The iron forts of the Zoutpansberg
This article was first published in the Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa 74, 01 (June 2020): pages 3-8, and is reproduced here with permission of the Editor.
The town of Louis Trichardt, lying just 115 kilometres south of the border with Zimbabwe at Beitbridge, is home to a fascinating relic of a bygone era. The Makhado Local Municipality is the custodian of what the Heritage Monitoring Project describes as probably “the only extant iron fort that remains in South Africa.”1 Fort Hendrina, dating from the interbellum days in the South African Republic, is a grade II provincial heritage site as well as a national heritage site but apparently not in good condition. It may be unique: possibly the only example of its kind anywhere in the world.
The fort was procured for the South African Republic (Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek) by unlikely means. Captain Adolph Zbořil, an Austrian whose father had owned a wood and steel trading company, had travelled with his brother, Joseph to the Transvaal late in the 1870s.2 Adolph became a merchant in the Cape, while Joseph is reported to have fought with the British in the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879 before travelling to Johannesburg.
On 8 February 1886 Adolph successfully applied for the position of captain and administrator of the Transvaal Artillery and this appointment was confirmed in July of that year. At this time the Artillery, led by Commandant Henning Pretorius, consisted of no more than about a dozen guns, a handful of fellow officers and only 120 of lesser rank. Captain Zbořil—who had received three years training with the Austrian military—set about immediately re-organising the artillery and improving its capability.
Among Zbořil’s more interesting contributions to South African military history were his ideas and designs for three octagonal yzeren forten (iron forts). Zbořil had them made, indubitably in Austria, and shipped to South Africa. The individual armour plates, while necessarily heavy, were nonetheless light enough for two soldiers to carry the plates individually and the octagonal forts could be assembled comparatively easily.3 The sections of the forts arrived in April 1888 and were soon put to use. Around twenty-five men were stationed at one of these, named Fort Hendrina,4 and this garrison was later increased to 100 mounted troops.5
At that time the Boer leaders in the district were engaged with Makhado 6—the local vhaVenda ruler—in an ongoing dispute over taxes based on the extent of his land as determined by the Native Location Commission. Makhado consistently resisted the Commission’s insistence that he recognise the boundaries the Commission had allotted him. He also refused a census count of his people or to pay the taxes the Commission tried to levy in terms of these.7 The conflict grew in intensity after Makhado’s death in September 1895, when his son, Mphephu took over leadership of the vhaVenda.8
The iron forts played an integral part in the campaign mounted by the local commando against the vhaVenda and the fortifications were moved to where they were most required.9 With Swazi and Shangaan help, the whites were finally victorious.10 On 16 November 1898 the vhaVenda—who had resisted for so long—were defeated. The Vierkleur was planted on a rock in front of Mphephu’s palace. Prisoners of war were taken to Pretoria. The conflict had taken a heavy toll on the vhaVenda who lost some 550 people in the fighting.11
With the conflict at an end, the iron forts were redundant. One of them— being used as an ammunition store—was blown to smithereens, killing five, when somebody dropped a shell stored inside in 1899, detonating the explosives.12
When the Anglo-Boer war erupted later that year, Fort Hendrina was still in the town of Louis Trichardt.13 The town was captured by the British on 9 May 1901.14
Fort Hendrina was then moved to Lovedale Park, near Elim (about 23 kilometres south of Louis Trichardt) and renamed Fort Edward in honour of the British King Edward VII. Among the forces who were stationed at the fort were the Bushveldt Carbineers. It was in this area that the infamous incident in which Lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant and Lieutenant Peter Hancock killed a wounded prisoner of war, as well as civilians in revenge for the apparent mutilation of the body of one of their officers. They were convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad.15
When the war was over, Fort Edward (formerly Fort Hendrina), near Elim was used as a prison for a brief period. According to the journalist Anthony van Zyl: “In 1909, the site where the fort was situated was used by the South African Constabulary and it was decided to alienate the land. Several other buildings, including stables and a jail, were erected.”16
Others, however, have convincing evidence that put the date several years earlier. The fort was handed over to the Constabulary in 1904 17 when Fort Edward was already in use as a prison, housing initially thirty-two prisoners.18
The photograph featured above (with its original, terse caption: “The ‘Trunk.’ Native Prison”) and the two that follow were taken during the peri- od Fort Edward was a prison.19 The term “trunk” was an anglicisation of the Dutch (and later Afrikaans) word “tronk” meaning a prison or dungeon. By October 1905, the Constabulary wrote to the Commissioner for Lands requesting two additional movable cells: one to house black women, the other for white women, and these were duly delivered.
Two years later, a medical officer at the Fort submitted a medical report detailing the miserable conditions under which the prisoners were held. The original circular iron building measured 30 feet (9 metres) in diameter with a clay floor. Air circulated via a narrow opening between the roof and the walls as well as through the holes in the metal walls formerly used as gun loops when the building functioned as a military fort. With iron being an effective conductor of heat and cold, the prisoners would have experienced freezing winter nights and unbearably hot summer days in these buildings.
The second photograph (above) shows two prisoners engaged in hard labour under the eye of a black overseer. The original annotation claims they were “dangerous criminals handcuffed and leg-ironed together.” These prisoners were tasked with rolling a large and formidably heavy rock.
The third photograph (below) shows a large gang of prisoners who had also been sentenced to hard labour, this time watched by an armed white supervisor. This group were preparing to dig a precautionary trench or system of trenches to provide shelter from enemy fire, although the hostilities of the Anglo-Boer War had ceased with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902, at least two years prior to this photograph.
In 1909 the land on which Fort Edward stood was expropriated to make way for a police station comprising a number of buildings. The last known documentation on the operations of Fort Edward is dated 22 March 1910.
In 1969, the fort was donated to the Municipality of Louis Trichardt 20 and moved to the site in the town where it still stands. On 23 April 1971, it was proclaimed a national heritage site.21
1“Fort Hendrina, Makhado, Limpopo” The Heritage Portal [online resource] http://www.theheritageportal.co.za/article/2017-most-endangered-cultural-herit- age-sites-south-africa-announced.
2Erwin A. Schmidt, “Adolph Zboril: An Austrian Officer in the Transvaal Artil- lery” Scientia Militaria: South African Journal of Military Studies 18, 2 (1988): 47.
3Anton van Zyl, “The Story of the Zoutpansberg’s Last Three Forts” Zoutpans- berger: News with an Independent Soul (29 September 2017) [online resource] https://www.zoutpansberger.co.za/articles/news/44226/2017-09-29/the- story-of-the-zoutpansbergas-last-three-forts. Johann W N Tempelhoff, Townspeople of the Soutpansberg: A Centenary History of Louis Trichardt, (1889-1999) (Louis Trichardt: Greater Louis Trichardt Traditional Local Council, 1999), 31.
4Fort Hendrina was named after Hendrina Susanna Johanna, the wife of Gen- eral Petrus (“Piet”) Jacobus Joubert, Commandant General of the South African Republic.
5Tempelhoff, Townspeople of the Soutpansberg, 40. The origin of Fort Hendrina’s name is inscribed on a plaque placed on the fort by the National Monuments Coun- cil in 1978. The other two forts were Fort Botha and Fort Schutte.
6Makhado (c.1839-3 September 1895) was the Khosi (leader) of the Singo or Vhasenzi dynasty of the vhaVenda, ruling over the Dzanani district of the Soutpans- berg region of South Africa.
7Van Zyl, “The Story of the Zoutpansberg’s Last Three Forts” [online resource]. Lindsay Frederick Braun, “The Returns of the King: The Case of Amphophil and Western Venda, 1899–1904” Journal of Southern African Studies 39, 2 (2013): 275. Johann Tempelhoff and Henry Nemudzivadi [Nemudzivhadi], “Riding the Storm of Change: Makhado, Venda and the South African Republic (1863-1895)” New Contree 45 (September 1999): 111-114 in particular.
8Khosi Mphephu Alilali Tshilamulela (c.1869-1924) succeeded his father as ruler until his death in 1924.
9Mphaya Henry Nemudzivhadi, “The Conflict between Mphephu and the South African Republic, 1895-1899” Thesis (MA), University of South Africa, 1978, 130.
10Nemudzivhadi, “Conflict,” 145.
11Nemudzivhadi, “Conflict,” 174.
12Tempelhoff, Townspeople of the Soutpansberg, 46.
13Van Zyl, “The Story of the Zoutpansberg’s Last Three Forts” [online resource].
14Tempelhoff, Townspeople of the Soutpansberg, 46.
15Tempelhoff, Townspeople of the Soutpansberg, 48-53.
16Van Zyl, “The Story of the Zoutpansberg’s Last Three Forts” [online resource].
17Pétria Engelbrecht, “Fort Hendrina” Thesis (BA Honours), University of Pre- toria, 1990, 46-47.
18Engelbrecht, “Fort Hendrina,”
19The photographs were purchased on eBay which regrettably did not accorded them any provenance.
20Van Zyl, “The Story of the Zoutpansberg’s Last Three Forts” [online resource].
21“Declaration of a National Monument” Government Gazette, 3072-648 (23 April 1971) South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) [online resource] http s://sahris.sahra.org.za/sites/default/f iles/gazettes/30 72- 648%20Fort%20Hendrina%2C%20Louis%20Trichardt%2C%20Soutpansberg.p df