Tag Archives: Sleeping sickness

A dangerous fanatic

I used to think of my great-grandfather, the Boer General Paul Roux, as the old General. It was only recently that I found out that he was only 48 years old when he died. I never knew him personally, as he had died long before my birth, but my grandmother—his eldest daughter—talked about him sometimes and this gave me a sense of the kind of person that he was.

He originally wanted to become a journalist, but after being exposed to the sermons of Dr Andrew Murray, a Dutch Reformed missionary whom had been sent from Scotland to South Africa, he decided on becoming a church minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.

On hindsight I can’t really blame my great-grandfather for hating the British. At the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 he joined the Boer forces and fought as a guerrilla fighter. He was considered to be exceptionally brave and clever and was soon promoted to the position of Fighting General (Veg-Generaal). During the war he was caught by the British forces and banished to Ceylon where he remained for two years until the end of the war. He was held there in captivity for eight months before anyone in his family found out what had happened to him.

General Roux’s wife, Hettie, was sent to a British concentration camp in Winburg in the Orange Free State along with her two young children and their fox terrier, Vix. General Lord Kitchener, the British military commander, became so frustrated with the Boers’ guerrilla warfare tactics that he embarked on a strategy of flushing out the Boer guerrillas by clearing the countryside of everything that could possibly sustain them—farmhouses and farm buildings, horses, cattle, sheep, and even the women and children. This caused enormous bitterness amongst the Boer folk, which in some quarters has not entirely dissipated to this day.

Hettie was told at 6 pm that they would be leaving shortly after midnight for the concentration camp. Her one young daughter, Marie, was very ill from typhus, so she immediately appealed to the British officers to be allowed to stay at home until her daughter had recovered. Her pleas fell on deaf ears and the child was taken along in an oxwagon in her sick condition. Because the disease was so contagious, Hettie and her two daughters had to live for more than a month in a small tent well away from the women’s concentration camp.

When news of his family’s fate reached General Roux in Ceylon, he appealed to Lord Kitchener to let his family leave the concentration camp and be permitted to go and live with his wife’s family in Paarl, near Cape Town in the Cape Province. Lord Kitchener personally intervened and their move to Paarl was allowed.

After the war a small town in the Orange Free State was renamed Paul Roux in the General’s honour. Today it has a population of 5,722. Initially there was a divergence of opinion as to what the town should be named. To decide on the final name, the contending names were painted on a boulder, which was rolled down from the hill above the town. The boulder came to a standstill with the name “Paul Roux” face up.

According to my grandmother, the General was a “bitter-ender” who detested the British with a vengeance for going to war against the Boer Republics and for their brutal tactics during the war. He was a crack shot and he told his children with pride how he used to shoot the British soldiers neatly between the eyes. Despite this, my grandmother had a great fondness for the English. When I asked her about it once, she told me how the Boer guerrilla fighters would come to their house in the middle of the night to stock up on provisions. They stank and wore rags and their manners were uncouth. The English soldiers who came by, on the other hand, had lovely manners and always looked smart in their khaki uniforms. A glint appeared in her eyes when she spoke of the English.

Roux eventually became the minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in Beaufort West, a large country town in the Cape Province. He loved the outdoors life and regularly went fishing and hunting, two of his favourite pastimes. In 1910 he travelled to Central Africa with a friend on a hunting trip. This is where disaster struck. He was stung by the feared tsetse fly and contracted sleeping sickness. As my grandmother put it, this was quite ironic because he had suffered from severe insomnia ever since he had contracted typhus fever while he was a university student.

His wife Hettie travelled to Nyasaland to join her ill husband. The Governor of Nyasaland provided a warship to transport the couple across Lake Nyassa, from where they travelled by boat down the river to Chinde on the coast of central Mozambique. The Portuguese government arranged and funded the couple’s travel back to Beaufort West, where he died on 8 June 1911.

A few years ago when I travelled in South Africa with my English wife, Gill, we stayed overnight in a hotel in Beaufort West. The next morning, having cleared a thick layer of frost from our rental car’s windscreen, we drove to the Dutch Reformed Church to look at the plinth that was erected in General Roux’s memory in the church grounds where he is buried. I whispered to Gill: “Do you hear that rumbling? That is the old General turning in his grave because his great-grandson had married an Englishwoman.”

I was actively involved in the anti-Apartheid movement and anyone with my views was generally considered by the Afrikaners as a traitor to the nation and called a kafferboetie (an offensive term which equates to ‘brother of the kaffirs’). My mum and dad knew about my views and I had many arguments with them about South African politics during that period. Whilst acknowledging my opinions to be valid in some respects, they considered my anger about the injustices and institutionalised racism in South Africa to be somewhat extreme.

In 1984, while I was a persona non grata in South Africa, my parents visited me in Melbourne so that I could say farewell to my mum who had terminal cancer. I had just finished reading Thomas Pakenham’s book The Boer War, in which General Roux is mentioned.

“Just listen to what they say in this book about your grandfather,” I said to my mum, and read the following passage to her:

(Captain Bromley-Davenport wrote) “I had a long talk with Roux, the fighting parson of Senekal, a very dangerous fanatic … I am glad we have got him.”

My mum gave me a knowing smile and remarked drily: “It must run in the family.”