The Seventh Voice in the Heritage of Simon’s Town: A Boer Prisoner of War


Boer Prisoner of War
                           by Melanie Steyn

Dolf de Wet at your service, Sir.
Queen Victoria? No, not at hers.
I’m a bittereinder! No, I won’t sign.
Her men, her orders burnt my farm
Caught my wife like an animal
Fenced her in with my kids to starve.

Jan my friend is a hensopper
I won’t hold it against him – not much –
He can stay in your camp at Bellevue
He’ll make toys, and can play rugby too.
Take me from this prisoner ship
I’ll play cricket in Sri Lanka, thanks.

Greed and cruelty, politics played,
This is your legacy – never forget –
Racism deep in my blood and yours
Grows, a seed with a system of roots,
Grows, a scourge, and a curse on our land.
Christian gentlemen? Well, we may be,
But toxic tendrils ensnare both our souls.

Boer prisoners of war were initially held on ships in Simon’s Bay, but a camp called Bellevue was later established. Prisoners who would not sign an oath of allegiance to the Empire, were called “bittereinders” and shipped to other British colonies like St Helena, Sri Lanka and India. Those who signed were called “hensoppers” and stayed in the camp.

The British officers taught the prisoners to play rugby and encouraged matches. The prisoners also produced artefacts. There were young boys and a few black men among them.

The first concentration camps were established by the British during this war. When the British entered Pretoria in June 1900, they thought the war was over, and expected the Boer republics to surrender. Instead, they conducted guerrilla warfare, using small raiding parties and disrupting supply lines, for instance. The British felt they would never win the war because the Boer soldiers would go home between raids to rest, eat and convalesce, hidden by the womenfolk. So, they adopted the scorched earth policy and burnt down the homesteads on the farms. They placed the women and children who were rendered homeless in concentration camps. Conditions became appalling and during the first eighteen months that the camps were in operation the mortality rate reached a total of 26,370, of whom 24,000 were infants and children under 16. About 50 children died every day. The final death toll was 40,000, of whom about a third were people of colour.

The heroic Englishwoman, Emily Hobhouse, a welfare activist, visited the camps and campaigned for better treatment. Her reports caused an uproar when they were published in England, but the British government never treated her with anything but contempt. The suffering of the women and children played a big part in the Boer decision to surrender in the end.


Here I must tell two stories from my family.  First, my mother’s mother, Catherina van Rooyen, was a prisoner in a Free State camp. She said only one thing to me about it, which reflected her beautiful and generous spirit. She said that she felt sorry for “those English boys” because she could see that they hated to see the women and children suffering and dying, but they had to carry out orders. She was ten years old at the time but looked at the English soldiers, her captors, with the eyes of a wise old soul.

The second story is about my grandfather, Marthinus Hendrik Steyn. He was a prisoner of war, a bittereinder, who was sent to India. The officers there also organised sports teams, and soon discovered that he was an excellent all-round cricketer. He had refused to sign a pledge to be loyal to the British Empire, but he did accept an offer to become an honorary British officer and tour India playing for the enemy side! His last words to my father were, “The umpire has given me out, and I’m taking a slow walk back to the pavilion.”




Simon’s Town Museum.
New World Encyclopedia:
Personal reminiscences: Melanie Steyn

The Sixth Voice in the Heritage of Simon’s Town: Mary Kingsley

Mary Kingsley
by Melanie Steyn

My mother cocooned herself in a darkened room
The doctor my father flitted to London to serve
The Earl of Pembroke, and I was left to digest
The library, a caterpillar of books.

West Africa called when I was free at last.
My entrée was my trading and my stock,
So I could learn about their faith and land
And nurse the Fang and study vegetation.

I was told I discovered the Karkola River no white
Had seen. I laughed off their impertinence.
When England began a war for diamonds and gold
I came to nurse the Boers in Simon’s Town.

My coffin rolls its legacy of love,
Forever, my friends, in your cerulean seas.


Mary Kingsley was an exceptional woman, quite unlike Victorian women generally. However, she refused to wear anything but socially acceptable Victorian clothing throughout her travels in Africa. This illustrates that she was used to accommodating contradictions in her mind. Her parents’ marriage, for instance, was a paradox in itself. Her father was a successful doctor, who married his servant four days before their child, Mary, was born. Her mother was unwilling or unable to adjust to her new status and became a life-long invalid, who preferred to remain in her room with her shutters closed.

Her father got her a German tutor, because German was the dominant language in medicine at the time, and he thought she might one day be of professional assistance to him. He also encouraged her to enjoy the extensive library in his country home. Mary loved both of her parents and was heartbroken when they died within a short time of each other. Her frail younger brother tried to persuade her to become his house-keeper, but she was attending lectures and developing a taste for adventure.

She had educated herself broadly and was astonishingly progressive. For example, she believed in the Almighty, but used the name Allah quite as often as she used God. She also made contributions for instance to the fields of botany and anthropology. She travelled to West Africa and got to know the Fang, who were cannibals at that stage. This was long before the concept of field work was established. She found that they considered her untrustworthy when she approached them directly and asked to do research, so she bought stock, hired helpers, and went as a trader. The Fang learnt to trust her, and her intervention even saved one of her companions from being killed and eaten by them. She also studied their religion objectively and helped them with her medical knowledge.

She opposed the British war effort in South Africa and went there specifically to nurse Boer prisoners of war. She worked in the Palace Barracks in Simon’s Town, converted to a temporary hospital in 1900. Unfortunately, she caught the enteric fever that killed so many of the prisoners and died at the age of 37.  She had asked to be buried at sea and she was given a military funeral with full honours. She had wasted away so much that her coffin was too light to sink when she was committed to the ocean near Cape Point. It had to be pulled back on board to have an anchor attached to it.

She is generally considered to have been a modifying influence on the racist and chauvinistic attitudes of her society at the time.



New World Encyclopedia:


Fifth Voice in the Heritage of Simon’s Town: Sir Robert Harris


Amiralty House.   Top: Piet Cronje.  Bottom: Kildonan Castle.

Sir Robert Harris
by Melanie Steyn

You’d hardly think, looking at our numbers,
It could be done. Thousands of prisoners of war!
Would you believe four thousand six hundred taken
At Paardeberg. Bearded, stubborn and starving,
Some seemed relieved. Good relationships
With soldiers here. Still, there was a war
So we used ships. Contact with townsmen forbidden.
For six weeks two thousand five hundred and fifty
Were placed on board one ship: Kildonan Castle.
We did our best. Did you see the rugby?
The blighters learned fast. Played us as well.
I hosted Cronje. Yes, he had one night
Before St Helena. Imperturbable.
His wife and son, grandson too, all came.
A reception at the station, guards and all,
And dinner with us. De la Rey and Steyn
They say were the brains; no hero, he.
But I’m not sure. Quite inscrutable,
I have to say, such dignity, you know.


Admiral Sir Robert Hastings Penruddock Harris KCBKCMG (12 October 1843 – 25 August 1926) was a Royal Navy officer who went on to be appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Cape of Good Hope Station in 1898. He became a Vice-Admiral 1901. He lived in Admiralty House during much of the South African War.

The causes of the war have provoked intense debates among historians and remain unresolved today. British politicians claimed they were defending their “suzerainty” over the South African Republic (SAR) enshrined in the Pretoria  convention of 1881. However, the British had hardly taken any interest in the area until gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1886.  Many historians stress that in reality the contest was for control of this, the largest gold-mining complex in the world, at a time when the world’s monetary systems, pre-eminently the British, were increasingly dependent upon gold. Although there were many Uitlanders (foreigners, primarily British) working in the Witwatersrand gold-mining industry, the complex itself was beyond direct British control. Also, the discovery of gold had allowed the SAR to make progress with modernization efforts and vie with Britain for domination in Southern Africa.

After 1897 Britain—through Alfred Milner, its high commissioner for South Africa—demanded the modification of the Boer republic’s constitution to grant political rights to the Uitlanders. In an effort to prevent a conflict between Britain and the SAR, Marthinus Steyn, president of the Orange Free State, hosted an unsuccessful Bloemfontein Conference in May–June 1899 between Milner and Paul Kruger, president of the SAR. Kruger did offer to make concessions to Britain, but they were deemed insufficient by Milner. This angered many British people, too, for example, William Schreiner resigned as Cape Prime Minister in protest.

The Boers, realizing war was unavoidable, took the offensive. On October 9, 1899, they issued an ultimatum to the British government, declaring that a state of war would exist between Britain and the two Boer republics if the British did not remove their troops, which had been building up along the border. The ultimatum expired without resolution, and the war began on October 11, 1899.

The British government was embarrassed by the army’s initial lack of success against what they called a backward, incompetent and rural enemy. They underestimated the Boers who only had 27 000 men in their commandos. During the early stages of the war. Britain suffered a number of significant defeats, and the Battle of Paardeberg, where the popular Boer general Piet Cronje was ultimately forced to surrender, gave British morale a considerable boost. So many prisoners of war were taken there that Sir Robert was hard-pressed to accommodate those that were sent to Simon’s Town. Initially, he used prisoner ships and then built a camp called Bellevue, where the conditions were better. Cronje spent one night in Simon’s Town before being deported to St Helena, and he was received with honour. This kind of behaviour was what prompted some commentators to say this was the last “gentlemen’s war.” It was of course also a “white man’s war.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Simon’s Town Museum.

The Fourth Voice in the Heritage of Simon’s Town: PRIZE SLAVES

Kidnapped and captured, released and enslaved,
Free men or prize slaves or cargo for sale,
Simon’s Town took us and kept us a while,
Free Blacks were brothers in Black Town then.
Home was Luyolo, where Zola* was born.
Children in Sayer’s Lane played and were free.
Kloof was their playground; St Francis their church.

Fate was not done with us: forcibly moved,
Townships awaited us far from our homes,
Ripped from our roots, we were not left in peace.
Kidnapped and captured, released and enslaved,
Free in our minds, but just cargo to move.
Justice must come, or our souls will not rest.
Justice must come; we have waited enough.


*Zola Skweyiya, Cabinet Minister from 1994 to 2009.


Slavery was abolished in 1834 and the abolition was implemented at the Cape of Good Hope about four years later. “Prize slaves” were slaves liberated by the Royal Navy from slaver ships of countries that still allowed slave trading. The Royal Navy ships would challenge them on the high seas and confiscate their human cargo. These ‘Liberated Africans’ were brought to the nearest English colony, branded and placed, usually with farmers, as indentured labourers. This was a kind of compulsory apprenticeship.

So ‘Prize Slaves’ or ‘Liberated Africans’ unfortunately became victims of the demand for cheap or unpaid labour, which resulted in unfair contractual relationships that often lasted beyond 20 years.

Large numbers of indentured labourers were brought to the Cape from different parts of the world, from St Helena, all over Africa and from India and the Indonesian Archipelago. ‘Prize Slaves’ continued to pour into Cape Town until 1856 and anything from 8,000 to 12,000 were brought in total. They were only really freed by around 1870.



Camissa People: Cape Slavery and Indigene Heritage. PT Mellet.

The Third Voice in the Heritage of Simon’s Town: THE MUSLIMS


Third Voice     The Muslims
by Melanie Steyn

We have a saint, but not from St Helena,
A Tuang, a sufi, Anthony to you,
A royal, a Sultan, now do you see?
Kaharuddin came in seventeen something
A prisoner of the Dutch, so afraid of
Resistance in Indonesia.
Here, read the Kitaab, translated at last,
It tells how he came, Sheik Yusuf his leader.

And where the museum stands today
They kept him imprisoned In Simon’s Town.
But friends were not far; they helped him escape.
They kept him alive in Antonie’s Gat,
And he and his children taught us the way.
Above Goede Gift is their Kramat:
The peace of Allah is palpable there.

The Islamic Mosque, Nooral, Light of Peace,
Our spiritual home, is precious to us.
We kept to ourselves; we offered you wares.
We traded and served; our kids played with yours.
So how did we hurt you? What did we do?
Our women so modest. We lived without wine.
But no, we’re not white, so we had to leave.
Yet we will make duas, even for you.

Sheik Yusuf, the ruler of Gowa on the Islands of Celebes in South East Asia, was also the brother of the Sultan of Macassar. In 1646 Yusuf went to Bantam in Java to spread the Islamic faith, where he married the daughter of Abdul Fatah, the Sultan of Bantam. He supported his father-in-law against the Dutch East India Company (VOC)  in the struggle to gain a trade monopoly.

The Dutch captured and imprisoned him, first in Batavia and then in Ceylon, but afraid of his influence, they banished him and his immediate followers, 49 persons in total, to the Cape. The contingent was initially accommodated in the Castle. In 1694 the Council of Policy resolved to settle Yusuf at the mouth of the Eerste River at False Bay. (Macassar  Beach was named in his honour.) He was to receive 12 rix-dollars a month, and his contingent would be supported in a humane manner.

In 1699 Sheik Yusuf passed away on the farm, Zandvliet, and only his wives and daughters were allowed to return to their fatherland. Many Cape Muslims trace their ancestry to his followers, who were also of royal blood.

It was, however, Sultan Kaharuddin, known as Anthony, a Sufi, who was brought to Simon’s Town. He was also a political exile, but probably arrived in South Africa after Sheik Yusuf. He would, however, have regarded Sheik Yusuf as a spiritual leader. He and his son Ismael and grandson Jaliel are credited with establishing Islam in Simon’s Town.

Earlier this century a translation of a kitab (the Arabic word for book), passed from generation to generation, revealed the definite identity of the Auliyahs (leaders, spirits, angels, friends) buried here. Written in ancient Sumbawanese, the kitaab identifies them as Tuan Ismail Dea Malela and Tuan Dea Koasa).

In 1969 a UCT student, a certain Mr Muller, conducted his thesis on the Muslim community in Cape Town, and specifically in Simon’s Town. His research findings revealed what oral history had claimed for centuries – that Tuan Ismail Dea Malela and his son, Tuan Dea Koasa were of royal descent. His research cites the Kitaad as the most valuable piece of evidence linking the families of the Dea royal family in Pemangong, Sumbawe, Indonesia and Sultan Kaharuddin to the Dea royal family in Simon’s Town.

Some Muslim families did avoid eviction, as the government did not have separate place for them to go.


SA History Online:
Muslim Directory  ;
Kramat Tuan Dea Koasa and
Yuan Ismail Dea Malela
Simon’s Town Museum

The Second Voice in the Heritage of Simon’s Town: KROOMEN AND SEEDIES.

2     Kroomen and Siddis
                      by Melanie Steyn

From Krutown and East Africa,
We manned the ships you could not sail
Unless we helped. From on the bridge
You barked and growled. We flaked and furled
The sails; controlled the halyards, braces,
Sheets and vangs. We knew the job.

You could not hear our names. Instead,
You called us Peasoup, Black Whale
And Tom Creeper. The shame is yours;
We rest in Dido Valley graves
But we bequeathed our children more:
The discipline, integrity
You can never strip them of.

Kroomen (also Kroumen or Krumen) were African sailors, experienced fishermen, recruited from the Kroo or Kru tribe in Sotta Krou, in what is now Liberia in West Africa, into the British Royal Navy in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

They would approach the navy ships in their canoes, and were willing to be employed on the spot. They would sing songs with a leader and chorus, rowing in time to the music. Because of their knowledge of the west African coast they were sometimes employed as pilots.

 The navy offered them three-year contracts. When they returned home it would be to great rejoicing by their families, but many did settle in different British colonies, including some who remained and married in Simon’s Town. 

The Seedies (the name comes from the Hindi word Siddi) were Muslim, and the navy recruited them from ports on the Indian Ocean, primarily from Zanzibar and the Seychelles. They were mostly employed in less skilled jobs. Some seem to have been ex-slaves.

Their descendants remember them as being tough men. Their graves in Simon’s Town identify them as Krumen. The renowned artist, Peter Clarke, whose family was evicted from Simon’s Town, remembered his Kru grandfather and recorded that meeting him was rather like “touching and being touched by God.”


Wikipedia and the Simon’s Town Museum.

The First Voice in the heritage of Simon’s Town: THE !XAM


I have now been living in Simon’s Town for more than six years, and on Heritage Day, 24 September 2018, I got involved with the museum’s exhibition. The event and art exhibition concentrated on commemorating the forced removals of people of colour from Simon’s Town in terms of the notorious Group Areas Act. I wrote ten poems representing ten voices from the past and presented them in roughly chronological order. Here they are, for the record.

The first voice is that of the /Xam, “San” people who lived on the peninsula and disappeared because of the genocide practised against them by all the other groupings in southern Africa to a greater or lesser extent. In Peer’s Cave, Fish Hoek, evidence of their occupation dates back 12 000 years. One skeleton is particularly touching. It is that of a young woman with hips malformed in such a way that she would not have been able to walk. She had intricate strings of beautiful beadwork bedecking her body and was clearly cared for tenderly.

Having exterminated them, we affectionately used their language to say “Diverse people unite” in our brand new coat of arms for a democratic South Africa. There are more than 40 living languages in South Africa, but using any one of them would have been too controversial. Nuff said!


FIRST VOICE     The |Xam
One impala fed us
For a week or more.
Tracking him in silence
Fingers spoke our message.
Tension. Bow and arrows.
Running for hours and hours
To bring him home at last.
Honoured he was in death.

Peering from Peers Cave
Spirits fashioned beads and
Watched the carnage:
So many fish and seals.
Calling them false names,
Killing penguins, gannets,
Elephant and buck.
/Kaggen, take revenge.

“ǃke e: /xarra /Ike”
Take our |Xam language
Use it as your motto.
Taking was what you did.
Coat of Arms? That’s fine.
Ironies are not lost.
Pity you killed us before
“Diverse people unite.”