Glimpse of forgotten history

Review:  Vivien Horler

Of Vagabonds, Missionaries and Thieves, by Douglas Hawkins (Europe Books)

For years I thought the issue of slavery in the territories that became South Africa was confined to the Cape. It was only a couple of years back I heard of the practice in what became the Transvaal of stealing black children to work on Boer farms.

This was partly documented in Dr Botlhale Tema’s excellent book about her family, Land of My Ancestors. She discovered that her family, who settled in what is now the Pilanesberg, came to the area as children snatched by Boer farmers in 1852.

The kidnapping of children is the kernel around which Douglas Hawkins’s novel is set, but the action involves ramifications involving Boer farmers, Transvaal government officials, missionaries, the actual gangs of hunters as well as Swazis under King Mswati II and the Pedi under King Sekhukhune.

The action takes place mainly around the backwater town of Lydenburg from the mid-1860s. Farmers battled to find labour for their farms – work the local Africans eschewed – and so were heavily reliant on the services of the snatched children. They were not lifelong slaves – their capture had to be registered with the nearest magistrate – and the girls were usually released at 20, the boys at 25, by which time they would have acquired various skills.

Hawkins says Mswati tacitly condoned the trade in exchange for cattle, hunting dogs and other goods, but insisted that children could be taken only from clans that did not accept his authority.

Sekhukhune, on the other hand, was strongly opposed to it.

In the mix of farmers and opposing African groups were the missionaries who had their own axes to grind.

At the heart of the story is the hapless Dirk van Zyl, a farmer whose land does not pay, whose wife has left him, who is too keen on mampoer, and who has been reduced to raiding kraals with a group of Swazis and stealing children.

He has to report the stolen children to the magistrate at Lydenberg, but now Msuthu, a Swazi and leader of Sekhukhune’s bodyguard, has managed to insert himself into the chain of child deals, demanding his cut.

Then Sekhukhune forces the closure of the mission stations on his land, and the missionary Albert Nachtigal becomes obsessed with the activities of Kgalema Johannes Dinkwanyane , a Christian convert and Sekhukhune’s half-brother , who sets up his own mission station.

There the workers are not expected to pay the tithes and taxes demanded by the Berlin Missionary Society, with the result that Nachtigal’s converts leave him in droves for Dinkwanyane.

Nachtigal is a self-described man of peace but he is ambitious, and his fury at Dinkwanyane leads him in 1876  to play a leading role in helping to trigger a war between the Boers and their Swazi supporters against the Pedi, which is the culmination of this tale.

Hawkins clearly knows this part of the world, and describes the kloofs, kranses and wide open plains with love.  He also evokes a time in the history of this country which is not widely known or taught, and provides a fascinating glimpse of life in the rural backwater of the Transvaal long before the discovery of gold and the dawn of the modern era.



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