Diary of an exile

Hermanus and Ellie Ras with their children and grand-children on their Golden Wedding anniversary on 28 February 1938. Photograph supplied by Johan Ras.

by Willie Meyer – from his book “Magaliesberg Kaleidoscope”

The history of the Ras family of Bokfontein is dominated by Marthinus Ras’s building of the canon that was used in the First War of Independence in 1882 and the way he was murdered during the Anglo Boer War. In fact, it was his son, Hermanus, who gave the most authoritative account of the building of the canon and kept a journal of his experiences as a prisoner of war in exile. Copies of the manuscript in handwriting and written in the elegant Dutch written language of the time is still in the possession of the family. There is no record that it has ever been published.

Ras’s diary provides a rare glimpse on the soul of a typical patriotic Boer warrior; his fears and doubts; his tenacity; his tender love for his wife and children and his disdain for cowards; his unshakable religious convictions but at the same time his tolerance of and respect for other cultures.

Hermanus Nicholas Ras, also known as Nefie or Hermaans Moepolo, was the 16 year old boy who had to fetch the steel wheel rims in Rustenburg by ox wagon for his father to build the canon and who had driven the oxen so hard that some of them didn’t survive the trip.

On 28 February 1884, when he was 19 years old, he married Elsje Engelbrecht whom he described in his letters from exile as “the blond Elli, with golden locks, without smut or blemish.”  They had six children before the Anglo Boer War broke out in 1899 and Hermanus joined the Boer commandos in the field.

Ras’s father, the canon builder Marthinus, was murdered on 18 February 1900 at Kayaseput (Ras calls it Kaingsput) near Derdepoort on the then Bechuanaland border. On 22 December of that year (two days after his 35th birthday) Hermanus Ras was taken prisoner of war near Mamogalieskraal. At that stage he was under the command of Field Cornet Roos in the commando of Commandant Badenhorst. In his journal he describes his capture as the bitterest pill he ever had to swallow.

Ras records his emotions as he was interrogated by the English commander; the efforts of the interpreter to get him to divulge information about his commando and his disappointment with the burghers who obliged. The British tried very hard to get him to confess that he had already laid down his arms or get him to agree to do so then. He steadfastly refused in spite of the trick questions of his interrogators. “I was cautious as a snake and innocent as a dove,” he wrote in his journal.

Christmas day 1900 was a miserable day for Ras. In the prisoner of war camp at Hebron the family Senekal took him under their wing and shared their food with him. But the new-found friends were soon to part as Ras was taken by mule cart to Pretoria where he was again subjected to efforts to get him to make a declaration – without success. If he agreed to take the oath of allegiance he would have been able to join his family in the Irene concentration camp but he wasn’t prepared to betray his nation. As a result the English decided to send him to a prisoner of war camp in Ceylon.

While he was waiting in the ‘rest camp’ to be sent to Cape Town, his stepmother came to visit and brought him fruit and clothes. Another visitor to the camp was a woman who came to visit her husband. When she heard, however, that he was a handenopsteker (hands-upper), she refused to speak another word to him. The poor man looked more like a wooden doll to Ras than a man when she said that she wished that he would be sent away far across the sea. This was when he realised that “A happy marriage is a precious gem. The longer one lives with another in heart and soul the deeper the love. There is nothing more beautiful in creation than two people united for ever.”

Ras copied some of the letters he and his beloved Elli (sometimes he wrote Ellie) exchanged in his journal. On 17 January 1901 she wrote to him that the children were down with measles but that they have recovered. “Dear lover,” she wrote, “life is but a play. Each plays a role and gets his share… Think about our lovely evenings. We wander in the moonlight to our mulberry tree with happy hearts. Yes, we live in a paradise of love.”

In his reply on 22 January he wrote: “I thank the Lord that I am still privileged to put a sweet drop in her bitter mug.” He also asks the question: “Which privilege is more sacred than the affection of a beautiful charming lover?”

On 28 January, more than a month after his capture, the prisoners were put in open railway carriages for the journey to the Cape. There were twelve other prisoners with him, amongst them CJ and WA du Plessis and HN de Wet of Waaikraal, MD Coetzee of Zandfontein and a certain Frans Chakjan.

At the Irene station through a slit in the side of the carriage he could see two women and three small children walking in the women’s camp. “It was but a sad sight because it was deathly quiet. We later learned about the large number of fatalities among the women and children in the camps.”

At Kroonstad they saw a funeral procession on its way from the women’s camp to the cemetery. He was disturbed by the large number of Free State burghers who loitered around the station “with their hands in their pockets, instead of on their Mausers”. Here the British soldiers told them that General de Wet was in the vicinity with a force of two thousand men and that they were expecting an attack at any moment.

In Bloemfontein they were transferred to passenger carriages. These were third class carriages and they had to share a bunk between two of them, but at least it was better than an open carriage. In Bloemfontein he was also upset by the many Afrikaners mingling with the enemy “with folded hands, without a care – they, sons of the land!”

At Matjiesfontein they encountered a long train, full of troops and horses on their way to the front. The troops were quite friendly and gave them coffee and tobacco.

When they approached the mountains of the Boland and the train moved very slowly in places Ras’s friend David (he doesn’t mention his surname) wanted to escape by any means. He had already rolled his blanket, ready for the jump, but Ras managed to persuade him not to do so.

When they arrived in the Cape they were first taken to the Castle where all their particulars were taken down. Here they were taunted by the residents. “Every Capetonian got an opportunity to ridicule us, but my pen refuses to write down the slander.”

At the Green Point camp they were twelve men in a small round tent and they slept outside when it wasn’t raining.

One day they got news that General Christian De Wet’s brother, Piet, from the Free State had applied to address them to try to persuade them to take the oath of allegiance. The prisoners were up in arms and some pulled out the tent poles in anger. In the end De Wet never turned up.

Here, just like in the other camps, the prisoners were pestered by “undercover detectives” – English spies who made life difficult for them. The Cape Times also published hostile reports and painted a very negative picture of the Boers.

At the beginning of March 1901 the prisoners were still in the Green Point camp and a couple of them started to dig a tunnel to escape. The tunnel was discovered, however, and 20 of them were told to go on board the Roslin Castle for the trip to Ceylon. The Roslin Castle weighed anchor on 15 March with 517 prisoners on board.

Although the prisoners had been on board the Roslin Castle for some time and were lustily singing the Transvaal and Free State anthems as the ship left Table Bay harbour, they were not prepared for what was in store for them. As the bay disappeared from view the sea at the Cape of Storms became so rough that the waves washed over the deck. The men, who were still singing a few minutes ago, were now vomiting all over. The next day they were so weak from the seasickness that they could hardly move.

Ras writes that the coast was beautiful to him and they sailed close enough to land so that he could see all the bays and coastal features. When they arrived in Durban there was shocking news – the captain announced that a crew member had died of the bubonic plague and that all aboard had to be inoculated. All the prisoners refused and demanded to be put ashore. However, it was to no avail and the ship turned around and returned to Cape Town after the dead crew member was buried at sea. The ship was also infested with lice which made life unbearable. Here, Ras says, they felt the hand of death upon them.

When they arrived in the Cape, Ras was so sick that he had to be hospitalised. All of them were quarantined after which they all got new clothes. They then went aboard the Hawarden Castle, this time destined for India.

While the Hawarden Castle was still in Table Bay Harbour, Ras wrote to Elli again. He wrote that he was about to leave, once more, and that he feared that he might never see his fatherland and his family again. “Mijn welbeminde lelie van mijn hart, lieflik parel van mijn leven, de enigste en welriekendste bloem die ik op mijn weg gevonden heb…” He describes his children as “…skone olijfplanten…, die mij deur God’s hand werd gegeven.”

Ras found life aboard the Hawarden Castle depressing. There was a preacher on board, Ds Viljoen, who, as Ras puts it, still had to learn to understand the ways of the prisoners. He volunteered to go to Ceylon, but now had to go to India against his will. The sailors also didn’t like the prisoners singing their anthems and deriding them.

Ras was intrigued by the large shoals of fish on the high seas and the birds and penguins that preyed on them. He was especially interested in the porpoises they saw as they sailed up the coast past Durban again. After about a week they passed Madagascar and the Bourbon Island, as Reunion was known in those days. He said the island had the highest mountains he had ever seen.

The islands belonged to France and Ras pondered the fact that his ancestors were also French and that, like him, they were exiles for believing as they did.

It was unbearably hot and the prisoners were sitting in the bow at dusk looking at the lights being lit on the island. They were then ordered to go below deck where it was like an oven. It was so hot that they stripped themselves almost completely naked in their hammocks as they were trying to sleep.

The Hawarden Castle was a 600 ft long steamship that was 31 years old, but Ras was not unduly impressed. He says that he had seen beautiful men-of-war from Holland, Germany and France in Delagoa Bay in 1897.

The next day there was no land in sight as they were sailing in a North Easterly direction. It was like a plain with endless blue hills. He got sick from the air, which he found “too strong” but he still took a bath in seawater every morning.

They spent three days in Mauritius to ship in coal. The town on the island looked miserable to him, but there were beautiful plantations with a variety of fruit trees. When the ship dropped anchor, it was besieged by natives in their rowing boats. They sold pineapples and bananas, but Ras says they were so intent on making money that one could see that they have never learnt that money was the root of all evil.

From Mauritius they sailed directly to Bombay, as Mombay, in India, was formerly called. Ds Viljoen was still looking after the spiritual needs of the exiles and Ras says that at that stage he had no worries as he knew that his Saviour was alive.

One day two large sharks were following the ship and they saw a large whale in the distance.

By 20 April they sailed past Ceylon (Sri Lanka). They were now very close to their destination, but their rations were almost exhausted. They bought food from the sailors, until the colonel got wind of it and stopped the practice.

The exiles arrived in Bombay on 23 April. They were totally exhausted from the unbearable heat and lack of food and were badly in need of rest.

Bombay was a large harbour city and ships of all nationalities were at anchor. Ras was intrigued by all the buildings – monasteries, churches and many pagan temples.

When they came off the ship there were thousands of people to see them, both Europeans and Indians. Along the route, as they walked, there were also thousands of people, men, women and children, but unlike in the Cape where they were mocking and taunting the prisoners, the people were quiet and what Ras saw on their faces was only sympathy.

Their final destination was the 15th century fortress, Fort Ahmednagar, where they were to be kept for the rest of their stay in India and whence they were to travel by train under armed escort. After their departure from Bombay the exiles again broke out in singing their national anthems as the train travelled “over vales and hills”.

At sunrise they reached their destination at Ahmednagar and for the first time in months enjoyed a meal on terra firma. Their luggage was loaded onto an oxcart at the station. They had to walk under escort for the last three miles to the fortress. Once again, there were thousands of Indians along the way who greeted them like Christians.

On 24 April they finally arrived at Fort Ahmednagar. Ras records that the fort had been captured by the English in 1515. The graveyard he found to be a “beautiful place”. The perimeter wall was 400 feet long, nine feet high and 36 inches thick. The gate was constantly guarded by a guard with an unsheathed sable. Ras was so intrigued by the cemetery that he wanted to visit it even before he was settled in the camp. When he entered the portal he was instructed to first remove his shoes, which he did.

Ras asked one of the Indians to show him the graves of the king and queen. On either side of the tomb, which rested on 15 feet high pillars, were two structures which he called bunkaloos. Seven glass lamps were suspended on silver chains from both sides of the tomb. The bunkaloos were whitewashed from the inside out and to Ras they looked like two snow towers from afar. Around the tomb were many trees, including tamarind and mango trees and there were beautiful flowers everywhere. Ras said that he was fortunate to collect some flower seeds there.

Ras was intrigued by the fact that the Indians had 136 idols. He was present when two women paid homage to the idols one morning. Firstly they presented a variety of food and then they prayed. Thereafter they divided the food and ate it. Then they marked their foreheads with a spot as a sign that they had prayed.

Back at the camp Ras noticed something else that intrigued him – the conflict between body and spirit. It is not clear how he arrived at this observation, but apparently five exiles came to blows and eventually the whole fort was in turmoil. He didn’t say what the outcome was, but complains about life in prison, which he found so boring. Fortunately the English guards challenged them to tug-o-war and football in which the exiles gained the upper hand in most instances.

Life in the fortress was orderly and monotonous. Every cabin had a ‘line captain’, a head corporal and some 53 exiles. They were counted every day. Wednesdays they had “doctor’s inspection” and a full inspection every Saturday. The exiles were allowed to go on an excursion for physical recreation, under escort, on a daily basis. Because of being idle so much of the time, exiles had developed what Ras calls “stijfsiekte” (stiffness disease).

Ras saw a camel with two humps one day – the camel mentioned in the Bible and which is also known as “the ship of the desert, because it can go without water for a long time”. There were many horses and mules, but Ras was intrigued by the tame buffalo. The cattle were small and had long horns.

Ras admired the Indian craftsmen who made their own ploughs and, amongst others, knew stone masonry, ordinary masonry, blacksmithing, agriculture and a host of other crafts.

According to Ras there were 1 200 exiles in Ahmednagar, 4 000 in Bellary, 500 in Trichinopoly, 600 in Zajahampoer, 300 each in Umbala, Salkot and Satara and 200 in Wellington.

Ras was impressed by the natural beauty of India, but noticed that the people were very poor. Winter was from October to February and there was very little frost or snow. There were many flowers and trees such as pepper, cinnamon and nuts, but the exiles were forbidden to collect seeds. Even so, Ras managed to hide the seeds of 13 plants of which he thought the tamarisk to be the most valuable.

Ras made a point of gaining as much knowledge and experience as possible. Here he came to appreciate the value of the pocket knife – the only tool they were allowed to have. With the pocket knife they fashioned chairs, tables, portrait frames, chests, walking sticks, pendants, pipes and what not.

The spiritual side of the lives of the exiles was well attended to. Ds Viljoen was still their preacher and provided a busy schedule. At seven o’ clock on a Sunday morning there was a prayer meeting for young men; at 10 o’clock the service in Hut No 7; Sunday school at 2 and another service at 4. During the week there were prayer meetings at 3 o’clock. On Fridays there were debating society meetings for young men and a Christian Society meeting.

Peace was declared on 31 May 1902, but for the Boers in captivity it was not the end of their exile. It would still be a while before they could leave India and even then it would take some time before they could return to their devastated farms and be united with their families.

Ras writes that the pigeon of peace that arrived in India from South Africa carried in its beak an orange blossom and the colours red white and blue – the green and the orange were gone! The exiles could not believe that their country had lost its independence.

On 27 June the exiles were summoned to the sports field to discuss the conditions for peace. The chairman was Commandant Coleman who read the conditions to the burghers. The two Boer republics surrendered unconditionally – every burgher had to sign a declaration or take an oath of allegiance and acknowledge the king as legitimate sovereign.

The burghers had many questions and especially the questions of FD Wolmarans, a member of the Transvaal Volksraad, caused the British officer commanding to send a cable to South Africa which cost the burghers three pounds and 15 shillings. They wanted the commandant general to confirm that he did in fact surrender the independence of the Republic. On 4 July they were answered by Acting State President Schalk Burger who said that the brave warriors have surprised the world with their spirited defence and heroic courage. He also conveyed the message from Generals Botha, De Wet and De la Rey that they had to sign the declaration. The exiles were devastated, but they nonetheless signed the declaration.

The burghers were now free to come and go as they pleased, until their passage back to South Africa could be arranged. Ras took the opportunity to see as much as possible of the country. First he visited a carpet factory to see how carpets were made. The work was done by boys and girls, but Ras says it was beyond him how they actually made the carpets. After that he visited brick works and a clothes factory and also the military barracks where he was particularly impressed by the row upon row of beautiful horses in the stables.

Ras went to great lengths to visit as many temples, churches and graveyards as possible. He even employed an Indian guide to show him around. His visits brought him to the 300 year old castle of Queen Shahimbi and King Duwla. He says that the statues of the king and queen are still being venerated by the Indians. He also visited the bunkaloo of Queen Salbatka. There he met members of the royal family who annually visited the tomb to pray.

When Ras, carrying his lunch of bread and buffalo milk, bent over the tomb to read the inscription, he dropped the bottle of milk which broke on the tombstone. An elderly member of the royal family saw what happened and excitedly thanked him for anointing the tomb with milk. This incident ensured him free access to the rest of the mausoleum.

Some prisoners of war died before they could be repatriated and were buried with full military honours. Some of the burghers, whose funerals Ras attended, were Jan de Bruin, JJ Bester, Willem Smit, Jacob de Bruin, a certain Venter and four others. None of them was older than 33 years. The military authorities made 10 pounds available for proper tombstones.

While they were waiting to be repatriated, the exiles left the camp to hawk the curios they made in the camp. These included brooches, tobacco pouches, pipes, rings, chains and a variety of other items. Ras doesn’t say how much money they earned, but in the process they made many Indian friends. When they left the fortress on 16 November Ras’s Indian friends came to greet him and brought him gifts – a drinking mug, two handkerchiefs, one portrait for his wife and a silver bracelet for his daughter and also a beautiful piece of cloth. In turn, he gave them a portrait of himself. Ras says it was such a beautiful day that he felt nature was rejoicing with them that they were going home.

In Bombay they boarded the Montrose for the trip to Africa. Here Ras ran into a second cousin of his, Daniel Ras of Standerton.

On 25 November the Montrose sailed into a storm and almost everybody on board got seasick. Ras says the sea journey was no pleasure to him. When the wind started blowing the “blue plains got full of hills, my head started to spin, my stomach started to turn and I must find rest for my sick body.”

Eleven days after their departure they reached the French island Johanna, which Ras describes as exceptionally beautiful. The island lies due north from Madagaskar and used to be a pirate base.

It was in this area that they had the opportunity to witness a breath-taking natural phenomenon – a hurricane at sea. Ras describes it as a black funnel coming out of the sea ending in a black cloud. Where the funnel comes out of the water the sea is like a round dish as the water is sucked up. “It looked exactly like a whirlwind and stood still in one spot and then disappeared.”

Only in the beginning of December did Ras start to recover from his disease during which time he says his diary was his only succour.

There were 1 100 prisoners of war on board the Montrose – 550 from Fort Ahmednagar and 550 from the Kakul camp. When they left India, Ras vowed never to set foot again in the country where he was an exile for 20 months.

When the Montrose dropped anchor in Durban, Ras recalled that it was the second time that he saw Durban, but the previous time he was departing. “As melancholy as death you disappeared from my view, but as beautiful as the morning star you now shine upon my heart.”

Their arrival in Durban did not mean that the exiles were about to be reunited with the loved ones. All trains to the interior were full and the exiles were temporarily accommodated in a camp in Umbilo. Here again, Ras seized the opportunity to explore the environment and visit people.

To him Durban was a beautiful city with scores of ornamental trees and a lovely swimming pool. He was intrigued by the rickshaws, but still thought that Delagoa Bay was superior to Durban in terms of natural location and harbour.

Conditions in the camp were rather cramped, but at least the exiles could rest and explore the environment. Ras also visited the women’s camp at Merebank hoping to meet family members or friends. When he entered the camp he was besieged from all sides by women who wanted to know if perhaps he had news from a husband or a child. “The thought came to me, if only I could get the wisdom to offer each a friendly word and perhaps a nice kiss without offending anyone.” It was two full years since he last spoke to an Afrikaner woman and now there were so many asking him so many questions that he didn’t know how to answer them. He had to listen to so many tales of hardship but also of hope. “We are keeping up our faith and we trust.”

At the Jacobs camp many of Ras’s fellow exiles found their loved ones and Ras shared in their happiness. They also visited the Wentworth camp and here Ras’s friend, Pieter Coetzee, a widower, looked for an opportunity for courtship but had no chance because the time was limited. On their way back to the camp they also came across a party. To Ras it seemed that the young women were itching to dance, because they were so happy, but to his mind, it was wrong to celebrate peace in this way.

At last they were on the train where they had to share a bunk between four of them. Before they were allowed to board the train, they had to prove that they were still in possession of the declaration. They left Durban in two trains – the Transvalers in the first train and the Free Staters in the second one. From the train they could see the places where the Boers fought so courageously for their freedom – Ladysmith, Elandslaagte, Biggarsberg, Dundee and Newcastle.

On 9 December the train stopped at Elandsfontein where they took leave of the Free Staters. There were women who came to welcome their husbands, but many men were already on their way to Irene.

When Ras arrived at Irene there was no sign of his family and he had to find a way to get to Rustenburg. He found the camp at Irene very depressing. Most of the women who were still there were sick. Many had died in the camp and were buried there and those who were still alive looked at you with eyes that reflected no hope. The children, like the women, were emaciated and listless.

At long last they were on a mule cart en route to Rustenburg – 22 men on one small cart and without any cover. It was so crowded that the men decided to walk. Accompanying them were ten wagons with women and children bound for Zeerust. They also had no canvas and had to use blankets to shield them from the rain. In spite of all the trouble, Ras was truly happy to be near the Magaliesberg again – free and without guards that watch over them. “Magaliesberg, never have I loved you like I do now.”

On 13 December they crossed Olifantsnek with its fortifications and blockhouses where they fought against Baden-Powell and the next day they arrived in Rustenburg. Their luggage was downloaded at the Gereformeerde Church and here the conductor informed them that they had to travel further at their own cost. The exiles found themselves sitting in front of the church, desperate and without money. This is the point where Ds Postma found them and gave them each five shillings to buy food. That night they only had bread and water, but they fell asleep satisfied.

Ras got a lift from Rustenburg to Wolhuterskop on a government ox wagon. The pace was agonisingly slow. On the route to Wolhuterskop, 36 miles from Rustenburg, there were signs everywhere of the devastation wrought by the war. The farms looked more like patches of desert than farms that once were cultivated.

After they spent the night at Kroondal, Ras decided to proceed on foot. He met friends at Sterkstroom who had been back on the farm for six months already. They told him that his family was also back on the farm. Looking at them, he now truly understood the meaning of struggle and toil with the farmer back on the farm having to make do with broken implements and teams of oxen, mixed with donkeys.

He then met a friendly and helpful friend, Renier Els from Rhenosterfontein, who offered to take him close to his farm.

It was late at night when Ras arrived at his farm, feeling as if he were in a dream. He was overcome with gratitude. Elli and the six children were still alive and in good health. Elli pitched the tent near the gutted house and had already started a beautiful garden. The children irrigated the orange groves and hoed all the orchards. The fig trees were full of fruit.

Finally re-united with his beloved Elli and his family he rejoiced in the beauty of his surroundings. “Now all is quiet and the silver moon casts its light over everything and everything surrenders to calm, peace and tranquillity.”

*Hermanus and Ellie Ras celebrated their golden wedding anniversary on 28 February 1934 with their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. He died in 1938 on his farm Boschfontein, adjacent to Bokfontein. Ellie died in 1946.

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

2018-12-19T12:44:34+00:00