From Boatsheds to Battlefields 50 Growing Tobacco in Rhodesia

End of 49th Entry: … others would come but it was foolishness worrying about them and those that had struck him always left some memory to chuckle over even if only at his own damned innocence or foolishness.

Now with a busy interesting life, a large civilised home filled with cheerful prosperous people Mick found himself brimful of joy o’ life. He and a younger brother of Godfrey’s shared a comfortable well-furnished room – Tom Godfrey his roommate had served throughout the Boer War, was frontier born and reared, had read largely and was a companion such as Mick had always longed to have.

The two went hunting together, exchanged life histories, discussed men and matters, played the gramophone and split the farm supervision between them. There were friendly neighbours close at hand – tennis, shooting parties and the owner and his wife was father and mother to Mick.

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The tobacco work fascinated him. First, the seedbeds were most carefully prepared the ground being ploughed, cross ploughed and worked up by hand to the finest possible tilth. Then waggon load after waggon load of timber, heavy tree trunks, brushwood and branches being packed into a mess four feet high – this was set fire to and when burned out the ground was roasted to at least four inches killing all seed of weeds or grass or any insects and their eggs.

The ash having been raked off the beds were bordered out with bricks each bed four feet two inches wide and twenty yards long. The tobacco seed mixed with wood ash was then carefully sown and cheesecloth laid over a wire eighteen inches from the ground running the length of the bed – the cheesecloth was then securely fastened down onto the brick side and end walls thus making the beds insect proof.

Twenty square yards of seedbed were allowed per acre of estimated planting and Mick had 800 square yards of beds to look after. For weeks the seed and seedlings were watered two or three times a day until the plants were strong vigorous ones ready for transplanting.

Meanwhile, the lands had been well ploughed and harrowed work continuing until the first rains when all hands were set on planting out the seedlings three feet between plants in the row with the rows some distance apart.

Shortly before the rains, the land had been marked out a straw being stuck where a plant would come a later – a tablespoonful of artificial fertiliser had also been scratched in at each straw so that when the first planting rain came there was no delay. The plants set out in well worked up land caught immediately – no sooner had the roots taken than they found their food available and began a steady growth at once.

Later the lower leaves were primed to keep the stem clean and allow a free passage of wind and air the great foes of moulds and some plant diseases – then, at last, the fields of broad tobacco leaves began to turn from dark rich green to the colour of Australian gold – flower heads appeared and were nipped out so as to preserve the strength of the plant in the leaves – the plants striving to obey their natural function, the production of seed send shoots out from each junction of stem and leaf each shoot a potential seed head – these were instantly ripped out and though still sending out suckers the plant began to ripen.

Africa's bread-basket: Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, was once seen as a powerhouse on the continent. Pictures show a tobacco farm in the country in around 1900

Now came the harvest. The bottom leaves were stripped from each plant and carted to the flue-curing barns, here they were strung in batches of three on sticks each stick taking roughly thirty-four bunches strung alternately on the right and left sides. As the sticks were completed they were handed into the barn and strung on tiers seven tiers going to a barn.

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When full the barn closed, made as airtight as possible and a fire’s started in two outside furnaces the heat of which ran down great fourteen-inch iron pipes which ran into and around the barn escaping into a chimney between the furnaces.

For twelve hours the temperature was held at 90°F. The as the leaves began to yellow the temperature was slowly advanced until at 110°F the leaves reached a perfect lemon colour. Ventilation both in the roof and on the ground level was then begun and the temperature and ventilation kept slowly an steadily increasing driving off the moisture content of the leaf as rapidly as the clammy heat brought it to the leaf’s surface.

At 120°F, the leaves began to show signs of drying and both temperatures and ventilation were increased more rapidly until 140°F was reached and the leaf on the bottom tiers was as dry as tinder. At this stage, the temperature was held steady until the top tiers were almost dry and then came full steam ahead and at 5°F per hour the mercury rose until 190°F was reached – all ventilators were then closed and the temperature held until the butts and stems of the leaves were as brittle as dry sticks.

The fires were now drawn – doors, ventilators and windows opened and the barn cooled – then everything was closed wet steam was run in until the leaves were supple, the sticks being taken down and unstrung the leaves were then packed in great bulks until time allowed their being sorted out into the odd fifty-four grades demanded by the buyers.

A barn took from seventy to ninety hours to cure and with three barns in different stages, one responsible man had to be on duty day and night.

A sudden drop or rise in temperature during the first fifty hours was quite capable of ruining a whole barn which might mean a loss of up to £70.  A log was therefore kept and the temperatures entered every half an hour.

The owner, his brother and Mick divided the shifts between them so that there was always one man in charge of fieldwork, one curing and one off duty.

The first frosts ended the curing season and began the maize harvest which was followed by shelling the maize grain from the cobs. This dome came the manuring and ploughing of lands, the planting season and once again the curing.

The Godfrey’s possessed a large circle of influential friends and shooting drives were constantly being held – these were never stale to Mick – apart from them, he and Tom Godfrey did a good deal of shooting securing a regular supply of oribi, duiker and steenbuck for the larder and now and again a tsessebe or reedbuck.

Tsessebe.

Tsessebe

The feathered game was plentiful the river banks and pools yielding many a partridge, pheasant, wild duck or goose – crocodiles infested the river and now and again gave a chance of a quick shot.

One monster Mick caught properly napping and with lightning, quickness let have two barrels – the distance was just right to allow the shot to spread nicely and apparently, one or more pellets entered the eye – the scaley brute, in any case, was badly hurt – it slid into the large pool and then swam madly up and down and round often leaping out of the water and lashing the surface into foam and waves.

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From Boatsheds to Battlefields 41 Going Hunting

End of 40th Entry: Mr. Tracey after a month called the lad into his office.

Quite kindly, he held a post-mortem on the past month as regarded Mick’s share – told him he was a likable lad, abounding with energy and with a fair amount of ability at handling stock and implements.

However he had engaged Mick as an assistant manager on a big business proposition – Mick knew absolutely nothing of bookkeeping or clerical work, had no control over native labour, had shown no initiative and was far too young.

He was sorry but he did not want a pupil, had no position as a farm foreman and his only requirement was that of a fully qualified farm manager.

In accordance with their agreement, he would pay Mick three month’s salary and thought if convenient Mick might leave the day after next when he would be going into town and could give him a lift in.

Mick stumbled out his eyes misty and his heart like lead. He had revelled in the life – plenty of riding, chasing cattle and ostriches, the perfect scenery in which it was a neverending delight to work – friendly charming people and the best of meals and comfort.

In his bedroom the lad throwing himself on his bed mournfully reviewed the position – in a couple of weeks there was going to be a big springbok hunt – hours of wild excitement with galloping like blazes over the soft springy turf after a herd of bounding flying buck – shooting from the saddle, pulling up to leap off for an opportunity to pick off some of the herd driven down by a line of racing horsemen.

Then there were a couple of Bushbuck drives coming with plenty of risk from a savage devil of a wounded ram and chances of seeing a bush pig and perhaps even a herd of Kudu.

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Apart from the hunting, he loved the work especially the luncheon hour which he generally spent at the lands miles from the homestead – here along the river fringed with massive trees half buried in monkey ropes, wild mistletoe and ivy one often saw the Springbok gazing in the luscious river grass or spotted a duiker or steenbuck daintily nibbling at some choice titbit.

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Then the wind crags, the sea of bush stretching down to the Fish River – the native kraals perched on the steep hillside – he simply couldn’t leave it all.

Early next morning Mr. Tracey with kindly thoughtfulness told Mick to take a rifle and get into the bush to see if he could find a buck.

Armed with a double-barrelled combination gun – one barrel fired, the other smoothed bored, Mick plentifully supplied with ammunition went forth. At Carnarvon, he had done some shooting but hares and Namaqua partridges had been the only game on the farm whereas now he was venturing into the heavy bush which was known to contain leopards, Cynx, kudu, bushbuck and a score of other species of game – even buffalo had been seen now and again.

Taking off boots and socks Mick stole from tree to tree thinking every Red Indian tale he had ever heard. Sometimes he lay for what seemed hours on the fringe of a tiny glade – other times he crouched long in the shadow of a tree – again and again, an opportunity presented itself – a tiny blue buck, smallest of all the antelopes, a troop of guinea fowl, bush partridges, innumerable pheasants even red steenbok and grey stealthy duiker.

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But Mick scorned the small fry. He was going to get a leopard, kudu or bushbuck or perhaps a buffalo – nothing less would content him and his heart’s desire came to him – all of a sudden he found himself almost in the act of treading on a sleeping bushbuck ram.

It speaks volumes for the lad’s scouting ability that he was ever able to get as close – but to actually catch the shyest of all game and the most sensitive of forest creatures asleep was an almost unparalleled feast.

Mick saw the bushbuck at the same time that the bushbuck saw him – up went the gun and as the cartridge exploded one hundred and sixty pounds of pure undiluted devil armed with two curved pointed horns charged in one desperate leap – Bang! spoke the other barrel and with a heavy bullet and a charge of buckshot at a range of perhaps three yards the beautiful black bodied, white-bellied antelope driven out of his course by the heavy impact crashed head down a few yards from Mick.

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Mad with excitement the foolish lad dropped his gun and drawing a heavy sheath knife flung himself on the animal – fortunately it was stone dead or Mick’s career would have ended there and then.

Filled with joy and pride, full content to once more place himself in Fate’s hands Mick returned to the homestead no longer worrying about anything.

Next day a precious pair of beautiful horns safely packed Mick said goodbye and two days later laughing with happiness climbed the gangway of a Union-Castle Line in Port Elizabeth saying to himself, “Anyway I’ve seen the Eastern Province, shot a big bushbuck ram and have a good sea trip in front – I’ve bags of clothes, a damn fine riding kit, and five quid over.”

“I guess I know a bit about the world now so I’m going to Rhodesia and I don’t care a hang what anyone thinks.”