First ‘coloured martyr’ of the SA Anglo-Boer War

Abraham Esau

IN MAY 19, 1900, in the little town of Calvinia in the Northern Cape white and “coloured” English-speakers were celebrating joyously with singing and speeches….

Delivering the speeches were the local magistrate and, the “leader” of the coloured community, Abraham Esau, who proudly raised the Union Jack before he started addressing members of the community.

The celebrations of the townsfolk revolved around a strange series of events in Mafeking, a siege of a town more than 970km away. It was a siege that resembled a long sleep, in which the only people to suffer were the town’s African population.

The blockade of Mafeking lasted seven months, and it was an interesting, if ultimately insignificant event in the South African Anglo-Boer War – a seemingly unequal contest between the mighty British Empire and a ragtag army of Boers. Mafeking would become synonymous with empire-wide hero-worshipping of a British commander named Robert Baden-Powell.

Such was his celebrity status that British media saw what he and the town’s leading white citizens had for Christmas lunch at the town’s plush Reisle’s Hotel, as imminently newsworthy. Thus, they wrote about starters of anchovy croutons and soup, followed by oyster patties, calves’ tongue and poultry, and a main course of nine varieties of joint.

Interestingly, Africans in the town, most of whom were starving, received no pity from the man who would later go on to form the Boy Scout Movement. For, when it was suggested to him that some of the rations reserved for the town’s white community be shared with Africans, he recommended that the “toe of the boot” be applied to such “grousers”.

No one – and certainly not the townsfolk of Calvinia attached any significance to Baden-Powell’s ugly, and some would say, only side. What was important to them – and the citizens of every other town in England and the British Empire was the fact that Mafeking had been relieved.

But soon Calvinia would become synonymous with tragedy. It became better known for a time, at least, as the home of Esau – the first “coloured martyr” of the SA Anglo-Boer War.

Born in about 1855 in Kenhardt in the Northern Cape, Esau and his family were deeply influenced by Wesleyan missionaries – so much so that the family home was one of the few in the coloured section of the town in which English was spoken. The missionaries, it was said, stressed the “godliness of hard work” into the psyche of the black communities into which they came into contact with.

And certainly this was true in the case of the Esau family. When, as an adult, he moved to Calvinia, his willingness to roll up his sleeves, saw the businesses he set up – a blacksmith shop and a vegetable garden – grow into profitable enterprises. Success, inevitably, meant that Esau was quickly elevated by members of the coloured community into their spokesperson.

And when the war between Briton and Boer broke out, it was to Esau who the coloured people looked to for guidance and leadership. They feared the Boers. And in many ways, their fears were justified. Boer justice administered to black people was swift and most times brutal.

Rebels who rode into the Cape and took over small settlements were quick to announce that “traditional native policies” of the Orange Free State and South African Republic would be administered. This could be anything from whippings to shootings to forced labour on white-owned farms.

They also claimed the right to confiscate stock and produce owned by black and coloured peasant farmers. And so, as Boer incursions came closer to Calvinia, fearful and angry farmers asked Esau to make representations to the authorities that they be armed.

The British were in a quandary. There was some sympathy for the plight of the farmers. But there was also anger from local Boers that Esau and his followers actually had the temerity to ask to be armed.

The authorities, of course, chose to appease the Boers. Later, when an attack again seemed imminent, Esau again went to the magistrate to demand guns. Again he was turned down. Instead, he was given a few swords.

Esau took the swords, and together with his followers, manufactured some home-made weapons. Then he formed a town militia, with whom he practised a series of drills and secret signals in the event of a Boer attack.

Esau did not stop writing letters in which he expressed his frustration at not being set up with arms. Calvinia’s intelligence agent praised him for a very good idea, but said he was not in a position to grant him the permission he required.

His hopes of a private army of sorts dashed, Esau did the next best thing: he formed an intelligence network covering a large area of the Northern Cape. And it was extremely effective.  The Boers, of course, had an intelligence network of their own, and began to hear of Esau’s activities. Describing him as “the most poisonous Hottentot in Calvinia”, they resolved to get him and punish him.

On January 10, 1901, a Boer commando under the leadership of Charles Nieuwoudt galloped into the town. Even though they had no guns, the coloured community fought back courageously against the invaders, with just sticks and stones. But it was an unequal fight, and in the end, they took a terrible beating, with a number of them being shot.

Esau was arrested and thrown into jail, and in an address from the town square, Nieuwoudt, who declared himself the new magistrate, announced a number of new laws to the town’s coloured community.

These included paying taxes or working on white farms, having to be indoors during curfew hours or run the risk of being whipped, and the banning of British patriotic songs. Esau’s supporters ignored the laws, and marched through the town singing hymns. A furious Nieuwoudt responded by choosing three people at random and whipping them.

He also pulled Esau out of jail, had him whipped, smeared with dung and offal, and chained to a pole in the searing midday heat. The next day, he was brought before Nieuwoudt and sentenced to 25 lashes for having spoken out against the Boers and for “having attempted to arm the natives”.

Esau was tied to a tree, from where the lashes were administered. He was then untied, and when he fell to the ground, he was kicked. For the next two weeks, he was repeatedly whipped and kicked, and stoned.

Finally, on February 5, he was placed in leg irons, tied between two horses and dragged a kilometre out of town. There he was shot.

About 3 000 mourners attended his funeral. According to oral tradition, a sudden thunder shower, followed by a windstorm resulted in the Union Jack that had been draped over his coffin being ripped to shreds. Boer-supporting newspapers in the Cape tried to argue that the Boers had killed Esau in self-defence. But no one believed them.

A British newspaper wrote that Esau had “suffered cruel martyrdom for no worse a crime than loyalty to the British”. In Cape Town, the Cape Times newspaper was even more forthright: it carried a report of his death at the hands of “inhuman brutes” who, they said, should be “arraigned for murder”.

There was no “coloured” group of people in this period. Whites, particularly Boers, used the derogatory term “Hottentots” to describe “mixed-race” people.

Dougie Oakes is the Op-ed and Features editor of Independent Media.