Chapter 14.

Light and Shade of Memorable Days.

At the Barolong settlement of Thaba Ncho, the day broke as if reluctantly, over a thick mist, which, mingling with the early morning smoke from thousands of hearths in the huts and courtyards, created a light fog. But this was soon dispersed when the African sun rose over the north-eastern horizon. The top of Thaba Ncho hill, visible for scores of miles in each direction, dwarfed every hillock and kopje round about as though standing sentinel over the surrounding landscape. It had been snowing the previous night, and the picturesque brow of the hill (skirted by a thick black forest round the sides) was enhanced by a clear white cap of snow that covered its peak. But, once the sun had risen, his rays were so powerful that one could scarcely realize the wintry weather or the recent fall of snow.

On this particular morning the Chiefs Moroka and Tauana had announced a big game drive, at which it was intended to count all the guns and other weapons of war in the place. This was a part of the plan for arming the tribe against the dreaded Matebele. The day's exercises, as previously arranged, were preceded by one of the favourite national sports, viz., a long foot-race by the men. The race was made a contest between the tribes of Ra-Tshidi — the subjects of Tauana, — and of Seleka — the subjects of Moroka. Chieftains of both sections, mounted on swift Basuto ponies, went out as starters, the meeting point being a kopje, nine miles distant from Thaba Ncho town. Over two hundred young men took part in the race. The prize to be given by the chief of the losing clan

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was a huge bullock to be slaughtered at a subsequent feast in honour of the winners. In addition, a prize of one heifer was to be awarded to the young man who should carry off the emblem of victory, the switch end of a white ox-tail, and deliver it to one of the waiting chiefs at the goal. The competitors were up and off long before the first streak of dawn, so that they were already on the return journey when the sun rose. A long black train appeared in view and thousands of people, who lined the route to the goal, were waiting to cheer and encourage the leading runners in their final effort. At that distance it could not be seen who the leaders were, only a score of them having yet climbed the ridge. The rest of the train, following the graceful curve of the road towards the top of the incline, moved like a giant serpent nearly half a mile in length.

By the side of the string of runners the starters rode, Tshabadira and Motshegare, chieftains of the respective clans, each urging on his side.

Already the ears of the fleet-footed racers caught the shrill but clear notes of the coldoo-ooldoo-oo-oo of the Barolong girls, and the runners did their very best. The silvery white switch could be seen fluttering in the morning breeze, held aloft by the leading runner who, coming nearer and nearer, was observed to be none other than Ra-Thaga. He was ten yards ahead of the next runner, and it seemed certain that he would carry the switch home; but as they came within four hundred yards of the goal, another man overhauled him and seized the white switch.

Ra-Thaga still doing his best, was not reluctant to hand over the emblem of victory, for he found that his rival was Mapipi, his fellow clansman. He was running close behind the latter, when, after another hundred and fifty

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yards, Pheko of the Seleka clan ran level with him. Pheko sped along so fast that within a short time he took over the switch from Mapipi.

The imminent danger of losing the prize and the prospect of forcing his chief to pay incited Ra-Thaga to accelerate his speed and without knowing how he did it he was abreast of Mapipi, and past Pheko — who was still carrying the switch. With careful running and cool judgment he led the race, reached the goal, and received the coveted prize with the congratulations of both chiefs. Pheko, still bearing the emblem, tied for the second place with Mapipi.

The cheers of the spectators rent the air as more and still more of the runners arrived. By that time the winners had already taken up positions among the onlookers and were watching the advance of their own long trail.

In the meantime a faction fight broke out towards the rear between a number of young men of the rival teams. This arose through one of the Seleka tribe declaring that Ra-Thaga had not won the race for the Ra-Tshidi; for while reaching the winning post at the head of the competitors, he had failed to take over the switch from Pheko and hand it to the chief as the winner ought to have done. Therefore, he argued the race was between Pheko of the Seleka, the bell-bearer, and Mapipi of the Ra-Tshidi who carried no switch. But Pheko being abreast of him should be counted equally as a winner. In the speaker's opinion, no side had won and the race was a draw. This argument was resented by the winning side, who maintained that Ra-Thaga, their man, had outstripped the alleged winners by six paces.

“But,” shouted the other, “the emblem was not in his hand.”

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“Hang the emblem, hang the hand!” cried a chorus on the other side. “They did not run on the emblem, nor on their hands; they ran on their feet.”

Arguments grew heated and changed into abuse, till one of the disputants getting infuriated, picked up a stone and struck an opponent in the face, causing it to bleed. The bleeding youth was led to the presence of the chiefs, who shook their heads with indignation.

The Chief Moroka in a serious voice asked, “What son of a menial had perpetrated this outrage?” A headman pleaded that the wound was inflicted accidentally in the excitement of the moment by some rowdy youths after the race, and moreover, added the advocate, the wound was not very serious.

“Deliver the offender to me,” commanded the great Moroka; “let me teach him, and others through him, that an assault is a crime according to Barolong law, even though the victim did not suffer any permanent injury. See how he bleeds. We abhor human blood. Assault not serious! Let it be known that we Barolong abominate human blood in any form. Do you people take my court for a den of beasts?”

“Mercy, O Chief!” shouted the crowd. “A e ne modiga!” (mercy on him).

“Now,” said the Chief, “listen to my mercy. Fetch me two bullocks from his father's herd and slaughter them for the entertainment of the youths who ran in the race this morning. In future, anyone spoiling for human blood may go and join the Matebele, and there slake his thirst for blood. They are the only nation I know who delight in bloody accidents. Assault not serious! Let me hear no more of such bloody sports.”

“Behold, here comes a stranger. A Boer; he looks

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tired and frightened. Make way for him, give him a stool. Be seated, stranger. Who are you?”

“I am Schalk von Merrel, Captain Marock,” replied the new-comer, “a messenger from Sarel Siljay who trekked through here last year, but I am dying for a drink of water.”

“Bring him a gourd of cool water,” said Chief Moroka. “Well Schalk, I and my councillors are pleased to see you. What is Sarel's pleasure?”

The seething crowd surged forward to listen to the startling story told by the young Boer after he had quenched his thirst. Not being fluent in the Barolong tongue, he was imperfectly understood; yet his news sent a shocking thrill through the heart of every listener.

After the Boer had spoken, Chief Moroka asked dejectedly, “You say all your oxen are captured by the Matebele! In spite of all the guns you had?”

“Yes, Captain,” replied the young Boer.

“Did not Sarel and his Boers smoke at them with those wooden poles with the spit-fire noses?” asked the second chief. “And they rushed on all the same through the fire and captured your stock? Had the Matebele firearms too? Then how did they manage it?”

“I hope,” said the third chief, “they captured none of your smoking sticks?”

“They did seize two or three rifles but they cannot very well use them, as I understand they have neither powder nor lead,” replied Schalk.

“His news is very disturbing,” said the fourth chief.

“King Moshueshue should be told of this,” said another. “An overwhelming force must be organized and armed against the common foe. Death seems to have no effect upon this ferocious people. Truly, their warriors, like cats, have several lives.”

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“Well said,” concluded Chief Moroka. “Dismiss the crowd. Supply the Boer with some refreshments. I will take council with my headmen immediately. Let there be rain!” And shouts of Poolah followed the remarks.

The people had scarcely begun to disperse when three men came forward through the throng.

Unlike the rest of the crowd massed in the Khotla,  1  these three apparently had not come from their homes as they carried bundles on their shoulders like ordinary travellers. Chief Moroka recognised the leading man and returning his salute said, “You are Rantsau, son of Thibedi, are you not? A much travelled young man of considerable experience at home and abroad? You understand the language of the Basuto, and of the Qoranna and the Hlubis, and the Boers down in Graaff Reinet, don't you, Rantsau? Of course I know you. Have you not learnt to speak the language of the Fish-eaters  2  yet? You must speak Setebele too? I would like to send you as a spy to Izwinyani before we proceed to attack Mzilikazi. You will go? I know you will when I command you.”

“Well, Rantsau, where have you been to this time? I have not seen you for a long while. Give us your news.”

Rantsau then addressed the chiefs. “My lord and chiefs, I have no news, except that the Boers who passed through several moons back, have befallen a catastrophe. They have been wiped out by the Matebele, and I am afraid that not one of them has survived to tell the story.”

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“But,” said Chief Moroka, “here is a Boer who says the others are still alive. He left them the day before yesterday.”

“Then,” said Rantsau amid sensation, “he must have come from another party, not from Sarel Siljay's army. No, my lord.”

“But he is from Sarel Siljay's army,” said the chief. “Sarel himself sent him here to me. Anyway, Rantsau, let us have your version.”

“The three of us were returning form Bopediland near the Vaal River,” proceeded Rantsau. “When we reached the forest beyond the Namagadi River, we noticed two naked men emerging from the bush and looking in the opposite direction. They withdrew directly they saw us. I should explain, my lord and chiefs, that by this time we were not far from the place where on our forward journey, two moons back, we found Siljay's army encamped. After passing this bush we saw another man spying at us from a tree-top. He scrambled down from the tree directly upon observing that we were looking at him. We then hastened to put as much space as possible between us and that bush.”

“Later we came across two Boers whom we warned that the Matebele were going to ambush them. Sometime after we heard the sound of many guns some distance off. The guns rattled and never ceased for a long, long time. As a matter of fact I have never head such a din before. Judging by the incessant noise we came to the conclusion that the Matebele must have been massacred. Later three mounted Boers came into view hurrying forward a large flock of sheep. We climbed a ridge to give the alarm to the Boers, when we saw another mounted Boer galloping towards the three, shouting at the top of

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his voice, “Mieklaas, Mieklaas!  3  Come back, we are surrounded by Kafirs! Never mind the sheep, Mieklaas, return to the wagons!” At this the Boers left the sheep and all rode away very fast. Late in the afternoon, a group of Matebele appeared. They rounded up the sheep and drove them off.”

“Reaching the peak of the nearest hill, and looking about we saw huge clouds of dust and numbers of Matebele in the distance driving the herds and the flocks of the Boers and not a sign of the owners anywhere; no, not even the sound of a gun, so we came to the conclusion that the Boers had been surrounded and massacred, like our own people had been years ago at Kunana.”

No one listened more attentively to Rantsau's story than Ra-Thaga. He had always been nursing a bloody revenge in his heart, and the preparations for arming the tribe against the Matebele had been proceeding too slowly for his liking. He desired retribution before he died, and he was fearful lest some natural or unnatural cause should shorten his life before he greeted that glad day. But the news of this latest success of the Matebele against the well-armed Boers conveyed to his mind the staggering impression that this ferocious nation was super-human, and that nothing in this world would ever punish them. Could it be a fact, he asked himself, that there is absolutely no power to exact judgment in return for all the wrongs and cruelties of the past, and for the loss of so many of his relatives who died guiltless deaths at the hands of the Matebele? The idea was revolting. Amid such thoughts Ra-Thaga scarcely heard the Chief Moroka thanking Rantsau for his news, unpleasant as it was.

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At sunset the crowd began to collect at the Chief's court to hear the Council's decision on Sarel's message. It was on the night of the full moon, and the powerful rays of the big round aerial ball, mingling with the waning light of the passing day seemed to dispel the settling dusk, and to prolong the twilight; and so it was not at all dark as old men and young men collected and sat down to hear the ominous decision. Many of the men had already taken up their places in the Khotla.

The chiefs were a long time coming, and little knots of debaters automatically grouped themselves here and there. Soon there was a low but insistent hubbub in the centre of the open air court, for the discussions, carried on in low tones, were decidedly animated.

Some were for letting the Boers stew in their own juice, as the Barolongs had perforce to do years before; others were for combining with the Boers against the Matebele; some again were for letting the enemy well alone as long as he remained on the far side of the Vaal river — that river of many vicissitudes and grim histories — yet many believed that a scrap with the Matebele with the aid of the Boers would give each one an opportunity of avenging the blood of his relations before he himself joined his forefathers. Such were the conflicting views that found expression among the waiting throng. One grizzly old man with small jaws and very short teeth, touching his shins said: “Oh, that I could infuse some youth into these old bones and raise my shield! I would march against the vampires with spear in hand. Then Mzilikazi would know that among the Barolong there was a man named Nakedi — just as the pack of lions at Mafika-Kgocoana knew me to their cost.”

One man raised a laugh among the serious groups.

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“What a truthful thing is a proverb,” he said. According to an old saying 'Lightning fire Is quenched by other fire.' It seems a good idea then to fight the Matebele with the help of the women, for they always kill women in their attacks. If Sarel Siljay's women had not helped the Boers, they would not have defied Gubuza's army and Schalk would not be here to tell the tale.”

The chiefs arrived almost simultaneously and took their seats without giving any indication of what they had decided to do. There was some little delay after this. Every man bent forward expectant how the question, War, to be, or not to be, was to be decided. This delay severely taxed the patience of the waiting crowd, but it was unavoidable. One chief, representing a powerful clan, had not yet appeared and an announcement, so momentous, could not be made before his arrival.

Not until Chief Moroka had twice asked, “Where is Morahti?” did he arrive and take his seat to the right of the presiding chief. Morahti (for that was the name of the late-comer) was not exactly of royal blood. He owed his eminent position to a rather liberal endowment of this world's goods, as the gods are partial in their bestowal of fortune; secondly, his position was due to his marriage to a princess of the first royal house.

Morahti sat down an air of pomp as though proud of the fact that business did not proceed without him. One of his equals, in sarcastic allusion to the lateness of his appearance, indulged in a little banter at his expense. The object of the squib, turning round to his railer said, “How unbecoming to your dignity these frivolous remarks are on a serious occasion like this.”

“Quite so,” put in a third chief sitting just two chairs away. “They are almost as frivolous as the flippancy of

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my cousin Morahti, who must needs keep the chiefs and people waiting while he stays indoors to watch how gracefully my cousin Neo — that late-comer's wife — puts on her anklets.”

“It must indeed be true,” retorted Chief Morahti, “in the words of a Barolong proverb, that 'kings sometimes beget dross' or else I could not account for a lineal descendant of the great Tau, attributing to me such weakness as that of regulating my actions by Neo's anklets.”

The chief was about to call the assembly to order when, in the waning light of the evening, through the twilight and the bright moonlight, a horseman was observed riding into the town. He was recognised as another Boer urging along his exhausted and hungry mare by repeatedly striking his heels against her flanks. One chief said, “I hope that he is not coming to report that the Matebele returned to the attack and killed every Boer.”

“Nor that Gubuza is following hard on his heels,” remarked another.

They were soon set at rest, however, for the new arrival, a young Boer named Phil Jay, came in the wake of Schalk to support his appeal for relief. The Boers, said Phil, were anxious to hear that the chief would come to their rescue before the enemy returned to surround them.

The meeting was then called to order.

Chief Moroka was not as great an orator as most of the Native chiefs, but excelled in philosophy. In that respect his witty expressions and dry humour were equal to those of Moshueshue, the Basuto King. He spoke in a staccato voice, with short sentences and a stop after each, as though composing the next sentence. His speeches abounded in allegories and proverbial sayings, some traditional and others original. His own

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maxims had about them the spice of originality which always provided his auditors with much food for thought.

He knew he had no right to join hostilities without the consent of the tribesmen, yet he delivered a speech which, while leaving no doubt as to his personal sympathies, left the main decision in the hands of the assembly. When he called for silence, the stillness was like unto that of a deserted place. The crowd pressed forward and eagerly hung on to every word, but it is to be regretted that much of the charm is lost in translation.

“Men of the Barolong,” he said aloud, “Listen! Old people say that 'the foolish dam suckles her young while lying down; but the wise dam suckles hers standing up and looking out for approaching hungers.' This day has brought with it the most appalling news since we pitched our abode on the banks of the Sepane River. For the first time, since we experienced their depredations, the marauders of Mzilikazi have forded the Lekwa.  4  They are now prowling on our side of that deep stream.”

“You all remember the visit of Sarel Sil-Jay, the Boer Chief, who called on us last year and enquired the way. You saw his mounted followers and their flowing beards; you saw his women and children in their hooded wagons, like a moving city travelling northward, where they said they were proceeding in search of God. Well, they have found the Matebele instead.”

“Crossing the Kikwe and the Kikwane, they forded the Namagadi River, and then camped at a place which must now call Battlehill. Here they remained in their wheeled houses and peacefully fed their children on the meat of the springbok, the wildebeest and other antelopes

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of our plains. Then, while the Boers were quietly drying their venison in the sun, Mzilikazi, without a word of warning, sent his big man Gubuza with an army which cast a thousand spears into Sarel's city. A desperate fight must have taken place, for the Boer women left their boiling meat-pots on the fires and stood at the backs of the men to reload the guns as fast as the long beards could fire them.”

“As a result of the fight, the attackers were driven off; but Gubuza, on retiring, looted every beast in the possession of our white friends. Now they are anxious to remove their families but have no draft animals left to pull their wagons. These young men have come to tell us that 'the ox is found.'  5  Now I wish to know from you whether help shall be forthcoming and, if so, how quickly?”

“Personally I think that, if we must perish, it were better to die fighting (for then our women could flee into Basutoland) than to wait until Gubuza's impis are in our very midst.”

“Those of you whose mothers and grandmothers have perished at the point of the Matebele assegai must realise the danger to which Sarel's women are exposed if they remain any longer at Battlehill, for 'no jackal-skin could possibly be sewn to a Matebele pelt.'”

“Gubuza, fortunately, has not yet seized my cattle and I have enough bullocks to pull Sarel's own wagon and bring his wife back. Will anyone else's oxen go up with mine, or must we leave the other wives stranded on the plains? What say the Hammersmiths to the Boer appeal? What say the sons of Mokgopa-a-Mazeppa whose tribal totem is the iron? What answer is forthcoming from the

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descendants of Moroa-Phogole? Will these young Boers return to their parents smiling, or must they go back and say 'the Barolong are afraid; their Chief alone will help us!' What say the sons of Kwena and the offspring of Mhurutshe who venerate the baboon?”

By this time the speech had stirred a feeling in the centre of the crowd. The commotion was made audible by the mention of the several sections of the tribe; and the various clansmen loudly responded: “We are with thee, O Chief.” “We will be there at thy command.”

A hurricane of enthusiasm arose from the throng as first one and then another of the men cried, “My oxen will be ready by daybreak, O Chief.” “I am going off to fetch mine from the cattle station.” “Mine are available, they are pasturing just outside the city.” “No woman brave enough to load a gun to kill the Matebele shall perish while I have a pack-ox.” “The day will soon be breaking, let us wait no longer!”

The spontaneity of these offers showed that there would be more than enough oxen to go round. So the Chief said: “I knew the Barolong were no cowards. Our friends shall know that it is not wrought iron we venerate but that our tribal bade is a hammer made of tempered metal. Let the Boers come here and camp at the foot of the Black Mountain. Here Sarel and I will tarry.”

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Chapter 14.

Light and Shade of Memorable Days.

At the Barolong settlement of Thaba Ncho, the day broke as if reluctantly, over a thick mist, which, mingling with the early morning smoke from thousands of hearths in the huts and courtyards, created a light fog. But this was soon dispersed when the African sun rose over the north-eastern horizon. The top of Thaba Ncho hill, visible for scores of miles in each direction, dwarfed every hillock and kopje round about as though standing sentinel over the surrounding landscape. It had been snowing the previous night, and the picturesque brow of the hill (skirted by a thick black forest round the sides) was enhanced by a clear white cap of snow that covered its peak. But, once the sun had risen, his rays were so powerful that one could scarcely realize the wintry weather or the recent fall of snow.

On this particular morning the Chiefs Moroka and Tauana had announced a big game drive, at which it was intended to count all the guns and other weapons of war in the place. This was a part of the plan for arming the tribe against the dreaded Matebele. The day's exercises, as previously arranged, were preceded by one of the favourite national sports, viz., a long foot-race by the men. The race was made a contest between the tribes of Ra-Tshidi — the subjects of Tauana, — and of Seleka — the subjects of Moroka. Chieftains of both sections, mounted on swift Basuto ponies, went out as starters, the meeting point being a kopje, nine miles distant from Thaba Ncho town. Over two hundred young men took part in the race. The prize to be given by the chief of the losing clan was a huge bullock to be slaughtered at a subsequent feast in honour of the winners. In addition, a prize of one heifer was to be awarded to the young man who should carry off the emblem of victory, the switch end of a white ox-tail, and deliver it to one of the waiting chiefs at the goal. The competitors were up and off long before the first streak of dawn, so that they were already on the return journey when the sun rose. A long black train appeared in view and thousands of people, who lined the route to the goal, were waiting to cheer and encourage the leading runners in their final effort. At that distance it could not be seen who the leaders were, only a score of them having yet climbed the ridge. The rest of the train, following the graceful curve of the road towards the top of the incline, moved like a giant serpent nearly half a mile in length.

By the side of the string of runners the starters rode, Tshabadira and Motshegare, chieftains of the respective clans, each urging on his side.

Already the ears of the fleet-footed racers caught the shrill but clear notes of the coldoo-ooldoo-oo-oo of the Barolong girls, and the runners did their very best. The silvery white switch could be seen fluttering in the morning breeze, held aloft by the leading runner who, coming nearer and nearer, was observed to be none other than Ra-Thaga. He was ten yards ahead of the next runner, and it seemed certain that he would carry the switch home; but as they came within four hundred yards of the goal, another man overhauled him and seized the white switch.

Ra-Thaga still doing his best, was not reluctant to hand over the emblem of victory, for he found that his rival was Mapipi, his fellow clansman. He was running close behind the latter, when, after another hundred and fifty yards, Pheko of the Seleka clan ran level with him. Pheko sped along so fast that within a short time he took over the switch from Mapipi.

The imminent danger of losing the prize and the prospect of forcing his chief to pay incited Ra-Thaga to accelerate his speed and without knowing how he did it he was abreast of Mapipi, and past Pheko — who was still carrying the switch. With careful running and cool judgment he led the race, reached the goal, and received the coveted prize with the congratulations of both chiefs. Pheko, still bearing the emblem, tied for the second place with Mapipi.

The cheers of the spectators rent the air as more and still more of the runners arrived. By that time the winners had already taken up positions among the onlookers and were watching the advance of their own long trail.

In the meantime a faction fight broke out towards the rear between a number of young men of the rival teams. This arose through one of the Seleka tribe declaring that Ra-Thaga had not won the race for the Ra-Tshidi; for while reaching the winning post at the head of the competitors, he had failed to take over the switch from Pheko and hand it to the chief as the winner ought to have done. Therefore, he argued the race was between Pheko of the Seleka, the bell-bearer, and Mapipi of the Ra-Tshidi who carried no switch. But Pheko being abreast of him should be counted equally as a winner. In the speaker's opinion, no side had won and the race was a draw. This argument was resented by the winning side, who maintained that Ra-Thaga, their man, had outstripped the alleged winners by six paces.

“But,” shouted the other, “the emblem was not in his hand.”

“Hang the emblem, hang the hand!” cried a chorus on the other side. “They did not run on the emblem, nor on their hands; they ran on their feet.”

Arguments grew heated and changed into abuse, till one of the disputants getting infuriated, picked up a stone and struck an opponent in the face, causing it to bleed. The bleeding youth was led to the presence of the chiefs, who shook their heads with indignation.

The Chief Moroka in a serious voice asked, “What son of a menial had perpetrated this outrage?” A headman pleaded that the wound was inflicted accidentally in the excitement of the moment by some rowdy youths after the race, and moreover, added the advocate, the wound was not very serious.

“Deliver the offender to me,” commanded the great Moroka; “let me teach him, and others through him, that an assault is a crime according to Barolong law, even though the victim did not suffer any permanent injury. See how he bleeds. We abhor human blood. Assault not serious! Let it be known that we Barolong abominate human blood in any form. Do you people take my court for a den of beasts?”

“Mercy, O Chief!” shouted the crowd. “A e ne modiga!” (mercy on him).

“Now,” said the Chief, “listen to my mercy. Fetch me two bullocks from his father's herd and slaughter them for the entertainment of the youths who ran in the race this morning. In future, anyone spoiling for human blood may go and join the Matebele, and there slake his thirst for blood. They are the only nation I know who delight in bloody accidents. Assault not serious! Let me hear no more of such bloody sports.”

“Behold, here comes a stranger. A Boer; he looks tired and frightened. Make way for him, give him a stool. Be seated, stranger. Who are you?”

“I am Schalk von Merrel, Captain Marock,” replied the new-comer, “a messenger from Sarel Siljay who trekked through here last year, but I am dying for a drink of water.”

“Bring him a gourd of cool water,” said Chief Moroka. “Well Schalk, I and my councillors are pleased to see you. What is Sarel's pleasure?”

The seething crowd surged forward to listen to the startling story told by the young Boer after he had quenched his thirst. Not being fluent in the Barolong tongue, he was imperfectly understood; yet his news sent a shocking thrill through the heart of every listener.

After the Boer had spoken, Chief Moroka asked dejectedly, “You say all your oxen are captured by the Matebele! In spite of all the guns you had?”

“Yes, Captain,” replied the young Boer.

“Did not Sarel and his Boers smoke at them with those wooden poles with the spit-fire noses?” asked the second chief. “And they rushed on all the same through the fire and captured your stock? Had the Matebele firearms too? Then how did they manage it?”

“I hope,” said the third chief, “they captured none of your smoking sticks?”

“They did seize two or three rifles but they cannot very well use them, as I understand they have neither powder nor lead,” replied Schalk.

“His news is very disturbing,” said the fourth chief.

“King Moshueshue should be told of this,” said another. “An overwhelming force must be organized and armed against the common foe. Death seems to have no effect upon this ferocious people. Truly, their warriors, like cats, have several lives.”

“Well said,” concluded Chief Moroka. “Dismiss the crowd. Supply the Boer with some refreshments. I will take council with my headmen immediately. Let there be rain!” And shouts of Poolah followed the remarks.

The people had scarcely begun to disperse when three men came forward through the throng.

Unlike the rest of the crowd massed in the Khotla,  1  these three apparently had not come from their homes as they carried bundles on their shoulders like ordinary travellers. Chief Moroka recognised the leading man and returning his salute said, “You are Rantsau, son of Thibedi, are you not? A much travelled young man of considerable experience at home and abroad? You understand the language of the Basuto, and of the Qoranna and the Hlubis, and the Boers down in Graaff Reinet, don't you, Rantsau? Of course I know you. Have you not learnt to speak the language of the Fish-eaters  2  yet? You must speak Setebele too? I would like to send you as a spy to Izwinyani before we proceed to attack Mzilikazi. You will go? I know you will when I command you.”

“Well, Rantsau, where have you been to this time? I have not seen you for a long while. Give us your news.”

Rantsau then addressed the chiefs. “My lord and chiefs, I have no news, except that the Boers who passed through several moons back, have befallen a catastrophe. They have been wiped out by the Matebele, and I am afraid that not one of them has survived to tell the story.”

“But,” said Chief Moroka, “here is a Boer who says the others are still alive. He left them the day before yesterday.”

“Then,” said Rantsau amid sensation, “he must have come from another party, not from Sarel Siljay's army. No, my lord.”

“But he is from Sarel Siljay's army,” said the chief. “Sarel himself sent him here to me. Anyway, Rantsau, let us have your version.”

“The three of us were returning form Bopediland near the Vaal River,” proceeded Rantsau. “When we reached the forest beyond the Namagadi River, we noticed two naked men emerging from the bush and looking in the opposite direction. They withdrew directly they saw us. I should explain, my lord and chiefs, that by this time we were not far from the place where on our forward journey, two moons back, we found Siljay's army encamped. After passing this bush we saw another man spying at us from a tree-top. He scrambled down from the tree directly upon observing that we were looking at him. We then hastened to put as much space as possible between us and that bush.”

“Later we came across two Boers whom we warned that the Matebele were going to ambush them. Sometime after we heard the sound of many guns some distance off. The guns rattled and never ceased for a long, long time. As a matter of fact I have never head such a din before. Judging by the incessant noise we came to the conclusion that the Matebele must have been massacred. Later three mounted Boers came into view hurrying forward a large flock of sheep. We climbed a ridge to give the alarm to the Boers, when we saw another mounted Boer galloping towards the three, shouting at the top of his voice, “Mieklaas, Mieklaas!  3  Come back, we are surrounded by Kafirs! Never mind the sheep, Mieklaas, return to the wagons!” At this the Boers left the sheep and all rode away very fast. Late in the afternoon, a group of Matebele appeared. They rounded up the sheep and drove them off.”

“Reaching the peak of the nearest hill, and looking about we saw huge clouds of dust and numbers of Matebele in the distance driving the herds and the flocks of the Boers and not a sign of the owners anywhere; no, not even the sound of a gun, so we came to the conclusion that the Boers had been surrounded and massacred, like our own people had been years ago at Kunana.”

No one listened more attentively to Rantsau's story than Ra-Thaga. He had always been nursing a bloody revenge in his heart, and the preparations for arming the tribe against the Matebele had been proceeding too slowly for his liking. He desired retribution before he died, and he was fearful lest some natural or unnatural cause should shorten his life before he greeted that glad day. But the news of this latest success of the Matebele against the well-armed Boers conveyed to his mind the staggering impression that this ferocious nation was super-human, and that nothing in this world would ever punish them. Could it be a fact, he asked himself, that there is absolutely no power to exact judgment in return for all the wrongs and cruelties of the past, and for the loss of so many of his relatives who died guiltless deaths at the hands of the Matebele? The idea was revolting. Amid such thoughts Ra-Thaga scarcely heard the Chief Moroka thanking Rantsau for his news, unpleasant as it was.

At sunset the crowd began to collect at the Chief's court to hear the Council's decision on Sarel's message. It was on the night of the full moon, and the powerful rays of the big round aerial ball, mingling with the waning light of the passing day seemed to dispel the settling dusk, and to prolong the twilight; and so it was not at all dark as old men and young men collected and sat down to hear the ominous decision. Many of the men had already taken up their places in the Khotla.

The chiefs were a long time coming, and little knots of debaters automatically grouped themselves here and there. Soon there was a low but insistent hubbub in the centre of the open air court, for the discussions, carried on in low tones, were decidedly animated.

Some were for letting the Boers stew in their own juice, as the Barolongs had perforce to do years before; others were for combining with the Boers against the Matebele; some again were for letting the enemy well alone as long as he remained on the far side of the Vaal river — that river of many vicissitudes and grim histories — yet many believed that a scrap with the Matebele with the aid of the Boers would give each one an opportunity of avenging the blood of his relations before he himself joined his forefathers. Such were the conflicting views that found expression among the waiting throng. One grizzly old man with small jaws and very short teeth, touching his shins said: “Oh, that I could infuse some youth into these old bones and raise my shield! I would march against the vampires with spear in hand. Then Mzilikazi would know that among the Barolong there was a man named Nakedi — just as the pack of lions at Mafika-Kgocoana knew me to their cost.”

One man raised a laugh among the serious groups. “What a truthful thing is a proverb,” he said. According to an old saying 'Lightning fire Is quenched by other fire.' It seems a good idea then to fight the Matebele with the help of the women, for they always kill women in their attacks. If Sarel Siljay's women had not helped the Boers, they would not have defied Gubuza's army and Schalk would not be here to tell the tale.”

The chiefs arrived almost simultaneously and took their seats without giving any indication of what they had decided to do. There was some little delay after this. Every man bent forward expectant how the question, War, to be, or not to be, was to be decided. This delay severely taxed the patience of the waiting crowd, but it was unavoidable. One chief, representing a powerful clan, had not yet appeared and an announcement, so momentous, could not be made before his arrival.

Not until Chief Moroka had twice asked, “Where is Morahti?” did he arrive and take his seat to the right of the presiding chief. Morahti (for that was the name of the late-comer) was not exactly of royal blood. He owed his eminent position to a rather liberal endowment of this world's goods, as the gods are partial in their bestowal of fortune; secondly, his position was due to his marriage to a princess of the first royal house.

Morahti sat down an air of pomp as though proud of the fact that business did not proceed without him. One of his equals, in sarcastic allusion to the lateness of his appearance, indulged in a little banter at his expense. The object of the squib, turning round to his railer said, “How unbecoming to your dignity these frivolous remarks are on a serious occasion like this.”

“Quite so,” put in a third chief sitting just two chairs away. “They are almost as frivolous as the flippancy of my cousin Morahti, who must needs keep the chiefs and people waiting while he stays indoors to watch how gracefully my cousin Neo — that late-comer's wife — puts on her anklets.”

“It must indeed be true,” retorted Chief Morahti, “in the words of a Barolong proverb, that 'kings sometimes beget dross' or else I could not account for a lineal descendant of the great Tau, attributing to me such weakness as that of regulating my actions by Neo's anklets.”

The chief was about to call the assembly to order when, in the waning light of the evening, through the twilight and the bright moonlight, a horseman was observed riding into the town. He was recognised as another Boer urging along his exhausted and hungry mare by repeatedly striking his heels against her flanks. One chief said, “I hope that he is not coming to report that the Matebele returned to the attack and killed every Boer.”

“Nor that Gubuza is following hard on his heels,” remarked another.

They were soon set at rest, however, for the new arrival, a young Boer named Phil Jay, came in the wake of Schalk to support his appeal for relief. The Boers, said Phil, were anxious to hear that the chief would come to their rescue before the enemy returned to surround them.

The meeting was then called to order.

Chief Moroka was not as great an orator as most of the Native chiefs, but excelled in philosophy. In that respect his witty expressions and dry humour were equal to those of Moshueshue, the Basuto King. He spoke in a staccato voice, with short sentences and a stop after each, as though composing the next sentence. His speeches abounded in allegories and proverbial sayings, some traditional and others original. His own maxims had about them the spice of originality which always provided his auditors with much food for thought.

He knew he had no right to join hostilities without the consent of the tribesmen, yet he delivered a speech which, while leaving no doubt as to his personal sympathies, left the main decision in the hands of the assembly. When he called for silence, the stillness was like unto that of a deserted place. The crowd pressed forward and eagerly hung on to every word, but it is to be regretted that much of the charm is lost in translation.

“Men of the Barolong,” he said aloud, “Listen! Old people say that 'the foolish dam suckles her young while lying down; but the wise dam suckles hers standing up and looking out for approaching hungers.' This day has brought with it the most appalling news since we pitched our abode on the banks of the Sepane River. For the first time, since we experienced their depredations, the marauders of Mzilikazi have forded the Lekwa.  4  They are now prowling on our side of that deep stream.”

“You all remember the visit of Sarel Sil-Jay, the Boer Chief, who called on us last year and enquired the way. You saw his mounted followers and their flowing beards; you saw his women and children in their hooded wagons, like a moving city travelling northward, where they said they were proceeding in search of God. Well, they have found the Matebele instead.”

“Crossing the Kikwe and the Kikwane, they forded the Namagadi River, and then camped at a place which must now call Battlehill. Here they remained in their wheeled houses and peacefully fed their children on the meat of the springbok, the wildebeest and other antelopes of our plains. Then, while the Boers were quietly drying their venison in the sun, Mzilikazi, without a word of warning, sent his big man Gubuza with an army which cast a thousand spears into Sarel's city. A desperate fight must have taken place, for the Boer women left their boiling meat-pots on the fires and stood at the backs of the men to reload the guns as fast as the long beards could fire them.”

“As a result of the fight, the attackers were driven off; but Gubuza, on retiring, looted every beast in the possession of our white friends. Now they are anxious to remove their families but have no draft animals left to pull their wagons. These young men have come to tell us that 'the ox is found.'  5  Now I wish to know from you whether help shall be forthcoming and, if so, how quickly?”

“Personally I think that, if we must perish, it were better to die fighting (for then our women could flee into Basutoland) than to wait until Gubuza's impis are in our very midst.”

“Those of you whose mothers and grandmothers have perished at the point of the Matebele assegai must realise the danger to which Sarel's women are exposed if they remain any longer at Battlehill, for 'no jackal-skin could possibly be sewn to a Matebele pelt.'”

“Gubuza, fortunately, has not yet seized my cattle and I have enough bullocks to pull Sarel's own wagon and bring his wife back. Will anyone else's oxen go up with mine, or must we leave the other wives stranded on the plains? What say the Hammersmiths to the Boer appeal? What say the sons of Mokgopa-a-Mazeppa whose tribal totem is the iron? What answer is forthcoming from the descendants of Moroa-Phogole? Will these young Boers return to their parents smiling, or must they go back and say 'the Barolong are afraid; their Chief alone will help us!' What say the sons of Kwena and the offspring of Mhurutshe who venerate the baboon?”

By this time the speech had stirred a feeling in the centre of the crowd. The commotion was made audible by the mention of the several sections of the tribe; and the various clansmen loudly responded: “We are with thee, O Chief.” “We will be there at thy command.”

A hurricane of enthusiasm arose from the throng as first one and then another of the men cried, “My oxen will be ready by daybreak, O Chief.” “I am going off to fetch mine from the cattle station.” “Mine are available, they are pasturing just outside the city.” “No woman brave enough to load a gun to kill the Matebele shall perish while I have a pack-ox.” “The day will soon be breaking, let us wait no longer!”

The spontaneity of these offers showed that there would be more than enough oxen to go round. So the Chief said: “I knew the Barolong were no cowards. Our friends shall know that it is not wrought iron we venerate but that our tribal bade is a hammer made of tempered metal. Let the Boers come here and camp at the foot of the Black Mountain. Here Sarel and I will tarry.”


Footnotes & References

#NoteDescription
1KhotlaAssembly place
2Fish-eatersEnglish
3MieklaasNicholas
4LekwaVaal River
5The ox is found“There is a state of war.”