Escapes, by John Buchan

6

Two African Journeys

In an ancient and closely settled land fateful journeys are for the most part short ones. The key-points of danger and safety are not far apart, and a mile or two may be the margin between success and failure. But in a country of infinite spaces the case is otherwise, and such a country is Africa. Hence African journeys against time have covered wide areas from the days when Moses led the Children of Israel across the Red Sea. They have naturally, too, been associated with seasons of war. In this chapter I propose to tell of two: one taken from the early history of Natal; and the other from the Mashonaland Rebellion, the last of those native wars which seriously threatened the white settlements in the south of the continent.

In the thirties of last century South Africa was disturbed by two great movements. One was the rise of the military power of the Zulus, which began when the exiled Dingiswayo, having seen British soldiers in shakos drilling in. Cape Town, returned to introduce something of their discipline and drill among his countrymen. His successor, Tchaka, became a kind of black Napoleon, eating up the neighbouring tribes and acquiring their land and cattle, and driving the broken remnants north of the Drakensberg. One of the principal of these refugees, Mosilikatse, fled with his clan north of the Vaal, and became the founder of that Matabele nation which we shall hear of again. After Tchaka came Dingaan, an inferior general, but formidable because he commanded a vigorous nation in arms.

The other movement was caused by the restlessness of the Dutch settlers in Cape Colony under British rule. They disliked the British law which made the black man and the white man equal in legal rights; they objected to taxation; they were offended by many novelties which threatened their old traditions. So some of them took the bold step of moving with their families north into the wilderness in search of a land where they could live as in the old days.

The story of the Great Trek, a fine story on the whole with many splendid tales in it of heroism odds, does not concern us here. It suffices to say that, after desperate battles with Mosilikatse, the Boers drove him north of the Limpopo and began the settlement of the countries which we know to-day as the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Our concern is with the little country of Natal lying to the east of that no-man’s-land of Kaflraria, where native wars had been grumbling for thirty years.

Natal is a land of rich valleys lying between the Drakensberg range and the sea. Just after it had been devastated by Tchaka’s armies, a small group of British traders arrived at Durban Bay and founded a tiny settlement, which managed to keep on good terms with the Zulu king. In 1834 they petitioned the British Government that the country should be occupied as a British colony, but on financial grounds the British Government declined. Next year appeared a certain Captain Allen Gardiner, an ex-officer of the Royal Navy, who had devoted his life to missionary work. He visited Dingaan’s court, but found the soil there unfruitful; so he settled on the coast and was one of the founders of the port of Durban, named in honour of Sir Benjamin D’Urban, the Governor of Cape Colony. Money was raised for clearing the bush and improving the town, and those who had no money to subscribe gave one week’s work. Among the latter was a young Englishman, by name Dick King, who acted as Captain Gardiner’s wagon driver. Of him we shall presently hear.

When the Great Trek began a party of Boers, under the famous Pieter Uys, trekked through Kaffraria and reached Durban, There they were warmly welcomed by the few British settlers, and on their return to Cape Colony they gave a glowing account of the Promised Land they had discovered. But the main Boer emigration did not take that direction. When the Boers entered Natal in force, they came from the north through the Drakensberg passes under the leadership of Pieter Retief. Retief also received a hearty welcome at Durban, and paid a visit to Dingaan’s court in order to arrange for the occupation by his countrymen of some of the land along the Tugela River. The Zulus were purely a nation of soldiers and cattle-owners, and most of the best land in the country was untilled.

The story of the Boers in Natal is one long tragedy. Retief and his company of 200 Boers visited Dingaan’s kraal on the 3rd February 183S, and were incontinently massacred. The women and children and the rest of the party were scattered at various points in the Tugela valley, and thither the Zulu regiments of the Black Shields and the White Shields hastened to complete the slaughter. Whole families were butchered and few indeed were the survivors. The district is still known as Weenen, the “ place of weeping,” so called by the Boers in memory of a hideous tragedy.

But Dingaan had found an enemy far tougher in fibre than the Kafir chieftains he had subdued. There were other Boer leaders, who would not rest till they had avenged their countrymen. Two of these, Hendrik Potgeiter and Pieter Uys, who had just defeated Mosilikatse, at once crossed the Drakensberg. The first affair was disastrous, for they were badly beaten. Then the English from Durban attempted a diversion, but they too were defeated by Panda, half-brother to Dingaan, on the Tugela. It looked as if the British settlement was at the mercy of the conqueror, and presently the Zulus were in Durban, looting and destroying, while the settlers had retired to a brig in the bay. They were safe there, however, for every Zulu has a horror of water.

But an avenger was on his way. This was Andries Pretorius, a man of a grim and patient valour, like some Old Testament hero. He raised a new Boer commaaido, and in November 1838, with 400 men, crossed the Tugela. The Boers held a solemn religious service, and vowed that if the Lord gave them victory they would keep the day of it sacred as a Sabbath in each year. On the 15th December celebrated ever since by the South African Dutch as Dingaan’s Day Pretorius met the Zulu impis on the banks of the Blood River. The 400 disciplined men, all first-class shots, utterly defeated the black army of many thousands; and when victory was won they showed little mercy to an enemy whom they regarded as accursed of heaven. Among the Boers only three were wounded, while the victors counted over 3,000 Zulu dead. Dingaan fled into the eastern hills, and Pretorius, marching upon the royal kraal, buried the remains of Retief and his companions, which he found bleaching in the sun.

Natal, except for the British settlement on the coast, was now effectively occupied by the Boer emigrants. This raised an awkward problem for Britain and the Cape Colony Government. Under English law a subject of the Crown cannot, by adventuring in the waste places of the earth, acquire sovereignty for himself, but only for his king. The British Government, therefore, could not acknowledge the independent republic which Pretorius and his Men had set up in Natal, and they could not admit that the Boer emigrants, by leaving British territory, had thereby thrown off British allegiance. They therefore resolved to send a small expedition to take possession of Durban and restore order in the country.

In December 1838, Major Charters, with a company of the 72nd Highlanders and three guns, landed there and erected a fort on the Point. While, therefore, Pretorius was breaking Dingaan on the Blood River, the British flag was being hoisted at Durban. Presently Major Charters withdrew, leaving only a smaE body of troops behind Mm, under Captain Jervis. Jervis was an honest man who earnestly desired to arrange a peace between the Zulus and the Boers, This, however, was soon seen to be impossible. Thd Boer regarded the Zulu as the Israelite regarded the Canaanite, an enemy whom it was his religious duty to extirpate. The British Government withdrew the handful of troops i and no sooner had they gone than the Boers hoisted their own flag on the British flagstaff and proclaimed the Republic of Natalia.

After that the doings of Pretorius and his men became less creditable. Dingaan was unquestionably a brutal and treacherous scoundrel; but the Boers used his own methods against him when they drove him out of the country to exile and death and set up his half-brother Panda in his stead. The truth is that, while many of the leaders of the Great Trek were men of the highest character, a number of common brigands and adventurers made up the tail of the expeditions. The new republic marched from confidence to confidence, and in its relations with Britain showed an arrogance not unnatural perhaps in those who had fought so stubborn a battle.

Presently came a crisis. Some of the Kafir tribes whom Tchaka and Dingaan had expelled began to drift back to Natal, and the Boers, denying all right in the land to its former masters, resolved to settle them in a district south of the Natal border, in what is now the province of Pondoland. There lived a chief called Faku, who, to his surprise, was suddenly attacked by a Boer commando and lost 150 of his men and 3,000 of his cattle. He complained to the Wesleyan missionaries who had settled under his protection, and they forwarded a complaint to the Government of Cape Colony, The situation had become serious, for it looked as if the Boers in Natal were about to set a spark to the powder magazine of Kaffraria, the dangers of which Cape Colony knew only too well. Accordingly a small British force of 250 men, under Captain Smith, was ordered to march to Durban. He arrived in Natal in March 1842, and without interference took possession of the fort on the Point and pitched his camp outside the town about half a mile from the sea.

Pretorius and his men instantly challenged his authority, and presently the little force was besieged. Captain Smith resolved to make a night attack on the Boer headquarters; but the English regulars proved less adroit than the Boer sharpshooters and were driven back with considerable losses. A short truce was arranged to bury the dead; and it became very clear that unless relief came at once the British would soon be driven into the sea.

The difficulty was to get news of the situation to the British authorities. It was impossible to send by water, and 600 miles of savage country lay between Durban and the first Cape Colony settlement of Grahamstown. That country was Kaffraria, full of angry native tribes, bitterly hostile to the Boers, and for the most part scarcely less hostile to the British. Moreover, the Boer lines lay around the town, and it might be no easy task to pass them. But Grahamstown was the only hope, and volunteers were asked for to make the perilous journey. Dick Bang, the man whom we have seen as Captain Gardiner’s wagoner, responded. He was a man of wiry physique, sound veldcraft, and above all he had mixed much with the Kafirs and knew most of their tongues. Two of the best troop horses in Captain Smith’s force were selected, and in the evening were rowed across Durban Bay.

Such is the sequence of events which led to Dick King’s great ride. When he was ferried over the twilit waters of the bay he was engaged on an errand even more fateful than he thought. He believed that he was only doing a brave man’s part in getting help for sorely tried comrades; but in truth he was settling the fate of the colony of Natal. The British Government at home were averse to any expansion of territory, and above all averse to becoming involved in a war. Had the stockade at Durban fallen, in all likelihood they would have done nothing further, but made terms with Pretorius and recognized his republic. That would have meant that Natal would have developed as a Dutch state instead of being the most purely English colony in South Africa. The fate of the little country was involved in one man’s ride.

Bang’s task seemed in the last degree impossible. There was no chance of getting fresh mounts, so he must ride each horse in turn and lead the other, and somehow nurse the two beasts over 600 miles. The country was for the most part grassy down-land, broken by rocky ridges and furrowed by deep rivers descending from the Drakensberg. Over these rivers there were no bridges and few fords. There were no roads, only native tracks. All the tribes were suspicious and most of them hostile. Above all there was desperate need for haste, and a man in a hurry must go blindly. He has no time to make wide circuits and take proper precautions for secrecy.

Before daybreak King had crossed the Umkomangi River and was well started, For food he had to trust to mealie-pap at Kafir kraals, and that meant he must keep on the good side of the different tribes he met. Two advantages he had his complete knowledge of their speech, and the fact that scattered among them were various Wesleyan missionaries who might be trusted to befriend him. He was also on the side which, on the whole, they favoured, for memories of Pretorius’s raid on Faku were still bitter in the countryside. Probably no living man but he could have made the journey, and as it fell out he had little trouble with the Kafirs. The Amabaka tribe did, indeed, take him prisoner under the belief that he was a Boer; but when they found that he was British they at once released him.

His main difficulties were the pathless country and the great distance. Wild animals, which have now been driven into the far north, were then as thick in the countryside as they are to-day in a game preserve. Elephants roamed in the patches of forest; there were lions in every thicket; and the African buffalo, almost the most dangerous of African beasts, filled the river marshes. To an old hunter, however, wild beasts are the least of perils in the bush, for they will rarely attack one who appears to have no hostile purpose. But the rivers were full with the rains from the hills, and he had to swim them from bank to bank. Also it was no light task, even for an old hunter, to find his way in a pathless land, where a false turn might lead him into impenetrable marshes or jungles where every yard had to be fought for.

Poor food and excessive fatigue soon began to tell upon his strength. In a ride against time a man’s nerves are highly strung, and this adds greatly to the physical burden. About the third day he began to suffer from chill and fever, and the wait-a-bit thorns and prickly-pear scrub began to dance before his eyes. Every one who has ridden through the African bush with fever on Mm knows the misery of the experience the blinding headache, the unbearable thirst, the shivering fits which make it difficult to keep in the saddle. King forced his body to its utmost limits; but he was compelled every now and then to He down and rest. One or two missionaries whom he encountered doctored him as best they could; but altogether the better part of two days was wasted in bouts of illness.

Nevertheless the iron spirit of the man prevailed. Allowing for the delays caused by illness, he and Ms two horses did an average of not less than eighty miles a day. On the ninth day after leaving Durban he stumbled into the little settlement of Grahamstown, half blind with fatigue and fever, but able to give the message wMch was to save his comrades.

Colonel Hare, lieutenant-Governor of the Eastern Province, was not a man to waste time. He at once ordered the Grenadier company of the 27th Regiment to proceed from Port Elizabeth to Durban, and Sir George Napier immediately afterwards sent the 25th Regiment from the Cape. Exactly one month from King’s start a British sMp carrying reinforcements sailed into Durban Bay and found the British flag still flying, BIck King’s wild ride had not been in vain.

In March 1896 a grave native rebellion broke out in Matabeleland, the south-western portion of the then new colony of Rhodesia. A rebellion of some sort was almost inevitable. Though their chief, Lobengula, had been defeated, the Matabele people had never been really conquered; and as white civilization and white settlement began to spread throughout the country it was certain that a warlike race would not accept the overthrow of their old life without a further struggle. Three months later the rebellion spread to the north-western province of Mashonaland, and there the number of independent and isolated tribes made the task of suppression more difficult. The chief town of Mashonaland is Salisbury, but scattered in the country round were a number of embryo townships connected by precarious roads. Everywhere there was a large native population, and the white residents were separated by many miles of difficult country from their fellows.

The first threat of trouble in Mashonaland began in the Hartley Hill district to the south-west of Salisbury. As always happens with native risings, it spread rapidly to districts hundreds of miles distant.

About 14th June Salisbury was thoroughly alarmed, and provision was made for its defence. It was an extremely scattered town, and the outlying houses had to be relinquished and the whole population brought into a central laager. On the night of the 18th the homestead of the Vicomtesse de la Panouse, two miles from the town, was visited by a party of rebels. The Vicomtesse only escaped by hiding in the grass and creeping into Salisbury under cover of night.

Our story begins a week later, on the highroad which ran from Salisbury to TTmtali on the Portuguese border. Along this road were various stores and settlements, the chief being at a place called Marandellas, some forty or fifty miles down the road. On the morning of 16th June Miss Carter, a Salisbury lady, left Salisbury for Umtali in a passenger wagon, accompanied by Mr. Lamb, three other white men, two natives, and a Cape driver. On the 18th the down coach for Umtali passed them, but the driver had no news to give them of the troubles which were then beginning on the other side of Salisbury.

When they reached Marandellas they found the Vicomte de la Panouse with a party and a large wagon laden with stores. They also received a note from the station of Headlands, some twenty miles on, urging them to return to Salisbury as the Mashonas were everywhere rising. At first they were inclined to disregard the warning. But they returned to Marandellas, where they received another message begging them to waste no time in getting back. Again they hesitated, for Marandellas seemed a very safe retreat, since it held a large supply of ammunition. Discretion, however, prevailed, and they moved out on the Salisbury road, where they overtook the Vicomte de la Panouse and his party. It was resolved that they would travel back together, for the Vicomte had with him three white men, and there was also an ox-wagon with several attendants anxious to join in the convoy.

The Vicomte’s wagon, which was drawn by donkeys and was very heavily laden, moved slowly, and it was not till the afternoon of the following day that it reached the store of Messrs. Graham and White. Here they realized for the first time their imminent danger. AH the native boys had gone, and one who had crawled through to warn Mr. Graham had had a hard fight and was badly wounded. The party made a laager round the store, and the night passed peacefully. Next morning they begged Mr. Graham to accompany them to Salisbury. He refused, however, believing that he was quite able to hold the place. The following day he was attacked and murdered as he was escaping into the veld.

That Monday morning, after leaving Sir, Graham’s store, the sentry whom they had placed on the top of Mr. Lamb’s wagon, pointed out several black forms in the distance. The wagons moved peacefully along for some six miles, and then outspanned for the midday rest. By this time their field-glasses showed the party large numbers of natives massing, all of whom seemed to be armed. After that the wagons kept close together. When they had gone another mile they came upon a horrible sight. Lying in the road were three mutilated bodies, which proved to be those of a store-keeper, Mr. Weyer, his wife, and Ms child; a little farther on lay the body of another child hideously maltreated. As the twilight was approaching there was no time to bury the dead, and all that could be done was to place the poor remains together and to cover them with sand and some branches of trees. The bodies were all in sleeping garments, so it seemed that they had been murdered during the past night when trying to escape.

This grim sight, seen in the bright South African twilight, brought awe into the hearts of the little band. Darkness was falling; all round them was the thick bushveld. The Vicomte’s wagon was heavily laden and could only move slowly, and all the animals were tired. The Vicomte lightened Ms load by flinging away some of his goods, and they had barely resumed their journey, when, looking back, they saw a large body of natives carrying off the abandoned flour. Mr. Lamb climbed to the top of his wagon and had the satisfaction of seeing one fall to his rifle. The enemy returned the fire, wounding one of the donkeys.

It was now fairly clear that unless they could move faster the whole convoy was doomed, so it became necessary to jettison the whole wagon load. The Vicomte did this unwillingly, but there was no other course. His donkeys were unharnessed and driven on in front; the other wagon was also left derelict., and the oxen from it inspanned in front of Mr. Lamb’s donkeys. Behind them they could hear loud shouts as the rebels looted the discarded wagons.

Suddenly fire was opened upon them from the bushes on the right hand, and a brisk exchange of shots took place. It was now very dark, and as they crawled along the road a perpetual fusillade was kept up. Happily they had several good dogs with them, who were sent into the roadside bush and so gave early notice of an ambuscade. Presently the enemy fire died away; the moon came out, and at a better pace the convoy reached Law’s Store.

It was now about 11 p.m. They found the place deserted and looted; but it was possible to make of it some kind of protection for the night. A few outer huts were burnt in order to give a field of fire; the animals were secured in a laager, and the party took refuge in one of the rooms. Pickets were posted, three at a time in two watches. The Cape boys lit fires before and behind the house, which were a comfort to the pickets, for the night had the bitter cold of a Rhodesian winter.

At 2 a.m. nest morning a Cape boy, badly wounded, crawled up. He had escaped from a neighbouring farm, and had been fighting since 6 a.m. the previous morning. At 4 a.m. all the men of the party went on guard till daybreak. As soon as the first light appeared the convoy started, and they had not gone a mile, when, looking back, they saw a huge cloud of smoke ascending from Law’s Store. The rebels had closed in behind them and burned the place.

All morning they crept along the road, being fired ay from every patch, of bush. One shot passed between the Vicomte and Mr. Lamb, killing a dog as it talked between them; another passed through the side of the passenger wagon in front of Miss Carter, and then below the armpit of one of the Cape boys. These Cape boys, let it be said, showed throughout this adventure, and throughout the whole rebellion, the utmost courage and fidelity.

No one of the party believed at this time that they would ever arrive at Salisbury. The next station on the road was a place called Ballyhooley, and just before reaching it they had a serious fight, where one of the Cape boys managed to shoot the rebel leader. Ballyhooley they found deserted and looted. There they had hoped to meet relief parties from Salisbury; but none were there, and the passenger wagon, drawn by its donkeys and oxen, crawled on again, the men tramping alongside in the dust. At every turn of the road, and in every patch of scrub they feared to meet their fate.

They were now only three miles from the town, when to their horror they saw a large number of rebels massed together. For a little they had a terrible fear that Salisbury might have fallen. But fatigue and anxiety had by now dulled their senses, and they had mercifully ceased to realize their peril. They stopped for a little to allow the Cape boys to detach the oxen from the wagon, so that they might be turned loose, and while they did so a crowd of natives swarmed on the kopjes above them. Then they moved on, and as they emerged from the hilla they came in sight of Salisbury, which seemed to be a town of the dead.

But suddenly in the middle distance they observed three or four mounted men galloping towards them. They saw that they were friends, and presently they realized that the defences of Salisbury were still intact, and that at last they had found sanctuary.

The little party had come out of the very jaws of death. Behind and around them for three days had been the enemy, flushed with success, confident that the days of the white man in the land were numbered; every little storehouse and farmstead was in ruins, every inn was a heap of charred timbers and burned stores and broken bottles. They had to move at the slow pace set by tired oxen and donkeys. The odds were all against them when they left MarandeUas, and they won through only by — virtue of that tenacity of spirit which obstinately refuses to despair.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32