“I simply cannot do without you,” was Theunis Steyn’s constant message to his beloved Tibbie over a lifetime together.
Although their love story had its share of difficulties, Theunis and Tibbie Steyn’s relationship, in the words of their friend Dr Hendrik Muller, was indeed “an unmixed blessing”, and one of the most beautiful testimonies to the rich interest of a successful marriage. It deserves a special place in history.
It all started on June 5, 1877 when the Dunrobin Castle steamed out of Table Bay. On board were Marthinus Theunis Steyn and his friend Harry Vels from Bloemfontein, who were going to take up postgraduate studies in law in the Netherlands, as well as the Rev. Colin Fraser and his wife, Isabella, from Philippolis, who were en route to
Scotland with their daughter, Rachel better known as Tibbie. Was there already a spark between the two young people during that historic sea voyage?
It took six long years before they saw each other again. In the interim Theunis completed his studies and returned to South Africa in 1883. He was admitted to the bar as an advocate and went straight to Bloemfontein. As part of the circuit court of the Republic of the Orange Free State, Theunis travelled to Philippolis on several occasions. It was during these visits to Philippolis that the romance between Tibbie and Theunis started to bloom. On one such occasion while having dinner at the Fraser’s, Theunis persuaded Tibbie to give him a photograph of herself to “keep it in my inside pocket, next to my heart”. A lovestruck Theunis could not wait and in January 1884 he asked Tibbie to marry him. “Think about it, I will come and ask you for your answer in six months.” Rather hard to believe in today’s world of quick replies.
In a letter written by Theunis shortly after proposing to Tibbie he writes: “My darling […], It was a very long day to me & often I wished myself back in Philippolis. It’s very hard that one is obliged to leave so soon after he was made so happy.[…] I don’t know if you are aware that I am a poor man. I have nothing but my love and a few possessions to offer you […] but I will strive in all my energy and talents in order to make myself worthy of your love …”
Tibbie tried to keep their relationship a secret, but by the time Theunis arrived in Philippolis again, everyone knew that an engagement was imminent. The announcement was made as soon as the Rev. and Mrs Fraser gave their permission. The engagement ring, set with five diamonds, was bought in Port Elizabeth by his friend Thys Badenhorst. Tibbie was to wear this ring on her finger for more than seventy years. During their engagement the couple wrote to each other constantly. In a letter dated 23 January 1885 Theunis writes: “Your dear & most longed letter came duly to hand. Ah what a blessing it is after all to get a letter. I felt so miserable all the time that I can hardly describe the pleasing sensation I got when your epistle came. It reminded me of the blissful days we spent together, days not easily to be forgotten by your boy. […]” After their wedding Theunis would often start his letters with “My dear Wifie” or “My darling wife” while Tibbie would start her letters with “Dearest Hubby”.
They were married on 10 March 1887, nearly three years after they became engaged. The whole town and many guests from other towns came to the wedding. Tibbie’s wedding gown of white satin decorated with pearls had been specially made for her in Scotland by Pratt and Keith of Aberdeen. The wedding was described in the newspaper, The Friend, as “a fashionably grand wedding … where nothing was wanting.”
Theunis became the centre of Tibbie’s existence. In February 1896, nine years after their wedding day, Theunis became the new president of the Orange Free State and the couple became public property. In the meantime, Theunis worked tirelessly to ensure peace in South Africa and Tibbie supported him through thick and thin. Although she must have known that there would be far-reaching changes to her life, she assured him that she would enter the future fearlessly with him.
They were alone at the farm house at Onze Rust in October 1899 when they received the news that Transvaal, with the full backing of the Free State, had finally delivered an ultimatum to Britain. The war had begun. On her thirteenth wedding anniversary, Tibbie had to leave the presidential residence after the invasion of Bloemfontein by the British forces and flee with her children, moving from one little town to the next. She rarely saw Theunis. She was arrested in Fouriesburg and was escorted back to Bloemfontein under armed guard – “a humiliating and indescribably bitter” experience, she recounted – and placed under house arrest. Letters of the time reveal clearly how brave and spirited Tibbie Steyn was, even when months went by without news of her husband. In a letter written during their separation Tibbie writes: “Ach old man if God only spares us to meet again nothing can matter & whatever the future has in store for us if we are only together I shall thank God…”
Towards the end of the war Theunis became seriously ill, eventually becoming totally paralysed. Tibbie had not really recognised the seriousness of his illness – she would certainly have found it difficult to imagine. Consequently, the shock when she found him bedridden and helpless was so much greater. But the war had also changed Tibbie and made her much more resilient; suddenly she was the stronger of the two. She took decisive action and sent a letter appealing to Lord Kitchener to give her a permit to take her husband overseas for treatment.
While addressing a meeting of the Oranje Women’s Association in Bloemfontein in November 1916, Theunis collapsed and died of a heart attack, at only 59. Tibbie would live to the age of 89, but never remarried. Tibbie and Theunis Steyn were truly everything to each other.
The National Museum houses a small collection of personal items of President M.T. Steyn and his wife Tibbie. On display in the History Hall is a top hat and tailcoat that belonged to President Steyn and the dining set used in the dining room in the Historical Street Scene belonged to Mrs Tibbie Steyn.
Fourie, C (ed.). 2007. Ware liefde – bekende Suid-Afrikaanse paartjies. Johannesburg: Human & Rousseau
Schoeman, K. 1983. In liefde en trou. Johannesburg: Human & Rousseau
Truter, E. 1997. Tibbie: haar lewe was haar boodskap. Johannesburg: Human & Rousseau