The Boers — Their Treatment of the Natives — Seizure of native Children for Slaves — English Traders — Alarm of the Boers — Native Espionage — The Tale of the Cannon — The Boers threaten Sechele — In violation of Treaty, they stop English Traders and expel Missionaries — They attack the Bakwains — Their Mode of Fighting — The Natives killed and the School-children carried into Slavery — Destruction of English Property — African Housebuilding and Housekeeping — Mode of Spending the Day — Scarcity of Food — Locusts — Edible Frogs — Scavenger Beetle — Continued Hostility of the Boers — The Journey north — Preparations — Fellow-travelers — The Kalahari Desert — Vegetation — Watermelons — The Inhabitants — The Bushmen — Their nomad Mode of Life — Appearance — The Bakalahari — Their Love for Agriculture and for domestic Animals — Timid Character — Mode of obtaining Water — Female Water-suckers — The Desert — Water hidden.
Another adverse influence with which the mission had to contend was the vicinity of the Boers of the Cashan Mountains, otherwise named “Magaliesberg”. These are not to be counfounded with the Cape colonists, who sometimes pass by the name. The word Boer simply means “farmer”, and is not synonymous with our word boor. Indeed, to the Boers generally the latter term would be quite inappropriate, for they are a sober, industrious, and most hospitable body of peasantry. Those, however, who have fled from English law on various pretexts, and have been joined by English deserters and every other variety of bad character in their distant localities, are unfortunately of a very different stamp. The great objection many of the Boers had, and still have, to English law, is that it makes no distinction between black men and white. They felt aggrieved by their supposed losses in the emancipation of their Hottentot slaves, and determined to erect themselves into a republic, in which they might pursue, without molestation, the “proper treatment of the blacks”. It is almost needless to add that the “proper treatment” has always contained in it the essential element of slavery, namely, compulsory unpaid labor.
One section of this body, under the late Mr. Hendrick Potgeiter, penetrated the interior as far as the Cashan Mountains, whence a Zulu or Caffre chief, named Mosilikatze, had been expelled by the well-known Caffre Dingaan; and a glad welcome was given them by the Bechuana tribes, who had just escaped the hard sway of that cruel chieftain. They came with the prestige of white men and deliverers; but the Bechuanas soon found, as they expressed it, “that Mosilikatze was cruel to his enemies, and kind to those he conquered; but that the Boers destroyed their enemies, and made slaves of their friends.” The tribes who still retain the semblance of independence are forced to perform all the labor of the fields, such as manuring the land, weeding, reaping, building, making dams and canals, and at the same time to support themselves. I have myself been an eye-witness of Boers coming to a village, and, according to their usual custom, demanding twenty or thirty women to weed their gardens, and have seen these women proceed to the scene of unrequited toil, carrying their own food on their heads, their children on their backs, and instruments of labor on their shoulders. Nor have the Boers any wish to conceal the meanness of thus employing unpaid labor; on the contrary, every one of them, from Mr. Potgeiter and Mr. Gert Krieger, the commandants, downward, lauded his own humanity and justice in making such an equitable regulation. “We make the people work for us, in consideration of allowing them to live in our country.”
I can appeal to the Commandant Krieger if the foregoing is not a fair and impartial statement of the views of himself and his people. I am sensible of no mental bias toward or against these Boers; and during the several journeys I made to the poor enslaved tribes, I never avoided the whites, but tried to cure and did administer remedies to their sick, without money and without price. It is due to them to state that I was invariably treated with respect; but it is most unfortunate that they should have been left by their own Church for so many years to deteriorate and become as degraded as the blacks, whom the stupid prejudice against color leads them to detest.
This new species of slavery which they have adopted serves to supply the lack of field-labor only. The demand for domestic servants must be met by forays on tribes which have good supplies of cattle. The Portuguese can quote instances in which blacks become so degraded by the love of strong drink as actually to sell themselves; but never in any one case, within the memory of man, has a Bechuana chief sold any of his people, or a Bechuana man his child. Hence the necessity for a foray to seize children. And those individual Boers who would not engage in it for the sake of slaves can seldom resist the two-fold plea of a well-told story of an intended uprising of the devoted tribe, and the prospect of handsome pay in the division of the captured cattle besides.
It is difficult for a person in a civilized country to conceive that any body of men possessing the common attributes of humanity (and these Boers are by no means destitute of the better feelings of our nature) should with one accord set out, after loading their own wives and children with caresses, and proceed to shoot down in cold blood men and women, of a different color, it is true, but possessed of domestic feelings and affections equal to their own. I saw and conversed with children in the houses of Boers who had, by their own and their masters’ account, been captured, and in several instances I traced the parents of these unfortunates, though the plan approved by the long-headed among the burghers is to take children so young that they soon forget their parents and their native language also. It was long before I could give credit to the tales of bloodshed told by native witnesses, and had I received no other testimony but theirs I should probably have continued skeptical to this day as to the truth of the accounts; but when I found the Boers themselves, some bewailing and denouncing, others glorying in the bloody scenes in which they had been themselves the actors, I was compelled to admit the validity of the testimony, and try to account for the cruel anomaly. They are all traditionally religious, tracing their descent from some of the best men (Huguenots and Dutch) the world ever saw. Hence they claim to themselves the title of “Christians”, and all the colored race are “black property” or “creatures”. They being the chosen people of God, the heathen are given to them for an inheritance, and they are the rod of divine vengeance on the heathen, as were the Jews of old. Living in the midst of a native population much larger than themselves, and at fountains removed many miles from each other, they feel somewhat in the same insecure position as do the Americans in the Southern States. The first question put by them to strangers is respecting peace; and when they receive reports from disaffected or envious natives against any tribe, the case assumes all the appearance and proportions of a regular insurrection. Severe measures then appear to the most mildly disposed among them as imperatively called for, and, however bloody the massacre that follows, no qualms of conscience ensue: it is a dire necessity for the sake of peace. Indeed, the late Mr. Hendrick Potgeiter most devoutly believed himself to be the great peacemaker of the country.
But how is it that the natives, being so vastly superior in numbers to the Boers, do not rise and annihilate them? The people among whom they live are Bechuanas, not Caffres, though no one would ever learn that distinction from a Boer; and history does not contain one single instance in which the Bechuanas, even those of them who possess fire-arms, have attacked either the Boers or the English. If there is such an instance, I am certain it is not generally known, either beyond or in the Cape Colony. They have defended themselves when attacked, as in the case of Sechele, but have never engaged in offensive war with Europeans. We have a very different tale to tell of the Caffres, and the difference has always been so evident to these border Boers that, ever since those “magnificent savages”7 obtained possession of fire-arms, not one Boer has ever attempted to settle in Caffreland, or even face them as an enemy in the field. The Boers have generally manifested a marked antipathy to any thing but “long-shot” warfare, and, sidling away in their emigrations toward the more effeminate Bechuanas, have left their quarrels with the Caffres to be settled by the English, and their wars to be paid for by English gold.
7 The “United Service Journal” so styles them.
The Bakwains at Kolobeng had the spectacle of various tribes enslaved before their eyes — the Bakatla, the Batlokua, the Bahukeng, the Bamosetla, and two other tribes of Bakwains were all groaning under the oppression of unrequited labor. This would not have been felt as so great an evil but that the young men of those tribes, anxious to obtain cattle, the only means of rising to respectability and importance among their own people, were in the habit of sallying forth, like our Irish and Highland reapers, to procure work in the Cape Colony. After laboring there three or four years, in building stone dikes and dams for the Dutch farmers, they were well content if at the end of that time they could return with as many cows. On presenting one to their chief, they ranked as respectable men in the tribe ever afterward. These volunteers were highly esteemed among the Dutch, under the name of Mantatees. They were paid at the rate of one shilling a day and a large loaf of bread between six of them. Numbers of them, who had formerly seen me about twelve hundred miles inland from the Cape, recognized me with the loud laughter of joy when I was passing them at their work in the Roggefelt and Bokkefelt, within a few days of Cape Town. I conversed with them and with elders of the Dutch Church, for whom they were working, and found that the system was thoroughly satisfactory to both parties. I do not believe that there is one Boer, in the Cashan or Magaliesberg country, who would deny that a law was made, in consequence of this labor passing to the colony, to deprive these laborers of their hardly-earned cattle, for the very cogent reason that, “if they want to work, let them work for us their masters,” though boasting that in their case it would not be paid for. I can never cease to be most unfeignedly thankful that I was not born in a land of slaves. No one can understand the effect of the unutterable meanness of the slave-system on the minds of those who, but for the strange obliquity which prevents them from feeling the degradation of not being gentlemen enough to pay for services rendered, would be equal in virtue to ourselves. Fraud becomes as natural to them as “paying one’s way” is to the rest of mankind.
Wherever a missionary lives, traders are sure to come; they are mutually dependent, and each aids in the work of the other; but experience shows that the two employments can not very well be combined in the same person. Such a combination would not be morally wrong, for nothing would be more fair, and apostolical too, than that the man who devotes his time to the spiritual welfare of a people should derive temporal advantage from upright commerce, which traders, who aim exclusively at their own enrichment, modestly imagine ought to be left to them. But, though it is right for missionaries to trade, the present system of missions renders it inexpedient to spend time in so doing. No missionary with whom I ever came in contact, traded; and while the traders, whom we introduced and rendered secure in the country, waxed rich, the missionaries have invariably remained poor, and have died so. The Jesuits, in Africa at least, were wiser in their generation than we; theirs were large, influential communities, proceeding on the system of turning the abilities of every brother into that channel in which he was most likely to excel; one, fond of natural history, was allowed to follow his bent; another, fond of literature, found leisure to pursue his studies; and he who was great in barter was sent in search of ivory and gold-dust; so that while in the course of performing the religious acts of his mission to distant tribes, he found the means of aiding effectually the brethren whom he had left in the central settlement.8 We Protestants, with the comfortable conviction of superiority, have sent out missionaries with a bare subsistence only, and are unsparing in our laudations of some for not being worldly-minded whom our niggardliness made to live as did the prodigal son. I do not speak of myself, nor need I to do so, but for that very reason I feel at liberty to interpose a word in behalf of others. I have before my mind at this moment facts and instances which warrant my putting the case in this way: The command to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” must be obeyed by Christians either personally or by substitute. Now it is quite possible to find men whose love for the heathen and devotion to the work will make them ready to go forth on the terms “bare subsistence”, but what can be thought of the justice, to say nothing of the generosity, of Christians and churches who not only work their substitutes at the lowest terms, but regard what they give as charity! The matter is the more grave in respect to the Protestant missionary, who may have a wife and family. The fact is, there are many cases in which it is right, virtuous, and praiseworthy for a man to sacrifice every thing for a great object, but in which it would be very wrong for others, interested in the object as much as he, to suffer or accept the sacrifice, if they can prevent it.
8 The Dutch clergy, too, are not wanting in worldly wisdom. A fountain is bought, and the lands which it can irrigate parceled out and let to villagers. As they increase in numbers, the rents rise and the church becomes rich. With £200 per annum in addition from government, the salary amounts to £400 or £500 a year. The clergymen then preach abstinence from politics as a Christian duty. It is quite clear that, with £400 a year, but little else except pure spirituality is required.
English traders sold those articles which the Boers most dread, namely, arms and ammunition; and when the number of guns amounted to five, so much alarm was excited among our neighbors that an expedition of several hundred Boers was seriously planned to deprive the Bakwains of their guns. Knowing that the latter would rather have fled to the Kalahari Desert than deliver up their weapons and become slaves, I proceeded to the commandant, Mr. Gert Krieger, and, representing the evils of any such expedition, prevailed upon him to defer it; but that point being granted, the Boer wished to gain another, which was that I should act as a spy over the Bakwains.
I explained the impossibility of my complying with his wish, even though my principles as an Englishman had not stood in the way, by referring to an instance in which Sechele had gone with his whole force to punish an under-chief without my knowledge. This man, whose name was Kake, rebelled, and was led on in his rebellion by his father-in-law, who had been regicide in the case of Sechele’s father. Several of those who remained faithful to that chief were maltreated by Kake while passing to the Desert in search of skins. We had just come to live with the Bakwains when this happened, and Sechele consulted me. I advised mild measures, but the messengers he sent to Kake were taunted with the words, “He only pretends to wish to follow the advice of the teacher: Sechele is a coward; let him come and fight if he dare.” The next time the offense was repeated, Sechele told me he was going to hunt elephants; and as I knew the system of espionage which prevails among all the tribes, I never made inquiries that would convey the opinion that I distrusted them. I gave credit to his statement. He asked the loan of a black-metal pot to cook with, as theirs of pottery are brittle. I gave it and a handful of salt, and desired him to send back two tit-bits, the proboscis and fore-foot of the elephant. He set off, and I heard nothing more until we saw the Bakwains carrying home their wounded, and heard some of the women uttering the loud wail of sorrow for the dead, and others pealing forth the clear scream of victory. It was then clear that Sechele had attacked and driven away the rebel.
Mentioning this to the commandant in proof of the impossibility of granting his request, I had soon an example how quickly a story can grow among idle people. The five guns were, within one month, multiplied into a tale of five hundred, and the cooking-pot, now in a museum at Cape Town, was magnified into a cannon; “I had myself confessed to the loan.” Where the five hundred guns came from, it was easy to divine; for, knowing that I used a sextant, my connection with government was a thing of course; and, as I must know all her majesty’s counsels, I was questioned on the subject of the indistinct rumors which had reached them of Lord Rosse’s telescope. “What right has your government to set up that large glass at the Cape to look after us behind the Cashan Mountains?”
Many of the Boers visited us afterward at Kolobeng, some for medical advice, and others to trade in those very articles which their own laws and policy forbid. When I happened to stumble upon any of them in the town, with his muskets and powder displayed, he would begin an apology, on the ground that he was a poor man, etc., which I always cut short by frankly saying that I had nothing to do with either the Boers or their laws. Many attempts were made during these visits to elicit the truth about the guns and cannon; and ignorant of the system of espionage which prevails, eager inquiries were made by them among those who could jabber a little Dutch. It is noticeable that the system of espionage is as well developed among the savage tribes as in Austria or Russia. It is a proof of barbarism. Every man in a tribe feels himself bound to tell the chief every thing that comes to his knowledge, and, when questioned by a stranger, either gives answers which exhibit the utmost stupidity, or such as he knows will be agreeable to his chief. I believe that in this way have arisen tales of their inability to count more than ten, as was asserted of the Bechuanas about the very time when Sechele’s father counted out one thousand head of cattle as a beginning of the stock of his young son.
In the present case, Sechele, knowing every question put to his people, asked me how they ought to answer. My reply was, “Tell the truth.” Every one then declared that no cannon existed there; and our friends, judging the answer by what they themselves would in the circumstances have said, were confirmed in the opinion that the Bakwains actually possessed artillery. This was in some degree beneficial to us, inasmuch as fear prevented any foray in our direction for eight years. During that time no winter passed without one or two tribes in the East country being plundered of both cattle and children by the Boers. The plan pursued is the following: one or two friendly tribes are forced to accompany a party of mounted Boers, and these expeditions can be got up only in the winter, when horses may be used without danger of being lost by disease. When they reach the tribe to be attacked, the friendly natives are ranged in front, to form, as they say, “a shield”; the Boers then coolly fire over their heads till the devoted people flee and leave cattle, wives, and children to the captors. This was done in nine cases during my residence in the interior, and on no occasion was a drop of Boer’s blood shed. News of these deeds spread quickly among the Bakwains, and letters were repeatedly sent by the Boers to Sechele, ordering him to come and surrender himself as their vassal, and stop English traders from proceeding into the country with fire-arms for sale. But the discovery of Lake Ngami, hereafter to be described, made the traders come in five-fold greater numbers, and Sechele replied, “I was made an independent chief and placed here by God, and not by you. I was never conquered by Mosilikatze, as those tribes whom you rule over; and the English are my friends. I get every thing I wish from them. I can not hinder them from going where they like.” Those who are old enough to remember the threatened invasion of our own island may understand the effect which the constant danger of a Boerish invasion had on the minds of the Bakwains; but no others can conceive how worrying were the messages and threats from the endless self-constituted authorities of the Magaliesberg Boers; and when to all this harassing annoyance was added the scarcity produced by the drought, we could not wonder at, though we felt sorry for, their indisposition to receive instruction.
The myth of the black pot assumed serious proportions. I attempted to benefit the tribes among the Boers of Magaliesberg by placing native teachers at different points. “You must teach the blacks,” said Mr. Hendrick Potgeiter, the commandant in chief, “that they are not equal to us.” Other Boers told me, “I might as well teach the baboons on the rocks as the Africans,” but declined the test which I proposed, namely, to examine whether they or my native attendants could read best. Two of their clergymen came to baptize the children of the Boers; so, supposing these good men would assist me in overcoming the repugnance of their flock to the education of the blacks, I called on them; but my visit ended in a ‘ruse’ practiced by the Boerish commandant, whereby I was led, by professions of the greatest friendship, to retire to Kolobeng, while a letter passed me by another way to the other missionaries in the south, demanding my instant recall “for lending a cannon to their enemies.” The colonial government was also gravely informed that the story was true, and I came to be looked upon as a most suspicious character in consequence.
These notices of the Boers are not intended to produce a sneer at their ignorance, but to excite the compassion of their friends. They are perpetually talking about their laws; but practically theirs is only the law of the strongest. The Bechuanas could never understand the changes which took place in their commandants. “Why, one can never know who is the chief among these Boers. Like the Bushmen, they have no king — they must be the Bushmen of the English.” The idea that any tribe of men could be so senseless as not to have an hereditary chief was so absurd to these people, that, in order not to appear equally stupid, I was obliged to tell them that we English were so anxious to preserve the royal blood, that we had made a young lady our chief. This seemed to them a most convincing proof of our sound sense. We shall see farther on the confidence my account of our queen inspired.
The Boers, encouraged by the accession of Mr. Pretorius, determined at last to put a stop to English traders going past Kolobeng, by dispersing the tribe of Bakwains, and expelling all the missionaries. Sir George Cathcart proclaimed the independence of the Boers, the best thing that could have been done had they been between us and the Caffres. A treaty was entered into with these Boers; an article for the free passage of Englishmen to the country beyond, and also another, that no slavery should be allowed in the independent territory, were duly inserted, as expressive of the views of her majesty’s government at home. “But what about the missionaries?” inquired the Boers. “YOU MAY DO AS YOU PLEASE WITH THEM,” is said to have been the answer of the “Commissioner”. This remark, if uttered at all, was probably made in joke: designing men, however, circulated it, and caused the general belief in its accuracy which now prevails all over the country, and doubtless led to the destruction of three mission stations immediately after. The Boers, four hundred in number, were sent by the late Mr. Pretorius to attack the Bakwains in 1852. Boasting that the English had given up all the blacks into their power, and had agreed to aid them in their subjugation by preventing all supplies of ammunition from coming into the Bechuana country, they assaulted the Bakwains, and, besides killing a considerable number of adults, carried off two hundred of our school children into slavery. The natives under Sechele defended themselves till the approach of night enabled them to flee to the mountains; and having in that defense killed a number of the enemy, the very first ever slain in this country by Bechuanas, I received the credit of having taught the tribe to kill Boers! My house, which had stood perfectly secure for years under the protection of the natives, was plundered in revenge. English gentlemen, who had come in the footsteps of Mr. Cumming to hunt in the country beyond, and had deposited large quantities of stores in the same keeping, and upward of eighty head of cattle as relays for the return journeys, were robbed of all, and, when they came back to Kolobeng, found the skeletons of the guardians strewed all over the place. The books of a good library — my solace in our solitude — were not taken away, but handfuls of the leaves were torn out and scattered over the place. My stock of medicines was smashed; and all our furniture and clothing carried off and sold at public auction to pay the expenses of the foray.
I do not mention these things by way of making a pitiful wail over my losses, nor in order to excite commiseration; for, though I do feel sorry for the loss of lexicons, dictionaries, &c., which had been the companions of my boyhood, yet, after all, the plundering only set me entirely free for my expedition to the north, and I have never since had a moment’s concern for any thing I left behind. The Boers resolved to shut up the interior, and I determined to open the country, and we shall see who have been most successful in resolution, they or I.
A short sketch of African housekeeping may not prove uninteresting to the reader. The entire absence of shops led us to make every thing we needed from the raw materials. You want bricks to build a house, and must forthwith proceed to the field, cut down a tree, and saw it into planks to make the brick-moulds; the materials for doors and windows, too, are standing in the forest; and, if you want to be respected by the natives, a house of decent dimensions, costing an immense amount of manual labor, must be built. The people can not assist you much; for, though most willing to labor for wages, the Bakwains have a curious inability to make or put things square: like all Bechuanas, their dwellings are made round. In the case of three large houses, erected by myself at different times, every brick and stick had to be put square by my own right hand.
Having got the meal ground, the wife proceeds to make it into bread; an extempore oven is often constructed by scooping out a large hole in an anthill, and using a slab of stone for a door. Another plan, which might be adopted by the Australians to produce something better than their “dampers”, is to make a good fire on a level piece of ground, and, when the ground is thoroughly heated, place the dough in a small, short-handled frying-pan, or simply on the hot ashes; invert any sort of metal pot over it, draw the ashes around, and then make a small fire on the top. Dough, mixed with a little leaven from a former baking, and allowed to stand an hour or two in the sun, will by this process become excellent bread.
We made our own butter, a jar serving as a churn; and our own candles by means of moulds; and soap was procured from the ashes of the plant salsola, or from wood-ashes, which in Africa contain so little alkaline matter that the boiling of successive leys has to be continued for a month or six weeks before the fat is saponified. There is not much hardship in being almost entirely dependent on ourselves; there is something of the feeling which must have animated Alexander Selkirk on seeing conveniences springing up before him from his own ingenuity; and married life is all the sweeter when so many comforts emanate directly from the thrifty striving housewife’s hands.
To some it may appear quite a romantic mode of life; it is one of active benevolence, such as the good may enjoy at home. Take a single day as a sample of the whole. We rose early, because, however hot the day may have been, the evening, night, and morning at Kolobeng were deliciously refreshing; cool is not the word, where you have neither an increase of cold nor heat to desire, and where you can sit out till midnight with no fear of coughs or rheumatism. After family worship and breakfast between six and seven, we went to keep school for all who would attend — men, women, and children being all invited. School over at eleven o’clock, while the missionary’s wife was occupied in domestic matters, the missionary himself had some manual labor as a smith, carpenter, or gardener, according to whatever was needed for ourselves or for the people; if for the latter, they worked for us in the garden, or at some other employment; skilled labor was thus exchanged for the unskilled. After dinner and an hour’s rest, the wife attended her infant-school, which the young, who were left by their parents entirely to their own caprice, liked amazingly, and generally mustered a hundred strong; or she varied that with a sewing-school, having classes of girls to learn the art; this, too, was equally well relished. During the day every operation must be superintended, and both husband and wife must labor till the sun declines. After sunset the husband went into the town to converse with any one willing to do so, sometimes on general subjects, at other times on religion. On three nights of the week, as soon as the milking of the cows was over and it had become dark, we had a public religious service, and one of instruction on secular subjects, aided by pictures and specimens. These services were diversified by attending upon the sick and prescribing for them, giving food, and otherwise assisting the poor and wretched. We tried to gain their affections by attending to the wants of the body. The smallest acts of friendship, an obliging word and civil look, are, as St. Xavier thought, no despicable part of the missionary armor. Nor ought the good opinion of the most abject to be uncared for, when politeness may secure it. Their good word in the aggregate forms a reputation which may be well employed in procuring favor for the Gospel. Show kind attention to the reckless opponents of Christianity on the bed of sickness and pain, and they never can become your personal enemies. Here, if any where, love begets love.
When at Kolobeng, during the droughts we were entirely dependent on Kuruman for supplies of corn. Once we were reduced to living on bran, to convert which into fine meal we had to grind it three times over. We were much in want of animal food, which seems to be a greater necessary of life there than vegetarians would imagine. Being alone, we could not divide the butcher-meat of a slaughtered animal with a prospect of getting a return with regularity. Sechele had, by right of chieftainship, the breast of every animal slaughtered either at home or abroad, and he most obligingly sent us a liberal share during the whole period of our sojourn. But these supplies were necessarily so irregular that we were sometimes fain to accept a dish of locusts. These are quite a blessing in the country, so much so that the RAIN-DOCTORS sometimes promised to bring them by their incantations. The locusts are strongly vegetable in taste, the flavor varying with the plants on which they feed. There is a physiological reason why locusts and honey should be eaten together. Some are roasted and pounded into meal, which, eaten with a little salt, is palatable. It will keep thus for months. Boiled, they are disagreeable; but when they are roasted I should much prefer locusts to shrimps, though I would avoid both if possible.
In traveling we sometimes suffered considerably from scarcity of meat, though not from absolute want of food. This was felt more especially by my children; and the natives, to show their sympathy, often gave them a large kind of caterpillar, which they seemed to relish; these insects could not be unwholesome, for the natives devoured them in large quantities themselves.
Another article of which our children partook with eagerness was a very large frog, called “Matlametlo”.9
9 The Pyxicephalus adspersus of Dr. Smith. Length of head and body, 5–1/2 inches; fore legs, 3 inches; hind legs, 6 inches. Width of head posteriorly, 3 inches; of body, 4–1/2 inches.
These enormous frogs, which, when cooked, look like chickens, are supposed by the natives to fall down from thunder-clouds, because after a heavy thunder-shower the pools, which are filled and retain water a few days, become instantly alive with this loud-croaking, pugnacious game. This phenomenon takes place in the driest parts of the desert, and in places where, to an ordinary observer, there is not a sign of life. Having been once benighted in a district of the Kalahari where there was no prospect of getting water for our cattle for a day or two, I was surprised to hear in the fine still evening the croaking of frogs. Walking out until I was certain that the musicians were between me and our fire, I found that they could be merry on nothing else but a prospect of rain. From the Bushmen I afterward learned that the matlametlo makes a hole at the root of certain bushes, and there ensconces himself during the months of drought. As he seldom emerges, a large variety of spider takes advantage of the hole, and makes its web across the orifice. He is thus furnished with a window and screen gratis; and no one but a Bushman would think of searching beneath a spider’s web for a frog. They completely eluded my search on the occasion referred to; and as they rush forth into the hollows filled by the thunder-shower when the rain is actually falling, and the Bechuanas are cowering under their skin garments, the sudden chorus struck up simultaneously from all sides seems to indicate a descent from the clouds.
The presence of these matlametlo in the desert in a time of drought was rather a disappointment, for I had been accustomed to suppose that the note was always emitted by them when they were chin-deep in water. Their music was always regarded in other spots as the most pleasant sound that met the ear after crossing portions of the thirsty desert; and I could fully appreciate the sympathy for these animals shown by Aesop, himself an African, in his fable of the “Boys and the Frogs”.
It is remarkable that attempts have not been made to any extent to domesticate some of the noble and useful creatures of Africa in England. The eland, which is the most magnificent of all antelopes, would grace the parks of our nobility more than deer. This animal, from the excellence of its flesh, would be appropriate to our own country; and as there is also a splendid esculent frog nearly as large as a chicken, it would no doubt tend to perpetuate the present alliance if we made a gift of that to France.
The scavenger beetle is one of the most useful of all insects, as it effectually answers the object indicated by the name. Where they abound, as at Kuruman, the villages are sweet and clean, for no sooner are animal excretions dropped than, attracted by the scent, the scavengers are heard coming booming up the wind. They roll away the droppings of cattle at once, in round pieces often as large as billiard-balls; and when they reach a place proper by its softness for the deposit of their eggs and the safety of their young, they dig the soil out from beneath the ball till they have quite let it down and covered it: they then lay their eggs within the mass. While the larvae are growing, they devour the inside of the ball before coming above ground to begin the world for themselves. The beetles with their gigantic balls look like Atlas with the world on his back; only they go backward, and, with their heads down, push with the hind legs, as if a boy should roll a snow-ball with his legs while standing on his head. As we recommend the eland to John Bull, and the gigantic frog to France, we can confidently recommend this beetle to the dirty Italian towns and our own Sanitary Commissioners.
In trying to benefit the tribes living under the Boers of the Cashan Mountains, I twice performed a journey of about three hundred miles to the eastward of Kolobeng. Sechele had become so obnoxious to the Boers that, though anxious to accompany me in my journey, he dared not trust himself among them. This did not arise from the crime of cattle-stealing; for that crime, so common among the Caffres, was never charged against his tribe, nor, indeed, against any Bechuana tribe. It is, in fact, unknown in the country, except during actual warfare. His independence and love of the English were his only faults. In my last journey there, of about two hundred miles, on parting at the River Marikwe he gave me two servants, “to be,” as he said, “his arms to serve me,” and expressed regret that he could not come himself. “Suppose we went north,” I said, “would you come?” He then told me the story of Sebituane having saved his life, and expatiated on the far-famed generosity of that really great man. This was the first time I had thought of crossing the Desert to Lake Ngami.
The conduct of the Boers, who, as will be remembered, had sent a letter designed to procure my removal out of the country, and their well-known settled policy which I have already described, became more fully developed on this than on any former occasion. When I spoke to Mr. Hendrick Potgeiter of the danger of hindering the Gospel of Christ among these poor savages, he became greatly excited, and called one of his followers to answer me. He threatened to attack any tribe that might receive a native teacher, yet he promised to use his influence to prevent those under him from throwing obstacles in our way. I could perceive plainly that nothing more could be done in that direction, so I commenced collecting all the information I could about the desert, with the intention of crossing it, if possible. Sekomi, the chief of the Bamangwato, was acquainted with a route which he kept carefully to himself, because the Lake country abounded in ivory, and he drew large quantities thence periodically at but small cost to himself.
Sechele, who valued highly every thing European, and was always fully alive to his own interest, was naturally anxious to get a share of that inviting field. He was most anxious to visit Sebituane too, partly, perhaps, from a wish to show off his new acquirements, but chiefly, I believe, from having very exalted ideas of the benefits he would derive from the liberality of that renowned chieftain. In age and family Sechele is the elder and superior of Sekomi; for when the original tribe broke up into Bamangwato, Bangwaketse, and Bakwains, the Bakwains retained the hereditary chieftainship; so their chief, Sechele, possesses certain advantages over Sekomi, the chief of the Bamangwato. If the two were traveling or hunting together, Sechele would take, by right, the heads of the game shot by Sekomi.
There are several vestiges, besides, of very ancient partitions and lordships of tribes. The elder brother of Sechele’s father, becoming blind, gave over the chieftainship to Sechele’s father. The descendants of this man pay no tribute to Sechele, though he is the actual ruler, and superior to the head of that family; and Sechele, while in every other respect supreme, calls him Kosi, or Chief. The other tribes will not begin to eat the early pumpkins of a new crop until they hear that the Bahurutse have “bitten it”, and there is a public ceremony on the occasion — the son of the chief being the first to taste of the new harvest.
Sechele, by my advice, sent men to Sekomi, asking leave for me to pass along his path, accompanying the request with the present of an ox. Sekomi’s mother, who possesses great influence over him, refused permission, because she had not been propitiated. This produced a fresh message; and the most honorable man in the Bakwain tribe, next to Sechele, was sent with an ox for both Sekomi and his mother. This, too, was met by refusal. It was said, “The Matebele, the mortal enemies of the Bechuanas, are in the direction of the lake, and, should they kill the white man, we shall incur great blame from all his nation.”
The exact position of the Lake Ngami had, for half a century at least, been correctly pointed out by the natives, who had visited it when rains were more copious in the Desert than in more recent times, and many attempts had been made to reach it by passing through the Desert in the direction indicated; but it was found impossible, even for Griquas, who, having some Bushman blood in them, may be supposed more capable of enduring thirst than Europeans. It was clear, then, that our only chance of success was by going round, instead of through, the Desert. The best time for the attempt would have been about the end of the rainy season, in March or April, for then we should have been likely to meet with pools of rain-water, which always dry up during the rainless winter. I communicated my intention to an African traveler, Colonel Steele, then aid-de-camp to the Marquis of Tweedale at Madras, and he made it known to two other gentlemen, whose friendship we had gained during their African travel, namely, Major Vardon and Mr. Oswell. All of these gentlemen were so enamored with African hunting and African discovery that the two former must have envied the latter his good fortune in being able to leave India to undertake afresh the pleasures and pains of desert life. I believe Mr. Oswell came from his high position at a very considerable pecuniary sacrifice, and with no other end in view but to extend the boundaries of geographical knowledge. Before I knew of his coming, I had arranged that the payment for the guides furnished by Sechele should be the loan of my wagon, to bring back whatever ivory he might obtain from the chief at the lake. When, at last, Mr. Oswell came, bringing Mr. Murray with him, he undertook to defray the entire expenses of the guides, and fully executed his generous intention.
Sechele himself would have come with us, but, fearing that the much-talked-of assault of the Boers might take place during our absence, and blame be attached to me for taking him away, I dissuaded him against it by saying that he knew Mr. Oswell “would be as determined as himself to get through the Desert.”
Before narrating the incidents of this journey, I may give some account of the great Kalahari Desert, in order that the reader may understand in some degree the nature of the difficulties we had to encounter.
The space from the Orange River in the south, lat. 29°, to Lake Ngami in the north, and from about 24° east long. to near the west coast, has been called a desert simply because it contains no running water, and very little water in wells. It is by no means destitute of vegetation and inhabitants, for it is covered with grass and a great variety of creeping plants; besides which there are large patches of bushes, and even trees. It is remarkably flat, but interesected in different parts by the beds of ancient rivers; and prodigious herds of certain antelopes, which require little or no water, roam over the trackless plains. The inhabitants, Bushmen and Bakalahari, prey on the game and on the countless rodentia and small species of the feline race which subsist on these. In general, the soil is light-colored soft sand, nearly pure silica. The beds of the ancient rivers contain much alluvial soil; and as that is baked hard by the burning sun, rain-water stands in pools in some of them for several months in the year.
The quantity of grass which grows on this remarkable region is astonishing, even to those who are familiar with India. It usually rises in tufts with bare spaces between, or the intervals are occupied by creeping plants, which, having their roots buried far beneath the soil, feel little the effects of the scorching sun. The number of these which have tuberous roots is very great; and their structure is intended to supply nutriment and moisture, when, during the long droughts, they can be obtained nowhere else. Here we have an example of a plant, not generally tuber-bearing, becoming so under circumstances where that appendage is necessary to act as a reservoir for preserving its life; and the same thing occurs in Angola to a species of grape-bearing vine, which is so furnished for the same purpose. The plant to which I at present refer is one of the cucurbitaceae, which bears a small, scarlet-colored, eatable cucumber. Another plant, named Leroshua, is a blessing to the inhabitants of the Desert. We see a small plant with linear leaves, and a stalk not thicker than a crow’s quill; on digging down a foot or eighteen inches beneath, we come to a tuber, often as large as the head of a young child; when the rind is removed, we find it to be a mass of cellular tissue, filled with fluid much like that in a young turnip. Owing to the depth beneath the soil at which it is found, it is generally deliciously cool and refreshing. Another kind, named Mokuri, is seen in other parts of the country, where long-continued heat parches the soil. This plant is an herbaceous creeper, and deposits under ground a number of tubers, some as large as a man’s head, at spots in a circle a yard or more, horizontally, from the stem. The natives strike the ground on the circumference of the circle with stones, till, by hearing a difference of sound, they know the water-bearing tuber to be beneath. They then dig down a foot or so, and find it.
But the most surprising plant of the Desert is the “Kengwe or Keme” (‘Cucumis caffer’), the watermelon. In years when more than the usual quantity of rain falls, vast tracts of the country are literally covered with these melons; this was the case annually when the fall of rain was greater than it is now, and the Bakwains sent trading parties every year to the lake. It happens commonly once every ten or eleven years, and for the last three times its occurrence has coincided with an extraordinarily wet season. Then animals of every sort and name, including man, rejoice in the rich supply. The elephant, true lord of the forest, revels in this fruit, and so do the different species of rhinoceros, although naturally so diverse in their choice of pasture. The various kinds of antelopes feed on them with equal avidity, and lions, hyaenas, jackals, and mice, all seem to know and appreciate the common blessing. These melons are not, however, all of them eatable; some are sweet, and others so bitter that the whole are named by the Boers the “bitter watermelon”. The natives select them by striking one melon after another with a hatchet, and applying the tongue to the gashes. They thus readily distinguish between the bitter and sweet. The bitter are deleterious, but the sweet are quite wholesome. This peculiarity of one species of plant bearing both sweet and bitter fruits occurs also in a red, eatable cucumber, often met with in the country. It is about four inches long, and about an inch and a half in diameter. It is of a bright scarlet color when ripe. Many are bitter, others quite sweet. Even melons in a garden may be made bitter by a few bitter kengwe in the vicinity. The bees convey the pollen from one to the other.
The human inhabitants of this tract of country consist of Bushmen and Bakalahari. The former are probably the aborigines of the southern portion of the continent, the latter the remnants of the first emigration of Bechuanas. The Bushmen live in the Desert from choice, the Bakalahari from compulsion, and both possess an intense love of liberty. The Bushmen are exceptions in language, race, habits, and appearance. They are the only real nomads in the country; they never cultivate the soil, nor rear any domestic animal save wretched dogs. They are so intimately acquainted with the habits of the game that they follow them in their migrations, and prey upon them from place to place, and thus prove as complete a check upon their inordinate increase as the other carnivora. The chief subsistence of the Bushmen is the flesh of game, but that is eked out by what the women collect of roots and beans, and fruits of the Desert. Those who inhabit the hot sandy plains of the Desert possess generally thin, wiry forms, capable of great exertion and of severe privations. Many are of low stature, though not dwarfish; the specimens brought to Europe have been selected, like costermongers’ dogs, on account of their extreme ugliness; consequently, English ideas of the whole tribe are formed in the same way as if the ugliest specimens of the English were exhibited in Africa as characteristic of the entire British nation. That they are like baboons is in some degree true, just as these and other simiae are in some points frightfully human.
The Bakalahari are traditionally reported to be the oldest of the Bechuana tribes, and they are said to have possessed enormous herds of the large horned cattle mentioned by Bruce, until they were despoiled of them and driven into the Desert by a fresh migration of their own nation. Living ever since on the same plains with the Bushmen, subjected to the same influences of climate, enduring the same thirst, and subsisting on similar food for centuries, they seem to supply a standing proof that locality is not always sufficient of itself to account for difference in races. The Bakalahari retain in undying vigor the Bechuana love for agriculture and domestic animals. They hoe their gardens annually, though often all they can hope for is a supply of melons and pumpkins. And they carefully rear small herds of goats, though I have seen them lift water for them out of small wells with a bit of ostrich egg-shell, or by spoonfuls. They generally attach themselves to influential men in the different Bechuana tribes living adjacent to their desert home, in order to obtain supplies of spears, knives, tobacco, and dogs, in exchange for the skins of the animals they may kill. These are small carnivora of the feline species, including two species of jackal, the dark and the golden; the former, “motlose” (‘Megalotis capensis’ or ‘Cape fennec’), has the warmest fur the country yields; the latter, “pukuye” (‘Canis mesomelas’ and ‘C. aureus’), is very handsome when made into the skin mantle called kaross. Next in value follow the “tsipa” or small ocelot (‘Felis nigripes’), the “tuane” or lynx, the wild cat, the spotted cat, and other small animals. Great numbers of ‘puti’ (‘duiker’) and ‘puruhuru’ (‘steinbuck’) skins are got too, besides those of lions, leopards, panthers, and hyaenas. During the time I was in the Bechuana country, between twenty and thirty thousand skins were made up into karosses; part of them were worn by the inhabitants, and part sold to traders: many, I believe, find their way to China. The Bakwains bought tobacco from the eastern tribes, then purchased skins with it from the Bakalahari, tanned them, and sewed them into karosses, then went south to purchase heifer-calves with them, cows being the highest form of riches known, as I have often noticed from their asking “if Queen Victoria had many cows.” The compact they enter into is mutually beneficial, but injustice and wrong are often perpetrated by one tribe of Bechuanas going among the Bakalahari of another tribe, and compelling them to deliver up the skins which they may be keeping for their friends. They are a timid race, and in bodily development often resemble the aborigines of Australia. They have thin legs and arms, and large, protruding abdomens, caused by the coarse, indigestible food they eat. Their children’s eyes lack lustre. I never saw them at play. A few Bechuanas may go into a village of Bakalahari, and domineer over the whole with impunity; but when these same adventurers meet the Bushmen, they are fain to change their manners to fawning sycophancy; they know that, if the request for tobacco is refused, these free sons of the Desert may settle the point as to its possession by a poisoned arrow.
The dread of visits from Bechuanas of strange tribes causes the Bakalahari to choose their residences far from water; and they not unfrequently hide their supplies by filling the pits with sand and making a fire over the spot. When they wish to draw water for use, the women come with twenty or thirty of their water-vessels in a bag or net on their backs. These water-vessels consist of ostrich egg-shells, with a hole in the end of each, such as would admit one’s finger. The women tie a bunch of grass to one end of a reed about two feet long, and insert it in a hole dug as deep as the arm will reach; then ram down the wet sand firmly round it. Applying the mouth to the free end of the reed, they form a vacuum in the grass beneath, in which the water collects, and in a short time rises into the mouth. An egg-shell is placed on the ground alongside the reed, some inches below the mouth of the sucker. A straw guides the water into the hole of the vessel, as she draws mouthful after mouthful from below. The water is made to pass along the outside, not through the straw. If any one will attempt to squirt water into a bottle placed some distance below his mouth, he will soon perceive the wisdom of the Bushwoman’s contrivance for giving the stream direction by means of a straw. The whole stock of water is thus passed through the woman’s mouth as a pump, and, when taken home, is carefully buried. I have come into villages where, had we acted a domineering part, and rummaged every hut, we should have found nothing; but by sitting down quietly, and waiting with patience until the villagers were led to form a favorable opinion of us, a woman would bring out a shellful of the precious fluid from I know not where.
The so-called Desert, it may be observed, is by no means a useless tract of country. Besides supporting multitudes of both small and large animals, it sends something to the market of the world, and has proved a refuge to many a fugitive tribe — to the Bakalahari first, and to the other Bechuanas in turn — as their lands were overrun by the tribe of true Caffres, called Matebele. The Bakwains, the Bangwaketze, and the Bamangwato all fled thither; and the Matebele marauders, who came from the well-watered east, perished by hundreds in their attempts to follow them. One of the Bangwaketze chiefs, more wily than the rest, sent false guides to lead them on a track where, for hundreds of miles, not a drop of water could be found, and they perished in consequence. Many Bakwains perished too. Their old men, who could have told us ancient stories, perished in these flights. An intelligent Mokwain related to me how the Bushmen effectually balked a party of his tribe which lighted on their village in a state of burning thirst. Believing, as he said, that nothing human could subsist without water, they demanded some, but were coolly told by these Bushmen that they had none, and never drank any. Expecting to find them out, they resolved to watch them night and day. They persevered for some days, thinking that at last the water must come forth; but, notwithstanding their watchfulness, kept alive by most tormenting thirst, the Bakwains were compelled to exclaim, “Yak! yak! these are not men; let us go.” Probably the Bushmen had been subsisting on a store hidden under ground, which had eluded the vigilance of their visitors.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52