A Boer Girl's Memories of the War
Hester Johanna Maria Uys
(Interviews with Errol Lincoln Uys,1970)
Boer Girl | South African Concentration Camp
Johanna, or Joey as she was later called, was born in July 1892. Her mother was killed in a train crash in 1896, and Joey and her sister went to live with an uncle and aunt in Bethulie, Orange Free State, Magiel and Lettie Roux. When the Second Anglo-Boer War broke out in October 1899, Magiel joined the Bethulie Commando.
In September 1900, as British troops rolled over the veld, Magiel and thirty commandos attempted to flee the Orange Free State for the Transvaal. Joey and her cousins, the child Magiel and Johann, were in the convoy when it was attacked and captured by the British "Tommies" near Springfontein in the Free State.
As Joey recounted the attack on the wagons to me, she sang a line of an old Boer War song: "Zij geniet die blouwe bergen op die skepe na Ceylon." — "They enjoy the blue mountains on the ships to Ceylon."
Magiel went as POW to Sri Lanka where five thousand Boer guerillas were interned during the war. The British shipped four times that number to other camps in India, St. Helena and Bermuda.
At the wagons, the Tommies searched the women and went through their belongings.
My mother's reference to a boxcar is unusual. Most women and children were herded into fetid cattle trucks to be shunted across the Free State under a boiling sun or through frigid nights.
SCALE OF RATIONS FOR REFUGEES AND UNDESIRABLES
Bloemfontein Camp, Orange River Colony
Table from The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell, Emily Hobhouse, Metheun & Co 1902
Tant Lettie, the two boys and Johanna were designated "Undesirables," a term applied to Boers who don't go voluntarily into captivity or had family members on commando. "Refugees" described displaced Boers who surrender, the "hands-uppers" and their dependants. The latter are rewarded with a few extra spoonfuls of sugar, condensed milk and the luxury of the occasional potato. In either case, rations are insufficient to stave off starvation and disease.
In the eighteen months Johanna and her family were in Bloemfontein concentration camp, the population soared to six thousand three hundred and twenty two. Of this number, one thousand six hundred and ninety-five perished from want and sickness.
British propagandists alleged that Boer mothers were killing their children through their own stupidity and carelessness. When seven-year-old Lizzie van Zyl died of hunger at Bloemfontein, a report said her mother starved her.
Emily Hobhouse, an English activist, spent six months in South Africa from January to June 1901 visiting Bloemfontein and six other camps. She saw Lizzie van Zyl die on an airless April day.
"I used to see her in her bare tent lying on a tiny mattress which had been given her, trying to get air from the raised flap, gasping her life out in the heated tent. Her mother tended her. I got some friends in town to make a little muslin cap to keep the flies from her bare head. I was arranging to get a cart made to draw her into the air in the cooler hours but before wood could be procured, the cold nights came on and she died. I found nothing to show neglect on the mother's part."
Emily returned to England to campaign against "a gigantic and grievous blunder caused not by uncaring women but crass male ignorance, helplessness and muddling." Her militancy brought the scorn of the British people who called her a rebel, a liar, an enemy of the nation, hysterical and worse.
No one hated Emily more than Lord Kitchener, whose troops burnt down 30,000 farm houses, torched a score of towns and interned 116,572 Boers, a quarter of the population.
"It is for their protection against the Kaffirs," said the British War Secretary, oblivious to the fact that Africans were being armed and encouraged by the English to attack a mutual enemy. Also ignoring the fact that 115,000 "black Boers" were sent to their own concentration camps, loyal servants who saw twelve thousand of their number die.
Miss Hobhouse was banned from visiting the most terrible of all camps that had been established just outside Bethulie, a place name meaning "Chosen by God." My mother considered it a blessing of the Almighty that they weren't interned at Bethulie where twelve hundred died in one six-month period from pneumonia and measles and from hunger.
The concentration camps claimed the lives of 27,972 Boers. Of these, 22,074 were children like Lizzie van Zyl.
In summer 1902, as Kitchener's cordon strangled Boer resistance, Tant Lettie got notice that she and the children were going to another camp.
My mother was too young at the time to know why they were moved, whether Tant Lettie's Tommy friend pulled strings or what other reason was behind the transfer. They went from Bloemfontein to a camp at Kubusie River near Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape, nestled in the green hills of the Amatola Range, a world away from the horrors of the dumping ground at Bloemfontein.
This time, Johanna recalled making the two-hundred-and-fifty mile journey in a cattle truck. According to one report, some of the refugees were supplied with tents, which they ingeniously erected on the beds of railroad cars. Others were covered with tarpaulins like so much baggage.
"The former arrived more contented and less sullen. All were provided with hot water and cocoa en route."
Who was Miss O'Brien? Was she English or Irish as her name might suggest? Was she one of Emily Hobhouse's angels of mercy? It matters not, just that she was there, sitting with a child pretty as a flower, teaching her to knit a pair of socks.
Today, the site of Kubusie Concentration Camp has been turned into a car park and the surface area graveled and curbed.
"The socks were yellow," Johanna said a lifetime later. She never forgot Miss O'Brien's kindness.
Johanna "Joey" Uys in the late 1920s
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