1901: Three Boer rebels against the Cape Colony

1 comment August 19th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1901, Petrus Jacobus Fourie, Jan van Rensburg, and Lodewyk Francois Stephanus Pfeiffer were shot by the British at Graaff-Reinet.

They were among the numerous subjects of the British Cape Colony whose sympathy with the independent Boer republics which Britain was in the process of conquering extended so far as aiding their Dutch brethren’s resistance. In this case, the young men joined the famed Boer guerrilla Gideon Scheepers — and whatever one might say about the fuzziness of ethnic and national identity in a frontier region, this rated in London’s eyes as rebellion.

On July 6, 1901, Scheepers executed a raid on the town of Murraysburg — “Scheepersburg”, he called it — and put loyalist houses to the torch.

The British Gen. John French sent columns of men into the rugged Camdeboo Mountains in an effort to trap the irksome commando. Scheepers and most of his troop of about 240 men escaped, but about 27 or 28 Cape Colony rebels were captured (along with a few free staters, who could not be charged as rebels).

A particularly revolting incident happened in the execution of the three who were shot. This was, that the firing parties were a body of ten men, five with ball, and five with blank cartridges. After the word “present,” which brings the rifle to the shoulder, one of them “‘pulled off” before the command “fire” was given, and the bullet blew off the top of one man’s head.

-British guard Wilfrid H. Harrison in his Memoirs of a Socialist in South Africa

Eight of these people were executed as rebels over the ensuing weeks, with the aid of Jan Momberg, one of their erstwhile mates who turned Crown’s evidence against them to save his own life.

After Fourie, van Rensburg and Pfeiffer were shot on Aug. 19, Ignatius Nel and Daniel Olwagen — both teenagers — died at Graaff-Reinet on August 26; and, Hendrik van Vuuren, Fredrick Toy and Hendrik Veenstra were shot at Colesberg on September 4.

Though the British made an effort to obscure the final resting-places of these potential martyr figures, their graves were located. Fourie, van Rensburg and Pfeiffer, along with Ignatius Nel and Daniel Olwagen, are among the men subsequently exhumed and placed in a collective grave. A monument in Graaff-Reinet honors these and three other guerrillas executed there … one of whom is Gideon Scheepers himself, who was captured in October of 1901 and executed the following January.

There’s a good deal more about Scheeper’s rebels, and these men in particular, in a two-part article by a descendant of van Rensburg here: part 1 | part 2.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,South Africa,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1901: Johannes Lotter, Boer War “rebel”

Add comment October 12th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1901, Commandant Johannes Lotter was shot at Middelburg.

Along with Gideon Scheepers, Lotter is one of the most famed Boer guerrillas from the Second Boer War.

Regarded by the British as one of their most nettlesome adversaries in that dirty guerrilla war, Lotter was captured in a bloody early September ambush when matters were well into an unpleasant scorched-earth endgame.

This was cause for much slapping of backs among the Union Jack set, and earned for his captor an immediate promotion.


Lotter’s captured men being jubilantly escorted into Graaff-Reinet.

Lotter almost immediately found himself in the dock for — well, all the things one does in a dirty guerrilla war.*

And one other thing: sedition.

The British charged Lotter as a rebellious subject of the British Cape Colony — rather than a resident of one of the independent neighboring Boer states — who owed allegiance to the British crown; upon this premise things like “killing troopers in war” became “murdering troopers”.

Lotter’s trial hung on his papers.** The defendant “pleaded that he was a Free State burgher, and, as such, entitled to the usage of civilised warfare and a legal combatant’s privileges.”

But he was in a bit of a pickle when it came to proving that the “Commandant Lotter” the British discovered on voting rolls for the Cape Colony city of Colesburg was a different guy. Innocent Blood: Executions During the Anglo-Boer War (its title telegraphs its Boer sympathies) summarizes:

his Free State citizen document was in a small case, which was lost or destroyed theday of surrender. Witnesses for the defence gave evidence that they had seen these papers. British intelligence stated that it could find no proof of his Free State citizenship in Bloemfontein. Lotter responded by asking how he could prove his citizenship when all his witnesses were still on commando and that he had been granted no time to call upon them.

Hey, the guy had six whole weeks from capture to execution to sort it all out.

A “Chair Monument” — there’s a picture of it on this page — commemorates Lotter and his fellow commando Pieter Wolfaardt at the place outside Middelburg where they were shot together on Oct. 12, 1901.

A number of additional prisoners from Lotter’s command taken with him in that same ambush were also eventually executed.

* Specifically: murdering two native spies; killing three British soldiers; blowing up railway lines; and sjamboking loyalist civilians.

** When the British later captured Scheepers, who was unquestionably not a Cape rebel, they simply charged his similar conduct as war crimes to the same capital effect.

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1902: Gideon Scheepers, Boer guerrilla

6 comments January 18th, 2012 Headsman

Scheepers lives because they shot him.”

-Hermi Baartman, Graaf-Reinet Museum

On this date in 1902, Kommandant Gideon Jacobus Scheepers was shot by the British for his exploits in the Boer War.

The young Dutch-descended Scheepers (here’s his Afrikaans Wikipedia page) was a soldier from the still-independent Boer states which were being reduced in this war to British dependencies.

In 1901, late in the proceedings, Scheepers took a column of irregulars into the British Eastern Cape Province and wrought havoc behind the lines. Some exploits are the stuff of legend, like the time he rode into a town, released all the Boer prisoners, locked up the British magistrate, and hauled down the Union Jack — to the delight of the Boer locals.

He would spend that year giving the British much better than he got, but the war was also infamously dirty.

According to David Harrison’s The White Tribe of Africa: South Africa in Perspective, “Scheeepers’ men also flogged and shot natives who helped the British, looted as well as burned farms, and executed Boer ‘traitors’.”

Was any of that criminal?

Since Scheepers was over enemy lines, the Boers who joined him could be held liable for treason … but that didn’t hold for Scheepers himself. His execution turned on holding these unsavory acts as war crimes: his 30-count charge sheet included seven arsons, seven murders, and various and sundry abuses of prisoners and blacks. Scheepers was really sore about the last; natives were supposed to be kept out of the fighting, but the prisoner very credibly insisted that the ones he “murdered” were under arms as scouts for the British.

“We Afrikaners will never find justice under the English,” Scheepers wrote as a prisoner. “Everything is for the kaffirs.”

(There’s a vociferous defense of Scheepers from a pro-Boer history here, and a more sober one by a London press correspondent here.)


Scheepers is read the death warrant on January 17, 1902 — before Graaf-Reinet townspeople assembled by British orders.

For non-Loyalist Boers and for many throughout the world — the U.S. House of Representatives even moved a resolution calling for Scheepers to be accorded POW status according to the Geneva Convention — it smacked of a setup.


Gideon Scheepers (mostly obscured by his guards) tied to a chair for execution.


Just shot, Gideon Scheepers slumps backward in his chair.

While martyrdom guaranteed Scheepers a lasting legacy, bizarre posthumous turns helped elevate it into legend. When the dead man’s family turned up after hostilities to retrieve his bones, the grave turned out empty, leading to a years-long saga with colorful frauds presenting bogus remains, a mentally ill man doing the Grand Duchess Anastasia act and claiming to be Scheepers, and the actual corpse remaining stubbornly elusive.

The bereaved mother’s ultimately fruitless search for her son’s final resting place inspired the poem “Gebed om die Gebeente”(“Prayer for the Bones”), by D.J. Opperman. (Here’s a translated version.) That verse was recently set to music as a cantata by composer Hendrik Hofmeyr.

Scheepers’ allies, however, had simply been beaten in the field. On May 31, 1902 they capitulated to the British.

If we are asked why in 1978 a memorial should be erected for a man who died in 1902, then the answer is simple. The life and work of this man was such that history placed him in the heroes’ gallery and nothing and no one can deprive him of that place.

-Nationalist Prime Minister John Vorster upon the unveiling of a Scheepers monument

This interesting “On the Trail of Gideon Scheepers” series has a detailed and richly illustrated narrative of the man’s final year.

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