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.
On Innovation and Creativity
I count myself among the most fortunate humans on earth. The things I discovered about life transcend all disciplines. In my research, over the years I came across some of the greatest stories but few are as great as the stories from your own family. Before I write the last chapter on the best bacon company on earth, I want to talk a bit about innovation. It is the hallmark of what I tried to do during my career. Barend from Dayavu Farming taught me a saying which I will never forget. He would say. . . “Well, we have come too far to now f..ing give up!” Any person who is committed to a new and innovative approach at some point comes to that realisation. Marius Kok, my cousin whose brainchild Dayavu Farming is, passed that point long ago and Barend keeps telling him that. Before one gets that confident, one must know what you are talking about! I want to tell you the story of Oupa Eben Kok, Marius and my grandfather and your great-grandfather. For what follows, Ouma is the Afrikaans for grandmom, Oupa is grandfather and Oom is uncle.
Oupa Eben Kok: Innovation and Creativity
Oupa Eben matriculated at the local school in Heilbron in 1929 and after school, he joined Standard Bank. He completed several bank exams and worked in places like Vrede, Vredefort and Koppies. In 1934 he bought a Kings English Dictionary that is still in Oom Jan’s possession to this day to help him with his studies. While he was working in Vredefort he met Ouma Susan and they got married on 07 Augustus 1939. Oupa had a bicycle to ride to work and when he wanted to visit Susan, he would ride with his bicycle to her parent’s farm, Leeuspruit. It was 7 miles out of town. A story is told that he left for home one evening very late when it was already dark. There was no moon that night. He did not see a cow sleeping on the road and bicycle-and-all rode over the poor sleeping animal. Ouma Susan had to take care of her grandfather, Piet Rademan. Oupa Eben at that time lived with Oupa Giel and Ouma Santjie and they could only get married after Oupa Piet’s death at the age of 99 in 1937. Eben and Susan were both 28 when they got married.
From Vredefort Eben was trasferred to Koppies. In his heart, he was a farmer and they lived on a smallholding in the Weltevrede area just outside town. My mom, Santjie, Oom Jan and Oom Uysie were all three born while they lived on the smallholding. They had cows, donkeys, sheep, chickens and turkeys. Even though Oom Jan was only 3 years old when they moved from the smallholding to the farm Stillehoogte, he still remembers the smell of the living room (voorkamer) where the cattle and other feeds were stored.
While working in Koppies, Oupa Eben got transferred to Natal. Oupa Giel and Ouma Santjie were very disappointed that their child had to move so far away and Oupa Giel invited Oupa Eben to join him in his own farming business. This big move to the farm Leeuspruit happens in 1945 just after the birth of Oom Uysie.
Up to this point, it is just a story of your great grandparents and what they did to create a life for themselves. The next bit of the story hones in on the point I am trying to make about creativity.
The first prerequisite for innovation and creativity is hard work and commitment. It is the caveat to all stories of success in any sphere of life. Oupa Eben was committed to making a success of farming. The farm was self-sufficient. Once a year, in the winter, an ox was slaughtered with a pig and sausages and biltong was made and meat was cured. In those years there were no fridges or freezers and cooling was accomplished through evaporation. Meat was hung in a cabinet, covered with a fine sieve.
Marius built exactly such a cabinet to cure biltong at his place in Kitwe, Zambia. It stands in his garage. A perfect place to dry biltong! 🙂
This cabinet was called “the safe,” constructed to keep out vlies and other insects. Every second or third week a sheep was slaughtered, and chickens, ducks and turkeys provided eggs. Butter was made from the cream from the few milk cows. Leather reams or straps were made from beef hides and used to span the oxen. The chickens, eggs, cream and butter provided the income to pay for groceries when they went to town.
They ploughed and planted using oxen. Fertiliser was a luxury and unnecessary expense because before any planting was done, animal dung was removed from the cow and sheep sheds and worked into the fields to fertilise the soil.
Oupa Eben was not scared of hard work. He had three farms: Leeuspruit, Stillehoogte and Christina. The last two farms were approximately 25 km from Leeuspruit where they lived. Whenever they worked those two farms he stayed over on the farms from Sunday evening to Saturday afternoon. There were no buildings on the farms. He would join plastic fertiliser bags and hung them around the trailer as protection from the wind and some insulation and he slept under the trailer on a camping bed. He cooked his food on an open fire. When a shed was later constructed on the farm Stillehoogte, this became his home while that farm was worked. Any great breakthrough goes hand in hand with great personal sacrifice which goes hand in hand with complete dedication.
The third characteristic of innovation is study and a thorough knowledge of the subject matter. Oupa Eben used every opportunity to study farming and to become acquainted with the latest farming techniques. He eventually managed to convince Oupa Giel that they should buy tractors. Oupa Giel was not very agreeable but eventually, they bought a blue Fordson tractor. As it happened, the first year they used the tractor they had a complete crop failure. Oupa Eben and the tractor were blamed for it. At some point, the vision of an innovator becomes crystal clear and he or she pushes through despite temporary setbacks. Every innovator at some point says: “Well, we have come too far to now f..ing give up!”
Oupa Eben’s tractor made unexpected world news. In my research on bacon, I came across a very short mention of him in newspapers in 1953 and 1954 across America. What probably happened was that these papers either belonged to the same owner or had some agreement about sharing content and so it happened that the story of Oupa Eben and his tractor was reported on across America. By itself, it is not a headline-grabbing article, but the fact that Oupa Eben and his tractor made newspapers across America is in itself remarkable and fits the discussion on creativity. The exact article that appeared across so many newspapers is given below.
From The La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wisconsin) 27 May 1953
The newspapers that carried the exact same story of Eben Kok were:
The La Crosse Tribune, La Crosse, Wisconsin, Wednesday, May 27, 1953 (quoted above);
The York Dispatch, York, Pennsylvania, Thursday, March 04, 1954;
The Times, Shreveport, Louisiana, Sunday, May 03, 1953;
The Morning Call, Allentown, Pennsylvania, Tuesday, July 27, 1954
The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colorado, Sunday, May 03, 1953
Lubbock Morning Avalanche, Lubbock, Texas, Friday, May 01, 1953
The Morning Call, Paterson, New Jersey, Monday, August 17, 1953
Fort Lauderdale News, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Friday, May 15, 1953
Wausau Daily Herald, Wausau, Wisconsin, Tuesday, May 19, 1953
The Tampa Tribune, Tampa, Florida, Friday, May 08, 1953
Sioux City Journal, Sioux City, Iowa, Thursday, May 07, 1953
The Knoxville Journal, Knoxville, Tennessee, Sunday, May 03, 1953
Hartford Courant, Hartford, Connecticut, Tuesday, May 12, 1953
Dayton Daily News, Dayton, Ohio, Tuesday, May 12, 1953
Oupa Eben is my role model for creativity and innovation and has been for my entire life.
Oupa Eben on his farm Stillehoogte on one of his later acquired tractors.
Ouma Susan on Stillehoogte, bringing coffee and refreshments to her husband.
Oom Jan Kok (my uncle), eldest son of Eben Kok writes, “I remember the incident like yesterday. Japie’s dad, Uncle Freek phoned to say that the shed was on fire. Oupa Eben immediately jumped in his jeep and hastened to Stillehoogte (his farm). In the corner was a few 44-gallon drums with power paraffine used for the tractor. Fortunately, the fire was put out before they exploded. The parts of the tractor that could burn or melt were all gone. Oupa Eben and Uncle Rademan Marx, who had a garage on Reitzburg, re-did the wiring and everything that had to be replaced was bought. Eventually, the tractor could be used again. It was a blue Fordson.”
Oom Jan continues that “the thing that made a huge impression on me was Ouma (grandmom) who sat on the bed with her head in her hands, crying.” Oom Jan again tells about the disagreement brought about by the use of the tractor. “There was a serious argument between Oupa Eben and his father in law and mother in law over the tractor. The first year they used the tractor there was a complete harvest failure and Oupa Giel and Ouma Santjie staunchly believed that this was the tractors fault that the harvest was so bad.”
Such is the course of events of all great innovations and creative moments. What is innovative today, real proper innovation becomes the normal and generally accepted of tomorrow.
The Woodys Example
In Woodys we did many things that speak to a culture of innovation and creativity. One of the first things we had to do was to project an image “bigger than ourselves.” Dawie Hyman was instrumental in helping us achieve this by creating four memorable adverts for Woodys which instantaneously got us appointments with the right buyers. I remember how one of these adverts was featured at a national conference of the largest retailer in Africa. Oscar, myself and Ehrhardt were there to represent the company. We were nobody in everybody’s eyes, but the advert made an impression and got us appointments with the right people.
As the company grew we continued to meet challenges with creativity based upon a thorough understanding of the principles of curing and meat technology.
It is very cold again tonight. I can hear the waves crash on the rocks below our apartment. I am looking forward to an early night!
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.
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 can add three accounts of companies who achieved perfection in the large-scale production of bacon. This is the second of the three good examples of people who achieved what I sought. I think that for a time at Woody’s we achieved the same and when Duncan and Koos took over, things took a dip, but they are recovering beautifully. What makes this an insanely exciting story is the fact that Wynand Nel, the legendary production manager of Eskort is a good friend!
These stories begin much in the same way. A very close tie with England. A young nation that is trying to find its place in the global village; visionary farmers and politicians and one man who made all the difference!
In the Natal Midlands, on the banks of the Boesmans river lays the largest bacon plant in South Africa, that of Eskort Ltd.. A few months ago I visited Wynand at the factory. I was 30 minutes early and instead of reporting to reception, I decided to drive a few hundred meters further and up the hill, right next to the bacon plant to Fort Dunford. The Fort is situated exactly 500m away from the bacon plant which is nestled between the Boesmans River and the Fort.
It was built by Dunford in response to the Langalibalele Rebellion in 1873. The location of the old military site at Bushmans River drift, overlooked by Fort Dunford is where the Voortrekker leader Gert Maritz originally set up camp along the river.
The curator, Siphamandla, saw me driving up. I was the only visitor and he came running up to give me a proper welcome. I told him I will be at Eskort but when we are done, I’m coming back to see the Fort.
While waiting in reception at Eskort, I took a photo of a stone that was laid by J. W. Moor in 1918. He was the first chairman of “The First Farmers Co-Operative Bacon Factory Erected in South Africa”, the Eskort factory. I was intrigued!
I saw Wynand, visited the Fort briefly and was on my way back to Johannesburg. As soon as I got home I started digging through piles of information on the subject of Eskort and an amazing story emerged. All the information was firing through my mind as connections started to form between the new facts I learned and old history. When I finally fell asleep, I kept waking with every new connection made. Bits of information jolted me from deep sleep to a light slumber. Here is what I discovered.
The origin of the Eskort Bacon factory is tied up with the story of the development of the Natal Midlands in the mid-1800s to the early part of the 1900s. It is embedded in the broader context of the existence of a very strong English culture in Natal. The Natal colony was created on 4 May 1843 after the British government annexed the short-lived Boer Republic of Natalia. A unique English culture continued. This bacon factory became one of the cornerstones of the creation of a meat industry in South Africa and contributed materially to the establishment of a meat curing culture in the country. The historical importance is seen in the fact that the South African roots of large scale industrial meat curing are English and not German.
The broader international context of its establishment in a cooperative can be traced back to Peter Bojsen who created the first cooperative abattoir and bacon curing plant in the world in Horsens, the Horsens Andelssvineslagteri, in 1882 in Denmark. By 1911 the first such cooperative factories were built in England, namely the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory, modelled in turn after the factory at Horsens. The 1918 development in Estcourt, Natal would, no doubt, have been a continuation of the model.
In terms of curing technology, the bacon plant produced its bacon in the most sophisticated way available at the time, using the same techniques employed by the Harris Bacon operation of Calne in Wiltshire. Following WW1, its curing techniques progressed from the Wiltshire process of the Harris operation (and through Harris, to Horsens where the technique was developed) to the direct addition of sodium nitrite to curing brines through the work of the legendary Griffiths Laboratories.
The great benefit of the dominant English culture of the Natal Midlands was in the fact that they had access to the Harris operation in Calne and the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory more so than the fact that the English population of the Midlands could have provided a possible market for their bacon. The population in Natal at the time and even in South Africa remained relatively small and the goal of creating such a sophisticated operation was to export.
In terms of access to local markets, I have little doubt that they relied heavily on the Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company Ltd. of Sir David de Villiers Graaff (1859 – 1931) who was a contemporary of JW Moor (1859 – 1933). They were born a mere 6 months apart with David in March 1859 and John (JW Moor) in September of the same year.
One can say that David with his Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company in Cape Town was a follower of Phillip Armour in Chicago with the establishment of refrigerated rail transport and cold storage warehouses throughout Southern Africa (just as Phil Armour did in the US). David probably met Phil in Chicago in the mid-1880s and possibly again in the early 1890s, who, in all likelihood, showed him his impressive packing plant and gave him the idea of refrigerating railway carts. John (JW) Moor, on the other hand, was in technical detail and broad philosophy, a follower of the Dane, Peter Bojsen in his creation of the first farmer’s coop for slaughtering and production of bacon and its marketing in England and the English operations of C & T Harris with their Wiltshire bacon curing techniques.
The location of the plant in Estcourt is in all likelihood closely linked to the existence of Fort Dunford and the close association with the military of the Moor family as is evident not only through the heritage of their grandfather but through their close involvement in the schooling system and the introduction of cadet training. The possible involvement of the Anglo Boer War hero, Louis Botha is fascinating.
The context of its creation is, more than anything, to be understood by two realities. One was the first World War. The second, the Moor family of Estcourt with a wider lens than a focus on JW Moor. To understand the Moor family, we must understand their heritage and how they came to South Africa.
Immigrating to South Africa
Immigration back then was done, as it is today, through entrepreneurs who made money by facilitating movement to the new world and who sold their products through colourful displays and exciting tales of success and a new life. Between 1849 and 1852, almost 5000 immigrants arrived in Natal through various schemes. One such agent was Joseph Byrne, who chartered 20 ships to ferry passengers to Natal between 1849 to 1851. One of the 20 ships was the Minerva, which set sail on 26 April 1850 with 287 passengers from London. A festive atmosphere must have prevailed on the voyage to Natal and the promise of a new life. (Dhupelia, 1980)
On 4 July 1850, they arrived in Durban and the Minerva was wrecked on a reef below the Bluff. All occupants and cargo ended up overboard. Two of the passengers aboard were Sarah Annabella Ralfe who was travelling with her family and Frederick William Moor. (Dhupelia, 1980)
Romance and Settlement
F.W. Moor lifted the young Sarah Annabella Ralfe from the waters and carried her to the safety of the shore. It is not known if they were romantically involved before this event, but romance bloomed afterwards and the couple was married in June 1852. (Dhupelia, 1980) They settled in the Byrne valley, which Byrne cleverly included in the total package he was selling back in England.
The Moors and the Ralfes were interested in sheep farming, and the wet conditions at Byrne, close to Richmond, were not favourable. In 1869 F.W. Moor moved to a farm Brakfontein, on the Bushman’s River at Frere close to Estcourt. Here the conditions were more suitable. “The farm was some five miles (8 km) southwest of Estcourt, and he obtained it from the Wheeler family in settlement of a debt. This farm has some historical interest. It was the site of the Battle of Vecht Laager in 1838 when Zulu impi of Dingaan clashed with the Voortrekkers who had settled there. It was on this farm that F.R. Moor and his wife settled on their return to Natal, his father having moved to Pietermaritzburg. Moor and his wife stayed for some years in a house built by the Wheelers until he built a larger house which he called Greystone. It was on this property that Moor’s seven children were born and it was here that he carried out his adventurous farming activities.” (Morrell, 1996)
Sara and FW, in turn, had 5 children. Two of these were F. R. Moor, born on 12 May 1853 in Pietermaritzburg and J. W. Moor born in September 1859 in Estcourt.
Strong Military Traditions
The Moor family had strong military connections going back to the father of F.W. Moor (FR and JW’s grandfather). FW was the youngest son of Colonel John Moor. Col Moor was an officer in the Bombay Artillery in the service of the British East India company. FW was born in Surat in 1830 and returned to England after the death of his father. “He and his mother settled first in Jersey and later in Hampstead while he trained to be a surveyor and, not entirely satisfied with his position in England, he decided to emigrate to Natal.” (Dhupelia, 1980) His mother followed him to Natal and passed away in 1878 on the farm of FW, Brakfontein, aged 85. (The Freeman’s Journal, Dublin, Ireland; 18 Oct 1878)
The military connection of the Moor family is highlighted when one considers that when FR Moor was in high school, he and other students considered it desirable that the school should have a cadet corps. FR attended the Hermannsburg School situated approximately 15 miles (24 km] from Greytown and founded in the early 1850s by the Hanoverian Mission Society.
Moor, as a senior student at the school, was deputed to write to the Colonial Secretary seeking permission for the school to initiate the movement. Permission was granted and in 1869 a cadet corps of 40 students, between the ages of 14 and 18 years, was formed with a teacher, Louis Schmidt, as the captain and 16 years old F. R. Moor and John Muirhead as the first lieutenants.
Moor thus played a role in the establishment of the cadet movement and in giving Hermannsburg School the distinction and honour of being the first school not only in Natal but in the British Empire to have a cadet corps. Though the Hermannsburg cadet corps lasted only until 1878 its example was followed by Hilton College and Maritzburg High School in 1872. Yet another pupil of this first boarding school in Natal who was to make a name for himself in politics and was to be later closely associated with Moor was Louis Botha.” (Dhupelia, 1980)
The Moor family became one of the large landowners in the Natal Midlands. Some of these families brought wealth from England and some, as was the case with the Moor family, made their money in other ways. The two most likely ways to make a fortune in those days were in Kimberley on the diamond fields or riding transport between Durban and Johannesburg.
After school, in 1872, the young FR Moor went to Kimberly to make his fortune. JW was still in school when FR left for the diggings where he remained for 7 years. The 19-year-old Moor made his first public speech on behalf of the diggers while in Kimberley “standing on a heap of rubble”. “Later he was twice elected to the Kimberley Mining Board which consisted of nine elected members representing the claim holders for the purpose of ensuring the smooth and effective running of the mines and diggings. This experience probably gave him confidence as well as experience in public affairs.” (Dhupelia, 1980) He later served as Minister of Native Affairs between 1893–1897 and 1899–1903. He became the last Prime Minister of the Colony of Natal between 1906 and 1910.
“While FR Moor was in Kimberley he met Cecil John Rhodes, another strong personality with outstanding leadership qualities. There is some indication that the two men were closely associated during these years for the Moor and Rhode’s brothers belonged to an elite group of 12 diggers who were teasingly named “the 12 apostles” and who associated with each other because of their common interests. Moor’s daughter, Shirley Moor, claims that her father would not have associated with Rhodes for he disliked him and in the 1890’s he abhorred Rhodes’ role in the Jameson Raid and held him responsible to a certain extent for the Anglo-Boer war of 1899.” (Dhupelia, 1980)
“After Moor got married, he felt that there was no security in remaining in the fields. He consequently sold his claims to his brother George, and returned to Natal in 1879 to take up farming has been very successful financially at the diamond fields.” (Dhupelia, 1980)
Dhupelia states that FR was “later joined (in Kimberley) by two of his three brothers.” As far as I have it, he had only two brothers with his siblings being George Charles Moor (whom we know took his diggings operation over); Annie May Chadwick; John William Moor and Kathleen Helen Sarah Druwitt. (geni.com) If both brothers joined him, this would mean that JW also spent time on the diggings. (This needs to be corroborated.) It would explain why JW shared the wealth that his brother obtained in Kimberley.
Success in Farming
FR’s success in farming related to JW, the main focus of our investigation, in that they conducted many of their farming activities as joint ventures. This is why I suspect that JW joined FR for a time on the diggings. Morrell (1996) states that “Moor displayed a considerable initiative and a pioneering spirit in his farming activities, making a name for himself as had his father who was one of the first in the colony to introduce imported Merinos from the valuable Rambouillet stock in France. Estcourt was one of the four villages in Weenen County and most farmers kept cattle, sheep, and horses. By 1894 Moor, in partnership with his brother J.W. Moor, was engaged in farming ventures over an area of 20 000 acres [8097,17 ha]. Their stock consisted of 6000 to 7000 sheep and they were among the largest breeders of goats in Natal possessing 1200 goats. Moor, in fact, acquired the first Angora goats in Natal where the interest in the mohair industry was considerable in the 19th century. In addition to the sheep and goats, Moor engaged in ostrich farming, for he believed there was a good market for the sale of ostrich feathers. He also kept horses and cattle and imported Pekin ducks.” (Morrell, 1996)
The British Market in Crisis
Walworth reported that by 1913 in the UK, “imported bacon had largely secured the market.” This was according to him one of the reasons for a rapid decline in the pig population with a 17% reduction in numbers from 1912 to 1913. (Walworth, 1940) Conditions in 1917 and 1918 were desperate in the UK with meat supply falling by as much as 30%. Stock availability increased prices, and war rationing all played a role. Canada responded to the shortage of pork in 1917 and their export of bacon and ham increased from 24 000 tonnes to 88 000 tonnes in 1917. Corn was in short supply during the war, but it was in reaction to meat shortages that rationing was finally introduced in the UK in 1918. (Perren) The 1918 situation related to bacon in England was reported on by The Guardian (London, Greater London, England), 6 July 1918. The meat situation was generally better than it has been in a while. In the article, they report that Bacon is being imported into the country in large quantities and that the import “will be maintained at the same rate throughout the year.” It is interesting that the article also reports that “the intention is to build up a big reserve of bacon in cold storage for later use.” (The Guardian, 1918, p6) The article oozes with planning and deliberateness happening in the background.
It is clear that the two countries well-positioned to respond were Canada and South Africa. New Zealand was focussing on exporting frozen meat, as was Australia. Walworth leaves the South African response to bacon shortages out (except one comment that South Africa was one of the countries that eventually responded) but it is clear from the Estcourt case that the response was there.
The immediate context of the establishment of the bacon company is the war but in the early 1900s, the pork industry in the UK was in a bad state in terms of industrializing the process of bacon production. Producers were unable to compete in price or quality with imports. The reasons are interesting. Much of the curing in the UK was done by small curing operations or farmers who used dry curing. A large variety of pig breeds made it difficult. Small volumes or a large variety of pigs vs a large variety of a standard pig – the latter suits an industrial process. Fat was highly prized in many of the curing techniques, as it is to this day, but for lard to be cured takes a year. Again, it does not fit the industrial model. The main reason for the high-fat content in bacon was due to imports from America who generally produced a much fatter pig on account of its diet. (Perren)
Market trends moved away from fat bacon and a leaner pig was required which the UK farmers were unable to deliver in the volumes required. The consumers also called for a milder bacon cure that was achieved with the tank curing method. The predominant way that bacon was cured in the UK was still dry curing which resulted in heavily salted meat.
In April 1938, at the second reading of the Bacon Industry Bill before the British Parliament, the minister of Agriculture Mr W. S. Morrison summarised the conditions in the bacon market in the UK pre-1933 as follows. “As far as the curers (in the UK) are concerned, lacking the proper pig as they did, and a regular supply, they could not achieve the efficiency in large-scale production and the economies which were within the power of their foreign competitors. Nor could they achieve adaptation to the changed taste of the public, and the change in taste was, indeed, largely the result of the foreign importation.” The change of taste he was talking about was a movement away from fatty bacon to lean bacon and a milder cure (less salty). The solution in terms of fatty bacon was to breed fewer fatty pigs but the UK market failed to deliver such pigs. My suspicion is that this was not due to a technical inability or ignorance of the British farmers, but due to the deeply entrenched nature of the specialized, small scale dry-curing operations. Having gotten to know butchers from the UK, now in their 70’s, who stem from such traditions, I understand that they hold their trade in such high esteem that they would rather amputate a limb than compromise the dry curing traditions they were schooled in.
The fact is that for whatever reason, the UK pork and bacon market pre-1933 was fragmented and Morrison stated that “the factories in this country worked to a little more than half of their capacity with consequently high costs. The cheaper and quicker process of curing bacon (i.e. tank curing) made little headway and the whole industry was in a very weak position to stand competition even of a normal character.”
In response to the enormous size of the UK bacon market and the inability of local curers to convert to tank curing, foreign curers moved aggressively to fill the void. This aversion of the British to convert from dry curing to tank curing did not disappear after the war and would continue to be the basis of bacon imports into the UK following 1918 when the war ended. Mr Morrison continued that “what was in store for the industry was not competition of a normal character. In the years 1929 to 1932, there ensued a scramble for this bacon market.” “In 1932 the importation rose to 12,000,000 cwts. or more than twice as much as it had been in the five-year period preceding the War.”
The British market started to respond after major government programs to change the bacon production landscape in the UK and tank curing was adopted to a large extent. Even though I have little doubt that the potential to export to England was a major driving factor in the creation of the company, as it was in Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Canada, and the USA, a further mention must be made of the very robust local bacon market. An interesting comment was made in an article published in The Gazette (Montreal, Canada) on 24 January 1916. In the article entitled “Trade for Canada in South Africa”, the comment is made about bacon that “good business can be worked up in Canadian bacon brands if attention is paid to the packaging.” The first interesting point to take from this comment is that the demand for bacon in South Africa by 1916 was sizable and, secondly, that the standard of packaging was very high, pointing to high technical competency.
Agricultural Operations and the Establishment of a Bacon Cooperative
Back in Natal, farmers saw the benefit of various forms of cooperation precisely due to their small numbers and the fact that cooperation gave them access to larger markets and more stable prices. The children growing up in the Natal Midlands were encouraged after completing their schooling, to join one of the many farmers’ associations (FA). “The “reason for being” of these agricultural societies was to hold stock sales. As Nottingham Road’s James King (founder member of the LRDAS in 1884) said. “The worst drawback was the lack of markets”. (Morrell, 1996). It was this exact issue that JW addressed with his bacon cooperative.
“Their function was thus primarily marketing and their fortunes were generally judged by the success or failure of sales. The sale of stock differs markedly from that of maize (the product which sparked the cooperative movement in the Transvaal). In Natal. the market was very localised with local butchers and auctioneers generally dealing with farmers in their area.” (Morrell, 1996)
“A variety of factors increased the importance of cattle sales particularly in the late and early twentieth century. Catastrophic cattle diseases, particularly Rinderpest (1897-1898) and East Coast Fever (1907-1910) reduced herds dramatically making it all the more important for farmers to realise the best prices available for surviving stock. The number of cattle in Natal was reduced from 280 000 in 1896 to 150000 in 1898. This amounted to a loss of £863 700 to farmers.” (Morrell, 1996)
“It was only in the area of stock sales (sheep, cattle and to a lesser extent, horses) that cooperative marketing operated. Foreign imports began to undercut local products, particularly once the railway system was developed. In 1905, on behalf of the Ixopo Farmer Association, Magistrate F E Foxon objected to the government allowing imported grain.” (Morrell, 1996)
In other domains (such as dairy and ham products), cooperative companies were formed. These were joint-stock companies, generally headed by prominent and prosperous local farmers (JW Moor and George Richards of Estcourt, for example), who raised capital from farmer shareholders. The members of the Board were generally the major shareholders. Farmers who joined were then obliged to supply the factory/dairy with produce, in return for which they got a guaranteed price and, if available, a dividend.” (Morrell, 1996) This was the basis of the operation of the Farmers’ Cooperative Bacon Factory.
“The small size of the local market put pressure on farmers to export. The capacity of Natal’s manufacturing industries was minuscule. It began to expand around 1910 yet by 1914 there were no more than 500 enterprises in the whole colony.” “So it happened that many prominent farmers were also directors of agricultural processing factories.” (Morrell, 1996)
Generally, it seems that as FR’s political involvement increased, his attention to farming decreased and he relied increasingly more on JW to take care of their farming interests. JW himself was politically active, but never to the extent of FR. JW Moor became MP for Escort while he was director of Natal Creamery Limited and Farmers’ Cooperative Bacon Factory.”
It is interesting that, as was the case around the world, pork farming followed milk production. This was what spawned the enormous pork industry in Denmark and to a large extent, sustaines the South African pork farming industry to this day.
“It was Joseph Baynes, a Byrne settler and dairy industry pioneer who established a milk processing plant in Estcourt under the name of the Natal Creamery Ltd. where JW was a director. “This factory was located adjacent to the railway station. Baynes died in 1925 and in 1927 the factory, which by this time was owned by South African Condensed Milk Ltd. was bought by Nestlés. Today the factory produces Coffee, MILO and NESQUIK.” (Revolvy)
In 1917 a group of farmers, including JW Moor, met in Estcourt to discuss the establishment of a cooperative bacon factory. The Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory Limited was founded in August 1917 and the building of the factory started. When the plant opened its doors, it was done on 6 June 1918 by Prime Minister General Louis Botha. We can not overstate the massive symbolic nature of the leader of a country in the midst of war opening a food production facility.
The products were marketed under the name Eskort. It takes about a year to get a factory up and running and it was no different in the plant in Natal. When they were ready to supply the UK, the war was over but not the shortages. In 1919 the factory started exports to the United Kingdom. The honour went to the SS Saxon who carried the first bacon from the Estcourt plant exported to the United Kingdom, in June 1919. The products were well received.
A fire in 1925 caused significant damage to the factory. Production was relocated to Nel’s Rust Dairy Limited in Braamfontein, Johannesburg while renovations were being done at the plant. Despite this, the company still won the top three prizes at the 1926 London Dairy Show. (openafrica.org)
They were ready with streamlined efficiency when the second World War broke out and supplied over one million tins of sausages to the Allied forces all over the world and over 12 tonnes of bacon weekly to convoys calling at Durban harbour. (Revolvy) “Early in 1948 plans for a second factory in Heidelberg, Gauteng, were drawn up and the factory commenced production in September 1954.” (openafrica.org) In “1967 the Eskort brand was the largest processed meat brand in South Africa. In 1998 the company was converted from a cooperative to a limited liability company.” (Revolvy)
An interesting side note must be made here. This is the story of my travels to Denmark and the UK to learn how to make the best bacon on earth. The purpose of the venture was to export the bacon and supply the Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company. The similarity of what we did to prepare for our own bacon production in Woodys and how the bacon plant in Estcourt came about is striking. To raise capital for the venture we relied on investors while I rode transport between Johannesburg and Cape Town. Without any knowledge of JW Moor, by simply looking at the Southern African context of the late 1800s and early 1900s, their course of action was logical. (2)
The technical aspects behind the curing technology employed at the new plant are of particular interest. The establishment of the operation in 1918 placed it right in the transition time when science was unlocking the mechanisms behind curing and an understanding developed (beginning in 1891) that it was not saltpetre (nitrate) that cured meat, but nitrite through nitric oxide.
The second technical fact of interest was the form of cooperation that was chosen to house the bacon plant. From Denmark to England farmers saw the benefit of the cooperative model to solve the problem of “access to markets” and this was no different in South Africa.
Tank Curing or using Sodium Nitrite
In terms of curing brines, the scientific understanding that it was not saltpetre (nitrate) curing the meat, but somehow, nitrite was directly involved came to us in the work of Dr Edward Polenski (1891) who, investigating the nutritional value of cured meat, found nitrite in the curing brine and meat he used for his nutritional trails, a few days after it was cured with saltpetre (nitrate) only. He correctly speculated that this was due to bacterial reduction of nitrate to nitrite. (Saltpeter: A Concise History and the Discovery of Dr. Ed Polenske).
What Polenski suspected was confirmed by the work of two prominent German scientists. Karl Bernhard Lehmann (1858 – 1940) was a German hygienist and bacteriologist born in Zurich. In an experiment, he boiled fresh meat with nitrite and a little bit of acid. A red colour resulted, similar to the red of cured meat. He repeated the experiment with nitrates and no such reddening occurred, thus establishing the link between nitrite and the formation of a stable red meat colour. (Fathers of Meat Curing)
In the same year, another German hygienist, one of Lehmann’s assistants at the Institute of Hygiene in Würzburg, Karl Kißkalt (1875 – 1962), confirmed Lehmann’s observations and showed that the same red colour resulted if the meat was left in saltpetre (potassium nitrate) for several days before it was cooked. (Fathers of Meat Curing)
This laid the foundation of the realisation that it was nitrite responsible for the curing of meat and not saltpetre (nitrate). It was up to the prolific British scientist, Haldane (1901) to show that nitrite is further reduced to nitric oxide (NO) in the presence of muscle myoglobin and forms iron-nitrosyl-myoglobin. It is nitrosylated myoglobin that gives cured meat, including bacon and hot dogs, their distinctive red colour and protects the meat from oxidation and spoiling. (Fathers of Meat Curing)
Identifying nitrite as the better (and faster) curing agent was one thing. How to get to nitrite and use it in meat curing was completely a different matter. Two opposing views developed around the globe. On the one hand, the Irish or Danish method favoured “seeding” new brine with old brine that already contained nitrites and thus cured the meat much faster. (For a detailed treatment of this matter, see The Naming of Prague Salt) The Irish and the Danes took an existing concept at that time of the power of used brine and instead of a highly technical method of injecting the meat and curing it inside a vacuum chamber, a simple system using tanks or baths to hold the bacon and regularly turning it was developed which became known as tank curing.
The concept of seeding the brine did not develop from science around nitrite, but preservation technology that was a hot topic in Ireland’s scientific community at the beginning and middle of the 1800s. Denmark imported tank curing or mild curing technology in 1880 from Ireland where William Oake invented it sometime shortly before 1837. Oake, a chemist by profession developed the system which allowed for the industrialisation of the bacon production system. (Tank Curing was invented in Ireland)
A major revolution took place in Denmark in 1887/ 1888 when their sale of live pigs to Germany and England was halted due to the outbreak of swine flu in Denmark. The Danes set out to accomplish one of the miracle turnarounds of history by converting their pork industry from the export of live animals to the production of bacon (there was no such restriction on the sale of bacon). This turnaround took place in 1887 and 1888. They used the cooperative model that worked so well for them in their abattoirs.
They were amazingly successful. In 1887 the Danish bacon industry accounted for 230 000 live pigs and in 1895, converted from bacon production, 1 250 000 pigs.
The first cooperative bacon curing company was started in Denmark in 1887. Seven years earlier, in 1880, the Danes visited Waterford and “taking advantage of a strike among the pork butchers of that city, used the opportunity to bring those experts to their own country to teach and give practical and technical lessons in the curing of bacon, and from that date begins the commencement of the downfall of the Irish bacon industry. . . ” (Tank Curing was invented in Ireland)
This is astounding. It means that they had the technology and when the impetus was there, they converted their economy. It also means that Ireland not only exported the mild cure or tank curing technology to Denmark but also to Australia, probably through Irish immigrants during the 1850s and 1860s gold rush, between 20 and 30 years before it came to Denmark. Many of these immigrants came from Limerick in Ireland where William Oake had a very successful bacon curing business. Many came from Waterford. A report from Australia sites one company that used the same brine for 16 years by 1897/ 1898 which takes tank curing in Australia too well before 1880 which correlates with the theory that immigrants brought the technology to Australia in the 1850s or 1860s.
Tank curing or mild curing was invented without the full understanding of the nitrogen cycle and denitrifying and nitrifying bacteria and the chemistry of nitrite and nitric oxide. Brine consisting of nitrate, salt and sugar were injected into the meat with a single needle attached to a hand pump (stitch pumping). Stitch pumping was either developed by Prof. Morgan, whom we looked at earlier or was a progression from his arterial injection method. (Bacon Curing – a historical review and Tank Curing Came from Ireland)
The meat was then placed in a mother brine mix consisting of old, used brine and new brine. The old brine contained the nitrate which was already reduced through bacterial action into nitrite. It was the nitrite that was responsible for the quick curing of the meat.
Denmark was, as it is to this day, one of the largest exporters of pork and bacon to England. The wholesale involvement of the Danes in the English market made it inevitable that a bacon curer from Denmark must have found his way to Calne and I am the one who told John Harris about the new Danish system and implemented it at their Calne operation. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
A major advantage of this method is the speed with which curing is done compared with the dry salt process previously practised. Wet tank-curing is more suited for the industrialisation of bacon curing with the added cost advantage of re-using some of the brine. It allows for the use of even less salt compared to older curing methods. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
Corroborating evidence for the 1880 date of the Danish adoption of the Irish method comes to us from newspaper reports about the only independent farmer-owned Pig Factory in Britain of that time, the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory Ltd. in Elmswell. The factory was set up in 1911. According to an article from the East Anglia Life, April 1964, they learned and practised what at first was known as the Danish method of curing bacon and later became known as tank-curing or Wiltshire cure. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
A person was sent from the UK to Denmark in 1910 to learn the new Danish Method. (elmswell-history.org.uk) The Danish method involved the Danish cooperative method of pork production founded by Peter Bojsen on 14 July 1887 in Horsens. (Horsensleksikon.dk. Horsens Andelssvineslagteri)
The East Anglia Life report from April 1964, talked about a “new Danish” method. The “new” aspect in 1910 and 1911 was undoubtedly the tank curing method. Another account from England puts the Danish system of tank curing early in the 1900s. C. & T. Harris from Wiltshire, UK, switched from dry curing to the Danish method during this time. In a private communication between myself and the curator of the Calne Heritage Centre, Susan Boddington, about John Bromham who started working in the Harris factory in 1920 and became assistant to the chief engineer, she writes: “John Bromham wrote his account around 1986, but as he started in the factory in 1920 his memory went back to a time not long after Harris had switched over to this wet cure.” So, early in the 1900s, probably between 1887 and 1888, the Danes acquired and practised tank-curing which was brought to England around somewhere around 1911 if not a bit earlier. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
The power of “old brine” was known from early after wet curing and needle injection of brine into meat was invented around the 1850s by Morgan and others. Before the bacterial mechanism behind the reduction was understood, butchers must have noted that the meat juices coming out of the meat during dry curing had special “curing power”. It was, however, the Irish who took this practical knowledge, undoubtedly combined it with the scientific knowledge of the time and created the commercial process of tank-curing which later became known as Wiltshire cure when the Harris operations became the gold standard in bacon curing. Their first factory was located in the English town of Calne, in Wiltshire from where the method came to be known as Wiltshire cure. Its direct ancestor was however Danish and they, in turn, capitalised on an Irish invention. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
It is of huge interest that the Eskort brand of bacon, to this day, bears the brand name of Wiltshire cure. Wiltshire is an English county where Calne is located which housed the Harris factory. (C & T Harris and their Wiltshire bacon cure – the blending of a legend) There is no doubt in my mind that the same curing was practised in Estcourt in 1918, as was done in the Harris factories in Calne and that this is the historical basis for the continued reference on the Eskort bacon packages as Wiltshire Cure. A facinating subject for further inquiry is if Eskort used Auto Curing.
At a time before the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines, the only two ways to cure bacon was either dry curing or tank curing with auto curing being a progression of tank curing. Dry curing requires about 21 days as against 9 days for tank curing. The bacon marketing scheme officially established tank curing in the UK. (Walworth, 1940)
It would not have been possible for the plant to use sodium nitrite in its brine in 1918. Where the Danes and the English favoured tank curing, the Germans and the Americans liked the concept of adding nitrite directly to the curing brines. This was however frowned upon due to the toxicity of sodium nitrite. In America, the matter was battled out politically, scientifically and in the courts. It became the standard ingredient in bacon cures only after WW1. The Germans used it during the war due to a lack of access to saltpetre (nitrate) which was reserved for the war effort and the need to produce bacon faster to supply to the front. The American packing houses in Chicago toyed with its use due to the speed of curing that it accomplishes.
The timeline, however, precludes its use in the bacon factory in Estcourt in 1918. In fact, Ladislav Nachtmulner, the creator of the first legal commercial curing brine containing sodium nitrite, only invented his Prague Salt, in 1915. Prague Salt first appeared in 1925 in the USA as sodium nitrite became available through the Chicago based Griffith Laboratories in a curing mix for the meat industry. (The Naming of Prague Salt)
In Oct 1925 in a carefully choreographed display by Griffith, the American Bureau of Animal Industries legalised the use of sodium nitrite as a curing agent for meat. In December of the same year (1925) the Institute of American Meat Packers, created by the large packing plants in Chicago, published the document, “The use of Sodium Nitrite in Curing Meats.” (The Naming of Prague Salt)
A key player suddenly emerges onto the scene in the Griffith Laboratories, based in Chicago and very closely associated with the powerful meatpacking industry. In that same year (1925) Hall was appointed as the chief chemist of the Griffith Laboratories and Griffith started to import a mechanically mixed salt from Germany consisting of sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite and sodium chloride, which they called “Prague Salt.” (The Naming of Prague Salt)
Probably the biggest of the powerful meat packers was the company created by Phil Armour who gave David de Villiers Graaff the idea of refrigerated rail transport for meat. More than any other company at that time, Armour’s reach was global. It was said that Phil had an eye on developments in every part of the globe. (The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2) He passed away in 1901 (The Weekly Gazette, 9 Jan 1901), but the business empire and network that he created must have endured long enough to have been aware of developments in Prague in the 1910s and early ’20s. (The Naming of Prague Salt)
There is, therefore, no reasonable way that the bacon factory in Estcourt could have used sodium nitrite directly in 1918. If Armour’s relationship was with JW Moor, this could have been a possibility since I suspect that Armour was experimenting with the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines as early as 1905, but his relationship, if any, would have been with David de Villiers Graaff, who was a meat trader at heart and did not have any direct interest in a large bacon curing company until ICS acquired Enterprise and Renown, long after the time of David de Villiers Graaff (the 1st). Besides this, where would they have found cheap nitrite salts in South Africa in 1918? This takes the 1918 establishment of the company back to the technology used by the bacon curers in Witshire which was mother brine tank curing, the classic Wiltshire curing method which was later exactly defined in UK law.
At the demise of the Harris operation, many of the staff were taken up into the current structures of Direct Table which is, according to my knowledge, one of the few remaining companies in the world that still use the traditional Wiltshire tank curing method for some of its bacons. It undoubtedly is one of the largest to do so. In the Eskort branding of its bacon, the reference to Wiltshire cure is a beautiful reference back to the origins of the company which pre-dates the direct addition of sodium nitrite.
The Griffith Laboratories became the universal evangelist of the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines. They appointed an agent in South Africa in Crown Mills. Crown Mills became Crown National and Prague Powder is still being sold by them to this day. It could very well have been Crown Mills who converted Eskort from traditional tank curing to the direct addition of sodium nitrite through Prague Powder.
It must be mentioned that the butchery trade was well established in South Africa long before the cooperative bacon factory was established in Estcourt. Bacon curing was one of the first responsibilities of the VOC when Van Riebeek set the refreshment station up in 1652. Swiss, Dutch, German and later, English butchers were scattered across South Africa. The largest and most successful of these companies in Cape Town was Combrink and Co., owned by Jakobus Combrink and later taken over by Dawid de Villiers Graaff who changed the name to Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company. I suspect that most of these operations used dry curing which was not suitable for mass production.
Peter Bojsen and cooperative Bacon Production
The second technical aspect is the form of cooperation that was established and a few words must be said about Peter Bojsen for those who are not familiar with him. Cooperative bacon production was the buzzword in the early 1900s, but where did this originate?
It started in Denmark. The Danes were renowned dairy farmers and producers of the finest butter (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1901: 6) They found the separated milk from the butter-making process to be an excellent food for pigs. The Danish farmers developed an immense pork industry around it. (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1901: 6) The bacon industry was created in response to a ban from England on importing live Danish pigs to the island. The Danish farmers responded by organising themselves into cooperatives that build bacon factories that supplied bacon to the English market. (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1901: 6) This established bacon curing as a major industry in Denmark.
“On 14 July 1887, 500 farmers from the Horsens region joined forces to form Denmark’s first cooperative meat company. The first general meeting was held, the land was purchased, building work commenced and the equipment installed.” (Danishcrown.com) “On 22 December 1887, the first co-operative abattoir in the world, Horsens Andelssvineslagteri (Horsen’s Share Abattoir), stood ready to receive the first pigs for slaughter.” (Danishcrown.com) The first cooperative bacon curing company was also established in 1887. (Tank Curing came from Ireland)
The dynamic Peter Bojsen (1838-1922) took centre stage in the creation of the abattoir in Horsens. He served as its first chairman. He created the first shared ownership slaughtering house. In years to follow, this revolutionary concept of ownership by the farmers on a shared basis became a trend in Denmark. Before the creation of the abattoir, he was the chairman of the Horsens Agriculture Association and had to deal with inadequate transport and slaughtering facilities around the market where the farmers sold their meat at. (Horsensleksikon.dk. Horsens Andelssvineslagteri) Peter was a visionary and a creative economist. The genius of this man transformed society.
In 1911, the St. Edmunds cooperative bacon factory was opened in England in Elmswell, with Danish help. It is clear that the concept of the Horsens plant crossed the English channel. It is plausible that its creation reached the ears of a group of farmers in a very “British” part of the empire, in Estcourt, Natal not just with the Wiltshire Tank curing of the Harris operation, but the cooperative movement in bacon production from St. Edmunds in 1911.
Early Success for Eskort
An article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales), 2 June 1919, p7 entitled “On Land, Livestock in South Africa – Further Competition for Australia.” The article reports on pork production that “pig breeding has been taken up systematically and while in the year before the war imports of bacon and hams were valued at GBP368,112, last year they were reduced to GBP31,590, and there is good reason to think that soon these articles will be exported.” One may think that the reduction in import is due to the war and that in general South African producers were stepping up to the plate to fill the void, but the trend of the article is that something is happening “systematically” and there is a trend that projects that soon the GBP368,112 import figure will completely be supplied by South African producers and that surplus bacon will be exported.
The farmer’s cooperatives were founded in 1917 in Estcourt. Moor laid the cornerstone in January 1918, the report in the Sydney Morning Herald appeared in June 1919, the same month when the first exports of Eskort bacon to the UK took place. Export may have taken place before the local market was completely saturated. Regardless of the actual circumstances, the export of bacon to the UK was not just a major achievement and competing nations took notice. I also suspect that Eskort managed to supply a sizable portion of the 1913 import figure of GBP368,112 in 1918 and that the article may elude to exactly this.
Pulling the Military Connections Together
The location of the Estcourt plant is of interest virtually right next to Fort Dunford, between the fort and the Bushman’s river. My suspicion is that the land belonged to the army and that Moor, either JW or with the help of FR, secured rights to purchase it. This could have been done only by a family who had very cosy relationships with the military and had friends in high places in the persons of Louis Botha and FR Moor himself.
Just look at the defences of the Fort. There were three defences. The first would have been the Bushman’s river. Secondly, there was a moat around the fort, 2 meters deep and 4 meters wide. Then, one part of the staircase could be pulled up in case two of the defences were bridged. It is clear from the map that even the hospital was strategically located to be within the general protection of the Fort and the Boesmans River bend.
There is a second interesting contribution that the military post could have made to the establishment of the bacon plant. It is known that men from Elmswell and Wiltshire were drafted into service in South Africa. Could it have been that some of these men actually contributed their knowledge to the cooperative bacon plant in Elmswell? These records can quite easily be checked and will be worth the effort.
Strong circumstantial evidence, however, points to more than just a coincidental relationship between the location of the plant and the military establishment. Probably more important than the affinity of Moor family for the military was the fact that FR Moor was the political leader of the Natal colony until the Union of South Africa was created in 1910 and the fact that the old school friend of FR, General Louis Botha was in 1918, the Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. Whichever way you look at it, it is hard not to recognise the close proximity of the Eskort plant to the military installations. What could be the uniting thought that pulls all these facts together? (Of course, in part, predicated on the fact that the factory is in the original location)
Looking at the state of the British Empire and wartime circumstances in the UK, I believe offers the answer. The military context goes much deeper than schoolboy comradery, family nostalgia or friends in high places. 1918 was the beginning of the last year of the Great War. On the one hand, it is hard for us to imagine the unified approach that the Empire had towards the war and every citizen in every Empire country. The empathy and support that the war elicited in South Africa generally, but especially in Natal, so closely linked with the UK in spit and culture was enormous. One source reports that in Estcourt school staff subscribed a portion of their salary monthly to the Governor-General’s Fund in support of the war. (Thompson, 2011) It is outside the scope of this article to delve deeper into the unprecedented effort that was being expended by the South African population and the people in Natal in particular in support of the troops but reading the accounts of what was being done in Natal is quite emotional.
On the other hand, directly responding to wartime shortages in the UK was an international effort. Bacon, in those days, was not just a luxury. It was a staple food. The production of bacon was a matter of national importance debated in parliament. It was a key food source sustaining the British navy. Many people only had bacon as food every day. They would boil the bacon before eating it. The parents who had to work the next day had the actual meat and the kids only had the water. Eduard Smith made the remark in his landmark work, Foods (1873), that in this way both the parents and the children went to bed “with a measure of satisfaction.” Bacon had strategic importance to the military and in the first world war, spoke to the general food situation in war-ravaged England.
The fact that the bacon company was established in Estcourt in 1917 shows clearly that South Africa was ready to step in to prop up meat and bacon supply in particular to the UK. Was there direct involvement from the South Africa leader, General Louis Botha who possibly passed on a request from London to all Empire states to assist in the supply of meat and bacon in particular? It is a matter of conjecture, but a tantalising possibility. These are speculations that can be corroborated by looking at the correspondence of Botha. FR Moor himself had direct communication with London and Botha may have simply opened the factory in support of the idea. FR’s letters along with that of JW have to be scrutinised for leads. The one reason that makes me suspects that there may have been a direct request from Botha or some early support for the venture is the location of the factory, right next to the Fort. In my mind, it swings the possibility for direct involvement from Botha from possible to probable. (Facts from correspondence should solve the matter)
Supplying the British market may have been done to build up South Africa, just as much as it was done in support of the Empire. I suspect that the former may even be more of a driving force than the latter. On 13 June 1917, an article appeared in the Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, North Dakota), reporting from London that “Developments on an enormous scale are expected in South Africa after the war and plans in this connection are being made as regards the export of food. It is confidently predicted that so far as meat is concerned the Union will be in a position to compete very soon with any other part of the world and in order to assist the expansion of the industry all the steamship lines propose, it is understood, to increase their refrigerated space very considerably and to place more vessels in service.” This report came out in the year when the Cooperative bacon Company in Estcourt was formed. It oozes with deliberateness and purposefulness from the highest authorities.
One person who was clearly involved in the “deliberateness and purposefulness” becomes clear from a pamphlet that was published in that same year. In a document dated 12 Jan 1917 about the South African meat export trade, compiled by A. R. T. Woods to Sir Owen Phillips, chairman of the Union-Castle Line who by this time was carrying meat from South America to Europe in their Nelson Line of Steamers, the following interesting quite is given by Gen. Louis Botha. The background is the delivery of what is described in the document as “by universal consent,. . . probably the best specimen of South African meat (beef) yet placed upon the London market” delivered by the R. M. S. “Walmer Castle” to the Smithfield market in London and inspected by a group from South Africa featured below in 1914. (I will give much to know the names of the men below. Will there be the name of one JW Moor?)
The party travelled to London by invitation from The Hon. W. P. Schreiner, High Commissioner of South Africa and Mr Ciappini (the Trades Commissioner). The South African meat was deemed comparable to frozen meat produced in any part of the world. The letter was a motivation that the South African meat trade was mature enough to be taken seriously and some helpful advice was given based on experience in South America.
He quotes Gen. Louis Botha who advised farmers that “so far as mealies are concerned the export should not develop, but that the mealies should be used to feedstock in this country, and that the export should be in the form of stock fed in South Africa on South African Mealies.” There is, therefore, good evidence of Genl. Louis Botha involving himself in the details of the establishment of the meat trade from South Africa and, I believe that it is in part this general encouragement that JW Moor followed in creating the Cooperative Bacon Curing Company in 1917.
I located this pamphlet among documents in the Western Cape Archive of J. W. Moor and his farmers Cooperative where they apply for permission to erect an abattoir and a bacon curing company in East London on the harbour. It is interesting that one of the recommendations given in the pamphlet is that abattoirs and chilling factories be erected in Ports, “along the quays where the ocean-going refrigerated steamers load” as it was done in Argentina. The influence of Botha’s encouragement of Moor can be well imagined.
The application for the abattoir was lodged in 1917, the same year when the Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory Limited was founded in August 1917. It is possible that members of the Natal Farmers Co-operative Meat Industries and the Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory Limited were the same people. Or that the one owned the other. Whichever way you look at it, John Moor was a key figure in both and the establishment of a bacon company in East London was directly in line with the proposals set out to boost meat exports. It is very interesting that both occurred in 1917 and that only the Eskort factory survived. As someone who established such a venture myself, my initial thoughts were that having a curing company at two such geographically distant sites as East London and Estcourt would have been impossible to manage, especially since both were new ventures. Further documents show that the factory was built on the proposed site and it is telling that only the Estcourt site survived.
The stone in Estcourt was unveiled by JW Moor on January 7, 1918, almost a full year before the Armistice. The Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory Limited was founded in August 1917, 16 months before the end of the War. The factory was opened on 6 June 1918 by Prime Minister General Louis Botha, 6 months before the Great War ended. This is remarkable.
The shortages in the UK in 1917 and 1918 were dire. The end of the war was not in sight and calls went out across the Empire to assist. Meat supply, at this time, diminished by 30% in the UK. In this context, it is easy to see how military land was either made available or that it would have been strategically prudent to locate such an installation close to a military site, but again, it would have required high-level support (involvement?).
For the South Africans, the call for help would have been close to home. Delville Woods took place in 1916, a year before the company was created. In the month when it was founded, August 1917, Lieutenant-General Sir Jacob Louis van Deventer had just taken over command of the mostly South African troops involved in the German East African campaign. His offensive started in July 1917. The entire East African region remained very active for the duration of the war.
When the fighting was all done almost 19 000 South Africans lost their lives. The madness of the time can best be described by the opening sentences of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair… Such would have been the experience of the men and women involved in the war while setting up the Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory on the banks of the Boesmans River in Estcourt, Natal. (1)
The Best Bacon on Earth
The Farmers Cooperative Bacon Factory at Estcourt has been producing the finest bacon on earth since its inception. The first international endorsement for the quality of the Farmers Co-operative Bacon Factory in Estcourt, Natal came in 1920 at the British Dairy Farmers’ Association Show in London.
Almost right from the start, the show became the platform where the best produce from around the world was exhibited alongside the best from England. The British colonies used this as a platform to sell into the lucrative English market. The first British Dairy Show was held in Islington in London in 1876. It was initially called the Metropolitan Dairy Show. “At this show, the British Dairy Farmers’ Association was formed and in the following year the first Dairy Show was held at the Agricultural Hall, Islington.”(Pasfield, 1961)
It was never only about dairy. The 1876 show included competitions for Jersey, Guernsey, Shorthorn, Ayrshire, Kerry, Brittany, and any other breed of dairy cow, based on inspection. These were however banned “by order of the Privy Council owing to an outbreak of cattle plague in the country. However other livestock such as goats, donkeys, mules and poultry were exhibited at the first show, together with dairy produce, roots, grain and hops.” (Pasfield, 1961) Bacon soon became a standard feature at the show where they catered for the farming trade as well as the consumers. By 1893, there were 43 bacon and ham exhibits.
The Morning Post (London) of 19 October 1897 reported on the influence of foreign producers. “So much is heard nowadays of the versatility and ability of the foreign producer that attention has been largely diverted from home production and opinion educated to regard as of secondary merit butter, cheese, and other articles emanating from British dairies.” The report stated that “the prominence attained by the imported article is due mainly to the moderate price at which it can be produced, together with admitted uniformity in quality.” The journalist was writing about butter, but for sure, it applied to other produce, including bacon.
The Union of South Africa, which was created in 1910, was represented at the show and was particularly successful in 1920. An advertisement in The Times newspaper from October 1920 indicated that South African bacon was part of the Union Exhibit at stand 121, Gilbey Hall, at the Royal Agricultural Hall, Islington.
The Age, October 20, 1920, reporting on the poor Australian representation, calls the South African exhibit “magnificent” in all classes of produce. It states that the Union’s exhibition is the “finest of its kind ever seen at the dairy show.“
A report from The Age, the next day, on 21 October, reported that South Africa won all prizes for cheese and bacon produced in British colonies.
British newspapers did not directly report on which South African bacon producers were so successful in 1920, but E. G. Hardy, Assistant Superintendent of Dairying, Pretoria, writing for the Journal of the Department of Agriculture, gave us the detail when he reported on the South African exhibit at this show in 1921. In the category of bacon from a British colony, four sides of bacon had to be entered per participant. “There were nine entries, all from South Africa except one from New South Wales. The Farmers’ Co-operative Bacon Factory, Ltd., Estcourt, Natal, secured the gold medal, scoring 92 points.” This, by itself, is a stunning achievement, but he then compares it with even greater success from the previous year. “This company (The Farmers Co-operative Bacon Factory from Estcourt, Natal) therefore repeated their success in the previous two years. Before we look at the 1920 results, he mentions that in 1921 “Messrs. Sparks and Young, Durban, was placed second and awarded the silver medal, their exhibit scoring 90 points, and the Estcourt Factory were third with another exhibit scoring 87 points.” (Hardy)
Above is the gold medal awarded to them in 1921 by the Royal Agricultural Society of Natal.
The results from 1920 in this same category received his attention. He wrote that “he was given to understand that the quality of the South African (our) exhibits was hardly up to the high standard of last year (1920), when the Estcourt factory’s winning exhibit scored 100 points.” Part of the blame for the poorer showing in 1921 was “to some extent at least, due to faulty smoking of the bacon in London.” (Hardy)
The scorecard of 1920, when the Farmers’ Co-operative Bacon Factory, Ltd., of Estcourt, Natal, achieved 100%, proudly hangs in their Irene Head Office boardroom.
This is the earliest and clearest endorsement of the superior quality of the bacon that was produced at the Estcourt Factory. It is a tradition that was repeated at subsequent shows stretching well into the 1950s and which is still part of the ethos of this remarkable company. I am planning a separate page where all the achievements from these shows will be detailed.
The Dairy Show in Islington, London, remained the primary showcase of agricultural products in the British Empire. The company continued to win first prizes at this prestigious show. In 1926 they again won the category of bacon produced in British colonies and were awarded this beautiful rose bowl cup with lion masks and rings.
On 21 October 1926, The Age, London, reported on this win.
A trophy won at the Royal Agricultural Show in Natal for the best exhibit of Hams and Bacon.
The London show remained important for the emerging South African economy for many years and the Co-operative Bacon Factory in Estcourt (Eskort Ltd), remained one of the pillars that the South African drive for international recognition was being built on.
In 1950, the Farmers Co-operative Bacon Factory achieved second prize at the show.
As happened many times before, they not only won first prize, but also a second prize.
In 1953 they again won first prize at the British Dairy Farmers’ Association Coronation Dairy Show. The fact that it was called the “Coronation Dairy Show” refers to the ascension of Princess Elizabeth to the throne, upon the death of her father in 1952. She was formally crowned Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953.
The Eskort factory is a historic site where many interesting cross-currents meet. Its uninterrupted existence from a time before nitrite was directly added to brine makes it unique in the world! Apart from Danish Crown and Tulip, I know of very few other companies.
Besides this, tied up in the story of its creation is a romantic immigrant, a family, defining themselves through diamond digging and making powerful friends; re-investing its fortunes in farming and establishing a food company that exists to this day. We see the use of tank curing which predates the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines. The global influence of Griffiths probably converted Eskort to an operation using the direct application of nitrite to curing brines following WW1. We see the influence of the Danish Cooperative system, probably through the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory. Besides any of these, we see hard work, imagination and high character and particular response to a specific call for help.
What is the purpose of this study? Besides the fascinating context of the Eskort operation, is there anything we can learn from the past? I offer a few suggestions.
1. Stay on top of the game. Use the best and latest technology available to stay well ahead of the race. A 1914 US newspaper article, from the Deming Headlight, called the Danish cooperative bacon factory “the last word as to efficient scientific treatment of the dead porker.” The article was entitled A Cooperative Bacon factory. (The Deming Headlight (Deming, New Mexico), Friday 8 May 1914, Page 6.)
2. Use the best corporate structure, appropriate for the time.
3. This point probably dovetails into the previous one – ensure that the business is well funded.
4. Think big! No, think massive! By no account was any of the plans of JW Moor or any of his brothers or their father ever small!
5. The factory was built with a specific market in mind. “It was built for exports”, even though saying it like this may be too specific. Let’s state it this way – “technology was chosen to attract the right clients.” A modern-day example may be investing in a tray ready packaging line for fresh meat for the retail trade or cooked bacon for the catering trade.
6. Things are not as bad today as they were during the world wars. If anything, we have more opportunities. No matter what is happening in our country, this can be our age of wisdom, our epoch of belief, the season of light and our spring of hope!
The last comment must be made about the legacy of the bacon plant. There can be little doubt that it had a large impact on the meat processing landscape in South Africa over the years. It provides a fertile and productive training centre for many men and women to later either set up their own curing operations or work at other plants across the country, thus transferring the skills inherent in the Estcourt plant to the rest of the country. In this regard, the impact of the visionary work of the Moor family is volcanic. It is interesting to talk to executives in Eskort and to realise how many people in top positions in curing operations across the country started their careers at the Eskort plant in Estcourt in the Natal Midlands.
These are some of the obvious lessons I take away from the study. This is insanely exciting!
Gen. Louis Botha was the man who pushed for the development of the meat industry in SA. Of course, he found a great ally in David de Villiers Graaff who created ICS. At the end of 1934, the company was in serious financial trouble following the Great Depression. Anglo-American corporation was the largest investor and as it invested more money in the company, while the company worked ever closer with Tiger Oats, which was another Anglo subsidiary. In March 1982 Barlow bought a large share of Tiger Oats and the controlling share in ICS. In October 1998 Tiger Brands (Tiger Oats Limited) bought Imperial Cold Storage and it was taken up in the portfolio of this company’s brands.
Look at this old photo I found. In 1910 the Union of South Africa was created uniting the Transvaal, Free State, Natal and the Cape. Botha was asked to become Prime Minister. Here is a photo of his first cabinet. David was a member of this cabinet. He is in the back row on the right.
FR Moor is 3rd from the left, back row, looking to his right. His younger brother, JW Moor, was the chairman of the farmers cooperative that became Eskort. Botha opened the Eskort factory in Estcourt, Natal shortly before he passed away. The complete list of men on the photo and members of the first Union cabinet is: Back row, left to right: Gen JBM Hertzog, H Burton, FR Moor, Col. G Leuchars, Gen JC Smuts, HC Hull, FS Malan and David de Villiers Graaff. Front: JW Sauer, Gen Botha, and A Fischer.
In a way, both Eskort and Enterprise (at least Tiger Brands) were represented. The individual photos are of De Villiers Graaff and Moor.
The history and impact of bacon, men and women, run deep! What a story!
Arnold Prinsloo, the CEO of Eskort, sent me a message. He has a present for me, a book commemorating the first 100 years of Eskort, Ltd..
It was a day when Paul Fickling, my partner in crime at Van Wyngaardt and I decided to follow Christo Niemand’s advice to stand back a bit and think about our strategy with the business. I was glad that Paul was with me so that I could introduce him to one of the legends in our industry.
What I never had was an image of JW Moor. Arnold showed me his photo.
Finally, I am looking for the legendary first chairman of the First Farmers Cooperative Bacon Factory to be established in SA in the eyes. We spoke about the history and the Moor family; the industry at large and then Arnold gave us a bit of information that is invaluable to our quest. “Build your company on quality! Nothing less than that will exist for 100 years.”
At home, I could hardly wait to page through the book. Here I saw so many of my friends.
Wynand Nel who worked with me at Stocks Meat Market, Arnold Prinsloo, Melindi Wyma, Bob Ferguson – I know his son, Alex who is heading up Multivac.
This morning Paul Fickling was telling me about a small hotel they stayed over in Natal the previous week, Hartford House. It turns out that the house was owned by JW Moor. Arnold elucidated us and suggested we get in contact with Mickey Goss, the current owner of the estate, for an in-depth discussion of the history of the region and the Moor family.
I will definitely send Mickey correspondence and arrange for a visit to his famed estate. I am thrilled to be part of this incredibly rich history, humbled by the gesture of Arnold and the coincidence of Paul and his family staying at the exact house a week ago. Well, that is just strange!!
I received a mail this morning (14 June 2020) from Bruce, Sally and Phyllis. Bruce writes that “having spent time growing up playing along the Bushman’s river at the back of the bacon factory, your story would not be complete without the mention of Harry Lambert.” He attached an old newspaper clip which reads:
“H. W. Lambert is a man who has watched Estcourt grow from “half-a-dozen” andone house and a handful of wood and iron shops and homes.” It was in 1920 when H. W. Lambert immigrated from Edinburgh, Scotland to take up an appointment with the Farmers Co-operative Bacon Factory.
“Only a small part of the town today resembles the Estcourt of 1920. Mind you, what was then used as the farmers’ hall is still in use as the civic offices.” When Mr Lambert joined the bacon factory, the killing of 300 pigs a week was considered “quite something.”
He was responsible for starting the manufacture of sausages at the factory and, by the time of his retirement a few years ago, he had overseen its growth to a point where 2500 pigs were being processed each week. “
Estcourt has plenty of “local legends,” says Mr Lambert. “One that intrigues me is the belief that the author Rider Haggard used to sit in the saddle between two hills just outside the town, working on his stories. He is said to have written his book “King Solomon’s Mines” at this spot, and the two hillocks have been aptly named ‘Sheba’s Breasts’.”
In 1920, he recalls, Estcourt had no regular street lamps and only the roughest of footpaths.
“Those were the days of horses and traps and wagons. The chief social function of the townspeople was to watch the mail train pass through once a night.”
When sausages were first made at the factory, Mr Lambert remembers how school children would irk the employees by sticking their heads in when they passed and shouted “sausage town” in derogatory tones.
He has given a lifetime of devoted service to Estcourt and spent nine years on the Town Council – two as mayor. One of his chief pleasures was a game of snooker at the club.”
(1) 1917 and 18 were very interesting years besides for the creation of the bacon plant in Estcourt. On 8 June, two days after the start of production, the South African financial services group Sanlam was established in Cape Town. 1917/ 1918 was the year when the RAF was founded with another interesting South African connection. On 17 August 1917, General Jan Smuts released his report recommending that a military air service should be used as “an independent means of war operations” of the British Army and Royal Navy, leading to the creation of the Royal Air Force in 1918. (Hastings, Hastings, 1987)
(2) In reality, I did go to Denmark to learn bacon curing. The interesting thing is that Tulip is a Danish company, wholly owned by Danish Crown and a direct outflow of the creation of the cooperative curing plant at Horsens. In the ’70 and ’80, the Danish abattoirs and large processing companies consolidated and formed Danish Crown. The Danes created Tulip in England to, in a way, set up their own distribution company in England for the vast quantities of bacon they produced in Denmark. Essentially, they created their own client. In later years Tulip became involved in every aspect of the pork industry in England and currently is the largest pork farmer in the UK. Exactly as it was logical for my path to lead to Tulip, so, it was logical for JW’s path to lead to the Harris operations and a cooperative bacon plant. Given the same set of variables, the best choices are obvious to all, no matter how far in the future you look back at decisions of the past.
Dhupelia, U. S.. 1980. Frederick Robert Moor and Native Affairs in the Colony of Natal 1893 to 1903. Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in the Department of History in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Durban-Westville. Supervisor: Dr. J.B. Brain; Date Submitted: December 1980. Download: Dhupelia-Uma-1980
Dommisse, E. 2011. First baronet of De Grendel. Tafelberg
The Freeman’s Journal, Dublin, Ireland; 18 Oct 1878, p1.
The Guardian (London, Greater London, England), 6 July 1918, p6.
Max, Bomber Command: Churchill’s Epic Campaign – The Inside Story of the RAF‘s Valiant Attempt to End the War, New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1987, ISBN0-671-68070-6, p. 38.
Morrell, R. G.. 1996. White Farmers, Social Institutions and Settler Masculinity in the Natal Midlands, 1880-1920. A Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of Economic History. University of Natal. Durban, March 1996
The Morning Post (London, Greater London, England) · 19 Oct 1897, Tue · Page 2
Pasfield, J. The Royal Dairy Show. Brit. vet. J. (1961), 117, 373, Horsham.
Perren, R. Farmers and consumers under strain: Allied meat supplies in the First World War. The Agricultural Historical Review. PDF: Richard Perren
The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896
Thompson, P. S.. 2011. Historia Vol. 56, no. 1. The Natal home front in the Great War (1914-1918) On-line version ISSN 2309-8392; Print version ISSN 0018-229X. The Historical Association of South Africa c/o Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria.
Walworth, G.. 1940. Feeding the Nation in Peace and War. London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
“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.
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.
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).
“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
“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
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)
“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.”
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 beingPrinsloo, 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 thisflock. Even Roux, who seems to have been wandering aboutaimlessly among these men, had nothing better to do than tocomplain 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.
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!
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)
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.
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 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?
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)
“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)
“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?
“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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
2. GESLAGSREGISTER KOCK(KOK)
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
1. JOHANNA GEERTRUIDA LOUISA KOCK, gedoop 13 April 1817
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
5. JOHAN HENDRIK CHRISTOFFEL KOCK, gebore 11 Mei 1826
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.
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
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
22.214.171.124 JOHANNES WILLEM KOK, gebore 17 September 1967
126.96.36.199 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
188.8.131.52 ABRAHAM VLOK , gebore 20 Januarie 1979
184.108.40.206 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
220.127.116.11 EULALIE COCKCROFT, gebore 26 Mei 1962
18.104.22.168 NEWTON CONRADIE COCKCROFT, gebore 07 Junie 1964
22.214.171.124 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
126.96.36.199 CONRADIE MYNHARDT KOK, gebore 21 Augustus 1971
188.8.131.52 YVONNE KOK, gebore 19 September 1972
184.108.40.206 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
220.127.116.11 IAN REGINALD SPEIRS, gebore 02 Mei 1968
18.104.22.168 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 1976met ANDREAS FRANCOIS (Andre) du TOIT, gebore 21 Februarie 1950
22.214.171.124 JOHANNA (Hannelie) du TOIT, gebore 01 Januarie 1978
126.96.36.199 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
188.8.131.52 JOHANNES GERHARDUS UYS, gebore 07 November 1961
184.108.40.206 HEINRICH EDUARDT (Heinle) UYS, gebore 04 Mei 1963
220.127.116.11 THOMAS FRANCOIS UYS, gebore 03 September 1970
18.104.22.168 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
22.214.171.124 JACOBA JACOMINA BESTER, gebore 20 Januarie 1965
126.96.36.199 JOHANNES GERHARDUS HENDRIK (Hendrik) BESTER, gebore 06 Februarie 1968
188.8.131.52 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
184.108.40.206 JOHANNES GERHARDUS UYS, gebore 08 Junie 1973
220.127.116.11 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
2.2.1 THOMAS FRANCOIS KOK
2.2.2 HESTER AGNES KOK, gebore 09 September 1940
2.2.3 DANHAUSER KOK
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
18.104.22.168 JOHANNA ELIZABETH BOTHA, gebore 14 Junie 1966
22.214.171.124 HENDRIK BOTHA, gebore 17 April 1968
126.96.36.199 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
188.8.131.52 KAREN MULLER, gebore 16 Maart 1971
184.108.40.206 DANHAUSER MULLER, gebore 29 April 1973
220.127.116.11 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 met DOREEN UECKERMAN
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
18.104.22.168 ANDREAS JOHANNES van TONDER, gebore op 20 Julie 1967, trou op 13 Desember 1997 op Eshowe met ELOISE GERBER, gebore op 15 Februarie 1973
22.214.171.124.1 ENYE, gebore 18 Junie 2004 te Nelspruit
126.96.36.199.2 MIKHAIL, gebore 11 April 2007 te Nelspruit
188.8.131.52 EBENHAEZER KOK van TONDER, gebore 13 April 1969, getroud op 02 September 1995 in Pretoria met JULIE BECKMANN, gebore 02 Januarie 1975
184.108.40.206.1 TRISTAN ANDREW van TONDER, gebore op 18 Desember 1997 in Pretoria
220.127.116.11.2 LAUREN PATRICIA van Tonder, gebore 20 Januarie 2000 te Pretoria
18.104.22.168 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 22.214.171.124.1 PIETER WILLEM van TONDER, gebore op 09 September 1999 op Bethlehem
126.96.36.199.2 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.
188.8.131.52 JOHANNA MARGARETHA KOK, gebore 28 Mei 1970 op Pretoria, getroud op 03 Julie op Vredefort met STEPHEN LOUIS AUGOSTINE, gebore 19 November 1969
184.108.40.206.1 MARTHINUS JACOBUS AUGOSTINE, gebore op 16 Februarie 1997 te Vaalpark
220.127.116.11.2 JANKE AUGOSTINE, gebore 27 Junie 2000 te Richardsbaai
18.104.22.168 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
22.214.171.124.1 FRANé FRANCIS, Gebore 30 Mei 2005 te Brits
126.96.36.199 MAGDALENA MARIA KOK, gebore op 24 Mei 1975 op Pretoria. Getroud met JAN JOHANNES DRY, gebore 30 Mei 1972
188.8.131.52.1 MADELEIN DRY, gebore 05 Augustus 2004 te Pretoria
184.108.40.206.2 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
220.127.116.11 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
18.104.22.168.1 JACOBUS JOHANNES UYS KOK, gebore op 16 April 1999 op Vaalpark
22.214.171.124.2 KIARA, gebore op 20 Julie 2007
126.96.36.199 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
188.8.131.52.1 MICHIEL EKSTEEN UYS KOK, gebore op 14 Februarie 1997 op Potchefstroom
184.108.40.206 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
220.127.116.11.1 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
18.104.22.168 COENRAAD CHRISTOFFEL STEYN, gebore 15 Mei 1959,
22.214.171.124 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
Dr SERF SE HOSPITAAL
I found this interesting reference to JW Kok Heilbron Herrald van 12 Junie 2020.
Dr SERF SE HOSPITAAL KRY NA 30 JAAR EERSTE AMBULANS
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.
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 Best Bacon on Earth Cape Town, October 1960
The kids visited last December. Is it almost a year ago? Where did the time go! Where does one begin to wrap up an epic adventure? As in Homers Odyssey, you quickly learn that it is all about the journey. The destination is a bonus. What we discover, however, is enriching and life-changing! Still, not even wisdom comes to anything! Our heavenly Jerusalem or Nordic Valhalla is precisely in the fact that we are conscious and in the moment of consciousness, the universe is conscious through us. I am saving a full explanation to the end of the book, yet, I can not progress if I don’t give you this glimpse into the art of living that bacon steered me to. My quest has always been more than bacon, yet, it was never less than. Within this simple culinary marvel, I started to discern the secret of life itself. Bacon curing is the instrument that the universe used to lead me to the answer to life, death and everything there is. Is it not fitting for such a simple thing to hold such rich wisdom!
The secret processes of the creation of bacon have been discovered by humans, yet it was not invented by humans. It mimics natural physiological processes yet in the incorrect understanding of those processes and their limitations we endanger ourselves because we do not appreciate the powers we unleash! Still, the truth is that its processes are natural! Its discovery a fait accompli. Its wonder is both in its taste and the beauty of its processes. Discovering the laws governing its creation is complex and requires the utmost diligence and complete dedication to the quest. Yet, it exists not for this purpose. Its reason for being is the sustenance it gives at the right time. It provides nutrition in the time of want. So is life. Life is simple and the one who never gives a thought as to the purpose of our existence or our ultimate end can enjoy every good gift on this earth, bear all the grief and ends his or her days completely satisfied. Yet, for those, wholly absorbed in understanding the meaning of it all, there are answers – great, profound and satisfying. Still, this quest has the potential of taking the very enjoyment of life away from the investigator in which case it would have been better not to have started the journey!
Dawie Hyaman’s Widsdom
Dawie wrote to me from America. We were discussing the fact that for all our reasoning ability, humans are not very intelligent. He writes, “that is a fascinating thing.. thought of it many times myself. I look at the intelligence in a tree, to take manure and sunshine and turn it into a juicy fruit, or a fragrant flower. Or the intelligence in my body that takes all the food I throw at it and converts it into a human. I can eat all the bananas I want but I won’t become a monkey! Then this other thing, we call intelligence, which is reasoning, and logic, and seeing patterns and following insights over instincts.. and there .. there is NO intelligence there .. or very very little. Seems to me the intelligence in the universe is everywhere except in the reasoning capacity!!” Is this not precisely the point! The reason why we are alive is completely apart from our logic. The very search for the eternal is itself a mirage. It is getting lost in the complexity of the processes of bacon curing without ever curing bacon and enjoying it yourself! Still, there is great value in a pursuit of its secrets. The end must always be to enhance its enjoyment when consumed. Life is exactly the same. We can ask for the eternal and the fixed but if this becomes the end in itself, we are completely missing the point.
To the point, Dawie writes that “there’s nothing wrong with the world as it is. I think it’s heaven. Look at the exquisite beauty, the endless complexity, colour, flavour, possibility. Sure we suffer biological pain because the protection mechanism of the body is not intelligent enough to turn itself off when its no longer doing much (or maybe it is, we just don’t like the settings hahaha) .. and of course we only appreciate pleasure because we know pain.. but my point is .. most of what we suffer is in the constructs of our mind… we suffer our memory and our imagination!! WE suffer our experience. And that seems to me because we think we are our mind, we think we are our body.. when we are not that.. because when we sleep we still exist, and when we lose our legs we still exist… so the whole thing of freedom to me is to stop suffering the thinking mind, and then just “be” .. and when we are present like that.. we are in bliss .. every single time.” Do you get his point? What he is saying is that the quest is not the goal. When it all gets so frantic, stop and quiet your spirit and just be. Think less!
He concluded by writing: “Seems to me .. we are always Here, Now. We always have been. Our thoughts, feelings and perceptions come and go, and are experienced in time .. it has to.. it has conceptual start and end, and a conceptual space.. so it is not always here.. so in that sense, we die. But beyond perceptions… the Nothing beyond Thinking .. the no-Thing … its nothing to the constructs and perceptions of the mind.. but it is the source of everything. Where else did forms come from, but from the formless?”
Living in the Real World
Just like the incorrect application or understanding of some of the complex processes in bacon can get us in trouble on many fronts including health and wellbeing, so the incorrect view of reality can create endless misery for ourselves and others. Politics in our beautiful country did not turn out as I would have liked, but it did happen exactly as I predicted! I see us steering the course of conflict as I saw it all these years ago while riding transport. Still, I continue to learn about life and had many years where I could put everything I learned about bacon to good use.
Daily News New York, 7 October 1960
The country voted for independence from Britain! It breaks my heart because it was done for all the wrong reasons! I am in full support of independence from Britain, but not for the reason that the referendum was fought over. It ended up as a fight between the white English and Afrikaans speaking people which was merely a rehash of the Anglo-Boer war, contrary to the efforts of Smuts and Botha to unite the groups after the war.
It would have been far better if the discussion included the non-white population of the country and was focused on doing what is right for everybody instead of the selfish ambitions of a few. All South Africans should have been allowed a say in their future as equals. The end result will be untold hardship for many millions of people.
Still, there is an important lesson for me. No matter our circumstances, we can find in ourselves and in things around us reasons to be thankful. This is a tremendous human ability. Amidst the greatest injustice, we can hope! When all hope is lost, we can persevere, and we can hope, against hope! The strange thing that I learned over my life is that this kind of hope never disappoints! This too is part of the art of living! I have no doubt that the Afrikaner and every other race in the country will rise up to take their rightful place as co-heirs of this land as equals. Anything less will be an injustice!
When I left Cape Town for the first time as a young man many years ago, I set out with a single-minded objective to learn the mechanisms underlying the art of curing. We desired to create the best bacon on earth. Did I achieve this? I would like to think that for a time, just before I left Woody’s, that we did just that. We created amazing bacon. Now Koos and Duncan have the company and are facing new challenges. They went through a time of great hardship themselves in the company, but from what I can see on the shelves, the quality is returning to the brand. It makes me incredibly proud of what they have achieved since Oscar, Will, James, Roy, Stanford, Adrian, myself and so many others left. I keep on learning! That making the best bacon on earth, consistently, year in and year out is a very difficult thing and an art in itself.
Many great bacon companies exist around the world. There are three examples of companies that I got to know very well who manage to achieve amazing quality bacon. Two of the companies have been doing it now for over 100 years! I salute them both by concluding the most amazing journey imaginable by focussing not on what Oscar and I manage to achieve, but on others. Others can judge our success or failure in this regard. Three companies who also learned how to make the best bacon on earth stand out! The last few chapters deal with them.
Best Bacon on Earth
Below are photos of some of the best bacon produced on earth by a Master Butcher from Germany whom I have the honour to work with. The best bacon on earth is being created. No compromise! Just quality! Some are cooked fully and some not, depending on where it is made and for what market. The pale bacon is cooked. These are all created in large, high throughput factories in Europe.
Note that all the commercial bacon was produced using a grid system. At Woody’s, we designed, what I believe to be, the best grid system. This can be seen under The Best Bacon System on Earth.
Bacon & the Art of Living focuses mostly on commercial bacon. There is an entirely different discipline around dry-cured, artisan bacon. This is the subject of Chapter 02: Dry Cured Bacon. My mentor here is an Englishman living in Canada, Robert Goodrich.
The photos below are not all “bacon” but it showcases some of the work of the master!
To prove my point about Robert’s bacon, here are some other examples of his work.
I give Vladimir’s recipe to illustrate the difference between artisan bacon and those produced in large high-throughput factories. You can see that time is not an enemy or a factor to overcome in the example below, but an ally to be embraced.
Vladimir’s recipe is given as:
Ingredients – Nitrite salt – 2.2% – Brown sugar – 1% – White vinegar (100 ml) and spice (Black pepper, several peas of juniper, bay leaves)
Procedures. People say that real bacon from Ayrshire should be marinated in a liquid with vinegar. I did not do this. – 4 weeks in a vacuum with salt, wine, vinegar and spices. – Rinse, dry and tie bacon into a roll. – Smoking – 8 hours. – 4 weeks of maturation in the chamber at + 10С and humidity 80%
The white vinegar was a surprise!
Companies who Achieve This
Of all the amazing bacon companies out there I have opted for three examples. There can be many as there are amazing companies out there! I close the three because they have unique ties to South Africa.
The amazing thing about these companies, as with so many others, is that they possess real soul. In their DNA are locked up unique qualities which made them and still make them stand out head and shoulder above the rest. One element of this DNA is a pursuit for quality. Another one is that at some point in their history they were led by a group of people who understood the secret of life. That we are here today and gone tomorrow and our greatest joy (purpose) is in being! These companies have the most fascinating stories to tell and the amazing thing is that I bet you it is the same with every good bacon company out there. They all have great stories to tell becasue bacon people, I mean REAL bacon people, understand humility, comradery and friendship. They are what we refer to as salt-of-the-earth kind of people. They know how to make great bacon and the art of living! These stories form the closing chapters of this epic journey!
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 Ascorbate Letter
Cape Town, November 1959
A few more weeks and you and La are here. We can hardly wait! There is so much to discuss! I remember when I rode transport that when I leave for the Rand, my dad used to ride out with me and upon my return, he will get word of our approach and would meet up with me on the other side of Worcester. He would always say to me after our greetings, “Let’s ride home together and you start telling me everything. Don’t skip a thing!” He was always so proud of my many stories and when we visit Unce Jacobus, my dad would tell him my adventures as if I am not even there. I now understand it! Come prepared to tell me everything! I can’t wait to hear what your life is like!
After many years I finally progressed in the grand story of bacon; a quest to understand it and cure the finest bacon anywhere on our planet; we progressed to the last essential ingredient namely an anti-oxidant. Of all the many stories of bacon, the discovery of ascorbate or Vitamin C is one of the most colourful.
Repetition aids learning. Let us again review elements of what I have written to you and your sister about. Nitric oxide, a derivative from nitrite, reacts with an active group in the muscle tissue, to create the cured meat colour. It plays a further role as an antimicrobial agent and is partly responsible for the cured meat taste. This makes nitrite along with salt (sodium chloride) the most important curing agents.
The other key ingredient for bacon cures is ascorbate or vitamin C. Either as sodium ascorbate or ascorbic acid or its isomer, erythorbate, either as erythorbic acid or its salt, sodium erythorbate. The functional value of ascorbate is significant. (1)
The Function of Ascorbate in Bacon Curing.
There are at least four benefits in using ascorbate in meat curing.
a. Ascorbate or its isomer, erythorbate was originally used to speed up cured meat colour formation. (Pearson, A. M. and Tauber, F. W.; 1984: 53) It achieves this apparently by reducing the brown meat pigment, metmyoglobin to myoglobin with its purple-red colour. (Chichester, C. O.; 1984: 14)
b. “Ascorbate reacts chemically with nitrite to increase the yield of nitric oxide from nitrous acid. Nitric Oxide is responsible for meat curing.” (Pearson, A. M. and Tauber, F. W.; 1984: 53) It therefore also reduces the level of “residual nitrites” which is important in preventing the formation of N-Nitrosamines. This is a key tool in the worldwide strategy to ensure that bacon remains a safe product to eat.
c. “Excess ascorbate acts as an antioxidant, thereby stabilising both colour and flavour. It prevents rancidity and the fading of sliced bacon when exposed to light. It achieves this through the prevention of heme-catalyzed lipid oxidation which results in both pigment degradation and rancidity. As long as excess ascorbate is present, the pigments are protected against breakdown. (Pearson, A. M. and Tauber, F. W.; 1984: 53)
d. Under certain conditions, ascorbate has been shown to reduce nitrosamine formation. (Pearson, A. M. and Tauber, F. W.; 1984: 53)
Only sodium ascorbate or sodium erythorbate (as opposed to ascorbic acid and erythrobic acid) are used in meat cures since ascorbic and erythorbic acid reacts with nitrite to form nitrous oxide. Nitrous Oxide is dangerous in confined spaces and its formation reduces the amount of nitrite available to participate in meat curing. (Pearson, A. M. and Tauber, F. W.; 1984: 53)
The value of nitrite has been discovered over the last 200 years. (2) Previous articles dealt with its recognition as a curing agent and how the curing industry ended up using it. (3) We now turn our attention to ascorbate. We first look at its discovery.
The Discovery of Vitamins
The Polish biochemist, Kazimierz Funk (1884 – 1967) or, in English, Casimir Funk.
The term “vitamin” was coined by Casimir Funk in 1912 while working at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, in London. It is a combination of the words, “vital” and “amine” meaning the “amine of life”. In 1912, it was believed that “accessory factors” (9) in some foods, necessary for the function of the human body, prevented certain diseases like beriberi and scurvy.
It was thought that these “accessory factors” might be chemical amines. It turned out that this is the case with thiamine (vitamin B1), but after it was found that other such micronutrients were not amines, the word was shortened to vitamin in English.
The discovery of vitamins happened at a time when the prevailing theory of disease was the germ theory and “dogma held that only four nutritional factors were essential namely proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and minerals.” It was however recognised in this time, by clinicians that scurvy, beriberi, rickets, pellagra, and xerophthalmia were “specific vitamin deficiencies, rather than diseases due to infections or toxins .” (Semba RD; 2012: 1) The period when the vitamins were discovered stretches from the early 1800s until the mid-1900s. (Semba RD; 2012: 1)
The discovery of the individual vitamins was not the result of big eureka moments but the fruit of the labour and contributions of many epidemiologists, physicians, physiologists, and chemists, from around the world. Like many discoveries, “it was slow, stepwise progress that included setbacks, contradictions, refutations, and some chicanery.” (Semba RD; 2012: 1) I don’t wish to give you an exhaustive account of the story of its discovery with every important contributor and contribution listed. It is an overview and a general introduction to some of the main characters in the great saga of the discovery of Vitamin C.
The Discovery of Ascorbate or Vitamin C
Hungarian scientist Albert von Szent-Györgyi, recipient of the 1937 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, “for his discoveries in connection with the biological combustion processes, with special reference to vitamin C and the catalysis of fumaric acid.”
The intense scientific inquiry into possible cures and preventative methods for scurvy began at the beginning of the 1800s with the work of George Budd (1808-82), Professor of Medicine at King’s College, London. (Hughes, R. E.; 2000) “In 1842, Budd published in the London Medical Gazette a series of articles entitled, “Disorders Resulting from Defective Nutriment.” He described “three different forms of disease which are already traced to defective nutriment” and argued that such conditions resulted from the absence of dietary factor(s) other than carbohydrate, fat, and protein and that the absence of each of these specific factors would be associated with a specific disease. This idea lay dormant for 40 years until it was experimentally proved by N. Lunin. (Hughes, R. E.; 2000)
L. J. Harris who himself made significant contributions in the later story of vitamin C, referred to Budd as “the prophet Budd” and cited an article where Budd expressed the belief that scurvy was due to the “lack of an essential element which it is hardly too sanguine to state will be discovered by organic chemistry or the experiments of physiologists in a not too distant future” (Hughes, R. E.; 2000)
Little happened, however, to fulfil Budd’s prophecy until the beginning of the twentieth century with the work of A. Holst and T. Fröhlich of Norway. ((Hughes, 2000) and (McCollum, 1922)) They observed that for growth and “prolonged well-being” in rats, the following was necessary: “A single purified protein, a source of the sugar glucose, nine mineral elements and two uncharacterized dietary factors” (McCollum, E. V.; 1922: 365) The two unknown dietary factors he called “A” and “B”.
It seemed natural for the scientific community to call the antiscorbutic factor they were looking for, “accessory food factor C.” The phrase was however clumsy and people already got used to the term vitamine. After chemists made peace with the option of dropping the e and thereby not referring to any particular chemical structure, the antiscorbutic factor was called vitamin C.
Zilva, working in the Biochemistry Department at the Lister Institute, London was leading the way and he attempted to isolate it from lemon juice. He was able to create a solution that contained Vitamin C (the presence of which was confirmed in tests on babies) with the citric acid being removed, but as soon as it was evaporated to dryness, the functionality disappeared. (Carpenter, J. K.; 1986: 187)
Tillmans and Hirsch
The search for Vitamin C continued with renewed vigour until the 1930’s when two different approaches both lead to the discovery of Vitamin C. (Daniel E. P. and Munsell H. E; 1937: 5) The concentration of Vitamin C, derived from lemon juice was studied in depth over a long period of time. Two German chemists, J. Tillmans and P. Hirsch (1927) observed that there is a correlation between the reducing capacity of plants and animal tissue and their Vitamin C content. (4) (Daniel E. P. and Munsell H. E; 1937: 5)
Biological oxidation-reduction systems were also being studied where a strong reducing substance was identified with the empirical formula of from the adrenal cortex. (5) The substance was acidic and resembled the carbohydrates in reducing power and colour reactions. (Daniel E. P. and Munsell H. E; 1937: 5)
Parallel to this work was that of Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi’s who isolated hexuronic acid. The work of Dr. Szent-Györgyi became legendary. Dr. Szent-Györgyi, “a Hungarian biochemist, was working on plant respiration systems at Groningen in Holland and became interested in a reducing compound present in his preparations.” (Hughes, R. E.; 2000)
F. G. Hopkins, himself a valuable contributor to the work on vitamins (he demonstrated in 1912 the presence of growth factors in milk and showed their essential dietary nature) invited Szent-Györgyi to Cambridge to extend his studies. In 1927, Szent-Györgyi isolated his “Groningen reducing agent” in a crystalline, from oranges, lemons, cabbages, and adrenal glands.” (Hughes, R. E.; 2000)
He published his discovery in 1928, and after some struggle to find an appropriate name, called this new substance hexuronic acid. In this paper, a statement is made about the studies on the reducing substances of lemon juice, and mentioned that they “established interesting relationships between vitamin C and the reducing properties of plant juices.” (Daniel E. P. and Munsell H. E; 1937: 5)
McKinnis, King, and Svirbely
In 1930 R. B. McKinnis and C. G. King, a vitamin researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, suggested in a publication that hexuronic acid could be vitamin C. (Halver J. E., and Scrimshaw, S.; 2006: 5, 6) The work of King and Szent-Györgyi would find an interesting and controversial link in the person of J. L. Svirbely who previously worked with King and was appointed by Szent-Györgyi to assist him, in 1931.
While still at Cambridge, Szent-Györgyi was approached by the Hungarian minister of education, Count Kuno Klebelsberg, who wanted to rebuild the Hungarian scientific institutions with Rockefeller Foundation support for expanding the programs in Szeged. He was invited to return to Hungary and chair the medical chemistry department at the University of Szeged. (The Albert Szent-Györgyi Papers) With limited advancement opportunities at Cambridge, he took up the new position in January 1931.
Szent-Györgyi was an eccentric, informal, unorthodox, brilliant and very popular professor and a thorn in the flesh for many more conservative colleagues. Apart from fascinating lectures, he was known for “dining or playing sports with his students, riding his bicycle to visit colleagues (as was common at Cambridge)–but the students loved him for his free and spontaneous approach to education.” (The Albert Szent-Györgyi Papers)
Within the first six months in Szeged, he had done in terms of educational vigour and introducing educational programs and research structures, more than many people do in their lifetime. (The Albert Szent-Györgyi Papers) Towards the end of 1931, an American post-doctoral fellow, Joseph Svirbely, also a Hungarian native, joined Szent-Györgyi’s research team at the invitation of Szent-Györgyi. (The Albert Szent-Györgyi Papers) Together they conducted landmark experiments on guinea pigs, “which, like humans must ingest Vitamin C to maintain health since they also cannot produce it within their bodies. These experiments showed that “hexuronic acid — renamed ascorbic acid to reflect its anti-scurvy properties — was indeed the long-sought vitamin C.” (Schultz, J.; 2002)
The discovery has not been without controversy. Who exactly discovered it first? Was it Szent-Györgyi or another researcher who would claim this, Glen King? Central to the controversy is Joseph Svirbely. This is how it unfolded.
J. L. Svirbely initially worked with C. G. King at the University of Pittsburgh, trying to isolate vitamin C, along with graduate students H. L. Sipple, O. Bessie, F. L. Smith, and W. A. Waugh. “They were able to prepare vitamin C concentrates from lemon juice and studied the properties of vitamin C fractions from 1929 to 1931. Otto Bessie, from Montana, did not trust J. L. Svirbely.” It is reported that on one occasion their disagreements ended in physical blows. (Halver J. E., and Scrimshaw, S.; 2006: 5, 6)
Svirbely completed his work in Pittsburgh under King and was awarded his Ph.D.. He received a postdoctoral fellowship to work in Germany under Professor H. Wieland. In the fall of 1931, he changed his plans and went to Hungary when Szent-Györgyi offered him an appointment in Hungary which he was keen to take up. (Jukes, T.; 1988: 1290) This was a strategic appointment by Szent-Györgyi. One that was fully within his right to do and a lesson in how key appointments can swing the course of events in one’s favour.
Svirbely came with all the experience he gained from working with King. Szent-Györgyi later admitted this himself when he wrote, “When I asked him (Svirbely) what he knew he said he could find out whether a substance contained vitamin C. I still had a gram or so of my hexuronic acid. I gave it to him to test for vitaminic activity. I told him that I expected he would find it identical with vitamin C. I always had a strong hunch that this was so but never had tested it. I was not acquainted with animal tests in this field and the whole problem was, for me, too glamorous, and vitamins were, to my mind, theoretically uninteresting. ‘Vitamin’ means that one has to eat it. What one has to eat is the first concern of the chef, not the scientist. Anyway, Swirbely [sic] tested hexuronic acid. A full test took two months, but after one month the result was evident: hexuronic acid was Vitamin C.” (Jukes, T.; 1988: 1290)
Back in Pittsburgh, King and his colleagues were getting close to reaching a similar conclusion. Svirbely wrote to his former mentor in March 1932, telling him about the work they have done in Szeged. He also mentioned that he and Szent-Györgyi were submitting their findings in an article to Nature. (The Albert Szent-Györgyi Papers) (8) From this, it may seem that this prompted King to a hasty submission of what was still to him inconclusive results. There is evidence that this is not the case and the inference will be wrong. That the conclusions of King, based on work with lemon juice, was completed well before he received the letter from Svirbely. That he may have hastily submitted work for publication that was “sitting” with him after receiving word from Svirbely, is a matter that should have no bearing on the priority of the discovery. (Jukes, T.; 1988: 1292)
The following month, on 1 April 1932, Science published King’s paper where he announces that he discovered vitamin C and that it is identical to hexuronic acid. “King cited Szent-Györgyi’s earlier work on hexuronic acid where he gave Szent-Györgyi full credit for isolating it. (Jukes, T.; 1988: 1292)
He did however not credit him for vitamin C, despite the note he received from Svirbely, claiming this. As much as the appointment of Svirbely by Szent-Györgyi was a prudent decision, fully within his rights, so was it fully within King’s right not to mentioned the unpublished report on the findings of Szent-Györgyi of a link between vitamin C and hexuronic acid.
C. Glen King. 1954.
The discovery by King was picked up quickly by the American press. (The Albert Szent-Györgyi Papers) This initial report “was followed by a more lengthy and descriptive report in the Journal of Biological Chemistry by Waugh and King in 1932.” (Halver J. E., and Scrimshaw, S.; 2006: 5, 6)
King remembers the sequence of events and the order of the communication from Svirbely as follows, “We then submitted our paper for the spring meeting of the American Society of Biological Chemists … and sent another manuscript to Science. A few weeks later in March, I received a letter from Dr. Svirbely (who had gone to Hungary to study with Szent-Györgyi the fall of 1931), in which he mentioned that they were just finishing their first assay in which animals grew satisfactorily and were protected from scurvy when given 1 mg/day of their crystalline ‘hexuronic acid’. They were sending a report of the assay to Nature.” (Jukes, T.; 1988: 1290, 1291)
The researchers in Szeged did not see things King’s way. In reality, King did receive the note from Svirbely before the publication in Science, (Jukes, T.; 1988: 1290, 1291) They were shocked by what they saw as an early announcement, prompted by the note. They felt that their findings had priority. “Astonished and dismayed, Szent-Györgyi and Svirbely sent off their own report to Nature, challenging King’s priority in the discovery” (The Albert Szent-Györgyi Papers)
Science did not record the date when thy received the submission from King. Today we only have the publication date. It is of course entirely possible that they received it well in advance before King received his note from Svirbely and the actual publication was delayed for an unknown reason. King may himself had reasons why he submitted it late. There are reports that he was in the process of checking certain facts and other work that was published that would have a bearing on his work if they were correct. (Jukes, T.; 1988: 1290, 1291)
The fact that the note and timing of the publications became such a controversy is understandable. Both worked hard over many years on identifying vitamin C and each felt that they had a claim to its first identification. They worked independently and, at the same time relied on each other’s work. In the case of Szent-Györgyi, through his identification of hexuronic acid and in King’s case, in the establishment of the techniques for analysis that was transferred by Svirbely. The consternation that followed in both camps after the publication of King’s work and when Szent-Györgyi was credited with the discovery and isolating vitamin C was to be expected. Such is life. It makes for, as Jukes puts it, one of the strangest accounts of the discovery of a vitamin.
Further work by Svirbely and Szent-Györgyi (1932) confirmed that Hexuronic Acid was vitamin C. (6) (Daniel E. P. and Munsell H. E; 1937: 5) “The fact that King had worked on the problem for over five years was well-known in the scientific community. Especially in the United States and he had “many supporters, who were ready to vilify Szent-Györgyi as a plagiarist.” However, Europeans and British scientists also knew about the work of Szent-Györgyi’s and his “long history with this anti-oxidant substance”. They accepted his claim of being the first to discover vitamin C. (The Albert Szent-Györgyi Papers)
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and his laboratory staff at Szeged, Hungary
The emphasis now shifted to understand the structure of vitamin C. A tentative formula for vitamin C was suggested by Hirst et al (1932) and Herbert et al (1933). (7) (Daniel E. P. and Munsell H. E; 1937: 5) Even though Szent-Györgyi’s credit for the first identification of vitamin C was a bitter and lifelong disappointment to King, together with his research team, they published over 50 papers on ascorbic acid’s characteristics, deficiencies, and enzyme activities in various animal tissues between 1932-1942 (Halver J. E., and Scrimshaw, S.; 2006: 5, 6)
Haworth, a Birmingham (U.K.) chemist, received from Szent-Györgyi a sample of his “hexuronic acid, and in 1933, “in a series of impressive papers, the Birmingham chemist, using both degradative and synthetic procedures, described the structure of the molecule (Hughes 1983). The molecule was synthesized simultaneously, but independently, by T. Reichstein in Switzerland and by Haworth and his colleagues in Birmingham, both groups using essentially the same method.” (Hughes, R. E.; 2000)
The work of King and his research team came to fruition when Burns and King reported the synthesis of 1-C14-L-ascorbic acid in Science in 1950.” (Halver J. E., and Scrimshaw, S.; 2006: 5, 6) Over the years, the story of the analysis by Szent-Györgyi and Svirbely would become part of Chemical history’s folklore.
The history of the discovery of ascorbate becomes an import