Like many other colonialist countries in the world, black heroism in national and global conflict, especially in Southern Africa, was deliberately ignored by white rulers.
This was certainly the case during the South African Anglo-Boer War, in the tiny Northern Cape town of Calvinia.
Although black South Africans were shabbily treated by British colonialists, indigenous inhabitants, with good reason, feared the Dutch colonialists – the Boers – even more than they did the British.
They believed then that they were more likely to achieve political equality and, at the very least, protection, under the stewardship of the British.
So, when the war started, black inhabitants mounted a charm offensive to impress the British.
And in Calvinia, in the forefront of attempts to support the British was the town blacksmith, Abraham Esau.
That Esau was a man of some prominence in the town became apparent when he took charge of celebrations in the town square to celebrate the relief of Mafeking.
One of the duties he undertook was to make a speech, and to raise the Union Jack (the clearest sign yet that he was regarded as the leader of the town’s coloured community).
When news reached Calvinia that the Boers were about to attack, it was Esau who went to the town’s magistrate to demand arms for the coloured people to defend themselves.
But in an all familiar way, he was fobbed off: all the magistrate was prepared hand over were a few swords.
Working on the premise of doing what they could with what they were given, Esau put together a militia company of coloured defenders, set up outposts and devised a system of warning signals and defence mechanisms, all aimed at warding off Boer attacks.
Esau did not give up on his ideal of setting up a home defence force. The magistrate of Clanwilliam, fearing a mutiny of local Boers, turned him down immediately.
The town’s intelligent agent felt it was a good idea but added that he did not have the authority to grant permission.
And all the time the Boers fumed, describing him as the ‘most poisonous Hottentot in Calvinia.’
Then, on 10 January 1901, an OFS commando, led by Charles Niewoudt, and reinforced by local Boers, rode into the town.
Coloured defenders resisted fiercely, but guns were always going to come out on top against sticks and stones.
Esau was one of the town’s officials to be thrown into jail.
This done, Niewoudt ordered Calvinia’s population to the market square. There, he declared himself magistrate, or, as he put it, ‘landdrost.’
Basically, he declared himself God to the town’s black inhabitants.
He issued a number of decrees, aimed specifically at ‘Kaffirs’ and ‘Hottentots.’
These included having to pay taxes, or to present themselves for labour on Boer farms.
And in a typical case of overkill, he banned the speaking of English and the singing of British patriotic songs.
The new rulers of the town held Esau responsible for every ‘crime’ or ‘misdeed’ performed by others.
He was perceived to be the instigator of every anti-Boer action in Calvinia.
For a few hours, Boer authority was put to the test as members of the coloured community marched through the town, chanting Esau’s name, and singing hymns.
A furious Niewoudt retaliated by choosing people arbitrarily for floggings in the town square.
Then, the invaders turned their attention to Esau….
They fetched him from jail. They whipped him. They chained him to a pole. And then they left him in the searing midday heat.
The next day, his captors dragged him before Niewoudt who sentence him to twenty-five lashes. His crime? Speaking out against the Boers and trying to arm the ‘natives.’
They tied him to a tree – and as horrified townsfolk watched, Niewoudt himself administered the lashes.
But Esau’s torture was not yet over.
For two more weeks he was beaten repeatedly.
On one occasion, Niewoudt’s commandos were ordered to stone him.
Finally, on 5 February, he was placed in leg irons, tied between two horses, and dragged for about a kilometre out of town – and shot.
About three thousand people attended his funeral at which oral tradition tells of a sudden and violent thunderstorm, and a rushing wind that tore the Union Jack that draped his coffin to pieces.
A few weeks later, the commando that had spread so much terror in Calvinia withdrew.
- Illustrated History of South Africa – the Real Story: Edited by Dougie Oakes
- Abraham Esau, a Calvinia Martyr in the Anglo-Boer War, in Social Dynamics by Bill Nasson and JMM John