Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Rebellion of Slachter's Nek

Long ago it was the habit of all white races to treat dark races with cruelty. The British about this time were beginning to see that that was wrong, but the Boers, who lived a lonely life, cut off from all the world, were slow to learn, and they still looked upon the natives of South Africa as little better than troublesome animals that might be hunted from the land, and killed if they became too troublesome.

When the British took possession of the Cape, they made up their minds to protect the black man. So, when a farmer named Bezuidenhout ill-treated a black servant, he was ordered to appear before a magistrate to answer for his misdeeds. But Bezuidenhout, thinking as he did that a black man was of very little account, refused to go.

The part of the country where this farmer lived was wild and hilly, and a company of Hottentot soldiers was sent to seize him. Bezuidenhout thought it was an insult to send black soldiers against him, and when he saw them coming he fired at them from his house. Then with two other men he took refuge in a cave where he had already placed a store of food and ammunition.

The path to this cave was so hidden by bushes that for a long time the soldiers hunted about in vain to find it. At length, however, they caught sight of the shining barrels of guns, and scrambled up the narrow track. But it was so narrow that only one man could come along it at once. So for a long time Bezuidenhout kept the soldiers at bay refusing to surrender and declaring that he would fight to the death. But at length one or two of the men managed to scramble to the mouth of the cave, and in the scuffle which followed Bezuidenhout was shot dead.

Next day the dead man's friends gathered to bury him. It was a great funeral, and when all his friends and relatives had come together his brother Jan made a passionate speech, calling on all true burghers to drive the usurpers from the land. If they did not, this, he told them, was what they might expect; to be hunted from their homes and murdered by black men. He spoke such burning, glowing words that many who heard him resolved to rebel.

A plot was soon formed. The rebels met at a place called Slachter's Nek, and from that was called the Slachter Nek Rebellion. But it was one of the most hopeless rebellions ever undertaken. In all, the rebels numbered only about fifty, for most of the burghers took the side of the Government. Yet these fifty hoped to drive the great British power out of their land. They tried to make a powerful Kaffir chief called Gaika help them, promising him land and other rewards if they succeeded. But Gaika was wary. He wanted to be on the winning side, and would do nothing until he saw which was the stronger. "Before I sit by a fire I must see which way the wind blows," he said.

But with help or without it the rebels were bent on driving the "tyrants" from the land. And when the news of the rising reached Grahamstown, which was the nearest fort, soldiers were sent against them. Most of the rebels yielded almost at once, but some, taking their wives and children with them, trekked away over the borders of the colony to take refuge among the Kaffirs. Among these was Jan Bezuidenhout.

At first it was not known in which direction they had gone, for all unknown Africa was before them. But when at length it was discovered, the soldiers quickly pursued and surrounded them.

The fugitives had taken the oxen out of their wagons and placed them in a circle forming what is called in South Africa a laager, or camp. But when they were surprised by the soldiers, most of the men were outside the laager, and yielded at once. Jan alone would not yield. "Let us never be taken alive," he said.

"Let us die together," said his wife Martha.

So he, and she, and their boy of fourteen stood together behind the sheltering wagons to fight for what they thought was the right. Out in the wide veldt, with miles and miles of rolling hill and plain around, with never a friend near, these three stood to fight against a force of twenty-two burghers and two hundred Hottentots.

Jan fired gun after gun, Martha standing beside him quietly loading. But at last he fell wounded to death. So, brave, but ignorant and mistaken Jan, died, and his wife and son were made prisoner.

Besides them there were thirty-three prisoners. Some were banished, some imprisoned, some fined, and five were condemned to death. Every one hoped and expected that these last would be pardoned. But the governor was stern and hard, and would not pardon them. They met their death bravely. Singing a hymn they went to the scaffold while a great crowd of angry, sorrowing friends looked on.

The rebellion was at an end. In itself it had been no great thing. There never had been any chance that it could succeed, and as so many of the burghers sided with the rulers, it might have helped to draw the two races together. Instead of that, the bitterness was made worse. For the burghers had never thought that in helping to put down the rebellion they were bringing their fellow countrymen to death. When they saw what they had done they were angry, both with themselves and with the governor. Instead of the two races becoming more friendly they became more unfriendly, and for many years the rebellion of Slachter's Nek was remembered with soreness and grief.

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