Early in the year 1900 I was serving with the republican forces in Natal. I took part in the siege of Ladysmith and in the Tugela battles, and when we were at last pushed back, we stood on the defensive on the Biggarsbergen, licking our wounds.
During the lull, I obtained home leave for a few days, and travelled up by rail to Pretoria.
Pretoria is only thirty-five miles from Johannesburg and, as I had never been to the Golden City, my father and I took the train one morning, and ran across. The place seemed deserted, the streets were empty, and doors and windows were boarded.
We walked about for most of the day and then, towards evening, there came a diversion. Suddenly, just as the street lights came on, a terrific explosion rent the air and a huge column of smoke shot a mile high into the sky, where it stood towering like a great mushroom. On all sides we heard the crash of falling masonry and broken glass, and men and women, previously invisible, poured into the streets, making for the scene of the catastrophe. From their shouts we gathered that the government ammunition plant had blown up, and we followed in their wake. Soon we reached a large block of buildings fiercely ablaze; shells and cartridges were detonating, sending spurts of green and yellow flames in all directions.
Some thirty dead men lay in a row on the pavement, and wounded were being carried off. It was a grim scene and it is still a vivid memory, for I was a boy at the time, of an age when things make a lasting impression.
My father and I helped where we could, and late that night we returned to Pretoria. Next morning there was intense anger when an official bulletin was issued, stating that the disaster was the work of a British spy who, it was said, had connected a live wire from the municipal power station in such a manner that, when the town lights were turned on, the factory was set off.
Up through the intervening years I had nursed a grievance over this, for I thought it a dastardly trick.
Now I had fresh light shed on the subject. I had occasion to visit a town in the Eastern Transvaal on legal business, and here I met a man named Begbie. In the course of the conversation, he told me that in 1895 he had erected an iron foundry in Johannesburg, and that he had built up a flourishing concern.
When the Anglo-Boer War broke out, however, President Kruger requisitioned his foundry and, with the help of Netherlands railway engineers, the place was turned into a munition work. Begbie was allowed to remain in the Transvaal, but he was forbidden access to his property; however, he managed to get his Zulu servant, Tom, engaged as a Bossboy, with instructions to report to his master from time to time, as to the treatment the machinery and buildings were receiving.
The Europeans employed in making munitions were mostly Italian artisans, many of whom had flocked to the Rand on the discovery of gold.
A few days before the explosion, Tom had come to Begbie with a troubled look. ‘Baas,’ he had said, ‘old Tom is very much afraid. Them Italian people smoke cigarettes all the time, all the time; and they throw the stompies all over the place. Baas, sometime soon everything will go bang – I’m plenty afraid.’
Begbie allayed his fears and told him to return to duty, and Tom went off mumbling and shaking his head. The plant went up within the week, and poor old Tom went up too.
Begbie said he had not the slightest doubt that this is how the accident happened, and I believe his explanation is correct.