The Days of My Life, by H. Rider Haggard

Chapter 8


H. R. H. and wife sail for Natal — Farm near Transvaal — Maritzburg — Dinner at Government House — Started for Newcastle — Adventures on journey — Hilldrop — Boer revolt — Natal invaded — Majuba and Colley’s death — Work on farm — Royal Commission — Sir Hercules Robinson President — Hilldrop let to Sir Hercules and staff — Birth of H. R. H.‘s son — President Brand and Sir H. de Villiers — Retrocession of Transvaal — Popular indignation — Farming — Return home — Mazooku.

My wife and I with two servants, a Norfolk groom of the name of Stephen — I forget his surname — who, a little touched up, appears as Job in my book “She,” and a middle-aged woman named Gibbs who had been my wife’s maid before marriage, three dogs, two parrots, and a “spider” carriage, which was built to my special order in Norwich, left England somewhere towards the end of 1880. I think that we reached Natal before Christmas, and were greeted with the news of the Bronker’s Spruit massacre, for I can call it by no other name. In short, we found that the Transvaal was in open rebellion.

It was indeed a pleasant situation. Newcastle, whither we desired to proceed, lies very near the Transvaal border, and the question was, Did I dare to take my wife thither? For some weeks we remained in Maritzburg, staying part of the time with Sir Theophilus and Lady Shepstone, and the rest in an hotel. Literally I was at my wits’ end to know what to do. To advance seemed too risky; to remain where we were was both wearisome and, with our servants, ruinously expensive.

At length my wife, who, I think, take her altogether, is the most courageous woman I ever met, announced that she would have no more of it: her house was at Newcastle two hundred miles away, and, Boers or no Boers, thither she would go. There were rumours that Sir George Colley, who was then the Governor and Commander-inChief of Natal, intended to attack the passes of the Drakensberg with the few troops at his disposal. Nobody believed it, since the thing was so obviously a madness. But I was not so sure. I went to Colonel (afterwards Sir Charles) Mitchell, the Colonial Secretary, and asked him in confidence if he knew anything. He replied — Nothing, but that I might be quite certain that so distinguished a soldier would never act foolishly.

So I bought two good horses — which afterwards died of the sickness — harnessed them to the “spider,” and we started.

I think it was on the night before Colley left Maritzburg to take personal command of the troops at Newcastle that my wife and I dined at Government House. If so, this historical dinner took place on January 9, 1881. I believe that there were thirteen of us at table, though on this point I am not absolutely clear, of whom three were ladies — Lady Colley, another lady whose name I forget, and my wife. The other guests were officers and the members of Colley’s staff. The only name that I can remember is that of young Elwes, who within a week or two was to die charging the Boer schanzes and shouting “Floreat Etona!” I sat next to him at table.

My wife reminds me of an absurd little incident that happened at this dinner. Elwes, I think, was A.D.C. to Colley, and one of his duties — it used to be mine when I was on the Governor’s staff in the same house — was to write the menus in French. One of the items of fare recorded by him was pates de mince. In a silence such as happens at dinner-parties, Lady Colley was heard saying from the end of the table:

“Mr. Elwes, what are pates de mince? I never heard of a dish called pates de mince!” whereon everyone turned and looked at Elwes.

Pates de mince, Lady Colley,” he stammered presently, his youthful face covered with blushes, “is the French for mince-pies.”

Poor Elwes! He did not hear the last of his pates de mince during that meal. Thus do farce and tragedy often walk hand in hand.

In a few months’ time Lady Colley, the other lady, my wife and I were the sole survivors of that dinner-party. The other lady died shortly afterwards. About the year 1888 my wife and I were guests at a dinner given by the late Anthony Froude. Lady Colley, as she was then, was another of the guests. Thus we three survivors of that fatal Government House dinner met again. When Lady Colley recognised us she burst into tears, and my wife was obliged to stand over her to screen her grief from observation.

Here are some extracts from a letter written by my wife to my father from the little town of Estcourt, and dated January 19, 1881 — nearly thirty-one years ago.

We have at last summoned up courage to start up-country in spite of the Boers, the real fact being that we were getting dreadfully tired of doing nothing down in Maritzburg, which was besides most fearfully hot. We got to our first stage, Howick, last Friday, which luckily for us was a very pretty place with a comfortable hotel. I say luckily, because we were detained there by the rain till Monday. We then started at about 9:30 A.M. for Mooi River (a distance of thirty miles), which we did not reach until about 8 o’clock in the evening. The roads were in a positively fearful state: we could only go very carefully at a foot’s pace the whole way, and even then we got into some very nasty places. I walked a good part of the way, in fact we all did, as it was quite as hard work hanging on driving as walking. Yesterday we came on here, which was not half such a tiring day, as the roads were comparatively very good, and we are told that they will be so now for the rest of the way, which is a comfort. If we are not detained by rain or other mishaps we expect to get to Newcastle next Saturday. I quite forgot to tell you that the unhappy Gibbs came to sad grief on the way from Maritzburg to Howick, and all on account of her devotion to Bob. She was nursing the said spoilt animal on her knee when suddenly the carriage went into a hole, gave a lurch and nearly sent Bob flying. In her efforts to save him out fell Gibbs right between the wheels, but marvellous to relate she was not a bit hurt, only bruised her arm a little and got a good shaking. . . . At almost every stage we meet fugitives from the Transvaal, but they all seem to look upon Newcastle as safe. . . . With much love from us both to you all,

Your affectionate daughter-inlaw,
M. L. Haggard.

Truly this was an awful journey, especially as my wife was in a state in which great exertion was undesirable. The roads, as she says, were terrible, being cut up by the passage of guns and troops. Indeed, there were no roads — simply, in that wet season, breadths of mud-holes sometimes a hundred yards wide, of which holes you might take your choice. It was into one of these that poor Gibbs fell with the beloved terrier, Bob. Never shall I forget the splash she caused. The spectacle of an elderly British lady’s-maid in that hole still clasping Bob to her bosom was almost weird. The hind wheels of the “spider” went over her, grinding her deeper into the mire.

“Good God!” I said to Stephen, “she is done for.”

My further remarks were interrupted by a series of piercing yells.

“Lord bless you, sir,” answered Stephen, “if she can screech like that there ain’t much the matter.”

Nor was there, except mud and Gibbs’ voluble views upon South African roads.

A day or two after this we galloped in front of a fearful thunderstorm, of which the flashes kept striking behind us, and at last reached shelter just in time. On another day we ploughed through sodden peat flats, in which our wheels sank to the axles, to the edge of a river — I forget which river. On the farther bank was the inn. The night was coming on and the river was in full flood. What could we do? To get back across those flats was impossible; to sleep in the rain in the open carriage was impossible; to attempt to cross the flooded river was very dangerous. My wife, as usual, made up her mind at once. “Let’s try it,” she said.

I felt bound to give Gibbs her choice.

“Don’t you go a-asking of her, sir,” said Stephen, “or we shan’t never do nauthing. If we’ve got to drown, she may as well drown too.” Stephen, I may observe, lacked affection for Gibbs.

So we “tried it,” two brave and brawny Zulus wading into the water with us, and hanging on to the sides of the “spider” in order to prevent it from overturning. A transport rider on the bank, who had warned us against the attempt, shouted valedictory messages: “When you are all drowned, don’t blame me. Remember that I told you so!”

I answered something appropriate to the occasion and my feelings, and in we went.

The stream was coming down like a mill-race and rising every minute. Soon the horses were off their legs, but they were plucky beasts and struck out for the farther shore of the drift. The water ran through the bottom of the carriage, which began to float, but the brave Kaffirs hung on, although they were up to their arm-pits and could scarcely stand. Gibbs wailed softly in the background and clasped Bob to her breast. There were a few fearful moments of doubt, then, thank God! the horses got their feet again, and we dragged through, damp but safe, and slept that night in comfort in the inn.

Such were some of the incidents of that extremely arduous journey. At length we reached Newcastle safe and sound, and drove out to our house on the farm Rooipoint, about a mile and a half from the town. This house, which was named Hilldrop (the Mooifontein of “Jess,” where it is actually described), was and no doubt still is a very pretty place, built by Osborn for himself when he was Resident Magistrate at Newcastle. It is backed by a rocky hill, and its broad verandah commands a wide and charming view. Round about it stood orange trees — I believe these died after we left — and to the right was a plantation of black wattles. For a colonial dwelling it was spacious, having a good drawing-room, and altogether the home was one where English folk could live in decency and comfort. Moreover our furniture had arrived, and for the most part had been arranged by the indefatigable Cochrane — “that man who calls himself Mr. Cochrane,” as Gibbs once described him after some difficulty which interfered with her comfort.

I wish I could remember more of the sayings of Gibbs, for they were worthy of preservation. Only one returns to my mind, however. It was after our flight before the thunderstorm, a terrific thunderstorm, I admit, which had reduced Gibbs to a perfect jelly of terror.

“Don’t be so foolish, Gibbs,” said my wife, “and make an exhibition of yourself. Look at me, I’m not frightened.”

“No, ma’am, I see you ain’t,” answered the gasping Gibbs, “and I tell you straight I don’t call it ladylike!”

In short, by contrast with all we had undergone, the place seemed a perfect haven of rest. This, however, it was not destined to remain for long. First there were the refugees, some of them people I had known in the Transvaal, who came with their tales of woe and ruin, asking for shelter which we were unable to give. Then, to our dismay, we learned that on the very day of our arrival Colley had moved out to attack the Nek.

Two days later we heard the sound of firing, and getting back to Hilldrop I received the following note from Beaumont, the Resident Magistrate of Newcastle, who was an old friend of mine, now one of the Natal judges.


I am sorry to say the troops failed this morning in their attack on the “Nek” and had to retire to their waggon laager, after heavy loss. We have no further particulars. I do not think that Newcastle is in any danger. The signal for alarm in town is a bell; but should I think there is any occasion for it I will send out a runner to warn you. I wish I could give you a welcome under better circumstances, but we must make the best of things. With my kindest regards to Mrs. Haggard, upon whom I hope Mrs. Beaumont will soon be able to call . . . .

W. H. Beaumont.

On the following day, January 30, I wrote a letter to my father, which I have just recovered with the others.

You will see from the address that we have reached this in safety after a rather difficult journey owing to the villainous state of the roads. Old Gibbs shot straight out of the carriage twice but came to no harm. Louie is well and expressed herself very pleased with the place. . . . We have come out in very troublous times. When for various reasons we made up our minds to come up-country, Newcastle was looked upon as one of the safest places in the Colony, owing to the large body of troops concentrated there. Nobody dreamed that Sir George Colley could be mad enough to try and force the passes with such a handful of men, and I believe he was again and again warned of its impossibility. However, the day we got here he started, and a few evenings afterwards we heard the guns going on the mountains. Next came the intelligence that we had met with a crushing repulse. It appears that the Boers beat the troops back without difficulty, and from what I can judge it will take 5000 men and a great expenditure of life to force their position. Nearly all the officers actually engaged were killed, including poor young Elwes (Norfolk) whom I sat next to at dinner the other night. He was talking to me about you, and said that he saw you the other day at Lynn station talking to the barmaid. It is all very sad. I do not think that this place is in danger, but still these are anxious times for us all. Our men have retreated into laager near the top of the mountain, and the Boers are in laager on the top. When the reinforcements come there will be a fearful engagement and many officers will be picked off. All the Boers are in rifle pits behind stone walls. I think they will have to send more troops.

We have got all our things up here safely and have made the place quite pretty, but somehow one can take no pleasure in anything just now with blood being shed like water all round. Every time one sees a Kaffir runner coming to the house one feels anxious lest he should be the announcer of some fresh evil. . . . We will send you a longer letter in a mail or two, but just now we are head over ears in work arranging the house, etc. And now good-bye. With best love from us both to all at home,

Believe me ever
Your most affectionate and dutiful son,
H. Rider Haggard.

Such was our house-warming at Hilldrop.

On February 8th about midday once more we heard the guns at work in the neighbourhood of the hill Scheins Hoogte, about eleven miles from our farm. The firing was very heavy, that of the field-pieces being almost unceasing, as was the crash and roll of the rifles. At dusk it died away. Some Kaffirs came to Hilldrop and told us that a force of British soldiers were surrounded on a hill in the Ingogo River; that they were fighting well, but that “their arms were tired.” The Kaffirs added that they would all be killed during the night.

I have told the story of Ingogo in “Cetewayo and his White Neighbours,” and I cannot tell it again; indeed, I have no heart to do so. It was a miserable and an aimless business, as we heard of it from the lips of the survivors.

After the Ingogo defeat, when the wounded were left lying on the ground through the raging African night, the Boers invaded Natal. One night, in the stillness, I heard the galloping of a vast number of horses. Some five hundred of the enemy had taken possession of the next farm to our own, which they looted. The Boers had descended into Natal, in order to attack the reinforcements. We colonists saw a chance, a desperate chance it is true, of cutting them off, or at any rate of inflicting great damager upon them. A number of us congregated at Newcastle with the idea of forming a volunteer corps. I was very doubtful whether I ought to join, seeing what were my family responsibilities. I remember my young wife coming out of the house into the garden, where some of us were talking over the matter, and saying, “Don’t consider me. Do what you think your duty. I’ll take my chance.”

Never did I admire any woman more than I did her upon that occasion. In all the circumstances which in her case included the imminent birth of a child, I thought and think her conduct in this matter, and indeed throughout all these troubles, little less than heroic. But of such stuff is she made.

As it chanced, however, this particular adventure came to nothing. The authorities got wind of it, and if I recollect right, my friend Beaumont the Magistrate arrived on the scene with a message from the Government at Maritzburg or elsewhere to the effect that our proposed attack on the Boers was forbidden, and that if we insisted on carrying it out we should be repudiated; that our wounded would be left to lie where they fell, and that if the Boers chose to shoot any of us whom they took prisoner no remonstrance would be made, and so forth and so forth. It was a peculiar errand that he had to perform, but the British lion was a humble animal in those days; its tail was tucked very tightly between its legs. Also the authorities were naturally anxious to prevent the war from spreading to the civil population. So our proposed coup came to nothing.

Now followed a period of great alarm. We were surrounded by the enemy, and from hour to hour never knew on whom or where the blow might fall. Every night at Hilldrop we placed Kaffirs on the surrounding hills that they might warn us of the approach of the enemy. Well and faithfully did these men fulfil their duty; indeed, we were kept advised of all that happened through the Zulu natives dwelling on our farm. Also my old body-servant, Mazooku, had joined me on my return to Africa, and with his friends night and day guarded us as a mother might her child. Night by night, sometimes in our clothes, we slept with about six horses saddled in the stable, loaded rifles leaning against the beds, and revolvers beneath our pillows.

Next came a rumour, apparently well substantiated, that the expected battle between the invading Boers and the reinforcements was actually to take place on the following day at a drift of the Ingagaan River upon our own farm, Rooipoint. It was added, probably with truth, that the main body of the Boers intended to occupy my house and the hill behind. This was too much, so, abandoning everything except our plate, we retreated into laager at Newcastle, and there spent several very uncomfortable days. For some reason that never transpired, however, the Boers never delivered the expected attack. It was the one military mistake that they made, for had they done so I believe they would have cut up the long line of reinforcements, and subsequently have taken the town of Newcastle without much difficulty. On the contrary, they withdrew to the Nek as silently and swiftly as they had come.

On February 17th the reinforcements marched safely into Newcastle. General Wood, however, who I think accompanied them, was sent down-country by Colley to bring up more reinforcements and to look after stores, a task which to the lay mind might have been equally well performed by some subordinate officer. I should add it was said that by mutual agreement of these two generals no further offensive movement was to take place until Wood returned again.

If so, that agreement was not kept, since on Sunday, the 27th of February, I heard the sound of distant guns, which most of the others attributed to thunder. So certain was I on the point that some of us rode to the camp to make inquiries. On our way through the town we learned that messages were pouring down the wires from Mount Prospect, and found the place full of rumours. At the camp, however, nothing was known; indeed, several officers to whom we spoke laughed at us. It would almost seem as though Colley had undertaken his fatal movement without advising his base.

I cannot tell again the horrible story of Majuba. Afterwards Colonel Mitchell told me the tale of what was happening at Government House in Maritzburg. Into the office where I used to sit the messages poured down from Majuba, reporting its occupation and the events which followed as they occurred. So to speak, Majuba was in that room. As each wire arrived it was his duty to take it to Lady Colley in another part of the house. At length came a pause and then a telegram of two words: “Colley dead,” and then — nothing more.

This message too Colonel Mitchel must take to the chamber where the wife sat waiting. He said that she would not believe it; also that it was the most dreadful moment of his life.

In one of the letters published in Butler’s Life of Colley, he writes to his wife that his good luck was so great and so continuous that it caused him to be afraid. Not in vain was he afraid, for can anything be more tragic than this man’s history! One of Wolseley’s darlings, every advancement, every honour was heaped upon him. At last Fortune offered to him a soldier’s supreme opportunity, and he used it thus! Had he been content to wait, it was said at the time — and I for one believe — that the Boers would have melted away. Or, if they did not, he would soon have found himself at the head of a force that might have commanded victory. He would have become one of the greatest generals in the Empire, and the history of South Africa would have been changed, for it was only defeat that brought about the Retrocession. But he had theories and he lacked patience. Or perhaps Destiny drove him on. In only one thing was it kind to him. It did not leave him living to contemplate his own ruin and the dishonour of his country. Peace be to him.

Now I will return, not without relief, to my own story, which is best set out in such letters as have survived. These remain clear and fixed; about them can gather nothing of the uncertainties or mists of time and memory.

In one written by my wife to my mother from Hilldrop on March 7, 1881, she says:

As you will have seen from the papers, we are not altogether in an enviable position. The state of affairs out here is really becoming very serious. We are told that the troops now in camp at the “Nek” are perfectly panic-stricken by the continual defeats they have sustained, and that in the last engagement, when poor Sir George Colley lost his life, the officers had the greatest difficulty in getting their men to stand. Of course, as everyone says, it is not to be wondered at. Three times now have our men been sent out in small bodies to face double their numbers and have simply been shot down like sheep without being able to make any effectual resistance. In spite of the Boers being rebels one cannot help admiring the way in which they are conducting this affair. Their coolness and pluck are wonderful, and they have not made one false move yet. Add to this the fact that they are all splendid shots, and you will agree that it is no mean foe with whom we have to deal, though this is what our officers and men would not at first believe. Hence these sad disasters. Poor Sir George Colley has paid dearly for his rashness, but, humanly speaking, it was far better for him to die as he did fighting bravely at the head of his men than to live with a lost reputation. Lost it decidedly would have been, for popular feeling was strong against him even before this last affair.

And now for a few words about ourselves. . . . The farm is pretty flourishing. We are now in the middle of haymaking, and the lazy Rider is routed out about 6 A.M. every fine morning to go and cut. He looks all the better for it, in fact I think we are both in better health than when we left England. We have lost another ostrich, luckily not a very good one, but the other birds seem to be doing nicely and some of them have splendid feathers . . . .

On May 3, 1881, I wrote:

My dearest Mother, — . . . I do not know how to thank you all enough for the loving interest you have all shown towards us in our trouble. We were extremely surprised and, speaking from a personal point of view, delighted to get a telegram from Jack [my brother who afterwards became Consul at Madagascar, etc. — H. R. H.] the other morning announcing his arrival at the Cape. We thought he had given up all idea of coming.

Perhaps you will hardly have been surprised at my letter to my father telling him that we are seriously debating clearing out of this part of the world. I am sorry to say that every day that has elapsed since I wrote has only strengthened my conviction that henceforth we can look for no peace or security in South Africa.

I fear our property will suffer from this business. A little while since we could have easily got 3000 pounds for the farm. I don’t know if we shall be able to do so now. . . . I cannot tell you how sorry I shall be if we have to leave this place, as I repeat I think is probable. After a two years’ struggle we were just beginning to do well, and had there been no war I think this would have developed into a very thriving concern. Latterly we have been clearing at the rate of over 2000 pounds a year . . . .

In a letter to my mother, dated May 4, 1881, my wife says:

The High Commissioner, to whom we have let the house, is also expected, so I fear Jack will arrive to find us in rather a muddle. We shall have to live in a kind of picnic fashion, I expect for about a fortnight, as our house-room will consist of a bedroom and two tents! — one of which we shall convert into a kitchen and the other into a room for Jack. Mr. Cochrane and George Blomefield [a ward of my father’s who had become our farming partner. — H. R. H.] are going over to the mill, where they will have to get on as best they can. Happily the rains seem to have come to an end for this season and we are now having bright sunny weather, just the right sort for camping out.

After talking of our losses from the horse-sickness, she adds:

The mill is now finished and ready to start. They made the first trial of it the other day, with rather disastrous results to poor George Blomefield. He went up a ladder and meddled with one of the safety-valves (the mill not going quite right), whereupon a tremendous noise was heard and a rush of steam and water came out. All the lookers-on fled for their lives thinking something fearful had happened, and Mr. B. in his hurry slipped his foot and came down with a crash upon his head, happily however without hurting himself at all. I am sure one of them will get blown up in the end, and am only glad Rider’s talents do not lie in the machinery line. . . . I think myself that if we can get a good price for the farm and mill it will be wisest to leave this country and try some more peaceful colony, and I find that a good many of the Transvaal landowners are already on the move.

I still possess the agreement, dated April 6, 1881, under which I let Hilldrop “for a residence for H.E. Sir Hercules Robinson and staff and for the use and service of the Royal Commission about to assemble under H.E.‘s presidency” for a period of two weeks certain with an “option of renewal for a further period to complete the term of one month,” reserving only our own bedroom for my wife’s use. No doubt as thrifty people the offer of 50 pounds a week rent tempted us; also the domestic event which has been alluded to was not expected to occur until later. In this, however, we were mistaken, as the next letter shows.

If I remember rightly the Commission occupied the house for about five weeks, during which time we all got on very well together, and of course I heard much of what was going on. It was a strange fate which decreed that the Retrocession of the Transvaal, over which I had myself hoisted the British flag, should be practically accomplished beneath my roof.

On May 24, 1881, I write to my father:

I hope by now you will have received the telegram I despatched yesterday telling you of the safe birth of a son . . . a full three weeks before the child was expected to arrive.

I am now most thankful to be able to tell you that both dear Louie and her son were doing as well as possible, indeed Louie looks little if any the worse . . . .

Jack got here all right accompanied by Spice (who signalised her arrival by fighting the household cat at the top of a tree) about a week ago. He is very flourishing, but I fear there is no chance of his getting employment in Natal owing to the flood of Transvaal officials who have to be provided for somehow. His account of Vancouver Island is such as to make us abandon our idea of forming a company and going there, so I suppose we must stay on here and then come home. The Royal Commission are still in the house. I have dined with Sir Hercules once or twice; he is a very pleasant old gentleman. We don’t at all know what is going to happen here. If it is war I only hope it will not be until Louie is well enough to travel down country. I don’t want to stop here through another war. . . . The farm is going fairly. All our oxen that are in Government service have knocked up from work, so we have to spend about 300 pounds in fresh ones, which is a great pull. However it will give us a fine head of draught cattle next year.

About this time I received the following from Sir Bartle Frere:

Athenaeum Club, Pall Mall:
July 20, 1881.

My dear Haggard, — I am very much obliged to you for your most valuable and interesting letter of June 6th, which contains one of the best accounts I have read of the present miserable state of affairs in the Transvaal. I have done my best to make the truth known publicly and privately and have not yet given up hopes that the terrible evils of England forsaking her children may be averted. But how I hardly see. At present Mr. Gladstone is practically supreme in such matters, and his one idea seems to be to reverse all that has been done hitherto by his predecessors. I shall be very glad if you can find time to let me hear from you from time to time, giving your own observations and opinions exactly as you do in your letter of June 6th.

There is a very strong and growing feeling of dissatisfaction with the way in which Transvaal affairs have been mismanaged by the present Government, and the expression of this dissatisfaction would probably have been far stronger had not the Irish Land Bill so entirely absorbed public attention and the whole time of Parliament. Let me hear also about yourself, what you are doing and how you are prospering, and

Believe me,
Sincerely yours,
H. B. E. Frere.

The next letter in order of date that I find is one from Sir Theophilus Shepstone, headed Pietermaritzburg, June 16, 1881.

My dear Haggard, — One of the little Schwikkard girls wrote me the news of the advent of your son and heir the morning of his birth and told me of the well-being of both mother and child, so that she prevented any anxiety as far as we are concerned with regard to this important event. I congratulate you most heartily and wish every prosperity to all concerned in this little life, including the little life itself. Fortunately everything that is born in a stable is not a horse, or your boy would be either a Boer or a Royal Commissioner; the latter he may become, but the former never. I suppose you will call him “Joubert” or “Jorissen,” but “Bok” would make a shorter signature; for shortness I think that I should prefer “Juhan” [a great Zulu chieftain. — H. R. H.], and for respectability “Cetewayo.” [Of course all this was Shepstone’s playful satire. — H. R. H.]

I quite agree with you about Sir Hercules Robinson; from the little I saw of him I thought him straightforward; I fancy, however, that he did not like his job.

There is nothing to be said about the Transvaal that would have the slightest effect just now; the humiliation is determined upon and must be endured: natural causes and natural processes are all that can now be looked for to bring about amelioration. The next thing to look forward to is the effect that this humiliation of the British flag will produce at the Cape. The Transvaal rebellion was not a Transvaal question; at the next general election in the Cape Colony the Dutch element will predominate in their Parliament, they will adopt the Dutch as the official language, and they will ask England to withdraw, and threaten vaguely if she does not. I can see no escape from the logic of facts which she has created; she must withdraw; and if from the Cape why not from Ireland or Canada or anywhere else?

I am glad to hear that your farm is going well. I hope you will make hay while the sun shines, for I suspect that the troops or the greater portion of them will soon be withdrawn. . . . Believe me, my dear Haggard,

Yours always sincerely,
T. Shepstone.

The following extract from a letter written by my late brother John to my father, which has come into my hands with the others, shows the date of the departure of the Royal Commission, and what we thought of that body individually. It is headed Hilldrop, Newcastle, June 3, 1881:

My dear Father, — You will have heard from Rider ere you receive this of the birth of his boy, so I will not enlarge on that subject.

The Royal Commission left this house for the Transvaal yesterday, so we left the tents in the garden and took repossession of the building. I think most of them were sorry to go, and for many things we were sorry to lose them; they were a remarkably nice set of men, from Sir Hercules Robinson downwards. . . . I next tackled Sir Hercules Robinson [as to an appointment he desired at the time. — H. R. H.], and was asked to dinner at Hilldrop with Rider and Louisa. The latter did not attend. Among the guests at the table were Sir Henry de Villiers and President Brand of the Free State.

Enclosed in this letter is one from Sir Evelyn Wood to my brother, in which he states that “I do not myself anticipate remaining Governor of Natal.” His dissent from the report of the Royal Commission will suggest a reason why.

I do not remember much of President Brand; for some reason he made no great impression on my mind, but Sir Henry de Villiers I recall very well indeed, for we rode together and talked a good deal. He was a quiet man, pleasant and able, but of course Dutch by blood, and therefore, although he may not have known it himself, naturally in sympathy with Dutch aims and ambitions. In him the Boers had an advocate of the best class. Sir Hercules Robinson was a most agreeable Irish gentleman. Also he was an official, and not of the strongest sort. As a Royal Commissioner theoretically he was in an independent position, but he had a notable example before his eyes in the instance of Sir Bartle Frere of what happened to Colonial Governors who dared to take a line of their own. Of this Commission Sir Evelyn Wood was the only really independent member, and he dissented from its most important findings.

Never shall I forget the scene on the market square of Newcastle — it must have been about the 21st or 22nd of March — when it became known that peace had been declared as a corollary of our defeats, and that the restoration of the Transvaal was practically guaranteed within six months. Some thousands of people were gathered there, many of them refugees, among whom were a number of loyal Boers, and with these soldiers, townsfolk, and natives. I saw strong men weeping like children, and heard English-born people crying aloud that they were “b —— y Englishmen” no more. Soldiers were raging and cursing, and no one tried to stop them; natives stood stupefied, staring before them, their arms folded on their breasts; women wrung their hands.

Then an idea struck the crowd; they made a rude effigy of Mr. Gladstone and, as was done in most of the other loyal parts of South Africa, burnt it with contempt and curses. It was a futile and perhaps a foolish act, but excuses must be made for the ruined and the shamed. They could not believe their ears, in which still echoed the vehement declaration of Sir Garnet Wolseley that no Government would dare under any circumstances to give back the Transvaal, and the statements, in the House of Lords, by telegram, and in other ways of various members of the Administration to the same effect.

And now I have done and am glad to have done with the matter of this great betrayal, the bitterness of which no lapse of time ever can solace or even alleviate, and will return to its results upon my own life.

On July 30, 1881, I sent to my father what I suppose was the last letter that I wrote to him from South Africa. It was in answer to one from him enclosing a communication from the late Mr. Blake, who was at that time my lawyer, in which for various reasons, both personal and connected with our property, they recommended our return to England.

My dear Father, — I have delayed replying to your kind letter of June 22nd in order that I might have time to give it full consideration, and also to enable me to try to arrive at some satisfactory conclusion as regards the probable course of events in this country. I must now tell you that after thoroughly thinking the matter over I have made up my mind to return to England next month. This will probably seem a somewhat eccentric announcement, but my reasons are briefly as follows. First I have given due weight to what you and Mr. Blake write to me, and admit that there is a great deal in what you say. What brings me back in such a hurry however is the state of the country.

I can only trust that I have arrived at a wise decision. Of course you will understand that, under the circumstances, if we are to go, the sooner we go the better.

Cochrane is coming home with us on a trip. I am sorry to say that he is suffering from a prolonged attack of dysentery, and I think that a rest and a change of air is the only thing that will pull him together again. The farm will be left in charge of George and Mr. North (our engineer), a very respectable man who has the advantage of experience of the country . . . .

I must add a few words about our farming life. Our estate, Rooipoint, covered something over three thousand acres. At any rate it was a large property lying between the Newcastle town lands and the Ingagaan River, in the centre of which rose a great flat-topped hill, the Rooi or Red Point, that gave it its name. From the very crest of this hill flowed, and doubtless still flows, a strong and beautiful spring of water, though why water should appear at the top of a mountain instead of the bottom is more than I can say. At the foot of this mount we erected the steam-driven grinding mill which I had bought in England, our idea being that we should make our fortunes or at any rate do very well as millers. Whether this anticipation would or would not have been realised is more than I can tell, as we did not keep the farm long enough to learn. As a matter of fact, however, it was a risky business to import expensive machinery into a place that was not accustomed to machinery, since it involved the employment of an engineer and long and costly delays if anything went wrong with the parts of the apparatus.

Still our efforts were by no means confined to this mill. Thus we started the making of bricks, for which there was a good market in Newcastle. I used to labour at this business, and very hard work it was. Our energy, I remember, astonished the neighbourhood so much that Natal Boers used to ride from quite a distance to see two white farmers actually working with their own hands. One of the curses of South Africa is, or used to be, the universal habit of relegating all manual toil, or as much of it as possible, to Kaffirs, with the result that it came to be looked upon as a more or less degrading occupation only fit for black men.11 Such, however, was the Dutch habit. The Boer’s idea was to sit on the stoep of his house and grow rich by the natural increase of his flocks and herds, only cultivating sufficient land to provide his family with mealies and the other fruits of the earth. This system, it must be admitted, had its merits in a country where time was of no object and where land was so plentiful that every son could in due course be accommodated with a farm of 3000 morgen.

11 From Mr. Dawson’s work on South Africa (pp. 269 and 343), published in 1925, it seems this trouble still exists. — Ed.

Besides our milling and brick-making we were the first to farm ostriches in that part of Natal. In my experience the ostrich is an extremely troublesome bird. To begin with he hunts you and knocks you down. One of ours gave Cochrane a frightful drubbing, and through a pair of opera glasses I saw an unfortunate Kaffir barely escape with his life from its attentions by going to earth in an ant-bear hole like a hunted jackal. Of course the ostrich could not follow him into the hole, but it stood sentry at its mouth waiting for him to come out again. When attacked by an ostrich the only thing to do is to lie down quite flat. In this position it cannot strike you with its bludgeon-like foot, nor is its beak adapted to pecking, though it can and does dance and roll upon you and sit upon your head as though it were an egg which it wished to hatch.

These birds, so ferocious with human beings, are terribly afraid of dogs. I think that we lost two of ours through the visitation of wandering hounds at night that set them running furiously till they broke their necks in the wire fences. Its own voracity brought another to its end: for they will pick up pocket-knives or anything that attracts them. This fowl managed to swallow a huge sharp-pointed bone which fixed itself across the gullet in such a position that it would go neither up nor down. There was only one thing to be done — operate. So we operated, with a razor and without an anaesthetic. I only hope that such another job may never fall to my lot, for that ostrich was uncommonly strong and resented our surgical aid. However, we got the bone out and the creature recovered. Imagine our horror when, a few weeks later, it appeared with another bone immovably planted in exactly the same place! This time we left it to fate, by which it was speedily overtaken.

Besides the ostriches we had a number of draught oxen and some waggons. Out of these we did very well, as we hired them to Government for transport purposes, though from these trips they returned dreadfully footsore and poor. But cattle also had their risks. Thus I remember our investing several hardly earned hundreds of pounds in a bunch of trek oxen, which we sent down to the bush-veld to recover. A month or two later came a message from the man who had taken them in, to the effect that they were all dead of eating a poisonous herb called “tulip.” We often wondered if “tulip” really accounted for their disappearance from our ken.

Also we made hay, rather a new departure in that district in our time, where the cattle were left to get through the winter as best they could. This hay-making was a profitable business, as the product was in eager demand at a high price. I remember selling the result of about a month of my own work for 250 pounds, and never in all my life have I been prouder of anything than I was of earning that money, literally with my hands and by the sweat of my brow.

This was the process — one that would make my English steward and labourers stare. Indeed, when I tell the former of it, he listens politely but, I am quite sure, in his heart believes that for his benefit I have wandered into the familiar fields of fiction. We had imported a hay-cutting machine, I believe one of the first seen in those parts. Having selected a patch of level veld on which to operate, and harnessed, I think, three horses to the machine, I would start out in the dewy morning, at sunrise, with a Kaffir leader. Then we commenced operations. I sat on that dreadful apparatus and managed the levers and knives; the Kaffir led the horses. The grass was thick and plentiful, so thick indeed that it was difficult to see stones and ant-bear holes. The former must be avoided by sudden and Herculean efforts, or the knives would be shattered. As for the latter, occasionally we went into them to the depth of two feet or so, and then the trouble was to prevent myself from being thrown on to the knives.

Altogether grass-cutting had its dangers, though, as it happened, I never came to any serious harm. After the hay was once mown the rest was comparatively simple. We invented a gigantic rake, to which we attached two mules or horses, and by this means, after it had lain for a day or so in the sun to dry — for we never attempted to turn it — dragged the hay into enormous cocks, since the building of a regular stack was beyond our resources. These cocks we covered with cloths, or anything we could get, and when they had settled and sweetened by the generated heat, we sold them to the purchasers, usually commissariat officers who carted them away. I suppose they were satisfied with the stuff, as they always came back for more. Or perhaps they could get nothing else.

Further, we grew mealies or Indian corn, but here the trouble was that stray cattle and horses would break in at night and eat them.

Such is a rough outline of our various agricultural and other operations on the Rooipoint farm. Personally they form my pleasantest recollections of the place, though, were I to start again, I would not have so many irons in the fire. On the whole we made a good deal of money, though our outgoings and losses were also heavy. To farm successfully in Natal requires, or required, much capital and, owing to the poor quality of the Kaffir labour, incessant personal supervision. These Kaffirs, however, who were most of them our tenants, were in many ways our best friends; moreover they afforded us constant amusement when they were not engaged in driving us mad by their carelessness.

I remember one of them breaking the best dinner dish and calmly bringing the pieces to my wife. “I have collected and carried these fragments to the Inkosikaas (head lady),” he explained with a sweet smile, “that the Inkosikaas, being clever like all the white people, may cause them to join themselves together again.”

The Inkosikaas surveyed him and them with speechless indignation. When, however, some of the family silver — I think it was spoons — was missed and ultimately found in the stable dust-heap, and when the best new table knives were discovered being used by Mazooku and his friends to dissect a decaying ox that had died of lung sickness, her indignation was no longer speechless. Indeed the offenders fled before her.

Of course these Zulus gave everybody a native name. My wife they called by a word which meant “a pretty white bead with a pink eye,” while Gibbs was designated by a descriptive title, anglice “a worn-out old cow who would have no more calves.” I cannot recollect whether anyone, even Stephen, dared to give to her an unBowdlerised rendering of this not too complimentary appellation. Certainly I avoided doing so. Poor Gibbs! Her trials in that strange land were many. Still we brought her safe home to England, where she remained in our service for a year or two, then left and vanished away as modern domestics do. I wonder whether she still lives, and if so, where she is spending her old age!

Before we left Hilldrop we had a great sale of our imported furniture, of which the catalogue survives to this day. It was a highly successful sale, since such articles were then rare at Newcastle. Thus I think a grand piano, which I had bought second-hand for 40 pounds in England, fetched 200 pounds, and the other things went at proportionately good prices. Only the “company” got hold of all the stock of wine which was exposed upon the verandah and therein drank our healths, whereon the watchful auctioneers knocked it down to the drinkers at a high price per dozen.

So at last we bade farewell to Hilldrop, which neither of us ever has, nor I suppose ever will, see again except in dreams. I remember feeling quite sad as we drove down the dusty track to Newcastle, and the familiar house, surrounded by its orange trees, grew dim and vanished from our sight.

There my son had been born; there I had undergone many emotions of a kind that help to make a man; there I had suffered the highest sort of shame, shame for my country; there, as I felt, one chapter in my eventful life had opened and had closed. It was sad to part with the place, and also to bid good-bye to my Zulu servant Mazooku. The poor fellow was moved at this parting, and gave me what probably he valued more than anything he possessed, the kerry that he had carried ever since he was a man — that same heavy, redwood instrument with which more than once I have seen him battering the head of some foe. It hangs in the hall of this house, but where, I wonder, is Mazooku, who saved my life when I was lost upon the veld? Living, perhaps, in some kraal, and thinking from time to time of his old master Indanda, of whose subsequent doings some vague rumours may have reached him. If so, were I to revisit Africa today, I have not the faintest doubt but that he would reappear. I should go out of my hotel and see a grey-headed man squatted on the roadside who would arise, lift up his arm, salute me, and say, “Inkoos Indanda, you are here; I am here, come back to serve you.”

I have seen the thing done. As a young man Sir William Sergeaunt was in South Africa — I forget how or when — and then had a Zulu servant, a Mazook. He departed and thirty years later returned. His Mazook appeared from some kraal, of which he was then the head, and was with him during all his stay. I saw him there.

Or if my Mazook should be dead, as well he may be, and if there is any future for us mortals, and if Zulus and white men go to the same place — as why should they not? — then I am quite certain that when I reach that shore I shall see a square-faced, dusky figure seated on it, and hear the words, “Inkoos Indanda, here am I, Mazooku, who once was your man, waiting to serve you.” For such is the nature of the poor despised Zulu, at any rate towards him whom he may chance to love.

I do not know that I felt anything more in leaving Africa than the saying of good-bye to this loving, half-wild man. I remember that I made him some present when we parted — I think it was a cow, but am not sure.

On Wednesday, the 31st of August, from the deck of the Dunkeld, we saw the shores of Natal recede from our sight for ever.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55