01 August 2011

The Slagtersnek Rebellion

Slagtersnek Monument in the Eastern Cape
Cornelis Frederik Bezuidenhout, known by the nickname Freek, was the fifth of seven children of Wynand Jacobus Bezuidenhout, a burgher of Graaff-Reinet, and his wife, Maria Terblans, a descendant of Wynand Leendertsz Bezuidenhout, of the Netherlands, master gardener at the Cape, and his wife, Jannetje Gerrits, of Amsterdam. Cornelis was born in the Graaff-Reinet district and baptised on 9 June 1773.

As a frontier farmer, he lived in seclusion in the valley of the Baviaans River, east of Cradock and was said to know no fear, to be full of self-confidence and decidedly arrogant and quick-tempered.

As a result of his views on public affairs he came into conflict with the authorities. Unrest on the eastern frontier, caused by conflicts with the Xhosa, increased the tension, especially after the Black Circuit in 1812. Bezuidenhout was generally known as a vindictive man, unapproachable by most people; he was accused by his servant, Booi, of ill-treatment and of holding back his pay.

He was summoned to appear before the court at Graaff-Reinet. At first he sent poor excuses for his absence; but eventually defied the court's orders.

As a result, he was sentenced in his absence by a circuit court for contempt of court to a month's imprisonment. An order for his arrest was issued and landdrost Andries Stockenström of Graaff-Reinet instructed the Deputy-Messenger of the Court to carry out the order.

Receiving no help from the Field Cornet of the ward, he proceeded to the nearest military post, commanded by Captain Andrews armed with a letter asked for military assistance.

While Cornelis was preparing to resist, by force, his arrest, Lieutenant F Rousseau accompanied the Deputy-Messenger with a patrol of twelve Khoikhoi soldiers.

Cornelis was confronted at the Baviaans River (the present Glen Lynden) on 16 October 1815, where he refused to surrender and fired on the soldiers. With his half-breed son and a casual visitor, Jacob Erasmus, sought refuge amongst the tumbled rocks of the nearby valley. He would not listen to reason and recommenced firing until he was mortally wounded by the soldiers returning the fire. His son and Erasmus, who took no part in the action, surrendered.

Cornelis was buried on the farm the next day by his relatives.

At Cornelis's funeral, his brother, Johannes Jurgen (Hans Jan) Bezuidenhout, swore to avenge himself on the officials whom he held responsible for his brother's death.

He incited the whole community to resistance against British authority. He believed that his decision to chase the British and the Khoikhoi into the sea and to establish an independent state on the eastern frontier coincided with the wishes of all the burghers. About sixty burghers took an oath of vengeance and loyalty and took part in what became known as the Slagtersnek Rebellion.

The rebels’ plans were far-fetched. One proposed to make a deal with Ngqika,. He could take possession of the Zuurveld in exchange for driving away the Cape Regiment, expelling all officials on the frontier and allowing the rebels to occupy the fertile Kat River Valley in the land of the Xhosa. Burghers who refused to join were threatened with death and having their families and property given over to the Xhosa.

Stockenstrom persuaded the influential burghers not to back the rebellion. In the end, there were only 60 rebels, who surrendered without a shot being fired. Forty-six men stood trial in Uitenhage. Some were fined, others lost their farms, and six of the leaders were sentenced to be hanged. One of these men, field-cornet Willem Frederik Krugel, were pardoned by the Governor Somersedt. On 9 March 1916 the remaining five were hanged in public under the makeshift gallows at Van Aardspos, twelve miles south of Slagtersnek. Four of the nooses broke during the procedure and the still living convicts, together with many spectators, including their wives and children, pleaded for their lives, but the executioner ordered that they be hanged a second time. The names of the five rebels who were executed are Hendrik Prinsloo, Stephanus Bothma, Abraham Bothma, Cornelis Faber and Theunis de Klerk.

Cornelis Jacobus Faber’s family stayed with Coenraad De Buys and his family at Nqgika's Great Place for many years where they were married by Van Der Kemp before they returned to the colony. Cornelis’ wife was Christina Magdalena Johanna De Buys.

Emile Badenhorst, curator of the Somerset East Museum, was responsible for bringing the Slagtersnek Rebellion beam back to the Eastern Cape in 2005. The beam was used as a gallows on 09 March 1816 to hang five Boer leaders after the Slagtersnek Rebellion in 1815. Emile discovered the beam in the storage rooms of the South African Museum (now Iziko Museum) in Cape Town. It took 5 years of phoning and organising to bring it to Somerset East. The beam was offered to the museum in the 1980s but the former curator turned it down because it was too sensitive.

The beam still bears the bolt holes which secured it to a wooden structure and turned it into a gallows. The leather riempie rope snapped in mid execution and another had to be found to complete the hanging. Normally prisoners would be set free if the rope snapped but not in this case and the men’s wives and children who were forced to attend the hanging had to watch them being hanged again.

The rebellion was one of the reasons for the Great Trek.

After the hangings the beam was returned to its original purpose which was as a ceiling support in a farm’s pigsty. It was eventually removed and became an icon of Afrikaner nationalism. In 1949, it was transported to the opening of the completed Voortrekker Monument outside Pretoria, after being paraded through Middelburg, Colesburg, Bloemfortein, Winburg, Ventersburg and Parys en route. It ended up at the Cape Town Historical Museum in 1989.

Slagtersnek Rebellion beam in museum - Routes and Roots
Wikipedia: CF Bezuidenhout
A Cauldron Of Conflict: The Slagtersnek Rebellion
Image: Ancestry24


  1. Hi Tony

    As you would know, history is often politicised and the story of Slagtersnek have been abused through the ages to suit the political agenda of various historians – the Slagtersnek rebels went from hero’s (to fire-up nationalism which the apartheid government needed to stay in power and play their sick social engineering games) to thugs. I think they were nothing but poor, illiterate, marginalised and simple country people, there were strong family ties within the group – so, although he was probably a criminal, they had to show their loyalty to Bezuidenhout (or rather in memory of him), some of them had a history of being anti-government and I think Cornelis had closer ties with the Xhosa than the government so he would have approach Nqgika without even realising how the British colonial government would react to it, perhaps not even knowing that he was in fact a British subject and that it was treason. Taking the law in your own hands is wrong but I can’t help but sympathise with them.

    Thanks for the news about the beam – it is good to know it has found its way home, it probably came from the beautiful forests in that area of which so little is left.

  2. Hi Elmien,

    Yes, history is often politicised and used for other purposes and that sometimes clouds the research.

    I definitely agree that it could have been Cornelis, or even Coenraad De Buys who approached Nqgika as they both lived with Nqgika for some time.

    Thanks for the input.

  3. According to Heese, "Slagtersnek en sy Mense", Hans Bezuidenhout's vow of revenge did not get much support. The indtigator of the next phase was Hendrik Frederik ("Kasteel") Prinsloo. He, Bezuidenhout, and Stephanus Botma first approached the Xhosa. Two days later Cornelis Faber went to seek out Gaika. He was accompanied by Frans Marais and Adriaan Engelbrecht. They were rebuffed. By this time the plan to involve the Xhosa was already known to the authorities.

  4. Can anyone tell me if there is anything recorded about Bezuidenhouts halfbreed son

    1. hi there,

      This article https://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/slagtersnek-rebels-are-tried-uithenhage-landdros-court has some information.

      The first brother was shot and killed which prompted Hans to revenge his death.

      it states that Hans died while resisting arrest after the rebellion.