This is Willie Steyn’s first-hand account of what was undoubtedly the great escape of the Anglo-Boer War.
The author was one of six hundred Boer prisoners sent by ship to the island of Ceylon to be interned in the Diyatalawa prisoner-of-war camp. While their ship was anchored in Colombo harbour on a dark, moonless night, Steyn and four of his fellow prisoners lowered themselves into the sea, each waiting until his predecessor had got away undetected by the guards on board and in vessels patrolling around the ship. These ‘five swimmers’ (as they were later described by President Paul Kruger) were picked up and taken on board by a Russian ship at anchor in the harbour.
The Russians fêted them as honorary first-class passengers, and protected them even after they had gone ashore at Theodosia in the Crimea. From there they travelled to St Petersburg, Berlin, Utrecht, The Hague and Amsterdam. After a short stay in Amsterdam, they sailed under assumed names, on a German ship, from Hamburg to German West Africa. From there they trekked, with considerable difficulty, to South Africa, where Willie Steyn joined up with the Maritz and Smuts commandos in the Cape Colony during the guerrilla phase of the war.
Steyn concludes with a humorous account of consternation in Colombo, when incredulous British officers discovered that five of their prisoners had escaped – something they had not thought possible.
The charm of Steyn’s personal account lies in its understatement and its matter-of-fact simplicity. He does not portray himself as a hero, nor does he lay any claim to fame, but his account gathers intensity and force as the story progresses.
Willie Steyn was intent on escape from the moment he was taken into captivity, and the reader experiences a corresponding intensity, encountering Willie as a free spirit throughout his captivity and his protracted journey home.
Deneys Reitz – author of Commando and well known for his own bravery – called Steyn ‘one of our bravest men’, and described Steyn’s escape as ‘a deed that is in my opinion without equal in the history of escape’.