Chapter 18.

Halley's Comet — Its Influence on the Native Mind.

Now a proud race like the Matebele had no idea of the systematic espionage that was carried on among them on behalf of their enemies, even by the very messengers who came to their capital laden with tributes from friendly Bechuana chiefs. Any valuable piece of news about the movements or intentions of the Matebele impis were carefully listened to, and just as carefully and promptly conveyed to Thaba Ncho. The Matebele, on the other hand, did no spying; they relied mainly on their spears and felt secure in the frightful terror they would instil in the hearts of their neighbours. They did their usual hunting and cattle-herding and never troubled about a possible danger which may be directed against them.

Since Gubuza's success against Siljay, they had not again been troubled by mysterious spirits. The strange people who sniped at their herd boys at a safe distance from the tops of a hillock, never revisted the country.

Once during the intervening years a small Matebele army under a smaller induna labouring under an excess of zeal, travelled far afield and carried a raiding expedition to the cattle posts of the Basutos. Having seized some unprotected cattle they followed up their temporary success into Bautoland until they came in contact with a wing of King Moshueshue's regular army.

The Basutos inflicted upon the raiding Matebele such a severe punishement that they ran down the mountains and retired across the plains in scattered formation, leaving behind them on the mountain slopes several dead and wounded; and when after a very long run they halted for

page 157
a rest, they were overtaken by a number of Basuto driving a herd of bullocks. The leader of the party — a Mosuto named Tshephe — approached the leader of the raiders and delivered to him a friendly message from King Moshueshue. “The Basuto King,” so the message sounded, “had heard that some boys belonging to the great King Umsilwegazi, had been about Basutoland and felt so hungry that they actually helped themselves to Basuto cattle. He was sorry that the impis of so great a King were famishing in his land, and he sent them the herd of bullocks as provision on their way back to Inzwinyani.”

The magnanimity of the Basuto King amazed the Matebele soldiers. The tone of the message was so unusual that the defeated raiders could scarcely believe their ears and eyes. They wondered if this was not a new and unheard of form of sorcery, for they had never heard that after being put to flight, a beaten enemy was ever supplied with provisions.

“All these bullocks,” Tshephe went on to say, “ are yours with the exception of the white ox. King Moshueshue knows that Matebele soldiers, when defeated, are usually punished with death. The King therefore desires you to take the white bullock as your ransom to the great Mzilikazi with Moshueshue's greetings; by this ransom he pleads that your lives should be spared by your King. And it is his desire that you depart in peace and convey the news to his brother Umzilwegazi.”

The raiders were not quite certain that all this was not a dream. But they received the cattle and went forth. The news of the generosity of the Basuto King caused a peculiar sensation among the Matebele. It proved too much for the credulity of the whole nation, for such magnanimity

page 158
had no parallel in the history of Native warfare. For a generation thereafter it was a by-word among the Matebele that Moshueshue, the Basuto King, was an enigma, and nobody would dare think of doing harm to any of his people. The Matebele always referred to him as “Moshueshue, the wonderful.” And of course, Moshueshue's ransom was accepted by Mzilikazi, and the lives of the soldiers were spared.

A few months later, Mzilikazi called his magicians together and asked the principal national wizard to throw bones, and communicate any omens he could divine. The execution of thirty doctors, a few years before, was still fresh in the people's minds, and they wondered if the next slaughter would be confined to magicians only.

The magician duly attended at Court, and found the King seated and surrounded by his principal chiefs, and a large crowd of men. The wizard prophesied that Umnandi, the favourite wife of the King, now lost for seven years, was alive and well among strange people to the East. That the elements were not propitious for a search party to be sent after her, but if the Great One — the King — would exercise a little patience, Umnandi, the beautiful, would voluntarily turn up one day and appear in all her regal beauty, and that she would be the source of much comfort to His Majesty.

Picking up his bones once more, he cast them down in different positions, and repeating the operation a few times, he critically examined the lay of every piece and, having praised his bones again, he said, “Away in the distance I can see a mighty star in the skies with a long white tail stretching almost across the heavens. Wise men have always said that such a star is the harbinger of diseases of men and beasts, wars and the overthrow of governments

page 159
as well as the death of princes. Within the rays of the tail of this star, I can clearly see streams of tears and rivers of blood.” Having praised his bones once more, the wizard proceeded: “I can see the mighty throne of Mzilikazi floating across the crimson stream, and reaching a safe landing on the opposite bank. I also perceive clear indications of death and destruction among rulers and commoners but no death seems marked out for Mzilikazi, ruler of the ground and of the clouds.”

At this there were loud applauses and several mbongis began to vie with one another in singing the praises of the King. But he motioned them to stop and the wizard continued: “On the other side of this river of blood, I can see large tracts of forest lands teeming with giraffe, elephant, buffalo, eland, koodoo, rhinoceri, sable antelope, zebra and other game, too numerous to mention; further, away in the distance, I can see a deep crystal stream of sweet drinking waters alive with all kinds of fish and water snakes, as well as ferocious crocodiles and the portly hippopotami. I can see the Matebele first wading through this stream of blood, many men and women and children falling in the stream, yet many of them survive and cross the wilderness until they reach the crystal stream beyond. There they cleanse their blood-stained limbs, and, refreshed and invigorated, they leave the second stream and go forth to the north; penetrating the forest they spread panic and terror amongt he bushmen. They return to a new royal kraal with much booty of livestock, ostrich feathers, ivory and precious skins. Here they establish for their lord, Mzilikazi, a great kingdom whose greatness stretches right up tot he dome of the skies. They go out again and capture food and serfs and many new wives for the rising generation of warriors.

page 160

“The bones tell me that there will be much of death and tribulations before the new haven is reached. Instant emigration, therefore, and arrival at the new place before the appearance of the star is the only sure way of escaping these troubles.”

One old grey beard asked: “You say you saw a star with a tail?” Here the wizard invited the questioner to pick up the charmed emblems. The bones being picked up and thrown don once more and praised again, the wizard chanted: “A star …, a big giant star, … the biggest that ever appeared in the skies. Its tail will spread from the eastern to the western clouds, remaining visible for many a night. Cattle will die, cattle will be captured, chieftains will sicken and die, and so will their wives and daughters and sons. There will be wars in Zululand, fighting in Basutoland, a stream of blood across the world. It will soak and drown many people in Inzwinyani. Yes, ad we may escape it if we move to the North before the appearance of the star and the flooding of the red river.”

“Stop this child's play!” cried Mzilikazi, “I remember hearing similar nonsense about the star with the tail when mad devils killed our herd boys and stole our goods. What was the result? I killed the chatterers and ordered Gubuza to go and hunt down the spirits who infested our pastures and whose depradations oiled the tongues of seers and witches. Where is that star now, and where is the tail? Has anybody seen either? If so, why has he not told me? Gubuza, in whose veins ran the pure blood of our fathers, squelched the offending sprites and we have never been troubled by them again; yet we have not moved the city to the north, as the witches suggested we should do. As for this present announcement, I repeat

page 161
now what I said three years ago. A Zulu never stepped back for any man. If death threatens me I shall stand my ground, face it and receive the fatal stab on my broad chest — not on my back. If any man considers himself a foeman worthy of my spear, let him come. I shall spit him out of here — (spitting) — like the saliva from my mouth. I am astounded at the disloyalty and audacity of these bone-throwers who fain would frighten me with visions of imaginary stars and jackal tails across the sky. Shall I drop my shield and fly from a tail and go to northern forests and northern rivers? Have I fallen so low in your estimation! You shall know from to-day that I have a shield and a driving power in my right arm. Let an enemy try conclusions with me and the vultures shall gorge themselves with his flesh and the ants shall fatten on his blood. An enemy! .. A long-tailed star! .. Bloody rivers and what not! Am I afraid? Go and sharpen your spears and keep them ready for the predicted trouble. Up everybody.” And the assembly dispersed.

As the vast crowd left the King's court there were comments on the happenings of the morning. Men importunately asked one another about this dangerous star with a long tail. They dreaded the idea of waiting at home for trouble, especially after the very clear warning from the head doctor, corroborated by other magicians.

“It is all very well for a king to stay at home and say he is not afraid, I tell you, Zungu,” said one old jet-black Matebele, “I am going to find a way out of this place before the star appears and before the rivers turn red.”

Presently they noticed some excitement outside the enclosure to the King's court. Children ran and women shouted, and a garrulous crowd was collecting around a

page 162
group that was coming towards the enclosure. The excitement increased as the din grew louder and some of the men who had heard the prophecy of the morning began to look up to the skies to see if the long-tailed star was already there. At this time the oncoming crowd had reached the enclosure, and was proceeding to the centre where the King and the chiefs sat, but the concord was so vast that those outside could not see the cause of the commotion in the centre. All they could hear were remarks that came from within the crowd: i.e. “These are the spirits who killed our herd boys the year before last; truly, these are they. What are we waiting for. Let us to the ravine and lose them there.

The cause of all this commotion was Van Zyl and his guides, who were arrested by Umbebe's impi near Tlou's water pool on the occasion when Lepane last his nerve and brought to Inzwinyani. Whilst the majority were for the immediate execution of the men, there were some who advocated milder measures, but mercy found very little favour with the dominant section. One old warrior, who had clearly passed his dancing days cried, “What! Spare his life? Where will he stay? In Inzwinyani? Go out into the valley early one morning and find a frozen cobra, or some other snake; catch it while it is shivering with the cold; put it inside your cloak till it gets warm and then see what would happen. Save this ruddy witch! Save him and you will die before you had time to regret it. Where are our herd boys? Ask him; ask him before you suggest that his life should be spared.”

Very little could be seen of the captives in the midst of the throng, much less could be heard of what the chiefs said. But there was no mistaking their decision for at once Van Zyl and his guides, with their hands manacled,

page 163
were led out in the direction of the place of slaughter, where the Matebele witches were slain three years before. Their belongings were taken from them, and so was Van Zyl's rifle which was still loaded. As they were being led away, one of the Barolong guides pulled the trigger of Van Zyl's gun then in the hand of a Matebele. The leaden bullet pierced the air with a hiss that seemed to penetrate the very clouds in the highest space; then there was a loud explosion which scattered and terrified the Matebele. Hundreds of men, including those in charge of the prisoners, fell down and hid their faces, as they saw the very smoke, which was said to cause people to bleed to death. A good many recognized the sound with which they had become familiar when, under Gubuza, they attacked Siljay's camp south of the Vaal River. But the majority of the frightened Matebele had never heard that should before — they called it a man-made lightning.

The confusion caused by the report of the gun influence public opinion in several directions, the consensus of opinion now being that the strange witches should be allowed to live.

“These must be the people who took away the King's beautiful wife,” said one Matebele excitedly, many others concurring, “and yet he says he is not afraid. Why does he not go to their den and bring his wife back?”

“No,” commented an old man, “I must leave this place. Spirits were never good neighbours; not even the spirits of one's ancestors. But this is wild and unknown sorcery! I am going to leave this place while the leaving is good.”

Hopelessly surrounded as they were by armed men in the centre of the city, the captives could not think of running away, so they stood by while the astonished

page 164
Matebele discussed them. “Why kill the sprites?” some of them asked aloud. “Of what use will their dead bodies be to us? Have you all forgotten the action of Moshueshue, the wise King of the East? He fed his tormentors and ransomed his enemies. Don't you think that this is the secret of Moshueshue's strength?

“No,” rang the drum voices of dozens of excited Matebele, as the discussion continued long and lively. “Spare the life of the sprite and he will show our doctors the secret of the magic of his explosive witchcraft. Let him live and show us how to create explosions and clouds of smoke.

    Yes, keep and feed the sprite,
    Especially the hairy sprite;
        Yebo, yebo!  1 
    He'll show us how to crack magic out of poles
    So that we'll scatter and slay our enemies,
    Then nobody will do us harm
    While we use this wonderful charm;
        Yebo; yebo!
    Let the hairy spirit live
    Let him live, let him live.
        Yebo! yebo!
        Yebo! yebo!

page 165

Chapter 18.

Halley's Comet — Its Influence on the Native Mind.

Now a proud race like the Matebele had no idea of the systematic espionage that was carried on among them on behalf of their enemies, even by the very messengers who came to their capital laden with tributes from friendly Bechuana chiefs. Any valuable piece of news about the movements or intentions of the Matebele impis were carefully listened to, and just as carefully and promptly conveyed to Thaba Ncho. The Matebele, on the other hand, did no spying; they relied mainly on their spears and felt secure in the frightful terror they would instil in the hearts of their neighbours. They did their usual hunting and cattle-herding and never troubled about a possible danger which may be directed against them.

Since Gubuza's success against Siljay, they had not again been troubled by mysterious spirits. The strange people who sniped at their herd boys at a safe distance from the tops of a hillock, never revisted the country.

Once during the intervening years a small Matebele army under a smaller induna labouring under an excess of zeal, travelled far afield and carried a raiding expedition to the cattle posts of the Basutos. Having seized some unprotected cattle they followed up their temporary success into Bautoland until they came in contact with a wing of King Moshueshue's regular army.

The Basutos inflicted upon the raiding Matebele such a severe punishement that they ran down the mountains and retired across the plains in scattered formation, leaving behind them on the mountain slopes several dead and wounded; and when after a very long run they halted for a rest, they were overtaken by a number of Basuto driving a herd of bullocks. The leader of the party — a Mosuto named Tshephe — approached the leader of the raiders and delivered to him a friendly message from King Moshueshue. “The Basuto King,” so the message sounded, “had heard that some boys belonging to the great King Umsilwegazi, had been about Basutoland and felt so hungry that they actually helped themselves to Basuto cattle. He was sorry that the impis of so great a King were famishing in his land, and he sent them the herd of bullocks as provision on their way back to Inzwinyani.”

The magnanimity of the Basuto King amazed the Matebele soldiers. The tone of the message was so unusual that the defeated raiders could scarcely believe their ears and eyes. They wondered if this was not a new and unheard of form of sorcery, for they had never heard that after being put to flight, a beaten enemy was ever supplied with provisions.

“All these bullocks,” Tshephe went on to say, “ are yours with the exception of the white ox. King Moshueshue knows that Matebele soldiers, when defeated, are usually punished with death. The King therefore desires you to take the white bullock as your ransom to the great Mzilikazi with Moshueshue's greetings; by this ransom he pleads that your lives should be spared by your King. And it is his desire that you depart in peace and convey the news to his brother Umzilwegazi.”

The raiders were not quite certain that all this was not a dream. But they received the cattle and went forth. The news of the generosity of the Basuto King caused a peculiar sensation among the Matebele. It proved too much for the credulity of the whole nation, for such magnanimity had no parallel in the history of Native warfare. For a generation thereafter it was a by-word among the Matebele that Moshueshue, the Basuto King, was an enigma, and nobody would dare think of doing harm to any of his people. The Matebele always referred to him as “Moshueshue, the wonderful.” And of course, Moshueshue's ransom was accepted by Mzilikazi, and the lives of the soldiers were spared.

A few months later, Mzilikazi called his magicians together and asked the principal national wizard to throw bones, and communicate any omens he could divine. The execution of thirty doctors, a few years before, was still fresh in the people's minds, and they wondered if the next slaughter would be confined to magicians only.

The magician duly attended at Court, and found the King seated and surrounded by his principal chiefs, and a large crowd of men. The wizard prophesied that Umnandi, the favourite wife of the King, now lost for seven years, was alive and well among strange people to the East. That the elements were not propitious for a search party to be sent after her, but if the Great One — the King — would exercise a little patience, Umnandi, the beautiful, would voluntarily turn up one day and appear in all her regal beauty, and that she would be the source of much comfort to His Majesty.

Picking up his bones once more, he cast them down in different positions, and repeating the operation a few times, he critically examined the lay of every piece and, having praised his bones again, he said, “Away in the distance I can see a mighty star in the skies with a long white tail stretching almost across the heavens. Wise men have always said that such a star is the harbinger of diseases of men and beasts, wars and the overthrow of governments as well as the death of princes. Within the rays of the tail of this star, I can clearly see streams of tears and rivers of blood.” Having praised his bones once more, the wizard proceeded: “I can see the mighty throne of Mzilikazi floating across the crimson stream, and reaching a safe landing on the opposite bank. I also perceive clear indications of death and destruction among rulers and commoners but no death seems marked out for Mzilikazi, ruler of the ground and of the clouds.”

At this there were loud applauses and several mbongis began to vie with one another in singing the praises of the King. But he motioned them to stop and the wizard continued: “On the other side of this river of blood, I can see large tracts of forest lands teeming with giraffe, elephant, buffalo, eland, koodoo, rhinoceri, sable antelope, zebra and other game, too numerous to mention; further, away in the distance, I can see a deep crystal stream of sweet drinking waters alive with all kinds of fish and water snakes, as well as ferocious crocodiles and the portly hippopotami. I can see the Matebele first wading through this stream of blood, many men and women and children falling in the stream, yet many of them survive and cross the wilderness until they reach the crystal stream beyond. There they cleanse their blood-stained limbs, and, refreshed and invigorated, they leave the second stream and go forth to the north; penetrating the forest they spread panic and terror amongt he bushmen. They return to a new royal kraal with much booty of livestock, ostrich feathers, ivory and precious skins. Here they establish for their lord, Mzilikazi, a great kingdom whose greatness stretches right up tot he dome of the skies. They go out again and capture food and serfs and many new wives for the rising generation of warriors.

“The bones tell me that there will be much of death and tribulations before the new haven is reached. Instant emigration, therefore, and arrival at the new place before the appearance of the star is the only sure way of escaping these troubles.”

One old grey beard asked: “You say you saw a star with a tail?” Here the wizard invited the questioner to pick up the charmed emblems. The bones being picked up and thrown don once more and praised again, the wizard chanted: “A star …, a big giant star, … the biggest that ever appeared in the skies. Its tail will spread from the eastern to the western clouds, remaining visible for many a night. Cattle will die, cattle will be captured, chieftains will sicken and die, and so will their wives and daughters and sons. There will be wars in Zululand, fighting in Basutoland, a stream of blood across the world. It will soak and drown many people in Inzwinyani. Yes, ad we may escape it if we move to the North before the appearance of the star and the flooding of the red river.”

“Stop this child's play!” cried Mzilikazi, “I remember hearing similar nonsense about the star with the tail when mad devils killed our herd boys and stole our goods. What was the result? I killed the chatterers and ordered Gubuza to go and hunt down the spirits who infested our pastures and whose depradations oiled the tongues of seers and witches. Where is that star now, and where is the tail? Has anybody seen either? If so, why has he not told me? Gubuza, in whose veins ran the pure blood of our fathers, squelched the offending sprites and we have never been troubled by them again; yet we have not moved the city to the north, as the witches suggested we should do. As for this present announcement, I repeat now what I said three years ago. A Zulu never stepped back for any man. If death threatens me I shall stand my ground, face it and receive the fatal stab on my broad chest — not on my back. If any man considers himself a foeman worthy of my spear, let him come. I shall spit him out of here — (spitting) — like the saliva from my mouth. I am astounded at the disloyalty and audacity of these bone-throwers who fain would frighten me with visions of imaginary stars and jackal tails across the sky. Shall I drop my shield and fly from a tail and go to northern forests and northern rivers? Have I fallen so low in your estimation! You shall know from to-day that I have a shield and a driving power in my right arm. Let an enemy try conclusions with me and the vultures shall gorge themselves with his flesh and the ants shall fatten on his blood. An enemy! .. A long-tailed star! .. Bloody rivers and what not! Am I afraid? Go and sharpen your spears and keep them ready for the predicted trouble. Up everybody.” And the assembly dispersed.

As the vast crowd left the King's court there were comments on the happenings of the morning. Men importunately asked one another about this dangerous star with a long tail. They dreaded the idea of waiting at home for trouble, especially after the very clear warning from the head doctor, corroborated by other magicians.

“It is all very well for a king to stay at home and say he is not afraid, I tell you, Zungu,” said one old jet-black Matebele, “I am going to find a way out of this place before the star appears and before the rivers turn red.”

Presently they noticed some excitement outside the enclosure to the King's court. Children ran and women shouted, and a garrulous crowd was collecting around a group that was coming towards the enclosure. The excitement increased as the din grew louder and some of the men who had heard the prophecy of the morning began to look up to the skies to see if the long-tailed star was already there. At this time the oncoming crowd had reached the enclosure, and was proceeding to the centre where the King and the chiefs sat, but the concord was so vast that those outside could not see the cause of the commotion in the centre. All they could hear were remarks that came from within the crowd: i.e. “These are the spirits who killed our herd boys the year before last; truly, these are they. What are we waiting for. Let us to the ravine and lose them there.

The cause of all this commotion was Van Zyl and his guides, who were arrested by Umbebe's impi near Tlou's water pool on the occasion when Lepane last his nerve and brought to Inzwinyani. Whilst the majority were for the immediate execution of the men, there were some who advocated milder measures, but mercy found very little favour with the dominant section. One old warrior, who had clearly passed his dancing days cried, “What! Spare his life? Where will he stay? In Inzwinyani? Go out into the valley early one morning and find a frozen cobra, or some other snake; catch it while it is shivering with the cold; put it inside your cloak till it gets warm and then see what would happen. Save this ruddy witch! Save him and you will die before you had time to regret it. Where are our herd boys? Ask him; ask him before you suggest that his life should be spared.”

Very little could be seen of the captives in the midst of the throng, much less could be heard of what the chiefs said. But there was no mistaking their decision for at once Van Zyl and his guides, with their hands manacled, were led out in the direction of the place of slaughter, where the Matebele witches were slain three years before. Their belongings were taken from them, and so was Van Zyl's rifle which was still loaded. As they were being led away, one of the Barolong guides pulled the trigger of Van Zyl's gun then in the hand of a Matebele. The leaden bullet pierced the air with a hiss that seemed to penetrate the very clouds in the highest space; then there was a loud explosion which scattered and terrified the Matebele. Hundreds of men, including those in charge of the prisoners, fell down and hid their faces, as they saw the very smoke, which was said to cause people to bleed to death. A good many recognized the sound with which they had become familiar when, under Gubuza, they attacked Siljay's camp south of the Vaal River. But the majority of the frightened Matebele had never heard that should before — they called it a man-made lightning.

The confusion caused by the report of the gun influence public opinion in several directions, the consensus of opinion now being that the strange witches should be allowed to live.

“These must be the people who took away the King's beautiful wife,” said one Matebele excitedly, many others concurring, “and yet he says he is not afraid. Why does he not go to their den and bring his wife back?”

“No,” commented an old man, “I must leave this place. Spirits were never good neighbours; not even the spirits of one's ancestors. But this is wild and unknown sorcery! I am going to leave this place while the leaving is good.”

Hopelessly surrounded as they were by armed men in the centre of the city, the captives could not think of running away, so they stood by while the astonished Matebele discussed them. “Why kill the sprites?” some of them asked aloud. “Of what use will their dead bodies be to us? Have you all forgotten the action of Moshueshue, the wise King of the East? He fed his tormentors and ransomed his enemies. Don't you think that this is the secret of Moshueshue's strength?

“No,” rang the drum voices of dozens of excited Matebele, as the discussion continued long and lively. “Spare the life of the sprite and he will show our doctors the secret of the magic of his explosive witchcraft. Let him live and show us how to create explosions and clouds of smoke.

    Yes, keep and feed the sprite,
    Especially the hairy sprite;
        Yebo, yebo!  1 
    He'll show us how to crack magic out of poles
    So that we'll scatter and slay our enemies,
    Then nobody will do us harm
    While we use this wonderful charm;
        Yebo; yebo!
    Let the hairy spirit live
    Let him live, let him live.
        Yebo! yebo!
        Yebo! yebo!


Footnotes & References

#NoteDescription
1Yebo, yebo!Oh yes! Oh yes!