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 I work my way up-country to Matabeleland—Employed as fireman on an engine—Reach Johannesburg—Trek the rest of the way to Bulawayo—Take service in the Matabeleland Mounted Police—Join the Africander Corps engaged in putting down the rebellion—Go into trade in Bulawayo—Return to the coast—I take to the stage—Work my way on an Arab dhow to Mombasa, February, 1898—Cool official reception
Learning that the Matabele War had broken out, I made every effort to get up to the front; but as I had had no previous experience, the military authorities would not take me on. However, I was determined to get to Bulawayo somehow, and with this idea made a start by taking the train for Pietermaritzburg, having just enough funds left to pay the fare. On arriving I was lucky enough to get a job to look after the engine and boiler at a steam bakery, and with the money I thus earned I was able to move on, a fortnight later, to Charlestown. I had now just enough money to pay for a night’s lodging, and the next morning I crossed the boundary between Natal and the Transvaal,
and moved on to Volksrust, getting a glimpse of the famous Majuba Hill on my journey.
Of course, I was open to take any job that offered, and it so happened that I was lucky enough to get one that very morning, as fireman on the railway.
On applying at the station, I was asked if I was experienced in the work, and having just left a steam bakery, and remembering my experience with the trawler’s donkey engine, I modestly said that I was, and was duly engaged and told to get on the engine of the mail train for Standerton, which was standing in the station, ready to start, and get on with the work.
The driver was a Hollander who spoke very little English, which fact I looked upon as a stroke of luck, as he would be less likely to ask awkward questions. He did ask me if I had done any firing before, and I gave him the same answer as I had given to the official on the platform. He soon put me to a practical test when, looking at the gauge glass, he told me to turn on the pump to fill the boiler. I had not the slightest idea where the pump was, but, noticing that, as he gave the order he looked at a handle which was sticking out, I promptly seized that, and began working it vigorously up and down. He at once began to shout, and I found that I had made a mistake, the handle only having to be lifted to a certain point, and then
a tap turned on. Seeing that the driver seemed to expect some explanation of my mistake, I remarked that the arrangement was different from those I had been used to, which was perfectly true, and this seemed to satisfy him, as he merely said that I should, no doubt, get used to it in time.
But I was fated to exhibit my ignorance still further before we started.
I was looking over the side of the engine, when the driver gave an order which I failed to understand, being engaged in watching the antics of an official on the platform, who was waving his arms and gesticulating wildly. He looked so funny that I burst out laughing, and the more I laughed the wilder he got. In the meantime the driver was grumbling, and came across to find out the cause of my laughter, and, seeing the man on the platform, turned on me, and asked why I had not reported the signal to start? It then suddenly dawned upon me that the order that had been given me was to watch for “Right away,” but his English was so funny that I thought he wanted me to look out for some friend he expected.
As Standerton was two hundred miles on my way to Bulawayo, I had thought of leaving the train there, but my clothes had got so dirty and greasy that I thought it best to stay on a little longer, until I had saved enough money to get
some more clothes and help me on my way to Johannesburg.
This particular engine proved to be one of the hardest for firing on the whole line, and I soon found that I had got the job because no one else would take it, and after a fortnight on it I was so knocked up that I decided to take a few days off, but on applying for my pay I was told that I should have to go to Standerton to get it. This suited my book exactly, and the idea entered my head, “Why not get a free pass to Johannesburg?” as they had given me one to Standerton, to draw my money. So when I drew the money the officials at Standerton were somewhat startled when I demanded a free pass to Johannesburg. They seemed to think I was crazy, but I quickly assured them that I was perfectly sane and meant to have the pass before I left the office.
They stormed and threatened, but seeing that I did not mean to budge, they finally gave me the pass, with the remark that the English were always so stupid and obstinate.
Getting some fresh clothes, I boarded the train, and at last arrived in Johannesburg. Here I found that most of the men in the town fire brigade were sailors, so I soon made friends, and had hopes of getting into the brigade, but after waiting a day or two, and seeing no prospect of an opening, I was advised to walk round the
mines to see if I could get anything to do there, but there were plenty of others on the same job, many of them old hands, and I found that I stood very little chance of employment.
I was still studying how to get up to Bulawayo, which I was told would cost me about £50 by coach, then the regular means of making the journey. At one of the mines I was lucky enough to meet a sailor, and getting a warm invitation to spend a few days with him, I accepted, on the chance that something might turn up. Visiting the saloon which was the meeting-place for the miners in the evening, I became acquainted with a man named Adcock, and as a consequence of an argument on the strained relations between the Boers and Outlanders, a row arose, in which I got mixed up, and I was ordered to leave the camp. Outside I came across Adcock, who told me that he was going up to Bulawayo, and had his outfit—which consisted of twenty mule wagons and one hundred horses, which he was taking up for the Government—camped a little distance away.
This was my chance, but at first he was inclined to refuse my request to be allowed to go up with him, but on my promising to make myself as useful as possible on the journey, he finally agreed to take me. There were six white men in the party, in addition to Adcock and myself, and about fifty natives, chiefly Cape boys and
Hottentots. My duties were to look after these natives and the stores.
Bulawayo was about six hundred miles up-country from Johannesburg, and the order of the march was for the white men, who were all mounted, to drive the horses in front of the caravan, while the wagons, under charge of the native drivers, followed on behind.
With a crack of his long whip like a pistol shot, each driver set his team in motion, and we started on our long trek up-country. The natives are very expert with these whips, being able, from their place at the front of the wagon, to single out any one of the ten or twelve mules which form the team before them.
My efforts as a rider were the subject of much sarcastic and good-humoured comment from my companions, but before the end of our journey I was as good a rider as any in the outfit.
The country through which we passed was for the most part open veldt, dotted with thorn-bushes, and the climate being dry and hot, the scarcity of water is a continual source of anxiety to the traveller in this part. Our animals suffered most severely, as there was no grass to be found, and after crossing the Limpopo they began to fall sick, and our progress became slower and slower with each day’s march.
When we arrived at a place called Maklutsi the mules were all so utterly done up that they
could go no farther, so the horses and some of the wagons went on to Salisbury, and the natives returned.
I had the choice of going back with the natives or continuing my journey on foot, and, choosing the latter course, I was provided with a small quantity of flour and some bully beef, and saying goodbye to my companions, I started out on my solitary trek.
Food at Maklutsi was very dear in consequence of the transport having been entirely disorganised by a serious outbreak of rinderpest. The price of an ordinary tin of corned beef (bully beef) had risen to 5s., and bread cost 1s. a loaf. There was no work to be got here, so I left the settlement at once and started on my 150 miles’ tramp to Bulawayo.
Having no means of carrying my food comfortably, I tied up the legs of a spare pair of trousers, and putting the flour in one leg and the beef in the other, I slung these improvised provision-bags over my shoulder, along with my cooking-pots, and started off.
When I had been two days on the road I was lucky enough to fall in with a travelling companion, in the person of an old soldier named Grant, who was also making his way to Bulawayo.
We agreed to travel on together, and Grant, who saw everything in a humorous light, enlivened
the journey with his cheery conversation and good-natured chaff. He had run out of food and would have been in a tight fix if I had not come up with him; but he took everything very philosophically, and I imagine that his lively spirits would have kept him going to the last gasp.
We shared the provisions as long as they lasted, but as I had only provided for myself, the supply gradually diminished until, stopping one day for a rest near a water-hole we had found in the bush, we found that we had not a scrap of food left.
Grant had thrown himself on the ground utterly exhausted, and I went off to the pool to have a bathe. Stepping into the water, I felt something slimy under my foot, and stooping down and groping beneath my foot, I found that it was a fish of the kind known in Africa as mudfish. They are good enough eating, and in our present famished condition promised a very appetising dish, and to my delight, on feeling round, I found that the pool was simply full of the fish, and we need have no further anxiety about food for the next few days.
I learned from the experience gained later during my journeyings through Africa that the smaller rivers all dry up after the rainy season, leaving only a few pools, such as the one we had struck, and, of course, all the fish naturally
make for the deeper spots as soon as they find the water going down. This accounted for the large quantity of fish to be found in the pool, which I proceeded to catch and throw on to the bank to dry as fast as I could. Having done this, I went back to Grant to tell him of our good luck. By way of breaking the news gently, I asked him if he would like a feed of fish, to which he replied with some comical remark to the effect that he really had no appetite, thinking that I was only chaffing. However, when he found it was really true, and saw the fish I brought up to cook for our meal, he was in no way behind me in getting to work on the best meal we had had for some days.
Not wishing to waste the fish, of which we could not manage to take much with us, we stayed there for a few days and were much better for the rest. We managed to dry a little of the fish, which we took with us when we moved on again.
This proved to be the turning-point of our luck, as a few days later we were overtaken by a Boer, going up to Bulawayo with a mule-wagon, and exchanged some of our dried fish with him for a little tea, flour, and a few other things, which we had now been without for several days. He seemed a good sort, so we begged him to give us a lift, which he did willingly enough, so our troubles were over for that journey.
I was so anxious to get into Bulawayo that I left the wagon when we were still some miles from the end of our journey, and made my way ahead on foot. This was a stupid thing to do, as we were well aware that the Matabele were already out in that district. We had found all the forts, as the police posts were called, under arms on the way up. These posts, which were placed at intervals along the road, were small positions protected by earthworks and barbed-wire entanglements, and occupied by thirty or forty men, with perhaps a Maxim gun. Many of them were the scenes of desperate fights during the rising, but their very names are unknown to people in England, who only regarded the Matabele rising as one of our many little wars, and as it did not affect their everyday life, took little or no interest in it.
I was lucky enough to get safely into Bulawayo without adventure, arriving about two o’clock in the afternoon, and was not surprised to find the town under martial law. Everybody was armed, and a big laager had been formed in the market-place, where the women and children gathered when an alarm was raised.
Being directed to the office of the Matabeleland Mounted Police, I lost no time in presenting myself before the officer in charge. I found that the conditions of service were good, the pay being at the rate of 10s. a day and all found, so I was duly enrolled.
After a good bath I discarded my old clothes and reappeared in full war-paint, feeling the self-respect which accompanies the wearing of a decent suit of clothes for the first time after some months in rags.
The police had no recognised uniform, but all wore a khaki suit, with a slouch hat, the different troops being known by the colour of the pugaree. A troop consisted of from thirty to fifty men.
Having been supplied with a Martini-Henry rifle and fifty rounds of ammunition, I was now fully equipped, and the next day I went out, in all the glory of my new uniform, to meet the mule-wagon. My improved appearance made such an impression on Grant that he lost no time in enlisting, and was enrolled the same day.
After three months in this troop of police, I joined the Africander Corps, which was a body of irregulars attached to them under Captain Van Niekerk. As they were composed of experienced men, well acquainted with the country and accustomed to savage warfare, I thought there would be a much better chance of seeing some of the fighting.
We were scouting in the outlying district, where the Matabele had been seen, but although we got into touch with them here and there, we had no serious engagement. Later on we were sent out on the Shangani Patrol, visiting the
district where Major Wilson and his party were cut up during the first Matabele War.
This patrol numbered from two hundred to three hundred police, with the mounted infantry of the Yorks and Lancs Regiment, a detachment of the 7th Hussars, under Colonel Paget—with whom was Prince Alexander of Teck—and a battalion of infantry.
The natives were lodged in the hills, and from a position of comparative safety were able to pour in a galling fire on the troops, while we were unable to inflict any serious loss on them in return. However, we lost only a few men killed, but had several deaths from fever.
The man who gave us the greatest trouble was a chief named Umwini, who was the leader of the rebellion in that district. I was present on several occasions at indabas (indaba is the native word for a meeting to discuss any matter), when he would come out of his stronghold and stand on the rocks in full view of us; but when asked to surrender, he replied contemptuously that we were a lot of boys and that he would never be taken by us.
His kraal was high up amongst some almost inaccessible crags on the mountain side, and all efforts failed to dislodge him, until a few of the Dutch Corps, of whom I was one, managed to steal upon him unawares. We reached his cave in the early dawn, and saw him, through the
opening, sitting, with only a few of his followers, round some lighted candles which he had probably looted from one of the stores. One of our men, taking careful aim, shot him through the shoulder, and then, rushing the cave, we took him prisoner. He was tried by a court martial, and sentenced to be shot, and when the time came for the sentence to be carried out he showed himself a thoroughly brave man, refusing to be blindfolded or to stand with his back to the firing party, saying that he wished to see death coming.
It was about this time that I first met B.-P.—now General Sir R. S. S. Baden-Powell, but then only Colonel—who had been sent up to take charge of the operations, and who confirmed the court martial’s sentence on Umwini. I was on water guard that day, to see that the natives did not poison the stream, when a man whom I took for a trooper came up and entered into conversation with me, asking about my past experiences, &c., and it was only when I got back to camp, after going off duty, that I found I had been talking to the officer in command of the expedition.
A general plan of attack was now organised, under the direction of Colonel Baden-Powell, and the natives were finally dislodged from the hills and the rebellion crushed.
On the successful termination of the patrol a
fort was built at Umvunga Drift, where I remained for some time; but it was a most unhealthy place, nearly every man going down, sooner or later, with fever and dysentery. There was absolutely no medicine of any sort in the place, and we consequently lost several men. I myself had a bad attack of dysentery, but managed to cure it by making a very thin mixture with my ration of flour and some water, which I drank daily until the attack was cured.
In the centre of the fort stood a big tree, and after cutting away the branches at the top we erected a platform on the trunk, which, besides serving as a look-out, made a splendid platform for a Maxim gun which we mounted there, and were thus able to command the surrounding country within range.
During my stay here we had one or two brushes with the natives, but they gradually settled down; so, on a relief force being sent up, I returned to Bulawayo, where the corps was disbanded. I then got a post as one of the guard over a number of murderers lying in Bulawayo gaol awaiting sentence, all of whom were finally hanged.
In the course of the twelve months that I remained in Bulawayo I made the acquaintance of a man named Elstop, who is mentioned by Mr. F. C. Selous in one of his books. This man was one of the oldest hands in the country,
and had been one of the pioneers in Rhodesia, and had also spent a good deal of time trading and storekeeping among the natives of the interior.
It was my acquaintance with him that finally decided me on my future course of action. The tales he told of his experiences in the earlier days, when elephants and other game were to be met with in plenty, fired my blood, and I said that I wished I had been in the country at that time. He said that I should probably find the same state of things still existing farther north. This was quite enough for me, and I resolved to find out for myself if he was right.
I was then in partnership with a man named Frielich, carrying on business as fruit and produce merchants, under the name of the Colonial Fruit and Produce Stores of Bulawayo. I had put practically all my savings into the business, but this did not alter my resolution to go north, and by mutual agreement we dissolved partnership.
I have since learned that Frielich finally made over £100,000 out of the business. Before the Boer War broke out he had stored an immense amount of forage, which he was able to sell during the war at his own price, and so amassed a comfortable fortune, in which, of course, had I stayed in Bulawayo, I should have shared.
Before starting out on our new venture I
thought I would take a short holiday at the seaside; so going down to East London, in Cape Colony, I joined some men I had met during the Matabele War, and we stayed there some time, camping out on the sands.
Finding that the funds were running out, I took to the sea again, and, getting a ship, worked my way round to Durban. Here I had to look round again for something to do, and finding that a Shakespearian company was playing in the town at the time, I presented myself at the stage manager’s office and applied for an engagement. They happened to have a vacancy, and I was taken on for small parts. The company was at rehearsal when I was engaged, and I was told to take my place at once among the others on the stage. As far as I could judge, I was no worse than the other members of the company, and for a month I appeared nightly for the edification of the aristocracy of Durban.
Tiring of the stage, I again took to the sea, and worked my way, from port to port, round to Zanzibar, where I gathered all the information I could about the interior, which did not amount to much more than that the country was very wild indeed.
However, my mind was made up now, and I was not to be scared off my plan; so, as there were no boats running to Mombasa—which is the gateway of British East Africa—I bargained
with an Arab for a passage on a dhow which carried native passengers between the various ports along the coast. The owner of the dhow provided no accommodation for his passengers, and I suppose one could hardly expect that he would, seeing that the fare from Zanzibar to Mombasa—a distance of about 250 miles—was only two rupees, or two shillings and eightpence!
The boat had a single mast, and carried one huge sail. It had no compass or lights, and was navigated round the coast by keeping as close inshore as possible all the time. There was no place to make a fire or any provision for cooking. It had been so, the Arab told me, in the days of his father, and what was good enough for his father was good enough for him and those who chose to travel with him. This was said in Arabic, but was translated to me by a fellow-passenger who could speak a little English.
With fully fifty people on board the tiny craft we started on our voyage along the coast, but had not gone very far before we were in trouble. With the huge sail set to catch the breeze, we were flying merrily along, when we were suddenly brought up all standing, and found that we had come across some obstacle in the water. We were very quickly informed what it was by a shouting crowd of excited native fishermen who swarmed round our boat, loudly demanding to be compensated for the damage done to their
nets, which, it seemed, formed the obstacle that had pulled us up and which we had destroyed.
The owner of the dhow did not seem to be at all disposed to give in to their demands, and they were about to seize the small boat which we were towing behind us, when I thought it was time to take a hand in the argument, as, in case of any accident to the dhow, this boat was our only hope of safety, the waters in that part being said to be infested with sharks. Picking up an axe, which happened to be lying handy, I jumped into the boat and threatened to brain the first man who came within reach. Although they did not understand English, my attitude was evidently suggestive enough to make it clear that they were safer at a distance, and, realizing that they were not likely to get any satisfaction by continuing the argument, they allowed us to proceed on our way.
After this we made fairly good headway, with a favourable wind, and, occupied in watching the changing scenery opening out as we made our way along the coast, I had almost forgotten the incident. I was settling down to enjoy the trip when, without any warning, we were suddenly pulled up again with a jerk, and the dhow came to a fullstop again.
Every one immediately got into a wild state of excitement, shouting and gesticulating, and making a perfect pandemonium of noise. The
captain was shouting as wildly as the rest, and, thinking he was giving orders, I was surprised to see that nobody attempted to carry them out, but on asking the passenger who could speak some English what orders he was giving, and why no one obeyed them, he said, “He is not giving orders, he is praying. He is calling on Allah to help him.” This was no use to me, and I thought the best thing I could do was to take charge myself; so, getting the man to whom I had spoken to act as interpreter, I told them what to do to put things right. They then calmed down a good deal, and I went to take soundings. There was no leadline on board, so I had to make one with some old iron and some pieces of rope that were lying about. On sounding I found plenty of water on one side of the ship, while on the other it was very shallow, so that we were evidently stuck on a reef. As soon as I was certain of this I lashed some rope to the anchor, and had it taken out about twenty or thirty yards from the ship, in the small boat, and then dropped overboard. Then I made everybody lend a hand to pull hard on the rope, and after about six hours’ hard work we managed to pull her off. In case of trouble I kept the axe handy, but they were ready enough to obey my orders, so nothing happened.
When we got her off I found that the dhow was leaking pretty badly, so everybody was kept
busy baling out the water, while I took the helm, and, keeping her close in to the land, steered towards Mombasa.
Noticing a large white building on the shore, I asked what it was, and my interpreter told me that it was the residence of a white man, and that the place was called Shimoni; so I took the boat in as close as possible and dropped anchor. On landing I found that the house was occupied by a British official, who offered to put me up, so I stayed the night there. The next morning I found that the dhow had continued her journey, and, as Mombasa was only thirty miles from Shimoni, I walked the rest of the way.
Mombasa is the starting-point of the Uganda Railway, of which so much has already been written. At the time of my arrival the railway was only in the initial stages of its construction, and just beginning to stretch its track through the almost unknown interior of British East Africa. So far it had only advanced a comparatively short distance into the Protectorate, and from the very start the engineers were faced at every step with some of the numerous difficulties which lie in the way of railway building in a new and savage country, from men and animals, as well as from the climate and tropical vegetation. The loss of life from wild animals, as well as from the climate, was very heavy.
In those days the European quarter of Mombasa was only a small cluster of buildings—chiefly Government offices—with one hotel, which was kept by a Greek. Two or three Europeans trading in the interior had stores here, and the British Government was represented by a Sub-Commissioner.
Mombasa—meaning Isle of War—is of great interest to the student of history. It is situated on an island, connected to the mainland by a bridge. There is a huge native town and an old Portuguese fort, several hundred years old, built in the days of Henry the Navigator, in whose reign the Portuguese ships visited all the ports of the known world, and many others, till then unknown.
Thinking that I should be most likely to get the information I required from the Government, I called on the Sub-Commissioner, and asked him to advise me as to the best way of carrying out my plan of visiting the interior. Very much to my surprise, I was received with the scantest courtesy, and given very plainly to understand that white men, whether travellers or hunters, were by no means welcome. They were not wanted, he told me, under any circumstances, and he advised me to leave the country at once.

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