by Willie Meyer – from his book “Magaliesberg Kaleidoscope”
When there is talk of the Ras family of Bokfontein, one immediately thinks of the Ras canon, the artillery piece that was built by a blacksmith farmer for use against the English in the First Anglo Boer War in 1881. Although the original was used in only one operation and the actual masterpiece was completed only after peace had been declared, the guns had a definite impact on the South African military history.
The construction of the gun was in fact a phenomenal engineering achievement for the time, especially if one takes into account the meagre means at Ras’s disposal and the tremendous pressure under which he had to work. And he had to do it in spite of resistance from some of his own people.
The canon epic originated from the British annexation of Transvaal in 1877. Many Boers blamed President Thomas Burgers for handing over not only the government of Transvaal to Lord Theopolis Shepstone, but also the control of the few artillery pieces the Boers had at their disposal. When the Boers rebelled against the British authority in 1880 their only gun was Old Grietjie, one of the guns the Voortrekkers used in the Battle of Blood River. Grietjie, however, was capricious and somersaulted every time a shot was fired. Ras, being a resourceful smith, took the matter in hand and solved the problem. At that stage he was serving with the Boer commandoes at Potchefstroom and was confident that he could also do something about the Boers’ lack of artillery.
His commanding officer, Commandant Piet Cronjé, was sceptical and initially refused Ras leave to return to his farm and blacksmith shop at Bokfontein to build the gun. He eventually relented and granted Ras eight days’ leave. Ras returned to his farm and got permission from Commandant Henning Pretorius to buy steel wagon wheel rims from Schroeder’s shop in Rustenburg. Pretorius also made Ras’s brother, Herman and his cousin Eduard Ras, available to help him build the gun. Ras sent his 15 year old son, Hermanus, to buy the steel wheel rims which cost £45. Hermanus drove the oxen so hard that he covered the distance of 40 miles in only ten hours, but three oxen didn’t survive the trip and the remainder couldn’t be used for the next six months.
When it became known that English spies were getting interested in the Bokfontein operation, Commandant Pretorius sent four burgers to guard the shop. After two weeks of working almost day and night, the first gun was ready for test firing but the charge was too heavy and the breech exploded, almost killing the two men behind the gun.
After another two weeks of hard labour the “Martienie” was ready at last and after a series of test shots at Bokfontein, was taken to Rustenburg. Here Commandant Sarel Eloff, the son-in-law of Paul Kruger, used it to force the British garrison in the fortress just outside the town to surrender.
After the success of the Martienie the gun builders embarked on the next one – the Ras. This gun, the completion of which was not subjected to so much pressure as the first one, had a barrel of 1,68m as opposed to the 1,37m of the Martienie and a diameter of 5cm against the 7,6cm. More time was spent on the finishing and the Ras would have fired oblong projectiles as opposed to the round ones of the Martienie. However, the job was only completed after the Battle of Majuba on 27 February 1881, with the result that the Ras has never been used in battle.
After the war the state coffers were empty and the Ras family members were paid only £100 for the guns that were then taken to Pretoria where they were used to fire the noonday gun. According to Hermanus Ras the money was just enough to pay the account for the wagon wheel rims and to buy each of them a pair of corduroy trousers. General Piet Joubert, who was the Commandant General, and President Paul Kruger promised Marthinus Ras that they would be reimbursed as soon as there was money in the state coffers again. However, nothing came from this promise, although Kruger later awarded Ras a gold medal.
Ras was not a gunner himself but he occupies a special place in the military history of South Africa. The fact that the British knew that the Boers had artillery and the ability to build more guns probably influenced the peace agreement. In 1981 the artillery unit 26 Field Regiment and the School of Artillery honoured Ras’s memory with a memorial obelisk on his grave at Bokfontein. The gun barrel depicted on the coat of arms of the artillery corps is that of the Ras gun.
Years after the war there was some controversy about who was the actual gun builder. Marthinus Ras owned the farm and the blacksmith shop and was more prominent than the others with the result that he was identified with the design and building of the gun. The initiative was definitely his, but there were members of his family who claimed that the actual expert who did most of the work was his cousin Eduard. The issue will, however, never be resolved as all the people who were involved are long dead.
Ras, the gun, has found a home at the National Cultural Historical Museum in Pretoria, while there is a replica of the Martienie at the Voortrekker Monument.
Marthinus Ras was brutally murdered near Derdepoort on the Bechuanaland border where he did duty during the Anglo Boer War. The Bakgatla under chief Linchwe who fought on the side of the English attacked Derdepoort on 25 November 1899 and killed and abducted several people. Ras was one of the Boers who went to help defend Derdepoort and on 18 February 1900 he was on his way home on leave when he was ambushed near Kayaseput. The commando that was sent to revenge his murder was also ambushed and five Boers were killed. Ras’s decimated body, which was probably cut up for muti, was buried at Kayaseput and later reinterred at Bokfontein.
Information obtained from interviews with Johan Ras; Gedenkblad ‘100 Jaar Herdenking van Kayaseput’; ‘Die Ras-kanonne’ deur J Lion Pienaar; ‘Ras se seun vertel’ – vertellings deur HN Ras; HEHA Survey 097
A copy of the book by Willie Meyer is available at the Kormorant office.