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Saturday, 17 October 2015


I’ve been rereading the memoir published by my grandmother’s cousin John Cooper-Chadwick, called Three Years With Lobengula, and Experiences In South Africa. It was written in 1892-93, and has a lightness of style which you wouldn’t expect from a late Victorian author.

John Cooper-Chadwick (1864-1948), pictured in 1885 when he was serving in South Africa with Methuen’s Company of Horse

It was written, John notes in the preface, “only to amuse my father during his latter years of declining health.” This explains the breezy narrative voice which he used to describe an often dangerous or harrowing set of adventures in southern Africa. The voice is all the more remarkable given the physical circumstances under which it was written.

John Cooper-Chadwick was shot by his dog. It wasn’t deliberate. In May 1891 John had cocked his rifle to shoot an antelope, but the antelope ran off. Forgetting to uncock his weapon John upended it and leant on it with his hands resting one on top of the other over the business end. His dog Minnie leapt up handwards hoping to be petted, then slithered back down the slippery barrel. She caught a paw on the trigger. John sustained injuries to his chest and face, but both hands were damaged beyond salvation. He wrote his book, as one biography casually states, “with a pen tied to his elbow joints.”

John was in South Africa between wars, as it were. The First Boer War had ended in 1881 with a moral victory for the Boers, the Dutch settlers in the Transvaal, with whom Britain wisely negotiated a truce. In 1895 an ill-considered British attack on the Transvaal, known to historians as the Jameson Raid, shattered the peace and led eventually to the Second Boer War. John was in Africa from 1885 to 1891 and had spells as a policeman, a gold prospector and a hostage to fortune placed in the camp of Matabele leader Lobengula by Cecil Rhodes.

 Lobengula, king of the Matabele; and Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia. Rhodes sent John Cooper-Chadwick to be his eyes and ears in Lobengula’s royal compound

The book is a good read. It reflects the imperial British attitudes of the day, but does so with a good humour and humanity couched in rich descriptions of the lives and customs of those around him, of all nationalities and cultures. Here for example is his encounter with a Dutch family as he travels from Bechuanaland to Johannesburg in 1887.

“The first place we came to was Malmani, a little mining town on the Transvaal border. We passed through several small Dutch farms along the road; at some of these we bought milk, butter and eggs, and the people were generally civil.

“On entering a house, it was necessary to shake hands all round with the whole family. This is a long, tedious operation, always performed gravely and silently. Their hands are large, clammy and dirty, and held out as if they did not belong to the owners. Then the usual questions were asked: ‘Where are you going and coming from?’ ‘What is your name?’ ‘Your father’s?’ and so on. When all these questions have been answered coffee is produced, and drunk out of little china bowls. Coffee is drunk all day long, and when the real article is scarce they make it out of roasted Indian corn [maize].

A Boer family photographed in 1886 (picture from Wikipedia)

 “No Boer house is complete without a concertina, and generally one of the young men will keep on playing the same tune for hours for the benefit of his admiring family circle. Their furniture is not very elaborate: a few chairs, benches, and table is about all; overhead, along the rafters, are strings of onions, dried peaches, apples and biltong [dried beef].

“Any stranger passing is welcome to put up, if on horseback; but they look with suspicion on those on foot, and give them the cold shoulder.

“When a young man goes courting, he sits up opposite the girl on certain nights with a candle between them, scarcely speaking all the time; when the candle is burnt out, the young man must go, and it is according as the girl likes him how much candle she leaves to burn.”

For all I know all these customs still persist today, but John Cooper-Chadwick certainly draws a vivid sketch of Boer family life 125 years ago.

Small Boer farmsteads like this were set on fire as part of Britain’s punitive scorched earth policy when hostilities broke out again in 1899

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