Karoo Windpump Morse Code

Posted on October 28, 2014 by Cape Rebel

by Marthinus van Bart


Pieter Johannes Olivier, of the farm Kweekwa in the district of Victoria West, was a law-abiding, peace-loving farmer who kept horses and sheep, and wrested an honest living from the arid soil in the heart of the Great Karoo. He was an industrious farmer and succeeded in earning a good living for himself, his wife Christine (Crissie) and their family.

As far back as 1853, Pieter’s father, Andries Philippus, had purchased 29 000 morgen of land adjacent to the transport route from Victoria West to Carnarvon, Williston and Calvinia. This vast tract of land was later subdivided into the farms TrompsgrafAdriaanskuilNuwefonteinYsterkoppe and Witkranz.

During the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), British columns frequently used this transport route from Victoria West, where there was a railway station on the main line between Cape Town and Johannesburg, to Namaqualand. Sometimes British troops would touch at Kweekwa in search of water and feed for their trek-oxen, mules and horses, and indeed for themselves.

Olivier was a prosperous farmer, and he had imported an American windpump which he used to provide water for his 204 horses and his other livestock.

After the first Boer commandos entered the Cape Colony at the end of 1900 to disrupt enemy forces and to recruit Cape Rebels to the Boer cause, the British proclaimed martial law in this area. They immediately seized Olivier’s horses and sheep, and left him with just four donkeys.

This was a great humiliation for this highly regarded man, especially as he had remained strictly neutral in the affairs of the war, and his wife Crissie had even baked bread for British soldiers and sold it to them. On occasion she had baked as many as 26 loaves at a time to satisfy demand from the passing British troops.

One day eleven soldiers from the Sixth Inniskillin Dragoons, who were stationed at Victoria West, arrived at Kweekwa and Pieter Olivier was summarily arrested. He was accused of spying and signalling messages about the movements of the British forces to Boer commandos at night, using Morse code. He was locked up in gaol without any trial or hearing whatsoever, but was subsequently released on parole, although confined to the boundaries of the village of Victoria West. He and his family then lived in their church house in Pastorie Street, which they had ordinarily used when attending nagmaal in the village.

It was only after the war that Olivier discovered the explanation for his past misfortune. One moonlit night, British soldiers on the transport route had spotted the light of the moon shining intermittently on the blades of his windpump as it turned slowly in the gentle breeze of a Karoo night. Having no idea of the existence of this windpump, and because they were ignorant about such a contraption, they thought Olivier had been using a lamp to signal messages in Morse code to Boer commandos or Cape Rebels.

Olivier did receive compensation for the seizure of his horses and livestock after the end of the war, but it was this sort of abuse of martial law that drove many honourable and loyal citizens of the Colony to become Cape Rebels, siding with the Boers and taking up arms against a sea of troubles.

This true story was recorded by cultural historian Elbie Immelman, and published in 2003 by Tafelberg in Vir Vryheid en Vir Reg, a book commemorating the Anglo-Boer War, under the title Die Heliograaf.

Posted in English