The Five Shilling Rebellion

The Five Shilling Rebellion

Boer Commandos
Boer Commandos

After over two and a half years of bitter fighting, the British finally prevailed over their resilient Boer adversaries in South Africa in 1902. Defeated, the Boers commandos of the Transvaal were asked to sign a pledge that they would adhere to the newly agreed peace terms. Many did, some refused. For those unable to accept defeat only exile followed, but as the years rolled by they were slowly allowed to return to their homes. These men would later be termed ‘bittereinders’ (bitter enders), as they had fought on to the bitter end.

When war in Europe broke out in 1914, some bittereinders saw it as an opportunity to re-establish the South African Republic in the Transvaal. The belief was that Britain would be unable to fight another war against the Boers while so heavily occupied on the Western Front and elsewhere. Ultimately, the ensuing rebellion against the British would fail, but for many Boers at the time it raised their hopes for independence. Ironically, they were defeated by fellow Boers rather than British troops.

The British Union of South Africa shared a border with the German colony of South West Africa, and it was not lost on either London or Berlin that it was an area in which fighting was soon likely to break out. Louis Botha, the prime minister of South Africa, assured London that his local forces would be capable of defending against German attack. As such, he believed it safe for British troops stationed in South Africa to be redeployed to France. The British authorities went as far as to ask Botha whether his forces were capable of invading the German colony, a course of action he promised to take.

Louis Botha
Louis Botha

With Britain declaring war on Germany, South African troops of the Union Defence Force were mobilised and sent to positions along the border with German South West Africa. On 23 September, with operations to invade the German colony underway, orders were issued to Lieutenant-Colonel Manie Maritz to march with his men to Sandfontein. He refused, a decision that would not only be the spark of the rebellion but also see it become named after him.

Born at Kimberley in the Cape of Good Hope in 1876, Maritz had served with the Boksburg commando on the Natal Front during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. He participated in the Boer invasion of Cape Colony and would later be implicated in the notorious Leliefontein Massacre of thirty-five Khoikhoi, their only crime being sympathetic towards the British. Maritz, however, managed to escape prosecution and crossed the border into German South West Africa after refusing to sign the pledge.

During his time in exile, Maritz travelled to Europe and Madagascar, eventually returning to South Africa where he bred horses in the Cape. It is said that he assisted the Germans in the Herero and Namaqua genocide that took place in South West Africa between 1904 and 1908, after which he attempted to go back home to the Transvaal. However, because he had not signed the pledge he was arrested upon entry and had little choice but to return to the Cape following his release. Incredibly, despite his horrific past actions, he was later allowed to join the Transvaal Police and accepted a commission in the Union Defence Force in 1913.

Manie Maritz
Manie Maritz

Brigadier-General Christiaan Beyers, commander of the Union Defence Force, had also objected to orders to invade the German colony. He resigned in protest saying: “It is sad that the war is being waged against the ‘barbarism’ of the Germans. We have forgiven but not forgotten all the barbarities committed in our own country during the South African War.”

Koos de la Rey, who had been a prominent Boer general during the war of 1899-1902, was similarly in opposition to the invasion and allied himself with Beyers. The two men decided to meet and speak with a Major Jan Kemp at Potchefstroom, who commanded a force of 2,000 men and had access to a large armoury. Beyers believed Kemp’s men were sympathetic to the bittereinders.

This move by Beyers and de la Rey was viewed by the South African authorities as the possible beginnings of a rebellion, although Beyers later argued it was to simply discuss officer resignations as a form of protest against the invasion. De la Rey, while travelling in his car to Potchefstroom, encountered a road block where he was shot dead by a local policeman. The road block, however, had been made to look like one setup by William Foster and his murderous criminal gang, but many believed the old general had been the victim of the authorities. Such rumours merely added fuel to an already burning fire for many bittereinders and their sympathisers.

Christian Beyers
Christian Beyers

Following his refusal to advance to Sandfontein, Maritz was ordered to turn over command of his men to another officer. Again, he refused and, in October, decided to rebel. Allying himself with the Germans, he issued a proclamation on behalf of a new provisional government, which read:

“The former South African Republic and Orange Free State as well as the Cape Province and Natal are proclaimed free from British control and independent, and every White inhabitant of the mentioned areas, of whatever nationality, are hereby called upon to take their weapons in their hands and realize the long-cherished ideal of a Free and Independent South Africa.”

The leaders of this new provisional government were named as Beyers, Maritz, Kemp and Christiaan de Wet. On 10 October, Maritz occupied the town of Keimoes, while de Wet occupied Heilbron, after which he ambushed a government train and seized a store of ammunition. Beyers, meanwhile, assembled a force in the Magaliesbery. The rebels ultimately raised an army of around 12,000 men.

Christiaan de Wet
Christiaan de Wet

In response, the authorities declared martial law and sent 32,000 troops, commanded by Louis Botha and Jan Smuts, to confront the rebels. A skirmish took place on 24 October, during which Maritz was wounded, although he managed to escape to German territory. Beyer’s men were defeated at Commissioners Drift four days later, the general later dying of heart failure on 8 December while crossing the Vaal River. De Wet was found and arrested in Bechuanaland on 1 December. Kemp, however, evaded capture, his commando trekking 1,300 km across the Kalahari Desert, during which he lost 300 of his men and most of their horses. With the help of the Germans he defeated a Union Defence Force column at Nous on 21 December and, eventually, arrived in German South West Africa where he met with Maritz. Kemp later surrendered himself on 4 February 1915.

Within the matter of days, the rebellion had been crushed, and South West Africa was successfully occupied by South African forces in July. Yet despite their rebellious acts, the rebels were given only six to seven years terms of imprisonment and substantial fines of up to £2,000. They were, however, released within two years.

It is said that the rebellion was referred to by some to as the ‘Five Shillings Rebellion’ due to the words of de Wet, who, having entered the town of Reitz with his commando, called together the inhabitants and said: “I was charged before for beating a native boy. I only did it with a small shepherd’s whip, and for that I was fined 5/–”. Hearing about the speech later, Smuts referred to the rising as “the Five Shilling Rebellion”, although today it is often called the Maritz Rebellion.

Jan Smuts
Jan Smuts

The human cost of the rebellion stood at 132 killed or died of wounds and 242 wounded for the Union Defence Force, while the rebels lost 190 killed and around 325 wounded. No British troops took part, but of the 32,000 local government forces some two-thirds came from the Transvaal.

Maritz later claimed he joined the German Army in 1915. He would return to South Africa in 1923, where he was arrested and charged with treason, for which he received a sentence of three years imprisonment. However, he was released after serving only three months following the National Party’s general election win the following year, the rebellion having swung opinion towards the rightwing political party. Maritz would, during the 1930s, become an overt Nazi sympathizer and published a book entitled My Lewe en Strewe (My Life and Aspiration), which had anti-Semitic overtones and for which he was later fined £75. He died at Pretoria in 1940.

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