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Sunday, 5 April 2009



Hunting has become unfashionable; abhorred in many circles; part of the instant gratification market - but that bloodthirsty urge that impels little boys to terrorise the neighbourhood's birdlife, and later, possibly the world's dwindling game, just won't go away. Just so we understand each other, 'hunting' does not figure in my vocabulary as equating to a bunch or braying jackasses in red coats, mounted on half a ton of horseflesh apiece and accompanied by a pack of yowling curs, who chase a small carnivore hardly larger than the pet cat, across field and hedgerow with bloodthirsty intent. No, hunting involves a man, a noble beast and a gun. Call it 'bringing home the bacon' or something a little more high-brow, like 'satisfying the primeval instincts', the fact remains that no hunter can explain his addiction to a non-hunter satisfactorily.
Let me give it a go anyway! It goes something like this, according to that great writer/hunter Robert Ruark: one of life's wonders is the potential for a puny man to slay a great beast, like a lion or an elephant - not by means of his muscles, but using his brains. So, instead of using his mental muscle in a nice peaceful game of chess, or for solving a crossword puzzle, man goes out, fashions himself a spear, or digs a game pit - or buys an impressively noisy gun. He then converts some few hundred kilos of more or less aggressive beast into a series of lunches for his tribe, and he can hang some of the inedible bits on a tree outside his hut (or a wall inside if he is so minded) while he brags to all and sundry about his prowess. Better than saying checkmate; or putting down the completed Sunday Telegraph Crossword? I'd think so.
Many of the modern hunters are passionate about the great outdoors, the wild beasts that roam the veld; they want to preserve them for their children and grandchildren to enjoy in the future. Yet when the spoor has been followed, when the quarry is within range, that finely crafted weapon will be aimed, and as the cross-hairs zero in on the lethal spot, the hunter holds his breath and the force that squeezes a trigger comes into effect. In the moment that the bullet strikes and the buck crumples, it is consigned into immortality in the mind of its killer. He owns that glorious particle of the wilds of Africa - even if humanity builds a smoke-spewing power station on the very same spot in the next year. If fate would have it that the beastie took exception to a few ill-placed grams of lead, and a charge resulted, necessitating the expenditure of more ammunition or a bit of frantic exercise, so much the better for that mental photo album in full magnificent technicolour with action-replays galore. The regret at having extinguished a life comes later. Sometimes decades later, or never, for some.
Enough. Those who have done this, will know what I'm talking about, others will shake their heads. Let me just say that some of the earliest books I read on Africa, were hunting books. I hungered for a taste of the wilds, the wide savannah, the cool forests and the lush swamps of Africa; I wanted to feel the heft of an elephant gun, the brute force of the kick, the slap of the bullet as it reached its target, and the sweet triumph of holding the heavy head of my prize - the essence of the romance of the Dark Continent. It didn't always quite work out like that, but hey, it's OK to aim high. One of the highlights of hunting in Africa with said elephant gun, was sitting in the middle of a herd of buffalo on a breathless hot day in the Okavango swamps with my tracker. In front of me was a scrawny bush, and on the other side of it about a thousand pounds of buffalo cow was peering suspiciously at me while her calf grazed a few metres behind me. High drama potential indeed, but when a whiff of us finally reached the herd around us, they just thundered off in a cloud of dust, while we resumed breathing. I hesitate to confess this, but my most life-threatening experience came when a duiker gored me. In defence, I must hasten to say that I had only just arrived in Africa from grey, gritty Germany; I was ten years old and I was trying to feed the supposedly almost tame beastie a handful of grass, when it charged, put two holes in my knee and shoved me arse over tip into a goldfish pond. S'truth - you can ask my sister - she was watching.
Back to hunters. John Hunter was one of my early favourites; a man of action this Scot, a large man in the mould of the legendary hunters like Cummins, Cornwallis-Harris, Baker and Selous. He ran away from home, did all manner of exciting things and then drifted into ivory hunting, rhino and lion control as well as becoming a Bwana Mkubwa in the safari trade. His first book is now a highly prized collectors' item; "White Hunter", (Seely Service & Co 1938) but it lacks any pretension of writing skill; I really enjoyed his second effort, baldly entitled "Hunter" ( Hamish Hamilton, 1952). It may have been that the style really appeals to the young and young at heart, but there must be some merit in the book, since it was translated into several languages - French, German, even Afrikaans. His publishers were obviously emboldened by the success and they managed to convince him to take on a co-author from their stable for his third effort, which was probably a fairly daunting project.
They picked on one of my favourite authors of my youth - Dan Mannix. This was a man who could make any young lad's heart beat faster. He ran away from home and joined a travelling circus. He made it his business to learn a bundle of tricks, including magic, sword-swallowing, fire-eating and light-bulb chewing among others.
(Memoirs of a Sword-Swallower) I suffered from burnt gums and lips and an overactive gag-reflex for some months after the first reading of that volume. Anyway, Mannix did an admirable job with John Hunter, and "African Bush Adventures " was published in 1954. Again they drew on Hunter's experiences of the bush, animals, game control, and even conservation. Mannix later collaborated with a Swiss animal collector and hunter Peter Ryhiner, and the book " The Wildest Game " was the result.
The fourth Hunter book appeared in 1957 with the help of Alan Wykes, who was a recognised author, with a number of titles to his credit; "Hunter's Tracks" is essentially more of the same as dished up in his previous three books. Lots of safari hunting adventures, pulling wounded dangerous game out of thickets for his clients, and fending off dangerous clients' wives while the inept hunters were drowning their sorrows in camp. A lengthy manhunt adds some variety to this volume. Another enjoyable read, probably made more so by Wykes' collaboration.
The latter also wrote two other good hunting biographies: "Snake-Man" (1960), which is the story of C J P Ionides, who was a conservator, a hunter/collector of a number of rare animals in addition to becoming Bwana Nyoka, an eccentric snake catcher in his latter years. Ionides also wrote two books himself, "A Hunter's Story" (W H Allen, 1965) and "Mamba's and Maneaters" a year later - both eminently readable works. Wykes then wrote "Nimrod Smith" which appeared in the next year, and which features the exploits of another Great White Hunter of the early 20th century.
Another early hero of mine was W D M Bell - Karamojo Bell, as he was known from the region, which contained his favourite haunts. His books are mainly on elephant hunting; to him an elephant was 'X' number of pounds of ivory, which could be traded or sold to equip another shooting expedition during the next hunting season, which enabled him to lead the footloose roaming life that he preferred. Bell knew the structure of an elephant's skull better than most other hunters. He hunted with a ridiculously small-bore rifle - 7mm, but his accuracy and skill in getting up close to his quarry ensured his success with a minimum of woundings and dangerous charges. This was a far cry from some of the great nimrods of the previous century, who would at times have to fire several dozen shots to fell one animal, riding hell for leather to get out of the way of the enraged beast between shots, to enable them to reload their ponderous ordnance. Bell chalked up round about a thousand elephants during his career, but his hunting lacks romance, though he is an able raconteur and a master at bushcraft.
Most of the hunting books I read in the fifties and sixties had to have one premier quality - affordability. I would walk past the CNA and look longingly at the Africana Collectanea series displayed there at astronomical prices like 8s.6d. for Baines and Lord's " Shifts and Expedients of Camp Life, Travel and Exploration ", and I would sigh and move on. Those hunting titles that appeared in softcover, priced at a modest 1s. 2d. or thereabouts, were more in line with the depth of my pockets. Still, one could pick up reasonable secondhand bargains if one knew ones way around the city and the antiquarian shops. So it was that over the years I picked up a treasure trove of hunting books, 'Poor Man's Africana' but nowadays quite sought-after titles.
There was "Crocodile Fever' by L Earl (Collins, 1954), featuring hide-hunting of the scaly saurians in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, while Cronje Wilmot's book "Always Lightly Tread" (Timmins, 1956) carried on in the same vein in the Okavango, with game control, meat hunting and a bout of bubonic plague thrown in for good measure. One of the famous books to come from the Transvaal Lowveld of that genre, were A C White's "Call of the Bushveld" , an evocative hunting book by the owner of 'White's Avoca', a game farm near present-day Hoedspruit. The latter two volumes are beautifully illustrated by my old friend Charles Astley-Maberly's drawings. I got to know the old man and his wife on their Duiwelskloof farm when I was a youngster. I often stayed with a neighbour during holidays, and used to visit the old couple for tea and scones, when we would sit outside on the verandah, and as dusk fell, the bushpigs would ghost out of the surrounding forest onto the lawns.
Those times produced a number of interesting titles; T V Bulpin wrote the classic "The Ivory Trail" - the story of S C Barnard, also known as Bvekenya - who played about evading the police round about Crook's Corner in the far north-east of the Kruger Park. Bulpin followed this up with "The Hunter is Death", which was the story of George Rushby, another one of the great elephant hunters of the lion-infested Njombe district in Tanzania. South Africans had a few greats among the 20th century Nimrods as well; J F Burger won renown with his tales of hunting angry beasts - " African Jungle Memories", "My Forty Years in Africa", "Horned Death" and "African Buffalo Trails" - were some of his most successful books. One of the evergreens is, of course, P J Pretorius' "Jungle Man" which not only recounts his hunting exploits, but for good measure, devotes a few chapters to hunting down the German cruiser, the Königsberg, which had holed up in the almost impenetrable Rufiji Delta in southern Tanganyika during WWI. Although one must deplore the slaughter of most of the Addo herd of elephants that he writes about, one can but rejoice about the change of attitudes which has led to their preservation under present-day human pressures.
The East African safari trade was the subject of many books by game conservators, hunters and outfitters. A number of well-known authors come to mind; Donald Ker wrote "Through Forest and Veldt", W D Holmes' "Safari RSVP" was another such, as was Dennis Holman's "Inside Safari Hunting", while the firm of Cullen & Downey wrote a book about the other side of the coin, entitled " Saving the Game". The spice in many of these tales is the human-animal interaction, when city-slicker meets beast. Most of the pro's are not too economical with their past clients' dignity, but to my taste, one Osborne stood out as a hunter who despised most of his clients to such a degree that it spoilt his book "A Guiding Son", which I recently read. One of my favourite tongue-in-cheek writers is Alexander Lake, who penned the tame-sounding title "African Adventures" and the more perilous "African Killers", which I seem to recall had the subtitle "All about killers lying in wait and hunters lying in print" - that had a ring of truth about it.
The omnipresent District Officer in the African colonies, or 'DO' as he was generally known, was another class of hunter that wrote some thumping good yarns. For a part of each year they would be tasked with patrolling their remote region, accompanied by sufficient bearers to sustain life in the wilds, but which also meant shooting a considerable number of heads of game for the pot, as well as despatching any problem animals that plagued the populace. One of my favourites is G Muldoon, who wrote about his game control adventures in Central Africa in his two well-written books "Leopards in the Night" and "The Trumpeting Herd" (both published by Rupert Hart-Davis in 1955 & 1957 respectively). This brings me out of Africa, to one of the most respected hunter/naturalists who had to be judge and executioner in the conflict between man and beast on many occasions. Jim Corbett the slayer of the maneaters of Kumaon, the Temple Tiger and the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag, among a host of problem cats, was no ordinary hunter, who killed for trophies or glory. His role was as the last resort between a defenceless cowering population of rural Indians, and the few rogue cats that caused panic and disrupted all life in the hill villages. His unrivalled knowledge of bushcraft, tracking and the habits of his quarry are used in describing the hunts in painstakingly beautiful detail - as one puny man pits his wits and quick reactions against a huge predator who sees him as his prey. I am the proud owner of all the books Corbett has written, and I reread them often - sharing in his fears as he stalks, and is in turn stalked by the maneating leopard in the stygian darkness; I marvel at his skill in following the progress of his quarry through the jungle, by track and by the sounds of the other beasts and I delight in his sharing his thoughts and deductions about the behaviour of the animal he is following. I have not read another writer of such talent in that genre, though another comes close - one Hugh Allen, an invalided soldier, who emigrates to India after WWII with his sister, buys a farm in the jungle and attempts to do battle with the deer, wild pigs, monkeys, as well as big cats. His book, "The Lonely Tiger" (Faber & Faber 1960) is a tour de force of one man's struggle against the forces of nature that surround him, which he does not want to destroy, but which he cannot ignore.
While I am on hunters in other parts of the world - let me not forget my hunting hero Bob Ruark. I was introduced to "The Old Man and the Boy" when I was barely in my teens. Strangely enough I didn't like it - then. A year or two later I read the story of his first hunting safari to Africa, "Horn of the Hunter" and I became an instant 'Ruarkophile' to coin a phrase. His zesty language, robust sense of the ridiculous - even when he was the subject of the ridicule, his descriptive passages of the hunts and the philosophical musings in camp after the first couple of Martinis - were all to my taste. I acquired his other hunting books, like "Use Enough Gun" and "I Didn't Know it Was Loaded", as quickly as I could, and the duo of the "Old Man and the Boy" and its sequel "The Old Man's Boy grows Older" last of all. As my son grew up, I gave him copies of both the latter, as well as "Horn of the Hunter". There is much home-spun philosophy, wisdom, humour, etiquette and just plain horse-sense in these books; I felt anybody who reads them can't help but get a little improved by doing so. Well - my boy hasn't robbed a bank yet, he's not an alcoholic or a drug addict ( Bob Ruark fancied his tipple, but not in the hunting field) and last year he shot an elephant cow at a range of about two metres after she had flipped a Yankee student out of the tracker seat on an open vehicle full of kids. I reckon reading Ruark didn't do him any harm.
Back to some of our local talent. One George Michael, a Joburg lad, I seem to remember, became a 'noted' Big Game Hunter in the fifties, and he wrote "African Fury" which did not impress me. Possibly to make up for his defects, his wife wrote " I Married a Hunter" two years later - which did nothing to charm me either. The books were full of cutesy snapshots of Ma, Pa and the babies with some deader on the ground in front of them. At least, that is how I remember the books. One of the few books by a lady author, which charmed, was a cheerful tale by one Sally Macdonald, who joined her husband on a home-crafted safari in pre-war Tanganyika. "Tanganyika Safari" (Angus & Robertson 1948) is an entertaining read, as is her other book, which has nothing to do with hunting - "Sally in Rhodesia".
Then there is the gifted writer, and I believe, talented concert violinist of his day, Victor Pohl. He wrote a number of books of short stories about the Basuto people around his family farm in the Eastern Free State, as well as his family's lot during the Boer War in "Adventures of a Boer Family". However, his real talent came to the fore in the book "Bushveld Adventures" (Faber & Faber 1940) in which he describes his youthful hunts with his black companion and a dog trotting at his heels. Very reminiscent of 'Jock', and a charming read for young and old, hunter or not.
I have read a goodly number of Afrikaans hunting books, many of which are of interest, but I must confess to finding a fundamental difference between this genre in English and the same in Afrikaans. Possibly it has to do with the attitude to the hunt and the animal. For the Brits it's a noble animal they're pitting their wits against, and a sport (of kings, mind you, not so long ago) which carries a certain aura of romance. For the Afrikaner, the animal is historically so much biltong, and the hunt is a way of bringing home the biltong. Possibly I should not decry the delicious snack (of which I caused quite a few hundredweight to be made in my time), nor should I slander a good roast, but their literary efforts don't make romantic reading matter.
To name but a few, J Bruwer's " Noord van die Zambesi", Lucas Potgieter's two books "Staanplekkies langs my geweerpad" and "Fonteintjies langs my geweerpad", P Duplessis' "Duinestories", S le Roux's " Baanbrekers en Jagters van Suid Afrika", Sangiro's couple of books, J von Moltke's interesting three works on the early Southwest Boer hunters, and P J Schoeman's hunting reminiscences, are all good workmanlike examples. One J Sproul excelled with the title "My Vier-en-tagtigste Leeu en ander Jagverhale" but I could not wax lyrical about it - in fact I have forgotten everything about the other 83 cats, it was that unmemorable. For my money, I still prefer Pieter Pieterse's humorous anecdotes as on offer in his book " Boude en Blaaie - en nog 'n Paar Bosveldstories" (Uniboek 1991) - though it's still biltong that's being "platgetrek", but at least there's some pepper on it!
I fully expect a howl of protest from my audience, that's you, firstly because of the subject matter of this contribution, secondly because I've left out all the "Big Guns". Not to fear, at some future date I shall have the temerity to review the great, the brave, the accurate and the merciless killers.
Yours, from the hunting trail,



The name van Onselen is probably familiar to a number of South Africans, as two of them, Lennox and Charles are well-known writers. Their beginnings could not have been more different. Lennox was a policeman, but his first book dealt with the relatively little known subject of antique furniture. As he says himself in the foreword of “Cape Antique Furniture” ( Timmins 1959) when he tried to obtain information during his Cape Town days, from bookdealers – possibly along Long Street – there were none to be found, so the enterprising man decided to write a modest introduction himself.
He attempts to give a brief outline of the origin of individual items, the timbers used and illustrates their development with some black and white photos. Interestingly he already acknowledges the early Eastern influences of the Malay craftsmen on the early Dutch efforts; they probably brought designs such as the ball and claw, and the cabriolet leg, as well as marquetry, rattan and laquer work to the Cape. The second wave of influence came through the Huguenots, who were to have a profound effect on local designs. Then came the English occupation and further continental ideas were brought into the mix.
The author wrote chapters on furniture development in the city and country districts, and features items which would grace reception rooms, bedrooms, dining rooms and he concludes with a chapter on long case clocks and some tips for the aspirant collector.
This little book was published in a limited edition of a thousand copies, so copies are reasonably hard to find, especially in good condition. Still, a worthwhile addition to your library, if antiques are in your field of interest.
Not surprisingly, his second book entitled “A Rhapsody in Blue” (Timmins 1960) deals with the development of the police, starting with the office of Fiscal in the late 17th century, later ably assisted by men of the Watch. A further body of men, the Dienaars, followed, and the office of Fiscal was made purely administrative. By the mid-19th century the Cape Constabulary was organized according to London principles, while in the country districts the Landdrosts were assisted by their veldcornets in keeping the peace..
The same period saw a proliferation of various armed, semi-military bodies, such as the Cape Regiment, Cape Mounted Riflemen, Imperial Cape Mounted Riflemen Corps, Cape Police, Frontier Armed and Mounted Police etc. Many of these were deployed in the Frontier Wars that were being waged on the Eastern Cape and on the Orange River. In the Boer Republics too, there were the notorious ZARP’s and the OFS Republican Police, while Natal had its Natal Mounted Police. After the cessation of hostilities the Transvaal Town Police and the S A Constabulary paved the way to the formation of the SAP. The author’s narrative is full of anecdote, as well as solid historical fact, but occasionally the book is a little ‘bare-bones’ for the serious scholar, as all this information is crammed into the first thirty pages of the book. The remainder is an ode to the life of a policeman, mostly tough, sometimes rewarding, often heroic, with dashes of humour – an eminently readable work.
He concludes with some of his own experiences, including his time as a personal bodyguard to General Smuts. He also saw service in the Sixth Infantry (Police) Brigade during WWII in North Africa, where he was captured by the Italians at Tobruk. With a few friends he escaped in 1943 and made it to Switzerland, where he had to remain due to that country’s neutral status, until the end of the war. A short concluding chapter sketches an ideal police force in an ideal state – a far cry from what happened in the thirty years after the book’s publication.
His third book is probably the most sought-after. “Trekboer” was published by Timmins in 1961, and once more the author draws on his own meetings and interviews with these nomadic stockmen of the arid interior and in the Northwest. By the time the book was written, they were already an almost extinct breed. The advent of the water-drilling machine, and then the ubiquitous windmill, made it possible for stock farmers to lead a more settled life with their flocks on the plains of Bushmanland, and the government promoted land-ownership as well as fencing of properties. All was well during the years when the Twa grass stood knee-high after good rains, but drought inevitably followed and the farmers had once again to muster their starving flocks, pack their wagons and trek along the dusty roads in search of better pasture.
Both van Onselen in “Trekboer” and F A Venter in his book “Kambro-kind” sketch the heartache and privation of the desperate farmer and his dwindling capital on the seemingly endless plains, shimmering in the white-heat, hoping to find a flush of green from a fleeting shower of rain. Many of them ended up eking out an existence on the banks of the Gariep, often dependant on the goodwill and charity of their more fortunate kinfolk, while others trekked into the Kalahari, which though a desert, still could support livestock in years when Bushmanland lay bare under successive droughts.
The author also had his brush with the glittering wealth of Namaqualand and he relates some of the history of the discovery of diamonds, their effect on the Namaqualanders, who saw so much wealth coming from their lands, without any benefits coming their way. One senses a certain amount of sympathy in this policeman’s stories of IDB’s, police-traps and men who became inexplicably well-off almost overnight.
Lastly, as a dessert, he dishes up an account of the searches of a Pretoria chiropractor for the Lost City of the Kalahari. This struck a real chord in my memory, as I shared a schoolbench with the good doctor’s two children. After each vacation, which they had spent flying up and down the desert and camping within earshot of the lions’ roars, Lynn and Scott Haldeman would give their classmates another thrilling episode of their adventures – enough to make me green with envy. On the other hand, they never did find anything, nor were they likely to do so. It is now generally accepted that the much-vaunted Lost City described by the American traveler G A Farini ( actually his real name was William Hunt) was a geological phenomenon amplified by a fertile imagination and some good old-fashioned showmanship.
His fourth, and presumably last book, “Head of Steel” was published in 1962. This time he traces the development of the rail network from the Cape into the Transvaal. While quite an interesting read for the layman, I would suspect it is a little superficial for the railway enthusiast. Generally all of Lennox van Onselen’s books are worth reading and they are good, unpretentious ‘poor man’s Africana’.
Charles van Onselen, on the other hand, is an academic, a sociologist and historian, who has written a number of books on the economic development of the Southern African region, labour exploitation and crime. His first book, “Chibaro” (Pluto Press, 1976) is certainly an eye-opener. Most people know about the Belgian king, Leopold having the chutzpah to not only assume ‘ownership’ of a huge chunk of Africa, but then he set his minions to enslaving the population, and strip-mining everything in sight, from ivory to rainforest timbers and minerals, while committing some of the ghastliest atrocities you can imagine. His descendants still own a few dozen palaces spread around Europe – makes you think, doesn’t it?
The Rhodesian populace underwent similar exploitation; van Onselen examines the labour practices of the mining companies in Rhodesia, after the BSA Co had successfully quashed the last remnants of rebellion. Taxes were imposed, to pay which meant that men had perforce to work in the mines. When mining proved to be unprofitable due to the patchy presence of pay-dirt, the first to suffer were the African mineworkers, who laboured under horrendous conditions, ill-fed, and ill-housed, for progressively lower pay, powerless to alter their working conditions. Life in closed compounds became the standard option imposed by the capitalists of the whole subcontinent, and vice, alcohol, drugs, and credit were all used to keep workers in lengthy labour contracts which resulted in increasing social upheaval, poverty, disease and often death.
Lastly, the author considers the response of the black worker to this labour coercive economy: drunkenness, theft, desertion, property destruction, forgery and absenteeism – the only responses that the workers, brutalized and cowed by the system, could use against their masters. Not a pretty picture, and a far cry from the benevolent face which mining companies would like to portray to the world. In short, an uncomfortable read; typically a reworked doctoral thesis, which requires some specialized interest to persevere with.
The author then wrote a duo of books on the social and economic history of the Witwatersrand up to WWI. Entitled “New Babylon” and “New Niniveh”, van Onselen approaches the phenomenon of unlimited wealth generation, not from the perspective of the beneficiaries, the Randlords, but from the points of view of the underclasses. In the former book, he examines the role alcohol played in ridding the ZAR of agricultural surplus, while providing an anodyne to the masses as well as an incentive for labour recruitment. Sex was the other attraction, and prostitutes streamed to the Rand, first from the Cape, then in increasing numbers from the slums of America, Britain and Europe, closely followed by their symbiotic pimps and gangster elements.
President Kruger, the arch-reactionary statesman, actually connived in the launching of Republican rotgut, and condoned prostitution as a necessary evil, only to be forced into passing the ‘Ontugt Wet’, in effect the first legislation which prohibited relations between black miners and European women – when the ‘swart gevaar’ raised its ugly head in the minds of the local gentry. The Boer War altered all that, but only briefly, and soon Milner was forced into putting the first Immorality Act into force.
Lastly, transport, and in particular the cabbies, come under the magnifying glass. As the New Babylon grew from a scant few square miles some forty-fold in size within a few years, the transport needs of the masses had to be addressed. Once again President Kruger proved to be the reactionary influence, as he wanted his constituency, the agriculturalists, to have an outlet for their products, ie forage. He steadfastly refused to grant concessions for anything but horse-drawn vehicles and trams, when electricity was already a viable alternative. The author follows the power struggle between cabbies from different racial groups, their organizations, changes from the basic Cape cart, to the modish Victorias and Landaus, and on to the motorised taxi. He describes the stratification of cabbies by laws and regulations into classes, which in turn determine the fares and race of the passengers. Lastly, in 1906, the electrified tram, or trolley, made its appearance – and to my wonder, I actually still made use of those historic conveyances in the late fifties and early sixties!
The second book in this series “New Niniveh”, concerns itself, among others, with the role and composition of the servant-class. Firstly sturdy Irish and Scottish lasses were the preferred imports (after all in a society of 88% unmarried men, they could prove to be useful as breeding stock) but these inevitably succumbed to the white colonialist class-consciousness, which decreed that manual labour was unfitted for those of paler hue. Enter the Zulu ‘houseboy’ who would handle the menial work under supervision of the cook-general. Inevitably the economic fluctuations in the fortunes of the mining industry, made this structure too expensive, and black women joined the rank of servants, and then ‘picaninnies’ became the logical lowest rung of this labouring class.
Another interesting sub-class was that of the dhobi’s, or amawasha – who laundered the dirty apparel of Rand society. These consisted again mainly of Zulus, who formed a guild of micro-entrepreneurs wielding no little power and influence in the burgeoning city. The author sketches their rise and inevitable decline as mechanized steam laundries, shortage of water and capitalist intrusion crept into their kingdom.
A section of the book deals with the role of the Afrikaner poor, especially after the Boer War. From the ruins of their agricultural origins they streamed into the city and competed for work with foreign workers and the black labour force. The author traces the proletarianisation of this group, unemployment and the rise of a class-consciousness which was to play a growing political role as the century progressed.
Lastly the book deals with the shadowy criminal army that inhabited the caves, derelict mines and prisons on the Reef – the Umkosi Wezintaba – a Mafiosi-type brotherhood, rooted in social injustice, but which changed to robbery, extortion, burglary and murder. The mine compound system, the prisons as well as the free-roaming members of this army, were well-organised and informed and became a serious threat to law and order for several decades. Both of the above books are recommended reading for serious historians and students of the South African industrial revolution, but for a casual reader they may be too academic in flavour.
Another tour de force by this author was “The Seed is Mine” (Hill & Wang 1996); an award-winning biography of a black share-cropper, Kas Maine, whose life spanned most of the 20th century. From the edge of the Kalahari, where he spent the first half century of his life, he was a subject of the forced removals that became such a feature of the apartheid regime. As farming became increasingly mechanized, his services became less and less valuable to the white farmers on whose land he lived. Finally he ended up in the puppet state of Bophutatswana, with a plot of land which was too small to be farmed economically, and from where he had to send his children off to the cities to make a living.
Politics hardly entered into this man’s life, rather it was the economic and social changes that affected him most, leaving him powerless to alter the environment in which he lived. His working relationships with the white landowners and the representatives of the white government, both only concerned with their own interests, were surprisingly good, though he was never their equal socially. He is often portrayed as being critical of individual whites, but never rails against them as a group. The book is a real tribute to a hard-working black farmer, who showed remarkable forbearance and patience with his lot.
The latest book written by this author, “The Fox and the Flies” is visibly the result of his previous researches into the underbelly of the Witwatersrand demi monde. It chronicles the life and times of Joseph Liis, aka Joe Silver, thief, burglar, racketeer, gangster, whoremaster and psychopath. His nefarious career started in southern Poland, from where he emigrated to London with one of the early waves of migrants in the 1880’s. He wasted no time in establishing himself as a petty criminal and pimp on the streets of the East End at the time of the horrendous Whitechapel murders – of which more later. At the ripe old age of 21, already syphilitic, he decided to bless New York with his presence.
His American chapter saw him continuing in a similar vein, but even though he made full use of the corrupt lawmen of his adopted country, he spent his first two spells in Sing Sing and Riverside prisons in Pittsburgh, after which he left the States as a naturalized US citizen and returned to London, where he was soon incarcerated in Pentonville for a stretch. His next target was Johannesburg, and here van Onselen gives a fascinating insight into the low-life of this city in the making, where almost ninety percent of men were single, perpetually thirsty and looking for diversions. He describes Silver’s racketeering, his interaction with South African notables, such as Smuts, Manie Maritz and Mostyn Cleaver, which was to result in lengthy court cases as well as the first stirrings of an immorality act being passed by the old president, Kruger. The beginning of the Boer War found Silver in jail once more. First the Fort in Johannesburg, then the Potchefstroom prison. When the Brits threatened the town, Silver was shown the open gate and he departed thankfully to Kimberley, which was celebrating the lifting of the siege. Here again he did not last long doing what he did best, and once more he landed briefly in jail before being deported to Cape Town.
The Mother City, and particularly District Six, proved to be congenial surroundings until the war ended, when our man departed to – wait for it – Bloemfontein, of all places. Yes, even that placid Boer capital was to feel the impact of the brothelkeeper and white slaver from hell. But once again his intrigues resulted in imprisonment and finally he was deported back to the Cape. He managed to spend a year there more or less out of trouble – except for leaving a ‘wife’ maddened with syphilis in Valkenberg, for whom he had to pay maintenance, so when the Germans were forced to ship out large numbers of troops to quell the Hereros in South West Africa in 1904, he judged that he might as well make the sleepy little town of Swakopmund, and later Windhoek, his new business locale. Finally, in 1906, his luck ran out and several of his prostitutes ganged up on him and the German authorities incarcerated him once more before deporting him again. In vain he tried to leave ship at Cape Town, as well as at Durban, but the subcontinent had become too well informed about his activities, so he had to return to Europe.
His further adventures include Germany, France, Belgium, Argentina, Chile, New York and London again, before he finally departs almost inexplicably towards Poland, where he belatedly meets his just deserts – apparently for a completely different reason. I’m not going to spoil that one for you though.
The book is a tour de force of meticulous research and dogged pursuit of information. The subject is not a pleasant one; in fact, the author makes a case for Silver to have been ‘Jack the Ripper’, but to all devotees of things criminal, this book is a must. For those with an interest in the social history of the late 19th and early 20th century, it is also a valuable work and a thumping good read. Happy reading!