The Defence of O’okiep 1902 : the Cape Copper Company Medal
It is well-known to collectors that apart from official campaign awards for the South African War of 1899-1902, a range of more or less unofficial medals also exists. Most familiar are the Mayor of Kimberley’s siege star and the rarer Siege Medal; the most famous are the much-collected ‘tribute medals’ which were funded and presented by local communities in Britain and other parts of the Empire to give as presentation commemoratives or tokens of appreciation to returning soldiers.
The rarest of these ‘associated’ medals is that awarded by a private firm, the Cape Copper Company Ltd., which commissioned a medal for the defence of the township and company mines at O’okiep in 1902. The siege, which took place right at the end of the war (March-April 1902), has been described simply as “a good-natured blockade” rather than a serious military enterprise. The medal was awarded to all members of the O’okiep garrison, regulars, colonial units or civilian volunteers, who defended the town while it was besieged by a Boer commando for one month, between 4th April and 4th May 1902; the war ended on 31st May 1902 with the Treaty of Vereeniging.
The Cape Copper Company had been established around 1862 as the Cape of Good Hope Copper Mining Company, which took over existing copper mines around the remote township of O’okiep (now Okiep) in Namaqualand in the Northern Cape province of South Africa and took the name Cape Copper Company Ltd. in 1888. The town takes its name from the Nama term for the local spring and at that time was considered to be the richest copper mining area in the world. It remains an important copper mining area today.
Towards the end of the war, Boer commandos invaded the Cape Colony – an audacious and largely unexpected action, given that the main theatres of war had by them moved away far to the north, especially into the Boer homeland of the Transvaal. On the whole these incursions were fairly quickly dealt with – though there were numerous Boer successes – there being enough in the way of regular forces and local defence units (Town Guards and mounted volunteers) to contain the ‘invasion’ by 1902.
Nevertheless, the town of Concordia, only a few kilometres north of O’okiep, and other local towns, fell to the Boers early in April 1902, after which the redoubtable Boer leader Jan Smuts turned his attention to the mines at O’okiep. His aim was to seize the important copper fields in the hope that the British would divert troops from the Cape Town area to relieve O’okiep, which would then leave Cape Town vulnerable to attack. An attack on Cape Town itself – at this stage in the war – was truly ambitious!
Given its great economic value, the town and mining area at O’okiep had already been given a small garrison. It comprised 44 men of 5th Royal Warwickshire Regt., some of the Namaqualand Border Scouts, the Namaqualand Town Guard and 12 men of the Cape Garrison Artillery. This defence force was commanded by Lt. Col. W. A. D. Shelton D.S.O., West Surrey Regt., who augmented the garrison by enrolling civilians, largely company workers. He ended up with approx. 700 men, many of whom were ‘Cape Coloured’ miners.
Lt. Col. Shelton and Major Dean, the Company’s manager, constructed a ring of blockhouses, wire entanglements, ditches, banks and other defences around the perimeter and early in the siege the garrison succeeded in repulsing several determined attacks by the Boers. However, when Smuts left to take part in the negotiations at Vereeniging which would soon end the war, active operations against O’okiep just about stopped. The besiegers, then under the command of General Ben Bouwer, made one fairly desperate venture on 1st May, by running a locomotive (the ‘Pioneer’ of the Concordia Namaqua United Copper Company) to push a wagon loaded with dynamite into the town. However, the wagon derailed when it hit the barbed wire fencing across the railway line and the dynamite burned away harmlessly.
A relief column under Colonel Harry Cooper C.M.G., sent by sea from Cape Town in the SS Nautilus Mapelmore, Orient and Sicilian, landed on the coast at Port Nolloth, 75 miles away, and moved inland by rail to end the siege. It saw some fighting – for example at at Steinkopf on 28th April 1902. A slimmed-down ‘flying column’ under Lt. Col. Caldwell actually raised the siege on 4th May 1902.
The column comprised men of 5th Lancers (109), 2nd Royal Fusiliers, 3rd East Surreys with a Maxim (in relief of their 4th Battn.), 116 and 118 Coys. Imperial Yeomanry and two guns of 44 Battery. Some colonial units like the Cape Police and Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Volunteer Rifles were also involved. Medals to these men would be an interesting find!
After the war ended, the Queen’s South Africa Medal was awarded to all regular troops and colonial units who had seen active service in Namaqualand during the war; some also received the King’s South Africa Medal if they had long enough service before 1st June 1902. Queen’s South Africa medals are seen, for example, to the Namaqualand Border Scouts, some of whom would have served at O’okiep.
When it became apparent that the ‘coloured’ members of the O’okiep garrison were not to be eligible for official medals, the Cape Copper Company decided to produce and award a medal of its own and to present it to all the defenders of the town, regardless of race.
The medal was awarded in both silver and bronze, though the former, presented to a few officers and some high-ranking company officials, are exceptionally rare. At least one silver medal was given to a non-commissioned officer, Paymaster Sergt. Rodda, who was also paymaster of the O’okiep Copper Company. Bronze medals were given to the rank and file of the military and civilian defenders of the town.
The medal is of standard dimensions, 36.5 mm in diameter, with a raised rim. The obverse shows the company’s emblem – a relaxed-looking miner with a spade standing next to a narrow-gauge mining wagon, with THE CAPE COPPER COMPANY LIMITED around the perimeter and the company’s foundation date ‘1888’ at the bottom. The reverse has a raised rim and is embossed with PRESENTED TO THE OFFICERS NON-COMMISSIONED OFFICERS AND MEN OF THE GARRISON OF OOKIEP IN RECOGNITION OF THEIR GALLANT DEFENCE OF THE TOWN UNDER LT. COL. SHELTON. D.S.O. AGAINST A GREATLY SUPERIOR FORCE OF BOERS APRIL 4TH TO MAY 4TH 1902.
The medal has a swivelling floreated suspender, similar to that on many British campaign medals, attached by a simple pin (no claw) into the upper edge. Its ribbon is 1¼ inches wide, dark brown with a ¼ inch wide central green band. The medals are impressed in spaced serif capitals around the rim; those to civilians generally just have an initial and surname. The roll shows eighteen recipients of the silver medal, including the award to Sgt. Rodda, and 537 men qualifying for the bronze medal.
The silver medal is exceptionally rare and rarely seen. The bronze medal is often found by itself, usually to civilian volunteers who did not get the Queen’s South Africa Medal, and examples appear on the market at around £2,000; those to regular forces or colonial units with an associated Queen’s South Africa – or other medals – are much more sought after and pairs are seen at £3000-4000.