follows. “When the temperature is riched, transfer the carcass to the curing cellar. Here the blade bone is drawn out.” Curing according to their method did not involve the re-use of the old brine. Instead, a fresh pickle is pumped into each side at a pressure of 40 lbs. to the square inch. “The pickle is pumped through a pickle needle with a number of perforations arranged in a spiral manner through which the pickle is discharged. The sides are now laid one by one on the floor of the curing cellar which is maintained at a temperature of 42o F or 5o C. The atmosphere must be humid and moist. Each side is covered over by an equal mixture of salt, saltpetre and curing preservative on top of which is placed a heavy layer of salt.” (Journal of the Royal Society, 1911) No mention is made of a liquid pickle.

Curing cellar in an Irish Bacon factory.

“Under these conditions the curing proceeds and the salt, as it melts, take the place of the meat juices.” (Journal of the Royal Society, 1911) In their view, the salt and the rest of the cure “replaced” the meat juices which were drawn out. They worked out that under refrigerated conditions, less salt can be used. The process laster 14 days. A statement is made that the bacon can then be sold as “mild cured bacon”. Alternatively, the bacon could be washed, dried, smoked and sold as smoked bacon.

An interesting comment is made that the bacon would not keep very long in the mild-cured condition. For the bacon to last long, it had to be kept in the salt. Farm cured bacon is typically kept in the salt for 28 days.

Bacon pumping in Denmark. In Denmark, only Wiltshire sides of bacon are produced, and the bacon is all pumped before being placed in the curing bed and covered with salt and saltpetre.

A fascinating and insightful section follows where the curing process is discussed in some detail. “The exact process which goes on in the production of bacon is not merely the displacement of the meat juices by a solution of salt and curing material. There is also the presence of micro-organisms which are always to be found where flesh of any kind exists. These putrefactive organisms assist in the curing process by breaking down some of the tissue of the meat, notwithstanding the presence of salt, which has no antiseptic effect on some of them. This is how the bacon flavour arises as distinguished from fresh or pickled pork. The flavour is largely due to decomposition.” (Journal of the Royal Society, 1911) That there has been a serious progression of scientific thought by this time, is clear. The use of the word micro-organisms is instructive, but surprisingly, they were at this point in Britain completely ignorant of the work in Germany related to the chemical reactions as the basis for curing – at least the bacon curing community was.

Sides of Wiltshire bacon in a curing cellar. In the curing of Wiltshire bacon, the sides are uniformly stacked as in this picture.

What we have here is clearly the Denny/ Vecht curing system and not tank curing which was invented by William Oake and later became part of the Wiltshire brine system. Another observation is in order related to the use of the Wiltshire cut in New Zealand. The largest bacon producer in New Zealand, Hellers, to this day use the Wiltshire cut in its deboning hall. In all probability, this was introduced by Vecht and was part of his curing system as is described in the Journal of 1911.

International Bacon War: Quest for Supremacy

I thought it important to deal with Vecht, Trengrouse and Denny in one letter since it speaks to the state of international competitiveness of the newly emerging superpower of the United States relative to the diminishing influence of England. We must not lose sight of the fact that Vecht’s process was a short-lived attempt by the Dutch (Vecht) and the Americans (Armour) to wrestle away control of the international bacon market from the British.

Over the years I have always wondered why Phil Armour did not try and assert his influence on the lucrative bacon trade not just through exports to Britain (which they did on a large scale), but in the international bacon trade. I never came across them in almost 10 years of research apart from sending bacon from the USA to England. This all changed with the mail from Dr Anderson and looking into the life and career of Vecht.

I speculate that their agents found an ideal ally in the Dutch curer, Aron Vecht. Vecht combined several known (and patented) curing processes, created his own version of mild cure, ostensibly predicated upon the use of refrigeration and an invention by the Irish firm of Henry Denny which automated the singeing process of the carcass. I suspect his allegiance with Armour either led him to become an expert in the newly developing art of refrigeration or he was already interested in this before he came into contact with the Armour Meatpacking company in Chicago. His curing process would have suited Armour in that it was far less capital intensive than Dorset based firm of Oake-Wood’s autocue and despite not being as fast in curing as was accomplished with the autocue equipment, it was a progression on the mild curing process of the inventor of the original process, William Oake, father of the Oake who was a partner in Oake-Woods.

The link with a unique bacon brand is a stroke of genius and something, I am sure, that was carefully deliberated. Before this time, bacon was differentiated by the particular method of curing. As I explained at the start, these would have been dry-cured, sweet cured, mild cured, pale dried or auto cured. There is evidence of Harris going after people using the name “pale dried bacon” but the advent of refrigeration, effectively levelled the playing field as many options became available to produce bacon with far less salt than was traditionally done under the dry-cured system.

Another very important point about Armour must be made. A few years ago, I came across a reference to a secret trial in the use of sodium nitrite done at a packing plant in Chicago. The year was 1905. This was done before its use was legal in any country on earth. I speculated that it was carried out by Phil Armour as very few people would have had the audacity to have tried it. I reported on this experiment in an article and shortly after this all references to it were removed from the publications I cited and I could not get hold of the source documents. I know the author of the article where this reference appeared. He is a prominent person in a leading role in European meat curing circles and I understand why this reference was removed.

This is pure speculation on my part, but it has a tone of credibility. I think that Armour or Armour with the key meatpackers in Chicago of Gustav Swift, and Edward Morris jointly performed the trial. I wrote extensively about this in The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – The Spoils of War. The experiment would have been spectacularly successful and I believe was done on the back of experiments done in German agricultural research centres for years before 1905.

With them having known about the work on nitrites, I believe the process of Vecht suited Armour well as a kind of a “placeholder” without engaging a firm like Oake-Woods and locking them into the Auto Curing system which was the leading system internationally at the time as far as it being patentable and indeed, it was the most widely used international patented system of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

There is an “air” of the thinking of Armour, Swift and Morris in the preamble to a meat science group formed by them, also in the early 1900s where their mission was stated as being “to reduce steers to beef and hogs to pork in the quickest, most economical and the most serviceable manner.” The process they had in mind here was nitrite curing.

It was a key turning point in the history of curing and the Americans spectacularly took the lead when, following the first world war, Griffith, the American Chicago-based company became the evangelists of the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines, a riveting saga which I uncovered and wrote extensively about in the article which I just now sited. So, anticipating what is to come in the direct addition of nitrites to curing brines, there would have been no point in investing in any of the “indirect curing processes” of the English, Danes or the Dutch. There is evidence that the Chicago meatpackers were preparing for this curing revolution for a number of years and the Griffith Laboratories was an important participant who had to be ready to handle the PR of what was to come. They have undoubtedly taken careful note of public perception related to nitrites and had to be careful how they introduce the matter to the public. Besides this, they had to ensure that using nitrites directly in meat curing was legalised. All this were carefully orchestrated and it completely explains why they never fully committed to curing systems that dominated through the rest of the world prior to 1905. Supporting the Vecht system would have been a perfect “placeholder.”

Was the use of the curing technique of Vecht as deliberate as I present it here? I suspect it but have no direct evidence to that effect. Is it a likely scenario, taking the full spectrum of information from that time into account? I believe so! At least it warrants keeping the possibility in mind as we progress our efforts to understand the grand story of the development of bacon!

In Conclusion

The discovery of the life and legacy of Aron Vecht brings together many loose strands in years of research and I am thrilled to share them with you! The real genius of the Irish bacon curer Denny; glimpses of the first attempts of Philip Armours company (he has passed away by this time) to dominate the international bacon production business or flirtations with the thought; the experimentation with refrigeration temperatures for bacon on long voyages; identifying the international agents of Phil Armour; identifying the brain behind Cecil John Rhodes (De Beers) attempt to enter the meat refrigeration business in competition with De Villiers-Graaff; highlighting to me the importance of the singeing of pork in the grand saga of the history of bacon curing; demonstrating how an orthodox Jew could be a master bacon curer; the tantalizing information that Vecht fought in the Anglo Boer war, opening up a new frontier of investigation and validating my own inclusion of this war as background to my book on bacon curing! Finally, the value of international cooperation through the work of Dr Anderson. Without his communication alerting me to the life of Vecht these giant strides in the investigation on numerous fronts would not have taken place. Bacon & the Art of Living is an international collaboration and full credit goes to every single person, who, like Dr Anderson contributed over many years to this work.

I am thrilled that you continue to live so close to the meat trade which I have dedicated my life to and the history of which I am discovering more about every single day!

Lots of love,

your dad.

(c) eben van tonder



Note 1: Liquidation Sale Notice

The notice of the liquidation reads as follows:

MESSRS. STEWART and MORTON, at NOWRA, on account of THOMAS MARRIOTT, Esq., Liquidator of the Shoalhaven Co-operative Bacon Curing Company, Limited in Liquidation).

BACON CURING FACTORY at Bomaderry, N.S.W., and other Assets of the above Company, consisting of the following:

  1. 4 acs 1 road 18 perches, being lots 9 and 10 of Section 33, on Deposited Plan No. 2880, in the Town of Bomaderry, Parish of Bunberra,county of Camden, TORRENS TITLE million to reservations in Crown Grant), withFactory premises and fixed plant and machinerythereon, as per schedule No. 1
  2. Movable Plant, Office Furniture, Horses, Wag-gone, Carts, and Harness, as per Schedule No. 2.
  3. License to use exclusively in NSW. process for curing Bacon known as “Vecht Mild Cure Process.”
  4. “York Castle” Trade Mark for Bacon.

Items 1 and 3 are under mortgage, on which there is a Band of £2050, with Interest at a 5 per cent, per annum, from 2nd June 1900, owing, and will be sold subject thereto.

Item 3 Is held under certain Deeds and Documents, which, together with the Mortgagee over Items 1 and 3, may be inspected at the Offices of Messrs. Perkins. Stevenson, and Co., of 122 Pitt-street, Sydney, Solicitors.

Any Assignment of Item 3 is subject to consent of ARON VECHT, WILLIAM STOKES, and the CHRIST CHURCH CHURCH MEAT COMPANY, Limited. Lists of the Plant, etc may be inspected, at the Office of THOMAS MARIOTT, Esq. and the Auctioneers, at Nowra, and at the Offices of Messrs. PERKINS, STEVENSON, and CO., Solicitors, Sydney.

By order. THOMAS MARRIOTT, Liquidator, ‘

The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW, Tue 29 Jun 1909)

Note 2: York Castle Bacon

The York Castle Trademark is of huge interest. William Stokvis of Brussels instituted legal action against Barnes Bacon Company Ltd. (Mr WJ Gale being the managing director at this time). The lawsuit related to the use of a secret curing formulation for bacon and hams in 1936. The plaintiff alleged the unlawful use of the trademark and he claimed that this secret method was alleged to be used for bacon made under this trade name when in reality, so he alleged, it was not always used.

The judge said in the judgement that York Castel bacon has been sold for years throughout New South Wales and that the secret mild cured formulation was attached to it. An agreement was entered on 20 March 1922 in which Stokvis gave Barnes Bacon Company Ltd. the right to use the secret curing formulation and the trademark for 10 years in exchange for monetary compensation for every pig so cured in New South Wales. In addition, Stokvis agreed in June 1922 to pay James Macgregor (an expert in mixing the cure and supervising the curing) half of the royalties received from Australia and New Zealand. Two tradenames were involved in the agreement being “York Castle” and “More Pork.”

In June 1922, JM Watt became the owner of the trademark limited to New South Wales and in January 1926, its scope was extended internationally. Watt dies in 1926 and the partnership created in 1928 ceased in 1928. In 1929 Stokvis became the owner of the trademark. He subsequently renewed the trademark till 1949.

It was established that pork was cured for a period by Barnes Bacon Company Ltd using a curing method, different from the secret mild curing method, yet, the secret curing method was attached to the trade names. Key witnesses were Messrs. WJ Gale, A Robertson, WJ Read, and Colin C Gale. The judge regarded the witness of all except Colin C Gale as unreliable.

So far it’s all of little interest or direct bearing of our historical consideration of various curing methods. One of the legal counsels referred to a previous case between Orange Crush (Australia) and Cartell (41 C.L.R. 282) where the high court found, by majority decision, that the pickle had lost its identity in the final product. The judge did not accept the point as being applicable in this case, but it is of supreme importance for our current consideration.

It has been my contention for many years that unless a specific piece of equipment, fully protected under patent laws is attached to a certain curing or other processes; or, unless a trademark is linked to a process and the agreement between the licensor and the licensee specifically links the method of curing and the trademark, if the outcome is equal, any process loses its identity in the final product and a process or formulation without a trademark so linked to it or the use of patent-protected equipment, curing methods or any meat processing methods are essentially unprotectable.

It is interesting that the judge accepted the argument of WJ Gale that “a different cure is only a matter of the first pickle that is put into bacon.” Judgement was in favour of the plaintiff.

The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) · 16 Jun 1936, Tue · Page 6

Note 3: From the The Waikato Argus, Friday, November 22, 1901.

The issue of temperatures takes front and central role in the saga. The following newspaper article deals with this.

“Frozen pigs are arriving in England from New Zealand, to be ‘borne cured’ for the British breakfast table (say the Daily Mail). This explanation is that the world is short of pigs, and as people still insist on eating pork the shippers and curers are straining every nerve to reach the remotest parts where the pig is sold. This is why England is buying bacon from Siberia, Russia, Denmark, Holland, Canada, the United States, Australia, and a score more of our colonial friends and foreign rivals. Hitherto this foreign bacon has always arrived in England already cured, and since it is ‘mildly cured ’ to suit the British palate, a very large portion of the bacon sold to the householder is slightly tainted. To prevent this numerous attempts have been made to put the dead pig into ice and turn him into bacon on arrival in England. But the lowering of the temperature below 32deg Fahrenheit (0 deg C) has ‘invariably faded the flash into a pale, unpleasant colour and alienated the affections of the British matron. Now, however, by what may be called a triumph of transit and cure, a most promising and important trade has begun between New Zealand and England. By employing the Vecht curing process, a New Zealand firm is shipping pigs from that distant colony, placing them in refrigerators with a temperature of 20 deg Fahrenheit (-6 deg C), and curing them here on the banks of the Thames with apparently perfect success. This success is obtained by first treating the carcase*, before they leave New Zealand, by the Vecht curing process, which allays the action of the cold, and so sterilises the flesh as to prevent the changes which has hitherto interfered with the successful curing at Home of what is grown abroad. Messrs Trengrouse and Co., who are colonial shippers on a huge scale and the British agents of Armours, of Chicago, are encouraging this new process, and prophesy for it a vast influence on the bacon trade.”The Waikato Argus, Friday, November 22, 1901

Note 4: Interview with Aron Vecht

Note 5: Interesting link to the Grandfather of Henry Trengouse

In my quest to trace the history of bacon curing I wondered many times over 10 years why I cannot find any information about the Armour packing plant in Chicago trading in bacon. It was one of the largest meatpacking plants on earth. I discovered through investigating the life of Aron Vecht, the orthodox Jewish meat curer and inventor of his own curing system, the agent for Armour was the English firm of Henry Trengrouse and they were huge traders in bacon on Armours behalf.

The grandfather of Henry Trengrouse who owned the firm with his brother, Richard, turns out to be a particularly interesting man. He was also Henry Trengrouse. It strikes me that much of his spirit lived on in his grandson. I quote this section from the book Cornish Characters and Strange Events by S. Baring-Gould:


Helston is a quaint old town, once of far more importance than at present. It possessed an old castle, that has now disappeared. It was one of the six stannary towns, and prior to 1832 returned two members to Parliament. It still glories in its “Furry Day,” when the whole town goes mad, dancing, in spite of Methodism. It has on some of its old house-gables pixy seats, and it had a grammar school that has had notable masters, as Derwent Coleridge, and notable scholars, as Henry Trengrouse. It is the key and capital to that wonderful district, rich in geological and botanic and antiquarian interest, the Lizard.

The great natural curiosity of Helston is Loe Pool, formed by the Comber, a small river, penned back by Loe Bar, a pebble-and-sand ridge thrown up by the sea. The sheet of water lying between wooded hills abounds in trout, and white swans float dreamily over the still water. The banks are rich with fern, and yellow, white, and pink mesembryanthemum. Formerly the pool rose till it overflowed the lower parts of the town; now a culvert has been driven through the rocks to let off the water as soon as it has attained a certain height.

Henry Trengrouse was born at Helston, 18th March 1772, the son of Nicholas Trengrouse (1739-1814), and of Mary, his wife, who was a Williams.

The family had been long among the freeholders of Helston, and possessed as well a small estate, Priske, in the parish of Mullion; but the family name is taken from Tref-an-grouse, the House by the Cross, in the same parish.

Henry was educated in Helston Grammar School, and became, by trade, a cabinet-maker.On 29th December, 1807, when he was aged thirty-five, a rumour spread through the little town that a large frigate, H.M.S. Anson, had been driven ashore on Loe Bar, about three miles distant. Mr Trengrouse and many others hastened to the coast and reached the bar.

The Anson, forty-four guns, under the command of Captain Lydiard, had left Falmouth on Christmas Eve for her station off Brest as a look-out ship for the Channel Fleet.

A gale from the W.S.W. sprang up, and after being buffeted about till the 28th, with the wind increasing, the captain determined to run to port. The first land they made was the Land’s End, which they mistook for the Lizard, and only discovered their mistake when the cry of “Breakers ahead!” was heard from the man on the lookout. They were now embayed, and in face of the terrible storm, it was impossible to work off, so both cables were let go. The Anson rode to these till the early morning of the 29th, when they parted, and the captain, in order to save as many lives as possible, decided to beach her on the sand off Loe Pool. A tremendous sea was running, and as she took the beach only sixty yards from the bar, she was dashed broadside on, and happily for the poor fellows on board, heeled landwards. Seas mountains high rolled over her, sweeping everything before them. Then her masts went by the board, her mainmast forming a floating raft from the ship almost to the shore, and over this scrambled through the maddened waves most of those who were saved.

It was a terrible sight to witness for the hundreds of spectators who had by this time collected on the beach, but it was almost impossible for them to render any assistance.

At last, when all hands seemed to have left the ship, two stout-hearted Methodist local preachers—Mr. Tobias Roberts, of Helston, and Mr. Foxwell, of Mullion—made an attempt to reach her, so as to see if anyone remained on board. They succeeded and were soon followed by others, who found several people, including two women and as many children. The women and some of the men were safely conveyed ashore, but the children were drowned. There were altogether upwards of a hundred drowned, including the captain, who stood by the frigate to the last. The exact number was never known, as many of the soldiers deserted on reaching the shore.

The survivors salved a good deal from the wreck, amongst which were watches, jewellery, and many articles of considerable value. They were placed all together in a bedroom of the old inn at Porthleven, with a soldier with drawn sword on guard. One of the beams that bent under such an unusual weight may be seen bowed to this day. A local militia sergeant was soon afterwards sent to Helston in charge of a wagon-load of these valuable goods, and when halfway to his destination was accosted by a Jew, who offered him £50 in exchange for his load. “Here is my answer,” said the sergeant, presenting a loaded pistol at his head, and the fellow hurriedly took his departure.

Much indignation was raised at the time by the way in which the victims of the disaster were buried. They were bundled in heaps into large pits dug in the cliff above, without any burial service being performed over them. It was customary everywhere at that time for all bodies washed ashore to be interred by the finder at the nearest convenient spot. But as a result of the indecent methods of burial of the Anson victims, an Act of Parliament was framed by Mr Davies Gilbert, and passed on 18th June 1808, providing “suitable interment in churchyards and parochial burying-grounds” for all bodies cast up by the sea.

The Anson was a sixty-four gun frigate cut down to a forty-four and had seen much service. Among many fights, she figured in Lord Rodney’s action on 12th April 1782, formed part of the fleet which repulsed the French squadron in an attempt to land in Ireland in 1796, helped in the seizure of the French West Indies in 1803, and in 1807 took part in the capture of Curaçao from the Dutch. It was not long after her return from this latter place that she left Falmouth for the cruise on which she met her fate.

In 1902 the hull of the Anson, after having been submerged for ninety-five years, came to light again. She was found by Captain Anderson of the West of England Salvage Company, whose attention had been directed to the wreck by a Porthleven fisherman. Unfortunately at the time, the weather was so stormy that Captain Anderson could not proceed with any efforts of salvage, and with the exception of one visit of inspection the interesting relic was left untouched. But in April 1903, with a bright sky and a light breeze from the northeast, he proceeded to the spot and inspected the remains. The hull of the vessel was not intact, and several guns were lying alongside. One of these, about 10 ft. 6 in. long, Captain Anderson secured and hoisted on to the deck of the Green Castle by means of a winch, and afterwards conveyed it to Penzance. It was much encrusted. Amongst the mass of débris also raised were several cannon-balls.

But to return to Henry Trengrouse, who had stood on the beach watching the wreck, the rescue of some and the perishing of others.

Drenched with rain and spray, and sick at heart, Henry Trengrouse returned to his home and was confined to his bed for nearly a week, having contracted a severe cold. The terrible scene had made an indelible impression on his mind, and he could not, even if he had wished it, drive the thought away. Night and day he mused on the means whereby some assistance could be given to the shipwrecked, some communication be established between the vessel and the shore.

He was a great friend of Samuel Drew, whose life was devoted to metaphysics, and it was perhaps the contrast in the two minds that made them friends—one an idealist, the other practical.

Trengrouse had a small competence, besides his trade, and he devoted every penny that he could spare to experiments, first in the construction of a lifeboat, but without satisfactory results.

The King’s birthday was celebrated at Helston with fireworks on the green; and as Henry Trengrouse looked up at the streak of fire rushing into the darkness above and scattering a shower of stars, it occurred to him, Why should not a rocket, instead of wasting itself in an exhibition of fireworks, do service and become a means of carrying a rope to a vessel among the breakers? When a communication has been established between the wreck and the shore, above the waves, it may become an aerial passage along which those in distress may pass to safety.

Something of the same idea had already occurred to Lieutenant John Bell in 1791, but his proposal was that a shot with a chain attached to it should be discharged from a mortar. Captain George William Manby had his attention drawn to this in February 1807, and in August of the same year exhibited some experiments with his improved life-preserving mortar to the members of the Suffolk House Humane Society. By the discharge of the mortar, a barbed shot was to be flung onto the wreck, with a line attached to the shot. By means of this line a hawser could be drawn from the shore to the ship, and along it would be run a cradle in which the shipwrecked persons could be drawn to land.

Manby’s mortar was soon abandoned as cumbrous and dangerous; men were killed during tests; notwithstanding which he was awarded, £2000. The great merit of Trengrouse’s invention was that the rocket was much lighter than a shot from a mortar, and was, moreover, more portable, and there was a special line manufactured for it that would not kink, nor would it snap, because the velocity of the rocket increased gradually, whereas that from a discharge of a mortar was sudden and so great that the cord was frequently ruptured.

The distinctive feature of Trengrouse’s apparatus consisted of “a section of a cylinder, which is fitted to the barrel of a musket by a bayonet socket; a rocket with a line attached to its stick is so placed on it that its priming receives fire immediately from the barrel”; whereas a metal mortar could not be conveyed to the cliff or shore opposite the scene of disaster without being drawn in a conveyance by horses, and where there was no road with the utmost difficulty dragged over hedges and ploughed fields by men. Not only so, but a shot discharged by Captain Manby’s mortar was liable to endanger life. Wrecks generally happened in the dark, and then the shot would not be visible to those on the wreck. But Trengrouse’s rocket would indicate its track by the trail of fire by which it was impelled and could be fired from either the ship or the shore.

Trengrouse expended £3000 on his experiments and sacrificed to this one object—that of saving life—his capital, his business, and his health. He cut off the entail on Priske, which had belonged to the family for several generations, and sold it to enable him to pursue his experiments. There was much that was pathetic in his life: there were the long and frequent journeys to London from Helston, four days by coach, sometimes in mid-winter and in snowstorms, with the object of inducing successive Governments to adopt the rocket apparatus, meeting only with discouragement. Nor was this all. After all his own means had been exhausted, he received a legacy of £500 under a brother’s will, and this sum he at once devoted to further endeavours with H.M. Government for the general adoption of his rocket apparatus.

The Russian ambassador now stepped forward and invited Trengrouse to S. Petersburg, where he assured him that, instead of rebuffs, he would experience only the consideration due to him for his inventions. But Trengrouse’s reply was, “My country first”; and that country allowed him, after the signal services he had rendered to humanity—to die penniless.

His original design was to supply every ship with a rocket apparatus; as vessels were almost invariably wrecked before the wind, the line might the more easily be fired from a ship than from the shore.

Trengrouse once met Sir William Congreve, who also claimed to be the inventor of the war-rocket; and Trengrouse said to him in the course of their discussion, “As far as I can see, Sir William, your rocket is designed to destroy life; mine is to save life; and I do claim to be the first that ever thought of utilizing a rocket for the saving of human lives.”

Trengrouse moreover invented the cork jacket or “life preserver.” This was a success and has never been improved on. It has been the means of saving many hundreds of lives. He also built a model of a lifeboat, that could not be sunk, and was equal to the present lifeboats of the Royal Lifeboat Association in all respects except the “self-righting” principle. It was not until February 28th, 1818, after many journeys to London, and much ignorant and prejudiced objection that he had to contend against, such as is found so usual among Government officials, that Trengrouse was able to exhibit his apparatus before Admiral Sir Charles Rowley. A committee was appointed, and on March 5th it reported favourably on the scheme.

In the same year the Committee of the Elder Brethren of Trinity House reported in high terms on the invention, and recommended that “no vessel should be without it.”

Thereupon Government began to move slowly; in the House, the matter was discussed and haggled over. One speaker exclaimed: “You are guilty of sinful negligence in this matter, for while you are parleying over this invention and this important subject, thousands of our fellow-men are losing their lives.”

At last, Government ordered twenty sets of the life-preserving rockets, but afterwards resolved on making the apparatus itself, and paid Trengrouse the sum of £50, the supposed amount of profit he would have made on the order. Fifty pounds was all his ungrateful country could afford to give him. In 1821, however, the Society of Arts pronounced favourably on his apparatus and presented Trengrouse with their silver medal and a grant of thirty guineas.

Through the Russian ambassador, the then Czar sent him a diamond ring, in consideration of the great advantage his apparatus had proved in shipwrecks on the Baltic and the Black Sea. Even this he was constrained to pledge, that he might devote the money to his darling project.

With these acknowledgements of his services, he had to rest contented, but ever the news of lives having been saved through his invention was a solace to an even and contented mind.

Henry Trengrouse died at Helston on February 19th, 1854.

As he lay on his deathbed with his face to the wall, he turned about, and with one of his bright, hopeful smiles said to his son, “If you live to be as old as I am, you will find my rocket apparatus all along our shores.” They were his last words; in a few minutes he had passed away.

The rocket apparatus is along the shores at 300 stations, but not, as he had hoped, onboard the vessels. He had despaired of obtaining that, yet that is what he aimed at principally.

In April 1905, owing to the loss of the Kyber on the Land’s End coast, questions were asked in the House of Commons relative to wireless telegraphy between the lighthouses and the coast. On that occasion one of the most valuable suggestions was made by a shipping expert, who considered that the Board of Trade should make it compulsory that a light rocket apparatus should be carried by all vessels, so that, when in distress if near the coast, the crew could send a rocket ashore. This marine engineer said: “On shore the rockets must be fired by practised men, such as coastguards because they have to strike a small object; but on a vessel, they have only to hit the land, and if people are about, the line will quickly be seized and made fast. At present, too, horses and wagons have to be used, and sometimes it is difficult to find a road leading down to the spot from which help must be rendered. Probably for twenty pounds an appliance could be kept on board a vessel which would send a line ashore in less time and with more certainty than at present. When a vessel is being blown ashore, I have seen rockets fired from the land return like a boomerang to the cliff on account of the strength of the gale. In my judgment, mariners should assist in their own salvation.”

On this Mr H. Trengrouse, grandson of the inventor, wrote to the Cornishman, 24th April 1905:—

“Your suggestion in the Cornishman of the 15th instant … that all vessels should be compelled by the Board of Trade to carry this apparatus, is very practical, and should, and I trust may be soon adopted.”

It may interest your readers to learn that the inventor, my grandfather, the late Mr. Henry Trengrouse, of Helston, urged this upon successive Governments without any encouragement whatever, and I on two occasions have also suggested it to the principals of the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, who have informed me of a strong opinion always entertained, that on the occasion of wreck, there would probably not be any one on board possessing sufficient knowledge of the use of the apparatus to render it of any value; which seems very strange indeed, and might be readily obviated by, at least, the captain and officers of vessels being instructed in its use—surely simple enough. My grandfather devoted much time to make it so; and the advantage of an appliance for use on board is so palpable, and the loss of life during many years by its absence so considerable, that it is extremely gratifying to observe a renewed and increasing interest in the subject, which I hope, Sir, as you state, being so important, may now be kept to the fore.”

I am, Sir,

“Your obedient servant,”

“H. Trengrouse.”

That this admirable letter to the Cornishman should at the time produce no effect on the Board of Trade is what every one who has had any dealings with that Board would predicate.

At length, however, some goading has roused that obstructive, inert body into inquiring into this matter. I read in the Daily Express of 27th January 1908: “The question whether the carrying of rockets for projecting lifelines should be made compulsory on all British ships is being investigated by a special committee appointed by the Board of Trade. One witness before the committee said that he had seen fifty men drowned within sixty yards of the shore in a gale, and that all might have been saved had the vessel been equipped with line-throwing guns.”

So—after the lapse of eighty-six or seven years, and the loss of thousands of lives that might have been saved had not the Board of Trade been too inert to move in the matter—an inquiry has once more been instituted. Let us hope that after this inquiry the matter may not be allowed to fall again into neglect.

That the rocket fired from the shore has been already the means of saving lives, the following report on it made to the Board of Trade, for the year ending 30th June 1907, will testify:—

“During the year ended as above, 268 lives were saved by means of the life-saving apparatus, that is to say, 127 more than the number saved by the same means during the previous year, and 67 more than the average for the previous ten years. The total number of lives saved by the life-saving apparatus since 1870 is 8924. This number does not include the large number of lives saved by means of ropes and other assistance from the shore.”

After the loss of the Berlin, belonging to the Great Eastern Company, in 1907, the attention of the Dutch Government was called to the advantage of having the rocket apparatus on board ship, and legal instructions were drafted, making it obligatory upon all vessels of over two hundred tons gross to carry rocket apparatus.

Henry Trengrouse’s noble life was a failure in so far as that it brought him no pecuniary results—covered him with disappointment, reduced him to poverty. He received, in all, for his life’s work, and the sacrifice of fortune and the landed estate of his ancestors, £50 from Government, £31 10s. from the Society of Arts, and a diamond ring that in his time of need he was constrained to pawn, and which he was never able to redeem.

Russell Lowell puts these lines into the mouth of Cromwell, in his Glance behind the Curtain:—

My God, when I read o'er the bitter lives
Of men whose eager hearts are quite too great
To beat beneath the cramp'd mode of the day,
And see them mocked at by the world they love,
Haggling with prejudice for pennyworths
Of that reform which this hard toil will make
The common birthright of the age to come—
When I see this, spite of my faith in God,
I marvel how their hearts bear up so long;
Nor could they, but for this same prophecy,
This inward feeling of the glorious end.

Henry Trengrouse married Mary, daughter of Samuel and Mary Jenken, 19th November 1795. She was born at S. Erth, 9th September, 1772, and died at Helston, 27th March 1863. By her he had one son only who reached manhood, Nicholas Trevenen Trengrouse, who died at the age of seventy-four; and one daughter, Jane, who married Thomas Rogers, solicitor, of Helston; Emma, who married a Mr Matthews; and two, Mary and Anne, who died unmarried, the first at the age of eighty, the latter at that of ninety-four.

To Mr. Henry Trengrouse, the son of Mr Nicholas T. Trengrouse, I am indebted for much information relative to his grandfather, as also to a lecture, never published, delivered in 1894 by the Rev. James Ninnis, who says in a letter to Mr H. Trengrouse, junior: “Most of the detail I have taken from notes of my father, dated 1878; he got them from a conversation with your respected father.”

Mr J. Ninnis’ grandfather had stood on the beach by the side of Henry Trengrouse, watching the wreck of the Anson.

A portrait of the inventor, by Opie the younger, is in the possession of the family at Helston, as is also the picture of the wreck of the Anson sketched at the time by Mr. Trengrouse. For permission to reproduce both I am indebted to the courtesy of the grandson of the inventor.

Note 6: Effect of Singeing on the Texture and Histological Appearance of Pig Skin


 The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 – 1931) ,Thu 24 Dec 1908

De Beer, G., Paterson, A., and Olivier, H.. 2003. 160 Years of export. The History of the Perishable Products Export Control Board.

Dommisse, E.. 2011. Sir David Pieter de Villiers Graaff: Sakeman en Politikus aan die Kaap 1859 –1931.

Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Vol. LXXIV July to December 1866

Ice & Refrigeration, Vol 20, Jan – June, 1901

The Jewish Voice, St. Louis, Missouri, Friday, December 04, 1908

Jewish Herald (Vic. : 1879 – 1920) Fri 22 Jan 1909

Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts, no 3078, Vol LX, 17 November 1911

Lebrecht, N. 2019. Genius & Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947. Simon and Schuster

Molander, E.. 1985. Effect of Singeing on the Texture and Histological Appearance of Pig Skin. Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University, Department of Meat Technology and Process Engineering, 11 Howitzvej, DK-2000 Copenhagen F, Denmark

1894, New Zealand, Patents, Designs and Trade-Marks

The Standard, London, Greater London, England, Saturday, November 16, 1889

The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia)16 Jun 1936, Tue

The Waikato Argus, Friday, November 22, 1901

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Chapter 13.04: Finally – nitrate, nitrite, nitric oxide as valuable molecules and the triumph of nature over foolish strawman positions

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting.  Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.


October 1960

Bacon & the Art of Living

When I say that it was my study of bacon that taught me the essence of the art of living, the reality is that in the first place it taught me to accept who I am in life. As important as my hopes and aspirations are, I am not my ideals and dreams. I am not the most current fad of the ever-changing mental world we live in. I am in the first place the physical being who lives in a physical world, connected to the bountiful earth that brought me forth. Despite the fact that I am in my mental world the centre of the universe, I am not! Life is not the life I live in my brain minus the physical world. It is all one thing and my mental world is only my perception of the real world I live in. In reality, I am nature!

I am Nature

My brain is a very complex physical event and my consciousness, as I define it with my human mind is here today and gone tomorrow. My thoughts, my thinking, is predicated upon my memory and indoctrination (learned information and past experiences). What is fundamental and what bacon taught me is that my connection with the earth itself is not primarily through my brain. The billions upon billions of atoms that form the molecules and the amino acids and bacteria and proteins and synapsis and organs that make up my body by its most basic essence is my connection to nature. My essential nature is my oneness with the universe and the universe is nature. Bacon curing is not a study of any food in that it mimics natural physiological processes essential for life. Nitrogen plays an essential role in it irrespective of the current thinking on the benefits or dangers of its consumption.

My initial resistance against eating bacon was initially not restricted to the question of nitrites. I had to work out for myself if I am comfortable eating other animals. Like the question about nitrogen, the fact that I eat other animals is a fact of my existence as a human being whether it is fashionable to do so or not. We only perceive this as a moral dilemma because we have departed our natural environment and so we think that in the plant kingdom the same predatory behaviour does not exist. If we see all living organisms as essentially the same, we will understand that to arbitrarily choose to eat one group and not another is non-sensical.

The Zambian Revelation

During my second trip to Zambia, I’ve spent days in the forests in the north of the country close to the Kongolese border with a remarkable man, Richard Horton. He looks at the trees and plants and knows every one of them by name. Which one is related to which. The basic characteristic of each individual fruit and flower. The locals call him “Capenta Mabullo,” meaning “The Man who Counts Leaves.” It was through the eyes of Richard and walking the forests of Zambia that I discovered that in the plant kingdom we find the same struggle for life and death as we find in the animal kingdom and the same predatory behaviour of many plant species. Walking with him through the woods becomes the same experience as seeing a lion hunt in the Kruger National Park or crocodiles hunting wildebeest in the great migrations on the Serengeti plains of Kenia.

It is here that I learned that to think that plants are different from mammals or other animals is a view based on our removal from the forests of our youth. Humanity lost its perspective on our essential nature. In the first place, the plants and trees of the forest are just as much alive with struggles and pleasures as the world of animals and insects. Both are living. Both have intellect – yes, not as we would define it in our human-centric worldviews of intellect. Choosing one over the other – to assign intellect and emotions as we understand it arbitrarily to the one group and not the other is supreme foolishness. In the Zambian forests, I have seen plants behaving like animals. They strive and compete; they weep and reach out in joy.

Evaluating the effect of the human intellect on the natural world, I am at a loss to see the benefit of our version of intellect and I fear that if we don’t come to our senses, our time as a species is short and nature will remove the element poised to destroy its world from the universe. Then, again, saying that we evolved intellect for a particular reason beyond simply survival is an assumption I can not make. That our intellect is not superior to that of plants and animals and insects and microbes is clear when we evaluate the effect our intelligence have on the natural world. The most we can say, it seems to me, is that our intellect is different in degree and an effective means to dominate. It manifests in a different way but I fail to see its superiority in quality or the result of its “differentness.” So, at least, it seems to me. Superseding everything is nature and it is nature that dictates that we eat in order to live and as a food source, nature feeds itself from all it brings forth, including humans as part of the world of animals.

I Consume and Will be Consumed – the Same Eternal Sycle for All

Before I could engage the issue of nitrites in meat I had to come to grips with the fact that no matter what I assign to animals and plants – the fact is that I consume both natural “forms” just as I will be consumed by them one day is the natural cycle of everything. The micro-world and insects will feast on my body one day long with plants. The possibility still exists that my initial end may be brought about by an animal if I continue to venture into forests. This does not make the animals or trees or microorganisms or insects immoral. It is life. Nature does not care about my view of morality. Nor yours!

When I transfer my view of emotion, righteousness or morality to non-human living beings (plants, animals, insects, microorganisms), it is supreme foolishness. These are mental constructs that operate solely in the mind-space of humans and within the ambit of human culture. It is natural in the sense that it is from nature (being our natural brains), but what we think and dream up is not a result of nature and is not inherently “natural.” It does not represent nature automatically.

One of the best recent developments in our mental world is the fact that we start to value the animals and plants who share the world with us. Abusing and mistreating them becomes cruel and unnatural. Inflicting suffering on nature for the sake of our own comfort is the most unnatural thing we can do and recognising this is a sign of a maturing understanding. Mistreating our food source becomes physical harm we do to them and mental harm we do to ourselves! However, to assign more to them than what nature intends is unnatural. I consume living beings that I share this world with. It took me years to understand this and it came to me through the understanding of the curing of bacon. I struggled with the fact that I am making my living through the death of other animals. The first lesson I had to learn was that it is unnatural to try and be more natural than nature itself.

The Basic Problem – Our Evolving Culture

As human populations increased and our culture developed we changed our natural habitat. We urbanised and had to design our own food sources. Humans incorporated the preparation of food into our culture and changed it for the sake of distributing it to the cities and towns we started living in. Food, in its most natural form, is best suited for our bodies as this is how we initially evolved. In so doing we did not always understand the implications of what we were doing. One of the most important lessons we had to learn, not just related to additives but also food sources themselves, like red meat, was the issue of “how much.” Including many additives at the wrong inclusion ratio becomes unhealthy and even poisonous. Red meat, for example, must be consumed in moderation. Too much will have serious health consequences. Not just ingredients and types of foods must be carefully considered, but also methods of preparations. Science is invaluable in a continual investigation into these matters so that we can improve our health.

A curious position emerged in particular related to the use of nitrites in foods. Despite the fact that nitrogen is an inherent constituent of animal and plant proteins and despite the essential role it plays in human physiology, there exist among parts of our population a perception that nitrite is one of the key villains in modern food. This group of our population further see the presence of nitrite restricted to cured meat and bacon in particular.

The advice from the WHO that intake of cured meat must be limited as is the case with red meat, alcohol, fatty food, refined carbohydrates and sugars, in particular, is something that every food scientist will agree with. In general, humans per capita consume more food than ever with the accompanying diseases of obesity and the impact on our general health. For some reason, the perception still exists that bacon or possibly cured meat should be singled out. Some go as far as to equate the consumption of these products with cigarette smoking.

Understanding why this is the case and dealing with this issue brought me to the greatest realisation about life namely the value of using nature itself as our guiding principle in the design of our food and our lives. Right at the outset then I can reveal that the greatest lesson I learned from bacon over many years is that if we want to be safe, we must strive to use the ratios and proportions of various compounds naturally found in the human body and in plants. This extends much further than only food. Over the years I have taken these lessons and applied them to every area of my life including things like exercise, water intake and stress. I learned to limit my mental activity during the day by quieting my mind whenever the flurry of mental activities goes out of hand. The blueprint of nature became the essence of my goals.

How I discovered that nitrate and nitrite have key physiological functions in the body and that it is by no means a villain to be avoided at all times in foods came to me through the contemplation of and search for the original location on earth where nitrate curing of meat most probably developed into an art form. I will deal with nitrosamines and the fact that most nitrosamines are cancer-causing in animals, but before I do so, let me start by giving you the chronology of my own discovery that nitrate, nitrite and nitric oxide are three absolutely essential molecules for our existence on earth.

How I discovered the Value of Nitrate, Nitrite and Nitric Oxide to Human Health

It was my search for the original location where meat curing was turned into an art form that made me look at the use of salt in meat preservation which predates the use of nitrogen salts. The general consideration of salt led me to mummification which took me natural deposits of nitrate in the Atacama Desert in South America and the Turfan Depression in the West of China. In searching for supporting evidence of the general development of technology related to nitrates, I happened upon a very clear and effective remedy from this region which used nitrate, a cure so revolutionary that it was only finally understood by science in the 1980s which unlocked the reality of the absolutely key role of nitrate, nitrite and nitric oxide in human physiology. So, in re-capping the progression of my search for the location of the birthplace of nitrate curing of meat, I am actually telling the story of my discovery of the value of nitrite, nitrate and nitric oxide to human existence and health.

The Story at a Glance

My quest started with a consideration of salt which is older than humanity itself. My interest is in its use as a meat preservative. When did this start and how and what are its functional benefits? Most of this has been dealt with in Chapter 12.10: Meat Curing – A Review, but I left an important link out in that discussion namely a realisation that studying mummies and mummification technology through the ages may be a very productive way of searching for the oldest known meat preservation technology and the use of salts at a time before writing was invented. I applied this thinking and did a survey of the oldest mummies on earth which yielded the most startling two results.


A semi-natural mummy in Chile’s Atacama Desert

The oldest mummies on earth, dating from around 7000 BCE are the Chinchorro mummies from the one place on earth that is at the same time the dryest and is replete with the highest concentration of natural sodium nitrate, the Atacama Desert from Chile and Peru!  What makes this startling is that sodium nitrate has been the curing agent of choice for meat until it was replaced after World War 1 by sodium nitrite. I always thought that the use of sodium nitrate in meat curing became popular due to the cured colour it imparts to meat and that its preserving ability was a secondary application. I also thought that its widespread use was a very recent development that reached a height in Europe at the end of the 1800s.  Following my logic about mummification technology, I was certainly not expecting a date of 7000 BCE for a probable use of sodium nitrate in meat curing.

I turned my attention to Asia from where, in an iconic review article from Binkerd and Kolari (1975), they claim that the use of nitrates in the curing of meat was first used as meat preservative “in the saline deserts of Hither Asia and in coastal areas.” They say that “desert salts contained nitrates and borax as impurities” and the discovery was accidental when they actually thought they use ordinary sea or bay salt (sodium chloride).  I wanted to examine the veracity of their claims.

What I discovered was the most startling possibility, that curing technology was developed into an art form between a particular location in China and another one in Austria. Even more than that, following the mummy trail, I managed to identify one particular geographic location which is a prime candidate for the exact location where the technology of curing was discovered, developed and spread across the rest of Asia and into Europe.  This is an amazing possibility and the fact presented by themselves are startling!

The oldest mummies in China are found in the Taklimakan Desert, in the Tarim Basin. Right here, in the region where the mummies are found, in the Turpan-Hami Basin, massive nitrate ore fields, close in proximity to the Tarim Basin exists.  Nitrate deposits, so massive that it is estimated to be at least 2.5 billion tonnes and comparable in scale to the Atacama Desert super-scale nitrate deposit in Chile.


A Tarim mummy

At the graves near Loulan, one of the bodies were subjected to radiocarbon dating which indicated that she died about 1200 BCE.  In the oldest cemetery so far discovered, the Small River Cemetery, mummies were discovered which carbon tests, done at Beijing University, show to be 3980 years old. This takes the known date for meat preservation, by our logic of linking it with mummification, to almost 4000 years ago in China.

The two areas in the Atacama Desert and the Taklimakan Desert in China share a striking similarity in weather. They are both some of the aridest regions on earth.  A second factor that plaid a role in the natural mummification is rapid freezing due to extreme cold conditions in the winter and then, of course, the very high sodium chloride content of the soil.

I honed in on this region in China for its geographical importance as being on the important Silk Road connecting Asia with the Middle East and Europe. I asked if there is any evidence of the development of sophisticated thinking pertaining to the use of sodium nitrate salt from this particular region.  My reasoning is that if meat curing as an art developed here, that would have been a springboard for the development of related applications.

The results of my enquiry have been nothing less than startling and leave me with little doubt that I have identified one of the exact locations on earth from where the art of curing meat developed and was spread into Europe and back into Asia.  Not that they were the only ones who would have discovered this. I am convinced the ancients in the Atacama Desert would have easily made the same link with meat preservation but it was here, in China’s Western front, on the Silk Road, where a level of sophistication in thought related to the application of sodium nitrate developed that is unrivalled, as far as I am aware off, by any other location on earth.

The first factor in favour of the Tarim Bason for the birthplace of curing technology that was spread into Europe is then the enormous natural deposits of sodium nitrate. Secondly, you have the mummies which are something that observant ancients would have noticed almost immediately. It won’t take you 4000 years to realise that something extraordinary is happening with the corpses. The third fact relates to the level of sophistication in the application of sodium nitrate.

The clue of such sophistication of thought comes to us in the discovery of an ancient medical prescription dating from some time between CE 456 and 536, during the life of the famous Daoist alchemist and physician Toa Hongjing in a cave close to the city of Dunhuang, right in our area of interest.

The text describes the treatment of a condition identified as a case of severe angina, i.e. restricted blood flow due to the narrowing of the cardiac arteries.  The treatment was to place saltpetre (potassium nitrate) under the tongue.

The basic curing pathway that alleviates the condition by the ancient prescription is a reduction of the nitrate through bacteria under the tongue to nitrite and in the tissue, transported there by the blood, the nitrite is converted to nitric oxide.  The role of nitric oxide as a vasodilator was, amazingly, only discovered in 1987 simultaneously by a group of researchers at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Beckenham led by Professor Salvador Moncada and by a group in the USA led by Professor Louis Ignarro. So momentous was this discovery that the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded for the work.  Once nitric oxide was identified as playing a role in physiological processes, it was found to be involved in many processes from inflammation to crying. So, here we have a text, detailing a medical prescription in the 5th and 6th decade of the Christan Era, from China, that has only been fully understood by modern science in 1987!  This by itself is an astounding fact!

It gets even more startling. It turns out that this exact reaction sequence of nitrate ion that is reduced to nitrite through bacterial reduction and changed to nitric oxide, along with the influence of acidity and various reductants on the speed of the process is something that is well known in meat science. Humphrey Davy, in 1812 (cited by Hermann, 1865) was the first one to note the action of nitric oxide upon haemoglobin. On 7 May 1868, Dr Arthur Gamgee from the University of Edinburgh, brother of the famous veterinarian, Professor John Gamgee (who contributed to the attempt to find ways to preserve whole carcasses during a voyage between Australia and Britain), published a groundbreaking article entitled, “On the action of nitrites on the blood.” He observed the colour change brought about by nitrite.  He wrote, “The addition of … nitrites to blood … causes the red colour to return…” Over the next 30 years, it would be discovered that it is indeed nitrites responsible for curing and not the nitrates added as saltpetre.  It was Polenski who first speculated that saltpetre is reduced to nitrite in the curing of meat in 1891 and 1901 Haldane showed that nitrite is further reduced to nitric oxide (NO).  (Fathers of Modern Meat Curing)

Meat curing has been known to follow this exact pathway since 1901. The tantalising possibility, now presents itself that the preserving nature of the salt was recognised from things like the natural mummification in this exact region in China. The salt was applied to meat in which it had an amazing preserving impact as well as, what must have been, a mysterious reddening effect. To the ancients, it probably looked as if the meat was coming to life again. The Chinese alchemists in all likelihood gravitated to this as a possible key component of the elusive elixir of immortality. Finding such an elixir was the goal of Chinese alchemy. They probably applied its preserving power to all kinds of ailments and in a process of trial and error, a treatment for angina must have been especially effective.

Such experimentation takes many centuries and if this was a known cure and part of a medical prescription by CE 400 or CE 500, it means that curing of meat must have been very advanced in terms of it being practised in this region by this time.  From here, in terms of its key position on the Silk Road, the curing technology would have spread across Asia and into Europe.

Mummification – Key to Preservation Technology

The use of salt in embalming is an obvious application of the preserving power of salt to meat. It also seems reasonable to speculate that salt for preserving meat for domestic consumption came first and the application of the technology to mummification was probably a later development. One obvious reason for this is that meat preservation for consumption would have been a daily requirement. An immediate need, for a large group of people. So, many people, over a long time would have been engaged in experiments with various salts and ingredients to determine by a simple process of observation which salts ingredients and combination of factors preserved meat best. Burying the dead and mummification, on the other hand, was a far more infrequent event, with very few people working on solving the problem resulting in a much slower development trajectory. It is far more probable that techniques for meat preservation in general use would have been applied to the preservation of human bodies after death and in the art of mummification.

If one assumes this logic, it becomes an important tool to establish a date by which food preservation with salt was done by a society. The use of salt in embalming leaves us with clear records with precise dates and exactly what was used in meat preservation. If one assumes that meat preservation for general consumption would have predated the use for embalming, we can fix precise dates by what time a society used which salts to preserve meat.

I found support for this reasoning from Valerie Wohl. She writes, “While we do not know exactly how embalming began, it is likely that methods common at the time for preserving meat, fowl or fish probably suggested a clue for early techniques. One might bleed a fish, for example, then preserve it by salting, smoking, sun drying or otherwise heating it to prevent decomposition and store it for a later time. By the time of the very earliest documentation of the process of embalming (in about 500 BCE), it had become a sophisticated technique that had been evolved over hundreds of years.” (Wohl, V.)

The Chinchorro Mummies of the Atacame Desert

This line of reasoning yielded the most surprising results imaginable. Not in my wildest imagination did I think that the oldest mummies and their preservation would be linked, not with sodium chloride, but with what has been the curing salt of choice up until at least 1905, namely sodium nitrate. I have always thought, based on research on the subject, that sodium nitrate was used for preserving meat from the 1600s and reached its height in Europe in the 1700s and 1800s before it was replaced with sodium nitrite from around 1905 and in particular after World War 1. I thought it was used in isolated places around the world where various cultures re-discovered the reddening effect it had on meat, independently and over a long time and that this slowly filtered through to Europe where it gained popularity over time until it became a general practice.  Never did I expect sodium nitrite to have been used for meat preservation since between 5000 and 7000 years BCE and not due to its reddening effect, but for its preserving properties. Let’s look at this case.

It turns out that the oldest mummies on earth are the Chinchorro mummies from the Atacama Desert in Chile and Peru, dating from as early as 7000 BCE. (Guillén, S. E.; 2005) Gypsum, a sulphate mineral, was later used with clay (3000 – 1300 BCE), but mud and clay played an important role from as early as 5000 BCE.

The fascinating link is between this region and sodium nitrate. Nowhere on earth are such large natural deposits of this salt found. The soil here is rich in sodium nitrate salt which is known as Chilean Saltpeter to distinguish it from potassium nitrate or regular saltpetre. A war was fought over these deposits and securing it was a major consideration of Germany going into World War 1. The second important factor is that the Atacama desert is the dryest place on earth. The soil is so rich in saltpetre and it is so dry that mummification occurred naturally, leaving mummies that exist since 7020 BCE.

Two of the most important ingredients in meat preservation namely heat/ drying and saltpetre were present in the mummifications rituals of the Chicharro people of the Atacama Desert since as early as at least 5000 BCE. I do not think that it is too far a stretch to assume that these people knew about the meat preserving ability by drying in combination with their special salts (sodium nitrate).  Even though it is complete conjecture, I am comfortable to say that preserving meat through sodium nitrate salt and drying was probably known since at least 5000 BCE in Chile and parts of Peru. It is then not a stretch to say that this was likely to be known in the other two main regions in the world where saltpetre is found naturally namely in China and India. This is, of course, a fascinating possibility since this particular salt became the curing agent of choice in the 1700s which gave rise to the food category of cured meats and directly resulted in our use of sodium nitrite in meat curing today. This date of between 5000 and 7000 BCE is completely in line with a date proposed by Binkerd and Kolari.

Despite this tantalising possibility, the actual sodium nitrate concentrations at the burial sites in the Atacama Desert has never been studied. The degree of mummification varies tremendously (Aufderheide, A. C.; 2003: 141) which will indicate that various factors have been present in varying degrees.

The Tarim Mummies of China

A date of between 5000 and 7000 BCE is completely in line with a date proposed by Binkerd and Kolari. According to their iconic 1975 review article about the history and use of nitrates and nitrites in the curing of meat, “it appears that meat preservation was first practised in the saline deserts of Hither Asia and in coastal areas. Desert salts contained nitrates and borax as impurities. However, the reddening effect of nitrates was not mentioned until late Roman times.” (Binkerd, E. F. and Kolari O. E.; 1975: 655)  A probable time for this discovery is however not given.

I first thought that what they were talking about was salt preservation generally, but the more I look at events in the Atacama desert, the more I wondered if the particular preserving power of sodium and potassium nitrate was not known from the earliest times and the discovery, focusing on its preserving power and not on its reddening effect on cured meat.

A further elaboration of what Binkerd and Kolari may have been talking about comes to us from a 1977 newspaper article. According to it, the suspicion is that prehistoric nomadic hunters in Western Asia began carrying salt, containing nitrate with them to preserve the hunting catch. (The Indianapolis Star;  1977) The focus was indeed on nitrate and its preserving ability and not just on salt generally. I learned that nitrate deposits occur and precipitate as an efflorescent crust in amongst other the Egyptian and Namibian deserts, the Abu Dhabi sabkhas, and deserts of the Mojave, Death Valley and of course, the Atacama Desert and the Gobi Desert.  (Warren, J. K.;  2016: 1278)

It is, however, the largest desert in China, the Taklimakan Desert of Western China that offers the biggest surprise when I find the oldest examples of natural mummification in China, right in this desert region, replete with natural nitrate deposits. The conditions are almost identical to those of the Atacama desert.

Like the Atacama desert, the Taklimakan Desert is at the same time one of the aridest regions on earth and massive nitrate ore fields exist in the Turpan-Hami Basin, close in proximity to the Tarim Basin, in the Xinjiang province, where the oldest mummies in China was found. The nitrate deposits are so substantial, that an estimated 2.5 billion tons exist, comparable in scale to the Atacama Desert super-scale nitrate deposit in Chile. (Qin, Y., et al; 2012) The mummification happened, as was the case with the mummies of the Atacama Desert between 5000 BCE and 7020 BCE,  spontaneously.

The initial discovery was made in 1939 by the Swedish archaeologist Bergman Folke. A set of tombs were discovered in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, known as the Xiaohe Tombs. For 60 years the tombs were forgotten until in 2000 a researcher, head of the Xinjiang Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute, found the tombs again. It wasn’t until 2005 that the excavations were complete. (

The size of the area is unprecedented. So far there have been 330 tombs found in multiple different layers. The tombs include adults and children as well as 15 intact mummies. About half of the tombs were looted by grave robbers. It is the first time anywhere on Earth that so many mummies have been found.  (

“Several bodies have been excavated from graves near Loulan, a site that once bordered a still shrinking lake fed by the Kongi River. Among these is the body of a young female with remarkably well-preserved facial features, whose radiocarbon date indicates that she died she died about 1200 BCE.” Subsequently, more than 500 tombs have been studied.  Dr Wang Bing Hua, director of the Ürümxi’s Archeological Research Institute, attributes the spontaneous mummification to three factors:  arid climate, salty soil and shallow, winter burial. Average salt content of the desert soil near Turpan is about 10g/ L but in the very surface layer, it can be five times greater. At Hami the soil contains layers of gypsum and at Cherchen actual salt blocks are obvious within the soil, especially near the surface.  Most burials are only about a meter below the surface.  (Aufderheide, A. C.; 2003: 268, 269) In the oldest cemetery so far discovered, the Small River Cemetery, mummies were discovered which carbon tests, done at Beijing University, show to be 3,980 years old. This takes the known date for meat preservation, by our logic of linking it with mummification, to almost 4000 years ago in China. The nitrate in Xinjiang Lop Nur exists in two forms: natural sodium nitrate mine and natural potassium nitrate. (

The Turpan Basin is a “fault-bounded trough located around and south of the city-oasis of Turpan, in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in far western China, about 150 kilometres (93 mi) south-east of the regional capital Ürümqi.” “The surrounding mountain ranges are the central Tian Shan in the west, the Bogda Shan in the north-west, the Haerlike Shan in the north-west, and the Jueluotage Shan in the south. Beyond the surrounding mountain ranges lie the Junggar Basin in the north and the Tarim Basin in the south.” (

“Some geographers also use the term Turpan-Hami Basin, which is understood as including the Turpan Depression along with the Hami Depression (located to the east of the Turpan Depression, and to the southwest of the city of Hami) and the Liaodong Uplift separating the two depressions.” (

One of these mummies may hold a further clue to their preservation. She became famous for her “excellent preservation and beauty and it is known as the Beauty of Xiaohe. It is a white person with round eyes, perfect eyelashes, and long hair and has features that are more similar to a European person than a Chinese person.” (

According to Elizabeth Wayland Barber, her “beautiful eyelashes finally proves an earlier hypothesis, deduced from little detail at Zaghunluq, that those bodies that mummified had to have died in early winter, flash freezing and gradually freeze-drying over the next few months whereas other bodies decomposed.” She was dismayed at people’s acceptance or refutation of his arguments without dealing with the arguments posed.  In the Beauty of Xiaohe she, at last, had hard evidence. “Eyeballs, being wet, cause rapid decomposition of both themselves and the eyelash-holding eyelids when warm; but by the same token, being wet, cause rapid decomposition of both themselves and the eyelash holding eyelids when warm, but by the same token, being wet, both they and the thin overlaying eyelids will freeze rapidly when being very cold, thus securing the eyelashes in place.  Unlike putrefaction, the gentle process of freeze-drying will not dislodge eyelids.” (Mair, V. H., Hickman, J.;  2014:  35)

It has been known from the earliest times that meat curing could be done only in the winter in the absence of refrigeration. If not, the putrefying and decomposing forces would overtake the preserving action of saltpetre and decomposition would be unstoppable. It is the combination of cold and dry conditions along with the use of sodium nitrate to preserve and ordinary salt (sodium chloride) to aid in drying out the meat, that forms a link between the earliest forms of mummification and modern meat-curing techniques. It seems unreasonable to think that the result of these forces, in combination, would have gone unnoticed. I further suspect that the power of these forces would have been practised in relation to fish, fowls, game and domesticated animals for centuries before they found inclusion in the earliest mummification practices.

The Silk Road

The location of the Turpan-Hami and Tarim Basins are very important. Crossing the Taklimakan Desert is possible at the foot of the mountains surrounding the Turpan-Hami Basin or along its streams such as the Tarim, “that spring from the mountains to enter the desert from its periphery but soon vanish into the sand. As ancient caravans from Eastern China approached Dunhuang at the edge of this segment of what eventually came to be part of the Silk Road to the Mediterranean, the near absence of water in the desert’s centre forced them to make a choice. The southern option skirts the desert along its southern edge at the foot of the steep Kunlun slopes descending from Tibet’s high plateau. Alternatively, the northern route passes through Hami and those communities living along the Kongi and Tarim rivers that lead to Loulan and Lop Nor.  It is along these routes that mummies from the Tarim Basin have been found.”  (Aufderheide, A. C.; 2003: 268, 269)

The caravans on the Silk Road approached Dunhuang, crossing vast sodium and potassium nitrate deposits. If the knowledge of its power was developed in this region and exported to Europe, I am sure that there should be remnants of this ancient knowledge in this city.

“One of the people who has extensively studied the Caucasian mummies of China, Professor Victor Mair of Pennsylvania University, said that he believes that early Europeans long ago spread out in different directions. He believes that some of these peoples travelled west to become the Celts in Britain and Ireland, others went north to become the Germanic tribes, and still, others journeyed east to find their way to Xinjiang. These ancient European settlers are believed to represent some of the earliest human inhabitants of the Tarim Basin, and Mair has stated that from around 1800BCE the earliest mummies to be found here are exclusively Caucasoid or Europoid rather than Chinese in origin.”

The origins of the mummies have been studied extensively using DNA technology.  Writing in the journals BMC Genetics and BMC Biology, Chunxiang Li, an ancient DNA specialist at Jilin University, and colleagues report on their analysis of human remains from the Xiaohe tomb complex also on the eastern edge of the basin.

They conclude that by reconstructing a possible route by which the Tarim Basin was populated, Li and colleagues conclude that “people bearing the south/west Asian components could have first married into pastoralist populations and reached North Xinjiang through the Kazakh steppe following the movement of pastoralist populations, then spread from North Xinjiang southward into the Tarim Basin across the Tianshan Mountains, and intermarried with the earlier inhabitants of the region, giving rise to the later, admixed Xiaohe community.” (Killgrove, K, 2015)

“The populations from the Russian steppe seem to have contributed more genetically to this population than did the populations from the oases of Bactria. “The groups reaching the Tarim Basin through the oasis route,” the researchers note, “may have interacted culturally with earlier populations from the steppe, with limited gene flow, resulting in a small genetic signal of the oasis agriculturalists in the Xiaohe community.””  (Killgrove, K, 2015)

A New York Times article on the origin of these people presents the picture clearly. It reads that “all the men who were analyzed had a Y chromosome that is now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, but rarely in China. The mitochondrial DNA, which passes down the female line, consisted of a lineage from Siberia and two that are common in Europe. Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, Dr Zhou and his team conclude the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin some 4,000 years ago.” (Wade, N; 210)

It is however not the origin of these people who interest me as much as their destination and the destination of the traders who passed through this region. The Silk Road that ran through this region reached into the heart of the Middle East and Europe to the West and into the rest of China and India to the East. There is an interesting possibility that comes up and that is if it is possible that the Europeans brought the technology with them. Of course, this is a possibility but then there is the matter of the unique level of sophisticated insight into saltpetre from this exact region. Such a level of understanding of saltpetre did not exist in Europe for many centuries. It seems more likely that the transfer of technology went from Tarim, East, into Europe, rather than the other way round. The next section explains what I mean by this.


The question is if there is any evidence that anything was done with the nitrate deposits and the clear evidence of its preserving power in the mummification. If this was the region where curing of meat was progressed into the art that we know it as today, is there any evidence of this? Any ancient document or reference, not just from China generally, but linked to this region. These were the actual questions I asked myself as I was searching. This is not a device I employ after the fact for the sake of creating drama.

I knew my general geographic area of focus was the one I show below featuring the Tarim Basin.


I started plotting the important points.


Looking at the images above, the saltpetre deposits are the largest at Yuli, marked as NO3-. Loulan is the city where many of the mummies have been found. Dunhuang is a major city before the trip past or across the desert was undertaken on the Silk Road past the Tarim Basin.

I did a search for any reference to saltpetre from the city of Dunhuang which would have been a key trading city in the area and important in terms of its location on the Silk Road. Not in my wildest imagination did I expect to uncover what I found!

It is here, in the Mogao Caves, where a remarkable find was made by the Daoist monk, Wang Yuanlu on 25 June 1900. The mix of religious and secular documents date from the 5th to the early 11th centuries.  One text is of particular interest to us, the Dunhuang Medical Text. “The text has been carefully studied by China’s leading experts in traditional Chinese medical literature and ancient manuscripts. The text is attributed to the famous Daoist alchemist and physician Toa Hongjing (CE 456 – 536).” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.;  2005) There is evidence that it relies on earlier traditions from the Han and Sui Dynasties. “The original was decorated with images of the Three Daoist Lords and the Twelve Constellations, indicating links with Doist traditions.  In Translation, it reads as follows:

Dunhuang Medical Manuscripts 1
Dunhuang Medical Manuscripts 2

(Cullen, C, Lo, V.;  2005)

Until the 1500s this is the only script of its kind that we know off. “The symptoms described by the patient, as described in the Dunhuang manuscript, suggests an advanced case of cardiovascular distress. The colour of the fingernails (cyanosis) indicates ischaemia (lack of oxygen in the tissue) due to restricted blood flow.  Cold hands and feet are additional symptoms of this condition. Also, acute pain suggests that the patient may be suffering from severe angina, i.e. restricted blood flow due to the narrowing of the cardiac arteries.”  (Cullen, C, Lo, V.;  2005)

“Modern treatment for angina is glyceryl trinitrate or isosorbide dinitrate. So, at first glance, there seems to be a similarity in treatment. All three remedies contain the all important nitrate. Salpeter is, however, an inorganic compound that exists as a positively charges potassium cation (K+) and a negatively charged nitrate anion (NO3-). Concerning organic nitrate, such as glyceryl trinitrate, there is a covalent bond or a molecular bond between the nitrate moieties (NO3) where they share electron pairs which form the bond with the rest of the molecule (CH2). Where glyceryl trinitrate relaxes the muscle lining of the artery to relax, enlarging the vessel and so allowing more blood flow, saltpetre by itself will have no effect on the treatment of angina. (Cullen, C, Lo, V.;  2005)

This is however not the full story. The remarkable feature of the Dunhuang text is that the combination of the use of saltpetre, not on its own, but when applied according to the dictates of the text, becomes a remedy for exactly the condition described. “The thing about glyceryl trinitrate is that this too, in itself, is not a vasodilator (relaxing of the arterial lining). It is transformed, probably in the arterial wall, into a chemical species which is the vasodilator. Under very special circumstances, exactly as detailed in the Dunhuang text, the nitrate ion from saltpetre also converts to exactly the same species which is the vasodilator. Despite the fact that glyceryl trinitrate has been in use for over a hundred years, the identity of this species has only been discovered in 1987.” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.;  2005)

“Lining almost all blood vessels on the inside is a layer of cells known as the endothelium. A very important function of the endothelium was first reported in 1890 by Furchgott and Zawadzki. The presence of acetylcholine (a small biologically active molecule) in the bloodstream affects vasodilation and it was generally assumed that acetylcholine acted directly upon vascular muscle. However, this was found not to be the case. Furchgott and Zawadzki showed convincingly that acetylcholine acted, not upon the muscle of the artery, but upon the endothelium and the endothelium produces a “second messenger” which then acts upon the muscles to effect relaxation. This second messenger was christened “the endothelium-derived relaxing factor” (EDRF).” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.;  2005)

During the 1980s, an intense effort was effected to identify the EDRF. It was initially assumed that it would turn out to be a complex molecule like a hormone. This speculation enhanced the surprise when the chemical nature of the molecule was finally determined. It turned out to be a small diatomic molecule called Nitric Oxide (NO).  “That it had a physiological role, in a process as important as vasodilation, came as a complete surprise.” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.;  2005)

“The discovery was made simultaneously by a group at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Beckenham led by Professor Salvador Moncada and by a group in the USA led by Professor Louis Ignarro. The 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded for this discovery. Once nitric oxide had been detected in one physiological process it was found to have roles in many others, from inflammation to crying. That it should have remained undetected during a hundred years of intense scrutiny of human physiology is astonishing. Glyceryl trinitrate is a vasodilator because it is transformed by an enzymatic process (possibly by the enzyme xanthine oxidoreductase) into nitric oxide.” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.;  2005)

Let us now return to the Dunhuang text. Is there any way that the inorganic nitrate could be transformed into nitric oxide?  “In a healthy body it is very unlikely, that nitrate which is present in the blood plasma, is converted to nitric oxide. However, there is a species, nitrite (NO2-), very closely related to nitrate (NO3-), for which conversion into nitric oxide is quite possible. Do humans ever convert nitrate into nitrite? Such a conversion can occur in the mouth and it is this aspect of the Dunhuang prescription that is so interesting. The saliva contains many bacteria, some of which contain the enzyme nitrate reductase, which converts nitrate into nitrite.” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.;  2005)

“Experiments on rats have shown that reduction of nitrate to nitrite is confined to a specialised area on the posterior surface of the tongue. If the same applies to humans, the Dunhuang procedure, which specifies that the saltpetre should be placed under the tongue will maximise the conversion of nitrate into nitrite. The retention of saliva as described would also enhance nitrite production.  Unlike nitrate, nitrite is physiologically active.  t is an antiseptic and a vasodilator, although not a powerful one. It has been suggested that animals, particularly cats, lick wounds because of the antiseptic effect of nitrite in the saliva. Although not a powerful vasodilator, there is now direct evidence that rat hearts, when subjected to global ischaemia, generate nitric oxide and that a significant proportion comes from nitrite present in the tissue. Ischaemic tissue is very acidic and the acid affects the conversion of nitrite to NO via the following equilibria:”

reaction of NO2 to NO.png

(Cullen, C, Lo, V.;  2005)

“Calculations, assuming only a modest level of nitrite in ischaemic tissue, show that enough nitric oxide from the above equilibria to activate guanylate cyclase, the enzyme responsible for the initiation of the cascade of reactions which lead, eventually, to vasodilation. So, if nitrite enters the plasma, as a result of administration of sublingual saltpetre, it could generate nitric oxide in ischaemic tissue. Because of the abundance of blood vessels under the tongue sublingual administration of a drug is a good way of getting a drug into the bloodstream and bypassing the stomach. Also, the tongue, in traditional Chinese medical theory, is linked to the function of the heart.” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.;  2005)

“The interaction of saliva and nitrate to generate nitrite before conversion to nitric oxide in ischaemic tissue gives considerable credence to the Dunhuang procedure as a treatment for cardiovascular distress.” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.;  2005)

Here, in the Tarim Basin, we have three things present. One of the world’s largest natural saltpetre deposits. Natural mummification dating back to just over 3000 years ago. From these, the preserving power of these soils would have been evident to all since the mummies existed then already. The longevity of the corpses would have been evident to the ancients. We have a record of very sophisticated use of saltpetre from very early in the Christian Era from this exact region. In fact, some of the most sophisticated use of the salt on record and the exact mechanics is even today mirrored in the act of curing itself which has been until the early 1900’s when the direct addition of sodium nitrite replaced saltpetre as curing agent of choice.

Until that happened, curing was done by the addition of saltpetre which was reduced, through bacterial action to nitrite which diffused into the muscle for the purpose of preservation. The similarity in the curing action and the mechanism relied on, in the utilisation of saltpetre in the Dunhuang Medical Manuscripts is startling, to say the least. Of course, I am not suggesting that the full or even a partial understanding of the mechanism was known to the ancients, but the application did suggest a much more detailed understanding of saltpetre and its efficacy on meat muscles which could easily have originated from the experience with curing! Seeing the preserving power of the salt and the reddening effect of the meat could have led them to an application of the salt for heart conditions even though the reduction steps may not have been fully understood.

This is without a doubt the best possible location from anywhere in the world where the curing of meat could have originated in an art form which would have been preserved and transmitted to successive generations through societies which later became known as guilds. The picture is not of wondering hunters who stumbled upon the salt and early farmers using it for preserving meat – or at least, it could have started like this. But if it happened in this exact region, it soon found itself in the most advanced society on earth of its time with the most sophisticated thinking about chemistry. The Chinese alchemists in all likelihood gravitated to this as a possible key component of the elusive elixir of immortality. Finding such an elixir was the goal of Chinese alchemy.  They probably applied its preserving power to all kinds of ailments and in a process of trial and error, a treatment for angina must have been especially effective.

Here, at a key location on the silk road, the knowledge of curing and the power of saltpetre could easily have been spread through India and China to the East and right into the heart of Europe to the West.

This is a remarkable find!

The Fascinating Link between Turfan and Salzburg

The possibility that the art of meat curing was developed in Turpan and spread around the world is most promising. Despite this not being my main point under discussion here, it is important to note that Europe may also have influenced the community around Turpan. Influences certainly did not only go one way.

A fascinating link has been discovered between the mummies in Turfan and the Austrian city of Salzburg. Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania was committed to trace the ancestry of the mummies. “In Xinjiang, a Chinese colleague had slipped him a . . . gift: a swatch of blue, brown, and white cloth taken from a twelfth-century-bc mummy. The fabric looked like a piece of Celtic plaid. Mair passed it over to Irene Good, a textile expert at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Good examined it under an electron microscope. The style of weave, known as a “two over two” diagonal twill, bore little resemblance to anything woven by Asian weavers of the day. (Indeed, it would be almost another two millennia before women in central China turned out twill cloth on their looms.) But the weave exactly matched cloth found with the bodies of thirteenth-century-BCE salt miners in Austria. Like the DNA samples, the mysterious plaid pointed straight towards a European homeland.” (Tocharians: The Whites of Ancient China)

This startled me. The thread that ties it all together is salt and meat curing. Is it possible that a mummy found in the region which I believe may have been pivotal in spreading nitrate curing of meat across the world may have some direct or indirect link with the Austrian salt mines? It unlocks the possibility that work done on the use of nitrate salts was influenced by work done in Austria.

In my mind, the fact that nitrate and nitrite did not only have negative effects on human health was discovered by contemplating the possible location where the art of meat curing with nitrate originated. Today students learn this from textbooks but I somehow like the journey of discovery that I took much more.

Villifying Nitrite: A Drama for Fools

After telling the story of my own discovery that nitrate, nitrite and nitric oxide is far from evil molecules, tantamount to poison being added to meat, I return to the primary subject at hand. Is bacon safe to consume? Is the use of nitrate and nitrite in meat curing irresponsible? What about the claims that it causes cancer?

There is no greater illustration of willing enslavement to an incomplete understanding of nature than the drama related to the use of nitrites in meat processing. Humans happened upon a natural phenomenon that special salts containing nitrate change the colour of meat and has the power to preserve it. Since the start of the use of nitrites in meat curing, it was viewed with great suspicion due to its inherent toxicity. Much of Bacon & the Art of Living is dedicated to chronicling the unfolding of the great saga of nitrate and nitrite and the discovery of its essential nature and role in meat curing. There is no need to repeat any of what has been written by me earlier in this work except to point the reader specifically to the following chapters. The first two deal with the initial objection against the use of nitrite in food as a poison. This dilemma was resolved through science and legislation.

Chapter 12.03: The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – the Master Butcher from Prague

Chapter 12.04: The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – The Spoils of War

The use of a substance that is, in high concentrations, poisonous is, after all, nothing new to humans. Alcohol is one of the best examples. Aspirin is another example where, in high dosages, it is dangerous despite its positive benefits at low dosages. Ultra-high dosages of ascorbic acid are equally likely to have adverse effects, cause diarrhoea and nausea. Vinegar is another good example which in moderation is beneficial but consuming too much over a long period of time will have serious detrimental health implications. There are hundreds of other examples we can give. I heard of a well-known speaker in the Uk who addressed a group of meat processing professionals and started his talk by accusing them of poisoning the public through the use of nitrites. Statements like this show a serious lack of understanding not just nitrites but almost every other food ingredient customarily used in food production.

A far more serious issue was discovered in the late 60s and early 70s related to the formation of n-nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are cancer-causing. We have already dealt with the matter in great detail in Chapter 12.06: Regulations of Nitrate and Nitrite post-1920’s: the problem of residual nitrite where we outlined the scientific, industry and government response to the issue.

A friend of mine who is a 3rd generation German Master Butcher tells the story of his grandfather who used to buy nitrites from the pharmacy in the early days and made the most beautiful rich pink bacon. There were no limits on ingoing nitrites in those days and the role of ascorbate was poorly understood and sadly he passed away from colon cancer. This anecdotal account has been subsequently confirmed by countless studies and indeed it is true that at the wrong concentrations, without the use of ascorbate or erythorbate, the high nitrite levels used in curing meat is tantamount to poisoning the consumers. The chapter which I just mentioned deals with the international response to the subject and the combined legislative framework for the use of nitrites in food. The minuscule amounts of nitrites used in bacon curing today along with the use of ascorbate render bacon a safe product to consume in moderation. Of course, the caveat should always be remembered that this should be done in moderation as is the case with any other processed food, red meat, beer, cheese, milk, alcohol, dried milk powder, etc.

What has been said before should settle the issue, but over the years a number of other factors occurred to me which must be added to the discussion to un-vilify nitrite.

Nitrosamines – A Much Broader Issue than Bacon

At the outset, I want to apologise to the reader because the issue becomes wonderfully complex almost right from the start. You don’t have to remember all the terms used and all the intricate connections. I chose an article as the basis for our discussion which broadly introduces you to enough of the important factors so that you will be able to see that the issue with bacon is the same issue with beer, cheese, fish, red meat and many other foods. You will see that it even extends to packaging and food preparation. So, don’t be intimidated by the technical discussion which follows.

I firmly believe that despite the fact that a mammoth amount of work has been done on bacon and cured meat since the 1970s; despite the fact that I am absolutely convinced that based on the preponderance of the latest scientific data on nitrite in meat showing that it is a completely safe food to consume, the responsible producer will continue to work on doing even better by limiting residual nitrite in its products after it has been prepared by the consumer even further so that the consumer will be satisfied that concerns, valid and non-valid are being taken seriously by the producer.

Having said all this, let’s now delve into the issue.

a. What is N-nitrosamines?

Nitroso compounds refer to non-organic compounds containing the NO group. This immediately will get the readers attention because we know that it is NO (nitric oxide) which is responsible for the pinkish/ reddish colour in cured meat. The NO group in nitroso compounds for example directly binds to the metal via the N atom, giving a metal–NO moiety. A nonmetal example is the common reagent nitrosyl chloride (Cl−N=O).

If you combine nitroso with amines, you get nitrosamines or as they are more formally called, N-Nitrosamines. So, the next question is: what is an amine. Amines are compounds and functional groups with a nitrogen atom and a lone pair. Amines are formally derivatives of ammonia (NH3). Nitrosamines then is a group of organic compounds with the chemical structure R2N−N=O, where R is usually an alkyl group. An alkyl group, very simply stated, refers to hydrogen and carbon atoms arranged in a tree structure in which all the carbon-carbon bonds are single. The nitroso group (NO+) binds to a deprotonated amine. The reader with no background in organic chemistry will be able to spot the nitrogen in the three structures below.

The important point for our discussion is that most nitrosamines are carcinogenic in animals.

b. How are they formed in Food?

Look at the three structures of amines represented above. Nitrosamines are formed by the reaction of secondary or tertiary amines with a nitrosating agent, such as nitrite from which nitric oxide and an R-NO group formes. When water is eliminated from a compound, we say that an anhydrate is formed. This describes the formation of NO (nitric oxide) from NO2 (nitrite). So, in food, NO is formed from nitrite in an acidic, aqueous solution. The nitrosating agent is usually then a nitrous anhydride, formed from nitrite in an acidic, aqueous solution. This is, for example, the condition found in our stomachs or in the mouth and if we ingest nitrites, we run the risk of nitrosamine formation after we swallowed the food.

Another culprit for nitrosamine formation is the frying of bacon. Nitrite in combination with fats (lipids) seems to be the nitrosating agent during the frying of bacon. “The formation is related to the relatively high internal temperature of bacon during frying and the relatively low moisture content of bacon as compared to other cured meat products. When bacon is cooked by other methods, particularly in a microwave oven, considerably lower amounts of nitrosamines are found.” (Scanlan, 2003) 

c. Bacon is not the only Product of Concern

From the point just made about the frying temperature of bacon in an environment where there are lipids and low internal water content which leads to nitrosamine formation, it should be a clue to the fact that processing techniques are also responsible for its formation. This was indeed shown and since the late 70s and 80s, it has been known that processing techniques, as well as packaging procedures, are responsible for introducing these carcinogens into food. Hotchkiss (1984) writes that these processing and packaging “procedures include drying foods in direct flame heated air, migration from food contact surfaces and direct addition as contaminants. In addition, other reports of N-nitrosamines in foods have less well defined routes of contamination.”

Hotchkiss (1984) cautions that despite the presence of nitrosamines in food, it is actually “occupational exposures” which may be responsible for “the highest individual exposures (Fine and Rounbeh1er, 1981).” Still, “the largest numbers of people have been exposed to exogenously formed N-nitroso compounds through the diet.”

There are three abbreviations I want to introduce at this point namely NA (N-nitrosamines), NVNA (non-volatile NA) and VNA (volatile nitrosamines where “volatile” refers to those compounds amenable to gas chromatography without derivatization). VNA includes for example “N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), N-nitrosopyrrolidine (NPYR), N-nitrosopiperidine (NPIP) and N-nitrosodiethylamine (NDEA), which occurs generally at low levels <5 µg kg−1 but levels up to 20 µg kg−1 has been reported (Hill et al, 1988, Massey et al, 1991). NDEA has been evaluated as the most potent carcinogen among the known meat related VNAs (Peto et al., 1984).” (Herrmann, 2015) NVNA include “the N-nitrosamino acids, e.g. N-nitrosohydroxyproline (NHPRO), N-nitrosoproline (NPRO), N-nitrososarcosine (NSAR), N-nitroso-thiazolidine-4-carboxylic acid (NTCA), N-nitroso-2-methyl-thiazolidine-4-carboxylic acid (NMTCA), generally occur at significantly higher levels than the VNAs, i.e. up to several thousand microgram per kilo (Herrmann et al, 2014a, Massey et al, 1991, Tricker, Kubacki, 1992).” (Herrmann, 2015)

Hotchkiss (1984) continues that “several groups have demonstrated that a number of foods can contain trace quantities of VNA. To date nearly all types of foods have been analyzed for VNA and, hence, some important generalizations can be made. Most importantly is that the use of nitrite as a curing agent is not solely responsible
for the VNA content of foods. Several foods to which nitrite has not been intentionally added have now been shown to contain trace levels of VNAs. Equally significant is that the N-nitrosamine content of foods has decreased as a result of research in this area. He classified the routes and mechanisms by which foods can become contaminated. “The routes of contamination can be divided into 5 groups: Additives; drying processes; migration from contact surfaces; addition of performed NA; and those for which the route is not clearly defined.


This is the class where cured meats fall in. We are already familiar with the story as we discussed it in Chapter 12.06: Regulations of Nitrate and Nitrite post-1920’s: the problem of residual nitrite. Let’s recap what we said by quoting Hotchkiss (1984). “The suspicion that the use of nitrite in foods might result in the formation of NA stems from an incident in which animals fed nitrite preserved fish meal developed liver necrosis. The causal agent was determined to be NDMA and it was shown that the compound resulted from the nitrosation of the amines in the fish by nitrous
acid formed from nitrite (Ender et a1., 1964). Nitrite is an economically and technically important food additive in the curing process in order to fix color, develop flavor and inhibit toxigenesis by C1. botulinum.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)

“Since the late 1960s, a substantial research effort has resulted in a body of information concerning the occurrence and formation of VNA in cured meats. This has resulted in the knowledge that the addition of nitrite to meat is not, in most cases, sufficient to routinely cause the formation of VNA. In order for cured meats to consistently contain more than 1 μg /kg VNA6 the product must be subjected to temperatures greater than 100 C in a low moisture environment. The only cured product which meets these criteria is bacon. Other cured products only sporadically contain VNA in excess of 0.1 μg /kg (Gray and Randall, 1979). In a recent large survey, only 6 of 152 cooked sausage products had a VNA content greater than 5 μg /kg and only 4 of 91 dry sausages had similar VNA contents. In the same study, however, 11 of 12 dry-cured fried bacons contained VNA, some as high as 280 μg/kg. The fact that fried cured bacon consistently contains detectable VNA has been observed by numerous workers (Scanlan, 1975).” (Hotchkiss, 1984)

“Efforts have been directed at determining the chemical mechanism and precursors to the major VNA, NPYR, found in fried bacon. While several potential precursors to NPYR have been identified, including collagen, ornithine, hydroxyproline, citrulline, putrasine and arginine, it is generally accepted that the major precursor is proline (Gray, 1976). While the free-radical mechanism proposed by Bharucha et a1. (1979) is often cited as the mechanism which best fits observations, the steps of the reaction have not been clearly elucidated. At least two possible routes exist; proline could be nitro sated to form NPRO which is subsequently decarboxylated during frying to NPYR, or proline is first decarboxy1ated to the amine pyrrolidine which is then subsequently nitrosated. Both decarboxylation and nitrosation, regardless of order, must occur during frying because uncooked bacon does not contain NPYR or sufficient preformed NPRO (Hansen et aI, 1977). Nakamura et al. (1976) have suggested that the mechanism is temperature dependent; at temperatures above o 175 C decarboxylation precedes nitrosation and at lower temperatures nitrosation precedes decarboxylation.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)

“In addition to NDMA and NPYR, Kimoto et a1. (1982) and Gray et a1. (1982) each have reported that fried bacon also contains NTHZ. This VNA was likely missed by many researchers due to its long retention time or its on-column decomposition. We have also confirmed this VNA in fried bacon and have further identified the compound in the fried-out fat from bacon. NDMA and NPYR are, under most frying conditions, found in higher concentration in the fried-out fat than in the edible portion. However, in our experiments NTHZ consistently occurs in higher concentrations in the edible portion regardless of the frying conditions. The mutagenicity of NTHZ has been demonstrated (Sekizawa and Shib, 1980) but the compound has not been tested in whole animals for carcinogenicity. The formation of precursors of NTHZ have also not been studied in fried bacon but thiazolidine has been identified as a browning product in a glucose-Cysteamine model system (Mihara and Shibamoto, 1980).” (Hotchkiss, 1984)

“Nitrate may be added to certain cheeses to retard the growth of microorganisms which might cause defects. Concern has been expressed that the nitrate might be reduced to nitrite by reductase containing microflora and that this nitrite could nitrosate amines endogenous to the product. The Danish government has published the results of a large survey of cheeses in which no correlation between the use of nitrate and concentration of VNA in the product could be made (Anon. 1980). Only very small amounts (less than 0.7 μg/kg) were found in any cheese. Sen et al. (1978), however, found 21 of 31 cheeses imported into Canada contained VNA up to 20 μg/kg. These apparent discrepancies with regard to the use of nitrate in cheese have not been resolved.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)


“In addition to the use of nitrite and nitrate as additives, a second general mechanism by which foods may become contaminated with NA is through the drying of foods in air which has been directly heated in an open flame. The highest levels of VNA resulting from this common method of food processing have been in the kilning of malted barley. Concentrations of NDMA -in the dried malt of over 100 μg/kg have been reported (Hotchkiss et al. 1980; Preussmann et al. 1981). A number of workers have shown that the NDMA in the malt survives the brewing process and can be detected in the resulting beer in concentrations expected from the dilution of the malt (Havery et al. 1981). This widespread contamination was shown to be the result of the formation of oxides of nitrogen in the air as it is heated in the flame. Oxides of nitrogen have been demonstrated to be effective nitrosating agents over a wide pH range (Challis and Kyrtopoulos, 1978).” (Hotchkiss, 1984)

“Scanlan and coworkers have extensively investigated the formation of NDMA in malt. They have demonstrated that the plant alkaloids hordenine and gramine are effective precursors of NDMA in model systems and that it is likely that NVNA may also be present in direct fired kiln dried malt (Mangino et a1. 1981).” (Hotchkiss, 1984)

“The first reports of NDMA in beer indicated average concentrations in the range of 2 to 6 μg/kg (Spiegelhalder et a1. 1981). While these levels seem, at first, low it is possible to consume 1 to 2 kg of beer at a single serving. This represents more NDMA exposure than from any other food source. Spiegelhalder et a1. (1980) have estimated that 64% of a West German’s dietary NDMA came from beer. There is recent evidence, however, that the VNA content of beer has decreased sharply (Mangino et a1. 1981). This decrease is due to the widespread use of sulfur dioxide or indirect heating of the drying gases in the malting industry. The application of sulfur dioxide during the early part of the kilning process may be either by direct injection of gaseous sulfur dioxide or by burning elemental sulfur in the drying air. The inhibition by sulfur dioxide is most likely due to the formation of bisulfite which may react with the nitro sating agent in a redox reaction.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)

“Other foods which are dried in direct flame heated air have also been shown to contain trace amounts of VNA, albeit at lower levels than malt. Most notable is the finding that nonfat dried milk may contain traces of NDMA. Several reports have shown NDMA levels of 0.1 to approximately 5 μg/kg (Libbey et al. 1980; Lakritz and Pensabene, 1981). In a recent nationwide survey of 57 nonfat dried milks conducted by the US Food and Drug Administration, an average NDMA level of 0.6 μg/kg was found with 48 samples being positive (Havery et al. 1981). Apparent NPYR and NPIP were also detected in sub μg/kg concentrations. Because nonfat dry milk is diluted lOx before consumption some have onsidered it not to be a significant problem while others have been concerned because of the widespread use of this product by the young.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)

“Other dried foods have been shown to sporadically contain detectable VNA. Sen and Seaman (1981) analyzed nonfat dry milk, dried soups, and instant coffee and found VNA in all dried milks, 3 of 20 dried soups and 5 of 10 instant coffees, most at levels of less than 1 μg/kg. Perhaps more importantly, 3 of 8 dried infant formulas contained detectable VNA. Fazio and Havery (1981) have observed VNA in soy isolates and concentrates and dried cheeses.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)


“In addition to formation from direct additives or from the direct flame drying process, recent evidence indicates VNA may enter foods through migration from food contact surfaces. In 1981 Spiegelhalder and Preussmann (1981) reported that a number of rubber products including nursing nipples contained substantial levels of VNA and that these compounds could migrate to water and milk. Later Havery and Fazio (1982) investigated one brand of nipple available in the US. They confirmed the presence of VNA in this product and demonstrated that when inverted nipples were sterilized in milk or formul, migration occurred.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)

“We have investigated the VNA content of 8 types of rubber nipples available in the US from several domestic and foreign manufacturers (Babish et al. 1982). One or more VNA were detected in all nipples tested and when each nipple was boiled for 3 minutes in 150 ml water or incubated 3 hours at 37oC, 6 to 44% migration occurred. Total VNA contents ranged from 42 to 617 μg/nipple (nipple weight is approximately 5 gm) and most nipples contained more than one VNA.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)

“Direct food contact paper and paperboard packaging may also be a source of VNA and nitrosatable amines in foods. Analyses of 34 food packages by GC-TEA revealed 9 to be contaminated with NMOR. Perhaps more importantly, all packaging materials examined had levels of the parent amine morpholine ranging from 98 to 842 μg/kg (Hotchkiss and Vecchio, 1982). Morpholine is easily nitrosated and there is evidence that it may be nitrosated in the stomach to produce the carcinogenic N-nitroso derivative (Mirvish, 1975). Two experiments indicated that both the NMOR and morpholine may migrate to dry foods. First, when a food package was found to contain NMOR and morpholine, the food closest in the package often also contained NMOR and morpho line (Hoffmann et ale 1982). Secondly, when paperboards which contained NMOR and morpho line were incubated at elevated temperatures in closed vessels with dry foods migration could be demonstrated. Further research is needed to determine the extent of the contamination and degree of migration under normal conditions.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)

Direct Addition

“When agricultural chemicals or food additives contain preformed VNA, it is conceivable that a portion of the VNA contaminate could be added to food. For example, meat curing premixes which contained salt, sugar, spices and nitrite and were designed to facilitate the mixing of curing brines were shown to contain relatively high levels of VNA including NPIP (Sen et ale 1974). This VNA resulted from the nitrosation of piperidine ring containing compounds in the spices. The NPIP was then added along with the cure solution to the meat and could be detected in the product.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)

“Certain agricultural chemicals were shown at one time, to contain mg/kg quantities of VNA (Ross et al. 1977). Although current levels have been greatly reduced (Oliver, 1981) it has been demonstrated under laboratory conditions that when these mixtures are applied to food crops, absorption of the VNA either directly through the plant or indirectly through the soil is possible (Khan, 1981). For example, Dean-Raymond and Alexander (1976) have shown that radio labeled NDMA incorporated into soil could be taken up by edible plants. A recent survey of dried waste sludge also indicates most sludges contain small amounts of VNA (Mumma et al. 1982). If sludge is incorporated into soil uptake may be possible. It should be noted that no confirmed report of VNA in foods as a result of the use of pesticides or sludge in actual field use has appeared. On the contrary, Ross et al. (1978) analyzed soil, run off water and edible plant tissue after the application of a commercial herbicide containing NDPA and failed to detect the VNA in any sample. As pointed out by Oliver, (1981) it is difficult to draw conclusions about the VNA contamination of foods based on laboratory experiments.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)

“Another potential source of direct addition of NA to food maybe through the use of processing water which has been deionized by anion exchangers. Kimoto et al. (1980) have shown that NDMA and NDEA at levels of less than 1 μg/kg can be detected in water which has been passed through an anion exchange column. This is a common treatment process in food plants.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)


“In addition to the above four mechanisms by which food may become contaminated with small amounts of VNA, other less well defined or uncorroborated contamination processes have been reported. For example, one group of Japanese workers have reported that broiling fish under a gas flame may result in substantial increases in the VNA content of the food (Matsui et al. 1980). The average NDMA content of 20 fish and seafood products increased 3 fold after broiling under a gas flame and one dried squid sample increased in NDMA from 84 to 313 μg /kg. When broiled under an electric element or covered with aluminium foil smaller increases in NDMA content were seen. Presumably, VNA is being formed by a mechanism similar to that occurring in dried foods such as malt and nonfat dried milk. Further work is needed to evaluate this source of dietary NA. Smoking fish has also been reported to result in the nitrosation of the amines associated with fish (Kann et aL 1980).” “Another potential source of direct addition of NA to food maybe through the use of processing water which has been deionized by anion exchangers. Kimoto et al. (1980) have shown that NDMA and NDEA at levels of less than: 1 μg/kg can be detected in water which has been passed through an anion exchange column. This is a common treatment process in food plants.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)

The Occurance and Benefit of Nitrate in Our Diet

So far we have looked at the occurrence of nitrite and the dangers associated with nitrosamines. I deal with it directly because it is the main charge levelled against the curing industry that poison is used to cure the meat. The second, and equally important consideration is the benefit of nitrate in our diets. The reader should be well familiar by now that nitrite is converted through bacteria from nitrate. Such bacteria occurs for example in our mouths and when we ingest nitrate much of these are converted into nitrite. So, in a way, when we talk about nitrate, we also talk about the occurrence of nitrate in our food.

Nitrate has been shown to be beneficial to our health and occurs naturally in, for example in beetroot. It has been credited with a speedy recovery after a strenuous workout, thus enhancing our exercise performance as well as lowering our blood pressure. Nitrates are the active ingredient in medicine for the treatment of angina where blood flow is restricted causing chest pains.

It is reported by the BBC that “only around 5% of nitrates in the average European diet come from cured meat, while more than 80% are from vegetables. Vegetables acquire nitrates and nitrites from the soil they grow in – nitrates are part of natural mineral deposits, while nitrites are formed by soil microorganisms that break down animal matter.” BBC

Uddin (2021) published an extremely helpful list of fruits and vegetables containing nitrate and the mg/kg which they typically contain all of which should be the end of the debate about nitrite in bacon.

Mean concentrations of nitrate in the tested fruits and vegetables.
From: Study of nitrate levels in fruits and vegetables to assess the potential health risks in Bangladesh

The Guiding Power of Nature

My life has been guided by invisible forces from my birth. I believe this force to be nature itself. The biggest thing I have learned is that what I believe is completely irrelevant. Nature does not care for my belief! It is not swayed by it! What IS will prevail, irrespective of my personal belief or even our universal belief as humans. Every step of life was crafted by nature itself in a way that I don’t understand.

I came to realise that my own intellect and our ability as humans to perceive life through the matrix of our minds is not the most important aspect of our lives. I examined the most important mental constructs very carefully and realised that they are all bankrupt. The first quest was to understand God.  I wrote a book about it, The Anatomy of a Sceptic.  This magical time in my life introduced me to the amazing world of the human mind and the gods we create! We first create them and then we worship them just as we do with all our mental constructs. We do the same with concepts such as democracy and the free market system and yes, even with the idea of science! We first created these mental concepts and then we worshipped them.

It was my quest to understand bacon that brought me back to nature and to understand that I exist as a living being, in the first place not in my mind, but in my body as every bodily need and desire and instinct and drive is connected in the first place to nature. I eat to live and I eat that which I share this earth with. My quest to understand the secrets of bacon taught me that life is infinitely interconnected and I am nature itself!

Bacon evolved over millennia in a way that my quest only briefly introduced. Living life excellently means that I re-connect with nature. This is the art of living! It is why so many people who looked deeply into this tell us that the problem is not that we think too little. The problem is often that we think too much and the art of reconnecting with life is to become quiet and to stop thinking! It is that simple.

(c) Eben van Tonder


(c) eben van tonder

Bacon & the art of living” in book form
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Herrmann, S. S., Duedahl-Olesen, L., Christensen, T., Olesen, P.T., Granby, K.. 2015. Dietary exposure to volatile and non-volatile N-nitrosamines from processed meat products in Denmark. Food and Chemical Toxicology, Volume 80,
2015, Pages 137-143, ISSN 0278-6915, (

Hotchkiss, J. H.. 1984. Sources of N-Nitrosamines Contamination in Foods. Adv Exp Med Biol. 1984;177:287-98. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4684-4790-3_14.

Scanlan, R. A.. 2003. Nitrosamines. Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition).

Uddin, R., Thakur, M.U., Uddin, M.Z. et al. Study of nitrate levels in fruits and vegetables to assess the potential health risks in BangladeshSci Rep 11, 4704 (2021).

Chapter 13.01.3: The Art of Living: Sketches to Understand Ourselves and Others

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting.  Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this. What follows is a continuation of my quest to understand bacon curing and the art of living. As such, I change gears in this chapter to focusing on the “art of living.” In the story, I am writing as from the 1960s, but in reality, I address matters right up into the 2020s.

The Art of Living: Sketches to Understand Ourselves and Others

October 1960

Over the years I have written letters to my kids telling them what I learn and about my experiences. They followed my quest to produce the best bacon on earth through these monthly communications. When I returned home I found that they kept every letter. When they were here last December, they gave me the draft of a book where they are including every letter. They even contacted Dawie and Oscar, who both sent them my letters. They asked me to write the introduction to every county and the “Union Letters,” as they called the letters I sent them from Cape Town.

I asked them if I could add three accounts of companies who achieved perfection in the large-scale production of bacon. The first of the three examples of people who achieved high standards in bacon production is Chapter 13.01: The Castlemaine Bacon Company. Here, I juxtapose the Anglo Boer War experience of Wright Harris, an Australian who fought for England in this war and who founded the Castlemaine Bacon Company after the war, with the experience of my great grandfather, Jan W Kok who fought on the side of the Boers and whose great-grandson, being myself, established his own bacon company in Woodys Consumer Brands in Cape Town which is a major subject in this work. I presented Jan W Kok as a man, inspired by nationalistic fewer for God and country. A true Afrikaner Boer.

The previous chapter, the Life and Times of Jan Kok, is a review of the world where Jan lived in his 20s. I ask the question of what a real Afrikaner or Boer is. “Art of Living” is not just a few motivational sayings about living life to the fullest! It involved tackling serious issues facing our lives. The conclusion is that Jan Kok is the man he is based on the faith he had. It is the same conclusion which I came to in the transition chapters from my life as a transport rider to that as a bacon curer namely that thinking, and therefore one’s world view and theology, drives the choices you make. I applied it to the Voortrekker, the Dutch farmers, who ventured into the interior in terms of their relationship with the black inhabitants of the land in  Chapter 05: Seeds of War. I also examined the world view of the British and the black people they encountered as they drove the borders of the Cape Colony eastwards in  Chapter 06: Drums of Despair. It explains the historical context of making the choice to abandon transport and distribution and enter meat processing.

Here I take the lessons from the life of Jan Kok and apply them to our lives today! This, as much as appreciating every sunset, is part of the essence of the art of living! It also calls for a view of others who share this planet and our short time on earth as equals in humanity and deserving of our respect.


– The Sins of The Fathers

As I’ve set out in Seeds of War, Drums of Despair and The Life and Times of Jan W Kok the sins of the fathers are impacting our lives today as it is impacting on the lives of the black people of our country. Our discussion is not just historical! Fellow Afrikaners tell me that we can not be expected to atone for the sins of our fathers. They have a particular view of crime and see farm murders as a systematic plan to eradicate the whites. My black friends, on the other hand, exhibit desperation that political freedom does not translate into economic freedom. Change is not quick enough or at the scale required. In their frustration, some of the radical black movements want to chase the white people into the sea with the cry of “kill the farmer! Kill the Boer!”

How do we respond to the radical black movement and are we responsible for the sins of the fathers? A hypothetical example will illustrate my point. Assume that someone was kidnapped into slavery, moved to a foreign land, raped and tortured. Imagine that the slave is rescued and placed in my care while I must take care of my children also. It will be ridiculous to allege that I must somehow atone for the sins of the people who kidnapped, raped and tortures the girl or boy but it will be equally unthinkable to suggest that I will treat this person and my child in the same way. I will, for example, deal with this person with the full realization of the deep psychological trauma, emotional and physical that was experienced. I will be more tolerant and work hard to establish trust and not be offended when trust is not easily given. For a time I will give this person greater attention and nurture, showing love and compassion. I will seek accelerated teaching to make up for lost opportunities. The point is clear. In no way am I saying that I am responsible for the actions of the people who kidnapped him or her but I am also not blind to the reality of trauma and its effect on our lives. In the exact same way, I will work hard to assure my own kids that I am not turning my back on them and I will accommodate their own emotional and psychological insecurities and needs which did not go away just because I am helping someone else. So far, I think most Afrikaners will still agree with my analogy.

Let’s progress the analogy. What will the situation be if the person was kidnapped by my dad? What if my dad used the slave to construct a house without getting any payment for the work besides food and very poor living conditions along with repeated beatings and other abuse. What if my dad one day give me the house? Let’s place it in the same context where the slave is rescued and placed in my care. Is there a moral dilemma to consider on my part of accepting the gift from my father? How do I interact now with the slave, who, in our analogy, has been emancipated, in light of what my dad did? If the slave, on the basis of my continued residence in the house views my affection and love with suspicion, will this surprise me? You get the point of my analogy and yes, it is a simplistic view, but how is that materially different from what actually happened? So, on the one hand, I agree that we can not be held responsible for the sins of our fathers and at the same time, I also see that the issue is not nearly as simple as that! The question as to the “art of living,” all of a sudden, became a very complex and personal matter. In trying to deal with the issue at hand, there are a few factors to consider.

What is the analogy from bacon? What does that teach me? Let’s take the issue of the use of nitrites in bacon curing. In doing so we may create health risks. On the other hand, what we are doing in meat curing is mimicking a normal physiological reaction. We are very close to how nature designed meat and if the bacon we produce is not healthy, then we are doing something wrong and the issue to eliminate is not the nitrites. The matter is more complex than this. Solving the riddle will not come through emotional rhetoric and perpetuating strawman positions. It will come through a proper understanding of the issues predicted upon a better understanding of our own physiology and biological processes. The answer will not be quick or simple! Resolving the apparent tensions will be the result of hard work, ingenuity and creativity. Likewise, the matter of how we deal with our past and people who were marginalised and exploited by our forefathers will not be easy to solve but if we put in the hard work to bring the people involved in both sides of the conflict together and if we remain honest and truthful in our pursuits, we will see the fruits of our labour.

– Tribalism

As both the Afrikaner and factions amongst the black citizens retreat into tribalism, people are moving further and further away from actually thinking for themselves and towards merely running a script. The issues are far too important and complex to be repeating what is dictated by our group. In the day and age we live in, the script is oftentimes dictated by the tribe and preached through the new social media platforms. The biggest rift that is currently in existence in the culture has been coming in “Afrikanerdom” for a long time. The Boer War was a time when many of these concepts were present but in a far less calcified way. Since then it evolved from mere thought or temporary states of insanity, brought about by the pressures of war and poverty, to a place where these have become the religion of the Afrikaner tribe. Emerging from the two extreme positions of the Anglo-Boer War of either being Pro-War or Pro-Peace (which was re-interpreted as being Pro-English by the new nationalists) are two ideologies based on fragmentary mythologies which draw its power from its archetypal and psychological underpinnings. It is far more than just a disagreement between brothers.

Polarization is happening on a global scale between the left and the right. People are driven, on the one hand, by the tyrannical father and the destructive force of masculine consciousness or on the other hand by the benevolent great mother influence. In South Africa, this is less obvious. Here the benevolent mother view is largely held by individuals and is characteristic of smaller groups. The major issue is the tyrannical father dogma which is entrenched into the Afrikaner tribe as well as in the black tribe which has been ideologically formed around its own interests. The messages from these groups are vocally being proclaimed from the hilltops through social media. What must be recognized is that this is an appalling position both from the Afrikaner and the black tribe and is as unacceptable as the “benevolent mother” dogma. It polarizes society and pitch people against each other in a very archaic way! What the Afrikaner and the marginalised black majority must realise is that when they face off from two different hilltops from where they dance and sing and do their respective war cries, beat their chests, park their bakkies, point fingers, show firearms, threaten, accuse and insult each other – both groups are acting in exactly the same way. The one is not more or less civilised than the other. Both act in a dumb and unhelpful way!

In South Africa, we have a plurality of groupings who retreated into destructive tribalism. The Afrikaner formalized its tribalism in Apartheid and the fact that this was extremely effective, for a time, to lift the Afrikaner out of poverty should not be missed. It became a model which other groups in the country now follow by missing its inherently destructive nature and using it to get the same quick benefits that the Afrikaners got through its application. My argument is that the Boer War was destructive for the Afrikaners and we would all have been better off today if the war did not take place. Apartheid was beneficial to the Afrikaners. It will serve no purpose to deny this, nor is it a good plan for the radical black to imitate this. Yet, in refusing to deal with the issues, on insisting that we must all just continue as if nothing happened and as if we did not seriously disrupt the normal development, mental and material of our fellow, non-white South Africans, we are repeating the biggest mistakes of our nations past!

Let’s look at it purely from the Afrikaners perspective. The concept that Apartheid served the Afrikaners well is wrong because it is simply not the truth! It destroyed the future of our people on economic grounds and it destroyed us spiritually since it was diabolical! Let’s just focus on the economic aspect for a minute. I have been looking very closely at the meat industry around the time South Africa became a Union up until the time when we became a republic and started to turn our back on international markets. In the Union years, we were making huge progress in accessing the lucrative European and English markets, gains which were all but completely eradicated during the rise of nationalism. The opportunity cost was immense and can be calculated by comparing ourselves economically with countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The reality is that apartheid cost the Afrikaners far more than we can ever imagine spiritually and economically!

Let’s now look at the example we set. The model is inherently flawed! Unfortunately, other groups now look at Apartheid as a good model and they, understandably, organize themselves to follow it with the “Kill the Farmer, Kill the Boer” creed. In doing so they are simply not good students of history, exactly like the Afrikaner! Many of the Afrikaner tribe, which I use metaphorically to refer to a “new tribe which formed around these ideologies,” now float on the romance created by the nationalists about it and other groups in the country envy the model because they too believe the false and fragmented mythologies which were carefully crafted around it. They think “if only we can apply it to our own lives and treat the white people in the same way, surely we will have what the majority of what they now have!”

The Afrikaner is also not changing our fundamental belief about Apartheid. By insisting that we see farm murders not just through the paradigm of crime, but by coating it in civil war language; by insisting that the only form of progress for our children is to eradicate affirmative action; by holding onto the productive resources of the country as the only way to ensure our future, we are still perpetuating the thinking of Apartheid. This is true even more if we set ourselves up against the other tribe in a very typical tribal fashion.

So, here we have then two of the many ideological tribes that exist in our country. There are other tribal views but these two will serve as a useful illustration. One, a radical black tribe characterized by the creed “Black First – Land First.” The other, a white tribe that uses words like “White Genocide.” Both tribes have similar mythologies and tribe religions – the one has as an object, advancing the cause of the black man to the exclusion of the white and the other have as goal white interests with little regard for black needs. These tribes have set themselves up against each other in every respect creating a polarized society.

The white tribe is as fanatical to denounce any other white person who does not agree with them as a traitor, as pro-peace people were viewed during the Boer War. This phenomenon is not new. In a way we are worse off today than we were during the war since, as I have shown in The Life and Times of Jan W Kok, there was immediately following the war, a far greater desire to see the other persons point or at least to live in harmony with them than there is now. As Afrikaner Nationalism became entrenched in the years following the war, the mythical image of the Afrikaner Boer became the only picture that was tolerated and the dialogue ended with people who held divergent political views. During the war, peaceful co-existence was still possible for people of different views on the most burning issue of the time namely whether someone either supported the war or not, but not for very long. Very soon, as nationalists started to gain power, they grew completely intolerant of anybody who would hold to other views. Through the instruments of Apartheid, they calcified their mythology and any dissenting voice was vilified. The exact same hardline attitude is the hallmark of the white Afrikaner Tribe who believes they are being systematically driven from the land and out of jobs and anybody who dares to propose a different view to theirs which is steeped in military resistance is banned from the tribe. They love using Zimbabwe as a prophetic foreshadowing of what is to come and completely ignores Zambia and Botswana of examples of what can be achieved through mutual respect and co-existence!

The right-wing black movement in many of these respects mirrors the Afrikaans tribe. There is an interesting aspect of the black counter-movement in that they have, for strategic reasons, I believe, adopted many of the far left-wing “benevolent mother” positions simply because it suits their cause in eroding the credibility of the white tribe by appearing more thoughtful and in line with liberal international trends. I am, however, deeply suspicious of their motives in this regard. This gamesmanship is not helping our country.

– The Danger of Polarization

We must understand the inherent danger in polarization. The big problem comes when people start to act it out. The new media broke the stranglehold of traditional media over what and how people think by crafting the narrative to suit them. Social media broke this mould. On the one hand, it is powerful and refreshing and on the other hand, it gives the tribe equal access to preach its gospel to that of moderate forces. In fact, the tribe is more motivated than the moderate forces and have only to gain from being very organized in its messaging where the moderate voices have no motivation for such organization and by its very nature, moderate people are less likely to “preach” their message of the “more excellent way”. The tribe’s religion thrives on what it is opposed to and has a passion for proselytizing.

An interesting new tribe has been emerging in the anti-vaccine, Covid conspiracy group. They may be more deadly than the anti-black Afrikaner franchise. They bear all the hallmarks of the tribe in their fanaticism to spread their gospel and proselytize. Among the white South Africans, this sprang up as a large and polarizing movement. When they use the words like “discuss”, it often means that they seek a chance to convert you and not a sincere joint effort to find solutions for a common problem. Their view is the only one that matters and facts are secondary to the mythology they created.

Whichever group one is talking about, it is a time for the discussion of first principles which is virtually at the level of theology. It is what you assume and then moves forward. In theological terms, we will say that we are all presuppositional beings. We assume certain truths without validation and the discussion progress from there. My statement about the equal value of all humans and the dignity of the human soul are examples of such first principles. The basis for evaluating the Boer War which I discussed in the previous chapter (The Life and Times of Jan Kok) are more examples.

– World View Biology

A lot of what determines our worldview is our biological temperament. Left-leaning people are, for example, higher in a trait called openness. It is one of the big 5 character traits and is associated with abstraction and interest in aesthetics. Left-leaning people exhibit these qualities. They are low in trace conscientiousness which is dutifulness and orderliness in particular. This is the characteristic of a conservative. They are high in orderliness and dutifulness and low in openness. That makes them very good managers and administrators and often, business people, but not very good entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are almost all drawn from the liberal types.

These are fundamental biologically predicted differences. They are different sets of opportunities and limitations and different ways of screening the world. Each of these different temperamental types needs the other type. It is then an issue of diversity. If you start to understand that the person you are talking to and who do not share your political views is not stupid, it is a major breakthrough in moving to a sane “art of living.” Differences in intelligence is not the primary determinant of differences in political beliefs. Let’s first agree that there are highly intelligent people on both sides of our conflicts. “Black-first, Land-First” as well as “any affirmative action, pro-Boer.”

If you are a liberal, you may be talking to someone who is more conscientious and more creative than you but that does not mean to say that the person’s perspective is not valid and it does not mean that they will not out-perform you in certain domains. They absolutely may be able to!

Remember that people do see the world differently and it is not merely that they have ill-informed opinions. The point is to keep the dialogue going between people of different temperamental types so that we do not move so far to the right that everything becomes encapsulated in stone and that we do not move so far to the left that everything dissolves into some soft chaos. The only way you can navigate between these two is through discussion.

The same is true between the two tribes I am using as an example of “pro-white” vs “pro-black.” If I accept the right of others to voice their opinion, no matter how unpalatable that may be for me personally and if I see them as important and valuable human beings and if I am prepared to take into account the trauma they suffered to get to where they are in life, we have just laid the foundation for coming up with new solutions that will address the overall problem, and eliminate the need to fall back on destructive tribalism. The basic core principle is free speech and the second, which is equal to this, is the importance of dialogue and the value of mutual understanding which is the point of this chapter! There is an inherent evil in polarization and the solution almost always is to find the middle ground. This is not possible without dialogue, mutual respect and understanding!

Stories from the Other Side

There is value in having your eyes opened for the plight of the other person. Storytelling is a powerful way to do this and was started in our country by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In a way I continue that same model by telling stories of ordinary people that you will in all likelihood never hear off, friend and foe, from all sides of the cultural and political spectrum and both from far off history to more recent events. The most basic assumption I work from is the value of all human life and our shared right to co-existence where we all strive for a better future – but how do we unravel the past to deal with the future?

I do not think it’s possible to be our brother’s keeper to everybody on earth but in our communities, there is a practical aspect that necessitates this. The tremendous benefit of an open hand to anyone in need becomes part of our own survival and the question is then, how do we do this in the face of such overwhelming need and suffering and such an unfortunate and bloody past. From the life of Jan Kok, I see the usefulness to eradicate the demonized view of the other by framing our discussion in a new way and resisting the tendency to retreat into tribalism at all cost! The only tribe we should belong to is the tribe of the human race. I offer up a number of sketches to illustrate my point and references to stories for further study. I refrain from commenting on anything. I simply tell the story.


1. De Wet, Christian and Piet

2. Esau, Abraham

3. Hottentot Code, 1809

4. Kokkie (Oom Jan Kok)

5. Kitchener, Herbert

6. Pooe, Petrus

7. Steyn, MT

8. Van Tonder, Jonas

1. De Wet, Christian and Piet

One example of the impact of the war on people is the relationship between Christiaan de Wet and his brother, Piet. The two brothers ended up in complete opposites of the spectrum and considering these matters helps us to explain why this happened. Both men had a different psychological make-up and as a result of this had different resources to cope with the stress. Subsequently, they responded differently to stress. The particular stress they were exposed to was not the same. A fuller treatment of the story of the two brothers will be included here at some point.

– Reference

Blake, A.. 2016. Broedertwis. Bittereinder en Joiner: Christiaan en Piet de Wet. Tafelberg.

2. Esau, Abraham

(Text and photos from

The story of Abraham Esau takes us to the small town of Calvinia. “During the Anglo Boer War in 1901, the village was attacked by raiding Boer Commandos. Abraham Esau, a patriotic Coloured blacksmith loyal to the British, gathered a force of 70 locals to defend the town against the raiding Boer Commando. The Boers ripped down the Union Jack upon entering the town and tore it up. The torn flag is on display in the Calvinia Museum a photo of which is seen below.” (karoo-southafrica)

The British Flag torn up by Boer Commandos during the Anglo Boer War

“Esau earned the hatred of the Boers by demonstrating an active loyalty to Britain and by defiantly asserting the limited civic rights enjoyed by Coloureds in the Cape Colony at the time.” (Keroo- SouthAfrica)

“Esau was captured by the Boers, placed in leg irons and tied between two horses. The horses dragged Esau out of town where he was beaten and finally executed by one of the Boer Commandos, Stephanus Strydom.” (karoo-southafrica)

Abraham Esau
Photo from Anglo Boer War

“Legend has it that a sudden thunderstorm scattered the mourners at his funeral and the coffin was splintered by a lightning bolt exposing Esau’s shattered face. The irony of Esau’s capture and execution was that Calvinia was recaptured by British forces three days later.” (karoo-southafrica)

– Reference

History of Calvinia

3. Hottentot Code, 1809

The Hottentot Code, or the Caledon Code, was the first of a series of laws that sought to restrict the rights of the Khoikhoi in Cape Colony. The decree was passed on 1 November 1809 by the Earl of Caledon as part of the longstanding process to enslave the indigenous KhoiKhoi people on their own land. It was established to help Afrikaner farmers control the mobility of the labour force. The Earl of Caledon imposed the Hottentot Code in his capacity as the first Governor of the Cape Colony after the occupation by Britain in 1806. The Hottentot Code was implemented during a time when the British public was openly against slavery and after parliament had abolished the slave trade. It was thus crucial that its application seems different from the previous slave laws. Written contracts had to be registered documenting the employment of Khoikhoi servants for periods of one month or longer. It also claimed to provide a safeguard against their ill-treatment, making it compulsory that they were paid for any services that they provided. According to the Apprenticeship of Servants Proclamation of 1812, in support of the Hottentot code, white settlers could apprentice and employ a Coloured child without paying them from the age of eight to eighteen years if the child was an orphan, destitute or grew up on the employer’s property.

– Reference

Jason Patrick Hanslo

4. Kitchener, Herbert

The British supreme commander, Lord Kitchener could also not escape the trauma of war. When he learned about the loss on 7 March 1902 at Tweebosch, where Lord Methuen was captured by Gen Koos de la Rey, Kitchener suffered a nervous breakdown. It lasted 48 hours. He said to his aide de camp confidentially that his nerves “has gone to pieces.”

– Reference

Blake, A.. 2016. Broedertwis. Bittereinder en Joiner: Christiaan en Piet de Wet. Tafelberg.

5. Kokkie (Oom Jan Kok) and My Recollections

Oom Jan sent me the following intimate portrait of life on a Free State Farm and some of his personal observations.

“I always cried when my dad beat the farmworkers and cursed them and it saddened me that they had to work for such low pay. About a year before I went to school, we visited Oupa and Ouma at Heilbron. It must have been around 1947/48 because I started school in 1949. This was the high time for Afrikaner Nationalism and the establishment of Apartheid legislation. Oupa was already married to his second wife – Ouma Hannie. Saturday mornings she would cook us a delicious breakfast with rooster bread, eggs and sausages. When we were done she set the table again with three places, more rooster bread, eggs and sausages. She then invited the black woman who worked in the house and the black gardener to come and enjoy breakfast at the table. I was amazed because I never saw this on the farm.

One morning, back on the farm I left the house through the back door and saw the maids under a tree around a pap pot where they ate the porridge using their hands. I asked Ouma Susan why Ouma Hannetjies’ maids can eat at the table and the same food that she made for us and our maids must eat under a tree using their hands. Her answer was short: “Because!”

In our home, I remember having the same discussion with my mom. The maid and the gardener had to sit on the grass and eat. They had a plate and a cup, but these were made of tin and was never used by us. If for some reason, the maid or gardener used a regular glass, my mom would mark it with nail polish so that it would never be used by one of us again. I asked my mom about this on many occasions and got the same answer that Oom Jan got from his mom. “Because!”

I remember the impression it made on me whenever I witnessed my Oupa Eben, Oom Jan’s dad, beating his workers with a ship because they were either late or did something he instructed them not to. It made a lasting impression on me. Like Oom Jan, I must have been around 6 or 7 years old and what stood central to me was the value and dignity of all humans. I remember looking at it and vowing that I will never treat another human being with such disrespect.

6. Pooe, Petrus

– Bakwena ba Mogopa

I am introduced to the life story of Petrus Pooe (pronounced as in ‘toy’). His story is connected to the Bakwena ba Mogopa. Let’s first look at who the Bakwena is. “Traditions record that the Bakwena (The Crocodile clan), and the Bahurutshe were closely related (brothers??), at one time sharing a common token (the Eland), indicative of their having been one community. Like the Bahurutshe they trace their lineage back to the (largely mythical) figure of Masilo (supposedly their father). Around 1600 they emerged as a more distinct lineage. They occupied territory around the lower reaches of the Odi (Crocodile ) River, at a place named Rathateng. They relocated to a number of different sites in the close vicinity, eventually settling at the Majabamatswa hills northeast of present-day Brits, between approximately 1730 and 1750. It is remembered that this occurred during the rule of Ditswe Tlowodi. Prior to this, however, a number of the Bakwena moved with Malope to the Mochudi district of modern Botswana. This area was well served by a number of perennial rivers the Odi, Apies and Hennops. Another faction moved to modern Botswana under Malope. Ditswe was succeeded by his son, More IX who ruled from about 1750 to 1770. This occurred during the period of conflict given the name difaqane. More IX centralized and controlled the Bakwena earning a reputation as a fearsome warrior. The Bakwena were locked in conflict with the Bakgatla and Bapo, a Transvaal Ndebele. Kgosi More was not the rightful kgosi,(chief) however, and when he refused to hand back control of the merafe to his brother Tsoku, a division of the community occurred, More moving away to the west of the Pienaars River.

Tsoku, however, was not a popular ruler, earning a reputation for the cruel treatment of his people. He allegedly demanded exorbitant numbers of cattle in the form of tribute from the Bakwena. He was also no match for the Bakgatla, and was forced to request the assistance of his brother More, who once more took control of the merafe. Tsoku was allegedly assassinated and his retinue fled to seek sanctuary among the baPedi. Around 1820 the Bakwena were attacked by a combined force comprising of the Bakgatla, the Bahwaduba and the Batlhako.

This was followed by a series of cattle raids by the Bapedi whether this was at the instigation of Tsokus followers, then residents with the Bapedi, is not clear. By 1822 the Bakwena were pretty well subjects of the Bapedi. In 1836 Andrew Smith the naturalist and traveller was informed by the Bakwena that they had lost a lot of their cattle to the Bapedi. Worse was to follow when Mzilikazis Matebele entered the western highveld. More, though now in a weakened state, attempted to resist, but the Bakwena were overrun and incorporated into the emergent Matebele kingdom. Traditions record that More was killed by the intruders. Smith recorded that when he encountered the Bakwena, they trusted for food entirely on game and corn and they had no cattle.

For just over a year I searched for the enigmatic and spiritually significant “hole in the rock” on Wolhuterskop, ancestral home of the Bapô. My kids, Tristan and Lauren often accompanied me and a friend, Carlo Robertson and his fiancé accompanied me once. On 12 October 2019 I found it by chance with Lauren when, returning to our car, she asked that we explore one more footpath. The Bapô and Bakwena are close neighbours and inter-marriage occurred over the years so that they remain very close.

During the rule of Mmamogale XIII, the Voortrekkers displaced the Matebele (with the assistance of various allies). Now impoverished, the Bakwena had to work for the Boers. Many of them were incorporated into Boer society as so-called Oorlams. Mmamogale, to evade the exactions of the Boers, relocated to modern Lesotho, where he remained until the War of Sequiti (the Basutoland Gun War) returning in 1868 to Mantabole (Bethanie). The Bakwena ba Mogopa were now divided into five sections. Bethanie in the Rustenburg district, Hebron and Jericho in the Pretoria district, and at Brits and Ventersdorp. Those at Bethanie, Jericho and Hebron were all under the aegis of the Hermannsburg Mission Society. The missionaries afforded them security and assisted them to obtain land. The different sections of the merafe were partly independent, but recognized the authority of the Bethanie faction, under the rule Mmamogale family. During the rule of J.O.M. Mamogale in the 1920s however, the Jericho and Hebron residents refused to pay tax for the purchase of the farm Elandsfontein, from which they would derive no benefit. The South African authorities, in the form of the Native Affairs Department (NAD), had to resolve the conflict and decide whether the different sections were autonomous or under Mmamogales authority. The matter went to the Supreme Court. Though even the NAD officials were divided, the court ruled in favour of Mmamogale. Even then the rebel factions refused to pay the levies and to recognize Mmamogale. The unity of the Bakwena was shattered and to all intents and purposes, they were made up of five autonomous sections.

Even within Bethanie, Mamogale lost control, and civil conflict, the worst the Rustenburg district has experienced, ensued. A so-called Vigilance Committee was established, ostensibly to support the Kgosi, but it then turned against Mamogale. Supporters and opponents of Mamogale were engaged in a prolonged conflict, which spilt over to the Lutheran church. Many of Mamogale’s opponents, and those of his successor, Daniel More, joined the Bakwena Lutheran Church, a separatist movement. In 1941 they went on a rampage and burnt down the Hermannsburg mission church. This was followed by assaults on the missionary himself, on the police and some government officials. Daniel Mores uncle took over the reins after the former’s death in 1946, and some degree of order was restored to the Bakwena at Bethanie.

The photos are the Lutheran Mission station in Bethanie taken when Lauren and I visited it.

It was Bethanie where Lauren and I visited the old Lutheran Church one weekend. Importantly for my own quest, the Bakwena is distinct from the Transvaal Ndebele living in the Magaliesburg region, the Bapo of Wolhuterskop where I am located their elusive and sacred hole in the rock. The other interesting fact of the linage of Malope dovetails into my wondering at the ancient village close to Heidelberg, at least according to one account. According to this, Malope had two children. One was a daughter called Lehurutshe the eldest by the first wife, and a son, Kwena, by his second wife. After the death of Malope a split occurred. Some of the Bakone encouraged Lehurutshe to claim the chieftainship, for, though a woman, she was the daughter of the senior but most would not be ruled by a woman when there was a male.

This quarrel led to a split. Lehurutshe, at the head of a considerable following, left the capital Majanamatshwanaand went to live in Tsoenyane, then known as Lesosong, now the town of Heidelberg where I hiked between the ancient stone ruins many times.

On their way to Lesosong, they went through a pass of the Mokgana Mountains (Magaliesberg). So, they must have lived North of the Magaliesberg. I later years they removed from Lesosong, crossed Kokotsi (Witwatersrand), and settled in the Madiko (Marico) Valley. The followers of princess Lehurutshi were then named Bahurutshe after her and those of Kwena was called Bakwena. There is another version according to which Malope had four sons – Mohurutshe, Kwena, Ngwato, Ngwaketse. Mohurutshe, the heir apparent, rebelled against his father, left the capital and founded his own independent kingdom.

– Enters Petrus Pooe

The photo was taken in the 1890s near Windburg.

Petrus was born in 1902 on the farm Arcadia in the Free State. The farm was owned by a Mr Dannhauser. Both names of Arcadia and Dannhauser are familiar in the northern parts of the Free State, close to Vredefort. On my grandmothers side, Tannie Baby Dannhauser was married to Oom Piet Dannhauser. Tannie Marietjie Human tells me that Tannie Baby is my Ouma Susan’s and her cousin (niggie). That makes the Dannhausers from the Northern Free State family, through my grandmother on my mom’s side. Today, the farm Arcadia, in the Vredefort is still in the Dunnhauser family. I got to know the family who owns the far and I will certainly pay them a visit one of these days.

Petrus remembers that his father grew maize and sorghum. The grain was sold at Heilbron or Wolwehoek or at Dover station if the crop was small. Each family had their own field, but livestock grazed communally. He remembers that the relationship between black and white farmers was very good in those days. Often a black man would borrow a span of oxen from a Boer. Sometimes a Boer would borrow a span of oxen from his black tenants. On the farm was a small farm school that attracted children from the surrounding farms. Naphtali Pooe, another of Petrus’s uncles was a man of some education. He was the teacher. For reasons not clear, Petrus never attended school at Arcadia and first attended school after they had left Arcadia in 1913. As war clouds were gathering that would eventually lead to World War One, Petrus was still a young man but remembers vividly how their freedoms were being encroached upon. “Our elders got together to consider the difficult period that lay ahead. The immediate option was that of tracking down our morena (chief) to brief him about the difficult times that were in view. They went up north to Bethanie near Brits….”

This is the exact community where Lauren and I found ourselves one week after she had a serious accident, in the most unlikely encounter when we not only drove to Bethanie without a clear reason but ended up, right at the Lutheran Mission that is so intimately associated with this main Bakwena ba Mogopa community. Petrus Pooe was part of the Bakwena ba Mogopa. It was a policeman at the Hartebeespoort police station who suggested to us that we drive to Bethanie and see what we can learn about the Bakwena people. It was the accident that took us to the police station to report the accident and do the affidavits. Serendipity at its best is defined as the act of finding something valuable or delightful when you are not looking for it. It is astounding to me that in searching for the history of the Bapo and the Bakwena, I am faced with my own history. I am learning their customs and traditions while I am re-discovering those of my own people.

– A New Home

The photo is Crossing the Vaal (at Vereeniging) published on the web by The Heritage Portal.

Petrus Pooe’s father and uncles were far-sighted enough to know that their time of largely unhindered tenure on the northern Free State farms was coming to an end. White farmers were extending their control over productive resources by demanding that they share in the crops of their black tenants from a half to two-thirds of the crop and the number of cattle black tenants was allowed to keep were being restricted.

The Native Land Act (No. 27 of 1913) prohibited black land purchases in white areas and assigned black ownership to designated black reserves which comprised around 7% of the land. It was these curtailing of their freedom that prompted the elders to track down their chief and brought them to Bethanie, just north of Brits, to chief Mamogale, chief of the Bakoena.

The chief consulted with the Bakoena in council. The outcome was that it was decided that Bethanie is too small even for the residents living there, let alone accepting new residents. The chief was asked to help them find a place elsewhere. They did not have money to buy land, but they had cattle.

In 1911 Phiri-ea-Feta, a Councillor of Mamogale, came to the Free State to inform Petrus’s parents that there was a farm between Koster and Ventersdorp which would be a good buy. The elders were aware of the fact that there was not a good water resource on this farm but they were desperate and assured Phiri-ea-Feta that they would solve the water problem. Their first option was to purchase land close to Bethany, but when nothing became available and on account of their increasingly desperate situation, they agreed on this farm, despite its distance from their tribal chief’s village.

For three years they collected money to buy the farm Swartrand or Mogopa, as it became known to the inhabitants, in the name of chief Mamogale. So it was that the three brothers Pooe and their families, confronted with the ultimatum from their landlord at Arcadia, set off in about September 1913 for their new home, their three wagons pulled by spans of big red oxen.

Petrus remembers that the Vaal River was in flood, and describes the difficulty experienced in crossing it above Lindequesdrift. “I had never seen such drama in my life,” he says. He remembers his father feeling the depth of the water with the handle of his oxen whip, his brother Samuel leading the oxen into the water until it was swirling around his chin, the surging river dislodging bags of grain from the wagons. At last, they reached Swartrand and set about building their new home on the land allotted to them.

– His Humanity

The photo is of a swag time dance which I found on the web. I do not know its origin. It was listed under vintage photos on Pinterest.

What is striking is his humanity. Life at Mogopa was hard. They did not have enough water, grazing pasture for the cattle or land to grow crops. Disease caused them to lose almost everything they had and Petrus moved off the land in search of work. After a spell in Ventersdorp and Potchefstroom, he moved to Johannesburg where he found employment in a butchery, delivering meat on a push bicycle. The hardship did not cause him to lose his humanity and there is no evidence that it made him bitter.

An incident in his life as a young man would illustrate this. It was during this time that Petrus remembers seeing sixteen black men inspanned before a laden wagon on the road near Potchefstroom. He recalls that “they were a full span of sixteen men, inspanned and pulling the wagon. I stood and stared as I could not believe my eyes. At first, I was not even persuaded that they were people. As they had short trousers on they looked like ostriches. I then thought that it was a Boer using ostriches as draught animals. I drew nearer. But luckily, before I got close, I met an elderly man who saw that I was puzzled by what I saw. He anxiously shouted and beckoned to me. I could hear from his shouting that he had something urgent to tell me. He told me to disappear at once as I would be shot by the Boer who had inspanned people like animals.

I obeyed him and went off in the opposite direction. He told me that the men that I had seen were convict labourers being used on the farm. ‘Those people are prisoners and the man with the gun and the whip is very cruel. Never stare at him like that.’ I continued on my way still puzzled that human beings could be used like animals to pull a wagon. Son! I have never ceased to wonder whether what I had seen were real men, pulling a wagon. To this day I am still shocked.” It shows that he never lost his humanity. He was so abhorred by what he saw that even into his old age, it haunted him. Yet, it never made him bitter!

Keegan writes that Petrus was a man without strong political feelings, but he said that when he thinks of the indignities generation of Africans have had to endure, “I have every reason to support our grandchildren for refusing to submit to any form of oppression.” One can not be bitter and still respond to injustice and have compassion! Bitterness poisons. This is a remarkable human quality!

Apart from a tremendous “human heart”, Petrus had a romantic heart also. He fell in love and in 1932 married a young lady. The couple moved to Johannesburg. Even though he maintained his ties of family and identified with Mogapa, which remained his home base to which he would eventually return on retirement, he was now a fully urbanised Johannesburger. For something like 22 years, he worked at the fresh produce market in Newtown. He and his family lived as tenants of one Kgengwe in Bertha Street, Sophiatown, the freehold township that was finally bulldozed by the government in the 1950s. Their children were born there. The one remaining son was in the early 1980s a factory worker in Maraisburg, and his wife worked for a white household as a maid.

Petrus Pooe and his children had never succeeded in acquiring sufficient education to be anything other than unskilled wage employees in town. When asked why he did not proceed with his education, Petrus responded, “In fact in those days schools were not run the way they are nowadays. The major job for boys was looking after cattle. A boy did not have the full week to himself for schooling. We each went to school in turn. That is why we never became really educated.”

Petrus gave another reason why he chose the urban Johannesburg life as a waged employee. This is one more aspect of his humanity that is striking. Like any other human on the face of the earth, Petrus aspired to a better life. He wanted to be a gentleman. He wanted to wash, to be clean and well dressed. In his memory the lure of fashion, as is the case in most young people, was powerful. He remembered that “there was a make of trousers called ‘ragtime’ which were in vogue at that time. Our friends would come back from Johannesburg with these trousers on. We would then think to ourselves that we could be like them if we too went to Johannesburg. We looked down on young men who walked bare-footed and had cracked feet covered with red soil all the time.”

Petrus particularly remembered a male-voice choir led by a young man named Rampulana which occasionally visited Mogopa to perform. He said that “they would come on a Friday well-dressed, clean and truly well-groomed to the amusement of all the local populace. It was after such occasions that most of us would take to rethinking our positions. No sooner would they be gone than we would decide to try our luck on the Rand as well.”

– Loosing Mogopa

A photo Paul Weinberg entitles Back to the Land where he chronicles the return of land in SA post-1994 (

Petrus Pooe eventually went on pension and returned to Mogopa. Here he built his house. A direct result of the insecurities of urban life, especially for black people, placed a premium on continued ties to rural communities. His connection to Mogopa was not only a form of security and stability for him but also a refuge for his children. This would remain very typical in South Africa to this day. Petrus’s children sent their own children to Mogopa to be brought up by their grandparents.

Old families like the Pooe retained the right to arable land at Mogopa even though they had no hope to ever work it productively. For this, they needed plough oxen and adult male labour. This state of affairs was not unique to the Pooe family and a new form of entrepreneurship developed. Petrus describes it as follows: “There are many lands. People are not there to plough them. The only group of people who are capable of producing enough from the fields are those who have tractors. In fact, the tractor owners are those people who are making money. If they plough for you, out of ten bags you, the owner of the land, get one bag. Some of them do get sympathetic with their clients. If you are lucky you might get as many as two bags. Beyond that you get nothing. What I am saying is that we have the land, but we are incapable of putting it to use. Only those with tractors can. In order to survive as a farmer, you must have a tractor. Apart from it being expensive you also have to hire a driver if you buy one.

The grossly unequal balance of power between the contracting parties is reflected in the share of the crop – 90 percent – which the entrepreneur is able to claim for himself. Petrus tells that “in earlier times we used to be helped by the children, but today that is no longer possible. The children today are nurses and teachers and therefore not available for work in the fields. Things have changed. Well, I agree with them. The elders have gone through difficult times.”

A bigger problem that the community did not foresee is that Mogopa was deemed to be a black spot, isolated from the nearest part of Bophuthatswana by miles of white-owned farmland. It had to be expropriated and its inhabitants resettled elsewhere. Keegan writes that the resettlement received unprecedented international attention. “Perhaps no single forced removal of African people did more to focus worldwide attention on the ghastly realities of life under apartheid than the destruction of Mogopa. Police encircled the settlement in the early hours of 14 February 1984. The inhabitants were forcibly loaded onto trucks with what belongings they could carry with them and were transported to their new home Pachsdraai in Bophuthatswana.

Most of the families that were removed from Mogopa, ended up, not at the resettlement camp at Pachsdraai, but at Bethanie, where the Bakoena chiefly lineage, descendants of Mamogale under whose auspices the original settlement at Mogopa had been created, still lived. Petrus Pooe was in his eighties when the government trucks came. What became of him is not known. His life encompassed the birth and the death of the community known as Mogopa.

The Pensacola News Journal (Pensacola, Florida), 3 December 1983

– Reference

The life and story of Perus Pooe are from, Facing the Storm: Portraits of Black Lives in Rural South Africa by Tim Keegan, 1988, published by David Philip, Cape Town.

Historical Encyclopedia of People of South Africa’s North West Province.A Short History of the Bahurutshe of King Motebele, Senior Son of King Mohurutshe. James Mpotokwane, Botswana Notes and Records Vol. 6 (1974), pp. 37-45

7. Steyn, MT

The trauma of war has an impact on the psyche of people as well as on their bodies. It can lead to a disruption of a humans ability to interact with the environment and can lead to a concept disorder. Nobody in war is immune to this. Andrew Mcleod is quoted by Blake (2016) about the fact that at the end of the war, President M. T. Steyn was completely broken by war stress. He writes, “the psychological impact of stress experienced by the president of the Free State, Marthinus Theunis Steyn, was extremely severe and eventually resulted in serious physical affliction.” (Blake, 2016)

The reason why I mention this is not to have sympathy for Steyn but to say that it is important to understand the psychology and the forces impacting other peoples mental world when we engage them in a discussion. When we talk to farmers or listen to them we must understand the trauma they experience in seeing their neighbours being killed in the most violent and brutal way. When they come face to face with destitute people who have no land and no hope of earning a living to feed their families, both groups are severely traumatised and the fact that they find it challenging to have a meaningful conversation should not be surprising to us. The distress on both sides is real. Turning conflict between the two groups into meaningful dialogue will require creativity and commitment beyond what I see from our present leaders.

– Reference

Blake, A.. 2016. Broedertwis. Bittereinder en Joiner: Christiaan en Piet de Wet. Tafelberg.

8. Van Tonder, Jonas

There are many stories about kidnapped black children but this one is personal due to its close proximity to my family. I first give the background.

The father of Jan Kok, my maternal great-great-grandfather was, Johan Hendrik Christoffel Kock. He was the great grandfather of my Oom Jan and Uncle Leon Kok. He was born in Robertson op 11 May 1826. He relocated his family from there to the Free State and settled in Windburg district on the farm Besterschrik, 5km north of Korannaberg, where he also passed away on 24 November 1908.

At the outbreak of the Second Anglo Boer War, JHC Kock was 73 and not eligible for military duty. We know that the Windburg Kommando did duty in Natal at the outbreak of the war as well as in the Western Front and that Jan Kok, his son was the Komandant of the Windburg Kommando (his photo is above). We later find him fighting on 18 February 1900 fighting with Cronje at Paardenberg. I located his war diary at the War Museum in Bloemfontein and will update this as soon as I can get my hands on it (and Oom Jan can help me with the translation). If the letter we have that was sent from Ladysmith dated 10.12.1899 is from JW Kok and not his son with the same initials Jan (JW) Kok who only joined the war effort on 5 May 1900, then it means that Jan was in Ladysmith in December 1900.

So, we have three generations of the Kok Family. JHC living on his farm Besterschrik, 5km north of Korannaberg. His son JW Kok living on his farm Kransdrift in the Windburg area who fought in the Second Anglo Boer War from the outbreak in 1899. His son, also names Jan Kok living with him on Kransdrift, joining on 5 May, a week after his dad surrendered with Cronje.

Important for our story is the fact that Jan Kok (Senior) also fought in the Basotho Wars. It must have been the third Basotho War which started in 1867and ended in March 1868 when Britain annexed Basotholand and the British parliament declared the Basotho Kingdom a British protectorate. The Free State forces were compelled to cease military operations as continuing it would now mean that they are engaging the British Empire.

The story of the kidnapping of a small Zulu boy comes to us through the writing of J. N. Brink from around 1920 serving in the Union Army. Brink begins his story with the murder of the Voortrekker, Pier Retief and his compatriots on 6 February 1838 at Umgungundhlovu. In response to this, a commando was raised of mostly burgers from the Winburg district to leave for Natal to assist in defeating Dingaan. JHC Kock was 12 at the time and living in the Cape Colony.

Two of the men from Windburg was Wessel Wessels and A. C. Greyling from Korannaberg. His farm was right next to the mountain and included sections on top. JHC Kock would later buy a farm 5kms away. A. C. Greyling was a cousin of A. C. Greyling who was killed at Umgungundhlovu. Upon their arrival, Dingaan had already fled to Swaziland where he was later murdered. Brink says that with the flight of Dingaan, a number of Zulu children were left behind. The Boers caught a number of them under the pretext “to save them from starvation.” (as if there were only Zulu kids left and not a single Zulu adult)

Greyling caught a Zulu boy of around 7 years old and a man with the surname Van Tonder, a friend of Greyling, restrained the boy in front of his horse. The boy remembered the moment of his capture for the rest of his life and often told the story that when they were chasing him, he ran into a bush, but Baas Abraham (Master Abraham) grabbed him.

Greyling gave him the name Jonas van Tonder and he was raised by Greyling on his farm Van Soelenshoek. He later bought him a wife from among the Swazis during a time of famine and her name was Swartjie (Little Black). They were faithful workers (volk).

Jonas became the rear rider for Greyling, responsible for carrying provisions, setting up camp and also serving as protection from the back for Greyling during the Basotho War of 1868. This is one of the commandos that Jan Kok could very likely have been a part of. Of course, I will not know this for certain without a lot more information, but the likelihood is there. In light of the fact that he grew up on Besterschrik, 5km north of Korannaberg, and the farm of Greylin, Van Soelenshoek, was against the Koranberg, they definitely knew each other.

When the Kommando entered Basotholand, which must have been early in 1868 since the English declaration of Basotholand as a protectorate happened in March of that year, he advised the Boers on more than one occasion. One example is when the Boers took cattle from the Basotho’s and wanted to leave the cattle. Jonas told them that it would be a big mistake since it would give the Basotho’s courage and they would charge them.

During the charge on Tiennieberg, Greyling and Jonas were responsible for guarding a footpath at the mountain. Jonas was armed with a long sanna-rifle which he held upright. It was already dusk when a couple of Boers came past. One of the Boers walked into Jonas’s long rifle. The Boer said, “Uncle, you must turn your tent pole away a bit (Oom, jy moet jou tentpaal ‘n bietjie wegdraai.) Jonas replied in the Afrikaans vernacular of the time, which would only have been permitted amongst White’s, ” No cousin (Nee neef), I won’t turn my tent pole away. I must stand my ground” (Ek draai my tentpaal nie weg nie. Ek moet my plek in besit hou) The Boer did not know that it was Jonas and the following morning Jonas kept himself aloof so that no-one would discover what happened.

One of the other duties he had was as a translator from a high cliff across a valley when the kommandant wanted to negotiate with the Basotho.

Based on the faithful execution of his duties, after the war, Greyling bequeathed around 50 morg (4 morgen is 1 hectare) of his farm on top of Korannaberg to Jonas and his wife in his will. Here, Jonas planted an orange grove and a garden close to a strong water spring.

His house was an overhanging cliff. He made a house of it by erecting a stone wall in front of the overhang. Later his children helped him to construct two rondawels (round houses with thatched roofs) not far from his overhang house. He furnished these with beds and bedding. Swartjie saw to it that everything was always clean and neat because she could not know when white people would unexpectedly show up to look at their place and view things from on top of the mountain and to talk to Jonas about all his experiences.

In those days, due to the distance between the towns, it was necessary to keep a coffin handy. In their attic was a coffin for the widow of A. C. Greyling. At the age of 96, she saw her 5th generation. When she passed away she was buried in a better coffin and the coffin in Jonas’s attic was donated to him.

Jonas passed away on Korannaberg in 1917 and is buried there. Many visitors attended his funeral. His wife passed away years later in the location in Windburg where she is buried. When it was communion on Marquard, ds. Theron and his elder regularly went to Koranaberg the following Monday and walked the steep road to Jonas’s house where they served communion to Jonas and Swartjie.

During the battle of Mushroom Valley, during the rebellion, Jonas, advanced in years, was looking down on events below. He saw three Boers climbing the mountain. They told him that they were rebels that fled to the mountain and enquired if he could show them the way to the farms below. The old man Jonas told them to be very careful while he pointed to the farms below indicating which farmers are pro-government. He then said that the farm to the far-right belonged to a farmer who is a good man and would definitely help them. He supplied them with food and his wife gave them coffee after which they descended the mountain and made it to the farm where the farmer assisted them.

Brink concludes with these words. “They were strangers from Harrismith. The memory of Jonas van Tonder will live on and he fully deserves the honour and respect of those who knew him.”

– Reference

Would I have Supported the War?

I want to lastly return back to where this discussion started, at the Anglo Boer War and ask the question of what my view would have been. Initially, I have no doubt that I would have supported it, especially if I lived at that time! Particularly if I was in my 20s or 30s. Hindsight is, however, a wonderful thing and we can evaluate the total impact of this war on the nation. It is reported that the Boer War had catastrophic consequences for the Boer. There was of course the massive loss of life. Additionally, it took the Afrikaner decades to recover economically. More than 30 000 Boer houses were destroyed, towns were completely destroyed complete herds of livestock were killed and planted fields were ruined in totality. The number of economically poor and marginalized poor white Afrikaners (armblankes) were increased so dramatically as the result of the war, that it remained with the country for years to come. The number of farm owners who became farmworkers (bywoners) after the war skyrocketed and so, generational wealth and stability were eradicated for many. Following the war, the Afrikaner had to fight, again, for the survival of their language. Decades of economic progress were wiped out! (Blake, 2016)

The other matter that impacts my own evaluation is that I lived through the latter parts of Apartheid and through the transition to democracy. Many lives were sacrificed on both sides of the struggle. The religious, legal and political Afrikaner leaders gave the kind of justification for Apartheid that was often given in support of the Boer War. “One nation before God” – that kind of thing! Having come out of that system disillusioned and having experienced indoctrination through the instrument of nationalism, I have, however, vowed to never look at life in such simplistic terms again. Well, that is, as far as I can help it. I learned that there is never just one side of the story and even if your course is just, there is still the question to ask – do you want to act based on what is RIGHT or do you want to act based on what will yield the best outcome! In light of this, I completely disagree with those who claim that an alternative view of the Boer War, i.e. being against the war, is held by traitors.

My problem with the war is that I doubt that it was the smartest option. Just in general terms, I consider myself free to disagree with my leaders. Yes, I am a Boer and an Afrikaner which for me are synonyms. I love my language and my history. However, I am also a member of the human race and if laws of governments, including my government, is inherently unjust; if war is declared for a cause that I do not support or if a cause that I do support is being protected through acts of war which I may not support – then I can disagree and if I feel its the best course of action, to even oppose! As much as I am thankful for my Afrikaans heritage, just because I am born into a culture, no matter how proud I am of that culture, does NOT mean that I sanction the entire history of that group and if there is an aspect of the history of that group that I don’t agree with, I am free to disagree. It is unfair to ask that I sacrifice my mind and my ability to think for myself! More important than the right of independence of the group is the right of independence of the individual! I can not be the slave of a group or nation, not even the Afrikaner nation and I can not by default be expected to agree with their ideology in every aspect!

Even writing this makes me smile because is this very attitude not born from Calvinism whereby each man and woman are personally and individually answerable to God and God alone? My attitude certainly reflects this undercurrent and, is it not one of the exact attitudes that caused the War in the first place. The best I can do is to recognize it and to poke some fun at my own firm convictions on this matter! 🙂

The brothers Christiaan and Piet de Wet bring these issues in my mind clear to the fore. It works out that I respect both Christiaan de Wet as well as his brother Piet. My respect for Piet is that, despite a lot that can be said against him, in the end, he was conflicted and did what his conscience dictated. It is not the place to do a full discussion on Piet. For this, I commend to you the work of Blake which is available on ebooks also. A brilliant work! I feel proud of the courage of men like Cronje who, despite his own shortcomings, gave the war effort his best. I even have respect for men like Vilonel and Prinsloo. This is a statement that I have to qualify. At times these men were open and honest about their view of the war, to such an extent that I wonder how could Steyn and Christiaan De Wet NOT have known about their vacillation. I will mention Piet, especially in this context. They acted based on great self-interest which could be seen as selfish, but taken the totality of the situation into account, including the poor decisions of Christiaan de Wet and Steyn, one can not help to think that overall this was a grand mess and to find heroes and villains, you have to disregard a truckload of information on all of the main players. I can not bring myself so far as to choose sides and especially if I put myself in their situation and I consider all the salient facts of their lives. No matter what I believe about myself, my own choices I make every day are based on self-interest and I am grateful that my choices are not set up in such a way that if I choose for my family and myself, that I severely disenfranchise someone else. In the life of Piet and Christiaan de Wet, I believe circumstances conspired against them in such a way that in the end, their choices had very negative effects on others. I do not believe this was their choice!

My opposition to the first war would have been in support of the equality of all men and in opposition to the treatment of black Africans. My opposition to the Second Anglo Boer Wars would have been based on my support for the Boer and Afrikaner Nation since I would have chosen material prosperity over ideology. I would further have objected based on the fact that both Britain and the Afrikaner continued to ignore the inherent right of the Black nations to govern. In this regard, the war in its totality was in a way illegitimate, in my view, because it was based on two groups both with dubious claims to the riches of the land. The view that only those who supported the wars were patriots is complete madness! In my view, the exact opposite may be true and most certainly was true in the latter parts of the war.

I see a lot of ego being served on the side of the Boer through the pro-war faction and, as I said before, the currency they used to pay for their own egos were the lives and prosperity of the Afrikaner! I see the evil imperialisms of the British on the other hand also, but exactly because of this, I would gladly have chosen the option which at least would ensure greater economic prosperity for the country. This is my personal view and I fully accept those who don’t agree with me. I boldly state my position, just as those who hold to different convictions are welcome to do so. I am not insulted or offended if they state their views and likewise, they should not be offended by mine. In the end, what we can all agree on is our great heritage and our mutual love for our people!


Having said all of this, there is, I believe, an even more excellent way and that is to follow the example of the Kok-family in these matters. They were able, I believe, to bring all these different strands together in a unique way by doing all of it. They fought the British and reached out to the black population in a way that is far more meaningful than most of their generation did namely through a lifetime of service. It would be very strange, I think if they shunned the Piet de Wet’s of their time and the area where they lived. As we have seen, there were many in the Windburg, Theunissen, Fickburg areas. Tom went to a church where Theunissen was a leader, while he was still alive! If they referred to them as Traitors, it would be surprising to me and contrary to the evidence. What we know for sure is that they did not shun the English, despite the war. I doubt if the grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have married English women if their parents and grandparents hammered into their heads how evil the English is! In general, the Kok family, to this day, is known as hearty and warm people who desire nothing more than to work hard, provide for their own, to mind their own business and to be at peace with all humans! They are good neighbours and always willing to lend a helping hand wherever they can. Salt of the earth kind of people!



(c) eben van tonder

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Chapter 13.01.2: The Life and Times of Jan Kok

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting.  Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this. What follows is a continuation of my quest to understand bacon curing and the art of living. As such, I change gears in this chapter slightly by focusing on the “art of living.” In the story, I am writing as an old man from the 1960, but in reality, I address matters right up into the 2020s.

The Life and Times of Jan W Kok

October 1960


Photo supplied by Chris Ash. The Brandwater Basin.

Over the years I have written letters to my kids telling them what I learn and about my experiences. They followed my quest to produce the best bacon on earth through these monthly communications. When I returned home I found that they kept every letter. Over the years they moved on with life and now reside in other parts of the world. When they were here last December to visit, they gave me the draft of a book where they are including every letter. They even contacted Dawie and Oscar, who both sent them my letters. They asked me to write the introduction to every county and the “Union Letters,” as they called the letters I sent them from Cape Town.

I asked them if I could add three accounts of companies who achieved perfection in the large-scale production of bacon. The first of the three examples of people who achieved high standards in bacon production is Chapter 13.01: The Castlemaine Bacon Company.

In that chapter, I juxtapose the Anglo Boer War experience of Wright Harris, an Australian who fought for England in this war and who founded the Castlemaine Bacon Company after the war, with the experience of my great grandfather, Jan Kok who fought on the side of the Boers and whose great-grandson, being myself, established his own bacon company in Woodys Consumer Brands in Cape Town which is a major subject in this work.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from the art of bacon curing is to be true to myself. Bacon curing follows natural processes focused on the particular kind of protein in muscle meat namely myoglobin and its interaction with nitrogen and oxygen atoms through nitric oxide. Understanding the inherent nature of bacon allows us to properly evaluate for health and nutrition. In exactly the same way grounding ourselves in life is predicated upon understanding our own essential nature.

When I looked at the life and times of Jan Kok, I discovered that participation in the war was by no means a consensus decision nor was the fierce opposition to England something universally shared amongst the Boers. The image of what a Boer is comes with a fair amount of historical baggage, but the question comes up if it is the only image of a Boere? Besides this, I discovered that events at the Branswater Basin “seems to have been airbrushed from history” (Ash, 2018) by the Nationalist Government. It became imperative for me to find the true historical context and to place the surrender of Jan Kok within this context. Besides this, did Jan fit the stereotypical image handed down to me of a Boer? Like the events at the Brandwater Basin, the myth of the Boer has been firmly established by much the same propaganda machine. I have read many accounts of the war in English, American and Australian newspapers where journalists clearly romanticised the war and talked the evil villains up, in those cases being the Boers, that I can not only lay the blame for the myth that sprang up at the feet of the Nationalists propaganda machine. It is clear, however, that much of the Boer image is based on myth. I was keen to discover the “real” Jan Kok!

I grew up with the story of my great grandfather, Jan Kok, who was captured at the Brandwater Basin while fighting for the Boer republic of the Orange Free State. While studying the life and times of Jan Kok for the Castlemain chapter, a complex picture emerged which must be recognised to be just as much the picture of a Boer or Afrikaner as the well known stereotypical picture. I have been at pains to point out in the two transition chapters from my life as a Transport Rider to a Bacon Curer in Chapter 05: Seeds of War and Chapter 06: Drums of Despair, that there is no single image that fits all Boers as it is true for the English and all the other peoples of Africa but I was thrilled to see a new historic picture of a Boer emerging from my own family!

One of the main thrusts of my article is, therefore, that the evidence from the Anglo Boer War shows a wide array of political positions towards the war, characterised by two extremes. On the one hand, the pro-British-Boer who openly collaborated with the enemy and on the other extreme, the hard-line pro-War-Boer who saw any cooperation with the British as treason. Evidence shows that many Burgers found themselves somewhere in the middle and for a variety of reasons closer to one of the two extreme positions. The evidence further indicates that their relative position to the extremes changed during the course of the war and it is impossible to say that any particular position is a reflection of what some refer to as a “true Boer” or “true Afrikaner.” The conclusion I came to was that in the end, a thoroughly pragmatic consideration of the world we live in is the only sensible way to evaluate the present and the past. To go on a crusade about the dangers of nitrite is not the best way to deal with the matter of nitrite in meat curing. Likewise, to worship romanticised mental images of anything, including what it means to be a Boer is foolishness! All matters must thoroughly be grounded in reality!

The Case to Be Considered

When I talk about a stereotypical view of a Boer, a few aspects must be highlighted. One is a hatred for the English and the second is disrespect for black people. A view that they are inherently subservient to the white man and “shall never cease being slaves, both hewers of wood and drawers of water” (Josh 9:3). Thirdly, according to this view, a true Boer or a true Afrikaner would have given unequivocal support to the Anglo-Boer War and anybody questioning this, in any shape or form, was seen as a traitor. In terms of their faith, the true Boer is a strict Calvinist-Protestant. They will speak Afrikaans or at the very least, Dutch. They are single-minded (hardkoppig) and yield to none but to God.

The question is if this picture is a true reflection of the Boer of the late 1800s and early 1900s who fought the Boer War. Let me give the conclusion right up front that the picture of the Boer who fought the Boer War was far from the stereotypical view. Many, if not most were somewhere on the continuum which I described.

The evidence seems, for example, that not everybody was in support of the war, especially not those Boers who had the most to lose. Or, we can say it like this – many Boers initially supported the war, but when it became clear that the odds of success were almost non-existent, many Boers started preparing themselves for life after the war in a variety of ways – some more honourable than the other. When I say this, I realise that my judgement becomes highly subjective for what is the measure of “honourable”!

For example, many opted to actively seek peace and to start negotiations for a future, sooner rather than later, while others opted to openly collude with the enemy. For me, there is a distinction and the litmus test is two-fold. On the one hand, I would ask if the actions endangered the lives of others and on the other hand, I would ask if you were honest and open about your intentions. Those who openly colluded with the enemy in war is problematic to me. That would be unacceptable (a subjective judgement on my side, I know). Others simply chose to stop fighting which I would argue is a perfectly legitimate response when the situation is so dire that there is no point in fighting any further or, alternatively, if you can no longer support the war, then getting out of the way to allow those who still believe in it do what they see is the right course of action, will be, in my mind, a legitimate response. If you are an officer, I would at least expect you to resign your position.

It’s a lot more complicated than this since the kommando law and other laws of the land comes into play and then there are international conventions, treaties and agreements to factor in, but to me, these very subjective two criteria would be important. Men like De Bruin who I quote and refer to throughout this discussion will find my simplistic position amusing. He is after all a respected Advocate and masterfully deals with the subject in strictly legal terms. My position is simplistic, subjective and personal but I give it without apology exactly because important and weighty decisions are made in reality by ordinary citizens based on such subjective and simplistic arguments in every sphere of life. It is exactly this kind of reasoning which may have been entertained by some of the ordinary burger who, like me had no formal training in matters of law, nor did they have access to even a fraction of the information I had privy to in writing the article. Parents and leaders in all spheres of life had to use devices from their field of reference to make sense of a complex and chaotic situation and who can blame them that they got it wrong in many instances?

Such a device which I will employ come from my own background and I will use it throughout the article namely that of a simple continuum with two extremes on either end. The one is a pro-English position of collusion and the other is a had-line Boer position that supports continued fighting. I will argue that most Boers were somewhere on the continuum between the two extremes. My metaphor breaks down because it does not account for the moral dilemma of when the action impacts negatively on the lives of others which is my test if a course of action is morally justified or not. In this situation, I could however not think of a simple model which would deal with the full scope of complexity in the arguments. Still, I choose to retain it since it shows that positions are never static. Our minds change in terms of where we stand on a subject as different facts come to light or forces influence us; as circumstances change. So, if we plot the two extremes on a line, the one end being completely unacceptable and the other very acceptable, my point is that certain options become more palatable than the other. In terms of the strict legal position, what I present will not fly, but, it nevertheless puts it in terms that I can relate to.

It is extremely important to recognise that at some point, even the actions of the hardliners crossed a moral line that became untenable when pride and ego became the commodity that was being paid for by the blood of young Boer fighters. Maybe the two extremes must be to fight on the one end and not to fight on the other. To continue fighting may become morally so unacceptable that military collaboration with the enemy becomes justified. If the actions of your own people become so destructive and detrimental to the cause that they become the enemy, I would say that switching sides becomes a justified option.

Apart from relying heavily on family recollection and documentation, the background information comes to us mainly through the work of Boje & Pretorius (2011) and the recollections of Gen De Wet. In the Further Reading section at the end of the article, I list the work of Chris Ash, Boer surrender at the Brandwater Basin. Chris is by no means a fan of De Wet and is particularly scathing in his criticism of what transpired at Brandwater. I recommend that you read it, not because I agree with everything he says, but because there is nothing like an irreverent person with a completely opposing view to open one’s eyes to what was probably really happening. It strips away cultural biases and allows one to look more closely at the facts. He represents the “devil’s advocate” position very well and if one ever embarks on a critical evaluation of any matter, the devils-advocate-method is an extremely useful tool! If you want to stress-test any position, look for people who disagree with you and hear them out! It will serve you very well in any evaluation!

I am eager to get to know Jan Kok in his surroundings, with the good, the bad and the ugly so that I can see who he was, not just on his own but within the context of the life and times when he lived!

The Brandwater Basin Story As I Had It

Jan W Kok leaves their farm, Kransdrif on 5 May 1900 at 20:00 in the evening in the Windburg District. A letter we have from JW Kok to his mom dated 12 December 1899 (1 and 3) from Ladysmith must have been a letter from Jan Kok’s father whom we know joined in Nov 1899 and we know his kommando took part in the Natal campaign at the start of the war.

The Windburg Kommando was divided in two. This is seen from the fact that they served both in Natal and on the Western front. Jan Kok (Snr.) mentions his service in Moderrivier and Magersfontein but we know they were also in action in Natal. This will be consistent with the letter sent by JW Kok (Snr) from Ladysmith. At the Western front, J.P.J. Jordaan acted as temporary Kommandant in charge. Jordaan was captured at Paardeberg with the surrender of Cronjé. Kommandant Jan Kok from the Winburg kommando was also elected as temporary Kommandant. Like Jordaan, he was also captured at the surrender of Cronjé. (De Bruin)

Jan rode to the farm of A. Nel, Kafferskop. In all, there were 11 people riding together; 6 from Winburg, 1 from Kroonstad, 2 from Thabanchu and two black people. They travel to Ficksburg, where they join the Kommando, and on 18 May they set off from Ficksburg to join larger Boer forces (3). This was possibly the same force that found itself in the Brandwater area.

Jan W Kok’s bible. It is such a powerful image that I share it here as the complete photo. Oom Jan writes that the photos are pasted into the bible and can not be removed. This is the house where his and Uncle Leon’s Oupa Jan was born.

It was in the Branwater basin where Jan Kok surrendered to the English and his participation in the Anglo Boer War effectively ended. On 28 July, he notes in his diary that the kommando, under the leadership of General Martinus Prinsloo, decides that it is not worth fighting any further since the Boers are heavily demoralised. They ask the British to negotiate a surrender. At this time they are still in Fouriesburg, in the Brandwater Basin.

The formal surrender was on 30 July 1900. Jan and his fellow Boers laid down arms on 31 July. They are assured by the British that they would be allowed to return to their homes and farms, but in the end, this does not materialise. Jan writes in his diary on Monday, 31 July 1900: “We have our weapons deposited on the surrender of General Prinsloo to General Hunter. On this day he notes, “a time of new experiences and disappointment, for sure.

This is then the version I grew up with and which was told many times around dinner tables in our family! 

Re-Visiting Brandwater: What Happened in early 1900?

Gen De Wet. Photo supplied by Leo Taylor.

Great was my surprise when I realised that there was much, much more to the story! I turned to the account of events at the Brandwater Basin from the perspective of the leader of the Boer forces in the Boer Republic of the Orange Free State, Gen Christiaan Rudolf De Wet. He devoted an entire chapter in his book, Three Years’ War (1903), to events that unfolded here. Boje & Pretorius (2011) gives key background information which puts the Brandwater saga in perspective. I rely on their work extensively together with that of De Wet. Before we focus on Brandwater, let’s first look at the actual timeline of the war during the early parts of the year 1900 to get some insight into what the mental state of the burgers must have been.

Supplied by Dirk Marais

General Cronjé, commanding the western theatre of war, surrendered on 27 February at Paardeberg. We will see that Jan Kok’s father, also Jan Kok was part of this surrender. On 28 February Bullers troops marched on Ladysmith. At this point, Christiaan de Wet was appointed as commander-in-chief of the Orange Free State and in its defence, he gathered his commandos at Poplar Grove, 16km from Paardeberg and on the way to Bloemfontein. The Boer forces were in disarray and when they saw the cavalry at a distance, they fled. On 10 March the Battle of Driefontein took place. Under Christiaan de Wet, the Boer forces were holding the 11 km line covering the approach to Bloemfontein. Lieutenant General Thomas Kelly-Kenny under orders from Lord Roberts attack the Boer position from the front. Lieutenant General Charles Tucker’s attached its left flank. The Boers were forced to withdraw and Bloemfontein fell.

In early April British forces destroyed the Foreign Legion fighting with the Boers when they were en route to attack British forces at Boshof. On 25 April the battle of Israel’s Poort near Bloemfontein took place where the Canadians secured a victory against the Boers. The surrender of Cronjé on 27 February 1900 and the fall of Bloemfontein on 13 March 1900 resulted in a massive loss of morale amongst the Orange Free State burgers. Thousands deserted and many laid down arms. They hoped that the war would be over soon and more than that, they could not see how the Boers could be victorious. There is good evidence that suggests that what they were hoping for was that another country would intervene on their behalf, but it became clear that it was not going to materialise. The people who laid down arms were referred to as hensoppers (from the English, hands up) and the ones who both laid down arms and joined the English war effort were referred to as “joiners.” It is estimated that between 12 000 and 14 000 burgers laid down arms between March and June 1900. This makes it around 16% of the total combined strength of the Free State and Transvaal army which is estimated to have been around 88 000 (Britannica) when it was on its highest. (Blake, 2016)

The question of Jan Kok’s commitment to the war must therefore be seen in the light of the fact that he joined amidst a wholesale level of desertion among the Boers and when the prospect of success was lower than ever! He joins exactly 6 days after his dad surrendered under Cronje, on 5 May from their farm Karnsdrift. The reason why he joined on this day is clear from his diary: “On 5 May the English invaded Windburg.” He writes that their farm was very busy that day with different kommandos trekking past the farm. We prepared ourselves to join. That evening we left home at 8:00.” No matter how low the morale, the war had come to them!

Re-Visiting Brandwater: Introducing Key Players

Bloemfontein supplied by Nico Moolan.

The fact is that so many men laid down arms and that this speaks about very low morale, should not be underestimated. Not just did the rank-and-file soldier lose confidence, but so did many of the leaders. As background, we will consider three of them who plaid pivotal roles in the Brandwater saga. The three men obviously represent countless others who had similar stories. These are critical backstories to our investigation. The first one we look at is Harry Theunissen.

Harry Theunissen and Marthinus Prinsloo

Helgaard Marthinus (Harry) Theunissen is the first man we meet. He hails from Windburg, the same town where the Kok family lived. Theunissen “was a prominent and wealthy member of the Winburg community. He owned a number of farms and was the manager of the Jagersfontein Diamond Mine.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) I knew Jagersfontein well on account of my Grandparents on my Dad’s side living in Fauresmith.

Jagersfontein, 1881. Photo by Nico Moolman.

“Theunissen was elected to the Winburg church council in 1897 and became a field cornet and justice of the peace in 1889. On the outbreak of war, Theunissen went to the Natal front as field-cornet of the Winburg ward. When Marthinus Prinsloo, who was commandant of the Winburg commando, was chosen as Chief Commandant of the Free State forces on 9 October 1899, Theunissen took over as commandant.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) Prinsloo, together with de Wet would be the two main characters in the Brandwater Basin saga. Jan Kok, his parents and family would have known both Theunissen and Prinsloo well. Jan’s dad writes in his war diary that he corresponded with Theunissen. He also knew Prinsloo personally and served under him during his time on commando during the Basotho wars. In his Short Autobiography: Johannes Willem Kok gives the following story of him and Prinsloo.

Jan’s dad writes that during the Basotho wars it happened once that he was on kommando for months without a warm jacket to protect him against the rain and the cold. He says that he had a good commandant at this time. He recalls how a heavy rainstorm overtook them. The Kommandant saw him sitting in front of his horse and quickly came over and he held his own coat over Jan’s dad to protect him. The Kommandant in question was Marthinus Prinsloo. Jan’s dad then mentions that Prinsloo made no distinction between rich and poor. He was a remarkable leader. Jan’s dad is an eyewitness of Prinsloo’s first appointment as Boer officer. He recalled “He mentions Jan Fick who was the general from Ficksburg. When he resigned the people from Windburg elected Marthinus Prinsloo in his place. Jans dad describes him as very young but one who had the courage of a hero. In battle, he cared for his men. He was friendly and strict. His commans had to be obeyed and as kommandant- general of the kommando from Boshoff, the krygsraad elected him to head the Bloemfontein komaando. (Short Autobiography: Johannes Willem Kok)

In Natal, it appears that Theunissen did not impress on the battlefield. “The Winburgers made a poor showing on the occasion of the assault on Platrand (5-6 January 1900). J.D. Kestell, who was attached to the Harrismith commando as chaplain and was present at the battle, accused them of having failed their compatriots by lurking at the base of the hill they were supposed to attack. This passivity is confirmed by Anna Barry’s account. She says that Jan de Villiers, field cornet of Senekal, and his men were able to watch it all from their positions on the slope. In his account of the battle, Johannes Hendrik Labuschagne of Harrismith also held the Winburgers to blame. The Dutch writer Louwrens Penning omits any mention of them, but comments significantly that the lack of cooperation between the commandos was never more painfully felt than in the attack on Platrand.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

During the battle of Paardeberg, he was captured and sent to Green point’s POW camp. Interestingly, this means that he fought with Jan W. Kok’s father who also fought at Paardenberg and was also sent to Green Point. “As a prisoner of war at the Green Point P.O.W. camp, Theunissen was elected camp commandant. It is an accepted military convention that an officer performs this role without incurring blame. In this capacity, he presided over a court that dealt with criminal offences affecting the prisoner community. Ironically, prosecutions in the camp court were in the name of ‘the State’. However, Theunissen’s position was not unambiguous, as we can see from the fact that in November 1900 he frustrated an escape attempt by prisoners of war by reporting it to the military authorities. In 1901, Theunissen became involved in the peace movement. He met with Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams, the newly appointed Deputy Administrator of the Orange River Colony, in January of that year, and with the peace envoys, Christiaan Laurens Botha and Piet de Wet, a month later. He was lauded by the British authorities for his pro-British role in the Green Point and later the Simonstown camp.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“After the war, at a time when other Boer leaders were lying low, Theunissen had no difficulty in cooperating with the British authorities. An example of this is the appointment of a school committee for the Winburg district. Rev. J. Marquard, the moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Free State, and Frederik (Frikkie) Cronjé, the last commandant of the Winburg commando, declined the appointment, but Theunissen served with the Methodist minister George Henry Jacques, the merchant Edward Thomas Dobinson and the bank manager John Garden representing Winburg; Jacobus Lourens Lategan of Wynandsfontein, who was never on commando, Major A. Lyon of Kareefontein and Cecil Gerhardus van Heyningen of Leeuwarden, who had been assistant superintendent of the Winburg concentration camp, for Smaldeel, and Dr Esaias Reinier Snyman and Peter Kahts, who had also not been on commando, for Ventersburg.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

This certainly indicates a wide array of political positions towards the war to be characterised by two extremes namely the pro-British Boer who openly collaborated with the enemy and the hard-line pro-War-Boer who saw any cooperation with the British as treason. That many Boers found themselves somewhere in the middle is clear and their relative position shifted at times is equally consistent with the evidence. As such, “the stance Theunissen adopted did not affect the esteem in which he was held within the Boer community, as is evident from his continued service on the Winburg church council.” The hardliners of today would have us believe that any affiliation with such a man would be unthinkable, but here we have clear historical proof to the contrary and my suspicion is that either many of them did the same kind of thing, had similar views or a bit of both. It seems to have been understood that a Boer would find himself or herself somewhere in the middle of the two extreme positions.

Oom Jan writes Jan W Kok and his wife on vacation in Warmbaths. Notice them wearing their “church clothes” on vacation. The second photo is the graves of Jan W Kok’s Mom and Dad on Kransdrif.

Theunissen was “the leading proponent of the establishment of a separate congregation at Smaldeel. In 1909 he was the chairman, and Van Heyningen the secretary, of a meeting at Smaldeel, which led, in time, to the implementation of this project. On 19 May 1910, a separate congregation was finally achieved and the first church council of four elders and eight deacons was elected, including Helgaard Theunissen and at least three other members whose wartime activities were, shall we say, suspect. In 1915, in the wake of a rebellion led by irreconcilables from the Anglo-Boer War, Theunissen was appointed to the office of church elder. In tandem with the striving for a separate congregation, moves were also afoot for the proclamation of a new township based on the Smaldeel siding. In this matter too, Theunissen was a key player. On 13 September 1907, the new town was proclaimed and was named Theunissen in his honour.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

It is very interesting that one of Jan’s brothers was a member of the Theunissen congregation. Jan W Kok’s first wife, Kotie Kok passed away on 5 January 1938. She was with her son, Tom, and in the article below it is stated that he was from the Theunissen congregation. Kotie’s full names were Jacoba Johanna Elizabeth Theron. She was born on 04 February 1855 and passed away on the farm Wynandsfontein, Theunissen.

From the photo posted of his grave on BoerenBrit, it seems to me that he passed away in 1945, aged 85. The enhanced photo I created is posted below. That being the case, it means that Theunissen was 78 when Kotie passed away and when we know that Tom was part of the same congregation. Having served in the war with Tom’s father and having been in the same POW camp, I am sure that Tom and Theunissen knew each other well. This fact proves nothing except that the families knew each other. What is interesting for me is that the Kok family was definitely no stranger to a robust discussion about the merits of the war and the relationship between Boer and Brit, long before the time of Botha and Smuts as national leaders.

Fanie Vilonel

Another of the One of the key figures in the Brandwater Basin is Fanie Vilonel. “Before the war, Stephanus Gerhardus (Fanie) Vilonel was a law agent and auctioneer and served as town clerk of Senekal. As an educated and wealthy man and, moreover, an incomparable marksman, who won the Free State championships held in Senekal in 1893, it is not surprising that he was elected field-cornet of Winburg’s Onder Wittebergen ward. On 3 October 1899, the 600 men under his command assembled in the Senekal church before setting off for the Natal border.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) This means that he served with Jan’s dad.

“When the Winburg and Senekal commandos were recalled from Natal, Vilonel fell under the command of Christiaan de Wet. After the attempt to retake Oskoppies, in which Helgaard Theunissen was captured, De Wet had enough confidence in Vilonel to appoint him as commandant of the Winburg commando. He distinguished himself as a brave, capable and respected leader who inspired his men to give their best at the battle of Abrahamskraal. On 25 March 1900, the burghers returned from the leave they had been granted following the fall of Bloemfontein. From their meeting place on the Sand River, Christiaan de Wet moved south with 1 500 men and seven guns. Somewhere between Winburg and Brandfort, he fell out with Vilonel, whose Winburg commando was accompanied by about thirty wagons, in spite of the krygsraad decision of just a week before that commandos should no longer be thus encumbered. De Wet informed Vilonel in writing that the wagons must be sent home, whereupon Vilonel demanded in writing that the krygsraad decision should be reconsidered. He also insisted that De Wet’s decision to attack Sannaspos should be delayed until he had the opportunity of reconnoitring the positions assigned to his men. De Wet offered Vilonel the choice of resignation or dismissal and summarily appointed Gert Stephanus van der Merwe in his place.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“Perhaps the clash with De Wet had more to do with the chemistry between the two men, one a rough and irascible countryman, the other an urbane and sophisticated townsman, than with Vilonel’s wagons. The fact of the matter is that Vilonel had fought well, but after the fall of Bloemfontein, he clearly lost faith in the war.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) The fact that people are able to judge the trajectory of a matter and change one approach based on the expected outcome is a sign of intelligence instead of a vice. It shows that positions changed on the continuum between the two extremes of Openly Pro-British and active cooperation on the one hand and hard-line Pro Boer on the other. Without connecting any moral judgement to this, it is a fact of life. People change as circumstances change. Whether this was a productive approach in a time of war is to be debated. As a leader, it is expected of you to continually be interacting with new data.

“When General A.I. de Villiers was severely wounded at the battle of Biddulphsberg on 29 May 1900, Vilonel offered to take him to Senekal for medical attention. Here Vilonel entered into negotiations with the British and it was agreed that should he surrender, he could remain in the town on parole. For the present, however, Vilonel returned to the commandos and when De Villiers died, he was offered the vacant position of combat general. Vilonel declined on the grounds that he had decided to surrender and this he did in the second week of June 1900. He subsequently justified his decision to surrender on the grounds that ‘our independence was hopelessly lost, … and that it was absolute folly to continue the struggle, as it would only lead to total destruction of private property and ultimate destitution.’” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) I have the highest respect for his actions thus far! He did not hide his intentions and many Boers were equally open about their position on the war which was definitely not all in favour of it! We must also admit that continued prosperity is a powerful motivation and his assertion that ultimate destruction must be prevented, certainly included an attempt to safeguard the infrastructure of the Free State from being destroyed completely. Anybody who has ever been in an armed conflict knows that his argument is not without merit.

“Shortly after surrendering, Vilonel wrote to Field-Cornet Hans van Rooyen of the Korannaberg ward of the Ladybrand commando, seeking to persuade him to surrender with his men. Vilonel’s letter was intercepted and in a sting operation, he was captured and brought to trial. He was not arraigned before a krygsraad at Zuringkrans because it was feared that certain officers who were present there had already negotiated with the enemy in the vicinity of Ficksburg.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“The trial took place at Reitz before Judge J.B.M. Hertzog and two assessors, Thomas Philip Brain and Johan Godfried Luyt. Vilonel was sentenced to five years imprisonment with hard labour, the judge remarking that he was fortunate to escape a death sentence. On 11 July 1900, Vilonel’s appeal was heard at Fouriesburg by the full bench of Hertzog as acting chief justice and Frederik Reinhardt (Frikkie) Cronjé and Hendrik Hugo as acting judges (Chief Justice Melius de Villiers and Judge Hendri Stuart having surrendered when Bloemfontein fell), with J.A.J. de Villiers prosecuting. Vilonel asked that the trial be postponed until after the war to enable him to retain legal counsel but when this was refused, he conducted his own defence, insisting that he had acted throughout according to the dictates of his conscience. In upholding his previous sentence, Hertzog asserted that the name of S. J. Vilonel would remain an eternal blot on the history of the Free State.”

This was then how Vilonel came to be present in the Brandwater basin with the Government. “Following the fall of Bethlehem, the Boers no longer had any prisons, so Vilonel was made to accompany the commandos into the Brandwater Basin where he was employed by Prinsloo to negotiate the Boer surrender to General Hunter.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) This allowed him to contribute, no doubt, materially to events in Brandwater.

“At a meeting chaired by Meyer de Kock, a surrendered burgher of Belfast, Transvaal, the establishment of a Burgher Peace Committee was proposed. Before the end of December 1900, a central Burgher Peace Committee was established in Pretoria, and six local committees were in place in the Transvaal by end of January 1901. The same pattern was followed in the Free State. In December 1900, a main committee was set up in Kroonstad under Piet de Wet, brother of Christiaan de Wet, with subcommittees in Bloemfontein, Harrismith, Bethlehem and Winburg. The Winburg committee, which was chaired by George John Perry of Oatlands, consisted of H.S. Viljoen (erstwhile member of the Volksraad for Wittebergen, Bethlehem district), J.C. Pretorius, P.N. van der Merwe, and D.C. Botha, Frans Alwyn Smit Schimper of Bresler’s Flat, Stephanus Gerhardus Vilonel of Senekal, Stephanus Petrus Erasmus Jacobs of Rietfontein and James Adendorff of Smaldeel” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011).

Photo from Jan W Kok’s Bible

“In January 1902, Vilonel wrote to President Steyn threatening active intervention: If you wish to proceed with the needless continuance of a devastating war, which can only result in the total decline and destruction of your own people, making ex-burghers of both Republics into hewers of wood and drawers of water, you will be the cause that I and other ex-officers and burghers take up arms against you in civil war, to thus accelerating the end. Soon afterwards he began to give effect to this threat. On 18 February 1902, Vilonel wrote from Bloemfontein to the (British) Military Secretary in Pretoria: ‘I have started to bring my men together here. Should I not be able to raise a force sufficiently strong to take the field, I will suggest the best method to follow.’ He assembled more than 300 men and the Orange River Colony Volunteers, an armed and uniformed unit of the British army, corresponding to the National Scouts in the Transvaal, was established. There was a division under Piet de Wet at Heilbron and another under Vilonel at Winburg. By the end of the war, the numbers had grown to 448 – 248 at Heilbron and 220 at Winburg. These formations were of little use to the British on the battlefield but they played an important role as scouts and guides and they sapped Boer morale. In a skirmish on 18 April 1902, a number of members of the Orange River Colony Volunteers were captured at Spitskop near present-day Marquard, Vilonel himself escaping only because of the speed of his mount.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) The fact that Vilonel was no coward is clear! He acted upon the conviction of his heart and communicated his position with clarity and firmness. He showed himself to be a man prepared to take action to bring the best results about as he and others whom he trusted saw it.

“When peace was restored, Vilonel’s abilities as a law agent and auctioneer stood him in good stead. His law firm handled scores of claims for compensation submitted to the Central Judicial Commission (CJC). Deaths during the war led to the subdivision of farms between the heirs and the necessary re-registration of title. The non-viability of units resulting from such subdivision, lack of liquidity and the foreclosure of mortgages unpaid during the war meant that farms or portions of farms had to be sold off. With an eye to the main chance, Vilonel took out options on 3 000 morgen (2 500 hectares) of farmland at 30 shillings per morgen, with a view to resale to the Commission for Volunteer Repatriation at £2 per morgen.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“In September 1902, Senekal got a board of management, comprising Oliver Edwards, Herman Opperman, Joseph Busschau, Robert Barnes and Charles Parker. Vilonel, who became mayor in the following year, served on the council without interruption until his death in 1918.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

Gerrie van der Merwe

Kmdt. PH de Villiers Right, middle is Gerrie van der Merwe and left is Gen Jan Crowther. From PHS van Zyl, Helde.

“As has been shown, Gert Stephanus (Gerrie) van der Merwe was a Senekal field-cornet, ‘a courageous and amiable man’, who was appointed as commandant of the Winburg commando by De Wet when Vilonel was forced to resign the position. He was subsequently elected commandant of the Senekal commando.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“At Jammersberg, the new commandant was involved in a shoot-out with Major A.W.C. Booth of the Northumberland Fusiliers, in which his adversary was killed and Van der Merwe himself severely wounded. His command passed to Hendrik Lodewyk Willem (Henri) Cremer of Leeuwkuil, but Cremer died in battle less than a month later. Van der Merwe, who had recovered, resumed the rank of commandant.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) This then takes us to Brandwater where Van der Merwe was still commandant of the Winburg commando.

Re-Visiting Brandwater: From the Perspective of De Wet, Van der Merwe and Vilonel

From Jan’s Bible. “The house where I witnessed the first light 4.4.1880”

Here for the sake of chronology, we pick up the narrative from De Wet. After Bethlehem fell, the English needed a rest. General Macdonald came up from the Transvaal. The Boers retreated behind the Roodebergen and De Wet feared total destruction. Only the Roodebergen separated them from the English. “The Roodebergen is a vast chain of mountains, extending from the Caledon River on the Basuto frontier to Slabbertsnek, then stretching away to Witzeshoek, where it again touches Basutoland. The passes over this wild mountain range are Commandonek, Witnek, Slabbertsnek, Retiefsnek, Naauwpoort and Witzeshoek. These are almost the only places where the mountains can be crossed by vehicles or horses; and, moreover, there are long stretches where they are impassable even to pedestrians. It is plain enough, therefore, that nothing would have pleased the English more than for us to have remained behind the Roodebergen.” (De Wet, 1903)

Jan Kok was part of this Boer Force under the leadership of De Wet with the Free State Government and around 4000 Free State Burgers. Vilonel also found himself among the Burgers as a prisoner.

That the Boer fighters faced a formidable foe is certain. De Wet’s own prognosis was dire! He says, “I could see that, in all probability, we must before long be annihilated by the immense forces of the enemy….” He later commented that the English must have been thinking that if those Free-Staters try to make a stand there, it will be the last stand they will ever make.” In his estimation, the “English would have been quite right. To have stayed where we then were would, without doubt, have been the end of us.” (De Wet, 1903)

As a result, the decision was made to break out. A small watch would remain but for the rest, the commando would be divided into three parts. De Wet himself would be the supreme commander of the first division which was to march under the orders of General Botha. “It consisted of burghers from Heilbron, under Commandant Steenekamp, and of Kroonstad men, under Commandant Van Aard. Besides these, there were also five hundred men from Bethlehem, under Commandant Michael Prinsloo.” (De Wet, 1903)

“Besides these, the burghers from Boshof was under Veldtcornet Badenhorst; a small number of Colonials from Griqualand, under Vice-Commandant Van Zyl; and some Potchefstroom burghers, who happened to be with them.” (De Wet, 1903)  I give the detail of the forces and the escape plan to show how the entire Orange Free State was well represented. I also wish to showcase the detailed plans developed by De Wet. It is impressive and despite criticism by some, his plans were evaluated by others who concurred that he had a high probability of success provided that the execution was done well. The Boer force had a good chance to get away from the English. What de Wet, in my opinion, did not have was the depth of leadership required to execute the plan.

“The second division was entrusted to Assistant Commander-in-Chief Paul Roux, with P.J. Fourie and C.C. Froneman as Vechtgeneraals.” Paul Hendrik Roux was the 37-year old Minister of the Dutch Reformed Church at Senekal. His appointment is not as sinister as many suggest. Paul Roux had drawn attention to himself and while serving in Natal by making useful suggestions about the organization of the forces and by his devotion to the wounded. Events about to unfold would show that a few good suggestions are no gauge for a man to take control of such a force against an experienced English general. The second division was “composed of burghers from Fauresmith, under Commandant Visser; from Bloemfontein, under Commandant Du Plooij; from Wepener, under Commandant Roux; from Smithfield, under Commandant Potgieter; from Thaba’Nchu, under Commandant J.H. Olivier; from Jacobsdal, under Commandant H. Pretorius; and of the Deetje Bloemfontein commando, under Commandant Kolbe.” “This force was to wait until the day after De Wets departure, that is, until the 16th, and then proceed in the evening in the direction of Bloemfontein. From the capital, it was to go south, and during its advance, it was to bring back to the commandos all those burghers in the southern districts who had remained behind.” (De Wet, 1903)

Boer Commandants, Klipriver, Natal. Back row 3rd from left, Gen Erasmus, 3rd from right Marthinus Prinsloo, 2nd from Right, Ben Viljoen. The man on the left sitting could be Col Blake.

“General Crowther was given the command over the third division, which consisted of the burghers from Ficksburg, under Commandant P. De Villiers; from Ladybrand, under Commandant Ferreira; from Winburg, under Commandant Sarel Harebroek; and from Senekal, under Commandant Van der Merve. This division was to start on the 16th, and marching to the north of Bethlehem was to continue advancing in that direction until it fell in with the commandos from Harrismith and Vrede under Commander-in-Chief Hattingh. It would then operate, under his directions, in the north-eastern districts.” The remainder of Commandant Michal Prinsloo’s Bethlehem men—that is to say, the burghers of Wittebergen—were to stay behind as a watch, and to take orders from Marthinus Prinsloo.” (De Wet, 1903)

“This watch was divided into three sections: the first to occupy a position at Slabbertsnek, the second at Retiefsnek, and the third at Naauwpoort. They were forbidden to use waggons; thus if the enemy should appear in overwhelming numbers, it would always be possible for them to escape across the mountains.” The escape plan was developed and orders were in place.” De Wet reason for “selecting these men in preference to others, was that they belonged to the district, and thus were well acquainted with every foot of this rough and difficult country. Their duties were simply to protect the large numbers of cattle which we had driven on to the mountains, and he anticipated that there would be no difficulty about this, for now, that all our commandos had left those parts, the English would not think it worthwhile to send a large force against a mere handful of watchers.” (De Wet, 1903)  Thus everything was settled, and on the 15th of July De Wet set out through Slabbertsnek, expecting that the other generals would follow him, conformably to his orders and the known wishes of the Government.”

Pres Steyn as a young law student in England, 1879. Photo from Nico Moolman.

De Wet set out on July the 15th in the direction of Kroonstad-Heilbron, the Free State Government accompanying him. His well-laid plan was, however, not what transpired. A combination of quick and decisive moves from the Engish, poor leadership and, as we have seen from the background studies, Boer leaders probably already contemplating not continuing the war all ended up in a catastrophe for the Boers. A fair amount of chaos ensued as the English forces moved against the Boers.

Prinsloo saw the hopelessness of the situation and sent an offer to Hunter for an armistice to consider surrender which Hunter refused. There is some disagreement in the chronology which follows, but irrespective, the end result is the same. An election was called among the Boer officers to elect a new commander in chief in the place of Roux. Prinsloo was elected as leader in the place of Roux. Three candidates were present of equal rank being Prinsloo, Roux and Olivier. A meeting was held to choose a commander and Mr Marthinus Prinsloo was chosen as the Assistant Commander-in-Chief. The election was in keeping with Boer tradition up till this time to choose their leaders by vote and not by proclamation from the supreme commander or the president. Prinsloo’s authority to surrender is a contentious and debated issue and “assistant Commander-in-Chief Roux, expressed the wish that another meeting should be held and a new Assistant Commander-in-Chief elected.” De Wet laments the fact that Roux caved in to the appointment of Prinsloo. He writes, “Even then, all would have gone well if Roux had only stood firm.” (De Wet, 1903)

De Wet writes that Prinsloo “had a bare majority even at the actual meeting, and several officers, who had been unable to be present, had still to record their votes. Not only, therefore, had Prinsloo been elected irregularly, but his election, such as it was, could only be considered as provisional. Nevertheless, for the moment, power was in his hands.” (De Wet, 1903) Prinsloo did not immediately surrender even though this may have been his intention all along.

Marthinus Prinsloo was previously the commandant of the Winburg commando and later Chief Commandant of the Free State forces. He knew the Kok family well as we have seen. De Wet states that “on the 17th and 18th of July the enemy had broken through at Slabbertsnek and Retiefsnek, causing the greatest confusion among our forces.” He correctly offers this by way of explaining the state of mind and the chaos that ensued in the ranks of the Freestaters. It has been reported that some burgers were in the depths of despair, and some of the bravest and sturdiest were to be seen shedding tears of rage. Each man went on his own way, with nobody to give him orders. The one crying need was for a man to lead this flock. Even Roux, who seems to have been wandering about aimlessly among these men, had nothing better to do than to complain of the number of wagons with the Boers, and to lament that there was nobody in chief command…. (Ash, C) The meeting where Prinsloo was chosen in the place of Roux took place on the 17th. Fifty-Six Percent of the officers and men present at the meeting where Prinsloo was chosen also voted in favour of immediate surrender. It was the same assembly which, in defiance of the law, elected Mr Prinsloo as Commander-in-Chief who then moved to vote for surrender. “The vote was seventeen for surrender and thirteen to continue fighting.” (De Wet, 1903)

The Boers of the Free State had by this time completely lost their appetite for war! Studying these matters carefully caused me to ask another question. What would I have voted? Since the war, it became anathema to even ask the question, but the reality of what transpired on that day sank in, I asked soul searching questions! It seems to me then that given the right circumstances, every Boer in the Free State opted to collaborate with the English at some level even if that “level” was to stop fighting and get out of the way for those who still have an appetite for war. What else does it mean to surrender? How can we then judge those who opted to not to fight or those who individually approached the English with the harshest of criticism?

The events leading up to Prinsloo’s surrender is beautifully described by Jan who was an eyewitness of this monumental event. It clearly shows that the surrender was not optional despite De Wets views. With compatriots, Jan hastens himself to Fouriesburg which temporarily served as the capital of the Freestate. He is assigned to guard General Prinsloo. He writes, “The night was bitterly cold. We slept in small groups behind the houses. Our group slept behind the house where Gen. Prinsloo stayed with his family.

The General must have received word of a night offensive by the Engish to capture Fouriesburg and he immediately moved out. Jan writes “We boiled out kettle in the house and at 2:00 the general woke us and we saddled our horses and we departed to a hill situated in the direction of the sunrise. We dismounted at the mill of Le Harp. We gave our horses fodder and we prepared some food for ourselves. The way I understood it was that the English were in Fouriesburg at first light.”

Jan and his compatriots were eager to engage the English. He writes that “when we saddled our horses our acting commander and his brother stopped us from returning to the English. We continued on and stayed on the farm of Mnr M. Heyns for a few days.” The English were in hot pursuit and he writes that on 28 July “we had to abandon our position.”

“The English engaged us with canons and we took new positions after about half an hours riding. The morning began violently. Our gunner could not return fire as he was pinned down under English fire. A short while after this, the attack with rifles started and continued to nightfall. Two of our men were wounded and one was killed. At this time we were very hungry. We were instructed to abandon our positions and move further. We were at this point not far from the kraal and we pressed on to Naupoort where we spent the night. The commandant and field marshal summoned us to a meeting and informed us that further resistance was futile. The field marshal was very stern and told us that the men were tired and negotiations would follow to surrender. When we left the meeting we sang Song (Gesang) 65:1. He instructed us to take our positions. A report was sent to the English General to inform him of our plans. The English officers and our officers met to negotiate. The English General insisted that the surrender had to be unconditional. Many Boers made sure that they could get to Naupoort on this day. We were completely surrounded by the English. The officers agreed to the total surrender and thought that we would be allowed to return to our homes and personal property. We, however, got away from all this with absolutely nothing (completely naked).” (JW Kok War Diary) Jan was 20 years old when this happened.

On 28 July Jan notes in his diary that the commando, under the leadership of General Marthinus Prinsloo, decides that it is not worth fighting any further since the Boers are heavily demoralised. They ask the British to negotiate a surrender.

The formal surrender happened on 30 July 1900, but Jan and his fellow Boers laid down arms on 31 July. On Monday 31 July 1900. Jan writes: “We have our weapons deposited on the surrender of General Prinsloo to General Hunter.” On this day he notes, “a time of new experiences and disappointment, for sure.” This way, the English captured almost the entire fighting force of the Free State.

General Marthinus Prinsloo. Photo by Chris Ash.

Something very important is that De Wet states that “it was still possible for the commandos to retire in the direction of Oldenburg or of Witzeshoek.” (De Wet, 1903) Indeed, there were a handful of Boers who escaped and continued with the war but the overwhelming majority did not. Of the over 40% who voted against surrender, only a tiny minority actually escaped and continued fighting.  Having voted for or against surrender, the overwhelming majority actually surrendered, despite having had the opportunity to escape. There is, of course, the matter of how the English would have dealt with those who did not honour the surrender and we will see shortly how this weighed on the minds of the leaders. In any event, even considering this as a motivating factor for escape or surrender means that you are already making choices based on the English and their view of your actions. Were these in a way already negotiating their options with the English? I would argue, yes!

De Wet writes that “it was on July the 29th, 1900, that Prinsloo, with all the burghers on the mountains, surrendered unconditionally to the enemy.” (De Wet, 1903) The surrendered forces comprised of “4 000 men with their arms and ammunition, their commissariat livestock and other supplies.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) De Wet was furious. He writes that “the circumstances of this surrender were so suspicious, that it is hard to acquit the man who was responsible for it of a definite act of treachery; and the case against him is all the more grave from the fact that Vilonel, who was at that time serving a term of imprisonment for high treason, had a share in the transaction.” Prinsloo used Vilonel to negotiate the Boer surrender to General Hunter. (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) The fact that the supreme Boer Commander in the Free State left such a large force under the command of men with questionable loyalties and experience must elicit serious questions.

On 30 July the news was made public that Marthinus Prinsloo, the new Chief Commandant, had offered General Hunter the unconditional surrender of the Boer forces in the Basin. (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

De Wet lists the men involved in the surrender. “Prinsloo‘s surrender included General Crowther, Commandants Paul De Villiers, Ferreira, Joubert, Du Plooij, Potgieter, Crowther, Gerrie Van der Merve, and Roux; and about three thousand men.” The fact that Roux surrendered is of interest. This was, in all likelihood the same Ds Roux who would later in the POW camp preach to the young men there and blame them for having surrendered! His role was clearly pivotal in his inability to lead when it mattered most!

Photo from Jan W Kok’s bible where he he stands at the grave of his parents in their farm, Kransdrif

Boje and Pretorius (2011) give further information on Van der Merwe and Roux’s conduct and their state of mind are on display. “Sobbing like a child, Commandant Gerrie van der Merwe thanked the Senekallers for their loyal service and laid down his office, protesting that Prinsloo’s action, by which he felt himself bound, was unsanctioned by a krygsraad. After him, apparently, Paul Roux, the rival Chief Commandant, got on the wagon and, with tears rolling down his cheeks, told his burghers that they had been sold out.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) I see the movement of positions along the line that links the two extreme positions I am developing of being pro-British on the one hand and hard-line Pro-War on the other. I clearly see another matter at play which I was first alerted to by a friend in the Magaliesburg region when, referring to the difference between General De Wet and his brother, he pointed out to me that some men allow their heads to rule and some allow their emotions. The actions of Van der Merwe and Roux, which I believe was determined by their thinking, did not negate their emotions. They did what they believed was the right course of action, despite their emotional desire to continue fighting. Still, Roux’s inability to lead and De Wets trust in a man of such little military experience with such a daunting task lay blame before both men in equal measure.

What exactly the role was in the surrender by Van der Merwe is an interesting question. From the above, it seems as if he did not support it or, at the very least, was conflicted about it. What I do not appreciate, is that once a decision is made where thinking prevails, at least have the courage of your conviction to stick to that decision!

Van der Merwe offers the following very sad explanation for his actions. He said that he wondered if he “had the right to escape.” His own account of his actions reads as follows: “Although I was at first firmly resolved to escape, I thought that as the Senekal commando, which fell under Winburg, had also been surrendered, I would get into trouble if I did not surrender” In negotiating his chances with the English, I believe one can not fault him. Many surrendered! Not just in the Brandwater Basin. Boje & Pretorius quote him further when Van der Merwe says, “I was afraid that if the enemy subsequently caught me, they would deport me for seven or eight years. Apart from that, there was no longer much chance of escape as we were virtually surrounded. I was also fairly dispirited. Yet if I had known that I had the right to escape, I would probably have tried to do so. At first, I refused to surrender but later I did it on the advice of Generals Roux and Crowther.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)The fact that Roux encouraged him to escape is very interesting and speaks to the emotional and mental struggle of Roux at this time. In Van der Merwe’s mind, right or wrong, he was negotiating with the enemy and exploring which option would have the best consequences for him. He was moving along the line of being a collaborator with the English and being a hard-liner Pro-Boer based on what was the most expedient option for him personally. Not just Van der Merwe did this – most of the burgers in the Orange Free State did!

“In contrast to Van der Merwe’s view that there was little chance of escape, General Archibald Hunter expressed surprise that the Boers ever thought of surrendering as, in his view, their military situation did not justify it.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) This may be so if the Boers had the disciplined leadership that Hunter was used to as a career soldier! His comments are in my opinion a bit naive as to the leadership situation in the Boer camp of which he could not have detailed insight.

“Lieutenant Gerrit Bolding, a Dutch volunteer with the Free State forces, found it disturbing that although the terms of the (unconditional) surrender were circulated among the officers on Sunday evening 29 July, the Senekal burghers believed to the last that they were going home, and not only the ordinary burghers but Lieutenant Keulemans, who was in charge of one of the guns. If some of the men thought they were going home, that may be regarded as mere folly. But it is impossible to assume folly in the case of Lieutenant Keulemans, who informed me on the Monday morning that everyone would be allowed to go home. Was this treachery on the part of the Senekal commandant, Van der Merwe? I cannot believe it of him.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011 (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) This promise of “going home” is a matter that warrants further investigation. Jan W Kok also believed he was about to be released to go home. Later in the POW camp, Jan reported that Roux accused them of surrendering because they were homesick. In other words, they were promised they would go home. They surrendered because they wanted to go home – that was the promise. This promise was definitely more widely circulated than only the Senekal burgers. We will look closer to this belief of the Burgers when we consider Proclamation III in the next section.

It is reported that there were many stories going about in the Boer camp while the decision was being contemplated to surrender or not. Still, the fact that the rank-and-file soldier was enticed with the offer shows that they too were prepared to work with the English and to choose the option that would be in their own personal best interest at that time. The fact that Ds Roux was the one accusing them later of surrendering on the basis of their personal needs was hypocritical! Who was the man in charge in the most legitimate sense of the word and did he not surrender himself?

De Wet further address the issue which I also raise namely that despite the vote against surrender was over 40%, when it came down to it, the vote-by-action was overwhelmingly against a continuation of war and in favour of surrender. De Wet observes that “the most melancholy circumstance about the whole affair was that, when the surrender was made, some of the burghers had reached the farm of Salamon Raath, and were thus as good as free, and yet had to ride back, and to go with the others to lay down their arms.” (De Wet, 1903) He is right and this is the reason why I say that at that point, given the number of men, being a well-represented group of people from the Freestate, it is fair to say that everybody in the Freestate would probably have done the same if they were in their shoes. To one of my main points, the De Wet-image of a Boer represented a minority position. Most Boers were not the never-give-in, pro-war hardliners! Most of the Boers, the overwhelming majority were moderate, thinking people who did not allow their hearts to rule their minds!

De Wet speaks to the question whether the burghers could claim that they only followed orders. He believes this not to be the case. “Even the burghers themselves cannot be held to have been altogether without guilt, though they can justly plead that they were only obeying orders,” De Wet writes. “A large number of burghers from Harrismith and a small part of the Vrede commando, although they had already made good their escape, rode quietly from their farms into Harrismith, and there surrendered to General Sir Hector Macdonald.” (De Wet, 1903)

Jan W Kok on vacation in Warmbaths

The fiasco at Brandwater seems to be a matter that comes down to a serious lack of leadership from men like Van der Merwe and Roux and in light of this, the average Boer supported the only logical alternative namely surrender. Proper leadership came, in my opinion from men like Prinsloo and Vilonel on the other side of the spectrum, who acted decisively and exactly in accordance with their conscience.

The careful planning of De Wet must also be questioned. The leaders acted upon their evaluation that the situation was hopeless. At least at this junction, there in the Brandwater Basin and with the prospect of total annihilation looming. The fact that so many leaders were actively participating with the British before Brandwater and were trying to position themselves for a future under English rule did not help the situation but it was also not inconsistent in terms of how everybody, in the end, voted! The descriptions of the tearful pleas by leaders to the Burgers; the fact that they were themselves torn between continuing to fight and surrender – it all points to an internal struggle they had to pin their exact location along the continuum we have developed with the cooperation with the British as the one extreme and undying loyalty to the Boer couse of freedom and independance on the other extreme. It was a battle between their minds and their hearts. Some had the struggle even before the battle began, but De Wet who must have been aware of the leadership challenges left the 4000 or so men under the leadership of people with questionable ability and conflicting loyalties and for this De Wet alone must be blamed. Whether he had many options in the matter is, of course, a completely different question.

De Wet mentions that despite everything, some did escape. He writes, “those who escaped were but few. Of all our large forces, there were only Generals Froneman, Fourie and De Villiers (of Harrismith); Commandants Hasebroek, Olivier, Visser, Kolbe, and a few others; a small number of burghers, and six or seven guns, that did not fall into the hands of the English.” (De Wet, 1903) It is extremely instructive that escape was in actuality possible and by far, the overwhelming majority of the approximately 4000 burghers chose not to. Without dealing with the detail here, the Boiers who escaped did not make it very far.

Ds. Paul Roux at Diyatalawa courtesy of Hans de Kramer.
Ds Roux is the man standing in the middle of the two men presumably holding bibles and in front of the man in the back. JW Kok would probably have been in this group somewhere.

Roux and Van der Merwe’s involvement at the surrender must be looked at very carefully. De Wet’s criticism of Roux, that he acted like a child, is irrefutable; his behaviour was weak, indecisive and petulant. The other side of the coin, as I just said, is why De Wet entrusted this enormous task to a DRC Minister is a good question. Maybe he simply chose the best man he had available. Boje & Pretorius reports that “Archibald Hunter confessed he found it oddly equivocal. Roux refused to send after the burghers who were escaping from the basin to advise them to abide by Prinsloo’s surrender because ‘[h]e said he himself felt bound by Prinsloo’s action but did not think the same applied to his men. I fail to follow his argument.’ According to J.N. Brink, it was not only Prinsloo who entered into negotiations with the British; other officers did so without the knowledge of Roux. A.P.J. van Rensburg is emphatic that Roux himself was involved” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) which is my exact point. This was the general Boer position. Not the fanatical hardliner!

No matter how one look at it, the surrender was not simply the work of a hand full of Free State Leaders and only confined to the officers. It seems to have been a well-supported action by both the leaders and the burghers, albeit it being done with tears and great personal anguish and with diminished responsibility for the rank-and-file burgers.

The Surrender

The actual surrender was later described in dramatic terms. Iain Hayter shared the following description with me along with the drawing above. “On the morning of 30 July 1900, General Hunter received the surrender of Generals Prinsloo and Crowther and of the Ficksburg and Ladybrand commandos. The surrender took place on what would become known as ‘Surrender Hill’, a long and high, almost flat-topped hill on what is today the farm Coerland, which adjoins Damascus Farm and Verliesfontein (ironically meaning ‘loss fountain’). A more magnificent or dramatic setting for a formal surrender could hardly be imagined and it was there that General Hunter had established his headquarters. The Scots Guards, the Munster Fusiliers and the Royal Irish were formed up as a guard of honour to receive the Boers. General Paget was also present with mounted troops and a few of Brabant’s Horse. The artillery took up a position on the right of the guard of honour and the Union Jack was unfurled. The bands of the Scots Guards and the other two regiments played alternately while awaiting the arrival of the burghers.”

The following is the scene as described by F C Moffett in his book With the Eighth Division: ‘The first prominent Boers to appear were Prinsloo, De Villiers and Crowther – fine-looking men; they were preceded by Sir Godfrey and Lady Lagden, from Basutoland, who had come to witness the final scene. Then followed the commandos, who threw down their arms and ammunition with a certain effect of swagger in front of the guns. The whole scene was most romantic . . . In the background were huge mountain masses standing out in the clear morning air, and from these came the various commandos winding down the steep mountain paths to the valley below. They were a motley lot – old and young men – some mere boys; all had two horses each at least, but many had three, the spare ones being used for baggage, which consisted of pots, pans, bedding, blankets, etc. There were a considerable number of natives among them, all of whom were mounted, though scantily clad. A huge number of wagons and Cape-carts followed, in which were many women, the wives of the burghers.

Proclamation III of 1900

It is clear that there has been a general belief amongst the Burgers on the day of surrender that they would be sent home. Jan Kok says that he maintained that belief till the time when he got to Windburg and reality only dawned on him the following day when comrades were being loaded onto train trucks for transport to Cape Town. What was happening here? De Bruin deals masterfully with the background.

By March 1900 large parts of the Free State were under British occupation. The supreme command of the British forces issued Proclamation III of 1900 on 15 March 1900 in order to persuade Free State Burgers eligible for military service to stay out of the war.

According to this proclamation, burgers eligible for military service who did not contribute materially to the war effort of the Free State and/ or who did not command any of the military forces of the Free State and/ or who have not convicted property of a British citizen and committed no act of violence against such a British citizen was permitted to withdraw from the war effort of the Orange Free State without being taken POW by the British forces. In order to utilize this arrangement, people eligible for war duty had to apply for a pass and they had to swear an oath. The oath involved a commitment not to join the war effort.

It is very important to differentiate here that neither officers nor soldiers in active service were eligible for this and as such, the burgers who surrendered at the Brandwater Basin did not qualify. POW’s were naturally excluded. In the Free State, every male between the age of 16 and 60 was eligible for war duty. Irrespective of the arrangement by the British, the Free State Government was free to prosecute such men who did not report for millilitre service based on Proclamation III. The Free State Government responded to the proclamation of the British with two proclamations of its own which emphasized the fact that an agreement with the enemy did not mean that the law of the Free State did not apply to the burger and that no citizens had a valid excuse for not participating based on a proclamation made by the enemy (III of 1900).

This sets the entire matter of the belief of the burgets that they would be allowed to go home in the context of the broader war and proclamations and counter proclamations by the Free State Government and the English respectively.

What Happened to Van der Merwe?

The notice of the death of Jan W Kok’s dad also named Jan Kok. Born in the Cape Colony in 1848, and moved to the Free State in 1864.

We were still discussing Van der Merwe, when we started following the chronology of events as soon as he found himself in the Brandwater Basin with De Wet. What happened to him is of equal importance to the development of my argument.

“Van der Merwe went as a prisoner of war to the Green Point camp. Captivity provided the British with the opportunity of systematically suborning their more influential prisoners. From the diarist Rocco de Villiers we know that all captured officers were invited to meet with officers of the British Intelligence Department. De Villiers’s experience of being plied with whisky and soda, cigarettes and friendly persuasion may well have been standard procedure. Green Point was the primary clearinghouse, with prisoners either going from there to Simonstown or rejoining their families in the concentration camps or being deported. Between February 1901 and the beginning of July, 1 564 prisoners of war were returned from Green Point to the Free State – 202 of them to the Winburg district.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011) Jan Kok also went through Green Point but instead of being returned to the Free State and the Windburg district, in particular, he was sent to Durban, on route to Ceylon.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“On 8 January 1901, Van der Merwe was sent with other officers from Green Point to Simonstown, from where he returned on 19 March 1901. In Simonstown, he attended a meeting addressed by the peace envoys, Christiaan Laurens Botha and Piet de Wet. On 22 March, Jacob de Villiers noted in his diary: ‘Comdt. J.P. van der Merwe has gone to Bloemfontein-camp where his wife is.’” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“Van der Merwe’s confirmation of this date occurs in an affidavit dated 30 May 1901 that he submitted in an attempt to have missing cattle restored to him. In this, he reveals that ‘I was taken as P.O.W. to Green Point and was kept there until the 20th of March 1901, when I was sent on parole to the Refugee Camp, Bloemfontein, for a certain political purpose.’ And this, in turn, is confirmed by the instruction authorising his release from captivity in Green Point and the notification, dated 10 March 1901, of his being paroled to Bloemfontein along with other peace delegates. He signed the oath of allegiance in the Bloemfontein concentration camp, where he joined his wife Cornelia Rosina and their four children. ” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

Graves of JW Kok and his wife, Mother and Father of Jan W Kok on the farm, Kransdrift.

“After the war, the Van der Merwe returned to their farm, Kookfontein, and started rebuilding their lives. On 9 February 1903, a meeting for the election of church councillors took place in Senekal. In a noteworthy address, Rev. Paul Roux, who had been a Boer general during the war, laid down the criteria for selection. He urged his hearers to distinguish between political and ecclesiastical matters, saying that a good Christian should not be denied election to the church council for political reasons.’ This is remarkable because it contrasts so strikingly with the implacable attitude he adopted at the Free State synod, which opened on 30 April, when he insisted not only on confession of guilt but also on ‘the exposure of iniquities that have been committed.’ It is equally remarkable for its decisive foreclosing of the whole issue of collaboration in relation to church council membership.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“There was no contention about such membership until 26 November 1904, when it came to light that two women, the wives of David du Buisson and Jan Malan, had objected to the election of ex-Commandant van der Merwe as a deacon. Only Elizabeth Maria du Buisson of the farm Tafelberg appeared before the council and testified that during the war she had seen Van der Merwe in the presence of British troops. Gerrie van der Merwe did not deny being seen in the company of British soldiers but asked her if she knew why he was there. The chairman then asked her to admit that the Boers had spies among the British. Next, he read a letter from Christiaan de Wet, vouching for Van der Merwe’s integrity and saying he was convinced that his presence with British troops indicated that he was planning to escape. Mrs du Buisson remained unconvinced. Pressed to withdraw her objection, she declined and declared that she would refrain from taking communion if Van der Merwe was confirmed in office. She was asked if she desired the evidence of witnesses to Van der Merwe’s innocence, but replied, ‘No, because one can’t believe anybody.’ The church council unanimously concluded that there was no evidence whatever of disloyalty on Van der Merwe’s part and that his own statement and De Wet’s letter demonstrated that his presence with a British column had a totally different purpose from that imputed to him. They accordingly ratified his election.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

Photo supplied by Chris Ash

“Reading the minutes it is hard to escape the impression that Mrs du Buisson was not given a fair hearing. Perhaps her fellow protestor failed to attend the meeting precisely because she feared the sort of badgering Du Buisson received. Gerrie van der Merwe’s only answer to the charge was to ask the witness if she knew why he was with a British column, without himself offering any credible explanation. The chairman, Paul Roux, pressed her to admit the existence of Boer spies, without categorically claiming that Van der Merwe was one. De Wet’s suggestion – again no categorical claim – that an escape was being planned is absurd in the circumstances of a prisoner of war detained in Green Point being seen with British troops in the Free State. And if the charge against Van der Merwe was preposterous, why, one wonders, was Roux armed with a letter from De Wet?” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“If Roux knew of Van der Merwe’s involvement in ‘a certain political purpose’, it is still necessary to ask why he sheltered him. They were, of course, old comrades in arms. More than that, though, their involvement at the time of Prinsloo’s surrender was not unproblematic – and perhaps not blameless either. De Wet’s criticism of Roux, that he acted like a child, is irrefutable; his behaviour was weak, indecisive and petulant. Archibald Hunter confessed he found it oddly equivocal. Roux refused to send after the burghers who were escaping from the basin to advise them to abide by Prinsloo’s surrender because ‘[h]e said he himself felt bound by Prinsloo’s action but did not think the same applied to his men. I fail to follow his argument.’ According to J.N. Brink, it was not only Prinsloo who entered into negotiations with the British; other officers did so without the knowledge of Roux. A.P.J. van Rensburg is emphatic that Roux himself was involved.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“As one peruses the church council minutes of the period, another impression begins to obtrude itself and that is that larger forces were at play. It is as if, in the Winburg district, at any rate, there was an awareness that the problem of collaboration was so vast and so sensitive that it might be best to let sleeping dogs lie. The church dealt with cases with which it was confronted but was clearly reluctant to seek out offenders. In contrast to adultery, which figured prominently in the council minutes, we hear little of ‘political’ offences. Occasionally there were complaints about neighbours who would not reconcile, for example, Commandant J.M. Maree and W.J. Kok of Hattinghskraal in the Winburg congregation; L.F.E. Erasmus of Harmonie and F.H. Bekker of Witpan in Ventersburg; and A.S. Eksteen of Deelkop and F.P. Senekal of Brakfontein in Senekal.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“Generally, a commission was appointed to deal expeditiously with such cases but sometimes they just trailed off into oblivion. In general, though, ‘they [the collaborators] just carried on as usual, living among their fellow citizens as though nothing had happened.’ A striking demonstration of the church’s greater willingness to confront sexual issues than wartime collaboration is provided by the case of Oloff Bergh, who during the war had commanded a black corps, officered by Boers, that served on the British side.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

On 16 July 1904, Bergh sought admission to church membership (aanneming) for his wife. The Senekal church council responded that although this could happen, her presentation to the congregation (voorstelling) would have to be deferred for a year in order that the matter of her having had a child within a month of her marriage could be addressed. At the same time, Bergh would be required to submit his certificate of church membership so that ecclesiastical censure could be imposed on him in this regard. It was reported that Oloff Bergh was ‘willing to submit to church discipline and, with regard to his wife’s confirmation, to abide by the wishes of the church council’, and nothing more was heard of the matter.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

The situation reminds me in a way of Germany post-WW II when it became in everybody’s best interest to “move on”.

What Happened to the Collaborators in Windburg?

Jan W Kok with two of his Evangelists.
The post of Evangelists existed in the old black churches. They received theological training but were not allowed to administer the sacraments being baptism and communion. The post was recently abolished by the Verenigende Gereformeerde Kerk. Oom Jan mentions that in his career he worked with many Evangelists and got to know them as dedicated servants of the church.

“At this stage, we may venture an answer to the question posed in the introduction, ‘What happened to collaborators in the Winburg district?’ In the case of Gerrie van Wyk, his actions were covered up; in the case of Fanie Vilonel, he achieved commercial success and was prominent in civic affairs; in the case of Harry Theunissen, he had a town named after him. These are extreme cases, representing the ‘gold’ of the Winburg community, but even for ordinary folk, the ‘iron’, the answer is still: ‘Nothing much.’” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“Hermanus Gerhardus Pretorius of Cyferfontein, writing a letter from Diyatalawa P.O.W. camp, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), to his brother Johannes Christiaan Pretorius in the Winburg concentration camp, adopts an almost apologetic tone: “Dear Jan, I hope and trust that you will not hold it against me that I did not listen to you when you have always been right in the past. It was bitter for me to be here and even more bitter to bid my country and my people farewell, but at the end that is what I had to do. But let us forgive and forget what is past and try to work for progress in the future since you are free and I am only too glad that you have not had to endure a protracted exile in such a sad manner as I have.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“He did what he had to do, but he goes on to ask his brother to use his privileged position to acquire livestock to secure a better future. As this brother was a wealthy Ficksburg farmer who, in March 1901, became secretary of Winburg’s Burgher Peace Committee, he was well placed to make provision for the future.” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“After the conclusion of peace, August Schulenburg contemplated the prospect of being reunited with his brothers and wrote in his diary: “How will the meeting with my brothers be? Our fate is so very different, they are free while I am a prisoner; they are on the side of the English, I on our side! Yet I know that we have all suffered severely and no one knows which of us chose the right road, so I don’t mind how I am received. For my part, I will be happy to meet them again and will love them as much as before …” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

“Apart from the actual ties of kinship between the people of a particular locality, the quasi-kinship of people who used family terms as a form of address also inhibited retaliatory actions. Local ties were stronger than national ties and, on the ground, the simple fact is that people needed one another. There is a poignant moment in Chris Schoeman’s Boer Boy when the Winburger Philip du Preez of Wonderkop is returning to his devastated farm after the war. Overtaken by nightfall, he reluctantly turns to his neighbour, Flip Koekemoer of Rondehoek, a collaborator during the war, for hospitality, and is received by Koekemoer and his wife with warmth and generosity. Du Preez’s own involvement in the war was minimal, but he stood higher in the hierarchy of esteem than Koekemoer, and thus, in the midst of muddle and ambiguity, ‘hendsoppers’ might help to bridge the gap between ‘bittereinders’ and ‘joiners.’” (Boje & Pretorius, 2011)

The Impact of DP de Wet and what the President Knew

From the discussion above it may look like Widnburg, Senekal, Theunissisn and Ficksburg were breeding grounds of dissidents who had as a goal to undermine the war efforts of the Orange Free State. These men’s actions must be seen against a broad movement to bring about peace and the name of P. D. de Wet looms large in this regard. De Bruin deals very well with the broad brush strokes related P. D. to De Wet. I translate from his work.

In May 1900 P. D (Piet) de Wet, brother of C. R. de Wet and commander of a military unit, initiated negotiations with the British forces regarding his own surrender as well as the military unit under his command. The conditions were that he would not be taken as a POW and sent away but that he would be allowed to return to his farm. P.D. de Wet was at this junction one of the commanders of the Orange Free State’s supreme commanders and did not qualify for the exception as contained in Proclamation III of 1900. This proclamation is important in terms of the belief that burgers had that they would be allowed to return home. Over the months to come I will explain what this means and the impact it had on the burgers. (De Bruin)

The British supreme command rejected Piet de Wets request. At this time, P. D. de Wet issued an armistice to the British forces. The purpose of this is not clear. According to Brink, the purpose of the armistice was to engage the Free State government regarding the continuation of the war. P. D. de Wet stated himself that he issued a written communication at this time to the state president where he asked him to negotiate peace. According to him, he pointed out to the state president that succession of hostilities was better and would spare the country an accompanying devastating war. This situation was in all likelihood discussed at the meeting (krysgvergadering) of 9 June 1900 where the armistice was recalled. It is interesting that Prinsloo who negotiated in July 1900 with the British forces regarding the surrender of conventional forces was also implicated by people like Hintrager and Kolbe in P. D. de Wet’s armistice. The version of Hintrager relied on comments from the citing state attorney, J.A.J. de Villiers. According to this De Villiers had objections against the appointment of Prinsloo as commander of the conventional forces and of one of the conventional military units. (De Bruin)

Lastly, it is necessary to refer to one of the meetings (krygsvergadering) reported by Brink. According to Brink, the state president made it clear that he was aware of the negotiations which occurred between the British forces and officers which took place at Ficksburg. Brink indicated that the officers were members of the Ficksburg kommando. For our consideration of Jan W Kok, it is instructive to remember that he joined the Ficksburg Commando when he joined the war effort on 5 May 1900. (De Bruin)

De Bruin writes that the state president had to contend with the resignations of key personnel from his government as well as the actions of officers who had in mind to undermine the Free States war effort. I would argue that it would have been better if the officers resigned from their military appointments and then they would have been free to negotiate with the English. The example I would have followed would be the actions of Vilonel, but it is clear that not everybody would agree with me on the point. I accept that. That the approach followed by the Fickeburg officers were widespread in the area of the Free State seems to be clear from the evidence.

De Bruin makes a very interesting comment that the state president had to throw everything in the struggle at the end of May and early June 1900 to prevent the ZAR from ceasing the war effort! I did not expect this and it will be interesting to know how widely known this was, especially amongst the officers. If they knew this and it was widely anticipated, it places negotiations with the British in a new light, not previously considered here.

Extracts from Jan W Kok’s Diary

From Jan W Kok’s POW Diary

Monday, 31 July 1900

We laid down our arms at the surrender of Gen Prinsloo to Gen Hunter. Namely Windburg, Ficksburg, Lybrand, Smithfield, Wepener and part of Betlehem. A time of new experiences and disappointments awaits. Irrespective of the fact that we laid down our arms, we were promised to retain our horses and private property, however, all our horses and a portion of our oxen and mules were confiscated. Every burger were issued with a horse, but these were so gaunt that they will not be able to rich Windburg.

10 Augustus 1900

All our fastest horses, some of our ox carts and wagons were taken while we were under the impression that we would return home from here, the largest group burgers are dispatch to Cape Town at 6:00 already and the experience of the Afrikaner is clearly witnessed as one of disdain (afsku) and sadness (smart).

22 September 1901

Gert van de Venter started a choir (Zingkoor) in hut 48. Ds Roux preached and taught katkisasie (bible study) in hut 63.

1 October 1901

Ds Roux said during katkisasie (bible study) that they were selfish to have surrendered and that they did so only because they felt sorry for their horses and wanted to go home.

3 January 1901

A school has been started and they are encouraged to attend.

7 January 1902

A missions prayer meeting is started as well as a missions class.

It is known that Paul Hendrik Roux, the DRC Minister from Senekal served time in Ceylon and I have no reason to doubt that Jan Kok speaks of the exact same man.

Devine Reasons for the War

In my estimation, cooperation with the enemy (to some degree, even if it is only not to get in their way), negotiations with them and choosing the best option for yourself is part and parcel of the true image of a Boer. History leaves me no alternative. There is, however, a position that developed where men (and woman) was prepared to take personal responsibility for events and dedicate the rest of their lives to prevent such a thing to ever happen again. This now directly brings me to Jan Kok.

It is reported that there was a belief among the young men at these camps that a reason for the war was that they did not do everything in their power to spread Christianity among the native African tribes. The war was seen as God’s judgment upon them for this failure. The picture I get of Jan is not of a man blaming England for a “land grab” to get control of the diamond and gold mines. I wonder if he saw these as the primary reasons for the War. It may very well have been the actual reasons for the war, but what I like about the “belief” that existed in the camp among some, if indeed Jan also saw a causal relationship between the lack of a missionary zeal towards the black African tribes and the Anglo-Boer War as is reported amongst some of his compatriots, that Jan chose to focus on something he could do something about!

Jan got heavily involved in missionary work even in the camp and would devote the rest of his life to it. On 7 January Jan mentions in his diary that there was a mission prayer meeting and he starts to attend a missions class. Upon Jan’s return to South Africa, he enrolled in the Missionary Seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church in Wellington.  Jan was confirmed in March 1906 in a mission church in Heilbron. Jan became one of the founders of the “Zuid-Afrikaansche Pennie Vereniging” on 1 June 1902. The goal of the organisation was to promote the missionary course and through this, to expand the Kingdom of God.

His grandson (my uncle), Ds. Jan Kok, wrote a dissertation when he completes his studies as a Dutch Reformed minister, about the development of a missionary zeal in the POW camps and indeed, many of the POW’s returned home to become missionaries. This was later published under the title “Sonderlinge Vrug” (Lit Special or Unusual Fruit). In my research, I found that this is not a minor work. It is one of the most often quoted works on the relationship between the Boer War and the missionary zeal that developed in the POW camps. It is fascinating that Oom Jan, the grandson of JW Kok, the great-grandson of another JW Kok who supported Missions actively is the author of such an influential book.

A Rift between Free State Burgers and Those from the ZAR (Transvaal)

What sets Jan apart from any of the discussions about cooperation with the English, for a variety of reasons, is that what we have is sincere remorse. Most of the examples given by Boje & Pretorius (2011) relates to material matters. In some way, collaborators with the English feared the material destruction of the country and believed that a more prosperous future would be secured in ending the war. The difference between General de Wet and his brother which I started to develop where General de Wet was driven by “heart” and his brother by “mind” is an apt characterisation of a conflict I see in most burgers.

Jan took the matter of heart and mind, however, in an entirely different way he was able to solve the duality by looking at the relationship with the black inhabitants of the land. I find this fascinating. His choices were consistent with his heart and mind at the same time!

I know that in Ceylon, the burghers from the Free State were, eventually separated from the ones from the Transvaal due to bitter disagreements among them. Jan Kok was held with the burghers from the Free State. What could have been the cause for such disagreements amongst the Boers? The Free State burgers were generally more loyal to the Cape Colony than the Transvaal Boers. Steyn had porobably as many English members in his cabinet as he had Boers. There is, however, something to add which is very close to my own heart, that I have not seen much of in the current discussion. It relates to differences in the treatment of black people between the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. It has been reported that the system of black indenture, which was nothing else than a perpetuation of slavery, was practised widely in the ZAR (Transvaal) and not in the Orange Free State. I do not want to make too much of this, but even if it is an undercurrent, it must be brought up. This brings into focus matters that were still simmering since the first Anglo Boer War.

Background to the First Anglo-Boer War

Below, photos of Jan W Kok. 1st Photo at the bottom from the left is Jan in front of his hut in the  Diyatalawa POW Camp on Ceylon. Jan is back row, 1st from the right.

The background to the 1880 war between the Transvaal and Britain is the 1877 annexation of the Transvaal by Sir Theophilus Shepstone, the British Secretary for Native Affairs in Natal. Since 1852 the Boers living on to the north of the Vaal River were given a measure of independence under the Sand River Convention. This came to an end upon annexation and in 1880 and the Boers reacted against this by re-affirming their independence or at least that independence would be restored, resulting in the First Anglo-Boer War. (Slatyer, 2015) With his declaration, passive resistance against the English annexation changed to active resistance.

A truce was declared in March 1881. Britain agreed to Boer self-governance in the Transvaal under British suzerainty. The Boers accepted the Queen’s nominal rule and the British controlled the external relations of the Transvaal, including their African affairs and native districts.  (Slatyer, 2015)

The Case for War

An article appeared in The Times (London, Greater London, England), 22 Feb 1881 that carries the response from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Earl of Kimberley, to a question from Earl Cadogan in the House of Lords. Despite the war being in full swing at this time, the debate in London sets out the case for the First Anglo-Boer War and is centred upon the treatment of black people.

It is in particular in response to questions in parliament by Earl Cadogan.  He wanted to know if there were any negotiations with the Boer republic of the Transvaal and if there is any truth to the reports that a Commissioner was to be appointed to carry on negotiations with the Boers following “overtones for peace” having been made by President Brand on behalf of the Transvaal. Following a brief reply to this question by the Earl of Kimberly, Lord Brabourne, in response to a publication in the Transvaal where a justification is given for the up-rise of the Boers, sets out to the council the motivations for war, in the face of calls from friends and supporters of the government to restore to the Boers, the freedom that was taken from them when the Transvaal was annexed in 1877.

A publication was circulating in the Transvaal, which based the Boers claims to independence on the Sand River Convention of 1852 and claimed that no provision or article has ever been broken.  The 1852, Sand River Convention was indeed the event that gave the Transvaal its independence from England in the first place.

The one article that was violated according to Lord Brabourne, is the provision related to slavery. This was then, according to him, the justification for the annexation of the region by British forces. The clauses in question stipulated that no slavery be practised in the country to the North of the Vaal River.

Lord Brabourne stated that there “could be no doubt that the reason for the Boers trekking from the Cape in 1835 (a year before the emancipation of the slaves) was the abolition of slavery in British colonies.”  At that time the slave population in the Colony was estimated at more than 35 000 slaves valued at GBP1 200 000. “The emancipation was effected without due care that the compensation reached the hands of those who lost their property, and the Boers quieted the English colony partly, no doubt because they feared taxation, but mainly because they honestly considered that they had been badly treated by having their slaves taken away from them and because they wished to maintain the institution of slavery which they believed to represent the proper relations between the white man and the black.” The statement itself is one that makes one cringe to think that they are talking about people and that the Boers considered the emancipation of slaves to be equal to the loss of property! That they, the Boers felt ill-treated for not being adequately compensated and that there was no discussion about the slaves receiving compensation for what was done to them. Later, the farmers were given some compensation but they continued to feel that it was not enough.

He then states that much controversy has arisen on the question if the Boers had been guilty of slavery or not. The Boers themselves have denied the claim and evidence is therefore set forth.

Dr Livingston wrote to Sir John Packington on December 1852, concerning the tribes on the Limpopo river, among whom he had successfully laboured for eight years. He said:- “No portion of the country belonged to the Boers, but they made frequent attempts to induce the chief, Bachele, to prevent the English from passing him in their way north and because he refused to comply with this pelley a commando was sent against him by Mr. Pretorius which on the 30th of September last attacked and destroyed his town, killed 60 of his people and carried off upward of 200 woman and children.  They are bought and sold and I have myself seen and conversed with such, taken from other tribes and living as slaves in the house of the Boers.  One of Bachele’s children is among the number captured, and the Boer who owns him can, if necessary, point him out.”

He then quoted a Cape Argus article which stated that “the whole world may know it, for it is true, and investigation will only bring out the horrible detail that through the whole course of this Republic’s existence it has acted in contravention of the Sand River Treaty, and slavery has occurred not only here and there in isolated cases, but as an unbroken practice has been one of the peculiar institutions of the country, mixed up with all its social and political life.  It has been at the root of most of its wars; it has been carried on regularly even in the time of peace.”

“In 1868, the Duke of Buckingham writing to Mr Pretorius warned him that if the Boers continued to violate the anti-slavery article, Great Britain would hold herself discharged from her obligations under the Convention.”

“In 1875, Mr Southey, Lieutenant-Governor, writing from Kimberley, said that certain laws just passed by the Republic, “establish practically a state of quasi-slavery in direct conflict with the stipulations of the Convention of 1852.”

Writing in November 1876, the Acting Secretary of Native Affairs in Natal said:- Since the demonstration made by the forces Secocoeni against Steelpoort Fort a party of Boers felt it necessary to attack a kraal of friendly Caffres by night, succeeding in shooting four men and capturing six woman and 22 children.  The woman has been given to Caffres at Kruger’s post and the children distributed among the Boers to serve an apprenticeship, otherwise slavery.”

“Khame, a native chief, thus wrote to sir Henry Barkly in December 1876:- I write to you, Sir Henry, in order that your Queen may preserve for me my country, it being in her hands.  The Boers are coming into it, and I do not like them; their actions are bad among us Black people.  They are like money.  They sell us and our children. I ask Her Majesty to pity me, and to hear that which I write, quickly.”

He continues to give more evidence and then makes the following summary remarks namely that “the existence of this system of slavery, attendant as it is by indescribable atrocities of evil, is a notorious fact to all persons acquainted with the Transvaal Republic; that these so-called “destitute children” are bought and sold under the denomination of “black ivory”; that these evils were fully admitted by persons officially cognizant at a public meeting held in Potchefstroom in April 1868; and that the whole subject has been brought fully under the notice of the High Commissioner.”

He said that “the case with regards to the charge of slavery against the Transvaal Boers stood thus – that they, being interested parties, most strenuously denied it.  They had denied it over and over again, but they had never disproved the facts brought against them.  And if their lordships believe the disavowal of the Boers, could they believe the missionaries, the independent Press of South Africa, and a number of officials in the colonies writing home dispatches which they knew might be and would be scrutinized by the public eye? Could they disbelieve all the complaints of the native tribes or the solemn resolutions of the Legislature of one of their Colonies?  And not only must they disbelieve these, but they must be prepared to believe that the whole of these parties was for 25 years in a conspiracy to slander the Boers without any conceivable motive or reason why they should have formed a conspiracy.”

Another iconic photo I retain as I received it from Oom Jan. This is Jan W Kok on their farm Kransdrif where he grew up.

These were the reasons given for the first Anglo-Boer war in London. Of course, it is the English leaders in a way, justifying the war to the other leaders and the public and every salient fact related to a total picture of life in the Transvaal would not be included. Still, that there must have been a large body of truth behind what was described is unquestionable. If the continued treatment of black people in the Transvaal could have been part of the disagreement between the Boer POW’s in Ceylon, I have no direct evidence of this. Nor does it matter. The fact that many in the camps laid the blame for the Second Anglo Boer War at the feat of the attitude towards black people stands. It is a pity that they did not translate this into a political view and chose to deal with thoughts only on a spiritual level.

If one takes the events at the Brandwater basin as some sort of a referendum on the war, with the overwhelming majority voting against it, and a very small number choosing to continue fighting one can see how this by itself could be reason enough for bitter disagreement. I wonder if one could say that the rank-and-file soldier, the Boers of the Transvaal seemed to be more committed to the war than those from the Free State? It will be an interesting investigation.

The matter of the war being seen as Gods judgement upon the Boers for not having a more committed missionary zeal related to the Black Africans within the context of the reasons for the First Anglo Boer War related to the perpetuation of slavery, again within the context of the Free State Boers at least as far as Brandwater was concerned, showing far less appetite for war than their counterparts in the ZAR – it is not a stretch to see these matters as interrelated. In Jan W Kok we have at least one example of this!

Of course, it could have been a simple case that the hundreds of kilometres separating most Free State citizens from the Rand Gold mines and Kimberly’s diamond mines made them less enthusiastic to fight what was ostensibly someone else’s war. It was materially to their benefit NOT to continue with the war where, in the Transvaal, the opposite was true. No need to interject fancy theories of a different view of the Black population and a debate that took place in London of which the average Free Sate Boer possibly knew little about into a matter that can more simply be explained in other ways. Still, it all makes me wonder if, at least as a contributing cause in the disagreement between the Transvaal Burgers and the Free State was not the matter of the treatment of black people.

Relationships with Black People

It is alleged by some that overall missionary work in the 19th century was left in the hands of English-speaking churches in South Africa and the Boers had a negative attitude towards missions. Many Afrikaans people saw natives of Africa as descendants of Ham (Van der Vyver and Dirk Postma). Oom Jan dealt with this subject in great detail in his book, Sonderlinge Vrug. I am retaining this as a placeholder to return to as soon as I am able to get a copy and study it. There is however enough of this subject in other literature to retain this as an investigation for the future.

It makes the attitude of the Kok family towards missions and the black population all the more remarkable. Not only was JW Kok (Snr) known to be an active supporter of the missions, but two of his sons, among whom JW Kok is one would become missionaries and devote the rest of their lives to the cause.

Relationships with the English

I will venture to say that it was not just towards Black Africans that the Kok family showed a remarkable attitude in reaching out to them, there may be evidence that they also did not see the English as the arch enemy and the Anti-Christ as so often portrayed in the conventional Boer mythology. There is no evidence that they ever actively colluded with the English, just as there is no evidence that they vilified them.

I will be very interested to know if anybody from my Oupa Eben’s side of the family or Ouma Susan was ever held in a concentration camp or, ever had their farmstead burned down in the Scorched Earth policy of the English. My family can correct me in this matter.

As far as these farms are concerned, maybe Oom Jan can give me detail of who on the Kok side of the family inhered witch farm in the Windburg area. As far as I have the details of farms in the northern Free State where Ouma Susan came from, it is as follows: Stillehoogte was the farm of my grandparents, Oupa Eben and Ouma Susan. It belonged to Oom Piet Rademan and Ouma Santjie inherited it from her father.  My Ouma Susan Kok inherited 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.

My Oom Jan Kok remembers 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 border each other.

As far as war-time stories handed down through my grandmother is concerned, I remember her telling me on more than one occasion of English troops moving through the farm where she grew up and her mom being forced to provide a meal for the English officers. In an act of defiance, she used the headscarf of one of her maids, hanging behind the kitchen door to wipe the plates before she served the food. I have always wondered about that story. It could very well have been the general practice for such a demand being made on a Boer farm, or, it could have been the one exception that my grandmother remembered. As I have learned in this adventure, seemingly unimportant bits of information becomes very important as I learn more about this time. For now, I file this story as one to return to.

The one story that Oom Jan tells which speaks to the relationship between the English and the Afrikaans following the war is that when Oupa Eben was transferred to a Standard Bank branch in Natal, Ouma Susan’s family objected that they did not was their daughter to go so far to an English part of the country. There was, to be sure, no inherent love between them and the English, but for the Windburg part of the family, I have no story that tells about similar friction. Oom Jan can enlighten me at this point if he is aware of anything. The only concrete reference is that JW Kok senior was seen as a friend to all and I have no reason to think that this did not include English speaking people.

A Personal Journey as Opposed to an Academic Study

I am eager to solicit comments from other family members on my observations. I am not a historian or an expert on either the First or Second Anglo Boer War. I am trying to pull different family stories I heard over the years together and make sense of them in light of new evidence I discover of events at the Brandwater Basin, Jan’s surrender and what was very much part and particle of the general atmosphere in the Freestate with a strong drive towards peace and reconciliation as opposed to War. Family members are welcome to comment or add information.

Evaluation by Leon Kok

Jan W Kok and his church council. The occasion for the photo was the 30th celebration of his time as minister at the church in Heilbron.

I sent Uncle Leon Kok some of my thoughts on the matter. His father, Johannes Willem (Johan) KOK is the oldest brother of my Oupa Eben Kok whose father was Jan W Kok. Uncle Leon is perfectly positioned to offer a first-hand evaluation of my observations. Where I am far removed from these events in terms of time, Leon is much closer and had a far more active involvement in recording political thought in his day by virtue of the positions he held as a journalist. He has been thinking about these matters for as long as I have been alive! He is further a skilled researcher and an accomplished historian.

As proof of his access to leading thinkers of the time, he told me that “he enjoyed good personal relations with several Cabinet members such as John Vorster, Nico Diederichs, Helgaard Muller, Ben Schoeman, Owen Horwood and others. He was also one of the four founders of The Citizen and wrote occasionally for Die Transvaler, thanks to his good friend and editor Carl Noffke. Equally, he had a very independent view on the former Rhodesia, having worked on the Rhodesian Financial Gazette and was later Editor of the Windhoek Advertiser. These naturally coloured his views on SA’s international relations. Ironically, however, he was fired in 1982 for having met with the Soviet Ambassador in London.” (Personal correspondence from Leon Kok. I changed the 1st person to 3rd)

Leon wrote, “I’m sympathetic to your view that several leading Boer leaders thrust themselves more politically (anti-British, anti-English) on their forces than has been actually realized and/or recorded. Conversely, I’m sure that there would also have been strong independent and humanistic tendencies within the general ranks. This became even more patent during the 1914 Rebellion and has been particularly amplified in Deneys Reitz’ works. Incidentally, heavily involved in Heilbron as a lawyer, he was a close friend of the family. I would venture to say that these were issues that ultimately split Afrikanerdom into the United Party (UP) and National Party (NP) camps.”

Uncle Leon says, “Your view of Oupa Kok (and indeed Ouma too) is very accurate in my view. Our family were solidly placed in the UP camp. There were no ways that you could reconcile the likes of Botha and Smuts with hardline nationalists such as Beyers, De la Rey, De Wet, Kemp and  Maritz, and perhaps even Steyn at one stage. Besides, Oupa and Ouma Kok trained as missionaries in Wellington (the Cape) and would have been manifestly under the liberal influence of the likes of Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr who later played a big part in the recognition of Dutch and English as the official languages. He even sought to prevent the outbreak of the Boer War,  and castigated Rhodes, and, indeed never forgave him for his role.”

“When I was in high school, Ouma Susan was living with us and I remember discussions I had with her where I was very anti-Jan Smuts based on what I learned in school. Years later, as I started to discover the true state of affairs in the Union of South Africa and later in the Republic, I realised that I too would have been a supporter of Smuts and Botha.”

Uncle Leon continues that “in even later years the Koks’ (especially your Grandfather, My Dad and Uncle Tim) were vehemently anti-Nazi and anti-OB (Ossewa Brandwag). They weren’t necessarily pro-British or anti-German, despised the horrors of the Third Reich and related regimes. There was one member by marriage of our family who was the complete reverse. Even in the National Party, future Prime Minister JG Strijdom was vehemently anti-OB. Of course, other future PMs John Vorster and Piet Botha were the opposite.

Uncle Leon makes an important comment on questions I had about the marriage of Uncle Timo and Aunty Thelma. She was Englis and I found it at odds with a staunch, nationalistic view of Afrikanerdom. It occurred to me that if they were cast in the ultra-conservative, English-hating, Black-African domination mould of many typical Afrikaner Boers, such a marriage would have been impossible. If Jan’s views were in line with the ultra-conservative Afrikaner Boer views which I have by now well established was not the case, certainly, he would have frowned upon the marriage of one of his sons with an English lady – the English being responsible for the Anglo-Boer war and for sending his father to a POW camp in Ceylon.

Uncle Leon concurs when he says that “Tim and Thelma’s marriage was not political” and the fact that it was not is exactly the point I am making. One generation after the war and a Boer and an English lady can unite in marriage! Leon writes “they met in Johannesburg shortly after the war. It was simply a case of two personalities who found each other and remained committed for life. Very English, she grew up on the Rand. Her family were old-world mining folk and adored Tim. My parents’ Afrikaans/English marriage was arguably modestly political, but very much within UP parameters. My maternal great grandfather, Carl Ueckermann, was Paul Kruger’s State attorney, but post-the Boer War his family were pretty liberal and vehemently pro-Botha and Smuts.”

Leon himself is proof of the fact that many (possibly most and from my information, definitely Free State Afrikaners) were moderate in their Calvinism, moderate in their view towards the English and moderate in terms of the oppression of the black South Africans. The following remarks of Leon are perfectly in line with what I am discovering.

Leon writes, “My own politics have been pretty pro-Smuts to 1948; as a journalist almost exclusively at Afrikaanse Pers and still at Naspers, I have adopted a very independent view on the rationale, strengths and weaknesses of the National Party (1948-1994)

Uncle Leon is very much in the mould of a “balanced world view.” He was once accused by a family member of being too pro-General Hertzog, but he says that on his part, “that was simply an attempt to present a balanced view of Afrikaner history. He was a great man.” He tells me that “in the 1950s Oom Jan and my Mom took a lot of flak at School from hardline Afrikaner nationalists. “I respect them immensely for having stood their ground. Oom Jan will relate the same to you.”

The Republic and the Loss of Access to Lucrative Markets

Having researched the creation of the South African meat trade intensely, the immense contributions of both Smuts and especially Botha looms large in the annals of South African agriculture. I tracked the head-to-head competition of the newly formed Union of South Africa in 1910 with the rest of the Commonwealth member countries and the access to lucrative English and European markets that were very successfully driven by Botha. South Africa made significant inroads! (see the history of the bacon producer Eskort Ltd.)

The work done by Botha and Smuts were completely undone by the National Party when they came to power. I tracked those developments carefully. I continue to work internationally in the meat trade and in contrast to the attitude of the National Party who came to power and insisted on South Africa becoming a Republic and severed lucrative economic ties with England, I see how countries who had a different view of England and the commonwealth maintain access to some of those international markets to this day to the benefit of all its citizens. I am able to say to Uncle Leon and Oom Jan today that they were right to support Botha and Smuts and that one can count the economic cost of the emergence of the National Party to this day.

The voices who called for close cooperation with England were in the end right, as far as it secured a firm economic foundation for the country and all its citizens. I see the value in this from an agriculture perspective which is amplified the clearest when I evaluate the results of those valuable ties being broken after we became a Republic under the National Party leadership.

Jan Kok’s Flowers

This has been a reaching-back into history like none other. It is as if the story wants to talk to me and information keeps coming. This story about Jan Kok’s flowers, again relates to Jan W Kok only indirectly through his dad, also Johannes Willem Kok, born on 29 July 1848 in Swellendam (Robertson?) in the Cape Colony.

His dad, Johan Hendrik Christoffel Kock moved his family from Robertson to the Free State and settled in Windburg district on the farm Besterschrik, 5km north of Korannaberg. A fascinating link emerged between Besterschrik, Ladysmith and the Kok Family.

At the outbreak of the Second Anglo Boer War, JHC Kock was 73 and not eligible for military duty. We know that the Windburg Kommando did duty in Natal at the outbreak of the war and that JW Kok, the son of JHC Kock was the Kommandant of the Windburg Kommando. We later find him fighting on 18 February 1900 with Cronje at Paardenberg. I located his war diary at the War Museum in Bloemfontein and will update this as soon as I can get my hands on it (and Oom Jan can help me with the translation). If the letter we have that was sent from Ladysmith dated 10.12.1899 is from JW Kok and not his son with the same initials Jan (JW) Kok who only joined the war effort on 5 May 1900, then it means that Jan was in Ladysmith in December 1900.

From Klopper, et al (2010) in their work, A first record of a South African aloe, Aloe spectabilis, becoming naturalized elsewhere in the country, comes the following remarkable entry. The heading is South African aloe naturalized in South Africa. Klopper et al (2010) state that “an extensive naturalized population of Aloe spectabilis Reynolds, a KwaZulu-Natal species, occurs on the farm Bester Schrik (Besterskrik) in the Free State, 5 km north of the Korannaberg, with a single individual known from the Korannaberg itself (photo below from the farm). This population has an interesting history that dates back to the start of the Anglo Boer War when plants were brought back to Bester Schrik from the Ladysmith area in a cake tin in 1900. Three plants were planted on a koppie on the farm and have multiplied to more than 30,000 plants (Oliver, 1986; Eloff & Powrie, 1990).” (Klopper, 2010)

Besterskrik was the farm where JHC Kock lived at this point and where he passed away only on 24 November 1908. This places JHC Kock on the farm Besterskrik in 1900. We know that his son, Jan Kok was in Ladysmith in December 1899. This could only have been Jan Kok, or at the very least a brother or a child who may have been in Ladysmith with him who, fighting in Ladysmith as part of the Windburg Kommando, took a cake tin, filled it with three Aloe plants and brought it back to the farm of his dad (or grandfather), Besterskrik close to Koranaberg, 55km South-East of Windburg, on the way from Ladysmith. The letter Jan wrote home shows that he was in Ladysmith in December 1899 which meant that Jan Kok, a brother or also possibly a son brought it to his dad or grandfathers farm in 1900 on his way home and en route to Paardenberg.

Naturalized plants of A. spectabilis on the farm Bester Schrik in the Free State. Photo: P.C. Zietsman.

When my Oom Jan returned from visiting his Kids for Christmas, he posted on Facebook, “My bromeliad het my met al sy mooiheid terugverwelkom.”

Below is not only the bromeliad in question but a selection of the rest of his flowers. Oom Jan has always been a lover of plants and I most certainly now see where he gets it from. Not war or a pandemic can prevent them from seeing the beauty in life!

An Newly Emerging View of Jan W Kok

Letter sent to Oom Jan when he was 7 or 8. Written by Jan Kok’ second wife, Ouma Hannie. Oom Jan shared the content for those who battle with the cursive:

Liefste Jan,

Oupa en Ouma wil jou net van harte geluk wens met jou verjaarsdag en ons hoop en bid dat daar nog baie verjaar dae op sal volg. Ons is so bly dat jy so fluks leer en ons wil jou net aanraai om so aan te hou, dan sal jy die harte van jou pappie en mammie laat lekker voel. Die Here se Woord sê as dit die mens aan wysheid ontbreek, dan moet hy dit van die Here vra,  wat altyd gewillig is, om dit te gee. Nou ja moet nooit vergeet om elke dag die Bybel te lees en te bid nie. Mag die Here jou elke dag’n soet en gehoorsame seun maak. Nie net by die huis nie, maar ook in die skool sodat jou skoolmaatjies kan sê, ja daar is ‘n seun wat uit ‘n Godsdienstige huis kom Ons stuur vir jou hierdie paar Sjielings om iets te koop. Hou maar lekker verjaarsdag.

Met groete van jou Ouma en Oupa

( ‘n Sjieling was in ons geld 10 sent)

What we looked at above is not always a pretty picture. That was, after all the purpose of my investigation. Not just to re-tell the story of Jan as a family hero, but to see him in the context of the difficult decisions he had to make and the robust discussions he would have been a part of. In understanding the pressures he faced, it helped me to deal a bit differently with the pressures I face.

After all that I learned, what can I say about Jan Kok? In the first place, I learned that was the product of great parenting. In the notice of the death of his father, also with the initials JW Kok, the following is reported about him. Jan Kok’s dad did not only partook in the Basotho Wars as a young man but also the Anglo-Boer War. He was chosen as Kommandant for Windburg and Senekal and partook in the battles of Moderrivier and Magersfontein. He also fought at Paardenberg with Gen Cronje and was part of Cronje’s surrender. Upon surrender, he was sent to Green Point and was later held in Simons Town where he remained till the end of the war. A statement is made that two of his sons became missionaries. One was Jan W Kok who worked in Heilbron and the other son ministered in Knysna. The report says that “he was a great friend and supporter of the missions (zendingsaak) for which he had an open hand and a warm heart. He was a faithful supporter of the Government and those who knew him had great respect for him because of his humility and his love towards everybody. Jan was everybody’s friend and his door was always open to all.

This final picture seals the matter for me about Jan’s surrender at the Brandwater Basin. Based on the comments about his dad, I am convinced that Jan’s surrender was in keeping with the wishes of the leadership and not something that he, fortunately, had to work out for himself. He was 20 at the time! In keeping with the tradition he received from his father who was a respected Kommandant and a supporter of the Free State Government, Jan acted upon the instruction of his leadership on the day and surrendered. De Wet mentions his dad when he succeeded De la Ray (who was sent to Colesberg) in the command of the Transvaalers at Magersfontein. De Wet lists the Commandants who served under him and in that list appears the name of J. Kok of Windburg. De Wet fought with and knew Jan Kok’s father and I am sure, also knew Jan Kok personally. Not only is it unthinkable that anything else transpired or that anything else can be read into the events at the Brandwater Basin, but the historical facts and the testimony of people who knew the Kok-family personally speak to us across the vast open spaces of the Free State, that this is the only likely option.

When I did the transition chapters between my life as a transport rider and that of bacon curer in Chapter 05: Seeds of War and Chapter 06: Drums of Despair, I investigated the influence of religion on actions. On the side of the Boer, the British and the black African. I made the point that often times we create mythology to justify action or to cope with unspeakable suffering or as a way to get others to comply with our thinking. This mythology is transcribed into religious language and assimilated into the psyche of our culture or subculture. We get a glimpse of Christiaan de Wet’s religion in one of the few speeches that we have by him which he made on 28 July 1900 on the banks of the Vaal River. I translate from the Afrikaans:

“Brothers, everyone who comes to us must remain with us to the end. Faithful he must be, faithful and pure of conscious. If this is not enough motivation to persevere then I am compelled to tell you that there exists a proclamation that gives every deserter the death sentence. Once we will show mercy but not a second time. I will be the first to shoot a man like that down in cold blood. Whoever henceforth is not faithful, must be shot!” (De Wet, C, quoted in Afrikaans by Blake, 2016)

Christiaan De Wet saw participation in the Anglo Boer War as a matter of faith. Not to support the republican cause, and the military part of this cause, in particular, was in his view a sin. The punishment for sin is hell and he gives an interesting definition of hell. “I view the hell which the bible talks off as nothing else but pangs of conscience (gewetenskwelling, in this context, probably objections or faltering based on conscience). He believed that there was no forgiveness for joiners (people who not just surrendered, hensoppers, but people who aided the British; I actually believed he would have grouped both joiners and hensoppers in this statement) despite the fact that forgiveness is an important pillar of the Christian faith. He said that “we are all sinners, but with the sin of treachery, I would not be able to live with for one day.” (Blake, 2016) He not only believed this but acted on it in the most brutal terms.

It reminds me of the justification from the Bible which many Boers believed to be normative in terms of their relationship with the black inhabitants of the land. It is exemplified in the beliefs of the Voortrekker leader, Andries Pretorius of whom it is reported that one of his favourite scriptures was from the Old Testament, where Israel was 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 believed he had the Divine command to enslave them.  His was the nation of God, the chosen, who would bring God’s light into a savage, godless land. According to this belief, the Boers had a God-given right to occupy the lands of these people.  They were to them the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites whom the Lord had commanded to destroy. (Seeds of War)

This brings me to the foundational difference, the thinking which dictated action, which sets the Kok family apart from the hard-liners. It is not that they did not support the war. They did! There is a much deeper and fundamental issue at play in that I believe their position would have been if asked, that De Wet is wrong that joining the British or abandoning the war, even if you do not join the English (a hensopper) is an unpardonable sin. They would one hundred percent for certain have believed that Gods grace extends to the worst of sinners. As far as the view of black people is concerned, they would have abhorred the view that the black man is “far off”! They would most definitely have believed that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye is all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Oom Jan has his grandfather, Jan W Kok’s Bible and I am sure that this verse would be highlighted! This sums up the key difference between the Kok family and some of the prevailing extreme positions during that time.

They would have treated people whom they differed from politically such as the joiners and the hensoppers with forgiveness and compassion. Instead of using and exploiting the black population, they reached out to them! They were moderate Boer’s and both Jan and his father loved their country, their family, their God and were good neighbours to all. They would not have harboured a grudge, not even against the British! I can see Jan in his children and his grandchildren. I see the same attitude and character in his great-grandchildren and now that our kids are in their 20’s, I see it in his great-great-grandchildren! Joretha, the eldest daughter of Oom Jan, with her family even immigrated to England. JW Kok (senior), Jan W Kok, grandfather of Oom Jan and Uncle Leon are excellent role models of the attitude and thinking, the diligence and commitment of JW Kok Senior and Junior! Their blood flows through our veins and their marrow are in our bones! The picture I get of Jan W Kok is one that I can relate to!  

Finally, Jan Kok taught me that no matter what I face, always make time to appreciate the sunset! To take what is beautiful from the soil and return with it to my family, waiting for me at home. There is so much in life that is evil and bad but also so much that is beautiful and good! Amidst the greatest challenges, I want to see the beauty of life, just like Jan!

Special Note of Thanks

A special note of thanks to Oom Jan who shared much information with me over many years. Thanks to Uncle Leon for his encouragement, advice and information.

Further Reading

Boer surrender at the Brandwater Basin by Chris Ash. I enjoy his “alternative view.” Much truth is spoken in an air of irreverence and I believe that many holy-cows related to Afrikaner and Boer identity should be sacrificed and re-considered. This certainly includes the popular view of the two Anglo-Boer Wars.


(c) eben van tonder

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1. The letter sent by JW Kok from Ladysmith for his mother on 10 December 1899.

Is this from Oom Jan/ Uncle Leon’s grandfather or great-grandfather?

(Oom Jan makes sense of the cursive)
Die brief is geskryf uit Ladysmith en gedateer 10. 12. 1899. Ek vertaal weer.)

Liewe moeder.
Net ‘n opaar reëltjies. Ons lewe nog en alles gaan goed met die hulp van God en ek hoop om dieselfde van julle almal te hoor. Ek het die brief van Corrie ontvang en was bly om weer van die die huis af iets te hoor. Daar is geen besondere nuus nie. Dit is hier vreeslik warm – byna onhoudbaar. Ek is verbaas dat ek nog niks van pa gehoor het nie. Ek is baie nuuskierig oor hoe dit daar met hom gaan. Dit is verskriklik hoe die mense daar veg. Jan Fourie, broer van oom Philip het ook daar gesneuwel. Ek en Piet is nie meer by die waens nie. Ons is nou by Tom hulle. Van ons mense het ‘n rapportryer gevang wat uit Ladysmith kom van White aan BullerDie inhoud van sy brief was dat as hy nie hulp kry nie, kan hy nie langer as 14 dae uithou nie. Ek hoor daar kom vrugte vir ons. Dit sal vandag hier wees. Eergister het en van die Ventersburgers een van hulle eie manne doogeskiet wat hulle gaan aflos het op die wagpos. Hy is ene De Wet. Nou, liewe moeder sal ek maar aflsuit. Met beste groete aan julle almal.
Julle verlangende seun,
JW Kok

(Die Piet van wie hy hier praat vermoed ek is sy broer Piet (Hy het die bynaam gehad van Piet Riempies en ek vermoed dat die Tom na wie hy verwys, is, Tom, ook sy broer)

In support of my view that this is not written by Jan W Kok, compare the handwriting of the letter given here with the handwriting of Jan W Kok in Note 3.


JOHAN HENDRIK CHRISTOFFEL KOCK (Johann Heinrich Christoph) van Waldeck kom in 1745 na Suid-Afrika in diens van die Oos-lndiese Kompanjie, word burger te Swellendam en trou op 27 Mei 1751 met PETRONELLA VAN EEDEN, die weduwee van Matthias Calitz


1. JOHAN HENDRIK KOCK, gedoop 23 April 1753

2. JACOBUS CHRISTIAAN KOCK, gedoop 06 Oktober 1754

3. ANNA CATHARINA KOCK, gedoop 15 April 1759

4. JOHAN GODFRIED KOCK, gedoop 30 November 1760

5. MARIA ELIZABETH KOCK, gedoop 22 Februarie 1764

6. PETRONELLA HERMINA KOCK, gedoop 22 Maart 1767

JOHAN GODFRIED KOCK, gedoop 30 November 1760, trou op 11 Desember 1785 met MARIA ELIZABETH HAUMAN, die weduwee van Hendrik van der Merwe


1. JOHAN HENDRIK CHRISTOFFEL KOCK, gedoop 05 November 1786

2. JOHAN ANDREAS KOCK, gedoop 04 Oktober 1789

3.  PIETER EDUARD KOCK, gedoop 13 November 1791

4. JACOBUS EDUARD KOCK, gedoop 17 Augustus 1794 JACOBUS EDUARD KOCK, gedoop 17 Augustus 1794, trou met GEERTRUIDA LOUISA VAN DER MERWE



2. JACOBUS SCHALK WILLEM KOCK, gedoop 14 Maart 1818

3. MARIA ELIZABETH KOCK, gedoop 10 Desember 1820

4. SUSANNA HELENA KOCK, gedoop 18 Augustus 1822


6. HELENA MARIA CATHARINA KOCK, gebore 16 November 1827

7. MARTHA HENDRINA PETRONELLA KOCK, gebore 21 November 1829

JOHAN HENDRIK CHRISTOFFEL KOCK, gebore te Robertson op 11 Mei 1826 en oorlede op 24 November 1908 te Besterschrik, Winburg, trou met BERTHA MARGARETHA LE ROUX, gebore 03 Augustus 1829 en oorlede op 21 Januarie 1960 op Klaasvoogdsrivier naby Zandvliet.

Kinders :

1. JOHANNES WILLEM KOCK, gebore 29 Julie 1848 en oorlede Junie 1918

2.  JACOBUS EDUARD KOCK, gebore 12 Oktober 1850 en oorlede op 03 Junie 1926

3. HENDRIK JACOBUS KOCK, gebore 14 September 1853 en oorlede 24 Oktober 1923

4. WILLEM JOHANNES KOCK, gebore 05 November 1856 en oorlede op 02 Julie 1939

5.  JOHANNES ANDRIES KOCK, gebore 03 Mei 1859 en oorlede op 16 Maart 1896

Hy trou vir die tweede keer op 14 Augustus 1860 met SUSANNA HELENA VAN ZYL, gebore 21 Julie 1841 en oorlede 29 Desember 1915. Sy was die dogter van JACOBUS ALBERTUS van ZYL en JOHANNA FREDERIKA van der VYVER.

Kinders uit hierdie huwelik gebore was :

 1. JACOBUS ALBERTUS KOCK, gebore 24 Oktober 1861 en oorlede 24 Julie 1954

2. PIETER EDUARD KOCK, gebore 25 Augustus 1864 en oorlede 05 Maart 1866

3. GIDEON KOCK, gebore 01 September 1868 en oorlede 09 Februarie 1936

4. JOHANNES HENDRIK KOCK, gebore 18 September 1871 en oorlede 12 September 1958

5.  JOHANNA FREDERICA KOCK, gebore 27 Junie 1875 en oorlede 23 Mei 1955

6.  FREDERIK JOHANNES KOCK, gebore 05 Desember 1877 en oorlede 14 Mei 1949

7. GERT LOUIS KOCK, gebore 13 Oktober 1881, oorlede 21 Desember 1954

JOHANNES WILLEM KOK, GEBORE OP 29 Julie 1848 te Swellendam en oorlede op 14 Junie 1918 te Kransdrif, Winburg trou met JACOBA JOHANNA ELIZABETH THERON, gebore 04 Februarie 1855 en oorlede 05 Januarie 1938 op Wynandsfontein, Theunissen. Sy was die dogter van THOMAS FRANCOIS THERON en SUSANNA CATHARINA JOSEPHINA LACOCK van Leeuwfontein. Hy trou vir die tweede keer op 15 Julie 1939 met  MARGARETHA LOUISA (Maggie) le ROUX, gebore 14 Desember 1882 te Franschoek en oorlede te Ladybrand op 20 Februarie 1978

Kinders :

1. JOHANNES HENDRIK KOK, gebore op 06 Januarie 1876, gedoop op 19 September 1876 te Winburg en oorlede op 13 Desember 1942 te Marquard. Hy was ‘n Sendingleraar in die gemeentes Knysna, Oudtshoorn en Marquard. Hy trou op 22 September 1903 op Robbertson met ANNA MARIA CONRADIE, gebore op 15 Julie 1879 te Robbertson en oorlede op 15 Maart 1938 te Marquard. Sy was die dogter van JOHANNES STEPHANUS CONRADIE en HENDRINA MARGARETHA van ZYL


1.1 JOHANNES WILLEM KOK, gebore 25 November 1905 te Knysna en oorlede op 11 Julie 1980. Hy trou op 24 November 1936 te Weenen met ANNA van ROOYEN, GEBORE 26 Desember 1901

1.1.1 JOHANNES HENDRIK KOK, gebore 26 September 1939, trou met ANNA SUSANNA OOSTHUIZEN, gebore 28 Junie 1945 JOHANNES WILLEM KOK, gebore 17 September 1967 LERITA, gebore 10 September 1968

1.1.2 ALETTA JACOBA MAGDALENA KOK, gebore 12 Maart 1945, trou op 17 Februarie 1977 met ABRAHAM N VLOK, gebore 01 Desember 1949 ABRAHAM VLOK , gebore 20 Januarie 1979 JOHANNES EDWARD VLOK, gebore 26 Maart 1980

1.2   CONRADIE KOK, gebore 20 Mei 1907 trou op 03 Julie 1937 met CLAVINA JOHANNA (Babs) MYNHARDT van Smithfield. Sy is gebore op 22 November 1909 en oorlede op 02 Oktober 1973

1.2.1 JOHANNES HENDRIK KOK, gebore 12 Julie 1938 en oorlede op 29 Oktober 1974 in ‘n motorongeluk by Bloemfontein

1.2.2 MAGDALENA MARGARETHA (Ena) KOK, gebore op 18 Mei 1940, trou op 18 Junie 1961 met PERCIVAL NEWTON (Billy) COCKCROFT, Gebore 02 Desember 1933 EULALIE COCKCROFT, gebore 26 Mei 1962 NEWTON CONRADIE COCKCROFT, gebore 07 Junie 1964 HEIDI COCKCROFT, gebore 16 Oktober 1969

1.2.3 JOHANNES MYNHARDT KOK, gebore 17 Maart 1942, trou op 17 Oktober 1970 met YVONNE BURGER, gebore 29 Mei 1948 CONRADIE MYNHARDT KOK, gebore 21 Augustus 1971 YVONNE KOK, gebore 19 September 1972 JOHANNES HENDRIK KOK, gebore 03 Augustus 1977

1.3 HENDRINA MARIA KOK, gebore 07 Augustus 1909 te Oudtshoorn en oorlede op 06 November 1909

1.4 JACOBA JOHANNA ELIZABETH (Elize) KOK, gebore 07 Julie 1911 te Oudtshoorn, oorlede  op 29 Oktober 1979, trou op 09 April 1940 te Marquard met REGINALD ERNEST BRIN, gebore 31 Januarie 1911 en oorlede op 17 April 1969

1.4.1 MARGARET-ANNE BRIN, gebore op 23 Augustus 1943, trou op 21 November 1964 met DAVID JOHN SPEIRS, gebore 06 Mei 1940 IAN REGINALD SPEIRS, gebore 02 Mei 1968 PRISCILLA SPEIRS, gebore 27 Augustus 1970

1.4.2 THOMAS HENRY BRIN, gebore 31 Januarie 1947

1.5 JOHANNES HENDRIK (Basie) KOK, gebore 17 Januarie 1916 te Knysna, oorlede op 15 April 1920 te Klaasvoogdsrivier, Robbertson

1.6  WILLEM JACOBUS (Willie) KOK, gebore op 13 Augustus 1921 te Knysna, trou op 16 Desember 1948 te Bloemfontein met JOHANNA (Rosie) KRUGER, gebore 29 Mei 1926 op Bloemfontein

1.6.1 KOWIE-MARIe KOK, gebore 05 Mei 1951, trou op 17 April 1976 met  ANDREAS FRANCOIS (Andre) du TOIT, gebore 21 Februarie 1950 JOHANNA (Hannelie) du TOIT, gebore 01 Januarie 1978  ANDRE AS FRANCOIS du TOIT, gebore 11 Mei 1980

1.6.2 ANNEMARIE KOK, gebore 06 Mei1955, trou op 06 September 1980 met ANTHONY DAVID MORRISON, gebore 13 Maart 1957

2. THOMAS FRANCOIS THERON (Tom) KOK, gebore 09 Julie 1878, gedoop op 06 Oktober 1878 op Winburg, oorlede op 12 Oktober 1959. Trou op 19 Junie 1906 met ANNA MARIA MAGDALENA LATEGAN, gebore 27 Mei 1882 en oorlede op 25 Oktober 1945

2.1 JACOBA JACOMINA KOK, gebore 19 April 1908. Trou op 11 November 1930 met JOHANNES GERHARDUS (Jannie) UYS, gebore op 07 Februarie 1904

2.1.1 THOMAS FRANCOIS KOK UYS, gebore 15 September 1935, trou op 03 September 1960 met CHRISTINA HELLMUTH, gebore 15 Februarie 1939 JOHANNES  GERHARDUS  UYS,   gebore  07 November 1961 HEINRICH EDUARDT (Heinle) UYS, gebore 04 Mei 1963 THOMAS FRANCOIS UYS, gebore 03 September 1970 CHRISTOFFEL (Christo) UYS, gebore 20 Maart 1974

2.1.2 ANNA MARIA MAGDALENA UYS, gebore 09 Maart 1939, trou op 04 Januarie 1964 met JOHANNES GERHARDUS HENDRIK van ASWEGEN BESTER, gebore 18 September 1937 JACOBA JACOMINA BESTER, gebore 20 Januarie 1965 JOHANNES GERHARDUS HENDRIK (Hendrik) BESTER, gebore 06 Februarie 1968 JOHANNES GERHARDUS UYS BESTER, gebore 28 Januarie 1973

2.1.3 JOHANNES GERHARDUS UYS, gebore 24 Desember 1945, trou  op 29 Januarie 1971 met MATHILDA MARAIS, gebore 06 Januarie 1947  JOHANNES GERHARDUS UYS, gebore 08 Junie 1973 COBIE-MARIE UYS, gebore 27 April 1977

2.2  JOHANNES WILLEM (Jannie) KOK, Gebore 12 Mei 1911. Trou met  MARIA ELIZABETH DANHAUSER, gebore 18 Oktober 1914


2.2.2 HESTER AGNES KOK, gebore 09 September 1940


2.3 JACOBA JOHANNA ELIZABETH KOK, gebore 05 Augustus 1914 Trou op 03 Augustus 1938 met DANHAUSER MULLER, gebore 31 Januarie 1911

2.3.1 ANNA MARIA MAGDALENA MULLER, gebore 21 Mei 1939. Trou met HENDRIK NICOLAAS (Hennie) BOTHA, gebore 04 November 1939.  Hy is predikant van die Ned Herv Kerk JOHANNA ELIZABETH BOTHA, gebore 14 Junie 1966 HENDRIK BOTHA, gebore 17 April 1968 DANHAUSER BOTHA, gebore 23 Desember 1970

2.3.2 HELGARD MULLER, gebore 28 Desember 1942. Jrou op 01 Junie 1968 met SELMA van HEERDEN, gebore 30 Oktober 1945 KAREN MULLER, gebore 16 Maart 1971 DANHAUSER MULLER, gebore 29 April 1973 HELGARD MULLER, gebore 08 Desember 1977

3. JOHANNES WILLEM (Jan) KOK, gebore 04 April 1880. Gedoop 02 Mei 1880 te Winburg en oorlede op 26 Junie 1950. Trou op 08 Julie 1907 met MARIA MARGARETHA KLINGBIEL, gebore 17 Oktober 1879 en oorlede op 27 Augustus 1942. Sy was die dogter van JAN FREDERICK GUSTAV KLINGBIEL en MARIA MARGARETHA PRELLER

3.1 JOHANNES WILLEM (Johan) KOK, gebore op 02 Mei 1908 te Heilbron. Trou

3.2 FREDERICK GUSTAFF KLINGBIEL KOK, gebore 12 Mei 1910, gedoop op 10
Julie 1910 op Heilbron

3.3 EBENHAEZER KOK, gebore op 18 Junie 1911 te Heilbron en oorlede op 21
Februarie 1981 op Vredefort. Trou op 07 Augustus 1939 met SUSANNA MARIA UYS,
gebore 23 April 1911 op Vredefort en oorlede 04 Januarie 1993 te warmbad.

3.3.1 SUSANNA MARIA KOK, Gebore 26 Julie 1940, trou op 05 Maart 1966 met ANDRIES JOHANNES van TONDER, gebore 12 November 1931 en oorlede op 29 Julie 1990 ANDREAS JOHANNES van TONDER, gebore op 20 Julie 1967, trou op 13 Desember 1997 op Eshowe met ELOISE GERBER, gebore op 15 Februarie 1973 ENYE, gebore 18 Junie 2004 te Nelspruit MIKHAIL, gebore 11 April 2007 te Nelspruit EBENHAEZER KOK van TONDER, gebore 13 April 1969, getroud op 02 September 1995 in Pretoria met JULIE BECKMANN, gebore 02 Januarie 1975 TRISTAN ANDREW van TONDER, gebore op 18 Desember 1997 in Pretoria  LAUREN PATRICIA van Tonder, gebore 20 Januarie 2000 te Pretoria ELMAR van TONDER, gebore 22 Maart 1971 op Bethal, trou op 25 Maart 1995 in Kollegepark, Vanderbijlpark met JUANITA DAVELINDA ESTERHUIZEN, gebore 08 Oktober 1972 PIETER WILLEM van TONDER, gebore op 09 September 1999 op Bethlehem HANRé VAN TONDER, gebore 9 Maart 2006

3.3.2 JOHANNES WILLEM KOK, gebore op 03 Mei 1942 op Vredefort, trou op 21 Desember 1968 op Vredefort met MAGDALENA MARIA de WET, gebore 25 Februarie 1944 op Parys en oorlede op 01 Junie 1985 op Warmbad. JOHANNA  MARGARETHA  KOK,   gebore 28  Mei   1970 op Pretoria,  getroud op 03  Julie  op Vredefort met STEPHEN  LOUIS AUGOSTINE, gebore 19 November 1969 MARTHINUS JACOBUS AUGOSTINE, gebore op 16 Februarie 1997 te Vaalpark JANKE AUGOSTINE, gebore 27 Junie 2000 te Richardsbaai SUSANNA MARIA KOK, gebore op 16 April 1972 op Pretoria, getroud op 05 April 1997 op Warmbad met HENRY THOMAS FRANCIS, gebore op 13 Maart 1972 FRANé FRANCIS, Gebore 30 Mei 2005 te Brits MAGDALENA MARIA KOK, gebore op 24 Mei 1975 op Pretoria. Getroud    met JAN JOHANNES DRY, gebore 30 Mei 1972 MADELEIN DRY, gebore 05 Augustus 2004 te Pretoria JOANETTE DRY, gebore op 10 Mei 2007 te Pretoria

3.3.3 MICHIEL EKSTEEN  UYS KOK, gebore op 28  Februarie  1945 op Koppies, getroud op 14 Maart 1975 te Vredefort met MARYNA CHRISTIENA KASSELMAN (GeboreCoetzee) gebore op 30 Desember 1945 STEPHANUS JOHANNES KOK, gebore op 09 Julie 1969, trou op 09 April 1992 te Western Area met MALISSA SCHOEMAN, gebore 06 Mei 1969. Tweede Huwelik op 19 Maart 2005 met Helga van Wyk JACOBUS JOHANNES UYS KOK, gebore op 16 April 1999 op Vaalpark KIARA, gebore op 20 Julie 2007 MARIUS HENDRIK KOK, gebore op 23 Junie 1970, getroud op  01  Oktober 1994 op Parys met SURINA van der WESTHUYZEN,gebore op 04 Februarie 1971 MICHIEL EKSTEEN UYS KOK, gebore op 14 Februarie 1997 op Potchefstroom ANNELIESE KOK, gebore op 12 Desember 1975 op Parys. Trou op 3 Julie 2004 te Vredefort met Hendrik Jan Jacobus Burger, gebore op 03 maart 1975 ANJA BURGER, gebore 08 Junie 2005 te Potchefstroom

3.4 MARIA MARGARETHA KOK (Miempie), gebore op 23 November 1913, oorlede op 02 April 1956, getroud met ADOLF SAMUEL BOSMAN, gebore 05 November 1903 en oorlede op 19 Augustus 1978. Na die afsterwe van Miempie trou hy met MARIA CHARLOTTE NEETHLING (Gebore GROUSE) gebore 14 Julie 1905

3.4.1 MARIA MARGARETHA BOSMAN, gebore op 27 Mei 1935, getroud met GEORGE MADDER STEYN, gebore op 26 Februarie 1931 COENRAAD CHRISTOFFEL STEYN, gebore 15 Mei 1959, ADOLF BOSMAN STEYN, gebore 08 April 1962

3.4.2 MARTHA MARIA BOSMAN (Ronnie), gebore op 26 November 1936,getroud met JOHANNES FRANCOIS PETRUS EBERSOHN, gebore 08 Julie 1933

3.5   TIMOTHEUS KOK, gebore op 05 Augustus 1917, gedoop op 07 Oktober 1917, getroud met THELMA IRIS BERRIMAN, gebore 18 November 1925

3. Extract from Jan W Koks Diary about the day he joined the war

Oom Jan translates it ino Afrikaans as follows with explatory notes.

Die gedeeltes in Rooi is net om te verklaar wat julle dalk nie meer van weet nie.


Vanaf 05 Mei 1900

5 Mei – Neem die Engelse Winburg in (Dit is die distrik  waar my Oupa gebore is). Op ons plaas was dar die dag ‘n groot gewoel as gevolg van die verskillende kommando’s wat die dag verby getrek het. Ons het toe self gereed gemaak om te vertrek. Die aan 8 uur het ons ons huis verlaat. Oom Koos het ook saam met ons gegaan. Ons het die aand gery tot by Kafferskop, die plaas van Mnr. A Nel. Dit het toe al taamlik koud begin word. Met die perde kon ons nie anders as om hulle te span nie. (Die een end van ‘n riem is om die perd se voet vasgemaak en die ander end om die perd se nek sodat hy nie maklik kon loop nie.) Ons het die nag nie baie gerus geslaap nie omdat ons bekommer was dat hulle so wegloop aangesien ons nog nie ver van ons huis af was nie. (Nes ‘n kat of ‘n hond, ken ‘n perd sy plek en sal altyd terugloop na sy eie stal toe as dit redelik naby is.) Ons was die aand tien mense by mekaar, 6 van Winburg, 1 van Kroonstad  en 2 van Thabanchu en ook nog twee kaffers

6 Mei – ons het vroeg opgestaan op Sondagmôre om te sien ………

Oom Jan Kok en Tuinbou

Oom Jan het hierdie vir my gestuur oor sy liefde vir tuinbou.

Dankie Eben. So ver ek terug kan onthou was ek versot op tuinmaak. “In my vroeë kinderjare was daar nie so iets soos grasperke nie. Ouma Santjie was die baas van die tuin en het ook baie stoepplante in blikke op die stoep gehad. In die tuin het ek renonkels, anemone, kannas, pronkertjies,afrikaners en lelies geplant. In die herfs het ons die hele tuin vol Namakwaland se madeliefies geplant. Die bedding moes omtrent 4 x 10 m gewees het. Ek was toe nog in die laerskool en as jou ma naweke van die koshuis af by die huis was, het ons blomme gepluk en in elke moontlike pot gesit in die huis.Toe my ma en pa Stillehoogte toe getrek het, het ek die tuin uitgelê. Ek het die visdammetjie en die braaiplek en die stoep voor die agterdeur van klip gebou.”

Interesting Anecdotes of Jan W Kok


I found this interesting reference to JW Kok Heilbron Herrald van 12 Junie 2020.


Heilbron het in 1936 amptelik sy eie hospitaal in gebruik geneem – waarvan dr D. J. Serfontein ’n onlosmakende deel geword het. Die dood van ’n vrou in 1917, ontsê van alle professionele hulp en omstandighede het aanleiding gegee tot die oprigting van die hospitaal. Mnr MJ (oom Tienie) Grobler het op 26 Mei 1917 die aangeleentheid onder die aandag van die Kerkraad gebring en ’n voorlopige komitee bestaande uit ds SJ Perold, eerw JW Kok en mnr Grobler, het die aangeleentheid ondersoek. Die hospitaal is uiteindelik op 18 Maart 1936 geopen deur mnr JC Buys LUK.Dr. Serfontein het hom onverpoosd beywer vir beter fasiliteite in die hospitaal en toereikende dienste. Die hospitaal het deurentyd fondse ingesamel vir verbeterings, en die munisipaliteit asook die Provinsiale Administrasie het ook nie altyd fondse beskikbaar vir die doel gehad nie. In dié verband het dr Serfontein ’n groot bydra gelewer, tot so ’n mate dat die hospitaal later na hom vernoem was. Die eerste hospitaalraad wat in 1919 saamgestel is, het bestaan uit mnr CJ Roos (voorsitter), en die ander lede wat genoem word was kmdt Els, kmdt Dawid van Coller, mnre Raubenheimer, Greenman en L Naude. Die sekretaris/penningmeester was oom Tienie Grobler. Op ’n stadium het die fondse wat benodig en beskikbaar was om die hospitaal op te rig nie gerealiseer nie en is R2000 van wyle oom Koos Groenewald met rente geleen. Huidig word die hospitaal genoem die Tokollo hospitaal nadat die provinsie dit opgegradeer het na ’n vlak 1 hospitaal. Net sekere operasies en behandelings word hier gedoen en die staatspasiënte word verwys na Kroonstad, Welkom of Bloemfontein. Heilbron se inwoners het in 1965 saamgestaan en na 30 jaar (1936) hul eie ambulans deur fondsinsameling aangekoop – sien berig hiernaas!Time Gentlemen – Tom Watson

Oom Jan skryf: “My Oupa, Eerw JW Kok, is in die einste hospitaal oorlede. Voor sy dood het hy aan die hik geraak en hy het gehik tot hy uiteindelik oorlede is. So ver ek weet, was my Pa, Eben, by hom toe hy oorlede is.” Vandag weet ons dat Pesky hiccups that refuse to subside may even be symptoms of heart muscle damage or a heart attack. “Persistent or intractable hiccups can indicate inflammation around the heart or a pending heart attack.”

Interessant genoeg vertel Elmar my dat voor ons Pa ‘n beroerte aanval gehad het het hy een hele naweek gehik. My Ma het hom hospitaal toe gevat, maar hulle het gese daar was niks fout nie. Hy het toe reeds ‘n geskiedenis van hartkwale gehad. My ma het die internis geblameer wat niks opgetel het nie.

Vandag weet ons ook hieromtrent dat “hiccups are associated with a type of stroke that occurs in the back of the brain as opposed to the top, a type that is indeed more common in women. “That probably has something to do with the hiccup component and how the strokes manifest themselves differently,” Greene-Chandos says, but we don’t entirely know what’s going on.”

2. Eerwaarde Kok Street – Heibron

Elmar pointed out that a street in Heilbron is named after him.


Blake, A.. 2016. Broedertwis. Bittereinder en Joiner: Christiaan en Piet de Wet. Tafelberg.

John Boje & Fransjohan Pretorius (2011) Of Gold and Iron: Collaborators in the Winburg District, South African Historical Journal, 63:2, 277-294, DOI: 10.1080/02582473.2011.569368

RKlopper, R. R., Zietsman, P. C., Du Preez, P. J., Smith, G. F.. 2010. A first record of a South African aloe, Aloe spectabilis, becoming naturalized elsewhere in the country, Bradleya 28/2010 pages 37 – 38

De Bruin, J. H.. ‘n Regshistoriese studie van die finale oorgawe van die Oranje-Vrystaat se konvensionele magte gedurende die Anglo-Boereoorlog (1899-1902). Voorgelê ter voldoening aan die vereistes vir die graad Doctor Legum in die Fakulteit Regsgeleerdheid, Departement Romeinse Reg, Regsgeskiedenis en Regsvergelyking, aan die Universiteit van die Vrystaat.

Slatyer, W..  2015.  The Life/Death Rythms of Capitalist Regimes – Debt before Dishonour.  Will Slatyer.

The Times (London, Greater London, England), 22 Feb 1881, p 9

The entire letter, dated Feb, 14, 1881 from the The Times (London, Greater London, England), page 6.