Selati Line – Part 4
During the Anglo-Boer War
Some People Have Been Brought Back to Life
As mentioned in our last story, we are redressing the death stats of our Selati Line. There are some reliable figures for railway construction deaths in the late 1800’s and as is stated here, 13% of the labour force, including those from around the world who came to work on the Eastern Line for the Netherlands South African Railway Company (NZASM) died of fever or work related incidents, according to a report given by them in 1894. No mention was made of predator attacks, so it may not have occurred. Of course, this railway line stretched from Komatipoort to Pretoria, having gone along the Crocodile River, through the Drakensburg, past the lower side of Nelspruit, up the Crocodile valley, to the Elands River valley and on up to Waterval Boven and ending at Pretoria. This lower area had a lot of fever as well as a lot of lions.
Obviously, the area between the Crocodile and Sabi Rivers, along the Selati Line, was far more exposed and treacherous owing to all the predators, so let’s double that figure to 26%. If there were 10,000 workers on that line, it would be 2,600 deaths and that’s a far cry from 80,000 lives. But you be the judge, though 2,600 is more than enough to bury in little over a year, on one 50 mile railway line.
There’s a Snake in the Grass Here Somewhere
Abandoned but not lost forever, our Selati Line finds uses in spares and military action. Spares, in that during the Second Anglo-Boer War, a stratagem is decided upon by the British High Command, to blow up the bridge at Malelane, to interrupt trains between Pretoria and Delagoa Bay. At first, the bridge at Komatipoort was considered, although this idea was abandoned, because of higher security there.
This mission was to be undertaken by the British Guerrilla Secret Service corps of Steinaecker’s Horse under the intelligence arm of the Natal Commander Gen R H Buller. Known by the code name of ’S & Co’. Lt. Baron Christiaan Ludwig Franz von Steinaecker (according to his secret service records) a German born in Berlin (1854-1917), who came from Prussia to South West Africa then on to Natal, becoming a British subject on 29 June 1897 and known as Francis, was appointed senior officer to this cavalry outfit. Steinaecker had, at that time, made his main camp in the Lebombo Range, at a place known as Nomahasha – to some Lomahasha – in Swaziland. Note, Swaziland was an imperial, friendly and neutral country at the time and no hostile forces should have been there.
Leaving for Malelane one (probably) dark night from Nomahasha on horseback, von Steinaecker, accompanied by J B Holgate and one pack horse with 100 lbs of dynamite, fuses and detonators arrived at the Malelane Bridge on Saturday, 16 June 1900. On the following morning, taking an hour to destroy the 80 foot high bridge an adjacent pumping station and cutting the telegraph wires, the two men rode back the 80 miles to Nomahasha.
Fortunately, the NZASM, who owned and operated the railway from Pretoria to Delagoa Bay, could commandeer long heavy timbers from – you guesed it – the abandoned Selati Railway, to repair their line. Into the picture come two Italian brothers. Giacomo and Guiseppe Tonetti, local contractors, from Kaapmuiden who had formally worked on constructing the Selati Line and were in turn, employed to repair the bridge. Twelve days later, a temporary bridge was in operation at Malelane, while repairs to the main line continued and trains to Pretoria were again running on the 29 June 1900. Less than two weeks later.
No! The Selati Line is not Lost or Gone Forever
Later, Steinaecker’s Cavalry Corps, who had their official headquarters at Komatipoort with their depot at Pietermaritzburg, end up being stationed at the Sabi River Bridge Camp in October 1900, under the command of Capt. F Francis and Crocodile Bridge, under the command of Lt ‘Gazza’ Gray. Each member of the corps was ordered by the military, to received a daily ration of pickles, fresh milk, whiskey ‘to keep off the fever’ and ten shillings of pay. Their meat was to be ‘as much local game as they could shoot.’ And the milk, you may ask? Well the military was not specific about that and so the corps, probably by order of its head, was instructed to round up the local native cattle, impound them for safe keeping against marauding tribes ‘until the war was over’ and milk them daily, – you can work out the rest.
The corps used a train for transport to and from Komatipoort at least once a week; its usual driver was trooper Tom Boyd, a man overly fond of alcohol and who, as a result, died of alcoholic poisoning a short while before the corps was decommissioned. The exact locomotive commonly used by them is unknown, although it is described by Stevenson-Hamilton many times in his book South African Eden. It sounds by Hamiltons description, more like one of the 20 tonners, the Durban or the Pietermaritzburg. The picture above is said to be Pump Willis standing at the cab of one of the 40 tonner Selati engines. Pump was the driver on this occasion having taken over as driver after Boyd died. With the war over in 1902, Steinaecker’s horse was decommissioned at Komatipoort on 7 Feb 1903.
After Steinaecker had been decommissioned, one of the Selati loco’s with a “private coach” on tow completed a trip to Sabi Bridge in 1903, with guests. This was described by the Warden as “the panting Selati engine,” having “a feather in its cap” for “completing the fifty mile journey” uphill. Interestingly, the engine driver got £35 a month plus allowances for extra time.
Von Steinaecker a little over five foot had a short-man-syndrome and a Napoleonic complex, made up for his stature by being a perfectly disagreeable man, ideally suited to the times and place he was in. Ordered by the British High Command, that he and his men were not to let on to anyone that the unit was funded by the secret service, but rather he was to make out his outfit was a privately funded militia. This seemed to be no problem to them at all, imbibing, carousing and generally acting like hooligans as was their habit when stationed at Komatipoort. They also ended up shooting almost the entire region’s remaining game population and selling curios, biltong, skins and trophies to the British troops returning home, who passed through Komatipoort on their way home.
On one occasion when the corp first arrived at Komatipoort the commanding officer of the infantry battalion there, advised Steinaecker that on no account were the town’s tame pod of hippos to be tampered with. This order greatly angered Steinaecker, because he felt he was being dictated to and ordered his men to ‘shoot the lot at once’. To the credit of his men, they decided to disregard this order.
Apart from being in the British Secret Service, Steinaecker was the senior officer of an area placed under martial law by the British Military, naturally making this man the law. The entire region under martial law, was from Swaziland to the Limpopo River and from the Mozambique border to the Drakensberg Mountains, an area way bigger than the Kruger National Park is today and he ruled it with about 300 hand-picked troops of his own. One of his tasks was placing troop at stations all along the Transvaal and Mozambique border which was duly done. The officers’ mess and Steinaecker’s headquarters were situated at the old ‘Selati House’ at Komatipoort, which was built by the construction team that built the Selati Railway Line, having then been commandeered by Steinaecker and his outfit.
Steinaecker had a force of 40 men stationed at Komatipoort, who were euphemistically called “Steinaecker’s forty thieves” by the locals. This fact and others came to the attention of the senior British Officer, Forbes at Barberton who being incensed complained to the War Commissioner, saying this unit was getting out of line as a British military unit.
It may be worth knowing that Steinaecker reports many men and horses being attacked and killed by lions during the war, mainly at Sabi Bridge camp. Such was a case near Sabi Bridge, where a horse and his African minder were both killed. A short while after, one of his regulars named Samuel Smart was also attacked and badly mauled at night near Sabi Bridge. He was taken to Komatipoort by train for treatment although he later died on the 4th October 1900 from his wounds. At this time, Steinaecker was pursuing a Boer force commanded by Coetzee up the Selati Line with 40 of his own men and 50 other conscripts, from two British cavalry units, as well as units from the Australian and Tasmanian Rifles, but the Boer forces proved too strong for them and they returned to Komatipoort.
A Sad Military Man in His Private World
After the war, Steinaecker applied for a transfer to the British military proper but was refused and probably because of the rumours of his conduct in Komatipoort. Tom Casement, the Mining Commissioner at Barberton, had reported Steinaecker and other troops to head-office for poaching. The capers of Steinaecker’s horse were also well known to James Stevenson-Hamilton, who remarked on the damage done to wildlife in the Sabi Reserve by this outfit during the war. Although Maj Greenhill-Gardyne, a “wildlife preservationist,” concerned with the game depletion and adjutant of the corp was much help to the Warden with the records he had kept, which he conveyed to him after the war.
Following a failed farming venture at his farm, ‘London,’ at Bushbuckridge, Franz von Steinaecker ended his life after a very heated and drunken argument with a good friend and fighting compatriot, John Edmond Delacoer Travers, who owned the farm ‘Champagne’ also in the Bushbuckridge area on the road to Acornhoek, where Steinaecker was invited to stay. Having regularly badgered Travers who turned a deaf ear, yet on this occasion he became belligerent, insisting that the Germans would win WW I, at which stage Travers had had enough, called the police and on their arrival, Steinaecker took a strychnine tablet and died on 30 April 1917, at the age of sixty-three and was buried in an unmarked grave at the Bushbuckridge cemetery.
See you for our next Selati Line adventure: Stevenson-Hamilton – Sabi Reserve