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Jo'Burg Days: Fair Stood The Wind- Part 8

...I was drawn to the spot against my better judgement. It was the first and I hope the last infliction of capital punishment I shall ever see. It was a triple execution, a Frenchman (of the Legion), a Hottentot and a Kaffir, and to make the punishment as cruel as possible the poor wretches had to step over their coffins to ascend the steps of the gallows...

Barbara Durlacher, continuing to delve into the early history of her ancestors, brings another vivid account of life during the early days of European settlement in South Africa.

DESCRIPTION OF SS HIMALAYA – circa 1854/5 AND A PUBLIC HANGING IN KINGWILLIAMSTOWN Circa – 1859/60 BY
WILLIAM JAMES SYMONS

A writer in the “Cape Mercury,” who signs himself “ex 67th,” in referring to these papers, says he came out at four years of age with the 12th Regiment in the Himalaya. This recalls to my memory the fact that some happy months of my boyhood were spent on that vessel as an assistant to the joiners, numbering 400, who were employed on her.

This vessel was built on the Thames by C J Mare & Co., for the Peninsula and Oriental Company, and was at the time the largest vessel in the world! I was present at her launch and quite enjoyed the sights, when she took the water her great bulk caused a rise of some four feet above the normal height, and the consequence was that hundreds of the spectators standing near the banks of the creek were in water up to their waists. Luckily no one was injured beyond the wetting. The reputation for size brought thousands of visitors to the vessel and for those days, her fittings were really luxurious. The woodwork of the saloon was mahogany and maple, the panels alternately of mirror and beautiful hand-painted glass. Just on the eve of her completion for sea, the Crimean War had commenced and the Government chartered the vessel to take troops etc, to the seat of war. All the beautiful fittings were taken out and she was fitted as a trooper, the Government afterwards re-naming her, I think, the “Camel,” after purchasing her altogether. I was much perturbed to learn after one of her visits out to East London that an uncle of mine was Chief Engineer on board of her, and knowing the fact too late I, of course, was unable to see him.

To return to King, we had some peculiar methods of justice in those days. If a person became too troublesome to the authorities, as a too frequent attendant at the Magistrate’s Court, the verdict of banishment was pronounced, and the delinquent was sentenced to a mild of deportation, being escorted out of the town’s limits some distance on the Grahamstown road with the warning that if found within the boundaries in future, imprisonment with hard labour would be his fate. The goal stood on the river end of Smith Street where the road turned to the drift over the Buffalo, and just outside the entrance stood the stocks and many an ivory brother or sister has sat in them and under an African sun lamented the fate that brought them there.

The most ghastly sight I ever witnessed was an empty piece of ground nearly opposite the goal entrance. One morning in 1858, in looking out of my window (I was living at a house at the end of the present Market Square), I saw a timber frame erected and a large number of troops assembled. I had heard there was to be an execution and had determined not to be a witness of it, but like the bird and the snake, the attraction was too great. I was drawn to the spot against my better judgement. It was the first and I hope the last infliction of capital punishment I shall ever see. It was a triple execution, a Frenchman (of the Legion), a Hottentot and a Kaffir, and to make the punishment as cruel as possible the poor wretches had to step over their coffins to ascend the steps of the gallows. A strong force of military surrounded the spot forming a square, of which the gallows was the centre, and several of the men fainted and had to be carried out. When the bodies were cut down by the executioner, they were held by some prisoners, and I thought I should have seen a fourth death when the head of one of the bodies fell over and struck one of them in the face. My readers must pardon my relation of this gruesome business, but I am trying to tell all I can remember of our manners and customs in King fifty years ago.

It was pleasant when in bed on a summer night to hear the sentries from the various posts calling to each other in voices which proclaimed their nationality: “Number wan an’ all’s well,” then perhaps in a broad rural accent, “Number Two and all’s well,” and so on until I have heard the fifth repeated cry, and dropped off to sleep feeling that I was, although thousands of miles from the Homeland, still under the protection of the dear old flag, even in this (at that period) remote and almost unknown part of the globe.

For our own amusement, some half a dozen of us formed a kind of outdoor concert party and with a guitar and concertina would serenade the principal residents. One night we stopped to play in front of the Commandant’s (Colonel Durban’s) residence. The sentry challenged us and refused us admission to the grounds, so we sang outside. By a remarkable coincidence, we sang “Willie, we have missed you too,” a song which had recently reached us, and on the same day the son, by name Willie, a deaf mute, had arrived from England, a fact of which we were ignorant. However, the best in the house was not too good for us, and orders were issued that in future the sentries were not to interfere with us.

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