Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Wheels of Justice in 1652 - The Story of Jan Blanx Part 1

On this day in 1652, some 355 years ago, an entry was made in Jan van Riebeeck's diary concerning punishment meted out to one of the men under his command at the fledgling settlement at the Cape. It makes for interesting reading - they certainly did not mess around with discipline in those days!

The full entry for the day reads (the square brackets are my own inserts):

" 8th July 1652
Fine, bright, sunny weather, wind as yesterday [gentle north westerly breeze]. Have once more had some carrot seed sown in the soil prepared for it. These last 7 or 8 days of dry weather have again made the ground so hard that picks and mattocks can hardly penetrate the surface. This makes the digging of the moats and the filling up of the points and the ramparts [of the fort] slow and irksome work.

Today Jan Planx, arquebusier on the yacht Goede Hoope, for having wilfully and petulantly defied the captain, was condemned and sentenced by the Council to fall from the yard-arm and receive 50 lashes, as can be seen more fully in the sentence book under today's date."
An arquebusier was a soldier who carried a gun or arquebus, the forerunner of a musket or rifle.

This sentence was not a pleasant one by any means but this did not seem to deter our Jan, who did not appear to be a happy sort of a chap. His hair raising experience dangling from the yard-arm of the yacht did little to prevent him getting himself into hot water again. In little over 2 months he was one of four men who absconded from the settlement at the Cape of Good Hope. On Wednesday 25th September 1652 our Jan (in this entry his surname is spelt Blanx) together with Willem Huijtjens of Maestricht, a sailor; Gerrit Dirckssen van Eltsen of Maestricht and Jan Janssen [later called Verdonck] of Leijden both soldiers "departed from the Cabo de boa Esperance in the evening and headed for Mozambique." This quest was, to say the least, quite ambitious seeing that the distance they had to travel was in the region of 1622kms or 1008 miles, and that is as the crow flies! They took with them 4 biscuits, fish, 4 swords, 2 pistols and a dog and set off on this epic journey which, alas, lasted all of 6 days. It is not surprising that things got a bit rough for these lads because within 7 miles of the Fort they were charged by two rhinoceroses and lost a sword. Before that their dog had chased a porcupine and was wounded in the neck. According to the journal kept by Jan Blanx and later copied into the journal of Jan van Riebeeck, the 4 deserters marched about 25 miles altogether, facing many dangers along the way, before reaching what is believed to be the Hottentots Holland mountains near Gordon's Bay on the 29th September. Jan Blanx writes [we were]"intending to cross the mountains. When we did not meet with much success, Jan Verdonck [Janssen] and Willem Huijtjens began to repent. Nevertheless on the the 30th we continued until the afternoon, when Gerrit also grew tired. I could not manage by myself, so decided to return to the Fort in the hope of receiving ''compassion and mercy'. In God's name."

Fat chance of that I'm afraid. Although they all surprisingly escaped the death penalty, their punishment was extremely harsh. The entry for 10th October 1652 states that Jan Janssen (or Verdonck), who it turns out was the first to suggest absconding, was "to be tied to a pole and have a bullet fired over his head. Jan Blanx, the guide is to be keelhauled. Also to receive one hundred and fifty lashes, and in addition, together with Jan van Leijen [Verdonck], to work as a slave in fetters for 2 years doing the common and all other dirty work. Willem Huitjens and Gerrit Dirckssen van Eltsen, who allowed themselves to be persuaded by Jan van Leijen to abscond are only sentenced to 2 years in fetters as above." The sentences were carried out the very next day.

One wonders if Jan Blanx survived being keelhauled in the freezing October waters of Table Bay when the water temperature would have been about 13 degrees Celcius and if he did, what he must have looked like after 150 lashes to his body. I have yet to see any further mention of him in the translated diary - will let you know if I do.

The above extracts are taken from the Journal of Jan Van Riebeeck Volume 1 - edited by H B Thom for The Van Riebeeck Society and published by A A Balkema, Cape Town, 1952. Well worth reading!

I also used the following websites in my research:
Distance between destinations

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