From The Great Boer Escape
by Wille Steyn
When I stepped off the train at Norvalspont to have a meal, I met Commandant De Kock of Frankfort, a man I had known since childhood. I heard from him that my mother had died twelve months earlier, and that my brothers and sisters were in the concentration camp at Heilbron. This was a terrible shock to me, as I had anticipated our reunion for so many months, dreaming about what it would be like. Fortunately my younger brothers had succeeded in obtaining employment, which had enabled them to care for my mother during her last days.
A few days after arriving in Heilbron, the Provost Marshall summoned me, informed me that my movements were being watched, and that I should be very careful about where I went and what I did. I did not allow this to stop me from doing exactly as I pleased, for these were not the types who could prescribe to me what I should and should not do.
Heilbron had changed so much during my absence that I found life there almost unbearable. I stayed for about twelve days for the sake of my brothers and sisters, who were still in the concentration camp, and then left for the Cape Colony. I was planning to fetch the few horses I had left behind with friends.
To my amazement I found that the military authorities had taken my horses and sold them by public auction. I spent a lot of time and money in an effort to get back what was mine, but it was all in vain. I was at all times able to prove that they were my property, but under the circumstances nothing came of it, and I lost everything.
From there I went to Cape Town with General De Wet, and stayed there until he, General Botha and General De la Rey departed for England. Thereafter I spent two weeks in Stellenbosch and Worcester, and then went on to the farm Atties in the Van Rhynsdorp district.
I arrived there on a Tuesday evening. The following Saturday, the entire family went to town for the Sunday communion service, save for their son, Izak, who stayed behind on the farm with me.
After the evening meal Izak went to bed in one of the outside rooms, while I made myself at home in one of the rooms in the house. The war was over and there was no reason not to sleep peacefully. But I had just fallen asleep when I heard a bang on the front door. When I opened it, I was confronted by three soldiers, two standing on the veranda and the third holding their horses. The corporal asked where the head of the household was, and when I replied that he was not there, he asked my name. On my reply that I was Steyn, he said: ‘You’re the man I’m looking for. I have a warrant for your arrest, and to search your rooms.’
I replied that I was willing to go with them, but that I first wanted to see the warrant. He instructed me to fetch a candle, and when I turned around to do so, he followed me. I immediately thought that this was a soldier and that I should not trust him to enter a friend’s house. I asked him to wait outside, but he refused, so we went to Izak’s room together, where I lit a candle.
The corporal then showed me his written instructions. The document had been issued by the Commanding Officer in Beaufort West, and read as follows: ‘At eight o’clock this evening, Corporal Matterson and two men must leave for Atties, where they must arrest a certain Willie Steyn, who escaped from Ceylon last year. He must prevent Steyn from getting to his baggage before it has been searched thoroughly, and all documents in his possession must be confiscated. Steyn must then be taken to Clanwilliam forthwith.’
I found it absolutely impossible to understand the reason for all this, but it was clear that I had to go. So I got dressed, showed the corporal all the documentation in my possession, and after a few minutes we were on our way to Clanwilliam.
We arrived there on the Sunday afternoon, and I was taken to the commanding officer’s quarters. He was not there, so I asked to see the acting commanding officer. He turned out to be a lieutenant whose name I do not remember.
I explained to him that I had been arrested the previous evening without any reason, and that I required something to eat before seeing the commanding officer, Major Graham. He immediately instructed a soldier to bring some tinned meat and biscuits for himself, the two soldiers and the prisoner. I thanked him, but said that I did not eat bully beef and klinkers. I explained that I too was an officer, and not one who had commanded Hottentots. He said that I need not eat the food, and that is precisely what I did.
In the meantime Corporal Matterson was doing his best to find the commanding officer, in order to spare me a night in confinement. Eventually, after four hours, Major Graham instructed him to take me to Captain Ridout, which he did immediately.
Captain Ridout was sitting in his office, and as we entered he offered me a chair and asked Corporal Matterson to wait outside. He spoke in a confidential manner: ‘Mr Steyn, I’ll be honest with you, and I expect the same from you.’ He proceeded to tell me that I had been arrested on suspicion of trying to stir up a rebellion in the Van Rhynsdorp district. I immediately explained my situation, after which I was treated somewhat better. He promised to send a telegram to the general, who at that stage was in Beaufort West, and to do his best to have me released as soon as possible. In the meantime, he allowed me to spend the night in a hotel, after I had given him my word not to absent myself.
At ten o’clock the following morning Captain Ridout informed me that he had received instructions to release me, and a few hours later he took me back to Atties in his own cart. I stayed there for two weeks before returning to Heilbron to start work.
[Editor’s Note: We surmise that the ‘situation’ explained to Captain Ridout was that Willie Steyn was at Atties not so much to stir up a rebellion in the Van Rhynsdorp district, but to visit Lettie, the daughter of the owner of the farm Atties, Oom Izak van Zyl. This would explain why Willie was released without much ado. What is not conjecture is that Willie and Lettie later became man and wife.]