Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia (Part 12)

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Editor’s Note:  The following comprises the eleventh chapter of Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, by Frederick Courteney Selous (published 1896).  All spelling in the original.

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In the course of conversation, during our journey to Bulawayo, Mr. Boyce, the manager of Mr. Dawson’s store on the Umzingwani, told me that, on the night before our arrival there, a miner named O’Connor had reached the store in a dreadful condition, having been terribly beaten about the head by Kafirs, from whose tender mercies he had escaped on 24th March. This poor fellow had been sent in to the hospital on the morning of the day on which we readied the store, and as his escape was a most remarkable one, I will tell it as I heard it from the man’s own lips.

O’Connor, it appears, was engaged in mining work together with two other miners named Ivers and Ottens, on a reef called the Celtic, situated some mile and a half from Edkins’ store.

On the morning of Tuesday, 24th March, after their early cup of coffee, the three miners were discussing matters in general, and more particularly the fact that during the last few days thirteen of their boys had run away for no apparent reason, unless it were that they had gone off to take part in a beer drink at the neighbouring kraal of Gorshlwayo. About seven o’clock they had an early breakfast, and shortly afterwards Ottens went off to see the Native Commissioner, Mr. Bentley, who was living at the police camp not far from Edkins’ store. Then Ivers went away to see how the work was progressing at one of the shafts on the Celtic reef, leaving O’Connor alone. He, after kneading a loaf of bread and placing it in the sun to rise, went into his hut, and sitting down on his bed, threw his hat on a chair beside him, and lit his pipe. He had been sitting smoking some few minutes, when he was suddenly startled by the loud and angry barking of Ottens’ dogs, Captain and Snowball, just outside his hut. “The angry condition of the dogs was so unusual,” said O’Connor, “that I give you my word I thought there was a lion in the camp.” Jumping up, he ran to the door of the hut, only to find a Kafir standing just on one side of the entrance with a musket pointed towards him in his hands. “For an instant,” said O’Connor, “I was paralysed, and retreated back into the hut, the door of which was immediately afterwards blocked by a crowd of Kafirs all armed with heavy knob-kerries. Then, seeing that they had come to murder me, I became mad, and rushed in amongst them. I succeeded in wresting two knob-kerries from them, and with these I fought desperately, always making my way towards the mouth of No. 1 shaft, which was something over 100 yards from my hut. I was repeatedly knocked down, and heavy blows were continually rained upon me, but, now on my knees, again on my feet, and sometimes rolling, I got to the mouth of the shaft with the remains of two broken sticks in my hands.”

During this desperate struggle, O’Connor remembers hearing the Kafirs, who were attacking him with sticks, continually calling to the one with the gun, u injani wena ai posa—”why don’t you shoot?”—and says that this man actually fired at him more than once, holding his gun at his hip, and always missing him. Just as he fell at the mouth of the shaft he was fired at for the last time. Then O’Connor rolled down the shaft “like a football,” as he expressed it.

This was what is called an “incline shaft,” going down for 136 feet at an angle of about 45 degrees. From the bottom of the incline shaft a tunnel had been driven into the reef 170 feet in length. Arrived at the bottom of the shaft, the hapless miner was at once attacked by his own boys—ten in number—who had been working in the tunnel. These devils fell upon him with hammers and drills, O’Connor defending himself as best he could with stones, and finally driving them all, as he thought, up the shaft.

After the terrible punishment he had received, which included thirteen scalp wounds—one of which had broken the outer table of the skull above the left temple—heavy blows with a hammer on each cheek-bone, and bruises and contusions all over the body, it may be wondered how O’Connor managed to retain his senses. But the fact remains that he did, and, thanks to a good old Irish head, still lives to tell the tale of the sufferings he endured, which, however, were not yet over by any means.

Believing that all his assailants had left the mine, he bethought him of a place of refuge, at a spot some half-way up the incline, where a vertical shaft had been cut into it. Here the shafts cut through some old workings, which formed a recess, into which O’Connor crept. Just as he was about to avail himself of this hiding-place, a Kafir, who, during the last fight, must have run back down the tunnel, rushed past him up the incline shaft. This man must have told the rest of the would-be murderers where the white man was hiding, and they did not leave him long in peace, for shortly afterwards several Kafirs came down the shaft, some with lighted candles, and four with guns. Two of these men carried muzzle-loaders, whilst the other two were armed with breech-loading rifles. The latter O’Connor recognised by the light of the candles as “boys” who had been working for himself and his companions. Their names were “Candle,” and “Makupeni,” and they had been in the employ of the miners for nearly eighteen months, and as they were both good shots they had often been sent out with the only two rifles in camp to shoot game for the sake of the meat. Latterly, so implicit was the trust reposed in them by their masters that the rifles had been left entirely in their possession, but now they were among the first to volunteer their services to put an end to their employer in his sore extremity.

When O’Connor recognised his own trusted servants amongst his assailants he spoke to them, asking what harm he had done them, and why they wished to kill him, to which they answered, “We’re going to kill you and all the white men in the country.” However, although their would-be victim could see them, they could not see him, and seemed afraid to advance their heads into the recess where he lay—as they would have had to do in order to shoot him—for fear probably of being hit with a lump of quartz, which, even though it had been gold-bearing, might have made a nasty mark on their skulls.

During this time the Kafirs at the top of the shaft kept continually calling out to those below with the guns, “What are you doing; why don’t you shoot the white man?” but still the cowardly murderers lacked the courage to creep into the recess and finish their victim. Suddenly there was a commotion at the top of the mine, and shouts of “Amakiwa, Amakiwa“—”white men, white men,”—and the four men with guns, together with those who were holding the candles, ran up the shaft, leaving the white man once more alone.

This cry of “white men” must have been a false alarm, as all the Europeans at the neighbouring police station and at Edkins’ store were murdered without offering any resistance, having been taken completely by surprise. However, it gave O’Connor a few minutes’ respite and enabled him to gain the shelter of another hiding-place where he thought he would be more secure from the guns of his enemies. This was a spot about half-way down the tunnel, where some loose ground had fallen in and rendered a certain amount of timbering necessary. Here, behind some boulders, O’Connor took refuge, but his enemies having recovered from their alarm and again come down the mine with candles, soon found out, probably by his tracks, where he had hidden. And now the fruits of education were brought to the aid of native devilry to compass his destruction, for some of his own boys threw two charges of dynamite with short fuses into his hiding-place. Then the Kafirs all ran out of the mine, nor did they return, thinking probably that they had blown the white man to pieces. Having only seen the wonderful effects of dynamite when employed for blasting rocks and exploded at the bottom of a hole drilled deep into solid stone, they did not know that a loose charge exploded on the surface of the ground would have comparatively little effect. However O’Connor, except that he was nearly suffocated by the fumes of the dynamite, remained uninjured in the shelter of the boulder behind which he lay. Shortly after the explosions he thinks he must have become unconscious and remained so for many hours. When he came to himself, hearing no sound that betokened the proximity of his enemies, he crept from his hiding-place, and made his way to the mouth of the tunnel, and then ascended the incline shaft.

It was a bright moonlight night, and from the position of the moon he judged that it was about eight o’clock. A glance showed him that his camp had been destroyed and all the huts burnt down, but he could see no Kafirs about. He then made his way to an old mining camp about one and a half miles distant, called Nelson’s Camp, from which he could look down on the police station, which he still hoped to find in the possession of white men. In the brilliant moonlight he saw the huts still standing; but there was no life or movement perceptible, and no lights or fires burning, and he therefore felt assured that the whites had either been murdered or left the camp. Then he went down to the stream which ran between the police camp and Edkins’ store, and as he expressed it “wallowed in it like a pig.”

After having quenched his thirst and washed the blood from his wounds he carefully approached Edkins’ store, which he found had been burnt down, whilst the smell of murder was in the air, and the deathlike stillness was unbroken by even the bark of a dog. Then, indeed, the unfortunate man recognised to the full all the terrors of his dreadful position. All hope of succour from his immediate neighbours was gone; they had all been killed or forced to flee for their lives, whilst he stood alone amongst a nation of murderers. But his stout Irish heart never quailed, and weakened as he was by loss of blood he set out to the north-west, towards Bulawayo.

Leaving the Matabele kraal of Gorshlwayo as far as possible to his left, he at length reached the Insiza river some four miles from the camp he had left. By this time he was completely exhausted, and lay down in the reeds on the river’s edge. Here he remained hidden all that night and the next day. On Wednesday night he again tried to get on towards Bulawayo, but by this time he was becoming more or less light headed, and unable to steer a good course, nor does he know exactly where he wandered. He lay hidden by day, and only moved at night, nor was it until Saturday night at about eleven o’clock, more than 110 hours after he had been attacked by the Kafirs, that he found his way to Mr. Dawson’s store on the Umzingwani river.

All this time he had had no food. On approaching the store he found two men standing outside—Messrs. Schultz and Judge—whom he knew well, but who had looked upon him as dead. As he approached them in the moonlight, hatless, his face and head covered with wounds, he thinks they took him for an apparition come to call the white men to avenge his murder, for they fell back as if they had seen a ghost, and he said, “What, don’t you know me—Joe O’Connor?” Then as they rushed up and seized him by the hands, he fell down senseless and they carried him to the store. Mr. Judge at once rode in to Bulawayo to try and get a doctor to come out and dress his wounds.

The following morning he was sent on by waggon from the Umzingwani store, and was met half-way by Mr. Lyons, the dispenser at the hospital, who, as no doctor could be spared, had volunteered to go to the wounded man’s assistance. On Sunday afternoon he reached Bulawayo, where he lay a long time in hospital. All that medical skill and kindly nursing could do for him was done, and he eventually recovered from the dreadful injuries he had received; but the terrible experiences he has passed through have turned his hair partially grey, he being a young man of only twenty-six years of age. He has, too, to mourn the loss of his brother and cousin, both of whom were murdered by the Matabele.

I was present in Colonel Napier’s office, when a Zambesi boy, who had been working for them, gave evidence as to the manner in which they had been killed. He said, “I saw them killed with my eyes; they were killed by their own boys. O’Connor’s brother was drawn up from the bottom of the shaft in which he was working by two men, who held the windlass still when his head came above the level of the ground, whilst others beat his brains out with knob-kerries; the other man—O’Connor’s cousin—was stabbed to death with assegais.” I have made many inquiries concerning O’Connor, and find that he bears the character of being a hard-working man, whilst he was known to the Native Commissioner of his district as one who always got on well with the natives.

From some remarks which he made, however, subsequent to the relation of his trying experiences, I judge that he has now abandoned any latent intention he may ever have had of becoming a member of the Aborigines Protection Society, nor do I think that the funds of that admirable institution are likely to be added to by any donation from Mr. O’Connor.

The worst feature in the foregoing history of the attempted murder of O’Connor and the actual murder and mutilation of his two companions, Messrs. Ivers and Ottens, is the participation in the crimes by two trusted servants who had been in the employ of the murdered men for so long a time as eighteen months, since the very fact that these boys had worked for so many months for the same white men shows conclusively that they must have been kindly treated by them, for no Kafir will remain long in the service of a master who ill-treats him.

Now I am not so unreasonable as to think that the natures of the Matabele natives ought to be judged of by the unamiable qualities shown by two individuals; indeed I know that as a set-off, even during the present rebellion, the lives of some few white men have been saved by the fidelity of natives in their employ. But unfortunately the evil deeds get more noised abroad, and they add to the bitterness of the exasperation felt by the whites against the blacks; for it seems inevitable that during an insurrection such as the present, the average nature of the native will be judged of by the average European on the spot, according to the worst atrocities that have been committed, and such an instance of treachery as I have related will harden the kindest heart and produce a feeling of distrust in the whole race that can never be eradicated from the mind. In many, too—and these by no means the most brutal or worst educated in the community—such acts, coupled with the indiscriminate murder of women and children, produce a conviction that beings who are capable of such deeds, who can lick your hand and fawn upon you for eighteen months and then one day turn and murder you, and afterwards perhaps mutilate your senseless corpse, are not men and brothers, but monsters in human shape, that ought to be shot down mercilessly like wild dogs or hyaenas, until they are reduced to a state of abject submission to the white man’s rule.

In time, however, let us hope that the cruel deeds of the last few months will be forgotten, and the fierce passions they have evoked on both sides gradually smoulder out and die from the lack of fresh fuel. Henceforth it will, I trust, be recognised by the authorities that the native question in Rhodesia is one of the very first importance, and that it is also one which demands the most careful handling in order to ensure the future peace and prosperity of the country. When this rebellion is quelled and the natives have once more submitted themselves to the white man’s rule, they must know exactly the terms on which their submission has been accepted; and they must also understand precisely what will be required of them in the shape of hut-tax, labour, etc. Then if they are treated kindly and justly, as well as firmly, they ought not to have any valid reason for again rebelling against the government of their white conquerors; but lest they should ever be inclined to make such an attempt without any valid reason, they must now be so thoroughly and completely disarmed as to render any such action futile.

(Continue to next chapter)

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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