Blundering in the Dark

Posted on March 23, 2018 by Cape Rebel

From ‘Mafeking Road’
In Mafeking Road

by Herman Charles Bosman


After a few days we got to Mafeking. We stayed there a long while, until the English troops came and relieved the place. Then we left. We left quickly. The English troops had brought a lot of artillery with them. And if we had had difficulty finding the road to Mafeking, we had no difficulty finding the road away from Mafeking. And this time our veldkornet did not need an Mshangaan, either, to point with his finger where we had to go. Even though we did a lot of travelling in the night.

Long afterwards, I spoke to an Englishman about this. He said it gave him a queer feeling to hear about the other side of the story of Mafeking. He said that there had been great rejoicing in England when Mafeking was relieved, and that it was strange to think of the other aspect of it – of a defeated country, and of broken commandos blundering in the dark.

I remember many things that happened on the way back from Mafeking. There was no moon. And the stars shone down fitfully on the road that was full of guns, and frightened horses, and desperate men. The veld throbbed with the hoofbeats of baffled commandos. The stars looked down on scenes that told sombrely of a nation’s ruin; they looked on the muzzles of Mausers that had failed the Transvaal for the first time.

Of course, as a burgher of the Republic, I knew what my duty was. It was to get as far away as I could from the place where, in the sunset, I had last seen the English artillery. The other burghers also knew their duty. Our commandants and veldkornets had to give very few orders. Nevertheless, although I rode very fast, there was one young man who rode faster. He kept ahead of me all the time. He rode as a burgher should ride when there may be stray bullets flying – with his head well down, and with his arms almost round the horse’s neck.

He was Stephanus, the young son of Floris van Barnevelt.

There was much grumbling and dissatisfaction some time afterwards, when our leaders started making an effort to get the commandos in order again. In the end, they managed to get us to halt. But most of us felt that this was a foolish thing to do. Especially as there was still a lot of firing going on all over the place, in a haphazard fashion, and we couldn’t tell how far the English had followed us in the dark. Furthermore, the commandos had scattered in so many different directions that it seemed hopeless to try and get them together again, until after the war. Stephanus and I dismounted and stood by our horses. Soon there was a large body of men around us. Their figures looked strange and shadowy in the starlight. Some of them stood by their horses. Others sat on the grass by the roadside. ‘Vas staanburgersvas staan,’ came the commands of our officers. And all the time, we could still hear what sounded like a lot of lyddite.

‘The next they’ll want,’ Stephanus van Barnevelt said, ‘is for us to go back to Mafeking. Perhaps our commandant has left his tobacco pouch behind there.’

Some of us laughed at this remark, but Floris, who had not dismounted, said that Stephanus ought to be ashamed of himself for talking like that. From what we could see of Floris in the gloom, he looked quite impressive, sitting very straight in the saddle, with the stars shining on his beard and rifle.

‘If the veldkornet told me to go back to Mafeking,’ Floris said, ‘I would go back.’

‘That’s how a burgher should talk,’ the veldkornet said, feeling flattered. For he had had little authority since the time we found out why he was talking to Mshangaans on the way to Mafeking.

‘I wouldn’t go back to Mafeking for anybody,’ Stephanus replied, ‘except, maybe, to hand myself over to the English.’

‘We can shoot you for doing that,’ the veldkornet said. ‘It’s contrary to military law.’

‘I wish I knew something about military law,’ Stephanus answered. ‘Then I would draw up a peace treaty between Stephanus van Barnevelt and England.’

Some of the men laughed again. But Floris shook his head sadly. He said the Van Barnevelts had fought bravely against Spain, in a war that lasted eighty years.


Suddenly, out of the darkness, there came a sharp rattle of musketry, and our men started getting uneasy again. But the sound of the firing decided Stephanus. He jumped on his horse quickly.

‘I’m turning back,’ he said. ‘I’m going to hands-up to the English.’

‘No, don’t go,’ the veldkornet called to him lamely, ‘or at least, wait until the morning. They may shoot you in the dark by mistake.’

As I have said, the veldkornet had very little authority.


Two days passed before we again saw Floris van Barnevelt. He was in a very worn and troubled state, and he said that it had been very hard for him to find his way back to us.

‘You should have asked an Mshangaan,’ one of our number said, with a laugh. ‘All the Mshangaans know our veldkornet.’

But Floris did not speak about what had happened that night, when we saw him riding out under the starlight, following after his son and shouting to him to be a man, and to fight for his country. And Floris did not mention Stephanus again – his son was not worthy to be a Van Barnevelt.


After that we got separated. Our veldkornet was the first to be taken prisoner. And I often felt that he must feel very lonely on St Helena – because there was no Mshangaan there, from whom he could ask the way out of the barbed-wire camp.

Then, at last, our leaders came together at Vereeniging, and peace was made. And we returned to our farms, relieved that the war was over, but with heavy hearts at the thought that it had all been for nothing, and that over the Transvaal the Vierkleur would wave no more.

And Floris van Barnevelt put back in its place, on the wall of the voorkamer, the copy of his family tree that had been carried with him in his knapsack throughout the war. Then a new schoolmaster came to this part of the Marico, and after a long talk with Floris, the schoolmaster wrote behind Stephanus’s name, between two curved lines, the two words that you can still read there: ‘Obiit Mafeking’.

Consequently, if you ask any person hereabouts what ‘obiit’ means, he is able to tell you right away that it is a foreign word, and that it means to ride up to the English, holding your Mauser in the air, with a white flag tied to it – near the muzzle.

It was long afterwards that Floris van Barnevelt began telling his story.

But then, no one took any notice of him. And they wouldn’t allow him to be nominated for the Drogevlei School Committee – on the grounds that a man must be wrong in the head to talk in such an irresponsible fashion.

But I knew that Floris had a good story, and that its only fault was that he told it badly. He mentioned the Drogevlei School Committee too soon. And he knocked the ash out of his pipe in the wrong place. And he always insisted on telling that part of the story that he should have left out.