All writing © 2009-2015 by Colin Salter unless indicated otherwise. All rights reserved.
More information at

Saturday 24 December 2011


I’ve written here before about my cousin John Cooper-Chadwick’s exploits in the imperial colonization of southern Africa. In between his uniformed adventures with the Bechuanaland Police and Cecil Rhodes’ Pioneer Column JCC found time for a spot of gold-prospecting with his brother Richard.

John Cooper-Chadwick (1864-1948)
serving with Methuen’s Company of Horse

His memoir Three Years with Lobengula contains vivid descriptions of conditions – a really gripping first-hand account of a time very different to our own comfortable present. Without even the most basic supplies of clothing, tools, medicines and food, the early European settlers in Africa were dependent entirely on their wits, their hands and their rifles. But special occasions still demanded special provisions, however meager the available resources.

Here’s JCC’s description of Christmas 1887:

We had no proper mining tools, dynamite or even rope for a windlass, which was a great disadvantage as the latter was absolutely necessary. … Many of the pioneers were laid up with fever, in want of medicines and the bare necessaries of life. … It was an everyday occurrence to see men walking about bare-footed, or with bits of hide for boots. … Pumpkins and mealies were then the backbone of Mashonaland, and what most of us depended on for our daily bread. …

John and Dick were re-digging ancient African mining shafts
(photo by Jono Terry)

We worked on until Christmas without striking anything, and so far escaped the fever. No doubt the active life, and a dry hut on high ground to sleep in, had a good deal to do with it, in spite of bad food and frequent wettings.

The few of us around made an attempt to keep up Christmas, and contributed what we could for dinner. A railway pudding was manufactured, a plum here and there, like the stations on a line, few and far between. Four diminutive Mashona fowls, blue-legged and skinny, flanked with biltong and a liberal supply of rice and pumpkins, composed the feast.

About ten of us assembled round the festive board, which was laid out on the hut floor, each man supplying his own cutlery and plate. Someone mysteriously produced two black bottles, which made a great sensation, as they were expected to contain whiskey, but they only turned out to be sour Cape wine.

John and Dick were mining near the Mazowe River,
which is still panned today (photo by Jono Terry)

In April 1888 Dick and John finally struck gold, although their triumph was short-lived. Dick got malaria, and John had a serious accident with his rifle which forced them both to return to Ireland. Both men survived however, and the memory of that Mashona Christmas must have made them grateful for all the family Christmases they enjoyed thereafter. Happy Christmas to you, dear reader! May your fowl be not blue and your black bottles not foul.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...