Jack Borrius – a man of many adventures

by | Dec 7, 2020 | Forgotten Heroes, People | 0 comments

He lost an eye in a war, rubbed shoulders with many famous South Africans, including the two Boer generals Jan Smuts and Louis Botha, Cecil John Rhodes and Dr Leander Starr Jameson, leader of the Jameson Raid. He was Jack Borrius, eldest son of the pioneer printer of Potchefstroom, Jan Borrius.

Jack Borrius was the eldest child and only son of the first government printer of the Transvaal, Jan Borrius. He led a colourful life, joining in many military campaigns and losing an eye during the Second Anglo-Boer War (ABO), 1899-1902. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

Earlier this year I uploaded the story of Borrius senior, the famous first government printer of the Transvaal. See my story on him here.

Jack seemed to have found himself into the thick of things, always where the action was.

An undated copy of an obituary, which appears to have been published in the Potchefstroom Herald, is preserved in the archives of the Potchefstroom Museum. It tells some of his stories and Colonel Deneys Reitz mentioned him in his book Commando, about the ABW.

Jack Borrius was the eldest son of Jan Borrius and his wife Nicolasina Susanna de Beer who were married on 20 January 1863. As his father Jack was named Johannes Philippus Borrius’s. His birth date is not known, but he was 38 years old at the time of the ABO, placing his birth at about the same year as his parents’ marriage.

According to his obituary, he passed away when he was 74 years old, which then would have been in 1937. Jack was educated in a school run by a Mr Louis in a building in Church Street (Walter Sisulu), probably near his father’s printing works which was on the corner of Church and Lombard Streets (Walter Sisulu and James Moroka).

W Louis was appointed as teacher at the public school in Potchefstroom in 1876. He was transferred to the government school at Pretoria at the end of 1882. Photo: Potchefstroom 1838-1938

Jack Borrius first came to prominence before the outbreak of the First ABW (1880-81). The Transvaal was annexed by Britain in 1877. One of the dissenters against the British regime was Pieter Lodiwicus Bezuidenhout, generally known as “Piet Bontperde” (probably because he used to own piebald horses). Bezuidenhout refused to pay taxes and severely resisted the British officials who tried to attach his ox-wagon so that it could be sold in execution. Bezuidenhout was often warned of their approach to his farm and would remove a wheel from the wagon and hide it in reeds.

Eventually the wagon was confiscated and according to an advertisement in a local newspaper it was to be sold on 19 October 1880 in front of the magistrate’s office. This building stood on OR Tambo Street opposite the Church Square where the old Post Office building is today.

This building to the right served as the magistrate’s office of Potchefstroom from the early 1860s to about 1895 when the Landrost-, Post- en Telegraafkantoor was opened. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

Piet Bontperde Bezuidenhout. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum

A large group of Boer supporters were gathered there on the day of the auction. Commandant Piet Cronjé was their spokesperson and gave a rousing speech. Bezuidenhout climbed onto his wagon to speak to his fellow Boers. Young Jack Borrius was with him on the wagon when both were pulled from the wagon. The sheriff, Mr E Moquette, twice tried to step onto the wagon to start the auction, but was in turn removed by the Boers. The wagon was then drawn away by the Boers. It was spanned behind a team of oxen, waiting in Church Street and driven away.

Secretary to Cronjé

This was one of the incidents that led to the outbreak of the First ABW (1880-1881). Borrius joined Boer forces in the War, at one time serving as the secretary of Commandant Piet Cronjé. Accordingly he spent much time in Potchefstroom, since Cronjé commanded the Boer forces that besieged a group of over 300 soldiers and civilians in the fort of Potchefstroom.

Pieter Arnoldus Cronjé (1836-1911) held the rank of “Commandant” when he commanded the Boer forces during the Siege of Potchefstroom. He was short of stature with a black beard and was known for his considerable personal courage. He farmed at Palmietfontein in the Ventersdorp district. During the Second ABW he infamously lost the battle at Paardeberg where 4 000 Boers were taken prisoners of war. After the ABW he re-enacted this battle during the World Fair in 1904 in St Louis in the USA and was dubbed the “circus general” by the South African press. Photo: alchetron.com

What was later known as the Siege of Potchefstroom came about after a protest meeting against British rule on 13 December 1880 held at Paardekraal near Krugersdorp. At the meeting the triumvirate, Paul Kruger, MW Pretorius and Piet Joubert were elected as leaders to re-install Boer rule. Cronjé, accompanied by 400 burghers, was sent to Potchefstroom to have the Declaration of Freedom printed at Borrius’s printing works.

On 16 December British soldiers spotted the column of Boers and orders was given to occupy the unfinished fort of Potchefstroom. A few sympathetic civilians joined them for what was thought to be an overnight stay. Eventually about 320 individuals had to live in an area of 25 X 25 m (440 m2) in atrocious circumstances for more than three months.

After the War Jack Borrius was a railway clerk in the service of the NZASM (Nederlands Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorwegmaatskappy) The NZASM was founded in 1887. Borrius left after he was custom’s officer at Viljoensdrift.

He also farmed for a time on his mother’s farm at Blyvooruitzicht, which later became the farm on which the Blyvooruitzicht gold mine operated. Borrius’s own attempts at early gold prospecting on the Rand failed after financial aid he expected from his friends in Potchefstroom was not forthcoming.

His obituary takes up the story: “The call to arms found him always ready to do his share and he participated in all the Native wars waged by the Boers in the Northern Transvaal. Mr Borrius also joined the Mashonaland Pioneer column under Dr Jameson and there met many famous scouts and hunters – not only Selous but another who, in Mr Borrius’s estimation, was even a mightier hunter than Selous.” Dr Jameson was none other than the later infamous Leander Starr Jameson who led the Jameson Raid.

The Mashonaland Pioneer Column was a force raised by Cecil Rhodes and his British South Africa Company in 1890 and used in his efforts to annex the territory of Mashonaland, later part of Zimbabwe.

During the New Year weekend of 1895-96 Dr Jameson, then colonial administrator, was the leader of the ill-fated attempt to overthrow the government of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) also known as the Transvaal. The Boer forces started tracking Jameson’s column shortly after it crossed the border from Bechuanaland, but they were only apprehended when they reached Doornkop, nowadays west of Soweto.

Borrius was on the Rand at the time and according to his obituary it is said that almost immediately after the surrender of Dr Jameson at Doornkop “Mr Borrius sought out his former associate.” Ironically General Piet Cronjé, for whom Borrius acted as secretary during the 1880/1 War, was the leader of the group who apprehended Jameson.

Cape Colony raid

Jack Borrius fought on the side of the Boers during the Second ABW and some of his exploits were recorded in Commando, written by Deneys Reitz who described Borrius as a short thick-set man. Borrius was a member of the group of 340 men, commanded by General Jan Smuts, who conducted raid into the Cape Colony. The purpose was that he would attempt to draw support from the Afrikaners of the Cape, and instigate a general rebellion against the British government in Cape Town.

Deneys Reitz (1882-1944) was the son of Free State president FW Reitz. He wrote Commando, his war memories of the ABW shortly after the war. It has for many years been regarded as one of the best narratives of war and adventure in the English language. In this Reitz mentioned Jack Borrius a few times. The photo dates from the time of the ABW. Deneys Reitz later established a law firm and was also the Minister of Agriculture. The town Deneysville near the Vaal Dam, was named after him. Photo: Wikipedia.

On the farm Modderfontein about 22 km from Tarkastad, they came across a large English camp on 17 September 1901 and were attacked. This later became known as the Battle of Modderfontein. Smuts’s forces destroyed a British cavalry squadron known as the 17th Lancers. See this article on the events. 

During the engagement Borrius saved Reitz’s life by shooting an English soldier through the head. He was Lt RB Sheridan and Reitz later found out that he was a cousin of Winston Churchill.

Lt RB Sheridan, whom Borrius shot through the head during the Battle of Modderfontein in 1901. Photo: samilitaryhistory.org

Sheridan twice rose to fire at Reitz, but missed. At his second attempt Reitz’s grazed his temple. He dropped out of sight, but being dazed was up again in a moment, swaying unsteadily on his feet, with his face streaming with blood, but still trying to level his rifle at Reitz. “Jack Borrius shot him through the brain. Another soldier fired several hasty rounds at me,” wrote Reitz, “and I put a bullet into his heel, which was protruding from behind the rock near which he was lying. The sudden shock made him leap up, and again Jack Borrius, who wonderfully quick, shot him dead as he rose.”

Sometime later, Reitz recalled, while they were in the Sunday River valley, Borrius and his detachment entered Bayville unopposed, but on their way back they fell foul of an English patrol and in the ensuing encounter a bullet had entirely blown away his left eye leaving nothing but a cavity filled with dried blood. “In addition his right hand was smashed to a pulp, but he had refused to be left behind and we found him lying in great pain, but determined to remain with the commando. The hand took a long time to heal and festered, but in spite of this he stayed with the commando.”

During this expedition he shot a Lord Vivian in the leg. According to his obituary Jack Borrius later became friends with Lord Vivian. “This so strangely and romantically began ripened into friendship and frequent communications passed between Mr Borrius and Lord Vivian in all the intervening years up to his death.”

His obituary states that one Boer War story not told of Borrius by Colonel Reitz happened on the farm Blyvooruitzicht during the obsequies (funeral) of Borrius’s grandmother, Mrs De Beer. “A British force appeared while the funeral was in progress and, probably not realising what was proceeding scattered the mourners with a few shots.”

“After the War Borrius returned to the farm at Blyvooruitzicht and when the First World War (then known as the Great War) broke out in 1914, he again saw active service, notwithstanding that he had only one eye. He was captured by the Germans and held prisoner, until liberated by the Union troops under the late General Louis Botha. Thereafter he served in East Africa until the end of the campaign, being present at many battles there.”

Borrius also worked as a stock inspector. He passed away in 1937 in Johannesburg. Pallbearers at his funeral included AS and AG Borrius (their relationship to Borrius was not explained in his obituary), LW Baker, husband of his sister Marie, Lex Malan (son of his sister Cobie), Mr Wronsley and Louis Gerger, who was the librarian of Potchefstroom and described as “a very old friend of the deceased gentleman”.

Apart from being the son of his famous father, Jack Borrius was also related to other well-known residents of Potchefstroom. His sister, Cobie, married Charles Malan, who was the first editor of De Westelike Stem, initially a Dutch, but later an Afrikaans newspaper, published by CV Bate, who also owned the Potchefstroom Herald. Charles Malan’s sister, Elisa Bosman, was the mother of the famous author Herman Charles Bosman.

The heading of this photograph, in possession of the archives of the Potchefstroom Museum, proclaims the Borrius family as the first permanent printers in the Transvaal, 1859-1899. At the back is Albert Scholten, Mrs Susanna Borrius and Jack Borrius. In the middle is Marie Baker, Johannes Philippus Borrius, Susan Bischoff. In front is Wimpie van der Korst (or Kast) and Cobie Malan. Photo: Potchefstroom Museum


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