The Slagtersnek Rebellion in 1815 is a well-known event in SA history, but some historians claim the truth has been hidden from the public.
Ian D Colvin in his book, Romance of Empire, SA, which was auctioned online by Westgate Walding Auctioneers last week, took a different view of the rebellion. (The Romance of Empire series was produced in the first half of the 20th century.)
A few people have tried to arrive at the truth, but the daunting task of wading through bulky files containing hundreds of pages of letters is a tough undertaking.
“SA historian Dr GM Theal who should have cleared up the confusion has only been one more raven croaking on a tree, one which the ravens of discord occupied since the five rebels were hanged in the memorable year of Waterloo,” Colvin said in the book.
To claim the rebellion was the result of English tyranny or Dutch patriotism was “a preposterous fable”.
Apparently the rebels planned to persuade the indigenous people to kill all who would not join them in a raid on the Cape Colony.
The fact was that the Boers on the frontier were antagonistic to the British officials and their interference in frontier matters. Under the old Dutch law they could do as they pleased and were a law unto themselves.
But things had changed under British rule. Laws were enforced, boundaries fixed, the land question settled, attempts were made to pacify the Xhosas and the Khoi were protected. The circuit court, known as the black circuit after a trial in which Boer farmers had to face charges by Khoi complainants, further incensed the Boer farmers.
It was on this frontier where Frederik Bezuidenhout, known as a violent and turbulent man lived and did what seemed good “in his own eyes”.
Around this time he was summonsed to appear before the magistrate on a charge of ill-treating one of his employees. He refused to appear in court and again refused when the summons was again served.
Such was his reputation that the field cornet whose duty it was to bring Bezuidenhourt to court, was afraid to arrest him. The field cornet was then given an escort of Pandours, or Khoi soldiers, to accompany him.
In his book Theal deals with claims that Bezuidenhout’s real grievance was the fact that Khoi soldiers were sent to arrest him, a white man.
Theal, however, believes that Bezuidenhout’s arrest and the Pandour soldiers sent to arrest him had little to do with the rebellion. The real object was the Boer colonists’ plan to remove the Khoi from the Cape Colony.
When the Pandours arrived at Bezuidenhout’s farm they saw him and two others take up defensive positions behind an outcrop of rocks. He refused to surrender. The Pandours rushed his position and in the resulting skirmish Bezuidenhout was killed. More arrests were made afterwards and arms and ammunition were confiscated.
At his graveside his brother Hans swore to avenge Bezuidenhout’s death. Together with a neighbour, Hendrik Prinsloo, Hans Bezuidenhout organised an uprising against British rule which, they believed, favoured the indigenous people and was hostile to the Boer farmers. They complained that the “black nation was protected and not the Christians”.
A commando of about 60 rebels met an armed force under Landdrost Cuyler (said to be of American descent), the military commander on the Eastern Frontier. The opposing forces confronted each other at Slagtersnek on November 18, 1815. The rebels were easily defeated.
Hans Bezuidenhout and members of his family, including his wife and 12-year-old son and a few friends, held out. His wife and son helped him until he was killed and they were wounded.
The rebels were charged with treason. Some were cleared, others imprisoned or banished. Six were sentenced to death but one of these was pardoned by the governor, Lord Charles Somerset. On March 9, 1816 the remaining five were hanged in public at Van Aardtspos in distressing circumstances.
Apparently the ropes used for the execution were old and four of the nooses broke. The hangman had not realised there would be five hangings and brought old ropes. The four whose ropes broke had to ascend the gallows a second time.
This incident spawned the saying that at Slagtersnek you die twice.