In A Cask of Jerepigo
by Herman Charles Bosman
I was engaged, for a couple of days last week, in going through old files of newspapers and magazines, making a collection of stories I had written over the past fifteen years.
In re-reading some of the Marico Bushveld stories I had written as long ago as the early years of the 1930s, I was surprised to find how intimate was my knowledge of life on the South African farm. I was also astonished at the extent of my familiarity with historical events – and the spirit of the times, and the personalities who had featured in them – that had taken place in the ou Transvaal.
Anyway, in again perusing those stories, written long ago, I realised where all that local colour came from. I had got it from listening to the talk of elderly farmers in the Marico district, who had a whole lot of information that they didn’t require for themselves, any more, and that they were glad to bestow on a stranger. It was all information that was, from a scientific point of view, strictly useless.
That was how I learnt all about the First and Second Boer Wars. And about the tribal wars. And about the trouble, in the old days, between the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. And about the Ohrigstad Republic. And about the Stellaland Republic. If any contemporary South African historian would like some fallen-by-the-wayside information about any events in the early days of the South African Republics, I could supply him with all the facts he needs. And, what is more important, with a whole lot of surplus information, outside of just facts.
I regarded them as wonderful storytellers, the old Boers who lived in the Marico district twenty years ago. Most of them had moved into that part of the Transvaal, next to the Bechuanaland Protectorate, in 1917. It was a part of the Transvaal that had remained practically uninhabited since the Anglo-Boer War. I still have very vivid recollections of the Boers who lived in the Marico in those days. I was there as a school teacher for a little while. And I can only hope that the information I imparted to the children, in the way of reading, spelling and arithmetic, was – in a minute degree – as significant as the facts that were imparted to me by their parents, whom I went to visit at weekends.
I remember that there was old Oom Geel, who had been a Cape rebel, and who still used to display a fragment of red-striped jersey that he had worn as a prisoner-of-war in Bermuda.
Because he was a Cape rebel, Oom Geel said, he had been regarded by the English, not as a regular prisoner-of-war, but as a convict, and so he had been sent to Bermuda instead of to St Helena. And he said that, when he returned to South Africa after the Boer War, the former Free State and Transvaal burgers, who had been respectable POWs at St Helena, used to look on him with suspicion, as though he was going to pick their pockets, and so on, because he had worn a striped convict jersey in Bermuda. I can still remember the laughter that invariably followed on this straight-faced statement by Oom Geel.
Old Oom Geel had a very tall son, called At, and a shorter son, Jan, and a large number of grandchildren. And there was a family of Bekkers who lived on a farm, Drogedal. This farm seemed to be the size of a whole district.
I don’t know how big the farm was, exactly, but in later years, when I was working for an educational establishment in London, and I had to interview the principals of schools in the southern English counties, I remember that we would approach Tunbridge Wells, or Sevenoaks, and the man who drove the car would ask me: ‘Are we now in Sussex or in Surrey, do you think, or perhaps in Kent?’ Then I would think to myself: ‘Oh, well, all these counties together are less than the size of the Bekkers’ farm in the Marico’.
There was an Afrikaner family named Flaherty, with whom I boarded; and old man Flaherty would regularly welcome me at breakfast with the greeting: ‘Die beste van die môre’, and it took me quite a while to realise that these words must have constituted a traditional family greeting, being a literal translation of what the family’s original Irish forbear, the first South African Flaherty, must have said habitually at breakfast-time: ‘The top of the morning to you’.
I must have known most of the families living in the Marico Bushveld at that particular time, and some of those farmers had most interesting stories to tell, relating, in a matter-of-fact way, all sorts of unusual circumstances. And my mind absorbed whatever they had to relate, provided that it was of a sufficiently unutilitarian order.
There was the legend of a spectre, in the form of a white donkey, that haunted the poort on the road to Ramoutsa. If you passed through that poort just around midnight, then, at the darkest part of the poort, near where the road skirts a clump of maroelas, you would be certain to encounter an apparition in the form of a white donkey, with his front legs planted firmly in the centre of the road. Nobody was quite certain where the hind legs of the donkey were planted because the lonely traveller would decide to turn back just about then.
(I visited that part of the Marico again about two years ago. The clump of maroelas by the side of the Government road have been cut down, since those days. But the donkey is still there.)
Amongst the hundreds of other stories I heard in the Marico, was a first hand account by an elderly man – who had been a burgher in that particular commando – of the sartorial eccentricities of a certain Boer War commandant. This commandant was very fussy about his appearance, and always insisted on wearing white starched shirt-fronts and cuffs. No matter how adverse the conditions under which the commando was operating – in constant retreat from the enemy, fording swollen rivers under fire, or negotiating barbed-wire fences between blockhouses – every Monday morning was washing-day, with the burghers having to go into laager, beside some spruit or dam (or a jackal hole with muddy water at the bottom), while the commandant supervised the washing, and starching, and ironing of his linen by the agterryers. It wasn’t that he was personally over-fastidious about such things, the commandant explained, but it was necessary, for the prestige of the Boer forces in the field, that a commandant should not go about looking like a Bapedi.
My informant – as mentioned, a burgher in this commando – said that he could never feel that the commandant’s arguments carried any weight. Himself, he didn’t care if he looked like a Bapedi, or an Mshangaan, or an orang-outang even, he said, as long as he didn’t get shot. But the commandant was a capable officer, he said, and the burghers trusted him and admired him, although, in their ragged clothes, they would be aware of a certain sense of inferiority beside the commandant’s starched magnificence. It was observed that, when the commandant addressed a veldkornet directly, giving him instructions, the veldkornet would say: ‘Ja, Kommandant,’ but at the same time he’d be standing, shuffling somewhat awkwardly.
There was something fine, I thought, about the way the commandant led his force into a Northern Cape village, that the English had just evacuated. He did it all in great style. He wore his best white shirt-front for the occasion. And he sat up very straight on his horse, riding at the head of his commando, with an occasional stray bullet still whistling down the street.
It was only when they got to the church square, in the centre of the village, that the burghers realised, from the circumstance of his shirt-front having gone limp, and not being white any longer, that their commandant would ride at their head no more.