IN THE SHADOW OF A MOUNTAIN
BY STEPHEN DUNKLEY
Oom Stoffel de Witt had built the homestead under the shadow of Mount Horeb, a few years after he had been ceded land by The Free State administration in 1870, for fighting in the Basotho wars. Oom Stoffel and his family like many other pioneers who settled in the Caledon valley were in effect to become a barrier, between established Free State farmers and the Basotho who wanted to reclaim the “conquered territory” at any cost. Initially life was not easy and the family first lived ate and slept in two ox wagons, while Oom Stoffel and his two sons Jacobus and Marais built a Hartbeeshuis. Land had to be ploughed, vegetables and fruit trees planted and most importantly fences and stockades built to ensure that the family and livestock were protected, not only from the marauding Basotho, but beasts of prey as well, for in the Caledon valley in the 1870s Lions were plentiful, in fact a local farmer and his sons are said to have killed more than two hundred over the years. Oom Stoffel and other adventurers who had fought in the wars, had been given the land on condition that they lived on it permanently, a house was to be erected of at least 6.4 x 3 meters, within 6 months of occupation, owners at all times had to be in possession of a horse, saddle and bridle as well as a rifle, two hundred rounds of ammunition, five pounds of powder and five hundred percussion caps or twelve flints. While life was tough, game was plentiful, and the pantry was always full of dried meat, and the fur/leather used for clothing, blankets or household items.
Tant Sonnet was a hardy lady, a true Boer vrou and laboured just as hard, if not harder than the men, Greta their daughter was only six but even she had daily chores and was adept at loading a rifle should the need arise, all members of the de Witt family needed to help, to ensure the survival of the family. While there was a little timber in the area it was not enough for building a permanent home, here Oom Stoffel believed that God in his wisdom had provided and thanked him for this before every evening meal. The lord had provided rock, sandstone to be precise, and this is what would be used to build a home. While the sandstone was plentiful and could be hewn from the local hills, timber, corrugated iron and other items needed for building had to be transported from great distances and at enormous cost, to the farm. After a number of years of relative peace and harmony between the Boers and the Basotho the valley was once again in turmoil and the sounds of battle would again fill the air. This time the British Empire had decided that the Boer republics and their riches would be annexed. While the de Witt family had endured many hardships over the years what was to happen next would make that all pale by comparison.
The men of Musgrave’s scouts, “Colonial irregulars” who arrived at the house were drunk and belligerent, and to make matters worse, local Boers of the “Orange river volunteers” as well as black mercenaries fighting for the British were also present. With the men folk away on Commando, Oom and Tant de Witt as well as the wives’ and children of Jacobus and Marais were at the mercy of their whims, while most British troops acted with restraint during the war Captain Musgrave and his men were in no mood for pleasantries. “Where are the young men” Captain Musgrave asked and when there was no immediate answer he struck Oom Stoffel with the back of his hand sending him sprawling across the lounge. “We have orders to search this farm for arms and ammunition and take what we need, whether or not we destroy the house and outbuildings is up to you, if you and the women co-operate perhaps we will be lenient, if not then I can not be held responsible for the mood of my men”.
One of the black mercenaries triumphantly produced an ancient muzzle loader that had been hidden in a outbuilding, this was enough for Captain Musgrave to give the order that all livestock that could not be moved were to be shot, any food that could not be used or transported, destroyed and the house as well as the outbuildings were to be set alight.” You have 5 minutes to collect what you need from the house” Captain Musgrave ordered, it was then that tragedy struck, one of the scouts was molesting Marais wife Martie, their nine year old son Danie tried to defend her. Without expression or warning the scout simply shot him through the head, Oom Stoffel was next and after the orgy of wanton destruction had ended, all but Tant Sonnet lay dead, the women and children having first been abused before they were murdered. With the crackling of the fire in their ears, the smoke and flames streaming overhead, the bodies were left where they lay; Capt Musgrave and his brave men saddled up and started to move out. “What shall we do with the old woman” one of the irregulars asked, “whatever you want” was the reply. Before she was eventually strangled Tant Sonnet cursed the men and their families as well as anyone who ever tried to re-settle on or use the land. After the war the men came home from Ceylon to a ruined farm and no family. No one knows what happened to them, they just seemed to disappear from the face of the earth, but over the next few months a series of gruesome murders took place, of men who had been present that day on the farm.
Many have tried to start a life on the farm, some have tried to utilize the land for growing crops or to graze cattle, all have failed, today the house looks forlornly across the valley, a monument to man’s inhumanity to man. There is a definite presence as you stand on the spot where Tant Sonnet shouted her curse before being murdered, and as you walk through the ramshackle rooms the hair on the back of your neck stands up, “its not a place I would want to be near at night” a colleague of mine whispers as we silently contemplate the fate of a once happy family, and with that we walk over to the family graveyard to pay our respects and place a wreath of wild flowers on the old cemetery gate.