Death of a Rebel

The tragic but true story of a young Cape rebel who was court-martialled and shot by the British forces. Willie lost his life, but the love of the girl that he had been engaged to marry, survived the ravages of time in a touching manner...

by H Labuschagne

Much of the exact details of this sad tale has been softened and eroded by the winds of time. Unfortunately most of the small details that make a simple tale into an enchanting experience, have already been lost. Enough of the facts have survived, though, to enable the recording and sharing of at least the basic outline of this classic love story with others.

The story began in the old Transvaal, just before the turn of the last century. It was an exciting time to live in, for after centuries of slumbering, the world was in the process of experiencing some of the fastest technological development ever. The Transvaal was simply bursting with energy. People were making money everywhere, and after decades of hard work, the country was finally truly being developed and tamed.

In those days, a sleepy little town by the name of Wakkerstroom nestled in the folds of the mountains of the great escarpment that is formed by the mighty Drakensberg range. This escarpment separated the tamed plains of the highveld from the still half-wild, rolling meadows of the middle-veld. Further on, towards where the sun rose, lay the hot and feverish, mysterious valleys of the bushveld of Zululand.

Wakkerstroom had much of the appearance of a regular western cowboy town back then. The farmers were gradually becoming successful entrepreneurs that benefited from supplying in the needs and wants of the massive new goldfields at Johannesburg, not too far distant.

It was here that the Kolbe family lived. George Augustus Kolbe had originally come to South Africa as a medical doctor in the service of the London Missionary Society. Although a very good doctor, he had soon forsaken his calling in order to respond to the call of the land. He and his descendants, had become farmers, and through hard work and determination, the Kolbe family had succeeded in prospering in the enchanting wild country of the Transvaal.

It so happened that George Kolbe's grandson, also called George, had six pretty and charming daughters. Intelligent, well-educated, cultured and well-mannered, the Kolbe daughters must have been rather popular with the young men of the district. The second youngest daughter, was called Adriana Henrietta Johanna Kolbe, but everybody just called her Dana. Dana must have been no more than seventeen or eighteen years when she happened to meet a dashing young man by the name of Willie Louw. Willie was a colonial who lived near Colesberg -- which was part of the Cape Colony, and thus under British rule.

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Fig. 1 The Kolbe Family. Dana is the pretty young girl in the middle

How they ever got to meet each other, is not known anymore, but the relationship blossomed. Dana's parents liked young Willie. Before long, Dana and Willie were engaged to be married. There was one problem though. On the far-distant horizon, ominous rumblings had been heard for nearly five years now, and even as the two happy young people became engaged, the rumblings turned into large black clouds of war.

It had been an unhappy time for young lovers to fall in love. After years of tension and much provocation, the long-expected war between the two Boer republics (the Transvaal and the Orange Free State), and Great Britain finally broke out. Although strictly speaking, still of British origin, Dana's father and two brothers joined the Boer commandos to fight for the freedom and independence of the land that they had helped to tame.

In the Cape colony too, many Boers had decided to join their kin in the Transvaal and the Free State. In the beginning, the two Boer republics had great successes against the British army. In fact, for a while it looked very much as if the Boers were going to give the mightiest empire on earth a walloping that she would never forget.

Inspired with a burning patriotism, many Cape colonials joined the Boer commandos to help them maintain their independence. The British had taken the Cape from the Boers long ago, and there were many that thirsted to see the British flag pulled down over the Cape, and perhaps to see the Cape combined with the Boer republics so that all Boers could be unified once more.

Willie too, joined the Boer commandos. He also, was a Boer who wanted to see his country free from British dominion. His decision, however, turned out to be most unfortunate. Britain was determined that she would not lose the gold of the Transvaal, whatever the cost. After a few months, Lord Roberts was sent to crush the Boer commandos. Like a massive bulldozer, this armies succeeded in steadily pushing up the great railway which connected Cape Town with Bloemfontein and Pretoria, the two capitals. The Boers fought with much valour and determination, but the odds were overwhelming. They soon found themselves being steadily driven back by the massive army in front of them.

Somewhere during all this, the most unfortunate thing happened, for Willie was captured by the British forces. That was a very serious thing to happen to a colonial, for although they were fighting to help their own people, they were technically British citizens. That being the case, joining the commandos, was seen as an act of treason, and treason was a serious offence that was punishable by death.

What must have have gone through the mind of Dana as she received the news that Willie had been captured, we will never know. It must have been a terrible blow, for already the British had court-martialled and shot many so-called "Cape rebels." In vain, Dana hastened to Colesberg, where Willie was to be court-martialled. We also won't ever know what she must have made through, or what she must have tried to save the man to whom she was engaged, as she waited for the outcome. The outcome was inevitable. Willie was found guilty of high-treason. He was sentenced to die by firing squad.

Whatever the dramatic detail of the story might have been, one cannot fail to experience that pathos of the situation when finally, the morning of the execution arrived. That morning, Dana the soldiers led the cart in which Willie was taken for his execution right by the house where Dana was staying. Whether this was done on purpose, or whether the road to the place of execution merely passed by Dana's house anyway, remains a matter for speculation. Helpless, Dana and Willie must have watched each other longingly, knowing that they would never set eyes on one another again in this world.

The execution took place as planned. Willie was shot, and buried in the ancient fossil-grounds of Colesberg. To one nation, he died the death of a hero. To the other, he died the well-deserved death of a traitor. What could Dana have thought? It must have been the saddest moment of her life.

They years came and went. The Boers lost the war, and the ground of the Cape was stained by the blood of many more Cape rebels who died in the quest for freedom. Many more were captured and executed. The most famous, was probably the brave young commandant Gideon Scheepers, who was first doctored until he had recovered of his wounds, and then executed. The Union Jack came to fly across the land of the Boers, and ironically, it later came to be that the Cape united with the other colonies.

In the meantime, Dana grew older and wiser. She even lived to see the day when the unified South Africa was returned to the people from which it had once so forcefully been taken. The sad thing was that she never found the love which she felt for Willie again. She did eventually marry a man by the name of Pierre Oosthuizen. He was a good man, but she could never love him like she loved her one and only Willie.

Time has a way of healing most wounds, and of dimming memories. Dana lived to a ripe old age, and eventually, people even forgot about the sad love-story of her youth. All this changed years later, though. In a very remarkable manner. Dana finally passed away after a long and fruitful life. The day came when her house had to be cleared, and her furniture and possessions distributed among her relatives. While in the process of packing the collected possessions of a lifetime, one of her sisters, who had come to help with her daughter, Matie, happened to open a large old wardrobe.

There, right on top of the wardrobe, Matie happened to find something that must have brought tears to their eyes. It was a small, dust-covered box. The box was tied with a red ribbon, and it contained chocolate. What was remarkable, though, was the fact that the chocolate was obviously very old. It had started to disintegrate long ago, and most of the pieces were already changing to fine powder. Puzzled, the family members wondered why she had kept a box of chocolates, uneaten for so many years. Then Matie found a time-stained and yellowed little document attached to the box.  It was a card, and on it were written these words:

"To Dana. With all my love. Willie."

For the first time, her family understood why Dana had never loved as she should have. Willie might have died, but her love for him had remained alive for all these years . . .

Biographical note: Dana (Kolbe) Oosthuizen was the author's great-great-aunt.

The women of the Kolbe family were interned at Wakkerstroom by the British occupationary forces, and there Dana lost her youngest sister. Her father, George, was gravely wounded and sent to Scotland, where he eventually recovered. The rest of her brothers and sisters survived the war. It is unknown whether Dana ever returned to Colesberg.

At her death , Dana left a substantial will which was used for the establishment of an old-age home called the Dana-tehuis. Her niece, Matie (Kolbe) Joubert, who found the chocolates, is still a resident at the same Dana old-age home in Wakkerstroom and is the last of that generation.