The Young Boer Who Escaped From A British Prison
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
GOING to New York on the steamer Chrystenah. one morning, I overheard a gentleman say that there was a relative of General DeWet, the Boer leader, visiting at Hastings-on-the-Hudson. A day or so after I went to the village mentioned and asked the postmaster if he knew anything about such a visitor. He directed me to the manse of the Dutch Reformed Church, where I found Adolph DeWet, the guest of Mr. Richard Lloyd-Jones.
Mr. DeWet is a splendid specimen of physical and intellectual manhood. He is twenty-six years old, is over six feet high and well proportioned. He is a graduate of a South African College, and has taken post graduate work at Cambridge. He speaks fluently a half dozen languages. He is brilliant in mind, magnetic in spirit, and employs the English language perfectly. He does not look at all like a Boer, at any rate, like the long-bearded, plainly-dressed farmers of that race, but a few words of conversation only, convinced me that he is a Boer to the bone.
I said to the young man : " Is it true that you are related to General DeWet, the great Boer leader? " He answered quickly and with a strong voice, "Yes, I am proud to say I am. His father and my father are brothers. Their father was killed at Majuba Hill and his body now sleeps there. All the DeWets of that day fought on that hill, and from the planting of that kind of seed you would expect us to be a family of patriots and fighters, and so we are. We claimed the right to sow and reap in the land of our nativity, and to be free from British politics, and were willing to fight, and, if need be, die for our principles."
I continued : " What are you doing here? " He replied, "I am an escaped prisoner. I was badly wounded and captured, was sent to St. Helena, but there the prisoners were so numerous that I was sent, with three thousand others, to the Bermudas. One cool evening last October I determined to attempt an escape. I saw a steamer in the harbor, and knowing she was soon to sail for New York, went down naked into the water under the pretense of taking a bath, dove under the barbed wire fence guard and struck out for liberty. The tide was against me, and I had a desperate fight for life. I had faced all kinds of British soldiers and guns, and had never experienced the sensation of fear, but during the last half of my battle with the sea I was badly scared.
"Nearly dead, I, at last, dragged myself up on the ship's rudder, and rested a little time till I could climb the anchor chain. However, the hole through which it passed was too small to let me through, and. I had to slip down into the water again. I again got my feet rested on the rudder, and cried, `A man overboard.' Then I was pulled up by a rope. I dashed into the engine room and crouched, nearly dead, before the fire. An officer of the ship confronted me, and I frankly told him who I was, and he hid me in a big drawer and covered me up with rags.
Presently he ran to me and said : ` British officers are after you ; get out of this quick; get down into the bunkers.' He put three big lumps of coal around my head so I could breathe, and then covered me up. I could hear the officers saying, ` Maybe he is in the coal.' They stuck their swords down into the mass, inconveniently near my body, but they missed me, and I soon felt by the motion of the ship that we were out to sea. When the captain of the ship discovered me he came near taking me back to land, but those on board persuaded him to let me stay. They did not treat me like a heroic officer of a heroic army, but made me shovel coal like a hottentot all the way, which, under the circumstances, I was glad to do. I had only a few cents in my pocket when I landed in New York. I slept on a park bench the first night, to save the price of lodging for food. I washed dishes in a cheap restaurant in the Bowery till I got money enough to get a job working on the track of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Then I got back into my profession as an electrical engineer, and now I am on my way to Utah as a mining expert. I hope to make my home for some time to come in South America."
I said to the young man : " I need not ask whether you did any hard fighting. That is taken for granted; I have not heard of any Boers who did not fight desperately." He answered, "Not so many of us were killed as the enemy claimed, but nearly every one of us who was not killed was wounded. We were simple children of nature, with tough bodies that could hold a deal of lead without letting down."
" Were you wounded?" I inquired.
He smiled as he said, "I should think so. Five times seriously. I was lying behind a rock picking off English soldiers when a bullet of the enemy shattered the rock and threw the pieces into my face, nearly blinding me, and making this mark on my cheek. If you do not object, I will remove my stocking and show you how I have been cut up. You see the scar on this side and the one on the other side of my leg; the ball went through the bone as well as the flesh. The strange thing is that I did not know that I was wounded. The same ball that passed through my leg entered my horse, breaking his back and lodging in the saddle. I seized the stirrup-leather of my chum, and ran along, sheltered by his horse, to a place of safety before I knew I was hurt. They left me at a farmhouse, and in a month I was ready for the field again.
" At Magersfontein ten of us were in a shallow ditch with our faces close to the ground. If we put our heads up we were almost sure to be hit by the Lee-Metfords, which were raining death. It was in that ditch that I got this wound on the cheek which I just showed you. Half an hour after a chum of mine had rolled him a cigarette out of twist and had asked me for a light. It had no match, but offered him a light from my pipe. He leaned his elbow on the small of the back of the fellow lying between us, and was lighting his long cigarette at my pipe. When he got his head at the edge of the trench a bullet caught him just over the ear and tore the side of his head off. The chap between us gave a loud yell of fright and ran to the rear, strange to say, unhurt. That left eight of us. Almost immediately there came a lyddite shell squarely into our trench. There was a roar and a flash and just nothingness. By and by I began to feel intense pain as I fought for my breath. I noticed that all of my companions had been killed, two of them not having been hit by the shell, only destroyed by the concussion. I thought I was fatally hurt, but I picked a little piece of shell out of my abdomen and a piece of one out of my breast and felt better. This little scar in my breast you see is the place from which I took the splinter. But the shot that did me the most damage is this one. You notice I have only about two-thirds of my foot left. I was on my face shooting British soldiers, like I do deer, and this shot made me a prisoner and came near sending me to the shades."
I asked the young warrior if he had at any time expected the Boers to ultimately defeat England. He answered that he did not, as he knew too well the resources of the British to think so, but that it was his hope and that of his people that if a sharp fight was put up at the start, terms could be secured more friendly to them than any that had been offered.
Blood will tell in cattle, horses and men. In every country there are names the synonym of everything that is manly. The DeWets in South Africa stand for ability and heroism.
Brave men will do, dare and die for their native land.
Young DeWet took fearful risks in resisting the power of the British, and in escaping from captivity. But to him liberty was so dear that he would brave the enemy's gun or the deep ocean to secure it. In the moral world men seem to be fond of the captivity of sin, and are not inclined to exert very much energy in getting away from it.