Concentrated Death and Destruction I
This story was somewhat tough to write, both because of the horrible details emerging in everything I read, and because in digging through this history, our family was resurrected in such a way that I could not help reliving their war-torn lives in my heart. The burning of homes, looting and destruction, humiliation, starvation and common wartime-brutalities that appear in all wars, were common themes in the Second Anglo Boer War too. So many letters from concentration camp survivors tell similar stories of suffering and sorrow, outrage, bitterness and unforgiveness. Many cannot tell the story beyond a certain point of trauma, and this was the case with our Aunt Emmie too. How did these events influence how we were brought up; how did surviving the concentration camps affect the children?
The Heystek Family book contains Emmarenske (Heystek) du Plessis’ letters in full, describing her concentration camp experiences and the character of our women with some humor, but mostly with the overwhelming horror and sorrow that engulfed our Heystek/Lampen families. Emmarenske (Emmie) is one of Ouma Hannie’s sisters, and her stories are rich and quite detailed, despite the fact that she wrote them fifty-seven years after the Boer War. Some of her memories may sound familiar to what we have been told by our parents. Quite a few events are also written about in Lionel Wolfsohn’ s book “Rustenburg at War”, which I used to pin down her timeline. I tell some of Emmie's stories briefly, focussing on those events where I know Ouma Hannie was either involved or somewhere in the background. (See links to more info at the end of this post.)
The English was in control of Rustenburg town. Our family’s men were now hidden in the hills, fighting in the Rustenburg Commando under the “Lion of West Transvaal” Gen. Koos de la Rey. Occasionally, when the Kakies left town for skirmishes elsewhere, the Boere would find their way back to their homes in town and on farms for food and comfort (two babies were conceived and born during the war). Their guerilla warfare and “strategic withdrawals” infuriated the Brits, many of whom saw this as utter cowardice on behalf of the Boere who would not “stand and fight a decent fight”. Some Brits started to retaliate against Boer snipers by burning down Boer farms and destroying their crops, leaving families destitute. Under Field Marshall Roberts this soon developed into an official British scorched-earth policy in order to deny the Boer combatants any resources. Rev. van Belkum from the Rustenburg Hervormde Gemeente wrote to a friend that by the end of the war, in the Rustenburg district alone, only twenty homes had not been destroyed.
The first “refugee camps for burghers who voluntary surrender” were formed at Pretoria and Bloemfontein by Field Marshall Roberts. The camps were finally set in stone after Lord Kitchener became commander-in-chief in November, writing to general officers in December that he wanted to intern all women, children and non-combatant men, as well as black workers living on the Boer farms, since this would be “the most effective method of limiting the endurance of the guerillas…” His policy resulted in forty-six concentration camps across the Z.A.R.
During this time Hannie‘s three teenage sisters were living in Pietersburg with their parents, Jan and Anna Maria Heystek. Younger brother Abraham had died at seventeen years old in 1898. For a little while the Rustenburg women continued their lives in town and on their farms almost normally, seeing to their men’s needs when they slipped back occasionally. The six adult siblings were:
• Ousus Helena, 30 years old, married to Pieter Roets with six children ranging from their baby, Sophia, to Anna Maria, 14 years old.
• Second-oldest brother Daniël, 29 years old, not yet married, but he had also joined the Rustenburg Commandos. He would marry Bertha Alida Posthumus Meyjes fourteen years later.
• Hannie and Wijtse had four children (including Jan and Geert). At 27 years old, Hannie was about six months pregnant with the Lampen’s fifth child.
• At 26 years old, Nakkie was married to N.J. Theunissen and had four children, the youngest but eighteen months old. Nakkie fell pregnant again in 1901.
• The now-youngest brother Jan Heystek was 24 years old, married to Martha de Ridder. Their two-year old twins were Jan and Martha.
• Feisty 22-year-old Emmie was married to Theunis du Plessis, their firstborn son Hennie was a sturdy thirteen months old.
Herman Lampen’s wife, Goosje, either gave birth their only son Geert in 1897—the year before they immigrated to South Africa—or he was born in 1900, according to the conflicting info available. (Herman was Oupa Wijtse’s brother.)
Of the four Heystek sisters, Emmie seemed to have been the most in trouble with the English authorities in town. A day after she and Hannie ripped the Union Jack flag to pieces in front of the Rustenburg Landdrost Kantoor, her husband Theunis and his two brothers were captured and sent on their way to the Bermuda P.O.W camp. Rumors reached Emmie that Gen. de Wet had managed to sabotage the train tracks and that all the Boer prisoners had been freed, and an elated Emmie got her horse and “spider” (a phaeton cart, see photo) ready to go find her husband. This horse, by the way, was one of the canon draught horses used by Sir Jameson during his raid into the Transvaal four before. I have no doubt Oom Hercules Malan (see the “Gossip and Guns”) had something to do with the reallocation of this particular horse... When Emmie reached her in-laws in town, they convinced her that the Kakies would catch her and take her horse, so she relented.
In fact, to her utmost disappointment, word came back that de Wet’s escapees were not from Rustenburg, but from nearby Potchefstroom. About two weeks later Theunis also escaped though, jumping from his train near Laingsburg in the Cape. Emmie’s joy knew no bounds when her beloved suddenly appeared at their house in the middle of the night. A few days later, while Theunis and his brothers had ridden off to collect oranges on his Wysfontein farm, the English suddenly arrived on Emmie’s doorstep in town. Emmie sent a small Tswana boy with a note to warn the men to stay away; apparently this was a common method of communication for the Boere.
The English pressured Emmie to convince the men to surrender, but to no avail. She became more and more reticent to receive “the enemy” at the house at all. Finally these officers took Emmie, baby Hennie and seven other families prisoner and put them under house arrest on the nearby farm, Paardekraal, under the oversight of an elderly English supporter, a Mr. Hermitage. Mr. Hermitage occasionally gave the women permits to walk into town to obtain food, which Emmie gathered at Hannie and Nakkie’s homes. Biltong and beskuit featured at the top of their menu. The raw dough also became a weapon in Hannie’s hands (next story) and a great offense in the hands of some Kakies later on.
Farms close to Paardekraal came under a fiery attack one night by one of the Tswana tribes. The women on those farms escaped to Paardekraal. In the ensuing panic, everyone fled to town except for old Mr. Hermitage who did not want to leave his house. Emmie initially fled in a different direction to escape the noise all the crying children were making, fearing the noise would surely attract the attackers to them, but she soon realized she had to head back to town as well. Carrying a heavy toddler Hennie, she cut through the veld and a “drift” and reached town early the next morning, where she was intercepted by English soldiers who were busy rounding up women—including Ousus, Nakkie, Goosje Lampen and their kids, and Emmie’s in-law’s. The commanding officer demanded to know where Emmie was going—you can imagine her angry and frightened outburst in answer, as Emmie believed the attack had come from Tswana spies for the English. The soldiers escorted Emmie and her baby to the Lampen house, where a heavily pregnant Hannie got quite a shock to see her disheveled sister, sick with dysentery, surrounded by armed soldiers. Scarcely an hour later Emmie was marched off again to give her statement about the attacks. Even under duress, a frightened and feisty Emmie refused the company of the soldiers, insisting on walking a few steps behind them.
When “an army of Kakies” arrived at Mr. Heritage’s farmhouse later that morning to investigate, he was found brutally murdered. The soldiers proceeded to slash and destroy all the women’s bedding and clothing, their typical wanton destruction in the wake of arresting all the Boer women and children in the area. Emmie’s memories became somewhat jumbled at this stage of the story in her letter, and I lose track of Ouma Hannie’s precise whereabouts from here on, except for:
November 29, 1900:
Oupa Wijtse and Ouma Hannie’s baby, Hendrik de la Rey Lampen, is born in the middle of the turmoil of roundups and farm destructions.
Continuing with Emmie, Nakkie, Ousus and a “Mrs. Lampen” mentioned in Emmie’s letter (probably Goosje, Herman’s wife): After giving their statements on the Paardekraal attack, all the women and children who had been rounded up were taken away via Olifantsnek, (English territory), where they stopped, and the Kakies threatened them with the “meksim” (the horrendous maxim gun that Ousus encountered during the Derdepoort massacres) if they dared stray from their group. Yet again a Tswana girl arrived in their midst with a note, this time from brother Jan Heystek, stating that the Boer men were in the surrounding hills and that Commandant Piet Steenkamp was busy negotiating with the English for the women to be released back to the Boere. Emmie, true to her impulsive nature and despite the desperate pleas of the family, grabbed her baby and started walking into the hills, meksim or no meksim. Soon enough Emmie’s in-laws and “Mev. Lampen” joined her without hindrance from the Kakies. In the hills they met up with Emmie’s brother-in-law and brother Jan Heystek. One can only imagine their emotions at this reunion... Eventually this company of women, now including Nakkie and more friends, found a respite on the family farm of Wysfontein where they were left alone by the English for about seven months. Since all the main homes on Wysfontein and the surrounding farms had already been burnt down, the women slept in tents and used a few of the smaller out-buildings still standing as kitchen and general living quarters. They continued working the little bit of farm lands left over. Sometimes they fled into the hills when the Kakies passed nearby. Nakkie fell pregnant in this time.
Younger brother Jan Heystek developed a “stomach fever” while on commando. He was brought to Wysfontein and passed away after a few days of suffering. Emmie wrote that the women had to make his coffin by hand, but at last Oupa Wijtse and two others arrived to help dig a grave for Jan. Emmie’s husband, Theunis, also arrived in time for Jan’s burial, while a few more men helped stand guard in the hills. The rest of Gen. de la Rey’s commando was following a Kakie laager.
Finally, at the end of June, the dreaded Kakies arrived while the women were baking rusks for “in case…”, slashing and burning everything, thrashing the oven to pieces after one woman smacked a Kakie in the face for not allowing their wet rusks to bake first. (Oh my!) Chickens and piglets were caught and hung upside-down on the wagons, other animals were bayonetted and the kids were crying. Then followed a few days of grace during which the women were left under very little guard and their men came back through the Kakie guards, helping to gather what was left over on the farm lands and sleeping on the ground under the wagons (this was mid-winter). Eventually the women were taken by the Kakies in a “laager” of about thirty ox wagons on a two-week trek to the Mafeking concentration camp. Along the way the women were frequently used as human shields by the Kakies during skirmishes with the Boere. This is something that I remember my mom and her sisters talking about, how Ouma Hannie was so offended at the Kakies’ “cowardice” using women and children as shields. One cannot imagine what fear the children, especially, must have lived through.
July 17, 1901:
Arriving at the Mafeking concentration camp, 22-year old Emmie, little Hennie and her mother-in-law were housed in tent nr. T 1AF C, along with a Mr. Burke and his two daughters. Ousus and Nakkie and their kids were placed close by in tent nr. T 35 AF C. Two other bell tents housed the rest of this family group. They suffered malnutrition—poor rations and rotten meat reserved for the most “undesirable women” whose husbands were fighting. They fought off sexual harrassment by their overseers. They struggled to negotiate safely with “hensoppers” (hands-uppers) in town who had meat but expected sexual favors in return (and here Emmie’s fierce personality always won the day). The most miserable and unsanitary conditions led to illness and death on an unprecedented scale.
Measles arrived in the camp with a group of Lichtenburg families. Hundreds of children and many adults became ill, including a pregnant Nakkie and our family’s children. Emmie describes her son: “He got ‘bloedtering’, his teeth, mouth and stomach turned black and got so thin that there was no flesh to his body, one could see his guts from the outside. If the wind blew, it looked as if a marble was rolling around in his stomach. A month before his death he could not speak anymore – just make a sound as if he was hiccupping. Oh! The grief and anguish to see him suffering like this! Can I ever forgive the English?” Emmie’s account stops here, as the memories, some 37-years later, overwhelm her. Hennie died in December. Everyone in our family lost children under the most horrific circumstances, except for Goosje Lampen. Goosje’s little Geert survived the camps. Ouma Hannie, wherever she was, lost the three youngest Lampen children in less than two weeks; only Jan and Geert survived.
January of 1902:
Due to overcrowding many of the Mafeking inmates were transferred to the Merebank concentration camp on the Natal coast. I don’t know if Emmie was one of these. She mentions something about having to wear their white “kappies”—traditional Boer hats worn to protect their faces from the severe Mafeking sun—“which was much worse as being at the sea”. Was this a reference to Merebank, maybe? Merebank was also an entry and assembly point for POWs returning from their banishments overseas. The POWs had to take an oath of allegiance to before being allowed to go home.
Peace was declared. Emmie writes that Theunis arrived in the camp “after the peace,”only to receive the news that his son had died.
The last group of prisoners left Merebank in December 1902, and the camp was closed in 1903.
https://www.geni.com/…/Anglo-Boere-Oorlog-Boer-War-18…/14082 This is where Ouma Hannie’s mother, Anna Maria Heystek, died.
Previously published on: