It is difficult to write a short story about a ghost that involves the life of Jan Smuts, the 2nd Anglo/Boer War, concentration camps, hidden treasure, the Great War, WWII, a Greek princess, Prime Ministers, pickles, tough Boer chicks and a spot that I just love to visit. I will continue to remind myself throughout, however, that I’m telling a ghost story. If I start to wander off subject, remind yourself that I’ll be reminding myself to return to the point.
Jan Smuts’ house (now a museum) is in Irene close to Pretoria/Tshwane, the capital of the old Boer Republic of the Transvaal. I am there often; my in-laws live in one of the oldest houses in the little village. With your back to the railway, you travel over a deep but narrow river that has carved its way into the blood-brown earth. The banks of the river are quite high, but they are rounded, damp and soft. There are old trees whose branches meet over the road and cast a deep, silent shadow. It is a beautiful spot: magical and haunted. Not least by the women and children who died in the nearby in a concentration camp set up during the 2nd Anglo/Boer War (1899-1902).
The Anglo/Boer War of 1899 shook the British military. The British army had planned to march on the gold-rich Boer Republics in a disciplined and ordered fashion to take over the place for the glory of the British Empire. For other more noble reasons too but allow me to be facetious for the sake of brevity. The plucky Afrikaaners (descendants of the original Dutch settlers, who 250 years after settlement of South Africa had developed their own culture, language and national identity) surprised the British with their sophisticated military tactics. The British had bought far too few soldiers to South Africa to win the war. Adding a series of military blunders, the Boer’s superior knowledge of the landscape and the greater flexibility of the Boer commandos to this fact, at a stage it looked as if the Boers might indeed win their war. The British Army was a juggernaut; the Boer forces a Smart car.
(Jan Smuts was one of the great Boer strategists, as well as a fighting man. He was ridiculously smart. He only started school at the age of 12 after his brother died, finished it at the age of 16 and went on to study law at Christ’s College, Cambridge where he graduated in 1893 with a double first and turned down a fellowship to return to the Cape Colony.)
*It’s a ghost story. It’s a ghost story. It’s a ghost story.
Even when reinforcements arrived, the guerilla tactics of the Boers made it seem as if the war would never end. It wasn’t until Lord Kitchener instituted his ‘scorched earth’ policy in 1900/01 that the long defeat really began. There was no real Boer army in the traditional sense. The Boers were farmers (‘n boer means ‘a farmer’ in Afrikaans). Men of fighting age – this included boys of 14 – were called up to go on commando. They put on their wide-brim leather hats and their warmest jackets, slung their rifles over their shoulders, stored biltong (dried, salted meat) in saddle bags and went to war on the backs of their own horses. They left their farms in the very capable hands of their wives. A Boer wife could handle a rifle as well as her husband. She was strong and resourceful, as at home in the kitchen making hearty meals as she was working the fields.
Kitchener’s Army marched across the country, building block houses and burning farms. The women, children and black farm workers found on these farms were put into concentration camps close to railway stations. Tens of thousands of them died in the poor conditions. Tents were initially in short supply, food rations were too little, water supply was a problem and disease was rife. Measles and pneumonia were the biggest killers in the camps but thousands died of scurvy, typhoid, malnutrition, bronchitis, meningitis, dysentery and whooping-cough.
*It’s a ghost story*
I know it’s a ghost story but the image of Lizzie – somebody’s baby – is so haunting, I need a moment to quote a heartbreaking poem by C. Louis Leipoldt who spent time in a concentration camp, watching babies die.
They made you in England, little soap box
To serve as a coffin for our children
They found little corpses for you, soap box
And I have witnessed you as a coffin
After the war, Jan Smuts bought the British army’s old mess hall in Pretoria. He had it dismantled and re-erected on his farm ‘Doornkloof’, in Irene. It is a corrugated iron building supposed to have started its life in England before being shipped out to India where it was also used by the army and then to South Africa. It is big and pink and has linoleum flooring throughout.
It is a humble house though for a man who was twice Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, even though there is a telephone in the bathroom! The ‘best bedroom’ hosted Princess Frederica of Greece and George VI King of England visited the farm in 1947. Princess Frederica apparently loved her time in the home of the redoubtable Isie Smuts (her nickname was ‘Ouma’ which means Granny) and her famous husband. I do wonder though what the King of England thought of Jan Smuts’ iron camp bed on the stoep (patio) that he slept on in summer.
The house does feel slightly spooky generally, as do all houses that have frozen in time. Isie’s knitting can be seen on the front stoep table. Some jars of her home-made preserves and pickles are still on the shelf in the pantry. There is an open book on the table in Jan Smuts’ library, as if he had just popped out for stroll to return to his desk later. It is a wonderful room, lined with books from floor to ceiling. Apparently his grandchildren used to test him by taking a book off the shelf at random and reading a sentence. He could always tell them from which book the sentence came.
But it is not the ‘best bedroom’ or the stoep or the library that is said to be haunted. The haunted room is the second best bedroom, off the dining room. It is painted dark green and is decidedly spooky. The story goes that the farm ‘Doornkloof’ was originally owned by a Boer family. Their house was built on the same spot that Smuts eventually put up his house in 1909. The previous owner had fled one night during the 2nd Anglo/Boer War when it became clear that the Bristish forces were marching on Pretoria and his farm was in the way. Not wanting his family to end up in a concentration camp, he buried his valuables including £30 000 worth of gold and left hurriedly, never to return. There is no word on what happened to the farmer but it is said that his spirit still lingers in the house on his old farm.
One night George Wilson, one-time editor of the Cape Times newspaper, was staying in the green room at the Smuts’ house. He was woken at about 5 o’clock in the morning by a kindly looking man in a brown suit, standing next to his bed. When he reached out towards the man, the apparition vanished into thin air.
The following morning at breakfast, instead of laughing off his vision, Isie Smuts, fully aware of the ghostly farmer who wandered the house in the very early hours of the morning, berated him for not asking where the gold was buried! It was a regular Sunday outing for visitors to the Smuts’ house to wander the koppies and fields with a spade, on the lookout for the buried treasure. As far as I’m aware, no treasure has ever been found on the property.
I’m not afraid of ghosts, I have a spade and enough Boer farmer wife in me, I’m sure, to dig a few holes, although not enough to bake regularly. I think I have plans for the weekend. See you there?