Project Canterbury

Eight Years in Kaffraria, 1882-1890.

By Alan G. S. Gibson, M.A.
S.P.G. Missionary to the Pondomisi, and Archdeacon of Kokstad

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., 1891.

Chapter I. From Southampton to Umtata

ON April 20, 1882, in company with a lad of the name of Eley, I left Southampton for East London, in the Union Company's mail steamer Durban. The voyage to Africa has often been described: the first disappointing sight of the Southern Cross, of which so much had been previously heard; the watching the divers at Madeira; the concerts and dances on board; the pleasant two days' rest at Capetown; and the cordial farewells exchanged with fellow-passengers when the time for parting came--all these are the commonplaces of such voyages, and were among our experiences. To myself individually the journey presented one point of real interest: it first made me cognisant of the strong feeling entertained by many (not all) colonists against missionaries--a feeling which I learnt at the same time was not extended, or at any rate in a very different degree, to those who were working under a bishop.

It was on Ascension Day, May 18, that we landed at East London, early in the morning, the bar, which was in those days a constant terror to travellers, proving on this occasion very lenient to us. Having seen to our luggage, we left again the same afternoon by train for King Williamstown. The line, as far as could be seen, ran through some very pretty country, but it was dark long before the three hours' very slow journey was concluded, for the season was now nearly midwinter.

From King Williamstown to Umtata is a journey of about 170 miles, along the main road which bisects Kaffraria Proper, and connects the Old Colony with Natal. How to accomplish this journey was the question. Horses we had none, and could not then afford to buy them; the weekly post-cart had left just the day before, and we had no wish to remain six days at King Williamstown doing nothing but spending money while we waited for the next. Places could, no doubt, have been procured in open ox-waggons; but a rate of three miles an hour is not exhilarating, and the prospect of some eight or ten winter nights spent in or under an open waggon, with only Kaffirs for companions, was not peculiarly attractive. "We had been fortunate enough to get up our luggage that very day, and to find a waggon half loaded up for Umtata on which we had actually seen all our heavy "impedimenta" placed, reserving only such things as were needful for the road. We were, then, perfectly free. Why not walk? The idea occurred to us both independently; and when, on consulting an Umtatan who chanced to be in town, we were told that we could not miss the road, and had, in addition, purchased a map (which was of very little use), there seemed no hindrance in the way, and accordingly we set off at a quarter past four on the afternoon of May 19, intending to sleep at a place called Yellow-Woods, some seven miles distant.

All went well at first, but we had forgotten how soon it grows dark in South Africa after sunset. The road, marked by no hedges or boundaries, but simply a track across the open veldt, soon grew fainter and fainter, and seemed like to disappear altogether. Not a human creature was in sight, no villages lined the road, and the prospect was far from encouraging, when, to my great relief, I heard what sounded like the distant creaking of waggon wheels. A fuller acquaintance with that sound--the music of Kaffraria--now very familiar indeed, has revealed it to be, not the noise of wheels creaking, but the harsh cry of frogs; and yet on this occasion it proved a true and good omen, for encouraged by it we went forward again, and soon descried a light, which we found to be a fire blazing merrily, with a party of travellers sitting round it, whose waggon was outspanned close by. Inquiring here, we learnt that Yellow-Woods was not a village, as we had hitherto supposed, and had been puzzling ourselves in vain looking out for its lights, but only a hotel, and, moreover, which was good news, that we were quite close to it. Our informant seemed to think it doubtful whether we should find accommodation there, and with true colonial hospitality bade us, if all else failed, return to the waggon, where we should find a shakedown and a supper; but Yellow-Woods proved equal to our requirements, and provided us with a bed and a sofa.

It was not a little mortifying to learn the next morning that we might have taken the train from King Williamstown to Kei Road, and so have saved the best part of twenty miles. We were still able to utilise the railway a little, from Peilton to Kei Road, after which we were fairly embarked on our walk.

Trying to take a short cut, the usual fate followed, and we were soon lost. And yet after all that was not to be regretted, for it gave us an early proof of the hospitality and kindliness of colonial farmers. For this was a farming district, and we were passed on from one house to another, meeting with entertainment everywhere--lunch, dinner, tea, in succession; and in one place being provided with a native carrier and guide for three miles. So our way was lightened for us, until about half-past six we reached Draai Bosch, after some twenty-four miles' walking.

Here we were only seven miles from a church (Komgha), and so made an early start the following morning, which was Sunday, with the intention of spending the day quietly there. On our road we passed a waggon hopelessly stuck. To the question whether we could be of any assistance, the placid answer was returned that they had sent back for spades, and nothing could be done till these arrived. It appeared to be an everyday incident, only to be encountered with a philosophic calm.

The quiet of Komgha, the excellence of the hotel, the kindliness of the clergyman, and the pleasant services in the little village church, all combined to produce a delightful Sunday, the recollections of which are still fresh after the lapse of eight years. The resident magistrate, on whom the parish priest took me to call, also was most cordial in his welcome, and offered me a horse to take me on; and on my declining this, placed a mounted policeman at my disposal to act as guide and carry our traps for as long as I cared to retain his services.

Leaving, then, our things for the Kaffir policeman to bring on with him, we started before eight o'clock the following morning, and were soon in the lovely Kei scenery. The road winds down hill amid bush until at last the large river is reached which forms the boundary between British Kaffraria (the Old Colony) on the S.W. and Independent Kaffraria beyond. Now we had crossed the fine bridge that spans the river (the last bridge I was to see for four years, until I crossed the Kei again in 1886), and had passed into the diocese of S. John's, the country a part of which was still under native rule, the last home of the independent Kaffirs between Capetown and Zululand. The road was beautifully constructed up the side of the hills on the further side of the river, but the drizzle which fell most of the day made it heavy walking; and when, after our guide had overtaken us in the afternoon, we were beguiled by him into taking a short cut, it became advisable after a time to put Eley on the horse, and let the policeman go on foot. We had done a long day's walk when we reached Butterworth in the evening, and I felt so tired that when we came to the last small river which ran between the village and hotel, I walked straight through, regardless of wetting.

The marches of the two following days (to Idutwya, where we were cordially welcomed by an ex-catechist of Bishop Callaway's, and Umtentu respectively) were shorter and in every way easier. We were now well in the characteristic Kaffirland scenery: a succession of rolling, undulating plains, covered with the coarse veldt, which in winter assumes a brown hue, looking in the distance like the heather-clad hills of Scotland or Ireland; every twenty or thirty miles usually a little English hamlet, conspicuous for its roofs of corrugated iron, so unsuitable to the climate; and between these hamlets, it may be, the solitary house of a trader, visible a long way off by reason of the trees that surround it--blue gums, red gums, wattles, acacias, black woods, and the like. Where the hills run down to the rivers, the monotony of the scenery is relieved by mimosa trees; or again, where the hills rise up to the higher ranges which mark the beginning of some fresh plateau, the eye rests upon dark patches of forest filling up the kloofs: otherwise all is veldt, through which runs the road, unmarked by hedge or other boundary, indeed itself in most cases simply a broad-stretching track formed by the constant passage of waggons which have worn away the grass. In every direction may be seen the Kaffir kraals, collections of five or six huts together, made of wattle and daub, and thatched with grass, all clustering round the cattle-kraal of bushes, where the stock are housed at night. Here is a troop of little boys, with sheepskins thrown over their shoulders, herding sheep, or goats, or cows: now we meet a band of women, each with two blankets--one worn as a shawl, one as a petticoat--some of them with pipes in their mouths, returning home with bundles of grass upon their heads: yonder is a cluster of men, their blankets thrown aside for greater freedom, sitting by the cattle-kraal, and hearing the latest news. Heads shaven, heads half shaven, heads with fringes, heads in curl-papers of grass, heads with head-rings on--all these meet the eye, as the traveller passes on. Now attention is caught by a few sod enclosures, a few square-built houses: natives pass us dressed: and we are told that this is a mission station by which we are going. Soon the marks of greater refinement and civilisation are lost, and we are back in the midst of heathenism again.

Such was, in the main, the kind of country which we traversed between the Kei and Umtata. How one used to miss in those days, and for many a month afterwards, the songs of English birds, the hedge-rows of England, and the constant sight of trees wherever the eye might turn! And how, now, after the eight years' experience abroad, one misses that vast far-stretching expanse of veldt, and feels shut in and imprisoned by trees and hedges!

There was little to chronicle during the walk of those two days, except that Eley slipped as we waded the Bashee, and was nearly carried a little distance down the river; and that, on another occasion, I nearly fell a victim to the very vicious Kaffir dogs, which are to be found at most native kraals, but was rescued by the policeman. It was pleasant to find that my study of grammar and dictionaries on board ship enabled us to interchange a few remarks of very brief character. We reached Umtentu, only twenty-eight miles from Umtata, by 4.30 on Wednesday afternoon; and from here I sent back the policeman.

The hotel at Umtentu was tolerably full, so that Eley had to sleep on the counter, while the shopman kindly gave up his bedstead to me. Sleeping on the counter seemed a strange thing in those days. As a matter of fact it is very comfortable, the bed and pillow being formed with blankets. The only objections are that some counters are rather high (I recollect one, in Pondoland, on to which I used to climb by a little ladder!) and some are rather narrow, so that it is necessary to lie very still, for fear of falling over!

The travellers whom we met at Umtentu had just come from Umtata, and brought news which to me was very exciting: that there had been a rebellion at the native boys' school there, and the clergy had been roughly handled? The report, as was afterwards learnt, had been greatly exaggerated, though it was true that there had been an émeute, and that many of the boys had run away; but, not knowing the full truth then, and having an old college friend occupying a prominent position among the clergy at Umtata, I was all the more anxious to push on to our destination.

The post-cart passed Umtentu that night, and so reached Umtata the same day as we did, only earlier in the day. Had we waited for it at King Williamstown, we should have hardly saved any time, and probably nearly trebled our whole expenses. The cost of our six days' journey up was, for the two of us, to the best of my recollection, about £5.

Our last day on the road was drizzly throughout, as the Monday had been. It was very amusing to notice the extreme surprise displayed by every one, during the whole walk, at the sight of a clergyman tramping on foot. Such an action was supposed to be entirely infra dignitatem. Equally painful was it to reflect that through that long line of road from the Kei to Umtata there was not a single place of worship for the Europeans of our Church; not, as every one knew well, from want of zeal or care on the part of that noble missionary, Archdeacon Waters, who may be said to have almost made the Church in Kaffraria, but because one man cannot be everywhere or do everything. But better days were in store for that part of his district. He had just arranged to place a clergyman at Butterworth (one who was set free from Umtata by my coming), under whose auspices, living on the spot, Church work was about to receive a great development.

It was quite dark when we reached Umtata, so that we were unable to see the beauties of the cathedral city of Kaffraria. We made our way through the straggling little town on to the mission; and seeing lights in a church-like building, soon, found ourselves attending cathedral evensong. A native deacon playing the harmonium, and conducting service: a congregation of natives, ourselves the only two white people: surely we realised then that we were in the midst of a missionary work.

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