From Commando - Of Horses and Men
by Deneys Reitz
At last we reached Delagoa Bay, from which I had started for Madagascar long ago. I intended landing there, but discovered to my dismay that the Portuguese laws allowed no man to come ashore unless he had a passport and twenty-five pounds in his pocket. This was the first I had heard of a passport, and instead of twenty-five pounds, I had less than twenty-five pence.
The Portuguese officer at the gangway refused to allow me ashore, and the captain grumblingly complained that he was saddled with me for good. It certainly looked like it, and I spent an unhappy night on board, tantalised by the thought of being so near my country, and yet so far away.
The following morning, shortly before we were due to sail, help came from an unexpected quarter. A man climbed up the side of the ship, on some business with the captain. I saw by his appearance that he was a South African and, accosting him, unburdened my troubles. His way of showing sympathy was to count me twenty-five golden sovereigns from his purse, although he did not know me from Adam. He was a Cape Rebel named Theron, who had fled to Portuguese territory to escape the proscriptions that followed the Anglo-Boer War, and he was now living here, hoping that some day the ban would be lifted. Having deposited this money with the immigration officer, I was allowed to land, on condition that I obtained a permit to enter the Transvaal within ten days. This was not as easy as it seemed, for when I waited on the British Consul he bluntly told me that I could not enter the Transvaal, as I had refused to submit to the peace terms of Vereeniging.
I lodged with Theron on the waterfront, he paying my board, and for the next five days I importuned the consular office. But I also telegraphed the Transvaal Chief Justice and others whom I knew in Pretoria, and at last the Consul handed me a passport through the wicket. He said he was glad to be rid of me.
My next difficulty was my train fare, and here again Theron was the man. But I made the mistake of underestimating the cost, and took only thirty shillings from him. As he had left on a journey into the interior, it was too late to borrow more when I found at the railway station that this sum would not take me to Pretoria. I worked it out, and booked a passage as far as Belfast, a village lying well within the Transvaal.
At last the train was off and, after a few hours’ run, we crossed the Transvaal border at Komatipoort and, British rule or no British rule, I was delighted to see my own country again. We reached Belfast on a bitter winter’s night, and the sudden change of altitude on these bleak plains brought on another severe attack of malaria. The station lay two miles from the village, and I dragged myself down the road in the dark until I reached the main street, where I saw a public house all lit up. There I collapsed unconscious on the floor.
Next morning I found myself in a comfortable bed in a pleasant room. An ex-Republican officer whom I had known in the war (and had thought little of at the time) was my Samaritan, and for the next week he was constantly in and out, seeing to my wants. A British garrison was in occupation of the village, and one evening he came in elated, to say that he had procured me the post of billiard marker at the Officers’ Mess, as soon as I was well enough. He thought me ungrateful when I refused the offer, but he lent me sufficient money to take the train to Pretoria, and in a day or two I was able to start. I reached Pretoria at sunrise with a fresh bout of fever upon me, which left me so weak that I had only the strength to crawl to the Burgher Park, where I lay in a stupor for some hours. Later on I found myself back on the platform of the railway station, with a knot of people gathered around me. Then a man recognised me. He must have set to work at once, for soon a Cape cart drove up, into which I was lifted, and I woke to find myself in bed, in the home of my former chief, General Smuts.
For nearly three years General Smuts and his wife kept me by them, nursing me back to health of mind and body. During that time I slowly shook free of malaria, and entered an office to study law. Our family seemed in a bad way. My father lay ill far off in America, and his wife and seven small children were in straitened circumstances. My eldest brother, Hjalmar, having returned from his prison, was now in Holland, struggling in poverty to complete his studies, and my brother Joubert was on a fever-stricken plantation on the west coast of Madagascar. My younger brother Arend had, after many vicissitudes, reached Table Bay, where he was working as a dock hand. Thus, in common with thousands of others, we experienced the aftermath of war.
Nevertheless, things began slowly to improve. The British conferred Responsible Government on the two former Republics, and South Africa settled down to rebuild its shattered fortunes. In a measure, I saw one phase of the rebuilding, for Louis Botha, the Commandant-General, came frequently to the house, and I listened to him and General Smuts planning the political future of the country.
I had returned from exile, not hating the British, but resenting the enforced rule of any other nation. These two men showed me that only on a basis of burying past quarrels and creating a united people out of the Dutch and English sections of the population was there any hope for white men in South Africa. I became their devoted follower, and my acceptance of their creed was profoundly to influence my life in the years to come.
In 1908 I convinced General Smuts that I could at last fend for myself again, so I said goodbye to him and to his wife, the two people to whom I owe most in the world, and with a few law books and the political idealisms which he and General Botha had taught me for my chief possessions, I set out to earn a living.