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Portrait of Sarah Gertrude Millin by Irma Stern


UPDATED: 06/07/2022

6 July 1858, The battle of Slypklip where Kausob defeated by a Boer commando.
6 July 1968, Author Sarah Gertrude Millin (pictured) dies.

The colourful and dramatic Sarah Millin
(All below from the publication “Petticoat Pioneers” written by Maureen Rall and published by the Kimberley Africana Library. If you believe there are errors please do advise the Africana Library and state your primary source for the correct information. They will be delighted to correct any error as long as it is proven.)

Sarah Gertrude Millin was born in Lithuania on 10 March 1888, in a village consisting of a few hundred Jewish inhabitants who lived in constant fear of pogroms. Her father, quietly spoken, handsome Isaiah Liebson, was a merchant and her mother, Olga, from whom she inherited much of her personality, was colourful and dramatic.


Sarah Gertrude Millin

The family came to South Africa in August 1888 and made their way to the diamond fields where Olga’s father financed a small shop in Beaconsfield. They moved into lodgings and settled down to earn a modest living.

Shortly after Sarah’s 6th birthday in 1894, the family moved to the river diggings at Waldeck’s Plant near Kimberley where Isaiah was able to acquire trading, water and ferry rights along a section of the Vaal River. Sarah, who had started school in Beaconsfield, now became a pupil of the Waldeck’s Plant School. The life of the diggers contrasted greatly with that of the Liebsons who were cultured people with a great love of learning. The miscegenation she observed there and the drunkenness and sloth were to find a place in her novels.

At the age of 8 her parents decided to send her to Kimberley to attend the Kimberley Girls School while living with cousins of Olga’s. The child travelled on her own, arranged for music lessons and bought her own school uniform and she declared that, “By the time I was eight, indeed, I attended to practically all my own affairs and as I grew up, I attended to other people’s affairs.” Her relatives, though kind enough, had no idea of the fears of children. The worst part of living there was that they insisted that she sleep with her window open and her vivid imagination conjured up a Coloured man, huge and toothless, the true stuff of nightmares. Her lifelong insomnia started here and she later wrote in her autobiography, The Measure of My Days, that, “I don’t sleep as much in a week as the average person sleeps in two days…. some nights I don’t sleep at all.”

In 1918 Sarah’s relatives went to Europe and she arranged to live with a school friend. Although she liked the family, life in the overcrowded little house eventually became too much and she escaped to a boarding house. But, as she said, her sleep was murdered, and she wrote her matric exams in a haze of weariness. Nevertheless, she was the only girl at her school to obtain a first-class pass that year and received the highest marks of any girl in the entire Cape Colony. Although she won a scholarship to attend the South African College, she decided to remain in Kimberley and study music. She soon realised her mistake, as she had no real aptitude for music, but she did qualify as a music teacher in 1906.

She then returned to Waldeck’s Plant where she ordered Arnold Bennett’s How to become an author, but finding his instruction inadequate, enrolled in a correspondence course which in turn was of little use. Perhaps this was as well, and may account for the freshness and originality of her writing. It may also be the cause of some stylistic flaws, as she tended to pay little attention to character development.

Nevertheless, the stories are on the whole well-constructed and oddly compelling.

In 1909 Sarah met Philip Millin at the seaside resort of Muizenburg, and they were married on 1 December 1912, after which they lived in Johannesburg. She only returned to Kimberley twice, the second time for her father’s funeral.

She was a prolific writer. Her first novel, The Dark River, which was written in 1916 and was followed by God’s Stepchildren in 1922, followed by The Sons of Mrs Aab in 1931, dealt with miscegenation. She wrote a two-volume biography of General Smuts, a major work and to her the most rewarding, the first volume of her autobiography The Night is Long and between 1944 and 1948 wrote her six war diaries.

1952 was a year of honour and despair. She published a novel, The Burning Man, and was honoured by the University of the Witwatersrand which conferred an Honorary Doctorate in Literature upon her. But her beloved husband died that year and she never recovered from the blow. She felt that with him she had lost her life and withdrew from social life, lived alone and wrote the second volume of her autobiography, the record of her life with him.

Sarah Gertrude Millin outlived her husband by 15 years, becoming ever more eccentric. Fay Jaff wrote that she became difficult socially, talking incessantly, monopolizing all conversations and phoning her friends late at night or at the crack of dawn. She was demanding and even aggressive.

Her last book, White Africans are also People, was published in 1966 and in 1967, in her eightieth year, she began work on another non-fiction work, Time no longer. Her British publishers rejected the work as being too long for commercial publication and she was left feeling dispirited. She was also in a poor physical condition, having fallen on several occasions. Two operations had to be performed on her leg. The death of her favourite sister-in-law, Lola Liebson, further depressed her lagging spirits.

She was hospitalized after suffering a series of mild heart attacks towards the end of June 1968, and died of a massive thrombosis on 6 July. She was buried beside Philip. It was a very small funeral, attended by less than a hundred people.

(From Petticoat Pioneers by Maureen Rall).

UPDATED: 06/07/2017

6 July 1858, The battle of Slypklip where Kausob defeated by a Boer commando.
6 July 1968, Author Sarah Gertrude Millin (pictured) dies.

Portrait of Sarah Gertrude Millin by Irma Stern


In 1858 the city of Kimberley did not exist. In fact, diamonds had not even been discovered in the region, and diggers would only descend on the “dry diggings” from 1869 onwards at what are now the Dutoitspan and Bultfontein mines. What happened in this region is probably the worst mass murder in South African history – starting initially at Benfontein farm (Benaauwheidsfontein) and ending in massacre just outside Boshof in the Free State.

The tale – nothing new in South Africa – begins with disputed land, the adversaries in this case being various indigenous leaders, and white farmers making inroads into what the local leaders thought was their land. In the 1850s Kausobson Kausob, a San (Bushman) leader also known as Skeelkoc, Skeelkoos and Kousop, was not happy about farm land given to white farmers by another leader, Danzie, and wanted to claim back the territory. Kausob, with his force of Koranna, San and some Batlaping men under command of Mahoera and Gasibone (Gasibonwe), attacked the farms of Soutpan near Windsorton, and Benfontein, on the eastern outskirts of Kimberley, in May and June 1858. Kausob’s brother, Ryk Klaas and Goliath Ysterbek, were also leaders with the force. Kausob had taken advantage of the fact that Boer commandos had been busy fighting with Moshesh in Basotholand (Lesotho) since March 1858 in what was a major confrontation.

Several farmers were killed by Kausob’s men, among them Jacob Diedericks and Johannes Coetzee of the farm Benfontein, (later to become the ranch of Battle of Britain hero ‘Sailor’ Malan), and Jan Venter of Soutpan. Smit of Leeupoort farm was also killed, while the Batlaping under Gasibone and Mahoera attacked the farm Kopsfontein, killing the entire Lombaard and Van Aswegen families.

Indeed, it had been quite a ‘battle’ at Benfontein, with the Boers eventually driving off the attackers, but with the loss of the aforesaid Coetzee and Diedericks.

In retaliation for what was considered unprovoked attacks, a Boer commando numbering between 250 and 400 strong, including at least 100 armed Mfengu tribesmen, attacked Kausob, and he and at least 110 men and women were killed in the three hour battle of Slypklip between the Vaal river and north of Kimberley on 6 July 1858. This commando was under the leadership of Hendrik Venter and used at least one cannon during the action.

At least 43 of Kausob’s men and 50 women were captured by Venter’s Commando and taken to the nearest Orange Free State town of Boshof. The prisoners stayed there several days and on 14 July 1858 the 43 men were taken to Bloemfontein under escort of Captain St P O’Brien and his Mfengu soldiers, to stand trial. However, they never reached their destination, as some six miles (10 kilometres) from Boshof, the group was ambushed by 30 furious local Boers, the prisoners “captured”, and all shot dead as they ran away from the commando.

O’Brien had earlier been advised by Commandant Hendrik Venter to not resist the Boers, but he did protest about the illegality of the action as the prisoners were summarily caught and executed. In other words, the prisoners were all murdered. Despite an angry President Boshof of the Free State launching an investigation into the murder, and three Boshof farmers being indicted for the murder, a court case never materialized through local (white) resistance to the charges. President Boshof later ordered the release of the 50 women prisoners who were being used as labour on the farms in the Boshof region.

A true miscarriage of justice, the murder of the 43 soldiers of Kausob, was neither avenged, nor punished by the law, and must rate as just an infamous a massacre alongside the execution of American soldiers in World War II by the German army.

The site of the massacre is now called “Prisonierskop”, and, true to history ever continuing in circles, the same ridge became the site where the French Colonel, the Comte de Villebois-Mareuil, while fighting for the Boers, was killed in a skirmish during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. There are at least three mass graves on “Prisonierskop” where those massacred are buried.

From Kimberley Calls and Recalls on Facebook By Steve Lunderstedt

Aeon Computer Kimberley

About Steve Lunderstedt


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