Margaretha (Maggie) Jooste was only 13 years old when the Anglo-Boer War broke out and irrevocably changed her life. After months of house arrest in the family’s home in Heidelberg in the Transvaal, Maggie, her mother and younger siblings are sent away, in a cattle truck, to a concentration camp in Natal. In the camp, they experience hunger, deprivation and loss, but also surprising acts of kindness from some British soldiers.
Her personal account, Maggie: My Life In The Camp – A Young Girl’s Remarkable Anglo Boer War Story, tells a story of hardship, but also one of humanity and friendship across enemy lines. There is the remarkable bond between the Jooste family and their English-speaking neighbours in Heidelberg, the Russells. While the British soldiers and Boer commandos fight the war, the Russells secretly provide food to the Joostes to help them survive, and support them when the war comes to an end.
Maggie Jooste was an Afrikaner teenage girl during the Anglo-Boer War. She and her five younger siblings were sent to concentration
camps in Natal. She wrote a book about her life and experiences in the war, but the manuscript was left forgotten on a book shelf. Fifty-seven years later it was rediscovered by her family and published for the first time. This excerpt is published by permission.
The last month of 1901 was indescribably bitter for Mother. We were all sick and suffering almost unbearably. We still had no doctor or nursing help. Only a very limited number of sick people could be admitted to the couple of hospital tents, about 20 out of the vast camp population. Every day there was a long procession of weeping women with little black wooden coffins making their way to the cemetery.
Our own beloved little sister Gerrie was seriously ill with scarlet fever. I remember she had on her emaciated back a large, evil-smelling ulcer the size of a two-shilling piece. I continually had to wash the cloth we used to keep the wound as clean as possible. She died on the night of 13 December, released at last from her long suffering. She was a year and nine months old. Aunt Nonnie and Katie helped Mother throughout the night. As usual James and I slept on the ground under the little table while our beloved sister’s little body, thin and wasted, was placed on top. With the coming of daylight some women brought me a thin plank of wood from which I somehow made a little coffin. Mother lined it with butter muslin which she had asked Aunt Nonnie to buy somewhere. Mother also sewed a white shroud for both the inside and outside of the little box. It was dreadful for us to have to say goodbye to our little sister. Similar tragedies were taking place in other tents. All of us were sick, and only James and I could manage to attend her funeral.
Two soldiers came with a stretcher to take the body to the tent set aside as a mortuary. There all the families of the dead would gather. That day seven little ones had to be taken to the burial ground, which was a long way out of the camp. Ds Van der Horst spoke a few words at each open grave to comfort the bereaved, and then the gravediggers shovelled in the earth. So we had to say farewell for ever to our sister. We couldn’t even mark her last resting place. Later Mother dried out a piece of clay and with a sharp nail inscribed Gerrie’s name on it. Most of the little graves were marked in this way. Before we were released from the camp her grave was overgrown with grass, and what with the rains, we could not tell with certainty where she lay.
Mother could never forget that day, as Robert, Dolly and Hettie were all seriously ill as well. Dolly had contracted scarlet fever and her heart was extremely weak. It seemed as if she would pass away any minute. Poor Hettie was in great pain and had a high fever. In later years doctors confirmed that she had been a victim of polio. Robert was near death’s door with enteric fever and diarrhoea. The old camp doctor thought he would die during the night and issued instructions that Robert be taken to the tent hospital.
Imagine what all this meant to Mother: she could not even attend her dear little daughter’s funeral as she had to accompany Robert to the hospital. He was carried by two soldiers on a stretcher and eventually she had to leave him there on a little bed on the floor. Lying in our tent were Dolly and Hettie, both extremely ill. They were nursed by a pair of helpers who had offered to stay with them when Mother went with Robert to the hospital. When Mother returned to the front line at our tent, James and I did our utmost to help. Our misery, anxiety and suffering were becoming unbearable. The only medicine we had was the coloured water from the orderly’s bucket. It was at this time too that we received Father’s first letter, telling us that he was a prisoner of war. Some of our burgers were sent, not only to Bermuda, but to Portugal, India, Ceylon and St Helena.
Unfortunately, just before Gerrie’s death, James had cut his foot while chopping wood. Because of his poor general condition and the absence of disinfectants, the wound took a long time to heal. Our bodies had very little resistance to infection. As if that were not enough, Mother and I both developed terrible ulcers on our legs. Mother’s appeared on her left shin. We had no bandages or the necessary remedies, and so it would not heal. At the same time, I also developed an ulcer in the same place. It was very painful, and as time went on other ulcers appeared on my leg right up to my hip. The scars can still be seen after 60 years. My leg became swollen and with the pain I could only limp. That is why James and I found it so difficult to walk to the graveyard for Gerrie’s funeral, and why Mother also struggled to take Robert to the hospital.
Because there were so many infectious and contagious diseases prevalent in the camp, we were not allowed to visit Robert. I don’t remember how long he was in hospital but he eventually came back to us. Another unforgettable experience was when we were all sent to the isolation camp. This was erected on a little hill far from the other camps to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. A few tents were set up there and all new cases were kept in isolation for six weeks or longer. This happened just after Robert returned from hospital, all skin and bone. He had to learn afresh how to walk. Dolly was much better, though Hettie still remained very poorly. One morning Mother noticed some small red spots on Hettie’s body and consulted me about We decided that she had been bitten by fleas or ticks during the night. The old woman who lived in the other half of our tent was most unsympathetic. She then went and reported to the authorities that Hettie had a new contagious disease.
Had there been a doctor we would have been correctly advised and the new manifestation would have been properly diagnosed. But we had no such luck. Before long, a trolley came along and we were told we had to pack everything on it, including the three sick children. Hettie had to be taken on a stretcher. And so for the third time Mother had to accompany a sick child all the way to the isolation camp. Our beds and everything we owned were loaded up, and we sat on top. We felt very important and brave and so we burst out with the line from our national anthem: “Do you know the people who are full of the courage of heroes?”
Then, just as we were ready to set off, a message came from the camp superintendent that the other occupants of the tent, the old woman and her two daughters, also had to go to the isolation section, as our tent had to be completely disinfected. We little rascals were delighted that the woman had been repaid in this way for her interference. It was already late in the afternoon and raining continuously when we arrived at the isolation camp. The Boer men whose services the soldiers made good use of – they too were prisoners – were busy erecting the tent. There was a big antheap right there and a big hole full of water close by, but of course the tent was set up regardless of inconvenience or terrain. Later that night the tent collapsed and we had to be bundled into another tent next door. The family who occupied it turned out to be old Heidelberg friends. They made us welcome and somehow we settled down to sleep.