Was General Schoeman assassinated?

by Willie Meyer – from his book “Magaliesberg Kaleidoscope”

The death of General Hendrik Schoeman, Boer general and father of Johan Hendrik, the founder of the town of Hartbeespoort, became one of the discussion points at a presentation by the well-known author, Vincent Carruthers, at a local restaurant one night in January 2010.

Carruthers gave an outline of the 2 000 million year geological and zoological history of the Magaliesberg. The final part of his presentation, and discussion, in which members of the audience participated, dealt with the human history of the area and specifically with the Anglo Boer War and the Boer generals who were active in this area. Several battles and skirmishes took place at Silkaatsnek, Rietfontein and elsewhere and several now derelict blockhouses were erected by the British to guard the necks and passes.

General Schoeman became part of the discussion when the history of the cross on Saartjiesnek was discussed. Jack Seale informed the meeting that the cross was constructed by JB Allen and erected in 1955 by Johan Schoeman and other family members in memory of the general who died on 26 May 1901. He was killed when a lyddite shell, which he had brought back from Colesberg, where he was in command, and used as an ashtray, exploded when he dropped a match into it after lighting his pipe.

General Schoeman, a hero from the first Boer War, has been a controversial figure because of his efforts to broker peace after he became convinced that the Boers could not win the war.

His efforts, however, gained him the distrust of both the Boers and the British and he had actually been arrested twice by the Boers and interred in Pietersburg. He was set free when the British took Pietersburg. At the time when General Schoeman was killed in the explosion, he was living in Pretoria. Also killed were his daughter and the head warden of the Pietersburg jail, a certain Mr Van der Merwe, whom he had befriended.

At his funeral Ds Bosman, a friend, said that what both the Boers and the British wanted to do, God has done for them. Some Boers actually believed that it was divine justice and that God had punished Schoeman for being a ‘traitor’.

Seale, himself a weapons and ammunition collector and quite knowledgeable on the subject, said there was reason to believe that the explosion was not really an accident. The lyddite shell, thought to have been made safe, had been used by the general as an ashtray since the battle of Colesberg early in the war and must have been a receptacle for hot ash and burning matches many times before. It would have been easy for somebody to stuff some gun cotton down the opening which would have been ignited by burning ash or a flaming match. No proper investigation had ever been conducted because it suited the authorities politically to have it written off as an accident.

Another interesting bit of information that emerged from the discussion was that the fact that so many British soldiers were hit by lightning could not be ascribed to God fighting on the side of the Boers as some desperate bittereinders liked to believe. Carruthers ascribes it to the fact that the British blockhouses, built on top of the mountains to the Rice design of corrugated iron walls and roof, proved to be excellent lightning conductors. The British soldiers were unaware of the fact that in a Highveld thunderstorm these blockhouses became virtual death traps.

According to Carruthers, horse sickness was a major factor contributing to the end of the war. As a guerrilla force, the commandos were totally dependent upon their horses for mobility and every Boer that lost his horse became a liability. In the end so many horses had died that the commandos could not operate any further. This was an important factor which eventually forced the Boers to accept the terms of surrender at Vereeniging on 31 May 1902.

Schoeman was not the only Boer leader who tried to broker peace. Former president MW Pretorius tried to convince General Louis Botha to negotiate for peace after the fall of Pretoria but was severely rebuked by Botha. Incidentally, Pretorius died of influenza in Potchefstroom just a week before General Schoeman was killed in Pretoria in May 1901.

A copy of the book by Willie Meyer is available at the Kormorant office.