That there is more than one man of
the name of Jan Celliers in South Africa
I know, but there is only one Jan Celliers
who can be honoured by the title “Poet and Patriot,”
and that is the remarkable personality of our friend
in Pretoria, J.F.E. Celliers.
I have chosen him as the subject of
this chapter, not so much because of the important,
I may almost say revolutionary part he has played in
the building up of South African literature since the
war, as on account of the unique patriotism displayed
by him throughout the war under circumstances of the
severest test and trial.
How he, after active service in the
field since the beginning of the war, came to be locked
up in Pretoria as an unseen prisoner of war, an unwilling
captive between the green walls of his suburban garden,
when the British took possession of the capital on
that stupefying June 5th, 1900, we shall briefly relate
in this chapter.
Mr. Celliers’ experience
was that of many good and faithful burghers.
The news of heavy Boer losses, the
desperately forced march of the British troops from
Bloemfontein to Pretoria, the crushing blows in quick
succession, the departure of the Boer Administration
from the seat of government, the demoralisation of
the scattered forces, and the painful uncertainty
of what the next step was to be these things,
combined with the fact, in Mr. Celliers’
case, of having no riding-horse or bicycle on
which to escape from the town, caused him to be surprised
by the wholly unexpected entry of the British forces
into the capital. Just a brief period of dazed
inaction, a few hours of stupefied uncertainty, and
he found himself hopelessly cut off from every chance
He planned escape from the beginning,
for conscientious scruples forbade his taking the
oath of neutrality. Of the oath of allegiance
there was no question whatever.
There was nothing for it but to keep
himself hidden until an opportunity for escaping to
his fellow-countrymen in the field presented itself.
The first three weeks were spent in
the garden, but it soon became evident that listening
ears and prying eyes were being paid to discover his
whereabouts, and closer confinement was found necessary.
Thereafter he sat between four walls, reading and writing
during the greater part of the day, keeping a watchful
eye on the little front gate through a narrow opening
in the window-blind and disappearing, through a trap-door,
under the floor as soon as a soldier or official entered
When darkness fell he left his cramped
hiding-place, and gliding unseen through the house
and yard, this weary prisoner occupied himself with
exercises for the preservation of his health, running,
jumping, standing on his head, and plying the skipping-rope
vigorously, under the protecting shadows of the dark
The weeks went by, broken once by
the intense excitement of a visit of one of the burghers
from the field.
Mrs. Celliers’ brother,
M. Duerr, had crept into town at dead of night between
the British sentinels on a dangerous mission for the
Boers. A short week he spent with his brother-in-law,
sharing his confinement and making plans for his escape.
Then he was gone, and the old deadly monotony settled
over the house once more.
July went by, and August was nearly
spent when at last an opportunity presented itself,
and Mr. Celliers, in woman’s garb, bade
wife and children a passionate farewell, not to see
them again for nearly two years.
With a cloak over his shoulders and
a high collar concealing his closely cropped hair,
his wife’s skirt on, and a heavy veil covering
a straw hat, he stepped boldly into a small vehicle
standing waiting before his gate and drove through
the streets of Pretoria. For the time at least
he too belonged to the “Petticoat Commando.”
Mrs. Malan was in the cart, and had been sent by Mrs.
Joubert to escort him through the town.
The disguise was taken before a thought
could be given to the possible consequences of such
a step. Spurred by the heroic attitude and fine
courage displayed by his wife, Mr. Celliers lost
not a moment in availing himself of the long-looked-for
The thrilling adventures and hairbreadth
escapes he went through in that memorable flight for
duty and freedom will no doubt be found accurately
recorded in his book on the war, which I know to be
“in the making” at the present moment.
Suffice it to say that he reached the farm of a friend
near Silkatsnek in safety, where, he had been informed,
he would find Boer commandos in the neighbourhood.
Disappointment awaited him, however.
The commando had withdrawn to the north, followed
closely by thousands of British troops whose proximity
to the farm made it dangerous, not only for him, but
for the people who harboured him, to remain there
longer than one night. A farm-hand, a trusted
native servant, was asked to undertake the task of
escorting Mr. Celliers to the Boer lines.
After some hesitation he consented. The risk
was great, but the promise of L20 reward when the war
was over acted like a charm, and the two set forth
before break of day on their perilous adventure.
Here and there the tiny light of an
outpost on the open field warned them to make a wide
detour. The crackling of the short burnt
stubbles of grass under their feet caused them to hold
their breath and listen with loudly beating hearts
for the dreaded “Halt! Who goes there?”
When the light of day began to break
over earth and sky, the Kaffir, in evident anxiety,
warned the Baas to hide in a large dense tree
while he, the Kaffir, went on ahead to reconnoitre.
He departed not to return again, base coward
that he was, and the unfortunate man in the tree waited
for hours until it dawned on him that he had been
deserted at the most critical moment. He stepped
from his hiding-place, quickly deciding to walk nonchalantly
forward, the open veld leaving no possible means of
pursuing his way under cover.
He passes many isolated homesteads,
some ruined and deserted, others inhabited by aged
people, delicate women, and little children only.
One and all they shrink from him when he relates his
story. They do not trust him he may
be in the employment of the British, a trap set for
the unwary; their homes are closed to him. He
pursues his way wearily. What is that approaching
him in the distance? With straining eyes he is
able to distinguish a group of horsemen coming towards
him, and with lightning-like rapidity he turns from
his course and jumps into the washed-out bed of a
small rivulet flowing by. A group of startled
Kaffir children gaze at him in astonishment. The
riders come in clear view not horsemen,
but a number of Kaffir women with earthenware pots
on their heads. These they fill with water, and
mounting their horses depart the way they came.
With renewed hope and thankfulness
at his heart our traveller resumes his course in the
lengthening shadows of the short winter afternoon.
At last he reaches a German mission station.
No refuge for him here! For the
inhabitants are “neutral,” but he is informed
that a few days before 20,000 British troops had passed
that way in a northward direction, in hot pursuit
of the Boer commandos fleeing to the Waterberg district.
The benevolent old missionary directs him to a small
farm in the neighbourhood where a Boer woman lives
alone with her little children. Perhaps she can
give him some idea of the safest route for him to
take. But no, the woman turns from him in extreme
agitation, refuses to answer his questions, and is
so evidently distressed at his appearance that he
turns away and withdraws to the veld to think.
What now? What now?
He is sitting on the outskirts of
the great bush-veld, that endless stretch of forest-growth,
dense and dark as far as the eye can reach. Shall
he enter that, unarmed, without provisions or water
and totally ignorant of the direction to take?
He shudders. The blackness of the night is creeping
over the scene, and over his soul desolation and despair.
“I must return to the mission
station,” he decides at last. “Surely
they will give me refuge for the night!”
Slowly he drags his weary limbs across
the veld, hesitatingly he presents himself, falteringly
he proffers his request. A moment’s hesitation
and the family circle opens to receive him, its members
crowd round him with words of comfort and small deeds
of love. They are not doing right, but
they will do well. Nothing is left undone
to restore and refresh the exhausted fugitive, who
soon finds himself in a perfect haven of domestic
happiness and luxury.
As the evening wears on, the small
harmonium is opened, and while the younger members
of the family are singing sweet part-songs together,
our hero turns over the leaves of a small book he has
found lying on the table, a book of German quotations.
His eyes are attracted by the following lines by Dessler:
Lenkst du durch
Wüsten meine Reise,
Ich folg, und lehne
mich auf Dich
Du gibst mir aus
der Wolken Speise
Und Traenkest aus
dem Felsen mich,
Ich traue Deinen Wunderwegen,
Sie enden sich
in Lieb und Segen,
Genug, wenn ich
Dich bei mir hab.
They are like balm to his troubled
soul, and he commits them to memory for future use.
God knows the future looks desperate enough to him,
for he feels that he cannot remain in this haven of
rest. Consideration for the safety of his kind
friends forbids this. He soon departs, having
heard that, for the present at least, the western
direction is open to him, and, in taking this, his
tribulations begin afresh.
Unused to exercise as he has been
during the long months of his confinement, this traveller,
in pursuing his course with so much patience and steadfast
determination, now finds himself hardly able to walk.
The tender feet are swollen and bleeding to such an
extent that he finds it impossible to remove his heavy
boots. Halting, stumbling, he continues on his
By good fortune he meets with another
Kaffir guide, who leads him to a small Kaffir hut
and revives him with a draught of Kaffir beer.
A few moments’ rest, and they are on the way
The day was far spent when they reached
a Kaffir kraal, and here Mr. Celliers sank
down in agony of mind and body, too great for words.
More Kaffir beer was respectfully tendered to him and
he drank it gratefully, meanwhile watching with dull
interest the Kaffir babies, jet black and stark naked,
except for a small fringe of blue beads about the
loins, as they crept around him, like so many playful
He was not long allowed to rest, the
good guide urging him to make a final effort, and
encouraging him with the assurance that he would find
a farm not far distant, the home of Mr. Piet Roos,
of Krokodil Poort.
This goal was reached that night,
and a cordial welcome given to the poor exhausted
traveller, although he was warned that he could by
no means consider himself safe on the farm, as the
British passed it nearly every day. Nigh three
weeks he spent there, taking refuge under the trees
of an adjacent hill by day and sleeping under the hospitable
roof by night. As time went on and the visits
of the Khakis became rarer, he became more at ease,
and often worked with the farmer and the women in
the fields, helping them to dig sweet-potatoes, and
assisting his host in the work of sorting, drying,
and rolling up the leaves of the tobacco-plant.
He also became an expert in the art of making candles,
and took active part in the other small industries
carried on in that frugal and industrious household,
and the evenings were spent in poring over maps, geographical
and astronomical, which his host happened to possess.
Many were the questions put to him, and long the discussions
about worlds and suns and planets, while the busy
fingers plied and rolled tobacco leaves, but these
discussions generally ended in a sigh, a shake of
the head, and an unbelieving, “there must
be something solid under this earth,”
from the sceptical host.
The time was now approaching for the
fulfilment of his heart’s ambition, but there
is still one small incident to relate before we leave
our hero. One day, while he was still on the farm,
he was passed by a Kaffir, whom he questioned as to
his destination. The native replied that he was
on his way to Pretoria, and the happy thought occurred
to Mr. Celliers to ask this native to let his
wife know that her husband was in perfect safety.
Now the remarkable part of this incident
was, that that unknown native took the trouble to
deliver his message faithfully and conscientiously,
and it was only after the war that Mr. Celliers
heard from his wife that she had received news of
his successful escape from a strange Kaffir, who said
he had been sent by her husband. This is a striking
instance, well worth recording here, of the sagacity
and fidelity of some members of the heathen tribes.
It was on September 13th that unexpected
deliverance came in the shape of a Boer waggon in
search of green forage for the horses on commando.
Mr. Celliers instantly decided to accompany the
waggon back to the lager, and prepared himself for
departure that very day. Tender, grateful leave
was taken of the good friends who had harboured him
so long, and he drove away, seated, with his few worldly
possessions beside him, on the top of a load of green
The next day he arrived at the lager
of Commandant Badenhorst’s commando on the farm
Waterval near the “Sein koppies,” and now
we close the chapter with the following words, which
I have translated from his diary:
“The crown has been set on my
undertaking. God be thanked, I find myself again
amongst free men, with weapon in hand. For the
first time in the past four months I feel myself secure.
There is no one, on my arrival, who gives one sign
of interest or appreciation; one burgher even asks
me why I had not rather remained in Pretoria.
“This stolid and philosophic
view of life is characteristic of the Boer and certainly
does not discourage me.
“Excitement and enthusiasm do
not appear to be the children of the great solitudes,
the slumbering sunlit vastnesses; nay, rather do they
spring from the unbroken friction of many spirits,
sparks bursting from the anvil of the great, restlessly
driven activity of the world.”
Mr. Celliers remained in the
field until the war was over.