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.

grand hotel bulawayo

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.

scheelite

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 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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