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Professor Barnard and the Isaac Malherbe corporalship September 7, 2009

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, memoir, military history.
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British naval gun at Pieters Hill, Natal

British naval gun at Pieters Hill, Natal

In February 2005 I was fortunate to meet Professor C.J. Barnard in Pretoria. He was the author of a book about Louis Botha and the phase of the Boer War that was fought in Natal from 1899 to 1900. I had been studying papers of Boer fighter Deneys Reitz at the Brenthurst Library in Johannesburg and drove up to meet Professor Barnard. It was my first experience driving in South Africa, and after a bit of confusion in downtown Pretoria, I found the professor’s house.

His modest house, surrounded by a wall and set back from the street, turned out to be stuffed to the brim with the Boer War.  The war’s people, its events, all lived in the teeming floor-to-ceiling file cabinets and bookshelves.  At Brenthurst, the war had been just one of many subjects—the librarians were probably happier to work with the beautiful illustrated tomes about African flora and fauna—but here I had arrived at an epicenter of Boer War scholarship.  So much dedicated reading, searching, striving, thinking had been accomplished by the tall, congenial man who graciously invited me into his sanctum.

We talked about Reitz’s life and the reasons why he hadn’t published his 1903 memoir soon after returning from his post-war exile in Madagascar.  Professor Barnard thought that by the time Reitz fully recovered from his malaria, convalescing for many months at the Jan Smuts household, he felt that everyone was tired of the subject.  Many others had published their memoirs, and Reitz was inclined to get on with his life.  I was interested in Barnard’s simple judgment about the difference between the unpublished memoir and the much-edited version that was published in 1929 under the title of Commando.  “The original manuscript had more feeling,” he said.

We talked about the Isaac Malherbe corporalship.  This was a group of about 20 young men, a subunit of the Pretoria commando, who had elected the 25-year-old Malherbe to be their leader.  Malherbe was much admired by Reitz for his way of instantly determining the place where men were most needed within any conflict and leading his men straight to the danger point, as if by magnetic attraction.  Malherbe and the rest of the corporalship, those who had not already been killed or captured at Spion Kop or earlier, were wiped out at Pieters Hill on February 27, 1900, in a massive barrage of artillery followed by a charge of Scots Fusiliers and Dublins with flashing, thrusting bayonets.  The air would have been alive with voices, there would have been a great deal of shouting and screaming.  By chance (a chain of circumstance involving Reitz’s uncle), the Reitz brothers had not been on that hill, they had not been brushed by the gliding black shadow.

Professor Barnard spoke of the members of the Malherbe corporalship as if he knew each one personally.  Barnard knew which ones were members of the Pretoria Rugby Football Club, their ages (all teens and twenties), which ones were married, their occupations.  He told me the story of Jan de Villiers, who escaped from a British prison camp in southern India by dressing as an Indian.  He made his way by rail and on foot to Pondicherry, which was French territory.  Ill in a hospital, de Villiers found himself in a bed next to the captain of a Norwegian ship.  The captain took him to Marseilles, and de Villiers eventually returned to South Africa to fulfill his destiny as an engineer in Potchefstroom.

J.L. de Villiers in garb he used to escape prison camp

J.L. de Villiers in garb he used to escape prison camp

I later saw a picture of de Villiers posing in the garb he had used to escape the Indian camp.  He wears a turban, and he has one of those moustaches that grows straight out to the sides, ending in sharp points that continue the undeviating east-west direction rather than curling up in handlebar style.  He has a white tunic and white leggings.  He wears what look like Boer shoes that have had the toes cut out to make them look like sandals.  He stands on an ornate Victorian-style carpet, and behind him is a photographer’s studio backdrop that has a little bit of everything: waves lapping against a rocky shore, a Grecian urn entwined with ivy, and a cluster of tropical-looking flowers.

Our discussion moved on to the guerilla phase of the war.  Barnard thought it important to impress on me that General Botha, commander of Transvaal forces, had a complete plan of battle entered into a notebook that he carried with him at all times.  Barnard emphasized this to counter any notion that the Boer campaign had become chaotic and disorganized at that stage.  The notebook contained a complete listing of commandos and generals, and Barnard pulled a transcription of it from one of his file cabinets to show me.  I was struck by his determination to understand that page of the Boer past, when the weight of the Empire was steadily crushing them, as the working of disciplined and meticulous minds.  Having since read the memoirs of De Wet, Viljoen, and others, I am inclined to agree with him.

The professor generously took me out to lunch.  Pretoria has changed much in recent years.  The metropolitan area is now known by its African name, Tshwane.  The large old buildings have colorful encrustations of awnings, tables on the sidewalks, street vendors, and street activity.  It is one of the many patterns in which white and black coexist in present-day South Africa: a growth of exuberant black forms of life upon old white structures, like beings thriving on a coral reef.  As we walked along, I felt that the tall slender man with silver hair was entirely apart from his surroundings, like a sepia-toned photograph amidst color images.  The world described in his file cabinets has become nearly invisible now.

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