Shepstone appointed Special Commissioner to Transvaal — Wide powers — H. R. H. on Shepstone’s staff — Umslopogaas attached to Commission — To Pretoria by ox-waggon — Thirty-five days — Melmoth Osborn and Major Marshal Clarke on Commission — First acquaintance with Boers — “Opsitting” — President Burgers — Danger to Transvaal from Cetewayo’s Zulus and Secocoeni’s tribe — Arrive Pretoria — H. R. H. accompanies Osborn and Clarke on Mission to Secocoeni — Rough journey — Indaba at his kraal — Plot to murder English Mission — Frustrated by an accident — Safe return to Pretoria.
At the end of 1876 Sir Theophilus Shepstone was appointed Special Commissioner to the Transvaal. His commission was a wide one, for, although this was not known at the time, it gave him powers, if he thought fit, to annex the country, “in order to secure the peace and safety of our said colonies and our subjects elsewhere.” When the vastness of the territories and the questions concerned are considered, this was a great authority to leave to the discretion of a single man. But thus was the British Empire made before the days of cables, when everything depended upon the judgment of the officers on the spot.
On his way out to Natal from England he was shipwrecked on the coast not very far from Cape Town, an event that some might have thought a bad omen. I asked him what he thought of while as yet they did not know whether they would escape.
“I thought that I should like to die decent,” he answered, “and spent the time in hunting for my trousers.”
Exactly how I came to accompany Sir Theophilus on his important and history-making Mission I cannot now recall. At any rate I went as a member of his staff. Here is a list of us:
Mr. Osborn, afterwards Sir Melmoth Osborn.
Major Clarke, afterwards Sir Marshal Clarke.
Colonel Brooke, R.E.
Mr. Morcom, afterwards the Attorney–General of Natal.
Doctor Lyle, medical officer to the Mission, and
Lieutenant Phillips, in charge of the escort of twenty-five Natal Mounted Police.
Of these I believe that with myself Colonel Brooke still survives (1911), although he must be an old man now. Phillips also was alive when last I heard of him. He rose to command the Natal Mounted Police, and had then retired. The rest are all dead, Clarke being the last to go, and I may say that I am the only member of the Commission left living who was closely concerned with the political side of its work.
There was another individual attached to the Commission of whom I must give some account. He was Umslopogaas, or more correctly M’hlopekazi, who acted as a kind of head native attendant to Sir Theophilus. Umslopogaas, then a man of about sixty, was a Swazi of high birth.4 He was a tall, thin, fierce-faced fellow with a great hole above the left temple over which the skin pulsated, that he had come by in some battle. He said that he had killed ten men in single combat, of whom the first was a chief called Shive, always making use of a battle-axe. However this may be, he was an interesting old fellow from whom I heard many stories that Fynney used to interpret.
4 The Natal Witness of October 26, 1897, when reporting his death, says that he was son of “Mswazi, King of Swaziland, and in his youth belonged to the Nyati Regiment, the crack corps of the country.” — Ed.
As the reader may be aware, I have availed myself of his personality to a considerable extent in various Zulu romances, and especially in “Allan Quatermain.” Here are two stories concerning him.
One day, long after I had left Africa, he had a talk with Osborn, whom the natives called “Mali-mat.”
“Is it true, Mali-mat,” asked Umslopogaas, “that Indanda” (i.e. myself) “has been using my name largely in books that he has written?”
“Yes, it is true, Umslopogaas.”
“So! Now what does Indanda do with the books when he has written them?”
“He sells them, Umslopogaas.”
“Then, Mali-mat, say to the Inkoos Indanda when you meet him across the Black Water that, as he makes money by writing about me, it is right and just that he should send me half the money!”
I took the hint and sent him, not money, but a very fine hunting-knife with his name engraved upon it.
The other story is that not long before his death, which took place in 1897, Lady Hely–Hutchinson, the wife of the Governor of Natal, asked him whether he was not proud that his name should appear in books which the white men read all over the world.
“No, Inkoosikazi (Chieftainess),” he answered, “to me it is nothing. Yet I am glad that Indanda has set my name in writings that will not be forgotten, so that, when my people are no more a people, one of them at least may be remembered.”
I have a photograph of Umslopogaas which was taken the day before his death. The face might have served some Greek sculptor for the model of that of a dying god.
I think that we trekked from Maritzburg on December 20, 1876, and took thirty-five days to traverse the four hundred odd miles between it and Pretoria in our ox-waggon. It was my first real introduction to African travel, and I greatly enjoyed the journey, hot as it was at that time of year.
Well do I remember our leisurely progress over the plains, the mountains, and the vast, rolling high veld of the Transvaal territory. Still I can see the fearful sweeping thunderstorms that overtook us, to be followed by moonlit nights of surpassing brilliancy which we watched from beside the fires of our camp. Those camps were very pleasant, and in them, as we smoked and drank our “square face” after a day’s trek, I heard many a story of savage Africa from Sir Theophilus himself, from Osborn and from Fynney, who next to him, perhaps, knew as much of the Zulus and their history as any living in Natal.
For instance, Osborn actually saw the battle of the Tugela, which took place between the rival princes Cetewayo and Umbelazi in 1856. With the temerity of a young man he swam his horse across the river and hid himself in a wooded kopje in the middle of the battlefield. He saw Umbelazi’s host driven back and the veteran regiment, nearly three thousand strong, that Panda had sent to aid his favourite son, move up to its support. He described to me the frightful fray that followed. Cetewayo sent out a regiment against it. They met, and he said that the roll of the shields as they came together was like to that of the deepest thunder. Then the Greys passed over Cetewayo’s regiment as a wave passes over a sunken ridge of rock, and left it dead. Another regiment came against them and the scene repeated itself, only more slowly, for many of the veterans were down. Now the six hundred of them who remained formed themselves in a ring upon a hillock and fought on till they were buried beneath the heaps of the slain.
I have described this battle, in which and the subsequent rout tens of thousands of people perished, in a romance as yet unpublished5 that I have written under the title of “Child of Storm.” It is wonderful that Osborn should have escaped with his life. This he did by hiding close and tying his coat over his horse’s head to prevent it from neighing. When darkness fell he rode back to the Tugela and swam its corpse-crowded waters. Sir Theophilus visited its banks a day or two afterwards, and told me that he never saw another sight so fearful as they presented, because of the multitude of dead men, women and children with which they were strewn.
5 Published in 1913. — Ed.
There were never any quarrels among us of Shepstone’s staff during that long journey or afterwards. Indeed we were a band of brothers — as brothers ought to be. Personally I formed friendships then, especially with Osborn and Clarke, that endured till their deaths and I trust may be renewed elsewhere.
When we crossed into the Transvaal our expedition assumed a more business aspect. Greater ceremony was observed and a guard was mounted at night, for we did not quite know how we should be received. Now I made my first real acquaintance with the Boers, who came from all quarters to visit or to spy upon us. They were rough folk: big, bearded men with all the old Dutch characteristics, who made a greater show of religion than they practised, especially when Kaffirs were concerned. I did not like them much at the time — few Englishmen did — but I can see now that I ought to have made more allowances. The circumstances of their history and up-bringing account for that which was repellent both in their actions and their character. Into that history I will not enter further than to say that they had been bred in an atmosphere of hereditary hate of England and its Governments, which in some particulars, such as that of the manner of freeing of the slaves in the Cape Colony in 1836, was not altogether unjustified. Moreover they had fought fearful battles with the natives in the territories they occupied, and learned to loathe them. The Old Testament too was the standard by which they ruled their conduct. They compared themselves to the Hebrews marching from their land of bondage in Egypt, while the Kaffirs in the parallel filled the places of the Canaanites and Jebusites and other tribes that were unfortunate enough to stand in their way. So they slew them mercilessly, and under the name of apprenticeship practically enslaved many of them. But in those days I saw only the results, and judged by those results. I did not see nor had I learned the causes which produced them. Now I know that there is much to admire in the Boer character, also that among them were many men of real worth. Indeed, as I shall tell, one of these afterwards saved my life and those of my two companions.
On our way up to Pretoria we entertained our Dutch visitors on several occasions as well as the circumstances would allow. These were uncouth dinner-parties, but very amusing. At one of them I remember a jovial old boy who sat next to me invited me to come and “opsit” with his daughter, whom he described as a “mooi mesje,” that is, a pretty girl. I accepted the invitation, packed the old Boer off home, and went to Osborn to inquire exactly what “opsitting” might be.
When I discovered that it consisted in sitting alone with a young woman at night with a candle burning between the two, which somewhat dreary proceeding ipso facto involved a promise of marriage, I did not follow the matter further. I should explain, however, that the engagement depended upon the length of the candle. If the young lady wished to encourage the “opsitter” she produced a long one that would last till dawn, and his fate was sealed. If she desired to be rid of him the candle was of the shortest, and when it was burnt out he was bound to go. Conversation, if allowed, was unnecessary; all you had to do was to sit on either side of the candle, which might not be passed.
I wonder if they still “opsit” in South Africa, or if the twentieth century has made an end of this quaint and doubtless ancient custom.
In Pretoria, where everyone, whatever his nationality, was utterly sick of the Boer regime, the Mission was received with the greatest enthusiasm. There were reception committees, there were dinners, there were balls, for although the community was practically bankrupt this did not detract from its gaiety or the lavishness of its hospitality. How the bills were paid I am sure I do not know, but I presume it must have been in kind, for no one had any money. The position of the Republic was desperate, and of it all despaired. Taxes could no longer be collected, and it was said that the postmasters were directed to pay themselves their own salaries — in stamps. The forces of the country, or rather the commandoes of burghers, had been defeated by the Basuto chief, Secocoeni, with a loss of seven thousand head of cattle. As a result the war against this potentate and his nine thousand warriors who lived in the Loolu Berg, a range of mountains about two hundred and fifty miles to the north-east of Pretoria, was then being carried on by a small force of filibusters. These men received no pay, while they were expected to provide for themselves out of what they could take. The upshot may be imagined.
The President of the Republic was a Cape Colonist minister of the Dutch Reformed Church who was educated in Holland, of the name of Burgers, a well-meaning, curious, and rather attractive man of intelligence and good appearance, but one utterly lacking in stability of character. He had recently visited Europe in the interests of the Republic, and had even succeeded in raising 90,000 pounds in Holland for the construction of a railway to Delagoa Bay, which money, I believe, was lost. Also he was said to have had certain nebulous dealings with the Germans which even in those days were a cause of some anxiety to this country.6 I have seen President Burgers almost in tears over the condition of the Republic, nor did he veil his opinions of its state in his addresses to the Volksraad, as anyone who cares to consult the history of the period can discover for himself. At no time was he an earnest opponent of the annexation. Ultimately he accepted a pension from our Government, and died in the Cape Colony in 1881.
6 See Sir Bartle Frere’s letter to Mr. J. M. Maclean, “Life of Frere,” vol. ii, p. 183.
The great danger with which the Transvaal was threatened in 1877 was that of a Zulu attack. Secocoeni had all along been acting more or less under the inspiration and orders of Cetewayo, who, when he saw that this Basuto chief could defeat the Dutch, thought, not unnaturally, that the time was ripe for him to strike. The Zulus, who had never forgotten their defeat at Blood River in the thirties, had many old scores to settle with the Boers. Moreover, Cetewayo’s great standing army of fifty or sixty thousand warriors were clamouring to be allowed “to wash their spears,” and as he did not wish to fight the English and we would not allow him to fight the Swazis, only the Boers remained. In considering the history of the annexation of the Transvaal it should never be forgotten that Shepstone was aware of this fact. Indeed not long after we reached Pretoria the news came to us that the Zulus were waiting in a chain of “impis,” or armies along the frontier, prepared when the signal was given to sweep in and put man, woman and child to the assegai. It was his fear that this bloody design would be carried out which pushed on Shepstone to place the land under the protection of the Queen, knowing as he did that in their penniless and utterly disorganised condition, without an effective government, or cannon, or reserves of ammunition, the Boers had not the slightest chance of resisting the Zulu hordes. They would have been wiped out up to or perhaps beyond Pretoria.
While I am dealing with this subject I will quote from a letter which was written to me in November 1906 from Ireland by the late Sir Marshal Clarke a propos of the review which I wrote of Dr. Leyds’s book, “The First Annexation of the Transvaal,” which appeared in the issue of South Africa published on October 27, 1906. It is an interesting document and illustrates the statements that I have made above.
Sir Marshall says:
My attention was called some days ago to the article you wrote to South Africa on the 27th ultimo. I have not read Lloyd’s book. Brooke [our colleague on Shepstone’s staff. — H. R. H.] told me that he began it but found it so full of misstatements, which, considering what I know of the author, was natural, he did not care to go on with it. I am glad that you did read it and were able to expose the falsehood of the charges levelled at Sir Theophilus. There are few of our party left now and not one with the complete knowledge you have of what took place in Pretoria at the time of the Annexation. I can of course fully endorse the story you tell of what took place when the joint commission went to Secocoeni, but only on one occasion, so far as my memory serves me, did I hear Sir Theophilus express in unguarded language to a Boer . . . [word illegible] his views as to the imminence of the danger that threatened the people of the Transvaal from the Zulus. I think it was Lyle [Dr. Lyle, the medical officer to the Mission — H. R. H.], who was with me, thought that what he said might be distorted to his detriment, but on expressing this opinion to Sir Theophilus he said he did not care, as he knew the reality of the danger he had indicated and felt that the responsibility laid on him must override any personal consideration. Looking back through all that has since occurred one feels all the more strongly the courage and sense of duty that actuated our Chief. Even had the Boers finally beat back the Zulu onslaught what a loss of life and untold misery must have at first resulted, and no one but Shepstone could have stopped Cetewayo and that only by the act of Annexation . . . .
I consider that this letter, emanating from so distinguished a public servant as Sir Marshal Clarke, one of the most noble-minded and upright men that I ever knew, is evidence of great value as to the motives which actuated Sir Theophilus at this period. Moreover it entirely confirms what I have written above.
While the negotiations were going on between Shepstone and the Boers it was suddenly announced in the Volksraad “that peace had been provisionally concluded with Secocoeni’s envoys, according to which Secocoeni and his people became subjects of the State, and that the chief himself had ratified this among other stipulations.”7
7 Sir T. Shepstone to the Earl of Carnarvon, No. 111, C-1776.
This news of course was very important, since, if the Transvaal Government had really reduced Secocoeni to become its subject, one of the causes of the proposed British intervention ceased to exist. Presently, however, there arrived a letter from the Rev. A. Merensky, a German missionary at Botsabelo at whose instance negotiations for peace had been begun, which threw the gravest doubt upon the genuineness of this alleged treaty. The result was that a Commission was appointed by President Burgers to investigate the matter, with which were sent two members of Shepstone’s staff to whom I acted as secretary. The Commissioners were Mr. Holtzhausen, a Boer, and Mr. Van Gorkom, a Hollander, who held some office in the Transvaal Government. The representatives of H.M.‘s Special Commissioner were Mr. Osborn and Captain Clarke.
The journey to Secocoeni’s country was long and rough, dangerous also, as at this season of the year (March) the fever was very bad in that low veld, so bad indeed that even the natives were dying. At a place called Fort Weber was established a force of irregular troops in the service of the Transvaal Government. They were in a wretched condition, having for some while received their pay in valueless promissory notes that were known as “Good-fors,” or, at full length, as “Good-for-nothings.” Also out of their ninety horses eighty-two were dead of sickness, so that they could scarcely be called an effective body of irregular cavalry. Still ammunition remained to them, for they received us with much firing of guns and of their two small field-pieces; also with an address.
And now I will tell you a story which shows how valuable a love of scenery may be under certain circumstances. Among the officers at Fort Weber was one whom I will call Mr. A., who was largely responsible for the alleged treaty with Secocoeni. Also there was a Boer called Deventer, an excellent man who could sit a bucking horse better than anyone I ever knew. Subsequently he entered the service of the British Government and was killed, how, I forget.
Shortly after the Annexation Deventer told the following tale to Osborn, and at the time we satisfied ourselves that this tale was true. A night or two before our arrival at Fort Weber, when it was known that we were coming, Makurupiji, Secocoeni’s “Tongue” or prime minister, visited the place in connection with the peace negotiations. Whether he was still there when we arrived I am not quite certain. During his stay Mr. A. — who, I should add, was not of pure Boer blood — in Deventer’s hearing assured Makurupiji that if the Boers had scourged Secocoeni with whips, the English would scourge him with scorpions. He said that they would take all the women and cattle and make slaves or soldiers of the men. So earnest were his protestations that at length Makurupiji, who knew nothing about the English, was persuaded to believe him and asked what could be done to prevent these calamities.
Mr. A. answered that there was but one way out of the danger, namely to kill the British envoys. To this plan Makurupiji at length consented, and it was arranged that on our way back from Secocoeni’s town we three were to be ambushed and murdered by the Basutos. I should add that we never learned whether or not Secocoeni himself had any part in this scheme, or whether all the credit of it must be given to Makurupiji, a very cunning and villainous-looking person, who, I believe, ultimately committed suicide after the destruction of the tribe, preferring death to imprisonment. If Secocoeni was concerned in it retribution overtook him when, a year or two later, Sir Garnet Wolseley stormed his town with the help of the Swazis and wiped out his people. I think that he himself died in jail in Pretoria.
After the plot had been settled in all its details Mr. A. and Makurupiji separated. During the night, however, Deventer, who was horrified at the whole business, crept to where Makurupiji was sleeping, woke him up and implored him to have nothing to do with so foul a crime. Makurupiji listened to his arguments and in the end answered, “My words are my words. What I have said I have said.”
We arrived and, according to my original pencilled notes which I have before me, started for Secocoeni’s on March 27th. All that day we rode through wild and most beautiful country, now across valleys and now over mountains. Indeed I never saw any more lovely in its own savage way, backed as it was by the splendid Blueberg range rising like a titanic wall, its jagged pinnacles aglow with the fires of the setting sun. At length, scrambling down the path, in which one of our horses was seized with the dreaded sickness and left to die, we entered the fever-trap known as Secocoeni’s Town and rode on past the celebrated fortified kopje to the beautiful hut that had been prepared for us.
Here we were received by Swasi, Secocoeni’s uncle and guest-master. All the population flocked out to look at us, clad in the sweet simplicity of a little strip of skin tied round the middle. Even here, however, the female love of ornament was in evidence, for the hair of the women was elaborately arranged and powdered with some metal that caused it to glitter and gave it a blue tinge. Our hut was very superior to that built by the Zulus. It stood in a reed-hedged courtyard which was floored with limestone concrete. Also it had a verandah round it. The interior walls were painted with red ochre in lines and spirals something after the old Greek fashion. Indeed, these Basutos gave me the idea that they were sprung from some race with a considerable knowledge of civilisation and its arts. In other ways, however, they had quite relapsed into barbarism. Thus, as we entered the town about a hundred women returned from labouring in the fields, stripped themselves stark naked before us, and proceeded to wash in a stream — though I observe that they did this “in a modest kind of way.” I should add that at this time very few white men had ever passed the gates of Secocoeni’s Town.
It was an uncanny kind of place. If you got up at night, if you moved anywhere, you became aware that dozens or hundreds of eyes were watching you. Privacy was impossible. You ate, too, in public. The chief sent down a sheep. You saw it living, next you saw it more or less cooked and held before you in quarters on sticks by kneeling natives. You cut off chunks with your knife, ate what you liked or, rather, what you must, and threw the rest to other natives who stood round staring, among them the heir-apparent to the chieftainship. These caught the pieces as a dog does, and gobbled them down like a dog.
On the morning following our arrival, after a night so hot that sleep was almost impossible — for at that season the place, surrounded as it was by hills, was like a stewpan — we rose and, quite unwashed, since water was unobtainable, ate more chunks of half-cooked sheep, which we flavoured with quinine. Then after combating demands for brandy, whereof the fame had spread even to this remote place, we surrendered ourselves into the charge of the astute-faced Makurupiji, the fat Swasi, and of the general of the forces, an obese person called Galock, with a countenance resembling that of a pig. These eminent officers conducted us for nearly a mile, through a heat so burning that we grew quite exhausted, to the place of the indaba, or talk. Here, under a rough shed open on all sides, sat about a hundred of the headmen who had come “to witness.” Beyond this was the chief’s private enclosure, where he was seated on the hide of a bull under a shady tree, clothed in a tiger-skin kaross and a cotton blanket, and wearing on his head a huge old felt hat. He rose and shook hands with us through the gateway. He was a man of middle age with twinkling black eyes and a flat nose, very repulsive to look on. After this he retired to his bull-hide, where he sat chewing handfuls of some intoxicating green leaf, and took no further active part in the proceedings. All the conversation was carried on through Makurupiji, his “Tongue,” who personated him, using the pronoun “I,” and talking of “my father, Sequati,” and so forth.
It was very curious to see one man pretending thus to be another, while that other sat within a few yards of him apparently unconcerned. Another strange sight was to watch the arrival of the various notables. As each headman appeared he paused in front of the gateway beyond which sat Secocoeni chewing his leaves, clapped his hands softly together and uttered a word of unknown meaning which sounded like “Marema.” Then he took his seat with the others.
In the midst of this throng we squatted for four long hours. I remember that I was perched upon a log in the blaze of the sun, taking notes to the best of my ability — those which are before me now — as the interpreters rendered the conversation from Sesutu into Dutch and English. It was a very trying experience, since I had to keep my every faculty on the strain lest I should miss something of importance in this medley of tongues. On comparing the report we finally sent in signed by Osborn, Clarke, and myself (C-1776, Enclosure 6 in No. 111) — which report I remember I wrote — with my original pencil notes, I observe, however, that not much escaped me.
Into the details of that document I will not enter here, as it is a matter of history, further than to say that the alleged treaty under which Secocoeni was supposed to have bound himself to become a subject of the Transvaal proved to be a fraud. When this had been satisfactorily demonstrated beyond the possibility of denial, the officer whom I have named Mr. A., who had negotiated the said treaty, rose in a rage, real or simulated, and withdrew, taking with him the Dutch Commissioners, Messrs. Holtzhausen and Van Gorkom. After this we entered the private enclosure and had an interview with Secocoeni himself. At first the chief desired that Makurupiji should continue to speak for him, but to this we refused to agree.
I need not repeat the substance of the interview, since it is published as an enclosure to the despatch which I have quoted above. A re-reading of it, however, makes me wonder whether Secocoeni himself was actually privy to the plot to murder us, or whether it was entirely Makurupiji’s work. If he was, he must have been a really remarkable old scoundrel. I am bound to add, however, that, as his subsequent history shows, he was in fact a quite unprincipled person whom no promises or considerations of honour could bind. So it is very possible that he did know all about the plot.
At length we bade farewell to the chief, whom we left still chewing leaves like Nebuchadnezzar, and that was the last I ever saw of him. On arriving at our hut we found that the Commission had departed, leaving us without any guide. We went back to Secocoeni asking for guides, and then began a series of mysterious delays. We were told that all the men were out at work, although scores stood about us; that they did not know the road, and so forth. At last Osborn addressed old Swasi and others in a way they could not misunderstand, with the result that two lads were produced.
These lads were named Sekouili and Nojoiani, or some such words, appellations which we corrupted into “Scowl” and “No-joke.” Under their guidance we started. I may add here that when we had crossed the mountains, for some reason which we could not at the time understand, these Basuto boys expressed themselves as afraid to return to Secocoeni’s country, saying that if they did so they would be killed. One or both of them remained in my service for a long time afterwards, as they implored to be taken on with us.
By the time we had reached the crest of the first range the sun had set and the moon was up. Here the path forked, one division of it, that by which we had come, running on over the mountains, the other following the line of a deep valley at a lower level. A discussion arose between us as to which we should take; my elders were in favour of the upper, preferring those ills we knew of, which the two boys, Scowl and No-joke, begged and prayed us not to leave, almost with passion. I have little doubt that this was because the ambush into which they were directed to lead us was set upon that upper path. I, however, pleaded for the lower path, just because the fancy had taken me that thence the view of the moonlit valley would be very grand, and stuck to my point. At length one of my companions, I think it was Osborn, said with a laugh, “Oh! let the young donkey have his way. Who knows, perhaps he is right!” or words to that effect.
Evidently my anticipations as to the view from this lower path were not disappointed, for in my notes written up on the next day I find the following:
“It was sombre, weird, grand. Every valley became a mysterious deep, and every hill and stone and tree shone with that cold, pale lustre that the moon alone can throw. Silence reigned, the silence of the dead.”
Had we gone by the upper path I believe it would soon have been the silence of the dead for us. But if so my fancies, or some merciful influence that caused and directed them, proved our salvation.
After we had ridden a long way through the silence that I have described and were getting out of the mountains into the valley, we became aware of a great commotion going on amongst the rocks a mile or so to our left, where ran the road we should have followed. War-horns were blown, and a Basuto warrior armed with gun and spear rushed down to look at us, then vanished. Probably a match struck to light a pipe had shown him our whereabouts, or he may have heard our voices. So we crossed the mountains in safety. And now I will take up Deventer’s story.
He said that it was the accident of our choosing the lower path that in fact saved our lives, as on the upper one the murderers were waiting. When we emerged from it the Boer Commission and Mr. A. had, he added, crossed the great valley and reached the further range of hills, where they were met by some troopers from the fort. Here, by the blowing of the horns that we had heard, or otherwise — for these natives have very strange and effective means of communication — knowledge came to Mr. A. that in some unexpected fashion we had escaped the ambush and were riding towards him across the valley. Thereon, said Deventer, he lost all control of himself and called for volunteers to shoot us down in the second nek. Then, according to him, Holtzhausen — who, by the way, was one of the best fellows I ever knew, a very honest and straightforward man, and who, like Mr. Van Gorkom, had no suspicion of any of these things — intervened with great effect, shouting out that if this wicked deed were done he “would publish it in every Court of Europe.”
After this declaration no volunteers came forward: indeed they might have refused to do so in any case; with the result that about dawn on the following day we arrived utterly worn out at Fort Weber — I remember that several times I fell asleep on my horse — where we were received quite affectionately by Mr. A.
When Deventer revealed all this appalling story some months later, he asked and received a promise that no public use should be made of the information, since when it came to his knowledge he was in the service of the Boer Government, and therefore did not consider himself justified in disclosing secrets to the prejudice of another servant of that Government. This wish of his was strictly respected, but, as may be imagined, the English authorities after the Annexation, although they could make no use of their knowledge, were not willing to accede to Mr. A.‘s applications for employment under the new regime. A while later he came to the house at Pretoria in which I was then living with Osborn, who was the Secretary to the Government, which house, I think, was called “The Oaks.” Mr. Osborn received him, and I, who was writing in an adjoining room separated from them only by some very thin partition, heard words running high between them. He (A.) was blustering and demanding to be employed as a right. In the end he asked why he should be left out when so many other Boer officials had received appointments. Thereon Osborn answered with great rigour, “Damn it! Mr. A. — you know why.”
The man attempted no answer, and a moment later I saw him walk out of the house with a very crestfallen air, after which I think Osborn came into my room and expressed his feelings on the whole subject with the utmost freedom.
That is the story, of which the reader, if there ever should be such a person, can form his own opinion. Of course it rests upon Deventer’s word supported only by certain corroborative evidence of a circumstantial sort, such as the sudden departure of the Boer Commission, leaving us alone in Secocoeni’s Town without guides, the behaviour of the two Basuto lads, and of the individual inculpated on the occasion that I have just mentioned. Deventer may have lied, but I see no reason why he should have done so, and it was not in keeping with his character, nor did any of us at the time find cause to doubt the truth of his statement. On the other hand our disappearance from this mortal sphere might have been convenient to Mr. A., who knew that when we saw Secocoeni we should discover that the alleged treaty with that chief which he had negotiated had been forged as regards its most important clause. If we were all dead we could not communicate our knowledge to the Special Commissioner, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, and through him to the British Government, in which event his credit would have been saved and the South African Republic, which he served, would have been freed from a great embarrassment. It is not probable that any more will ever be known of this matter, which, so to speak, now rests between Mr. A. — whose name I refrain from mentioning — and God. Of the Englishmen concerned I alone survive, and if any of the others still live they must be very old men.
At Fort Weber I think we separated from the Boer Commission, also that Clarke left us to attend to business elsewhere. Osborn and I trekked day and night in an ox-waggon to Middelburg — trekked till the oxen fell down in the yokes. It was a fearful and a sleepless journey. At some period in it we were left quite without food. Only a single pot of jam remained. We opened the tin and helped ourselves to the jam with our knives, sitting one on either side of it in the vasty veld, till we could eat no more of the sickly stuff, hungry though we were.
While we were thus engaged an eagle sailed over us with a koran or small bustard in its claws. I shouted and it dropped the koran, which, thinking that it would serve for supper, I secured and tied to my saddle, unfortunately by its head, not by its feet. We rode on and I noticed that the eagle and its mate followed us. In the end the jerking of the horse separated the koran’s head from its body, so that the bird fell to the ground. In a moment the eagle had it again and sailed away in triumph.
By the way, I still possess that knife with which I ate the jam. It was given to me by my brother Andrew when I was about twelve and, except for a month or two when it was lost upon the veld, from that day to this it has been in my pocket. It is wonderful that an article in daily use should have lasted so long, but I hope that it may remain to the end of the chapter.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09