Lambert Colyn: a rebel with a price

Lambert or Lemeul Colyn of Afgunst, Piketberg was a hanger-on in the outskirts of the Smuts Commando and known to Theron's Commando as Oom Willie. Colyn's son Piet was also a rebel in Maritz's Commando. Consequently when Colyn snr approached Cmdt Ben Bouwer and asked to join his commando near Van Rhynsdorp on 10 February 1902, he was accepted as a matter of course. None of the Boers, apparently not even his son, was aware that Colyn had been recruited by Lieut-Col CM Kavanagh of the 10th Hussars to betray the whereabouts of Bouwer's Commando. Colyn, who had been instructed by Kavanagh to spend a week with Bouwer's Commando, had joined the Boers when the commando divided into three detachments and advanced from the vicinity of Van Rhynsdorp to a new position along the Olifants River, as they planned to harass the Clanwilliam garrison. Bouwer, with V/C Peter Visser, was camped at Krantz on the Olifant's River. In the early hours a picket under Cpl Meiert Avis told Bouwer that he could hear a mounted force approaching. When Bouwer warned his men they discovered that Colyn was missing and what appeared to be a sleeping form was in reality a blanket roll. They knew they had been betrayed.
Cmdt Bouwer escaped, but ten of his officers were captured and because the Hussars wielded sabres the sounds did not carry and the rest of the Boers nearby did not come to their aid. Bouwer regrouped and began hunting for Colyn, determined to punish him for his treachery. Their chance came when the Boers captured the Windhoek farmhouse on the Clanwilliam road. The fight between the Cape Police and the Boer forces had been hard fought; both suffered casualties of four killed or died of wounds. The most severely wounded was Gen Jaap van Deventer who had collapsed with a bullet through his throat, jaw and tongue. After the police had surrendered, Colyn was discovered in front of the fire in the Windhoek kitchen.
Gen Smuts convened a court martial at Aties the following day, 25 February 1902. Other members of the Court were Cmdt L Boschoff, V/C C Brink and C van der Westhuizen. Colyn made a full confession in which he admitted that he had joined the commando with the intention of spying on them and reporting their whereabouts. He detailed the places he had visited and gave the names of the people who interviewed him. He stated that he slipped away from the commando and told a man called Bennet where the Boers were camping. The confession does not mention what reward he was to be paid for the information or what benefits he was promised. Neither is there any reference to a reward being paid out.
A document by Cmdt Bouwer was included with the confession. Bouwer stated that Colyn informed him that he joined the Boers because the British suspected him of being a spy, and he pitied Colyn because the British had nearly apprehended him. The verdict, signed by Gen Smuts, said that Lambert Colyn was unanimously found guilty of espionage, and that he was condemned to death by shooting on 25 February 1902. The execution took place a few hours later.(1) His son Piet remained on commando and laid down arms at Clanwilliam at the end of the war, which seems to imply that he was too frightened of Smuts to complain about his father's execution or that the facts spoke for themselves.(2)
This was certainly not the first execution of renegade Boers. De la Rey had ordered the capture of a National Scout patrol near Ventersdorp, and, after a hearing, P de Bruin and JAB de Beer were executed near Lapfontein on 27 December 1900. But it appears that Colyn was the first white Cape colonist to be executed by Boer forces. Colyn was a spy, that is clear, but was he a rebel? Smuts, who was president of the Court that tried him in 'The State versus Lambert Colyn' was clearly aware that the execution might prove controversial as nobody had addressed the Court in Colyn's defence, nor in mitigation of sentence. The Transvaal was a state in name only, and it was probably Smuts who insisted on the precaution that the names of the execution squad remain secret, as they have never been revealed.(3)
Thirty years later when Denys Reitz published 'Commando' he omitted to mention that Colyn had had a trial because, as the text read, it seemed that Smuts had ordered Colyn to be executed without due process. The controversy that arose from the matter appeared to have more to do with the quarrels between the various political parties in the 1930s than the South African War.(4)
1 NAR, Smuts Papers, A1, Vol C1, Notebook c of 1902, item 41, 'Trial of Lambert Colyn'.
2 CAR, AG 2116, sentenced under Proclamation 100 of 1902 at Clanwilliam.
3 Shearing, General Jan Smuts and his Long Ride, p174.
4 Deneys Reits, Commando, a Boer Journal of the Boer War, p293.

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