I received an email in Afrikaans during the week, asking if I had any information about the death by hanging of Cornelius Johannes Claassen at Somerset East, South Africa, on July 24, 1901.
I have posted my wife Juliet’s Claassen family tree on my website, and although Cornelius is not listed, he is presumed to be related.
A cousin of Juliet, genealogist Johann Claassen, replied to an email I sent him: “That boy was hanged in public during the Anglo Boer War. He was busy looking after the horses of the commandos when they grabbed him and tried him for high treason. He was retarded, unmarried and left no descendants. His last resting place is not known, nor the name of his parents. There is a walking stick with his name carved upon it in the museum of Somerset East.”
The book Innocent Blood by Graham Jooste and Roger Webster tells the story that Cornelius was tried by Military Court at Dordrecht on June 24, 1901.
“Claassen lived with his parents on the farm Bouwersfontein in the Darlington district of the Cape Colony. He was of the labourer class and his parents enjoyed the privilege of staying on the owner’s farm, but under certain conditions.
“He joined the commando of Commandant PH Kritzinger in the Cape Midlands as a horse guard. He was described as heavily built, over six feet tall and retarded. It was alleged at his trial that he had been one of the burgers who fired upon the British from a hillock during the taking of the Boer position on Wildefontein.
“It was claimed that when the British stormed the hillock, Gibbons of the CMR was wounded. No witness was called to testify that Claassen had in fact inflicted the wound, but he was however with the men captured on the hillock.
“Claassen pleaded guilty to high treason because he was on commando, but emphatically denied having fired a shot, as his work was to look after the horses. He was nevertheless found guilty and given the death sentence, which was ratified by Kitchener on 12 July.
“Claassen was interned in the Dordrecht gaol for a month, entirely unaware of his death sentence. He was transported to his home town of Somerset East for his execution. The gallows were ready and the hangman had arrived.
“On 23 July, the inhabitants of Somerset East were summoned to gather at the market square to hear the proclamation of sentence passed on Cornelius Claassen. About 1000 people were in attendance, under the strict control of the Royal Fusileers, Town Guards and various colonial detachments.
“The prisoners from the gaol were transported on an ox wagon to bear witness to the unfolding event. Moments later the accused arrived on a cart escorted by a detachment of troops. Claassen was brought before Commandant Llewellyn who had climbed onto a wagon to announce his fate.
“Llewellyn read the proclamation and a bellowing voice ended: ‘To be hanged! Hanged! Hanged!’
“Claassen listened to the proceedings with his head bowed, but it seemed as if he did not grasp what was going on around him, and the pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church was compelled to translate for him. After this the silent crowd drifted away and Claassen was taken back to his cell.
‘Undesirables’ forced to watch
“The Reverend JH Hofmeyer of Cookhouse and the Venerable Reverend Oates took it in turns to console and support the accused through the night. During that evening all the so-called ‘undesirables’ received notices to attend the hanging at the gaol the following morning.
“These were all the leaders of the Afrikaner community, including churchmen, teachers and prominent citizens. Ramsay MacDonald, the outspoken English Member of Parliament, later had good reason to speak out that martial law in the Cape Colony was indeed a law against the Afrikaner.
“Reverend Hofmeyer accompanied Claassen to the scaffold. The accused walked with firm steps towards the scaffold and climbed the narrow stairs unaided. A white hood was placed over his head, his legs bound with rope and the noose put around his neck. The gathered citizens were compelled to watch and those who turned their heads away had them wrenched back by the guards.
“A young man who pulled his hat over his eyes had it knocked off and was warned to watch what happened to rebels. The last resting place of Cornelius Johannes Claassen is unknown. The only existing memory of him is in the Somerset East museum, where a walking stick with his name carved upon it by a burger interned in the Port Alfred camp is kept.”
A comment on the book states: “The book shows that the right of appeal did not exist in 1902 and indicates that courts martial took less than a day to conclude. This contrasts significantly with the extended trail of Morant, Handcock, Witton and Picton from 16 January til February 1902″.
A previous article I wrote, objecting to a posthumous pardon for Morant, attracted much comment and criticism.
I’m shifting my view to believe that maybe Morant should be pardoned … so long as Claassen and his South African comrades are also pardoned as part of a genuine, broad, belated conciliation.
I struggle to see how anyone can consider it just to hang a disabled man without any firm evidence that he actually committed a crime.