The Anglo-Boer War
The exact cause why the war between England and the two Boer republics of the Orange Free State and Transvaal took place is not easy to answer. There is no one single reason. The easy itches that had to be scratched are obvious to see. The independent-minded, stanch, hard-line Calvinist Boers were looking for a fight with the most powerful empire on earth. They did not like the incessant mingling in their affairs. If they wanted to have black slaves and treat all non-white races as inferior, this was, according to them, their own business. On the other hand, individuals of the English nation had imperialistic aspirations for Africa and saw the Boers as inconveniently in control of the vast resources of the goldfields in Johannesburg and standing in their way to establishing English rule from the Cape to Cairo.
So it happened that a short but extremely costly and intense war was fought from 11 October 1899 to 31 May 1902. Some refer to this as the Boer War or the Anglo–Boer War, or the South African War. This was the first war of that scale which was fought, as it were, in front of the cameras lens. I dedicate an entire chapter to photos from the war in Chapter 19: The Boers (Our Lives and Wars) where not just the war but the Boer nation is featured beautifully. It is the backdrop of this work.
War is a dreadful phenomenon as it often sets in opposition, people who have a lot in common and who have respect for each other. Lord Lansdowne from Wiltshire, for example, a man whom I came to respect and admire on many levels became Secretary of State for War at the outbreak of hostilities. Faultlines in our human culture are accentuated during the time of war. Looking back at my own nation at war helped me to investigate our mental world and our reality as living life in our own mental worlds in a new light. The fact that I foresaw this war and the conflicts to come was the impetus for setting up Woody’s bacon which ultimately led me to a more complete appraisal of reality.
The inclusion of accounts from this war and the questions arising from it in a work on bacon appears counterintuitive, but it is exactly the hard look at ourselves and our people brought about by the heightened experience of the ether of life during the war, that took me back to the simple pursuit of bacon curing which the universe used to school me in the art of living.
Getting back to the subject at hand, for the life of me, I can’t remember who said this, but a bacon production manager in the UK quoted an English author who described the Boers as “stinking smelly bastards but they can shoot straight!” Such is the Boer soldier! England approached its other colonies to recruit soldiers to fight in South Africa. They recruited hardened and skilful men who could also ride and shoot straight, like the Boers. In this way, the South African War acted as a sieve. It highlighted good men on all sides. One such man, from Australia, was Wright Harris.
Wright Harris before departure for the Boer War, 1900
The story of Wright Harris, the Australian protagonist, begins in England where his parents were married in January 1864 and migrated to Victoria, Australia. Wright was the 7th of 11 children. His father was a farm labourer and woodcutter. Wright remarked in later life that he left school at age 12 when hard work was the lot of most boys and added that “it didn’t hurt us.” Wright was a devout Christian. This heritage he got from his mother. By 1900 he was a regular lay preacher at many churches in the area. In this respect, he reminds me of our second main character, Jan Kok.
Jan Kok at the house on Kranskop where he was born.
Jan Kok was born in the Winburg district in the independent Boer republic of the Orange Free State on 4 April 1880 to Johannes Willem Kok and Jacoba Elizabeth Theron. He was named after his dad. Altogether he had 10 siblings. The Orange Free State got its independence from Britain on 23 February 1854. Winburg itself was a self-proclaimed independent Boer territory since 1837 and was incorporated into the Free State in 1854. His grandfather, Johan Hendrik Christoffel Kock moved his family from Robertson in the Cape Colony to the Free State where he farmed on Besterschrik, 5km north of Korannaberg. Jan was christened on Windburg on 02 May 1880 and grew up right in the heart of Boer-self determination. His dad was himself a remarkable man. A veteran of the Basotho wars, he was commandant of one of the Windburg commandos. As a born leader, he had an indelible impact on the life of his son.
The Second Anglo-Boer War
War broke out in October 1899. The night after war was declared was ominous. A newspaper article in the 1900s described the scene that played itself out across the land. “All night the beacon fires had been burning on the higher kops. All night native runners had been scouring the country with messages from the commandants to the burgers. All night in many farmhouses the woman had been at work preparing the rations of biltong, and cleaning the arms of the patriots. All night throughout the length and breadth of the land prayers had gone up and the veld had echoed deep-voiced songs of David.” (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1900) The aggression of the Boers who invaded Natal took the British by surprise and this gave them initially the upper hand. The British government responded by massing its forces from across the empire which included soldiers from Australia. Wright enlisted in February 1900 in the Victorian Bushmen Contingent.
Jack Harris in the Otto Würth smokehouse, 1993
P. L. Murray writes about the Third Bushmen Contingent in his work, Official Records of the Australian military contingents to the war in South Africa, “This corps was largely subscribed for by the public. It was resolved that, in lieu of drawing the men exclusively from the local forces, a class of Australian yeomen and bushmen should be obtained; hardy riders straight shots, accustomed to find their way about in difficult country, and likely to make an expert figure in the vicissitudes of such a campaign as was being conducted.”
An enormous number of candidates volunteered for enlistment. The men selected were largely untrained in military matters; 230 were farmers or with some connection to farming. The selection criteria were based on their ability to ride and shoot. The men were allowed to bring their own horses. Many brought two.
Wright Harris’s Victorian Bushmen Contingent, also known as the third Contingent Parades in Readiness to leave Cheltenham.
They left Melbourne for South Africa on 10 March 1900 aboard the Euryalis and arrived in Cape Town on 3 April 1900. Wright suffered from severe seasickness on the voyage to South Africa and wrote only two words in his diary, “sea sick.” Of the 261 men and NCO’s with 15 officers, 17 would lose their lives in the South African campaign.
Loading the horses on Euryalus for their journey to South Africa. Amongst the soldiers on board was Wright Harris.
Jan and his dad were involved in the bun fight right from the start. Jan’s dad makes no mention of being involved in the siege of Ladysmith in his war diary, but an obituary that appeared in a local newspaper after his passing claims that he was involved in the Natal campaign. Jan definitely was part of this campaign. He writes from Ceylon as a POW in his diary, on 16 December 1900, “Today it is 62 years after the victory over Dingaan. A year ago Reverant Kestel from Harrismith held a service for us in Natal under a thorn tree. Today I am a POW in Ceylon.”
Jan was on leave at home when his dad was fighting with Genl. Cronje in the efforts to prevent the British to capture Bloemfontein, the capital of the Free State. On 27 February Jan and his compatriots were forced to surrender. He vividly describes the scenes leading up to the surrender in his war diary. He writes, “The biggest battle at Paardenberg took place on Sunday. Something was set on fire in a large part of the camp. While the enemy continually tried to surround us they repeatedly used this tactic. The cannons fired without ceasing on us. The camp was almost completely destroyed when on the evening of 26 February we decided to surrender the morning of 29 February 1899.”
He adds that “before I depart from the subject of this war, I want to address those who did not see this fiasco. No pen can describe the sadness that we endured and our eyes beheld. Almost all our horses were killed and were strewn throughout the camp. Our wounded lay in ditches under bucksails without a doctor to treat them. Yes, this I witnessed with my own eyes and I gave some water to quench their thirst. I got to someone whose leg was shot off. I asked him “How are you?” He answered me, “My Uncle, very badly!” I encouraged him. He politely asked me to come in and do a prayer for him. I complied with his request and then departed from him.”
“I could write more about this fiasco at Paardenberg but my pen refuses to write more about this suffering, or rather, it is I who don’t want to write about it any further. This is enough for successive generations to have an idea of what we went through.” (Johannes Willem Kok War Diary)
On 5 May 1900, the English invaded Windburg, Jan’s home town. His dad as a POW at this point gets the news on 8 May 1900 and writes in his diary, “We received word today that the English are in Windburg. It is not good news for us.” Jan himself makes the first entry in his war diary on 5 May and writes, “On 5 May the English occupied Windburg. On our farm, it was very busy on this day on account of the many commandos that passed through.” In the midst of these events, thirty-seven days earlier, Wright Harris and his comrades landed in Cape Town.
For Jan there was no time to lose and on the same day as Windburg fell on an autumn evening, the 20-year-old Jan Kok greeted his mum, took his rifle and mounted his horse. At 20:00 he rode off on commando (1) from their farm Kransdrif.
Departure of the Euryalus from Melbourne
As these scenes played themselves out, not only on Kranskop but on farms across the two Boer Republics, time and time again, from across the Empire, Britain was massing its forces and vessels sailed for South Africa and the men who came with the Euryalus were already on their way to the front.
From Kransdrift Jan and his compatriots 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.
The Euryalus arrives in Cape Town.
From Jan’s diary, there was considerable disagreement about where they should go and which Boer forces they should join. The Australians, on the other hand, had none of the indecisiveness associated with a more informal military organisation of the Boers. As soon as they landed at Cape Town, they travelled to Beira and to Marondera (known as Marandellas until 1982), a town in Mashonaland East, Zimbabwe, located about 72 km east of Harare. Here, all the colonial Bushmen were formed into regiments known as the Rhodesian Field Force; “the Victorians and West Australians forming the 3rd, under Major Vialls. They marched in squadrons across Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to Bulawayo. From there to Mafikeng where they were again mobilised and equipped and took part in one of the major battles of the war, the siege of Mafikeng.
Photo supplied by Dirk Marais. Australian soldiers in the Anglo-Boer war, c. 1901
Wright noted the following entries in his journal at Mafikeng. 23 July, Monday. “Left Bulawayo for Mafikeng at 3 o’clock. Twenty-five in a truck, packed in like pigs.“
24 July, Tuesday. “Ostrich running alongside the train. A halt for two hours at Palepwe to feed and water horses.” (I am not sure where Palepwe is. The name is probably misspelt)
25 July, Wednesday: “Met by an armoured train. Reached Mafikeng at about 6 o’clock, and slept out in the rain.”
Officers of the Third Victorian Contingent: Lieut W Strong, Lieut G Moore, Mr Cameron, Lieut H Trew, Lieut J Holdsworth, Lieut W McCulloch, Vet-Lieut Stanley Fletcher,
Lieut R Gartside, Captain D Ham, Colonel A Otter, Captain W Dobbin, Captain J Griffiths.
26 July, Thursday. “A look around the trenches and around Mafikeng. Saw the Boer prisoners, two sentenced to death.”
27 July, Friday. “Got our saddles. The ponies captured from the Boers allotted to us. Saw the guns that saved Mafikeng.”
28 July, Saturday. “Sent out to hold the river against the enemy with four guns. Got orders to go away and take three months provisions. Order countermanded (rescinded/cancelled).”
29 July, Sunday. “Church parade. Went to the Wesleyan church in town, had a grand service. Text Timoty 21 and 22. (This must be a mistake because there is no such reference. My guess is that it is 2 Tim 2: 21 and 22 which reads: “If a man, therefore, purges himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work. Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” On picket, got a piece of shell that had come through the roof.
British army (Western Front) under Field-Marshall Roberts marching on Brandfort in the Orange Free State, 1900 (Photo by Underwood & Underwood/Archive Photos/Getty Images). Foto by Leo Taylor
While Wright Harris was fighting at Mafikeng, Jan Kok found himself as part of a heavily demoralized Boer force in the Branwater basin. The capital of the Free State, Bloemfontein fell to the British. The Boer force where Jan was a part of included the Free State government and it was commanded by Gen Christiaan de Wet himself, the supreme commander of the Boer forces in the Free State. All in all the Boer force consisted of around 4000 men.
The situation for the Boers was dire. The British were at the point of annihilating all resistance in the Free State and dearly wanted to capture the entire Free State government. Gen De Wet made his escape plans and on 15t July he set out through Slabbertsnek with the Government and a contingent of Boer fighters. As the first phase of a carefully calculated plan was unfolding, the unthinkable occurred. A combination of quick and decisive moves from the English, poor leadership from the Boers in the face of enemy operations and the fact that the remaining Boer forces held a snap election when De Wet left and replaced Gen Roux, a DRC Minister and the man De Wet left in charge with Marthinus Prinsloo, a man, known to desire not to continue fighting and a huge morale loss amongst the Boer fighters all culminated in the Boer forces surrendering to Gen Hunter.
The events leading up to Prinsloo’s surrender is beautifully described by Jan who was an eyewitness of this monumental event. 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.”
Photo courtesy of Dirk Marais. Boers surrendering at the Brandwaterkom (4)
The British took their horses and oxen and issued them with new horses. These were gaunt and sickly, and they set out for Winburg, where they believed that they would be free to go home. This mistaken belief came from the misinterpretation of a proclamation by the British that if Boers were not actively fighting and they pledge not to participate in the war, that they would be allowed to return to their farm and continue with life. It did not apply to men who surrendered during active combat as was the case with the surrender in the Brandwater Basin.
Jan, unaware of the fact that he would not be allowed to return to their farm Kransdrif in the Windburg district looked forward to being reunited with his family, having a proper meal prepared by his mom and sleeping in his own bed again. On 01 August 1900, he writes, “We continue towards Winburg and overnight at Fouriesburg. The treatment is everything but pleasant.” Despite the bad experience of the campaign, the subsequent surrender and the homeward journey, the certain expectation of imminent release must have been a great source of comfort and encouragement.
The photo of Cronje’s men at Modderrivier would have been the same image of Jan and his comrades. Photo supplied by Dirk Marais.
On 03 August 1900, they arrived at Slachtersnek. Many of the horses issued by the British at their surrender, by this time were either dead or in such a poor condition that they could not go any further. They finally arrived in Winburg on 09 August 1900. They were greeted by women welcoming them from the side of the road and Jan was reunited with his family and friends.
They wrongly expected to be released the following day, on the 10th. The reality dawned on them on 10 August 1900. Early in the cold winter morning when nighttime temperatures in Winburg can drop to – 3 deg C with icy winds, instead of being released, their expectation was betrayed as they were herded onto train trucks. At exactly 6:00, the train departed for Cape Town to an uncertain future. He later wrote in his diary about that day: “It was clear to all how the Boers (Afrikaners) experienced events of that day with the greatest disdain and sadness (afsku en smart).”
He describes 11 August 1900 as an awful day. Icy winds blew in from the north and they choked in the dust. The train stopped for a short while and children and the elderly were escorted off the train and sent home. At 2:00 in the afternoon, they continue to journey to Cape Town. The trip turns into an ordeal as they receive no food and at the many small towns along the route, the English soldiers enforce an instruction that there was to be no communication with other Boers. When the train stops at Worcester, Boers greet them with food parcels. At Paarl, young ladies force their way past the guards and hand the soldiers food parcels and addresses. The Boers who congregated at the station gave them an unexpected send-off.
As the train started to depart, a few voices started to sing very tentatively.
"Raise, burghers, the song of freedom and our own existence as a people. Free from foreign bonds, Holds our small community founded on order, law and justice Rank among the states Rank among the states."
As the train wheels gained traction, more joined in. The prisoners recognised it instantly! It is their national anthem. Sung in Dutch! The few initial voices joined by every proud Boer on the platform.
"Even though our land has a small beginning, we step into the future with courage, our eye fixed on God, Who does not shame who builds on Him and trusts in Him as a fortress that does not yield to any storms that does not yield to any storms"
Through the Paarl mountains, a crescendo of voices rose, the National song of the Orange Free State! Pride filled the souls of prisoners! Suddenly they felt pride again as it dawns on them that they were part of something bigger! Even in the former Colony of the Cape, they have brothers and sisters! A bond binds them that cannot be broken by the Imperial forces!
"Look down in mercy on our President, o Lord! Be Thou his recourse The task that rests on his shoulders may he fulfill with loyalty and eagerness to the benefit of people and state to the benefit of people and state Protect, o God, the Council of the land Guide it by your Fatherly Hand Illuminate it from above So that its work may be sanctified and may serve to bless fatherland and citizenry. fatherland and citizenry."
Train truck after train truck left the station. The hearts of the burgers warmed! Their spirits, upright! Proud! Strong!
"Hail, thrice hail, the beloved State, the People, the President, the Council! Yes, may flourish at our song the Free State and its citizens. great in virtue, free of stains for many ages to come! for many ages to come!"
It’s a short ride to the Cape Town station where they arrive at 6:00 p.m.
From the station, they were transported to Green Point. He later remembers that “the Malaaihers (Malays?) and bastards (colourds?) were standing both sides of the street and mocked us all the way.” He described the experience in Cape Town in his diary as “intolerable!” The scene from their departure at Paarl repeated itself at Green Point. The inmates welcomed them with the singing of the national anthem of the Republic of the Orange Free State. It reverberated through the camp! They were sad, disappointed, disheartened, but Jan is reunited for a moment with his dad and his brothers who surrendered with Cronje at Paardenberg. Unlike his dad who would serve the rest of the war as a POW in Cape Town, Jan, along with most of the men who surrendered at Brandwater, including Gen Roux, the man whom De Wet placed in charge of the forces when he and the Government broke out boarded the ship Dilwara on 15 August. On 18 August they left Cape Town and stopover in Simonsbaai (Simons Town).
On 21 August they arrived in Durban. Aboard they were tortured by an infestation of fleas. They left Durban on 22 August. On 30 August, they anchored at the “Chysellen.” Here they were allowed for the first time to buy some fruit, “12 bananas for 6 “pence.” Jan later drew a map depicting the voyage to Ceylon.
A map, drawn by Jan Kok, of their journey to Ceylon.
On 8 September they arrived in Colombo Bay. From here they travelled 160 miles by train and arrive eventually in Diyatalawa.
At the POW Camp, he was assigned to Hut 54. On 24 March 1902, he wrote a letter to his mom. Below is the salutation and date of the letter. I attach the complete letter below in the notes.
The letterhead of a letter Jan wrote to his mom from his Hut 54.
In later years I received communication from Radie Ferreira, whose grandfather was also taken captive under Gen. Prinsloo. He was the dominie (pastor) at Koppies. In his letter to me, he said that he had in his possession a bundle containing all the publications of the Christian newspaper, “Strevers” (probably the only copy in existence), which was circulated in the POW camp at Diyatalawa. In an addendum to the bundle are the names of 600 members of the “Strevers.” He writes: “When I opened it to see if the name of your great grandfather was there, the bundle fell open at Branch Vb and the first name, right at the top, was that of JW Kok, Hut 54, from the farm Kransdrift, Post office Winburg and a member of the Winburg congregation.” (private correspondance) (In die gebinde bundle met uitgawes van die Christelike tydskrif “Strevers”, (ek glo die enigste eksemplaar wat bestaan), wat in die Diyatalawa krygsgevangene kamp uitgegee is, is `n aanhangsel met die name van 600 lede van die “Strevers”. Toe ek dit oopmaak om te kyk of jou oupa se naam daarin is toe val die boek oop by Tak Vb en die eerste naam heelbo is Kok J.W., Hut 54, Woonplaats Kransdrift, Poskantoor Winburg en Gemeente, Winburg.)
Jan (JW) Kok in front of his hut 54 in Ceylon.
On 16 September a fellow inmate and an ordained minister, Ds. C Ferreira preached to Matt. 8:12, “But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” That afternoon Ds. Postma preached from Luke 18:10 (probably up to verse 14). On that day they were very upset that the “koelies” (a derogatory but common term for people of Indian descent) worked on that day, a Sunday as if it was any other day. Ds. Postma’s reading deals with that judgemental attitude towards others who do not observe and worship in the same way as they do.
He writes on 22 September that he and Gert van de Venter from hut 48 started a “Zingkoor” (a choir). He attended bible study at hut 63 where Ds. Roux spoke. It is safe to assume that this is the same Ds Roux who was in charge of the forces at Brandwater before he was voted out in a very suspicious way in favour of Gen Prinsloo who immediately surrendered to Gen Hunter.
Photo courtesy of Nico Moolman. A Boer POW in Ceylon (Shri Lanka).
For the young men in the camp, this was a time of great reflection and soul searching. On 1 October, he writes that “as I reflect on the past year and what happened to me, I cannot say anything else but that the Lord helped me through it all and that he can not but thank Him for all that He has done for me.” It is interesting that he named his son, years later, Ebenhaezer, meaning “God helped me all the way and brought me to this place.” He never told my grandfather why he named him Eben. It was not a family name and must have been done deliberately in a time when conservative farmers gave their children the names of their parents or grandparents. From this entry in his diary, I can see how important this thought was to him and, especially in Afrikaans, the wording is similar to the words used in the bible from where we get the meaning of the name, Ebenhaezer. I suspect that in naming his son Eben, Jan was celebrating God’s faithfulness by allowing him to return and have his own family.
There were also ministers in the camp who used Sunday school for a time to criticize the fact that they laid down arms. Ds. Roux accused them of being selfish when they surrendered and said that they were only feeling sorry for their horses and were homesick.
He spends lots of time attending bible study and Sunday school. On 3 January, when a school was started, he attended. On 7 January he mentions that there was a mission prayer meeting and he starts to attend a missions class.
Boer prisoners of war at the Sunday service in Diyatalawa camp on Ceylon. Post and photo by Dirk Marais
All the photos from Diyatalawa are grouped in one album: Diyatalawa.
His grandson, Ds. Jan Kok (my uncle), wrote a dissertation when he completes his studies as a Dutch Reformed minister, about the development of 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” (special or unusual fruit).
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. On 31 July, as Jan surrenders and is taken POW, Wright Harris is still very much part of the siege of Mafikeng and writes in his own diary, “Called out to wait for the Boers at daylight. Ordered not to start.” 1 August, Wright notes, “Starting out for Mafikeng. Passed Boer trenches.“
He survives the campaign, but his health deteriorates. He suffers horrible bouts of severe illness. His Christian faith sustains him through everything, like Jan Kok in the Diyatalawa camp. Wright also continues to attend church parades, tent meetings, bible readings, and prayer meetings. I wonder if he could have imagined that on the Boer side there were men with much the same commitment and a common experience of faith with him.
In early October, as Jan was getting used to life as a prisoner of war, Wright Harris contracted deadly typhoid fever. He was taken to hospital where he lay for weeks, delirious and close to death. He was so severely sick that he later becomes convinced that his eventual recovery was a miracle. As soon as he has sufficiently recovered, he was sent back to Australia and arrived in Melbourne in early February 1901.
Jan (JW) Kok and his bungalow mates. He is back row, 1st from the right.
Wright, deeply committed to his faith, undertook a year of church work in New Zealand, following the war. Jan was eventually released on 5 December 1902 and returned to South Africa on 27 December.
Followng the War
There is a deep 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. It was in a way, God’s judgment upon them for their inaction. It is therefore not surprising that after their homecoming, Jan enrols in the Missionary Seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church in Wellington. The collective Boer nations had matters to resolve that, in their interpretation of events, brought about such devastation on their land, and it is completely understandable and commendable that this became the passion of Jan’s life. Jan was confirmed in March 1906 in a mission church in Heilbron.
Wright did not have a nation to save and without the spiritual issues that plagued the young Boer-men, focusing on building his own life. He was ready to do whatever his hands found to do. Events in his life would steer him, not to full-time church ministry, as was the case with Jan, but to a life of business and bacon curing.
Probably through the Methodist church at Scoresby, he met John and his daughter, Janet Weetman. William Haine ran a butter factory in Kennedy Street, Castlemaine. He also ran a bacon company part-time as the Castlemaine Mild Cured Bacon Company, to earn additional income. Haine and Weetman agreed with John and Janet to take over the running of the bacon side of things and Weetman roped Wright Harris in to assist them. The three arrived in Castlemaine in 1905 and started the Castlemaine Bacon Company in a room in the butter factory. Together with John Kernihan they processed five pigs per week. John Kernihan and John Weetman were experienced craftsmen. Kernihan employed Weetman years earlier in his own bacon company in Northcote but lost his business during the depression of the 1850s.
Wright and Janet eventually married on 18 April 1906. John Weetman passed away on 28 March 1922 at which time Wright and Janet acquired the company and the land the factory was built on. So started a long and prolific history of the Castlemaine Bacon Company under Wright Harris’s name.
Back in South Africa, Jan remained faithful at the congregation in Heilbron for 39 years until his retirement in 1945. My uncle, Oom Jan Kok, who was named after his grandfather, followed in his footsteps and became a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church. He faithfully serves in the Moedergemeente, Warmbad for most of his life. He tells an interesting story that when he was christened, this was done in the “black church” where his grandfather, and the man whose name he received, was the pastor in Heilbron. In those years this was of course not permitted under the Apartheid Laws. My uncle, Jan, needed a “doopseël” (baptismal seal) for some reason and it was eventually found at the “white church” (Heilbron-South) where his grandfather must have registered it.
I, in turn, am named after my grandfather, Oupa Eben Kok, and was destined to follow in the footsteps of my great granddad and uncle to become a pastor. My full name is Ebenhaezer Kok van Tonder so that I could carry the Kok name with the name given by Jan Kok to his son. During a year I spent in the USA after my own time in the South African Army (1988 to 1990), I returned to South Africa with a commitment to pursue a career in business. Bacon curing became my life! (2)
It was in researching an article on famous bacon curing companies from around the world that I came across the story of the Castlemaine Bacon Company and the link they have with South Africa. Since the founding of the company, our growth has been meteoric, much like Wright Harris’ Castlemaine Bacon Company. The Harris family now stands and looks back at a company that they eventually sold and they have in a sense completed the full circle, a road that we are still excited to be travelling and in a sense, continue to follow in their footsteps.
The great story of bacon curing is, from the beginning to the end, a human story. It took the best of humankind over thousands of years to create a dish that mimics natural processes that are part of human metabolism. The story of bacon curing is our own story in a very personal way. It is a science and an art – human culture at its best. Telling the story is telling our own personal stories. They are inseparable.
On Saturday morning I was standing in our own dispatch area, telling Oscar about this article and my attempts to make contact with the Harris family. The commitments, disciplines and great lessons from the words of John Harris and the inspiration we can draw from them.
As humans, we identify patterns, we learn, evolve and we connect. Looking at our own experience in Woody’s Consumer Brands fills Oscar and me with a deep gratitude and we take courage from the men and women of the Harris family with their remarkable heritage which is so close to our own. Bacon curing brings together some of the greatest stories on earth!
Graham Tonkin with sausages.
For a full discussion of events at the Brandwater Basin, see the next chapter, The Life and Times of Jan W Kok.
(c) Eben van Tonder
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) The Age, Melbourn, Victoria, Australia, 29 November 1899 reported in an article entitled “How the Boers Go to War”, The Boer process of going to war is simple enough. They have no clothes to change, no uniforms to don. They fill their bandolier, or cartridge belt, put a piece of biltong in their pocket, mount their horse and ride off. Nothing could be more simple. Biltong, it should be explained, is a sun-dried version, shredded into strips and wonderfully nourishing and sustaining. The Boers when out in the field, live on it for weeks at a time, and apparently thrive thereon. . . Everything is left to chance, and it is truly wonderful how they manage to escape all manner of horrible dangers. If they get wounded they hie them to the nearest farmhouse, where they are tended until they are well. If they get shot, – well, it is the will of God – their friends bury them and it is all over.
Practically every Boer is mounted, and although they have no regular constituted regiments, or, indeed any formal battle formation, they join together in what are called “commandos.” These are the aggregate collection of farmers and their sons from one particular district of the Transvaal, gathered together in a more or less heterogeneous mass, and under the nominal leadership of the veld cornet or the commandant of that particular district.” (The Age, 1899)
(2) I fell in love with Chemistry and in my mid 30’s decided to enter the world of food manufacturing. In 2008, Oscar Klynveld and I created Woody’s Consumer Brands (Pty) Ltd. with the ambitious goal of selling the best bacon on earth. Oscar himself is the son of a Dutch Reformed minister with deep religious convictions. I always loved writing and storytelling and when I discovered that the field of meat science is replete with amazing untold stories, I start a blog where I feature some of these amazing stories.
(3) Afrikaans: Boere-krygsgevangenes by die sondagdiens in Diyatalawa-kamp op Ceylon.
Hierdie gevangenes was hoofsaaklik van die Brandwaterkom, Oranje-Vrijstaat, onder Genl. Prinsloo afkomstig. Marthinus Prinsloo se oorgawe in die Brandwaterkom was ‘n vername terugslag vir die Boeresaak in die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog. Op 12 Januarie 1901 het sowat 630 krygsgevangenes met die Catalonia uit Kaapstad gearriveer, benewens die sowat 5 000 wat reeds in Ceylon was.
Genl. Jan Hendrik Olivier staan byna regs, middel, en di. Petrus Postma (met bybel, en aldaar bekend as “the fighting parson”) van Pretoria en Paul Hendrik Roux van Senekal staan sy aan sy in die middel van die foto. Eerw. Roux van Bethlehem en di. George Murray van Oudtshoorn, Dirk Jacobus Minnaar van Heilbron en George Thom van Frankfort sou ook in hierdie kamp onder dieselde omstandighede as ander gevangenes bly.
English: Boer prisoners of war at the Sunday service in Diyatalawa camp in Ceylon, who were mostly taken captive at the Brandwater basin, Orange Free State, under general Prinsloo. Prinsloo’s surrender was a major setback for the Boer cause during the war. Reverend Petrus Postma from Pretoria and Paul Hendrik Roux from Senekal stand side by side just right of centre, and general J.H. Olivier is visible at the middle, right. One caption to the photo was as follows:
The Boer Prisoners at Service in Ceylon. The prisoners are guarded by the King’s Royal Rifles, under Colonel Gore-Brown, Colonel Vincent being Commandant and Colonel Jesse Coope in immediate charge of them. Temporary hospital huts have been erected and brightened with pictures and illustrated papers, and officials of the local branch of the Bible Society have distributed Bibles and portions of the Scriptures in Dutch. These were welcomed and specially acknowledged by a letter of thanks by a prisoner known as “the fighting parson [Petrus Postma].” Colonel Jesse Coope, who is very popular, fosters productive manufactures and artistic activity among the men, disposing of their work through an agent. Tanks for the storage of water being required, the prisoners were invited to volunteer for the work at a reasonable rate of pay, and many availed themselves of the offer. The population of Ceylon does not exceed 6,000 [Europeans?], and the settlement of the Boer prisoners has had a wholesome effect, not only on themselves but on the Cingalese. The minister who is officiating (in the above photograph), is the “fighting parson” alluded to – the Rev. Mr Postma – and General Roux stands beside him. Olivier can be identified nearer to the right margin of the picture and several rows further back.
Source: Post and photo by Dirk Marais
(4) SLAG VAN SURRENDER HILL
OP 30 Julie 1900 het 4 314 Boere op Oorgaweheuwel (Surrender Hill) op die plaas Verliesfontein naby die huidige Clarens hul wapens neergelê. Die Britte het ook 3 veldkanonne, 2 800 beeste, 4 000 skape, 5 500 perde en 2 miljoen patrone in die Brandwaterkom gebuit. Dit was ‘n geweldige terugslag vir die stryd teen die Britte.
LORD ROBERTS, opperbevelhebber van die Britse mag in Suid-Afrika, was met sy vertrek in Mei 1900 uit die Vrystaat nie baie bekommerd oor die Vrystaatse mag onder aanvoering van genl. C.R. de Wet nie. Hy het geglo sy mag sou die Vrystaters in bedwang hou.
Einde Mei en begin Junie gebeur egter ‘n paar dinge in die veld wat sy houding drasties laat verander. Op 31 Mei verslaan die Vrystaatse mag die Yeomanry naby Lindley. Twee dae later by Swawelkrans, buit De Wet 56 waens wat vir die Engelse in Heilbron bestem was. Op 7 Junie behaal De Wet ‘n verdere oorwinning oor die Engelse by Roodewal. Dié nederlae het Roberts laat besef dat hy ‘n fout gemaak het om die Vrystaters te onderskat. Op 14 Junie gee hy uit Pretoria aan sy bevelvoerders opdrag om De Wet teen die berge in die Oos-Vrystaat vas te druk en te vang. Hy het gehoop, maar nooit gedink dat hy binne twee maande amper die helfte van die Vrystaatse mag sou kon vang nie.
Genl. R. Buller moes in Standerton keer dat die Boere noord vlug. Lt.genl. sir L. Rundle, wat ‘n sterk verdedigingslyn tussen Winburg, Senekal en Ficksburg beman het, het die suide geblokkeer. Genls. R.A.P. Clements en A.H. Pagel het die Boere van Lindley af oos in die rigting van Bethlehem aangeja.
Lt. Genl. sir A. Hunter, wat in bevel was van die dryfjag op die Boere, het van Transvaal via Frankfort en Reitz in die rigting van Bethlehem opgeruk.
Ná die Slag van Bethlehem op 6 en 7 Julie 1900 het De Wet en die Vrystaters dus eintlik geen keuse gehad as om suid in die rigting van Fouriesburg en die Brandwaterkom te trek nie.
Op 8 Julie 1900 bevind die hele Vrystaatse mag, behalwe hoofkmdt. F.J.W. Hattingh met die Vrede- en Harrismith-kommando wat die bergpasse oppas, hulle in die Brandwaterkom. Ook pres. M.T. Steyn en lede van die Vrystaatse regering was hier.
(c) Dirk Marais
My Oom Jan Kok het tydens ‘n biduur die volgende van sy oupa en my oupagrootje vertel.
Letter from Jan (JW) Kok to his mother from the POW camp in Ceylon.
(5) A few photos from my visit to Castlemain
War Photos Connected to Wright Harris
– Further Reading
I liberally quote and use information from Bringing home the bacon: a history of the Harris family’s Castlemaine Bacon Company 1905-2005 / Leigh Edmonds. Monash University. The photo of Wright Harris, this source.
Murray, P. L.. 1911. Official Records of the Australian military contingents to the war in South Africa. Albert J. Mullett, Government Printers.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 6 May 1900, page 3
The Age, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 29 November 1899, page 5.
All information and photos of JW Kok supplied by Jan Kok in private correspondence.
Photos of the Harris family and Castelmain Bacon Factory from Leigh Edmonds, 2005, Bringing Home the Bacon, Monash University.