Slagtersnek – Where men die twice

Part 5 in the series on Black and White South African Allies

— This is the terrible story of an American Loyalist, five unfortunate men, and a neglected memorial next to an informal truck stop on the highway south of Cookhouse in the East Cape Midlands of South Africa.

 The Cape of Good Hope: Eastern Frontier, 1800

—In 1800, a curious creature arrives at the Cape of Good Hope. He is Johannes Vanderkemp, an ascetic Dutch member of the London Missionary Society. We have already employed him as a witness to eventsVanderkemp in Part 3 of this series. His mission to King Ngqika’s amaRharahabe is destined to fail, but he will apply himself to the Khoekhoe people for whom he will become the leading champion. He will eventually die in their company.

His relevance to our story is that he becomes a severe thorn in the side of the British Governors at the Cape in the period 1800-1810. He and his sidekick, Read, will repeatedly appeal to the British authorities over the heads of the Governors. In this process he will continually speak evil of the Governors and the White Frontiersmen. It is not beyond him to lay fictitious charges against the Frontiersmen.

The Black Circuit Court, 23 Sep. 1812

Read and Vanderkemp eventually manage to force the British Government to insist on Courts of Inquiry in the Cape Colony. VanderKemp dies on 9 December 1811, before the commencement of the infamous roving Courts.

The first of the “Black Circuit” Courts, designed to assail the Frontiersmen, leaves Cape Town on 23 September 1812. Here we have the moment that the Afrikaner realizes clearly that the “English” government at the Cape is not his protector but his persecutor. The Court brings charges against twenty-eight farmers, including some of murder, based on Read’s accusations. Eventually, there are eight convictions for assault and several for illegal detention of wages. Every single murder charge is dismissed for lack of evidence. However, the accused have to carry all the court costs, whether innocent or not.

The damage is done. In Afrikaner eyes, the Governor is using a Khoekhoe Army to police White Christians and now he is persecuting them on false charges by a charlatan hiding behind the Cloth. As to the Governor, the reaction of his team of judges is quoted by William Charles Scully [1]:

If the reformers, Messrs. van der Kemp and Read, had taken the trouble to have gone into a summary and impartial investigation of the different stories related to them, many of those complaints which had made such a noise as well within as without the Colony, must have been considered by themselves as existing in imagination only.

Reporting on the Bethelsdorp establishment founded by Vanderkemp, the six judges have the following summary :

…the natural state of the barbarians appears there to supersede civilization and social order…
[…] Laziness and idleness and consequent dirt and filth grow there to perfection,
[…] It is certainly not to be denied but that some of the Bethelsdorp Hottentots in former times suffered injuries from some of the farmers;
[…]
but at the same time it is not the less true that there are many Hottentots at Bethelsdorp who have had a considerable part in plundering, robbing, setting fire to places, and even murdering the inhabitants;…

The Afrikaner Frontiersmen are incensed at this constant outrage fomented by Vanderkemp and the hate-driven London Missionary Society. With this “Black Circuit,” the focus of the Anglophone universe is placed on race relations in South Africa. For the rest of the existence of South Africa that focus will remain there and it will remain as skewed as what Read designed it in 1808. It is still like that today. It has been more than 200 years, and not a thing has changed in the way the Media conducts itself on the matter of South Africa.

This then is the background to Part 5 in our “Allies” series.

In the Baviaans River Valley, 1815

In the year 1799 in Part 3 Pieter Prinsloo led the people of his district up the Baviaans River Valley to get to the Tarka, and then went to King Ngqika, who promised assistance and offered the Koonap region to the Afrikaners. Ngqika’s four headmnen arrived the following day and ordered the attacking imiDange to desist from further threats to the Afrikaners.

Now, in 1815, Frederik Bezuidenhout, the author’s gout-ridden ancestral younger brother, is living on a riverside farm in the valley with his Khoekhoe wife and mixed blood son, Hans. He reputedly uses a walking stick and crutches to get around.

Slagtersnekmap

The problems start in April 1813 when a Khoekhoe man named Booy complains to the Deputy Magistrate, Andries Stockenstrom, previously an ensign in the Khoekhoe Corps. The matter is initially sorted out by the local Field-Cornet, but flares up again in late 1814. It seems that Frederik managed to lose his temper at Booy and has hit the latter with his walking stick. At this point, a final summons for Frederik to appear in court is issued. When he ignores this, Stockenstrom writes to the the Magistrate that “..in view of the protection [he] owes the Hottentot [Booy]...” and in view of the danger in “overlooking all this“, an “example should be made” of Frederik.

Field Cornet Opperman reports to Stockenstrom that Frederik is healthy enough to appear in court. Frederik is therefore sentenced in absentia to one month in prison, with the rest of Booy’s claims still to be heard. As is so typical of British authority at the Cape at this time, no attempt whatsoever is made to investigate Frederik’s claims against Booy. Given the background of intense distrust and danger on the Eastern Frontier, what happens next has an air of inevitability about it.

At the Cave on the River

And so it is that a military troop composed of a Lieutenant Rousseau, Lieutenant Mackay, a sergeant, a corporal and 14 men set off. Most of the men are Khoekhoe of the so-called “Cape Regiment” in which Stockenström has been an officer. It is somehow considered appropriate to take 18 soldiers to support a deputy bailiff to arrest one sickly farmer. Not only that, but the soldiers are largely of the ethnic group that is the subject of the unhappiness on the frontier as well as in this particular dispute. The sergeant is a certain Khoekhoe, “Joseph,” with no surname.

When they arrive at Field-Cornet Opperman’s farm at 10pm at night, they pointedly mislead him as to their mission, claiming they are on the way to Grahamstown. The troop arrives at 9 a.m. the following morning at Frederik’s farm. When the soldiers approach, Frederik shouts to them to halt, or be shot. Lieutenant Rousseau then orders the soldiers to fix bayonets and to storm Frederik’s position. At this point, Frederik fires about 12 rounds at them. He and his two helpers then retreat into two caves with their guns and ammunition. The cave is below the rock with the aloe in the image below.

Baviaansrivier2

Eventually, the soldiers track them down. Frederik’s assistant, Erasmus, surrenders. However, Frederik and Hans remain in their cave and initially refuse to surrender. This is when sergeant “Joseph” climbs to the mouth of the cave and, supposedly perceiving a rifle barrel which he thinks is aimed at him, he fires into the confined space of the cave. Frederik dies in the cave. Young Hans promptly surrenders, and will later testify that Frederik did not aim his musket at sergeant “Joseph,” but the court will pointedly ignore that testimony, referring to him as “The Bastard Hottentot“.

Situation Summary

While Frederik has been vividly in contempt of court and has clearly resisted arrest, Stockenström, representing British judicial authority, has some matters to account for regarding his own actions:

  1. He has sent Khoekhoe soldiers to arrest one white man in an already racially disturbed district smarting from the racist excesses of the pro-Khoekhoe Missionaries and upset by the Black Circuit Court.
  2. He has actively bypassed the district Commando system on which the men on the frontier depend for life and limb.
  3. His men have deceived the family of the deceased as to the killing of their family member by lying to them as to the gunshots the family has heard.
  4. He has in effect punished Freek for Contempt of Court and Resisting Arrest by executing him, employing no less than an army as the means to this end.
  5. He has made not the vaguest attempt to investigate Frederik Bezuidenhout’s counterclaims against Booy.
  6. He has left Frederik’s body unattended for the shocked and uninformed family to find.

Having 18 soldiers charge one cantankerous, gout ridden farmer with fixed bayonets for refusing to appear in court would generally be considered “over-reaction” in most civilized societies, even in 1815. Also, hitting a farm worker with a walking stick hardly merits death at the hands of the King’s soldiers.

Vengeance is mine!

At Frederik’s funeral in the Tarka, his brother Johannes is violently upset at what he perceives to be the extreme injustice of his brother’s death. In his ire, Johannes states that he will enlist the amaXhosa black people to kill the English, just as the English have enlisted the Khoekhoe to kill Frederik.

Tarka2

In the next few days, Johannes meets with Hendrik “Kasteel” Prinsloo and with his brother-in-law, Cornelis Faber, at Palingkloof (Eel Gorge), the farm of our family ancestor Pieter Jordaan. Hendrik “Kasteel” is none other than the son of Marthinus Prinsloo, who was incarcerated for almost three years in the Cape Castle (See  Part 3). Hendrik “Kasteel” and Johannes Bezuidenhout deputize a four-man team to seek the aid of amaXhosa King Ngqika beyond the Koonap River. The men include Cornelis Faber, 21-year-old Adriaan Engelbrecht, Frans Marais, also known as “The Frenchman,” and a 12 year old Khoekhoe helper. Marais was born in Hungary. Johannes has enlisted the unfortunate Marais, who will claim that he simply stopped by the farm to obtain some tobacco.

We want Hendrik “Kasteel”!

When word of Johannes Bezuidenhout’s plan leaks, Field-Cornet Opperman, promptly delegates his Field-Cornet role to Provisional Field-Cornet, Willem Frederik Krugel, and flees with his family for the safety of Graaff-Reinet. At this point, a message from Landdrost Stockenström to Field-Cornet Opperman is delivered to Krugel in his capacity as Opperman’s replacement. The message instructs the Field-Cornet to call out the Commando of the Baviaansrivier to guard against a possible amaXhosa invasion. Krugel executes the call-up order, but then shanghais the unsuspecting burghers to support Bezuidenhout’s effort. The men of the Baviaans River Field-Cornetcy have hereby unwittingly been added to the plot hatched at Palingkloof.

Hendrik “Kasteel” Prinsloo has meanwhile been arrested based on intelligence already received. He is imprisoned at Captain Andrews’ military post at Van Aardt’s Post, overlooking a wide bend on the Fish River some miles south of the entrance to the Baviaans River Valley. His arrest is largely based on a letter he signed expressing that they “…have resolved agreeably to the Oath they had taken to their Mother Country to remove the God-forgotten Tyrants and Villains” [the British].

Johannes Bezuidenhout, who now seems to hold sway over Provisional Field-Cornet Krugel, tells all the men that the job immediately at hand is to proceed to Van Aardt’s Post to enquire as to why Hendrik “Kasteel” has been imprisoned and to have him released into their custody. This is a similar decision to that which landed Kasteel’s own father in the Castle with a death sentence over his head some 16 years earlier [Part 4]. It is at this point that some of the men realize they have been shanghaied. When Bezuidenhout becomes aware of the dissent, he induces the hapless Krugel to have the men swear an oath of allegiance to their joint cause. Some do, and some abstain. Some remove their hats, some don’t.

At Van Aardt’s Post, Captain Andrews refuses to deliver Hendrik Kasteel to this Commando. The Commando, not wishing to exacerbate the situation, prefers to withdraw at this point.

At Ngqika’s Great Place

In discussing matters with the amaRharhabe King, Ngqika [2], Faber predicts that, if Ngqika does not help, then the British will attack first the Afrikaners and then the amaXhosa. He also asks that Hintsa, the paramount king of all the amaXhosa, should bring his men from beyond the Kei River, and adds:

“Ndlambe and the children of Conga [Cungwa] should again get back the Suurveld, as also the cattle of the English and of the farmers who would not help, and further, the beads, brass, iron and pots, but that the guns, powder and shot were for the burghers who assisted […] … “when all was over and it was again peace, [the farmers were to] go and live off the veld of the Gonab [Koonap]…”

According to Ngqika’s interpreter, who will later testify against Faber, Ngqika answered, “it was good.” For his part, Ngqika sends word to Ndlambe. Ndlambe responds noncommittally that it is “good that he is being informed.” The deputation thereupon returns home, arranging with Ngqika that the rebels will send for help when they are ready to move. When that word comes, Ngqika should send his men to join the rebels at the Roode Wal (Red Bank). This ridge overlooking the Great Fish River is situated between the location of the memorial and Cookhouse.

Roodewal

There will be much debate and outrage about this “pact”on the part of the burghers who are not part of the “rebellion.” The “rebels” will become the subject of scorn in history books [3], but the plan is not nearly as outrageous as it is made out to be. We recall that Pieter Prinsloo, cousin to Hendrik “Kasteel,” previously sought and indeed received Ngqika’s help (See Part 3), and that Ngqika has hitherto lived in total peace with the frontiersmen.

Learning of Hendrik Kasteel’s arrest, Cornelis Faber returns to Ngqika, accompanied by Marais and others, to obtain a formal response. And a response indeed he does get. However, it is not what he anticipated, for by now even Ngqika has heard of Hendrik Kasteel’s arrest.

The Rebellion that never was

Back in the colony, the Loyalist American magistrate Cuyler has been fully informed of developments. He is approaching Van Aardt’s Post with a 100-man detachment of dragoons and Khoekhoe soldiers and a 20-man Commando of Afrikaner burghers in support. The shanghaied Baviaans River Commando, having failed in securing the release of Hendrik “Kasteel,” has withdrawn to the slopes of a ridge known as Slagtersnek (Butcher’s Ridge) to obtain a better view over the approaches to Van Aardt’s Post. It is located some miles north of Cookhouse, right next to the National Highway. Cuyler’s group of some 130 now faces off with the shanghaied Commando on the slopes of Slagtersnek.

Slagtersnek2

It is at this precise crucial point that Cornelis Faber returns from Ngqika with the message that Ngqika will no longer be coming to support the “rebels.” The “Rebellion that Never Was” falls apart at this point. Of the ringleaders, Johannes Bezuidenhout, Faber, and the Bothma brothers make off up the Baviaans River valley to collect their families from Palingkloof and elsewhere in the Tarka. Theunis de Klerk, the last of the seven key players, also escapes into the mountains. Willem Krugel joins Hendrik “Kasteel” in jail

Death in the Valley of the Baboons

Cuyler now calls up a further district Commando. Instead of relying on their skills, he tells these men that he only needs their horses, and he actually does not need them as men at all. This is a significant point, as we shall shortly see. Under the command of Major Fraser, the column of “British” Khoekhoe [4] soldiers, now with the benefit of the horses of the insulted commando, sets off in pursuit of the fugitives and lays an ambush for them.

When the trap is sprung, most of the people surrender. Cornelis Faber does so after his gun malfunctions, but Johannes Bezuidenhout refuses. With the help of his wife, Martha Faber, and his 12-year old son, Gerrit, he tries to fight back. The testimony will differ on what happens next. Abraham Bothma will later testify that Martha also fires at the soldiers. The soldiers will claim that young Gerrit also fires at them from among the wheels of the wagon. Martha will deny both statements. Her own testimony, as a twice-wounded widow and mother with a child in the middle of all of this, is rather compelling [5]:

“He first mounted his horse and wanted to gallop off, and on my asking him if he would leave me and my children, and allow me to be killed, he dismounted and came and stood by me behind the wagon, and spoke to the soldiers who stood in front of him, and I saw that one of the soldiers was going to fire at him, and therefore I pushed him away and warned him; at the same moment the priming of the soldier’s gun burnt, and my husband fired at the soldier so that he was wounded and died afterwards […]

he stood behind the wheel, and after he had fired, he loaded the gun again, and then he received a shot in the arm, which broke the bone above and below the elbow; he then fled to me in order to hide himself, and I called to the soldiers that they should lay hold of him, but when I covered him they wounded me and my husband then ran from me, when they shot him in the back; I thereupon ran up to him again and lifted him up, when I received the other shot. […]

grief does a great deal, for my heart was sore, and we were there alone; my husband then said to the child [their 12-year old son], ‘Go to them, and they will not do you any harm’; he thereupon went, but was wounded in his leg and under his foot…”

All this happens near the Jordaan farm, Palingkloof [6]. On 30 November 1815, the widowed Martha Faber and her son, both wounded, are then also left [7] in the care of our ancestor Pieter Jordaan, together with all the oxen. The dragoons and Commando set off looking for the remaining fugitives.

The Court Case

Eventually, some 47 people, including Martha Faber, are jailed. After a trial that Cuylerlasts from November 1815 to the end of January 1816, 39 people are convicted. Hendrik Kasteel Prinsloo, Stephanus Bothma, Cornelis Faber, Theunis De Klerk and Abaraham Bothma are eventually sentenced to be hanged. Stockenstrom belatedly obtains a reduction in sentence for Provisional Field-Cornet Krugel.

And so the infamous date of Saturday, 9 March 1816 inexorably approaches. As it does, Cuyler obtains two Khoekhoe carpenters from Van der Kemp’s hated LMS institution at Bethelsdorp [8], of all inappropriate places in God’s entire Creation, to build the gallows for the condemned white men.

The day that refuses to die

On Saturday, 9 March 1816, we find 300 soldiers lined up at Van Aardt’s Post, the spot where the “rebels” had sworn their oath. At least 100 of the soldiers [9] are Khoekhoe men of the Cape Regiment, which will later be called the Cape Corps. Standing on the scaffold with the ropes around their necks, are Hendrik Prinsloo, Stephanus Bothma, his little brother Abraham, Cornelis Faber, and Theunis de Klerk. Standing next to the scaffold, with a noose around his neck, is Frans Marais, the Hungarian with a French name.

The rest of the convicted, except for Martha Faber, along with the local citizenry [10], have been forced to attend and watch the leaders of the “rebellion” die in public. The 300 soldiers have to keep them under control. Jacob Cuyler is in charge of the execution, but a number of other senior representatives of British Authority are in attendance, the most notable of which is Andries Stockenström, the man who insisted on “making examples” of the Afrikaners.

This is when the five condemned ask to be allowed to sing a hymn with their compatriots and families. Even Magistrate Jacob Cuyler, the embittered American Loyalist, has to confess in his report to the Governor that, “it was done in a most clear voice, and was extremely impressive”. [11] Stephanus Bothma then addresses his friends from the gallows and cautions them to take a lesson from their example.

And this is the crucial moment when fate intervenes to embitter the future history of South Africa.

When God Speaks

Afrikaners are typically big people. An outdoor life on a dangerous frontier with a diet of meat builds big men. When one combines this with the fact that the Dutch are the tallest men in the Western world, one understands why British soldiers will for centuries refer to Afrikaners as “giants.”

When the fall is pulled from under the five men, four of them drop straight to the ground as their ropes break, even though those have been doubled as a precaution. We quote Cuyler himself [12], the man who is all-powerful when requesting death, but pleads powerlessness when called on for clemency: 

“They all four got up. One attempted to leave the spot and rush to where the Collegie of Landdrost and Heemraden were. They all four spoke, and at this moment some of the spectators ran to me soliciting pardon for them, fancying it in my power to grant it. I cannot describe the distressed countenances of the inhabitants at this moment who were sentenced to witness the execution.”

Slagtersnekbeam

The fact is, Cuyler has already most desperately requested clemency for Willem Krugel, who previously served under him. He has not only obtained that clemency, but will ultimately obtain total amnesty for him. Peculiarly, he now claims that he is powerless to request instructions from the Governor, given the utterly extraordinary circumstances that present themselves. The extreme political impact of the event is obvious. In fact, the governor himself later will observe that he deeply regretted that the sentences were not commuted at this point.

This is the precise day that the British estrange the Afrikaner as a nation. Their agent in this is Jacob Cuyler, the American Loyalist. For these simple practical Christian farming folks, God has spoken and Imperial Britain is opposing His Will. From this day on, the British authority will never be trusted again. Cuyler, being ever the Imperialist Loyalist simply sends for new ropes and hangs the men several hours later, with the body of their executed colleague still hanging next to them. This time the ropes do not break…

In the Aftermath

The gallows are duly broken down and a memorial is erected more than a century later. As to Cuyler’s personal view [13] of the terrible debacle of the double hanging:

…[it] will more impressively mark its example on the minds of those inhabitants who saw it, as well as those who may come to hear of it.

Indeed, he is right. This day will never be forgotten by Afrikaners, and we shall see the consequences. Few events in the history of South Africa will be so central in the psyche of the Afrikaner as the terrible event of the men “dying twice” at Slagtersnek. It will become a symbol of British oppression of the Afrikaner and a political and cultural rallying point for more than a century-and-a-half.

Soon, word comes that all the men who escaped execution are to be freed. The only exception is Frans Marais, the Hungarian “illegal immigrant.” He is to be deported. Those still on the run can therefore come home.

And what are the British thinking?

We quote here from a letter [14] of 21 November 1815, just after the confrontation at Slagtersnek, to the Commission for Administering Justice from the very Jacob Cuyler who later hanged Hendrik “Kasteel.” The reader can judge whether Cuyler has the best interests of the Christian citizens on the frontier at heart, or whether he sees himself as being there to impress by any means on them the power of the British Empire:

“As far as I can trace this affair, it appears to me to be the seeds of the former disturbances never properly weeded out, as all the families, which were then engaged, are now again implicated. This calls for Example, as in the first affair they were all pardoned.”

These first lines of the letter obviously refer to Marthinus Prinsloo, who led the 1799 Van Jaarsveld “Rebellion” of Part 4. Cuyler designed the example he so expressly desired. He then continues:

“1,000 men of the Cape Regt., 300 of them mounted, would always be a protection for this Frontier, as well as against the Kaffers, so as to support and enforce Government’s influence among the Inhabitants; fancy to yourself a people of the description of the Boers, all marksmen, well mounted, and the knowledge of the country they possess! Foreign Troops cannot act against them.

We now see when one Brother is brought against another, how he acts; whom, then, are we to depend on? The Hottentots are the only people. Instead of the 40 Dragoons I had with me the other day, had I had 40 Hottentots, who could have quitted their horses and entered the bushes, I would probably have been enabled to have secured some more of the mutineers.”

MemorialHe is suggesting that the answer to subjugating the Afrikaners is to use an army of 1000 men of the largely Khoekhoe “Cape Corps.” For him, the word “we” excludes Afrikaners. Unfortunately for any British attempts to plead the moral high ground, this evidence, directly from the pen of their American Loyalist Magistrate, shows that he views the Afrikaners inherently as an enemy. He certainly treats them as such.

Imagine a Loyalist British magistrate subjugating American settlers using a largely Six Nations Indian army. Such matters count deeply in history and are not easily forgotten.

Many Years Later

The beam of the gallows is removed and is used as a central beam in the roof of a nearby farmhouse for a very long time. Sometime in the future, it is removed and committed to the State Archives in Cape Town. Afrikaners would raise the matter of this particular beam again in the year 1895 after a failed British invasion of the Transvaal Afrikaner Republic. There would be calls for the beam to be used to hang the British plotters.The British will then view matters rather differently.

In 1900, Eighty-four years after the executions and right in the middle of the Great Anglo-Boer War, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will write about these events [15]:

A brave race can forget the victims of the field of battle, but never those of the scaffold. The making of political martyrs is the last insanity of statesmanship.

AmaCover2In the 20th century, a memorial is finally erected for the five men who died next to what is now an informal truck stop on the highway just south of Cookhouse.

In the year 2005, the beam of the scaffold, still bearing its bolt holes, will be removed from the South African Museum in Cape Town and returned to Somerset East, the nearest incorporated town to Slagtersnek. The town is laid out on Marthinus Prinsloo’s long lost farm at the foot of the Boschberg.

 


REFERENCES

Unless otherwise stated, the information used in this work comes from H.C.V. Leibbrandt’sThe Rebellion of 1815. This seminal work contains the Court Transcripts of the trial and also has a treasure trove of letters on the subject.

  1. William Charles Scully, A History of South Africa, from the earliest days to Union, (1915), p. 108
  2. H.C.V. Leibbrandt, The Rebellion of 1815, (1902), pp. 743-745; The interpreter was known as Hendrik Nootka or Hendrik Nouka. He testified for the Crown on the matter of this conversation.
  3. It would serve neither the National Party government (1948 -1994) nor the post-1994 ANC government to acknowledge that Xhosa hero King Ngqika had repeatedly been allied with the White amaBhulu.
  4. Wilmot and John C. Chase, The History of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope, (1869), p. 259
  5. H.C.V. Leibbrandt, The Rebellion of 1815, (1902), pp. 655-656; Martha Faber’s verbatim testimony from the court transcripts.
  6. H.C.V. Leibbrandt, The Rebellion of 1815, (1902) p. 294; Court Transcripts
  7. H.C.V. Leibbrandt, The Rebellion of 1815, (1902) p. 294; Court Transcripts
  8. Noël Mostert, Frontiers, (1992), p. 404
  9. Richard Cannon, History of the Cape Mounted Riflemen, (1842), p. 18
  10. Noël Mostert, Frontiers, (1992), p. 404
  11. H.C.V. Leibbrandt, The Rebellion of 1815, (1902), p. 824
  12. H.C.V. Leibbrandt, The Rebellion of 1815, (1902), p. 824
  13. H.C.V. Leibbrandt, The Rebellion of 1815, (1902), p. 823
  14. H.C.V. Leibbrandt, The Rebellion of 1815, (1902), p.147
  15. Arthur Conan Doyle, The War in South Africa, Its Cause and Conduct, (1902), p. 4