The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man
This little stone cottage was destined for obscurity, just like tens of thousands of similar farmsteads across the face of South Africa. Destined to fall apart into a pile of stone. To be carted away to make a kraal or reused to make another dwelling. However – (through something of a fluke of history) this little farmstead gained renown thanks to the Battle of Majuba. It also won for itself ‘monument’ status and the attention of preservationists. Lucky little cottage indeed, for its humble proportions and modest construction hardly compares to other South African abodes of historic status. Mansions like ‘Groote Schuur’ and ‘Melrose House’ whose occupants equalled the grandeur of these structures.
One can only imagine the rural O’Neil family’s agitation and fear upon waking up on the morning of the 27th of February 1881. They could hear a fierce-some battle raging atop the mount near their home. Had they heard General George Pomeroy Colley and his thrown-together Natal Field Force blundering around in the dark as they stumbled up the precipitous slopes behind their home to the summit? The Times journalist, Thomas Fortescue Carter who accompanied the British force to the summit, related how the O’Neil’s dogs had barked noisily at their ascent. I was in the South African Defence Force for two years and remember a couple of exhausting night time route marches we were compelled to do – and I can well imagine what those ordinary soldiers said of their officers as they groped their way up Majuba in the dark. It is certain that those who survived the battle, cursed their offices roundly on their way back down again. Their General (unlike the ‘Grand Ol’ Duke of York’ who marched his soldiers up the hill) failed to march them back down again. Rather, he lay dead on the summit, with a bullet through his head.
(below) An illustration of the Natal Field Force at a forward picket braving driving rain of a Northern Natal thunderstorm. The misery is apparent.
(below) A studio photograph of a balding General George Pomeroy Colley in field dress, pith helmet and puttees.
The events of the next couple of months were going to swirl around the O’Neil family and push their humble home into the glare of public attention, then and forever after. Such are the strange twists of life, that one day you can be enjoying a cup of ‘moerkoffie’ and a rusk on your stoep, and the next day scores of soldiers are bleeding to death on your parlour floor. One month you can have your interfering mother-in-law come stay, and the next the British-hating nationalist and patriot Paul Kruger.
The month of February had not got off to a good start for Farmer O’Neil – for a night or so before the Battle of Majuba, several of his horses had wandered up the ridge behind his home, and a forward picket of Boers had mistakenly opened fire on the animals thinking them to be an advance scouting party of British troops, killing and wounding several horses. One may boldly assume that the O’Neil family were well aware of the presence of Boers in the district and on his farm. Where did Mr. O’Neil and his wife’s sympathies lie? More of the O’Neil’s loyalty to the Crown and his Colony later in this posting.
After the Battle of Majuba, many wounded British troops stumbled or where carried down the mount to the O’Neil’s farmstead where military doctors desperately tried to save their lives. O’Neil had sensibly taken his family and fled in the direction of Colley’s military camp at Mount Prospect.
(below) A photograph of the British military camp at Mount Prospect, several miles south of Majuba.
The wounded thought capable of surviving the bone-jolting journey by cart back to Fort Amiel and its hospital, were removed. Many did not survive the journey, and of those who did, their appalling injuries are detailed in the book ‘Surgical Experiences in the Zulu and Transvaal Wars, 1879 to 1881‘ by Surgeon D. Blair Brown. Oneil’s Cottage (like the Fort Amiel Hospital of which Brown writes) must have resounded to the groans and shrieks of men in terrible pain. Carter writes in his book the following… “Imagine the sufferings of those who had life left in them in being carried down off the mountain. I going to O’Neil’s farm, situated just at the base of the ridge from which the Highlanders and Rifles had been forced to retire, I found it converted into a temporary hospital. The owner had left it to take protection nearer our camp. The Red Cross was flying there, but as it was within range of the rifles of the Boers now occupying the ridge above, you had to approach the house cautiously. Every room was filled with wounded men. Commander Romilly, to my surprise still alive, was been carried on a stretcher from the dwelling as I entered.”
Three soldiers of the King’s Royal Rifles who died at O’Neil’s Cottage were buried in the orchard by their comrades just metres from the front door. Here they remain to this day in a small stone-walled graveyard, the orchard trees long gone.
(below) A photograph of the military graves of the three soldiers from the King’s Royal Rifles, with the barn in the background and Inkwelo Mountain in the distance.
(below) An early photograph of the cottage. The orchard to the front of the dwelling is visible in this image.
After the Battle of Majuba – most of the peace negotiations between Sir Evelyn Wood, Redvers Buller, General Petrus Johannes Joubert and Paul Kruger were conducted in this tiny dwelling. The inconvenience must have been enormous, especially for Mrs. O’Neil, and she no doubt was kept busy making cups of coffee and tea.
On the 21st of March 1881, a Peace agreement was signed by both parties, and Mrs. O’Neil had her house back to herself. Born Crouse to a Cape Dutch family, there is little speculation as to where her heart’s loyalties lay. However, married to an English-speaking man from the British Isles, and her being a citizen of the Colony of Natal and the British Crown – she would have been aware that the demonising of the British by generations of Boers did not bode well. Neither did the high-handed and imperious behaviour of much of the British ruling class. Nationalism is something of a high-spirited steed, that when given free rein, can take a rider on a wild gallop, or more frighteningly – on an uncontrollable bolt. Nationalism invariably leads to policies where those without, are daubed in the darkest of colours. The rivalry seeded by policies of hate and superiority were to spark into an even more deadly and ungodly conflict that was to rage past Mrs. O’Neil’s parlour door 18 years later. She and her husband embody all the ambivalence, internal conflict and contradiction so characteristic of South Africans. Any shallow understanding of our history, or any perception that we fit into neat and well-ordered pigeonholes is an error.
(above and below) A relief sculpture by the Dutch/ South African sculptor, Anton Van Wouw, detailing the Peace negotiations at O’Neil’s Cottage. And a comparative photograph of the parlour and fireplace below.
(above) A photograph of the furnished parlour at O’Neil’s Cottage.
(above) A portrait of Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Evelyn Wood in full-military dress. Any cursory reading of Wood’s books will reveal him to be a man of action and athleticism. Subject to his government back in Westminster, he had little choice but to sue for peace. A practical man, and conscious of the deadlier aspects of warmongering, he was able to negotiate a peace that many imperialists regarded as an embarrassing and unnecessary back-down. In can be argued that the policy-change from London merely delayed the conflict by 18 years.
(above) A powerful portrait of a full-bearded, steady-eyed and gallic-nosed General Petrus Johannes Joubert, taken in later life.
(above) A remarkable photograph of a relaxed, yet contemplative Paul Kruger in midlife. His often-remarked upon coarse features, untidiness and stubborn nature evident in this image. It would be foolish (as many imperialist did) to suppose Kruger to be too proverbially heavenly-minded for earthly good or for that matter slow-minded – for he was keenly political and strong-willed. He was strongly apposed in the Transvaal Republic by General Joubert, and none other than General De la Rey who regarded him as hawkishly and foolishly pro-war.
(below) A portrait of Sir Redvers Buller, who at the time was on the staff of Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Evelyn Wood. He was to make a return to Natal during the earlier stages of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War.
O’Neil’s Cottage was built in 1870 by its previous owner Peter A. Hayward de Barry. The De Barry family (of Irish origin) resided in the Newcastle District for many decades. Richard Astley Bannatyne de Barry owned the farm ‘Newton’ on the Incandu/ Ncandu River and also farmed near Botha’s Pass on the border with the Orange Free State. De Barry’s wife Bessy named the cottage ‘Rosedale’ in a typically British-fashion. Constructed of local and shaped stone, the corners of the walls are built of a lighter well-dressed stone and is of a larger size as was common in constructions at the time. The outer courses are of dressed stone, while the inner courses are of rough stone assembled with ‘daga’ (ant hill mud) and then plastered over. It is possible that the stone came from the small quarry that is situated on the southern slopes of Majuba Mountain. The dwelling is located on the saddle between Inkwelo and Majuba Mountains, on a sloping plot. Constructed in the form of a cross, the structure consists of a parlour with two adjoining and apposing rooms with wooden floors. A kitchen and passage is positioned to the rear of the abode with solid floors.
The Parlour has a fireplace and a chimney of brick. The kitchen has its own fireplace and chimney at the rear of the building. The De Barry’s had a cross motif built into the facing pediment of lighter stone, giving the front aspect something of the look of a small country church. A stoep is located to the front of the building with a sloping lean-to roof and surrounded by a wooden picket-like balustrade. Six stone stairs lead to the stoep, although these are not the original stairs from 1881 which were of a more rustic nature. From an 1881 illustration, it is apparent that the dwelling was initially thatched, although from the time of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War it was roofed in corrugated iron. The cottage was surrounded by a dry-stone wall to protect the garden and orchard from straying animals.
And this is where I want to introduce you to Richard Charles O’Neil, whose cottage gained eternal fame, but not necessarily himself. I don’t believe anyone would want to be eclipsed by their dwelling, and so I want to write something about Richard and his family, who lived at the farm ‘Stonewall’ at the time of the Battle of Majuba. In subsequent years to the battle, just about everyone who drifted through Newcastle on their way to the Transvaal, stopped over to visit the mount. Many knocked on the O’Neil’s door for advice and succour. What he felt about all these visitors tramping over his paddocks and wandering through his orchard we can only guess at. Richard appears in several photographs taken of his house by tourists, so he had some awareness of his personal connection to the battle, cottage and farm.
Richard Charles O’Neil was named after his father who was a non-commissioned officer in the British Army in India. Richard (senior) had been born in Belfast, Ireland, on and around the year 1774. In the late 1700’s, soldiers would often be accompanied by their wives and children to their postings in India. Richard’s wife Ellen Magdalene Quigley was no different. They left Ireland leaving two of their children behind in Ireland, namely Patrick O’Neil and Bridget O’Neil. After Serving for some time in India as a Sergeant, Richard’s regiment was posted to the Cape Of Good Hope in 1818 to the Eastern Cape where the frontier was troubled by conflict between the Xhosa and the British and Dutch Colonists. On the sea voyage to the Cape, a son was born to Richard and his wife on the 7 January 1818 and named John James O’Neil. John was later to settle in the Eastern Transvaal and founded the town of Belfast which he named after his father’s birth place. Richard joined the Royal African Corps which was disbanded in the year 1821. He then got permission to stay-on in the Cape. A third son was born on the 11 November 1826 at Uitenhage and named after his father and baptised Richard Charles O’Neil. It was Richard (junior) who was to be the owner of O’Neil’s Cottage at the time of the 1st and 2nd Anglo-Boer Wars. A 4th son was born and named Morris Peter Quigley O’Neil. In the early 1830’s the family journeyed into the hinterland, residing at Uitenhage, Graaff Reinet and then Winburg in the Orange Free State. According to Dr. Owen Rowe O’Neil (a grandson of the original O’Neil) the family left the Cape with the original Voortrekkers. The family then moved to Kroonstad, and later still to Utrecht. Then crossing into Natal to Ladysmith in the 1860’s. The O’Neil family then purchased the farm ‘Kappock Poorte’ (Snow Portal) north of Majuba Mountain and renamed this farm ‘Belfast’ (4043 acres) in 1864.
Richard Charles O’Neil (junior) must have returned to the Cape for he married a Dutch woman (Elizabetha Maria Crause) in 1848 in Uitenhage when he was 22 years old. All their children were baptised between 1848 and 1867 at Uitenhage in the Cape. In 1878 he finally settled on the small farm ‘Stonewall’ at the foot of Mount Majuba.
It is evident that the O’Neil family in their journey across the face of South Africa had gradually ‘Afrikaanised’ themselves. Both older sons had married Cape-Dutch women and John James O’Neil’s descendants accounted themselves to be Boers and Burghers of the Republics. Like many South African families, dual ancestry is not uncommon, with some families assimilating to one culture or the other, and often reverting again. Most families simply remain a combination of both, embodying aspects of both. I write this for it is recorded that a Roman Catholic priest from Pietermaritzburg visited Richard Charles O’Neil (senior) in 1864/1865 at his farm ‘Belfast’ when Richard was 90 years old. The priest Fr. Justin Barret related how happy the old couple were to receive him, for they had not seen a priest in over 20 years. This (like his surname) would indicate that the O’Neil’s had come from a Roman Catholic background back in Ireland. What his strictly Calvinistic in-laws and community made of this is anyone’s guess. However, Fr. Barret was most dismayed to see the conditions that old Richard and his wife were living in. Evidently they were residing in a hut which was in a broken-down condition and open to the elements, while only yards away their son John James O’Neil resided in relative opulence in the farmstead. Several days after this visit, Richard senior died at ‘Belfast’ and no doubt his remains lie buried on this farm. John James O’Neil and his brother Morris Peter Quigley O’Neil sold up in Natal in the 1870’s and moved into the Transvaal near Lydenburg, leaving their brother Richard behind in Natal.
Richard’s daughter Elizabeth Maria O’Neil married Daniel McDuling, who was also of Irish descent. Several McDuling’s are buried at ‘Stonewall’ in the small family graveyard behind O’Neil’s Cottage. Another daughter Gertruida Sophia O’Neil married into the Coenradie (Conradie) family and they too are represented in the graveyard.
(above and below) An elderly Richard Charles O’Neil poses in front of his home for the photographer.
In 1901, during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War, Richard was arrested by the British Authorities and charged with treason. This after a Boer commando attacked a train near his farm. The excerpt above is from the West Australian Newspaper, 5 April 1901. This clearly indicates that the British and Natal Authorities did not fully trust his loyalty to the Crown. O’Neil was certainly no lover of the British. A telling record is that of Times Journalist Thomas Fortescue Carter who wrote in his book ‘A narrative of the Boer War’ that it was well known that Boer scouts would come down to the O’ Neil’s at night for information. In Rosamund Southey’s book ‘Storms and Sunshine in South Africa’ she relates the following about O’Neil when traversing the area in a train before the 2nd Boer War… “O’Neil’s Farm, where the peace was signed, was also pointed out to me, and when she was last in South Africa, Maggie saw O’Neil, a rough-looking man, who was married to a Dutchwoman and had become a regular Boer. Maggie was told that after the first Boer War, English feeling was so strong against O’Neil, that he was shunned by everyone about him“. No doubt his Irish antipathy towards the English had born bitter fruits.
Richard Charles O’Neil (junior) died on the 14th of August 1907, and his wife Elizabetha earlier in 1902. They are both buried in the O’Neil Family graveyard at the rear of their home. Their cottage survives as a landmark, national monument and museum.
A drawing (above and below) of Majuba and surrounds. O’Neil’s Farm lies in the middle ground, labelled as no. 3 in the top image. In the image below – O’Neil’s farmstead is visible in the middle ground to the right of the drawing.
(above and below) Two comparative images of O’Neil’s Cottage and Majuba Mountain. The layer of sandstone that lies above the farmstead gives a clue to the naming of the farm ‘Stonewall’. The image below is by the well-known Dutch/South African artist Pierneef. He painted Majuba Mountain and ‘Stonewall Farm’ but for some reason only known to the artist, decided to capture the barn but not the cottage. In this well-known painting, the artist contrasts the cheery and warm sunlit foreground with the grey and foreboding presence of the mount in the background.
(above) An artist’s image (1881) of O’Neil’s Cottage showing British and Boer negotiators standing around the cottage in conversation. In this image it is apparent that the cottage was originally thatched. In latter years the dwelling was roofed in corrugated-iron sheeting.
(above) In this image from 1881 – the major negotiators for peace after the ‘Transvaal War’ (1st Anglo-Boer War) were photographed to the fore of the cottage during the second conference in March.
(above and below) A photograph of O’Neil’s Cottage showing the Barn and Wagon House in the foreground. In the background is Majuba. A comparative photograph I took of O’Neil’s Cottage and Barn. Note how the upper slopes are now clad in the invasive Australian Black Wattle tree.
(above and below) An old photograph of O’Neil’s Cottage looking south and a comparative contemporary photograph below.
(above and below) A rear view of O’Neil’s Cottage showing the kitchen door and the access into the loft.
(above and below) The eastern side of O’Neil’s Cottage.
In 2013, restorative work was commenced on O’Neils Cottage. The structure was in a sad state of neglect. having been built on a slope, the surrounds to the dwelling had gradually eroded, creating a doming effect and therefore movement in the subsoil and subsequent structural cracking of the walls. A remedy was suggested in that the surrounds to the house receiving a paved or concreted watershed.
After visiting the site, it appears to me that the probable reason for this deterioration was the removal of the stone garden walls, the front garden terrace which is evident in early images and the garden of shrubs and trees that historically stabilised the plot thus preventing erosion of the soil. The re-erecting of the dry-stone walls to their historical positions, as well as the replanting of the orchard by conservators would go a long way to securing the site and returning O’Neil’s Cottage to its former aspect. At present the building appears to be disconnected from its surrounds, and exposed in a fashion that does not lend authenticity to its function as a historical farmstead.
Graham Leslie McCallum
O’Neil’s Cottage, 1926.
(above and below) Two comparative photographs of the frontage to the cottage.
(above and below) Comparative images of the frontage.