In 1806 the British expanded their colonial empire by acquiring the Cape Province territory of South Africa. To escape from British rule, many Boer farmers migrated northeast during the Great Trek of 1835-1838, founding the republics of the Orange Free State, Natal, and the Transvaal. British settlers continued to pour in, taking over not only commerce but the gold mines as well. The Boer government retaliated by refusing citizenship to the unwanted “Uitlanders” and taxing them so heavily that Britain sent troops to protect the rights of its nationals.
When Great Britain refused to withdraw the soldiers, both Transvaal and the Orange Free State declared war on Britain on October 12, 1899. Churchill, then a 24-year-old journalist for the London Morning Post, was assigned as war correspondent and immediately dispatched to South Africa. Landing at Durban, the young reporter joined infantry companies based at the tiny mining community of Estcourt, 70 miles away. They were engaged in making reconnaissance forays toward Boer-occupied territory aboard an armored train nicknamed Wilson’s Death Trap. Shortly after Churchill’s arrival, the train was ambushed and he was taken prisoner.
Prior to his capture Churchill had actively taken part in the futile efforts by the British troops to break free of the barricades the Boers had placed on the rails. Consequently, the Boers ignored his vigorous protests that he was just a civilian noncombatant. Sent to a holding compound for prisoners of war at the State Model Schools in Pretoria, Churchill continued to claim he was being unjustly held, but to no avail. Three weeks later, on December 11, Churchill drafted a unique letter addressed to the Transvaal government. In it he promised them he would be leaving “hastily and unceremoniously,” and at the same time he expressed his deepest appreciation for the kindness his captors had shown him during his brief imprisonment. On the following night, he escaped.
During his captivity Churchill had carefully studied the Boer security precautions for the enclosure. On two sides of the school grounds a 3-metre high corrugated iron fence had been erected, and the other two sides were protected by a solid wall topped with ornamental ironwork. Inside this perimeter, Boer sentries were posted 50 metres apart. Powerful floodlights illuminated every building and the entire area inside the perimeter—except at one point, spotted by the sharp-eyed Churchill. Near one wall, a short section lay in partial shadow cast by a circular lavatory. Choosing the precise moment when both sentries simultaneously turned their backs on him, Churchill scaled the wall and went down into the garden of the villa next door. He then just walked out through the garden gate, passing within 5 metres of the nearest camp sentry, and entered the suburbs of Pretoria.
Shortly after his escape a £25 reward was posted for his recapture — dead or alive. Ahead, Churchill faced 300 miles of hostile Boer country before he would reach neutral ground at Delagoa Bay in Portuguese East Africa. It was a journey he planned to complete without map or compass, at night, and unable to speak a word of either Dutch or Xhosa, the native dialect. A half mile south of the camp, Churchill came to a railroad track. Blindly, he elected to turn left. Evading the Boer pickets who had been placed at the bridge trestles, he stumbled along for two hours until he reached a station. He hid near its platform for another hour, then jumped aboard a train that stopped momentarily to unload goods. Once inside, he went to sleep on a pile of coal sacks. At the first light, aware that he would be retaken if he waited until the train reached its destination and was unloaded, he leaped off and went to the east, in the direction of the sunrise.
Sleeping by day, Churchill went on at night through the swamps, the high grasses, and across the shallow streams paralleling the rail line. With amazing determination he plodded along until he finally saw lights, which turned out to be the furnace fires from the Transvaal Collieries, a coal mine. He knocked on the door of a house at the minehead. Churchill was reluctantly allowed in by the occupant, who was somewhat startled by his unannounced visitor. At first claiming he had fallen from the train, Churchill finally confessed that he was an escaped prisoner and asked for help. He was amazed to learn that he had chosen the only British-occupied house for 20 miles around. The mine’s manager, John Howard, agreed to hide Churchill, although it meant he would be shot for treason if he were caught. Quickly, he hustled Churchill down the main shaft of the mine and left him there for two days, providing him from time to time with food and water.
Further arrangements were made with a Dutchman named Charles A. Burnham, who was sympathetic to the British, to transport Churchill to Delagoa Bay, hidden among the bales of wool being loaded on a freight car. The train eventually arrived in Komatipoort, the Boer frontier station, then reached Lourenço Marques, in Portuguese territory. After three days Churchill left his hiding place on the train and followed Burnham, who was waiting for him, to the British consulate.
There he overcame his final obstacle — the consulate secretary. Advised by the irritated civil servant to come back later, at a more appropriate hour, Churchill lost his temper and demanded to see the consul. One mention of his name was enough to gain an immediate audience. By the time Churchill returned to Durban he had become a popular hero. The escape brought him instant recognition, embarking him upon the notorious political career that eventually led to his fame as one of the 20th century’s greatest statesmen and politicians.
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