Incidents of the 'Seventies and 'Eighties: Stolen Diamonds Hidden in a Gun—Hazards of the Old Coaching Days—A Fortune in Jeopardy—"He who Laughs last" . . .—£10 Claims which Fetched £100,000—Kimberley as a Sporting Centre; the Victory of "Fry's Gully"—My First Big Money at Jagersfontein—Hard Work and Hard Times—Old Nel of Kloof Farm.
In the earliest days of the Diamond Fields things were usually done in slipshod fashion. The post office consisted of a small corrugated iron building, and there was only one mail per week which left for Cape Town. Diamonds were sent in registered packets through the post, which left Kimberley at 8 o'clock in the evening, for shipment to England.
One very hot evening the postal staff prepared the mail as usual for despatch by the post cart. All the bags were placed on a platform inside a big open window, with the registered letter bag on top. As the post cart was not due for some fifteen minutes, and the postmaster was feeling somewhat dry, he saw no harm in popping round the corner to a canteen to quench his thirst. Unfortunately the thought that someone should be left in charge of the mail bags did not enter his mind.
It so happened that while the thirsty postmaster was relishing his favourite beverage, a man named Harding promiscuously reached the post office while taking a constitutional. He saw the open window and the unprotected mail bags, and was tempted on the spur of the moment.
Though, in American language, he was not a "stiff," he quietly walked away with the top mail bag. When he arrived at his tent he discovered several packets of diamonds (these had been insured for £60,000). Having committed himself so far, this light-fingered gentleman turned his thoughts to making good his escape to Europe.
The theft was reported to the police, but the thief could not be traced. . . . They despaired of ever capturing the culprit, or recovering the stolen gems. Harding, it appeared, placed the stones into a double-barrelled gun, and rammed some cotton waste in the muzzle to prevent them from falling out. He afterwards left for Cape Town with the intention of sailing for England on the first mail boat. But "murder will out," and on his arrival at the coast he went on the "spree." He was lavish with money, and this fact aroused the suspicion of the Cape Town C.I.D.
Detectives boarded the ship on which he was to sail, but after a long search they found nothing of an incriminating nature. They were about to leave the ship when one detective, a little cuter than the rest, espied the gun. He examined it, and found it rather heavy. Like the stage magician who produces the rabbit from the hat, he pulled out the packing, and—hey presto—out fell the diamonds.
Harding was arrested, and eventually got gaol for seven years. Had he not been so generous at the Coast, the perpetrator of the theft would never have been discovered. Drink is the root of all evil. The crime was only caused through the thirsty postmaster, and detected through the fondness of liquor on the part of Harding, who, after all, was a very decent kind of fellow.
On one of my adventurous trips by coach to Port Elizabeth about 1875, we encountered the Reit River in flood. The driver, a Cape coloured man, named Johnson, who drove for many years with only two days' rest every fortnight, thought he could venture through the Blaauwbank Drift. He did so, but he had not gone far when the coach completely capsized in mid-stream.
The passengers travelling on the outside—I was one of them—were precipitated into the water, and almost drowned. But in the nick of time, I managed to regain the coach, unfasten the canvas window covers, open the uppermost door and pull out some of the passengers. Among them was Mrs. A. A. Rothschild, wife of Kimberley's leading auctioneer, and her three children. We scrambled up the drift to safety, wet to the skin. A span of oxen ultimately pulled the coach back to dry land, and again we started off on our long journey.
When I was a passenger by the same coach on another occasion, a Mrs. Grady—a neighbour of mine at Bultfontein—was travelling to Grahams-town for the purpose of her health. A few hours before arriving at her destination, the poor woman died. The nuns, who had come to meet her, were apprised of the tragic happening, and they took charge of her remains. It was a sad reception.
During the first twenty-five years of the existence of the Diamond Fields, and before the discovery of the Johannesburg Gold Fields, there was an active local diamond market. It was the custom of diggers to engage brokers to value and dispose of their finds. They would first submit their "parcels" to the principal merchants, and would ultimately accept the best prices offered. There were many big firms with large credits and big financial resources, who regularly shipped their purchases to Europe. Among the biggest diamond merchants were J. B. Robinson, Wernher, Beit and Co., Sigismund Neumann, Barnato Brothers, Mosenthal and Co., Anton Dunkelsbuhler, J. B. King, M. Michaelis, Schwabacher Brothers, Joseph Brothers, Litkie Brothers, and a few others whose names I have forgotten.
There lived in the town an Irishman named Martin, who bought a fair amount of diamonds and sold them locally. One day he failed to sell his purchases to advantage, so he decided to market them at Port Elizabeth. There being no railway communication at the time, he proceeded to the Bay in one of Cobb & Company's coaches —a six-day journey.
Arriving at his destination he succeeded in selling his "parcel" for £6,000. He was known to be a thrifty and careful man, disinclined to spend money without getting some substantial return. To save exchange he cashed the cheque, and packing the bank notes in his portmanteau, he started on the return trip to Kimberley. His and other luggage was securely strapped to the back of the coach.
All went well till Modder River (twenty-four miles from Kimberley) was reached. Here it was found that owing to recent rains the river was in flood, and the water was rushing along in a mad dash to the Vaal. After waiting several hours for the floods to subside, the driver thought a safe crossing was possible.
Full of passengers, the coach descended the drift, but once in midstream the whole outfit became imperilled. Under pressure from the strong current, the horses were unable to gain the other bank. Becoming alarmed, they headed for downstream, after being tossed about like corks on a rough sea. The coach was carried down the river for some distance, until it fortunately struck an obstacle, on which it came to rest and there stuck for three or four days. The passengers struggled to safety, but the half-turned coach was in a precarious position, with the luggage partially submerged.
Poor Martin uttered not a word concerning the valuable contents of his portmanteau. 'Twas useful for him to remember that on certain occasions "silence is golden." He remained, however, in the proximity of the derelict coach. In the meantime he had hours for reflection. He must have realised and regretted his rash act in risking his whole fortune to save about £30 in exchange.
When the waters had subsided, a span of oxen pulled what was left of the coach on to dry land. Trembling with fear, Martin opened his portmanteau, fully expecting to find his bank notes unrecognisable after their submersion in the rushing stream. The flood, however, had not been so relentless as he had feared. To his agreeable surprise, the name of the Bank of issue and the numbers were still discernible. Martin lost no time in getting to the Bank, who accepted the damaged money, and placed it to his credit. He had been penny wise, but pounds foolish.
Martin left Kimberley in the 'eighties and settled in Hatton Garden as a diamond dealer. He died several years ago.
About the year 1876 an unusual happening took place in the Kimberley Mine, which was being worked in soft, yellow ground. Several diggers who had worked their claims more expeditiously than others, struck a hard, dark-coloured substance, and came to the conclusion that this must be the bottom of the mine. They lost no time in covering the area with yellow ground, and then rushed to claim brokers with a view to selling their holdings. Skill and others got busy, and did a roaring business with an unsuspecting public.
I purchased a quarter of a claim for £300 in No. 6 Road, and at the time I was under the impression that I had struck a bargain owing to the market price of this ground being £500 a week earlier. The diggers who sold their claims at an apparent sacrifice chuckled at their smartness. The secret of the whole affair soon became known, and there was consternation among the different purchasers and diggers. As nobody would buy my portion of the ground, I decided to work it myself. Down the mine I went with a band of natives, and, shovelling away the yellow ground, a hard blue conglomeration soon made its appearance. I was anxious to see whether this ground was diamondiferous, so I decided to haul 1,000 loads as a test. I was forced to sink a pole-pit to anchor the inclined standing wire. I had only got down three feet, after having worked barely two days, when I found a thirty-nine carat —a beautiful stone which I sold for £8 a carat. The total I realised (£312) was actually more than I gave for the claim. Others who were also supposed to have bought worked-out claims likewise found their bargain remunerative soon after they had started to dig.
The good news soon spread, and gave confidence to the large majority of diggers who were working the yellow ground, but who had not reached the new strata. The "clever" men who had sold their claims were hoist with their own petard! A few days later the ground rose in value, and it was soon 25 per cent higher than before they had cleared out. As a matter of fact, the blue ground was the mine proper contained within the pipe, and the yellow ground was the overflow. These were indeed exciting times.
Being young and vigorous, I preferred mining to diamond buying. Though buying was more certain and profitable, an active life and hard work appealed to me more than a sedentary occupation. So I again started digging in the Bultfontein Mine, where I acquired a block of eighteen claims in a very good position.
I worked there for nearly two years with variable luck. On the whole I made expenses, and managed to pay my household accounts with a little to spare. There were two claims in the middle of my block which were not being worked, and soon became a danger to my natives who were working sixty or seventy feet below. I was compelled to keep a native constantly employed to watch this high ground so as to warn my Kafirs of any impending fall of stones or blue ground, and to give them time to clear to safety. The Mining Inspector at length gave me notice to stop working near this high ground. To have complied with the instruction would have so diminished my operations that I could only have continued at a loss.
What was I to do? These two overhanging claims belonged to an old Scotsman, named Kerr, who was a "hard nail" to drive in the market of speculation. One day I happened to meet him on my way home, and warned him of the necessity of making his two claims safe because the Mining Inspector would not allow me to work close to them. He answered off-handedly, "I have no means of hauling the ground. I am sorry I cannot do anything for you." I asked him whether he would sell the claims as they were only hindering me in my operations. He said he would only realise if he got his price. "How much?" "Five pounds each, and not a penny less."
I gladly gave him the £10. When I returned from the Gaika-Galecka War, I was hard up, and sold my claims, a block of twenty, for £600. Ten years afterwards, when the big amalgamation was brought about, they were worth at least £100,000.
Since its earliest days Kimberley has been renowned as a sporting centre. During the late 'seventies and early 'eighties thoroughbred racing flourished, and those anxious to secure the biggest stakes on offer in South Africa made the town their Mecca. The local Turf Club frequently offered £1,500 as the prize for the winning horse, the biggest breeding centres at that time being Colesberg and Cradock. There being no railway communication, animals had to be walked long distances, and it was nothing unusual for some horses to be led 300 or 400 miles before arriving on the Diamond Fields.
I recall many popular owners of those days— men of sterling worth—such as Alec Robertson, Charles Southey, Hilton Barber and Mr. Munnik. They were sportsmen all; they raced because they loved "the game," and were the embodiment of all the good qualities it stands for.
Like racing, cricket and football have flourished in this town of precious stones, whose name has been honoured on the great fields, not only of this country, but throughout the civilised world. William Ling, who hailed from Natal, was a stalwart cricketer, and his progeny followed closely in his footsteps. Some of his descendants are still here to uphold the family name. Who does not know "Vic" Ling, the young South African cricketer, whose heroics with the bat have earned for him a world-wide reputation?
In my young days I was an enthusiastic exponent of both cricket and football, and frequently took my place among the tournament players. They included Henry Nourse, who, I am pleased to say, is alive and well to-day. In my opinion, he was one of the finest all-round athletes South Africa has ever produced; runner, jumper, cricketer and footballer, he was possibly the outstanding sportsman of his age.
Even to-day, with an enormously decreased population, Griqualand West can always be depended upon to shed lustre on the colours which are so dear to the hearts of those who know how to "play the game."
A great "spoof" that is worth re-telling befell a few friends of mine—a joke that cost them well over £100.
Two diggers were envious of each other's racehorses, and anxious definitely to establish superiority, and a race was arranged between the two animals for a small wager. Excitement was aroused among a coterie of sportsmen, and quite a few hundred put in an appearance to witness the outcome of the contest. The race was won and lost amid the plaudits of the crowd.
As they were about to leave the racecourse, one well-known "sportsman" expressed dissatisfaction at the performance of the winner, and declared disparagingly that in his opinion neither of the candidates had run in convincing style. Near the grandstand there stood a pair of shabby-looking horses inspanned to an old Scotch cart. "I'll bet you, boys," he exclaimed, "that either of those animals will beat the winner." The remark drew forth a hearty round of laughter. But the challenger was insistent, and was willing to back his opinion if anyone would lay him odds of ten to one. This seemed easy money, and ten of his friends struck bets gladly.
The shaggy horse was removed from the shaft, and it set to to match its better-looking opponent. The "class" animal was beaten, and the cart horse won the day, much to the disappointment of the crowd.
My friend won his bets, but imagine the chagrin of the others when they subsequently heard that the dirty looking cart horse was none other than "Fry's Gully," a well-known thoroughbred performer on the South African course, which had been inspanned to the cart, not by accident, but by design. It was a put-up job.
After my return from the Gaika-Galecka War, of which I have more to say presently, public attention was being centred in Jagersfontein— some 100 miles from Kimberley. Many diggers went there in search of wealth. They hurriedly marked out claims, and lost no time in search of the elusive gem. At the start some very fine diamonds were unearthed by the lucky ones who had secured claims in the best portion of a patchy mine. While some diggers prospered, the majority lost everything, and soon found themselves in debt.
Remembering a diamond I had bought from a Dutchman when the Diamond Fields Horse were stationed at Fauresmith, I decided to ride from Kimberley to Jagersfontein to inspect the mine. On arrival I found that a lot of work had been done. After making inquiries as to the yield, etc., I came to the conclusion that there were "possibilities." At this period diamonds were cheap compared with to-day's prices.
I took a fancy to a small block of seventeen claims, and ascertained that they were owned by a man named Henry Beddy, of Fauresmith, a large storekeeper and speculator. I immediately called on him, and asked whether he was prepared to sell his claims. We negotiated, and he agreed to accept £30 each. I told him I could not conveniently produce all the cash, but if he would knock off the odd £10, I would pay him £250 in cash, and would give him a six months' bill for a like amount. He accepted, and during the currency of the bill several large and valuable stones were found in the vicinity—mostly by the Kerr Brothers.
Ground rapidly rose in value. I was asked if I would sell my claims, and at what price. "Yes, at £300 each," I replied. "Give me the option for twenty-four hours, and I will see what I can do," said the broker. He returned within the time stipulated and offered to pay the price, providing the odd £100 was knocked off. I agreed, and received £5,000 in cash from C. J. Rhodes and Alderson, who at that time made many joint speculations.
This was my first big money during the nine years I had then been in South Africa. I have always felt that I owed this slice of luck to the Gaika-Galecka War which, in 1877, took me to Fauresmith, where I bought the first diamond found on the surface of the mine. The whole concern was subsequently formed into a limited liability company. This was forty years ago, and up to now the area must have produced £25,000,000 worth of diamonds. I have been chairman of this Corporation for over twenty-five years.
About ninety per cent of our employees are South African born. When the Anglo-Boer War was imminent, many of these men, including two brothers of General Hertzog—the present Prime Minister—were compelled to join their several Commandos according to the burgher law. Loyally, they responded to a man, and this had the effect of stopping mining operations. Even without their assistance, the Jagersfontein Mining Company could only have carried on for a limited time, as supplies of fuel and explosives were unobtainable through the railway line being cut, thus preventing communication with the ports.
For three years mining operations were at a standstill. Water accumulated in the mine, while a British garrison was in occupation of the town. On several occasions the Boers attacked this force, but did not succeed in getting them to shift an inch of ground. The debris heaps were trenched and afforded good cover to the troops, who, nevertheless, suffered many casualties.
Long before the end of the war the garrison was withdrawn. It was now that all the English and the remaining employees, including the manager, vacated the mine through having to accompany the column. Nobody was left in charge, and the company's property remained at the mercy of the enemy forces. Be it said to the credit of the Boers that no damage or looting to any serious extent took place during the long evacuation.
When peace was at length declared, Mr. Debell, the manager of the mine, and some members of the staff returned to Jagersfontein, and made the necessary arrangements to de-water the mine. Considerable time elapsed, however, before the requisite number of natives could be obtained to start normal working operations.
The manager wrote to the head office for instructions concerning the taking on of white men. My reply pointed out that all those who had been in the employ of the company when war was declared, and who had joined their respective Commandos, should be re-engaged, but those who had not been loyal to their own cause should be overlooked.
This step, after all, was but an act of justice to those men who had behaved as patriotically to their country as had the British born who had served with the irregular forces and had fought against the Boers. My instructions were faithfully carried out, and gave general satisfaction to all but those who had shown the "white feather" in the hour of their country's need. The brothers Hertzog are still in the company's employ.
In 1882 I leased a block of thirty-seven claims in the Dutoitspan Mine, together with machinery, which included a six horse-power Robey hauling engine. For two and a half years I worked on this block on an average of fourteen hours a day. It was indeed an uphill struggle. On many occasions I was so tired at the end of my long shift, that in riding to my home in Kimberley on my stout Basuto pony I would sleep most of the way. Instinctively he would never fail to land me at my home, halting when he reached the front gate.
At this time diamonds were very low in price, and as I had to pay £500 per month for the right to work the claims and use the machinery, I experienced the greatest difficulty in making ends meet. During some weeks I did not make expenses; at other times I found some valuable diamonds. On many occasions, however, I was compelled to borrow money from Harry Barnato so as to pay the week's wages. Harry, though generally disinclined to lend money (wise man) usually gave me what I required with good grace, knowing perfectly well that when I had a good week, I would repay him.
I was now working at a depth of 150 feet in blue ground, right up to the boundary of the high ground of the Griqualand West Diamond Mining Company. This high ground was indeed a source of danger to the overseers and natives working for me, but the company refused to remove any of it so as to make my lower working level safe. Despite the risk, I was compelled to carry on, especially as I had neither the means nor the time to go to law. The company, of course, knew this, and took undue advantage of the position.
"When needs must the Devil drives," so my mining business went on as usual. The standing wires on my claims had seen better days, and had become weak through usage. One day the defect was noticed by the Mining Inspector, who sent me a written order demanding that I erect new standing wires within seven days. I obeyed —I was compelled to—at a cost of £300, which I again borrowed from my good friend, Harry Barnato.
But my worries seemed endless. These wires had only been in use a few days when a large quantity of ground fell into my claims and broke them. I immediately applied to the company for some measure of redress, but, as usual, received none. I was actually entitled to two shillings and sixpence per load for hauling the fallen ground, but I could not recover a farthing.
The secretary of the company wrote informing me that I could keep the ground, which it was thought was very poor. I, too, had not a very high opinion of its value. I was thereupon forced to haul a large portion of this ground before I was able to work my own claims. I had the standard wires spliced, and again started operations after a stoppage of a whole week. In about two months I had hauled all the fallen ground, and had cleared my own claims. I put aside the 6,000 loads af Griqualand West ground on a narrow unused strip of my depositing floors, and there it remained for over eighteen months. I did not attempt to wash it owing to the general opinion that it was unpayable. After an experience of two years I decided not to renew the lease, and I gave the bank notice to that effect. I arranged, however, to retain possession of the floors and machinery till I had washed all the remaining blue ground.
Towards the end of January, 1884, heavy rains set in. They saturated and pulverised the blue ground, and materially increased the yield of diamonds. My floor manager, named Milne, a man of fine physique, who had been in the Royal Engineers and had lost his left arm, was an indefatigable worker, and looked after my interests very carefully.
One evening we were both standing near a small house at the end of the floors. The rain had momentarily ceased, and as we were talking Milne spotted a shovel which one of the natives had neglected to place in the tool house. He walked about ten yards away from me to pick it up. He had raised the shovel with his right hand and had lifted it above his shoulder, when a flash of lightning struck the blade. His body, a better lightning conductor than the wooden handle, received the full force of the flash, and he fell to the ground as if pole-axed.
I was momentarily blinded by the flash. When I saw what had happened I rushed to Milne's assistance, without realising that the man who had just left me had gone to his eternal rest. There was a sulphurous smell about the spot, and I found that his clothes were smouldering. Lying over him, I poured water over his deathlike face, but he never moved. Only when I lifted his head did the terrible truth dawn upon me that he was dead. I procured assistance, and we removed the body into the house where we placed it on a stretcher.
When I was in England a few months after the tragedy it fell to my unhappy lot to break the sad news to his mother and sister. They were heartbroken. We buried poor Milne in the Dutoitspan Cemetery, and to this day I cherish the memory of a hard worker and a staunch employee.
When I had finished the job of washing the blue ground from my own claims, I asked myself the question whether it was worth while putting the fallen ground from the Griqualand West Mining Company through the machine. Though opinion among my friends was divided, I decided to wash 1,000 loads in the nature of a test, particularly as the ground was perfectly pulverised.
The first day I dealt with 400 loads, and the following day I put the heavy deposits through the pulsator. I got a splendid yield of diamonds. The stones turned up in large numbers until the entire 6,000 loads were treated. The diamonds were of exceptional quality, and the ground proved the best ever hauled from the Dutoitspan Mine. The 6,000 loads yielded stones worth over £5,000. What a piece of luck! The fall of ground which I had thought would be my ruin had turned out to be my salvation. Without the 6,000 loads I would have just managed to come out, perhaps with a small loss, after nearly two and an half years of very hard work—perhaps no harm, my readers will think, for a strong, active and healthy man of about thirty years of age.
After these vicissitudes, I felt I needed a rest. I sold my furniture, which realised £280, and took a trip to England with my wife, two youngsters, and a three-months old baby. He is now Colonel H. S. Harris, C.B.E., V.D., who served right through the Great War from August, 1914, till the Armistice in 1918.
During 1883 a friend of mine in England corresponded with me in regard to a speculation in crocidolite, an investment in which he imagined there was a fortune. He pointed out that the best qualities could be shipped to Germany, where there was a good demand for the right article.
He told me that the best quality was to be found on a farm called " Kloof," owned by a Boer named Nel.
As my lease of the Standard Company at Dutoitspan Mine was about to expire, his proposition at the time appealed to me. I sent an agent to Kloof, and he entered into a contract with Nel for a five years' lease. I was to pay £300 per annum for the sole right to work and extract crocidolite on the property. Before starting operations, I proceeded to England to discuss matters with my friend, who was much more optimistic of the venture than I was. However, I had undertaken a liability of £1,500, and was determined to see it through.
When I returned to South Africa, I immediately proceeded to the farm, and decided, for the first time, on the best method of extracting the crocidolite from the rocky soil and kopjes. Most of the material was embedded in horizontal layers between ten and thirty feet from the surface, necessitating blasting operations on a fairly large scale.
Kloof is about 150 miles from Kimberley, and forty-five miles from Griquatown. At the time the country was sparsely populated, and the nearest neighbour to Nel was about twelve miles away. The farmers were all poor. They depended on wells to water their cattle. Primitive methods were employed for hauling the water, and very often the backs of the farmers would be bent from the arduous nature of this work.
Notwithstanding hardships, these old-fashioned pioneers stuck to their task. At this period they were able to secure farms at a very low figure and on quite easy terms. Their great aim in life seemed to be to pay off their debt to the Government, and become unencumbered owners. Through sheer hard work the majority succeeded in their endeavours, principally through living on the bare necessities of life. They felled trees, which they afterwards transported by ox wagons to Kimberley, where they sold the wood on the Market Square for about £10 per load. With this money they bought meal, coffee, sugar and a little clothing, which they took to their farms after an absence, in some instances, of about five weeks.
Then there was the labour entailed in cutting the wood, and the obtaining of food for themselves and their "Piccannin voorlooper" (the boy who leads the front oxen) during the long journey so the enormous amount of work and fatigue required to earn so precarious a living can well be imagined. But it enabled them to decrease the debt on their farms, and brought them nearer that happy day when they could call their homestead and the land surrounding it their very own.
They bartered instead of buying for cash. When they sold a sheep at the then ruling price of 7s. 6d., they would set aside a big portion of this with which to pay quitrent and a certain amount of redemption due to the Government. These people thrived where an English family, under the same conditions, would have starved. They lived religious and simple lives, far removed from the amenities of the city, railways and schools. They were upright and truthful folks, with whom it was a pleasure to come into contact.
Returning to Kimberley prior to my great adventure, I purchased all my requirements for the farm, such as food, tents, dynamite and tools. These were to suffice for twelve weeks, and were intended for division among six white men and thirty natives. I supervised the loading of everything on two wagons, and secured the services of a qualified blaster, who went in charge of my supplies.
I hired a Cape cart and four horses for the journey, and arranged the trip so as to reach Griquatown a day or two before the wagons were due. Altogether, I made five trips to Kloof, and each stay averaged about ten weeks. During this time I mined, trimmed and packed the crocidolite, and sent it by ox wagon to De Aar—a railway station 500 miles from Cape Town. From there it was shipped to Germany. Living on this isolated farm was a rough life, but I enjoyed every moment of it, climbing hills and mountains, and working from sunrise to sunset under the heat of a red-hot sun.
One day I had a very narrow escape from being bitten by a large poisonous snake. I was walking down a stony kopje at the time, and was carefully treading my weary way when I was startled by a shout from the young lad who was with me, the son of old Nel. He broke the silence by a loud shriek, "Pas op, mynheer, dar is een slang." ("Look out, sir, there is a snake.") Had I not understood Dutch, I would have trodden on the reptile in my next step. It might have gone hard with me, for the snake seemed ready to strike its poisonous fangs into my leg. The snake was almost the colour of the dark stones, but the boy's keen eyesight discerned it before I could take what might have been a fatal step. I quickly jumped aside, and the reptile darted back into its hole, probably alarmed, but certainly less frightened than I was.
Beneath a rough exterior old Nel had a large heart. He permitted a "Bywoner" (a poor white Dutchman) and his family to live on the farm, where they grazed a few head of cattle and some sheep. How this man, his wife and four children survived on such a pittance was a miracle to me. They occupied a patched tent, which had to serve the entire family, and they cooked their food on an improvised stove made of a few odd bricks and old iron bands removed from casks. Nevertheless, they all looked strong and healthy, and I doubt if they would have changed their lot for a villa situated in a town.
Nel paid the poor farmer a small sum when he helped to raise water from the well, while I frequently exchanged with him coffee, sugar and meal for milk, butter and eggs—then great luxuries to me and my men.
I look back on the ancient method of transport, and the type of vehicle then in existence, and I often wonder how we reached any place at all. When I hired a cart and horses to take me from Griquatown to Kloof, we were compelled to stop in the middle of the veld through the axles becoming red-hot and refusing to turn. It took over an hour to get the temperature down with water that fortunately was near at hand.
To my utter dismay, I then found that the Dutchman who was driving had no grease in the cart. And here we were, marooned twelve miles from the nearest farm, with the shades of night fast approaching. It would have taken the driver five hours to fetch some grease. As he was about to start, I was overtaken by a brain wave. I remembered that my dressing bag contained a bottle of Atkinson's Brilliantine, which had been bought in Bond Street—quite a long way from the scene of this mishap. Nearly all the mixture was applied, and we were soon on our journey again. It must have been the first occasion that such an expensive lubricant was ever used to set cart wheels in motion.
Nel was unlucky in some respects. He was frequently losing lambs through the depredations of a leopard, then known among the farmers as "tigers." I suggested that we should try to pick up the spoor and hunt the beast till we put it to death. We started on our venture one Saturday afternoon, and having picked up the trail we sighted the leopard on a rise 400 yards away. Assuming a prone position, we fired. At the first volley the animal was fatally struck, and we all claimed it as the victim of our respective guns. Examination of the carcass revealed only one shot, and I was certain that that shot was mine. To settle a friendly argument, we returned to the farmhouse and there erected a small target. We arranged that each was to fire three shots, and the highest scorer was to get the skin. Neither of the Dutchmen hit the white paper, nailed on to an old beer case, from a distance of 400 paces. My three counters were "bulls," so the skin was mine. Later, I had it made up into a hearth rug, and had it in daily use for about thirty years.
The farm Reitfontein adjoined Kloof, and it boasted of an excellent fountain, which would have irrigated a few morgen of surrounding land. The owner of Reitfontein was anxious to buy ten morgen from Nel, and a bargain was struck at £10. No surveyor was engaged to mark off the allotted ground. The cost of securing the services of a qualified man from Kimberley would have been in the neighbourhood of £100.
In these early days the Boers had a rough and ready method of measuring off a morgen of land by stepping a hundred full paces along a square. The prospective buyer who was a fairly well educated and "slim kerel" (wily fellow), paced off 1,000 square yards, the equivalent of 100 morgen.
On his return from Reitfontein, Nel came to my tent, and detailed the transactions to me, adding that it seemed to him to be a large piece of land for 10 morgen. He explained how the ground had been measured, and when I heard his story I told him that he would part with 100 morgen of land. He could not see his mistake. He contended that if 100 paces each way was equal to one morgen, then 1,000 paces must only amount to ten morgen. I repeated that it was 100 morgen, but I could only convince him of the fact when I cut some playing cards into small squares, laid them out on the table, and gave simple demonstration of the difference between 10 and 100 morgen. "I see now," he said, "my neighbour wanted to humbug me. I will have nothing to do with him, neither will I sell him even one morgen, the 'verneuker' ("cheater")."
To continue my narrative of the exciting happenings on this farm. One of my white employees, a strong fellow standing six feet two inches, was stricken down with dysentery. I tended him as well as I could, nourishing him with milk, eggs and some brandy, and he soon got well and returned to work. One evening I was descending the mountain, homeward-bound after a hard day's work, when the man I had befriended suddenly approached me. "I ain't no policeman, boss," he said, "but my mates are going for your money to-night." He then walked on as if he had just bid me the time of the day. I had about £300 in my portmanteau with which to pay wages, transport, etc., and I was determined to retain it in safe custody.
Arriving at the camp, I walked to the homestead with the money to hand to Nel for safekeeping. He could not give me a "shake-down" because he was pressed for accommodation, but he emptied and swept out the coach-house in which I slept that night. During the remainder of my stay on the farm, I placed on guard at night a reliable Griqua named Jonas. The threat to molest me did not materialise. The white men must have realised that I had heard of their plan, but they never suspected who my informant was.
Obsessed with the lessons of the Bible, Nel was a truly pious man, and every Sunday evening he conducted a religious service in his own home. By the dim light of candles made on the farm, he read passages from an old book of Scripture. The members of the family were blessed with lusty voices, and when they chanted hymns they did so at the top of their voices. I could always hear them plainly at my camp some 200 yards away.
At his invitation, I would occasionally attend these services. Not knowing that I was a member of the Jewish faith, he asked me one night to sing a hymn. I was nonplussed at the suggestion. I feared that if I admitted I did not know a hymn my reputation would have slumped in old Nel's estimation, and he might have thought I was an atheist.. Hurriedly collecting my thoughts, a sentimental song named "Some Day," which I sang in my more youthful moments, came back to me. I therefore rendered it in solemn style with clerical intonation. At the end of the song, the whole family joined in with a lusty "Amen."
A fortnight later Nel was holding the usual Sunday night service, when a few friends unexpectedly put in an appearance. Prevailed upon again to sing that beautiful number, which he styled "Sommy Day," I submitted to the ordeal, feeling extremely embarrassed, though not wishing to run the risk of offending the religious susceptibilities of this simple, guileless, God-fearing farmer. My contribution was again a complete success, to the delight of my audience.
In 1884 my work on the farm was nearing an end. Nel agreed to take me to the nearest railway station, 100 miles across country, for £15. One night we slept on the banks of the Orange River, and reached Hopetown the next afternoon in time for lunch.
Nel afterwards came to me and solemnly remarked, "I am sorry I cannot take you any farther, but as I must keep my contract I have hired a cart and horses to take you to the next station in time to catch the train."
I was surprised at this sudden decision. When questioned, the dear old fellow answered excitedly, "Well, Mynheer (sir), I have never seen a railway train, my son has never seen one, and I don't want either of us to see a 'spoorwegen' (railway line)." I went to the station in the hired cart, and Nel returned from Hopetown to his farm. He died many years back, but his sons have since travelled over many miles of railway line.
How much happier and contented South Africa would be if devout and simple-minded men like Nel—and there were many of them in those palmy bygone days—were not exploited by professional politicians anxious to become Members of the House of Assembly, attracted by the emolument of £700 per annum.