ELIZABETH RUSSELL CAMERON:
AN EIGHTY YEAR OLD
by Win de Vos
In Groenpunt Camp at Maritzburg.
When they arrived at the capital they were taken to the military head-quarters there, and the officer in charge who was very courteous and considerate, sent them in rickshas to the Concentration Camp in the vicinity of the Botanical-Gardens. This Camp was called Groenpunt because all the tents were made of green canvas. In the other Camp the shanties were made of corrugated zinc whence it derived the name, Witrug.
On reaching their destination they found that Mr. Ted Struben, whom they had known before the war, was the Commandant in charge. He sent a couple of natives with Annie and Bessie to fetch their belongings from the station, while another native was ordered to show Mrs. Cameron which tent she and her daughters were to occupy. The people already there were kindness itself to the newcomers.
On their arrival some sent them hot soup, others sent tea, and again others offered to help in any way they could. Among them Mrs. Cameron came across several old acquaintances whom she had known in Harrismith years ago when she had taught there.
The following morning she went to the Supply Store to get the
usual camp furniture which consisted of a small table, a bench, a
huge kettle and a blanket for each occupant of the tent. At the store
she found the man in charge with his sleeves rolled up, his shirt
open at the neck and the perspiration dripping down his face, as the
days were still very hot although the evenings were decidedly chilly.
Approaching him she enquired: "Do you distribute the supplies?"
"Yes," was the reply.
"Then, please, I want six blankets and they must be new. I refuse to have old ones."
"Six blankets!" ejaculated the official in utter astonishment, "but you are entitled to only three."
"We come from Amsterdam and the climate there is warmer than it is here, so we feel the cold very much. I would like six and they must be new, please."
The man stared at her in sheer surprise then slowly smiled, his eyes twinkling with amusement as he complied with the request. When he had given her the rest of her furniture, she returned to her tent. Her neighbours, astounded to see the half a dozen brand new blankets, were curious to know how she had managed to secure them. In the early days of the camp all the aged men and women were supplied with condensed milk. One day the old people were told to line up and open their mouths while an official went down the row to see how many teeth they had. All those who had none or only a couple received two tins of milk each per week, whereas the allowance was stopped for those Who had more. Mrs. Cameron was most annoyed with the old people for obeying this order, as she considered it was infra dig and showed a lack of self-respect for them to line up and open their mouths for inspection.
Every fortnight all the women were ordered to go to the Commandant's office at Witrug, and, among other seemingly unnecessary questions, they were asked each time what their ages were. The first time they were summoned Mrs. Cameron gave her age correct almost to the day as she thought they really needed the information, but at the end of the next fortnight when the same performance was repeated, her ire was roused so she said to the Commandant, "Kindly put me down as a little under five hundred." The clerks tittered and the Commandant roared with laughter, but it had the desired effect for she was left in peace for the future and was not again asked her age. She still cannot see what the object of those questions was, unless it was just to annoy the inmates of the Camps.
A Hulpfonds Committee was formed by the women, the number of members being twenty-four, and Mrs. Neethling (wife of the Rev. Neethling who was the Moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Transvaal at that time and who lived at Utrecht) was appointed treasurer and secretary. The work of this committee was to look into the needs of the people and to distribute the goods and the money sent to the Camp by Germany, France, a certain section of the British and some private people, outstanding among whom was Mrs. Koopmans de Wet of the Cape, who helped very generously. Later on Mrs. Cameron heard that she paid for the education of a number of the Boer children whose fathers had fallen in the war.
The Camp was divided into blocks A,B,C etc., a certain number of tents forming a block, each of which elected its own member for the committee. Mrs. Cameron was chosen to represent two of these divisions, the one in which she lived and the adjoining one.
Once a week, in the building used for church and school, meetings were held, at which the members brought forward the particular needs of the people they represented, and these matters were put to the vote and dealt with accordingly.
One member of the committee, Mrs. X, was appointed to receive the bales of second-hand clothing and other goods sent to the Camp. She would apportion these to the different blocks, after which the committee would meet and each member would divide up the goods she received as fairly as possible for the different people in her section. Several times when goods had arrived, it had been noticed that Mrs. X favoured certain blocks by giving them more than their legitimate share, and this had naturally caused great dissatisfaction.
On one occasion Mrs. Neethling was absent as she had to go to Maritzburg, so she asked Mrs. Cameron to represent her at the meeting. On arriving at the school-room, the members had a look round and found that the things had again been unfairly divided. Mrs. Cameron raised an objection at which Mrs. X, becoming angry, ordered the whole committee to leave the building and threatened to lock the door to keep them out. Mrs. Chatterton and Mrs. du Toit backed Mrs Cameron up and the three of them refused to budge, whereupon Mrs. X flounced out of the room and banged the door behind her.
After some time had elapsed, she came back with tea and cake to try to pacify the three. They, however, refused the peace-offering and insisted on a re-division of the goods. Finally it was decided to call a man in to portion out the bales of print. He did this to the satisfaction of all the members, who collected the rest of the things and redivided them in fair shares.
Some time later there was much talk that Mrs. X had appropriated and sold some of the best goods that had been sent to the Camp. Mrs. Chatterton, Mrs. du Toit and Mrs. Cameron, having made sure of certain facts, went to the Commandant and lodged a complaint against her. He promised to look into the matter and arranged to meet the committee in the school-room on a certain day. He arrived punctually at the appointed time, accompanied by a clerk and Mrs. X.
One of the members, a Mrs. van Rensburg, stood up to discuss the complaint against Mrs. X, but the Commandant did not give her a chance to speak for he ordered her to sit down and silenced her by saying he did not wish to hear what she had to say. Mrs. Cameron, greatly vexed, stood up and requested Mrs. X to answer some questions the committee wished to put to her. The Commandant was all for smoothing things over and ordered the speaker to sit down, but this she refused to do and, addressing Mrs. X directly, asked her point-blank whether she had misappropriated goods sent to the Camp. Mrs. X refused to answer. Mrs. Cameron repeated her question and stated that the committee insisted on a reply, whereupon Mrs. X explained that she had put some goods away with the intention of distributing them at a later date. The questioner turning to the Commandant and the rest of the committee exclaimed: "Now you can draw your own conclusions."
The Commandant tried to smooth things over by saying there had evidently been a mistake somewhere, but the members of the committee demanded the goods that had been put away and eventually they got some, but, of course, did not know how much was missing.
Some time after this Mrs. Neethling resigned and Mrs. Cameron was chosen as secretary and treasurer in her stead. As soon as she had taken up her new duties she received a note from one of the women asking for money to buy herself a pair of slippers as she suffered from corns, and she also stated that she wanted a pound to pay for her washing and ironing. She was a member of the committee and must have had private means as she never lacked any real necessity, so Mrs. Cameron did not comply with the request - to the petitioner's great indignation. At the next meeting the secretary-treasurer brought the matter before the committee, and when it was put to the vote her decision was upheld.
She went once a month to Maritzburg to draw the money sent for the Camp to the Rev. Rousseau, the Dutch minister at the capital. She received from one to two hundred pounds each time and when she returned she had to make a statement to the Commandant as to the amount she had obtained. At the end of each month she had to see that the twenty-four books kept by the different committee members balanced with hers, after which she had to hand in all the books to the Commandant who examined them and sent them on to the Rev. Rousseau for inspection. When these two men had audited them and attached their signatures they were returned to her.
Some of the inmates of the Camp were very difficult to please and were often dissatisfied with the division of the goods however conscientiously the work had been done. The life of a committee member was no bed of roses.
A new member for block G had been elected and she was determined to distribute all goods given to her absolutely fairly so that there would be no dissatisfaction. On one occasion she had received a number of warm coats, which, however, were insufficient for all the people in her section, so she carefully took these garments to pieces in order to be able to give everyone an equal share - she awas determined there should be no cause for dissension. When the people in block G received their odd pieces of coat, their indignation knew no bounds, and they immediately went to the secretary to complain about the matter. She made investigations and tactfully suggested to the member for this divisiona that she should resign since the people were so ungrateful in spite of her efforts to please. She was only too glad to do so, and a woman with more common sense filled her place on the committee.
Once Mrs. Cameron received a bed and a mattress to distribute. She let the people concerned draw lots first for the bed and then for the mattresss as she saw no other possible way of assigning these articles without causing trouble.
The weekly supply of candles, which consisted of one and a half for each family, was distributed by soldiers from whom the women bought tins of jam which had been served out to these men as part of their rations. They sold three tins for a shilling. At the hospital groceries were sold at a very low price to the women. The people at Creytown sent wagon-loads of wood to the Camp and in season they sent loads of fruit and green mealies as well.
After the Camp had been established some time, teachers from England arrived to instruct the children. Mrs. Neethling with some assistants started a night-school for those women who could not read nor write. It was surprising how many of them there were. They were eager to learn and attended the classes regularly. These were held in the same building in which the children were taught during the day.
Mrs. Nico de Wet, whose husband is a Senator now, and Mrs. Smuts, the General's wife, shared a cottage in Maritzburg, and were under more or less the same rules as the women in the Camps. Mrs. Smuts, who was very self-sacrificing, gave most of the things which were sent to her for her own use to the women in the Camp. On one occasion she gave the secretary-treasurer £20 to be used for them. She and Mrs. Cameron became great friends and every now and again the latter spent a day at the cottage, and after the war was over she and her daughters paid several visits to this friend's home.
Mrs. Christian de Wet, wife of General de Wet, was quartered in the Camp, and she too became an intimate of Mrs. Cameron who visited her in the Free State some time after hostilities had ceased.
The women went to Maritzburg by the hundred to work in the biscuit factory or at dress-making. They earned from ten shillings to a pound a week in this way. Those employed at the factory received a cake besides their pay at the end of each week.
The inmates of the Camp were allowed to write letters but these were all strictly censored. To avoid this the women often hid them in their parasols and posted them in Maritzburg, for the censoring at the post-office was not as strict as that at the Camp.
One day Mrs. Cameron had about forty letters in her parasol to post. Along the road to town she met the camp censor who walked along with her for the rest of the way. While chatting pleasantly to him, she was wondering all the time how on earth she was to get rid of him so that she could fulfil her missiom. When they reached Maritzburg, she asked him to excuse her as she wished to see a friend and she went into the house of an acquaintance. Having got rid of him in this way, she went off to the post-office and was greatly relieved when all the letters were safely posted.
Mrs. Neethling and certain other women were allowed to visit their men-folk on commando with the proviso that they should try to induce them to surrender. One of these women returned from such a visit with a large number of letters in the hem of her dress for her part of the Camp. Among these was one for Mrs. Cameron from Lionel, in which she learnt that he had been wounded and that his right leg had been amputated.
Koosie Scheepers and he had seen a number of horses a short distance away from their commando, so, without orders, they had set out, to capture these. They had unexpectedly been fired on by the British and Lionel's horse had received eleven shots while he himself had been wounded in the leg. He and his companion had managed to get back to the commando, but, before the services of a doctor could be secured for his wound, mortification had set in. When they eventually managed to get a doctor, the removal of the limb had become imperative, and, as he did not have his instruments with him, he amputated the leg with an ordinary meat-saw. When the wound had healed completely Lionel became a dispatch rider. He carried his crutch along with him on his horse.
Some time later he was taken captive and his mother, on hearing that he was to be sent either to Ceylon or to the Bermudas along with other prisoners of war, wrote immediately to the Officers- Commanding at Newcastle, Volksrust and Standerton, telling them about his leg and asking them to set him free. These officers answered that it was beyond their powers to do as requested. She then wrote to Lord Kitchener himself and he set Lionel free on parole.
When she received this good news she obtained permission to go to him in Durban. On arriving there she had to report herself at the military head-quarters. She hated doing this as she considered it smacked too much of the law-breaker on parole. Having complied with this regulation, she proceeded to the Camp at Congella where Lionel was lodged. A soldier was ordered to stay with them while they conversed. How she disliked this lack of privacy. After they had talked for some time, Lionel was summoned to the presence of the Commandant. Soon she was sent for too, and when she entered the room the Commandant informed her that he had not been aware at the time of her arrival that Lord Kitchener had ordered her son's release. He went on to explain that, since then, on looking through his mail, he had come across the order. After some talk about the matter he intimated that the interview was at an end but that Lionel was to remain behind to sign the parole. On her way to the door she warned the latter not to put his signature to any document without first carefully reading it. He signed the parole which laid down the conditions that he was not to give any information to the Boers and that he was not to try to leave Natal without permission from military head-quarters. After this he was given a free pass on the railway to Maritzburg so that he could accompany his mother there.
When he had been at Groenpunt for a short while Mrs. Christian de Wet asked him to act as tutor to her children.
Dr. Dumas, an eye-specialist at Maritzburg, gave him an artificial leg. This doctor attended any of the people in the Camps who went to him, free of charge. The only ones from whom he asked fees for his services were the "Witdoeke", that is those who, after having surrendered, joined the ranks of the enemy, for he hated their disloyalty.
A certain man named Hakliss, who had been severely wounded, had been sent out of the country as a prisoner of war. His wound became worse and worse until there seemed no hope of his living more than a few months. The authorities asked him if he would like to return to his own country to die. He came back to South Africa and was taken to Groenpunt. He had a dreadful wound in his side.
One day Mrs. Cameron discussed his case with Dr. Dumas who became interested and expressed desire to see the wound. After having made a careful examination, he stated that in his opinion Hakliss had a chance of recovery if he were to be operated on immediately. In his big-hearted way the doctor offered to defray expenses and the wounded man was removed to the Roman Catholic Sanatorium where he was nursed free of charge. Three surgeons performed the operation and a piece of cloth about four or five inches square was extracted from the wound. This proved to be a portion of the jacket the patient had been wearing at the time he was shot. With careful nursing he recovered fully, and later on he earned his living as a transport- rider.
Towards the end of the war there was talk of the old men and the women being made to pay for their keep in the Camps. The Commandant at Groenpunt sent men from tent to tent to find out where the people came from, what they possessed and so forth.
When Mrs. Cameron was approached about the matter she refused to give the required information. Her point of view was that, as they had not kcome to the Camps of their own free will, they were in no way liable for the expense incurred by their enforced stay. When one of the officials asked her please to answer the questions he put as he had to obtain the information for the Commandant, her reply was: "My compliments to the Commandant, and tell him he probably knows more about my business than I do myself." The man, realizing the futility of further questioning her, proceeded to the other tents.
The following day he "returned and asked her if she had thought better of the matter and would she please furnish him with the details he required. She refused to do so. That evening as she was walking towards her tent she met this official who called out, "Mrs. Cameron, jy het die slagveld behou." ("Mrs. Cameron, you have won th battle.") She did not know to what he was alluding so asked for an explanation, whereupon he informed her that he had given her message to the Commandant who had consulted the Quartermaster- sergeant as to what was to be done. The latter had exclaimed impatiently: "Oh, send her away." The Commandant had decided to let the matter rest so she had won the fight.
When peace was declared some of the people in the Camp were allowed to return almost immediately while others were kept there for several months longer. Mrs. Cameron was almost the last to be allowed to leave. Before her departure the Commandant thanked her for what she had done to help the other inmates of the Camp, and the Rev. Rousseau presented her with a sewing-machine for her services.
When she, her daughters and Lionel were eventually free to go they, like many of the others who had already left, were sent back in trucks. They did not return to Amsterdam but went to Volksrust where Rod joined them some time later after he had been disbanded. He returned home wearing trousers made from a brown blanket and a hat made by the Boer women.
After peace had been declared Ramsay MacDonald, the present Prime Minister of England, and his wife came out to South Africa. During their tour of this country they visited Groenpunt to see Mrs. Cameron to whom they had a letter of introduction from Mrs. Smuts.
Mrs. Cameron received them in her tent in which there was a partition of curtains to hide the beds. She gave them tea and they all sat and chatted for some while. One question Mrs. Ramsay MacDonald asked her was:"Do you think it possible to anglicise the Boers?" to which she replied, "Was President Steyn anglicised or any less a Boer in his sentiments after his long sojourn on the continent to pursue his studies?"
After the war Mrs. Neethling and her daughter, Ella, visited England While they were there, they attended a public meeting at which Ramsay MacDonald spoke about his visit to South Africa. Mrs. Neethling recognized some of Mrs. Cameron's opinions which were quoted by him in his address, and she wondered where he had met her old friend.
The Neethlings considered the views expressed by him very broad minded and fair as he tried to see both sides, the point of view of the Boers as well as that of the English.
When hostilities had ceased many of the burghers returning to the Free State thought themselves to be penniless but they found that they still had their flocks and herds. Their wives and daughters had fled to Basutoland where Jonathan, one of the chiefs, gave them protection and also gave them grazing lands for their stock.
Mrs Cameron was told that a number of Boer women had stayed at Pilgrim's Rest throughout the whole war. The kaffirs in the neighbourhood knew that they were there but had not informed the military.
These women had ploughing and sowing done and made use of the mill to grind their mealies and wheat. Other women, taking their stock with them, fled to Zululand,and there too they were treated well and helped by the natives. In not a single instance did the natives interfere in any way with them.
Mrs. Cameron thinks that, when laws are passed concerning the Bantu, their goodness to the European women who sought refuge in their countries during the Anglo-Boer War should be taken into consideration.
Copyright Win de Vos.
Put onto the web by Joan Marsh(2002) a great-grand-daughter of ERCameron