Rhodesians

“A good country and a cheery crowd” is almost invariably the opinion voiced by visitors to Rhodesia.

The expression is apt. Less than forty years ago it was a savage wilderness rotten with fever, a thousand miles from anywhere, inhabited by two races of natives, one a great ruthless military organisation, the other one of wretched cowardly tribes everlastingly being harried by their neighbours.

Today Rhodesia is a land of modern cattle ranches, citrus estates, tobacco plantations, maize and dairy farms and every branch of mining.

cattle ranching

Modern towns have been built, costly hotels erected and the life of the community is organised on businesslike lines.

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For ten out of forty years of its history, practically the whole of Rhodesia’s manhood has been engaged in the war against Black and White. Rinderpest swept the country clear of cattle, East Coast Fever has ravaged the herds again and again. Blackwater and malaria have taken a heavy toll of life and health. Gold mining, tobacco growing, and cotton planting have caused wonderful booms and disastrous slumps.

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“What I do like about the country,” one Englishman remarked to me on one of my visits to his farm ” is that there’s always a crowd arriving for a new boom so that the people have been ruined in the last month can always sell their farms and start again.”

One hears a great deal about chequebook farmers and young fools easily parted from their money. As a matter of fact, the average Rhodesian is of the type who formed Britain’s officer class in 1914, 15 and 16. Rhodesians take farming in the same spirit as they took the war. When possible the majority jump at any excuse for “a spot of leave” and whilst only they live. On their farms, however, no men could be more enthusiastic over their jobs.

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Unlike the majority of those born and bred to the land Rhodesians handle their labour and work on Army principles. It is an easy matter to be wise after an event and criticism come naturally to us all. The various booms in agriculture received the strongest possible support from not only the Rhodesian Government but all qualified to speak on the subjects.

Unfortunately, the world’s economies are not ruled by the laws of supply and demand but by great vested interests whilst in agriculture, the vagaries of weather and disease are factors impossible to foresee.

Rhodesia has proved itself to be capable of producing almost every product needed by the world. It is divided into so many different types of a country that scarcely a district can say that what suits its neighbour suits it.

Vast areas are magnificent cattle country where prime beef can and is being reared at a negligible cost. Tea and coffee have proved suitable in one or two districts, sheep in another, maize in belts, citrus in some areas, cotton in many. Tobacco equal to the finest grown in America over much of the country.

The mineral resources of Rhodesia are incalculable value – Coal of excellent quality, iron ore of the best type exist in inexhaustible supplies, and their sources as regards the second mineral have not been touched and in the first only in one area has been opened. As an asbestos and chrome producer, the country is rapidly heading the world. Mica, scheelite and other minerals abound.

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Scheelite

Naturally, Rhodesians knowing the potentialities of their country are so optimistic regarding the future that the ups and downs of the present hardly have any effect on their good humour. “Any old job will do to tide us over a bit of a slump” – the bit referred to being one that would break most hearts.

So a formal wealthy Tobacco grower cheerfully goes firing on the railways, tends a bar counter, goes lorry driving or road making. He puts up at an excellent hotel and simply refuses to admit that he’s a ruined man. “Once the tide turns there’ll be plenty of jobs where a man can make a bit of money,” he thinks “What’s the good of whining anyway.”

A race of optimists – men who have handled men – men who have faced too much to worry overmuch about financial depression.

And the government is worthy of the race. The Opposition is only an Opposition because Rhodesians being British of the British reckon that it is a fit and proper thing to have one. Few Rhodesians could give the name of the Opposition party. They know there is one and that they vote against the Government to prove that they are fulfilling their duty, and Rhodesians are content to leave it at that.

During the last election, every Opposition meeting was crammed with enthusiastic supporters – at the Poll, however, Rhodesians voted solidly against all but a few of the Opposition – these they put in just that there should be an Opposition.

Rhodesia is the only mining country in the world where any man can buy all the dynamite and detonators he wants and blow up his whole form without any qualifications regarding his knowledge of explosives.

On many farms sticks of dynamite are thrown about anywhere, are half-eaten by rats and nothing ever happens. Boxes of detonators are kept in the pantry or bathroom and though now and again a child gets killed or mutilated nobody worries.

One can buy strychnine, arsenic or cyanide anywhere with the same ease that one can buy candles.

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Any Rhodesian at any time by taking out a £1 prospecting licence is at liberty to wander over anybody’s farm, dig holes, divert water, chop down timber and go away again – if he finds anything worth finding it is shared between the British South Africa Company and himself, the owner getting nothing unless it is a big paying proposition when he received a very small royalty.

Except for buying railway and bioscope tickets money is seldom used – in ordering a drink one usually is given a card marked I.O.U. and a pencil when the drink is served.

Director Dick Cruickshanks (centre) with the Zulutown Players, from Screening the Past

When having a drink one almost certainly tosses to see who pays, a leather bottle and set of dice being supplied by the bar. If one has no friends or acquaintances to toss with the barman or barmaid is willing to oblige. He or she invariably wins and one pays for two drinks and then is introduced to other inmates of the bar and another gentle flutter follows.

The drink bill of Southern Rhodesia is £24 a head – It’s a sober country, however – with cocktails at 2/6d each, whiskey and soda 2/9 beer 1/- it costs a fortune to get drunk – one whiskey and soda per day is £36 per annum – and what about one’s friends’ drinks.

Last year the Railwaymen went on strike – why they themselves didn’t know. Anticipating trouble the Government called for special constables and paid them £1 per day. The mass of strikers enlisting was one of the noblest sights I’ve seen. 

Rhodesia’s great Southern neighbour latterly attempted to readjust the existing Customs agreement. Rhodesians demand not only the cake but jam on it as well. On their request being refused, they blithesomely arranged to turn their backs on the South and do their business elsewhere. They got their jam.

FREEDOM: JUSTICE: COMMERCE:

The old British South Africa Company’s motto is played up to in Rhodesia.

B.M.L.
Written mid-1920s

From Boatsheds to Battlefields 48 Third Letter Home circa 1913

Dearest Dad,

Kotzee has been away nearly a fortnight with the waggon and I am feeling simply desperate. Without the donkeys and boys, I can do nothing except write, bathe and moon around. I walked ten miles over to a ranch but found nobody at home – got back utterly weary but couldn’t sleep. I’m so sick of boiled monkey nuts and beans. We’ve lived on them for weeks and haven’t had tea or sugar for a fortnight – meat I’m forgetting the taste of. Still, I’m not fed up with the life and its hardships only with the lack of anything to do.

I would like to go over more often to our nearest neighbours the two Englishmen but Kotzee hates them. Honestly, I’m beginning to think Kotzee is a bit mad. He keeps bragging about how he was a Boer spy in the Great War and was put in gaol as a rebel. Now if there’s one thing I can’t stand at any price its a beastly disloyal South African. One can understand Irish Catholics or any Irishman living in Ireland and being rebels – after all Ireland is a country inhabited by a Celtic race ruled by a foreign power in armed occupation of the land.

In South Africa, a mixed population of whites rule themselves under the protection of Britain and are themselves the Power in armed occupation of a land that really belongs to the Blacks. Kotzee, however, won’t agree only rave – I asked him what personal grievance he had – he has been born and bred under the Union Jack, has never been under its folds, his people are wealthy distinguished citizens of the Empire, his Uncle is a peer of Britain and the second citizen of Africa. Kruger I could understand being anti-British but he isn’t, though a Burgher of the Transvaal Republic he fought against Britain and was a prisoner of war at St Helena for nearly two years.

But Kotzee can only rant and rave absolute nonsense. He boasts of refusing to ride transport with an Englishman, and about a dozen other cases of cutting off one’s own nose to spite one’s face. It all makes me sick and honestly, he not only talks like a madman when on the subject but looks like one.

I’ve found all the Englishmen I’ve met to be splendid fellows and our two neighbours, in particular, have been awfully good to me. Their place has a rather gruesome history. It was owned by a pioneer one of a kind one reads of – father a judge in the Indian Civil Service, one brother a general in the British Army, another in the navy. He himself lived as a sort of unofficial king amongst the natives. One night two or three chaps including Kotzee were over there and Devereux seemed awfully depressed. He bucked up whilst playing poker and afterwards made tea or coffee for the lot.

The others slept in an outbuilding and during the night heard a shot. Nobody bothered as when dogs keep barking at night lots of fellows go out and fire a round or two to scare any intruders.

Next morning, however, when going into the dining room one of the guests found Devereaux at the head of the table with his head in his arms – thinking him asleep he went up to shake him when to his horror he found Devereux’s head in a pool of blood and a revolver grasped in his right hand. The poor chap was stone dead and had left a letter asking the others to bury him on the top of a high hill opposite the house.

He wanted his spirit to sit there and watch Wedza and the farm he had made. There’s a beautiful orchard around the house – guavas, oranges, loquats, lemons and other fruit – queerly enough looking down from Devereux’s grave the whole orchard is a huge Union Jack.

Nearly everybody about here seems queer – one chap, of good English family, has been all over the world and was blockade running during the Russo-Japanese war – now he lives all alone right away in the hills quarrelling with his only neighbour an old Highland ex-shepherd and ex-regular – Black Watch. The Highlander to is queer – he had sunstroke badly in India and gets all kinds of funny ideas.

Airth the manager of a ranch adjoining us is another Highlander – a jolly fine chap but gets awfully drunk on kaffir Beer – Hunter another Highlander is a very wealthy trader but also drinks heavily – sometimes they all get together and booze for a week.

It’s too dark to write and beastly cold.

Love to all,

Mick

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From Boatsheds to Battlefields 46 First Letter Home

End of Part 1 of First Letter Home: The following day our journey was resumed and that afternoon the waggon reached home.

The farm is almost square in shape, the lands and steading lying near the boundary furthest from Marandellas which was about thirty miles away. It takes a donkey waggon, however, five days to do the thirty miles owing to numerous swamps and a terrible road. Where the ground isn’t boggy, it is loose deep sand and the last ten miles consist of steep hills with the road in a terrible state.

No repairs had been done since the Pioneer Column made it and in the rainy season, the ruts became watercourses. Traders and transport riders keep making deviations where possible, so in places, one finds a dozen parallel roads the older ones perhaps six feet deep in the ruts.

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Pioneer Column

We have three native huts made of saplings planted in a circle which is held together by four rows of a thin supple wood split bent around the huts and tied to the walls by tambo the inner-bark of a tree. This tambo seems to be universally used in Rhodesia instead of nails, screws, bolts or for any purpose where tying is necessary.

The huts have high conical roofs thatched with the long veld grass which stands like fields of ripening rye all over the country. The grass after being dried is combed through a rake made by driving ten-inch nails through a bit of plank.

One hut is our living one, another the storehouse, the third the kitchen and the furniture consists of a large packing case as table, two beds made by planting four forked poles in the ground laying two smooth poles lengthways through the forks, binding short cross sticks at two inch intervals along the frame and laying a thick mattress of dry veld grass sewn up in a couple of opened sacks sewn together.

Our washbasin stands outside on a paraffin box and our trunks complete the plenishing of the little frontier home.

CU photo of Bernard Leffler
This photograph of Bernard Meredith Leffler was taken for the Farmer’s Weekly

The view from the homestead is glorious – ten miles away is a great mountain which is almost pure iron where native smelters make weapons for war and the chase, together with agricultural implements and household utensils for most of Mashonaland.

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The huts nestle against a granite ridge which divides two immense black swamps. On either side and before us are rivers and beyond the river in front is a wild mass of granite cliff and boulder full of trees, Tambookie grass fourteen feet high, caves and clefts. Leopards are plentiful in this savage bit of broken country and have already killed one of our donkey foals.

Just in front of the huts, we have a fairly big stretch of well-drained red soil above which Kotzee has led a furrow from the top of a small waterfall in the river by easy gravitation he can easily lead all the water he wants for irrigation from this.

Small game is plentiful – reedbuck, duiker and steenbok chiefly but there are kudu and sable on the farm – six miles from us the country changes into a vast wilderness of the wildest most broken land I’ve ever seen – it reminds one of some other world – a world that God has forgotten. Mountains composed of a single smooth piece of granite. Deep canyons filled with hills and immense boulders – words cannot attempt to describe it for its too huge, too wild, too God forsaken.

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This country is full of game – lions are abundant, eland, kudu, sable, waterbuck and every other kind of animal seem to be there. Baboons live in blooming herds of thousands.

Kotzee and Kruger between them have proved that wheat can be grown on a commercial scale either under irrigation or in the big swamps. Oats do wonderfully well as does barley. From what I’ve seen and heard there isn’t anything in the world that can’t be grown. Transport is the whole trouble, not the ability to produce.

Every farm has swamps composed of the rotting away of decayed vegetation. Through the centuries these swamps undrained, grow rice to perfection and beautiful oats or barley. Drained they would produce record crops of maize, potatoes, onions, wheat.  For years one could grow a summer crop of maize and winter ones of barley, rye, wheat, oats, potatoes, onions etc. on them.

Today however one is not allowed to use oxen for transport owing to East Coast fever restrictions – mules are too expensive and the loss from horse sickness makes them unpayable – donkeys are too slow. It’s wicked seeing untold acres of land suitable for any crop and to realise that twenty-five miles of swamp and sand make it all just a wilderness.

Labour is as big a problem as transport. The Mashonas are frightened of cattle, are so dense that trying to drive an idea into their heads is like trying to hammer a nail into a stone and if you look sideways at them they’re off and away for good and ever. One Xhosa with his two fighting sticks would hammer a hundred of them.

They grow an extraordinary variety of grain – two traders handle fifteen thousand bags of maize, monkey nuts, ground peas – the last named grow like potatoes or monkey nuts under the ground – rapoko – a tiny red grain which is their chief food – rice – white, red and black varieties, Kaffir corn, millet, sweet potatoes and native beans – a kind of cowpea. Cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and fowls are plentiful. Honestly the Mashona live in a Paradise – most of their time is spent lying on rocks having sunbaths and drinking beer whilst their women do the work.

Snakes are plentiful – both black and green mamba – cobras – black, yellow, brown and branded ones, puffadders and even twenty-foot pythons. The lizards are wonderful both in size and colour while scorpions and all kinds of spiders swarm.

From what I hear the thunderstorms are the worst thing hereabouts they and the white ants. Nobody worries about malaria or blackwater – but take them as necessary evils. Crocodiles are plentiful so one has to be careful when bathing in or crossing rivers.

Well, I’ve written this during spare hours in the past week and am sick of it.

With love to all,

Mick

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From Boatsheds to Battlefields 45 Letter to Dad

Dearest Dad,

At last, I am in my new home and settled for good, I hope. Kotzee is a splendid chap, but jaw! Heavens, he hasn’t stopped for three days and appears half crazy with delight at having a companion.

After leaving Cape Town we had a fine journey as far as Kimberley but from there the rain came in torrents. Through Bechuanaland the scenery was interesting, the country being covered with trees and grass, a great relief after the awful monotony of the Karoo.

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Once the train had to slow down to stopping point to allow a great herd of blue wildebeest cross in front of the engine. It made one realise that civilisation was behind alright.

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It rained right through to Marandellas where I found that it was unlikely that Kotzee could bring in a waggon for months. He had left word however that I was to be taken care of and forwarded to him at the first opportunity.

I had sixpence left and hotel accommodation was twelve and six a day. The owner of the combined hotel, grocer and butcher’s shop, native trading store etc – a building which in itself practically was Marandellas – told me not to worry but stay as long as I liked. I could sign cards for what debt I incurred and pay when able – “a year hence probably” he said laughingly.

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After two days during which the rain hardly paused I interviewed the Native Commissioner and explained my circumstances. He gave me as a guide a wild-looking man who slinging my roll of blankets over his shoulder and putting my iron trunk on his head set-off.

The man was armed with a nasty looking assegai and a battleaxe. Despite the rain, his only garment was a loincloth but he seemed quite happy. He grinned cheerfully now and again talking to me in a queer sounding language not a word of it like Zulu. He looked wilder than he was but I kept my Lee Metford loaded and ready for use.

It was horrible mucky and wet. Our route was by way of narrow twisting paths through grass never less than three feet high and sometimes well over our heads. There were heaps of trees making the prospect look even more miserable with water dripping off them.

Soon after dark, we reached a big river in flood. It looked rotten in the semi-darkness but the guide walked in and I followed. It was rotten. I could just keep my feet and was full of thoughts of crocodiles.

However, we got across to find ourselves in what looked like a white man’s maize lands. Some dogs started barking and we saw a light to which we made our way. As we got near a pack of big dogs charged us but hearing a white man’s voice calling I yelled back and a giant of a man came down the path.

He turned out to be the manager of a big estate and was awfully decent. He took me into his house where his wife nearly wept to see a white man. I was given a deuce of a feed of kudu steak and a bed was made up for me in the kitchen as the house was packed with girl children of theirs. It was hours before they stopped talking to me so when I got to bed I slept like a dead man.

The next day news came that Kotzee had passed some miles away on his way into Marandellas to fetch me. Mr Godfrey, my host, thereupon insisted on my staying with them until Kotzee passed on his way back and sent a picanin in with a note to tell him where I was.

The Godfreys seldom leave the farm and hardly ever see a white man – four of the girls have been born there without a doctor or nurse ever coming near but they are all a strapping healthy looking lot.

Godfrey is an old diamond digger and Boer War veteran. He comes from the Basuto border and I spent hours listening to his tales of the Diggings and the Frontier. I’ve never heard people talk so much I suppose it’s because they are simply starving for a change from the loneliness.

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Kotzee came back three days later and sent a native over to tell us where to find him. Mr Godfrey accompanied me through the Bush and after half an hour’s walk, we heard a waggon coming along. A couple of minutes later took us onto an old transport road and as we entered it a small donkey waggon turned a corner and I saw a queer little figure of a man leading.

He was only as big as me, five feet four, had a great beard and was wrapped in a tattered filthy old overcoat below which peeped the ends of a broken pair of dungarees. a battered helmet which in its youth had been surmounted the outfit. Jove but he looked queer. He greeted me warmly however and we seemed to take a liking to one another immediately.

Mr Godfrey having delivered me safely took his departure and a little while after Kotzee outspanned and we made a meal of bully beef, fried potatoes, warmed up beans and tea.

When our meal was finished the sun had set and darkness fell rapidly so climbing under the waggon we lay down on beds made from cut grass covered with the waggon sail. Snuggling into our blankets, toes to a cheerful fire burning next to the waggon Kotzee and I talked for a while and then dropped off to sleep.

At dawn next morning the donkeys were inspanned and we moved off passing through many swamps covered with long grass and amidst beautiful park-like country.

Somewhere about ten, the waggon was outspanned near a kraal and Kotzee and I walked over to a farm managed by a Dutchman who had been a prisoner-of-war on St Helena. On the way, our road passed the ruins of a house burnt by the Mashonas during the Rebellion fourteen years ago.

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Passing into a range of hills Kruger’s house came into sight built on the slope under some chaotic granite hills overlooking a big swamp of heavy black soil – this he had drained and grows what must surely be the world’s record crops of oats, maize, potatoes, beans and onions.

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Kruger was most hospitable and we remained at his house until next morning feasting on kudu steak, roast haunch of reedbuck, red bread made from a tiny native grain mixed with flour, new potatoes and a jolly good bread pudding.

The following day our journey was resumed and that afternoon the waggon reached home.

to be continued…