Translated from Afrikaans by Dr. C.A.R. Schulenburg and edited by C.H. Benbow
On the 8th of May 1901, thirty-two of us in Area 2 were surrounded by the British and taken prisoner. I had little with me, except my rifle and the clothes I was wearing. Our pockets were emptied by the enemy. I had a notebook with entries in Dutch shorthand. For three successive days, I had to appear before the general for interrogation, especially about the notes in my diary. I persistently refused to say anything and, as they could not make out what I had written, they refused to give it back. This was a great loss to me.
We were taken to Klerksdorp and were herded on foot through the main street to the local gaol where we spent three days. Then one morning we were taken to the railway station and placed in an open coal truck ahead of the engine for removal to Johannesburg. It was bitterly cold. In Johannesburg, we were locked up underground in the “Fort”. The Reverend Martins visited us every day and with his help, I was able to buy myself a small handbag, a towel, soap, comb and a shirt.
After ten days, we were taken to the station again and placed in a coal truck to be transported to Durban at the coast. This time we were behind the locomotive which was welcome for it was May and very cold. In Durban, we were marched to the Point and then taken out on a small boat to a large ship (the S.S. “Armenian”) that lay outside the harbour. They used a big basket and crane to get us up on deck, four at a time. On the ship, we learnt that we were to be taken to Cape Town, where a further six hundred prisoners on war would be embarked and then on to Bermuda.
The weather was stormy and most of us were seasick. The dining room and sleeping quarters were in the hold of the ship. Our beds consisted on hammocks and we moved to and fro like bats in the air. All the mats and blankets were crawling with bed bugs, and I am surprised to this day that an epidemic did not break out.
After three days, we arrived at Table Bay and more than 600 prisoners were taken on board. Most of these men had been captured with General Cronje at the beginning of the war and had been kept in the POW camp at Green Point. The trip from the Cape to Bermuda lasted thirty days and was most boring, especially in the tropics. There were a number of Hollanders aboard, as well as other volunteers from foreign countries who had fought for the Boers. These decided to hijack the ship, but I knew nothing of this plan. I later learned that the idea was to take over the vessel near the Azores and then carry on to Portugal. But, because of squealers, the plan did not succeed, and the ring leaders were locked up until our arrival in Bermuda.
On Sundays, Dirk Postma of Burghersdorp held religious services on deck. There was a good library aboard and were allowed to take out books. I read many, mostly German and English ones. Draughts was a popular game. On the 11th of June, we saw flying fish for the first time. They reminded us of locusts and mad us long for home. On the 16th we touched at the Cape Verde Islands to take on coal. In the early morning of the 28th, we saw land again; this time it was Bermuda!
The Bermudas were thickly wooded with cedar trees. The Boer prisoners of war were accommodated in tents on the following islands: Darrell’s, Burt’s, Morgan’s, Tucker’s and Hawkins’. Later, another island housed the children prisoners of war. A prison hospital under canvas was situated on Port’s Island and some of our men lie buried in a cemetery close by.
On the 1st of July, we were taken to Burt’s Island. It was pleasant to be on land again, even though so far from home. The island was very small, about 500 square yards in size, and it was divided in two by a high barbed-wire fence with a gate in the middle. We were on one side and the English guards on the other. Two warships also guarded us, illuminating the island at night with their strong searchlights. At first, we numbered 430 men. The English guards were under the command of Major G.D. Armstrong. The tents were erected in rows and these were known as “lines”. There were nine “lines” at first, but this was soon reduced to seven when some men were transferred to Morgan’s Island. Seven men shared a tent. Each row chose its “Line Captain” and each tent had a “Corporal” who was responsible for the cleanliness of the tent and its surroundings.
Our camp had its own “Commandant” who was responsible for discussions between us and the English Guard Commander.
Rox call was held twice a day on the parade ground: mornings and evenings at six o’clock. Each “Line Captain” was responsible for his men, but officers were not counted.
Rations had to be drawn each day and every tent inhabitant had to see to his own preparation and cooking. Barend Swanepoel was our cook from the beginning to the end. Daily rations for each man on Burt’s Island were:
1 ¼ lbs. bread or 1lb biscuits
1lb fresh meat
¾ lb. preserved meat
2/3 oz. coffee
½ oz. salt
½ pound lb. fresh vegetables
1 oz. preserved vegetables
Lime juice with sugar was issued if fresh vegetables were not available, or on the recommendation of the medical officer
In the whole island group, there were no rivers and no fresh water, except rain that was caught or else de-salted sea water.
There were five marquees in our camp; three were used as school tents, one as a library and one as a mess for officers. A large wood-and-canvas building was erected for use as a church. Dirk Postma held services here in the beginning, and later we had visits from Reverend Albertyn and Reverend van Blerk.
The boring, soul-killing life on the island was made bearable, and enjoyable to a certain extent, by the friendly help of American and Bermudian residents who sympathized with us, and by the efforts of The Boer Relief Committee which consisted of the following persons: Captain and Mrs. Recht, Captain and Mrs. Meyer, Mr. Willie Meyer and Miss Outerbridge. The Committee also included the Reverend and Mrs. Albertyn and Reverent van Blerk. These three had free access to the various camps and were kept informed of the requirements on the islands. It was through this Committee that we were presented with a large marquee that was used as a library. Many books were sent to us from America, mostly English ones but also a number of German, Dutch and French. In the beginning I was librarian, a post which was later taken over by my friend Melt van Niekerk of Pretoria.
I was also secretary of the “POW Industrial Association”. This was started by the makers of curios and toys. Hundreds of these items were made out of cedarwood at the request of Americans and other visitors/ We had to concoct a plan to get these items away to Hamilton.
Through the English Commander, I was able to contact Miss Katherine Elwes at Government House, and she undertook to receive the curios, sell them and let me have the money to divide among the makers. A large wooden box with padlock was given to me; I had one key and Miss Elwes had the other. I received the objects, supplied each with a label and price and packed them into the box. When the box was full, the OC had it sent over to Miss Ewles. A fair amount of money came into the camp by this means.
In July 1901, I became seriously ill with dysentery and had to go over to the hospital on Port’s Island. Something which was hard and which I shall never forget was the fact that I had to row the boat myself, while the guard with his rifle and equipment sat opposite me. The trip was some distance and the fever, headache and stomach pains were unbearable. On arrival, I was taken to the hospital marquee. I had to strip naked and then the guard, with bayonet fixed escorted me to the sea where I took a sea bath. Then back to the hospital and into bed at last. What a relief!
The doctors came every day, but I became worse. After eight days, they gave me enemas of potassium permanganate and from then on, I recovered slowly. The male nurse was a friendly young man and was very good to me; I am still grateful to him to this day. I was in hospital until the 14th of July. When I was taken back to my friends on Burt’s I was thin as a rake but happy and thankful for the grace and help of my Saviour.
Life in the camp went on routinely. Classes were organized to provide lessons for all who were anxious to make use of the offer. Each day I taught English and History – general as well as South African. A Frenchman, Fleumer, started a language class and since I had learnt French in school, I joined and was glad to make use of the opportunity.
After the schools closed, the pupils sent us teachers a letter:
We pupils of Burt’s Island feel that we should thank you, our teachers, before we leave this place. We would very much like to have given you some material gift to indicate out thanks, but you know that we are without possessions here. Nonetheless, we wish to thank you heartily for the teaching which you have performed. May your efforts be met with God’s help.
We shall always be grateful to you. When our Father in Heaven will see to it that we join our dear ones in our beloved South Africa again, we will pray Him also that He will see you safely home to your loved ones. God bless your further work richly. God save you all. We will remember you in our prayers. Farewell, J.C. Barnard and 30 others.
In September 1901, a campaign was started by the British to get prisoners of war to sign the Oath of Allegiance to the Crown with the same promise that such persons would be sent home immediately. Many people signed it and were transferred to Tucker’s Island. Burt’s became known as the rebel camp – the home of the Irreconcilables – but, of the original prisoners of war placed there, eventually only fifty were left. Prisoners were frequently moved from one camp to another. In February 1902, a group of officers were transferred to our camp and amongst these were Joubert Reitz, the son of President Reitz, Baron von Khaynakc, Dirk van Deventer, Gordon Fraser, the son-in-law of President Steyn, Rocco de Villiers and Captain Haller.
We were unable to construct a tennis court, but swimming was our greatest sport and exercise. We had a debating society with the name “Nil Desperandum”; I was secretary of this. The “Burt’s Trumpet”, with teacher Willie Bachofner as editor, was our camp newspaper. It was written by hand, contained news received from secret sources and was sold once a week. We were forbidden actual newspapers and all outgoing and incoming letters were censored. We received our mail once per week.
By the beginning of 1902, I was hearing regularly from my parents, for which I was very grateful. From Hermansburg in Germany I also received letters from my Brothers Willy and Christof, and from their wives, Mimmie and Marie. Mimmie sent a postal order for five pounds and also a suit of clothes. The suit fitted nicely and I was delighted with it.
Towards the end of March 1902, there were signs of peace negotiations between the enemy and our General Botha and this caused great rejoicing amongst the prisoners of war. The Bermuda Islands are about 700 miles from New York and I knew I had relations in the United States, but did not have their addresses. My father, however, sent me the address of his brother, Johann Schulenberg, who was the pastor of a congregation in Owatonna, Minnesota. My mother’s brother, Dietrich Behrens, was a pastor of a rural congregation at Billingsville, Missouri, while my mother’s half-sister, Freda, was married to Pastor Strassburger of Cedarville, Iowa. I contacted them all and they invited me to visit them after the war ended. They were good enough to send me the necessary funds for travelling expenses.
On the 2nd of June, we were called together in the camp and were officially notified that peace had been signed and that soon we would be returned to our homes – at least those of us who were willing to sign the Oath of Allegiance to the King of England.
On the 11th of July, Reverend Postma, Bachofner and other Hollanders were freed from the camp and returned to the Netherlands (on S.S. “Roland”). That same week I received a letter from Aunt Freda Strassburger saying that if I decided to visit them, I should go to the German immigration house at No. 12 State Street, New York, upon my arrival in the United States. I would receive shelter there.
On the 25th of July 1902, I obtained my discharge from the camp and left Burt’s Island at about 2 p.m. Thus, my prisoner of war experience ended after 13 months and I was free to go as I liked. What a wonderful feeling! I went over to Hamilton, the capital.
De Wit and I reserved berths on S.S. “Pretoria” which was due to sail for New York the next day. At the shipping office, we were told that passengers in the Second and Third Class would be questioned and examined by Immigration and Customs official and that this might last for days. However, if we travelled First Class there would be no trouble and we would be allowed to land and go where we liked. No passports were needed then. De Wit and I, therefore took a cabin in First Class! We visited Mr. and Mrs. Recht that evening and thanked them for all they had done for us as members of the Boer Relief Committee. I stayed the night at the American House in Hamilton.
The S.S. “Pretoria” sailed at 10:30 the next morning. What a wonderful feeling it was to be on our way! As we sailed past Bailey’s Bay, Miss Outerbridge waved us farewell from her patio with a white handkerchief.
The First Class was full of rich Americans with their wives and my friend and I looked pretty awful in our camp clothes. When it became known that we were discharged Boer prisoners of war, many passengers became friendly and entertained us royally.
At midday on the 28th, we entered New York harbour. On leaving the ship, we went through the Customs Department without trouble. We were in the United States, free!
I already had the necessary diploma to enter a college, so after visiting relatives, I took up medicine at Washington University, St. Louis, and got my M.D. Then over to Guy’s Hospital in London for the English qualifications MRCS and LRCP (1909).
Back home again, I started medical practice at Ventersdorp, Transvaal, and for forty years was a G.P. I am now retired but three sons carry on the good work; two as specialists and the third a G.P. like his father.
My wife and I visited Europe in 1936 and I had the pleasure of representing our South African Medical Association at the B.M.A’s annual meeting in Oxford.