W. C. (William Charles) Scully.

Reminiscences of a South African pioneer (1st series--Wanderjahre) online

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"merchant's" wife of a little more than a century ago, and that it was
adopted by the Malays when the Dutch sumptuary laws were repealed.

We were hospitably entertained by the families of some friends we had
made on the voyage. One day we spent with the Hams, an old Cape family
whose homestead, long since "improved" away, stood not far from the
present site of the Mount Nelson Hotel. Constantia, also, we visited,
and were presented with some of the famous wine there grown.

At this time the only railway in South Africa was a single line between
Cape Town and Wynberg. It was said, but I do not know with how much
truth, that the building of this line was due to the accidental
circumstance that a ship, bound for Australia with railway material,
was wrecked in the vicinity of the Cape.

After a delay of about a week we set sail for Port Elizabeth, the end
of our voyage. We left considerably more than half of our passengers in
Cape Town. The parting with some of these was a sad experience; during
the course of the long voyage we had made many friends. We reached Port
Elizabeth on Christmas Eve, and were carried ashore through the surf by
natives. Immediately after landing, we passed a yard full of old
lumber. Protruding from a chaos of ancient rubbish was a signboard,
bearing in dingy letters the legend: "Joseph Scully, Coach Painter."
This is the only occasion upon which I have come across my name in
South Africa. We landed at once, but some of the passengers elected to
remain on board the Asia until next morning. This they had ample cause
to regret, for a severe south-easter set in during the night and
rendered communication with the shore impossible for several days.

Port Elizabeth, although then a thriving town, had not yet earned the
title "the Liverpool of South Africa." I doubt as to whether its
commercial self-righteousness had developed to the extent of adopting
the sobriquet "the Honest Port." My most salient memories are of
hospitality, wool, hides, pumpkins, and sand. So far as I can recall,
neither Main Street nor the Market Square was paved. That useful but
ungainly ship of the southern deserts, the ox-wagon, was much in
evidence. When the wind blew, as it did nearly all the time we were
there, the dust arose in one continuous cloud, and grit reigned

But the hospitality of the Port Elizabethans was a thing to be
remembered with great pleasure. No sooner had we landed than
invitations poured in on us. This was not merely complimentary it was
the outcome of genuine kindness and a desire to be helpful. There was
no ostentation, but just the natural expression of a simple desire to
welcome and assist the stranger newly arrived within the gates.
Hospitality was one of the cardinal South African virtues in those
days. It has been truly said that even a quarter of a century ago a man
might ride from Cape Town to the Limpopo without a shilling in his
pocket, and be well entertained all the way. Things have, however, much
changed in this respect. I suppose this was inevitable; true
hospitality is a plant which seldom survives the hot stress of the
struggle for riches.

Grahamstown was our destination, so an ox-wagon of the largest size and
with a team to match was hired to convey us and our belongings to the
city, which has since become so celebrated as the abode of saints. Our
first outspan was in the valley of the Zwartkops River, close to a big
vlei, which was surrounded by dense, scrubby jungle. I had a small
single-barreled rifle, so I loaded this and went off in search of big
game. In anticipation of our translation to Africa I had done a good
deal of rifle practice at Springfield, and had thus become a fair shot.

But now, to my great disappointment, I could find nothing on which to
exercise my skill. After a long, hot, circular walk, in the course of
which I had not seen a living thing, I found myself once more on the
edge of the vlei, within a hundred yards of the wagon. I was so thirsty
that I found it impossible to pass the water without drinking. The
margin of the vlei was very muddy, so, placing my rifle against a tree,
I stepped from one tussock to another, so as to get within reach of
deeper and, therefore, clearer water. I bent down to drink, placing one
hand on a tussock and the other on what I took to be a stone, about six
inches in diameter. But when I touched it the supposed stone emitted a
terrible "quor-r-rr-k," and squattered away. It was an immense bull
frog I had tried to lean upon. I sprang up and fled. Such was my first
experience of African big game.

After a six days' trek we reached Grahamstown. We failed to observe
any, saints, but, on the other hand, met a number of very kind sinners,
who did a lot towards making our stay a pleasant one. For a week we
were the guests of Judge Fitzpatrick and his wife. The judge and my
father had occupied chambers together as young men in Dublin. "Sir
Percy" was then a boy I should say about three or four years my junior.
The judge's orchard was all that could be desired by hungry boys; the
flavor of the apricots there growing will never be forgotten by me.

We took a house as a temporary measure, my father in the meantime
endeavoring to secure a suitable farm. In this he was unsuccessful, so
after six weeks we hired another wagon and started for King William's
Town. The rains had been heavy, and the drift of the Fish River on the
direct road was consequently impassable, so we took the longer route
and crossed by the old wooden military bridge at Fort Brown. This
bridge was swept away by the great flood of 1874. A great iron girder
structure has been put in its place.

Just before fording the Keiskamma River we encountered a most terrible
thunderstorm. Whilst making all due allowance for inexperience, and
having since sampled some heavy weather of various sorts in the
tropics, I am of opinion that this storm was the worst I have ever
seen. Early in the afternoon of a hot bright day, snow-white,
solid-looking clouds began to collect around the peaks of the Amatole
Mountains. These grew rapidly until they coalesced in a dense, compact
mass. After remaining stationary, for some time, this began to move
slowly towards us. It was black beneath, but dazzlingly white at the
summit. It swept down with accelerating speed. The air throbbed with
that most awe-inspiring sound, the guttural murmur of approaching hail.
For some minutes the rain descended in drowning sheets. Then the hail
smote us like a roaring cataract. The wind was so furious that the
wagon tilt was almost torn to pieces. But, as terrifying agencies,
these were as nothing to the lightning which appeared to stab the
ground so closely and incessantly all around us that escape seemed an
impossibility and to the thunder, which kept up a continuous bellow,
punctuated by stunning crashes. The storm lasted far into the night;
then the clouds rolled away, leaving an absolutely clear sky. Next
morning was cloudless, and was followed by a lovely day. We searched
far and near for evidence of damage, but all we found was a shattered
mimosa-tree. The bark and the wood were lying about, frayed into their
ultimate fibers; they looked like teased-out flax. Curiously enough
they showed no sign of burning.

After a trek lasting eight days we reached King William's Town, which
even then was a flourishing place. Three regiments were stationed
there - the 9th and 11th Infantry and the old Imperial Cape Mounted
Riflemen. Of the latter, the rank and file were principally Hottentots,
but the officers were European. This regiment, an excellent one in
every respect, was shortly afterwards disbanded.

We settled down for a stay in King William's Town, to enable us to take
our bearings. My father made various trips throughout the district,
looking for a suitable farm. Red-coated soldiers and red-blanketed
natives were everywhere in evidence. The liquor-shops (canteens they
were called) did a roaring trade. Every morning hundreds of natives,
mounted on wiry ponies and clad in nothing but trousers and red
blanket, would gallop into the town by every road. In the afternoon
they would gallop back again, nearly ail more or less tipsy. The ponies
were excellent animals; in breed they were identical with the famed
"Basuto pony," for which long prices are given today. It is a great
pity that these ponies have been allowed to become practically
extinct in the Cape Colony. For hardiness and docility they were
unequalled. Like so much else, they melted away in the coffers of the

Socially, King William's Town was in a most curious condition. The
military absolutely ruled the roost. Trade, whether wholesale or
retail, carried the Mark of the Beast, and no one connected therewith
was recognized. Neither beauty, intellect, nor wealth was allowed to
count against the disgrace involved in one being in any way connected
with commerce. I will give an illustration showing how strong this
preposterous feeling was.

My sister was very popular with the military set. (We were poor enough,
in all conscience, but we had not disgraced ourselves by, contact with
trade.) She struck up a friendship with the daughter of the proprietor
of a large business. He belonged to an old and much-esteemed colonial
family. The girl was pretty, accomplished, and amiable. But she was
"left out" of everything. Dance after dance was given, but Miss X never
received an invitation. My sister was distressed at this, and, when a
large military dance was projected, used every ounce of her influence
towards having her friend invited. But all her trouble was in vain.

What made the situation hopeless was the circumstance that the
civilians accepted it with contemptible humility. It was almost
pathetic to observe how people, just on the border-line, received with
humble thankfulness such crumbs of recognition as were occasionally
thrown to them. Snobbery increases in offensiveness when it is

Living was exceedingly cheap. I think the price of meat was twopence
per pound. I have seen hundreds of bags of excellent potatoes offered
on the morning market and taken away unsold because no one would bid a
shilling per bag for them. Most people were poor, but they seemed
somehow to be comfortable enough. There was no such thing as pauperism.
Even the poorest could afford to keep horses. Journeys were generally
performed on horseback, luggage being carried on a pack-horse, led by
an after-rider. I had a splendid pony, which cost only 3. He grazed on
the town commonage; besides grass, he never got anything to eat but an
occasional handful of mealies. Yet he always was in good condition. On
this pony I regularly followed the hounds for some months for the
military kept a pack of foxhounds with which duiker antelopes were
hunted and was usually in at the death.

After a time my father managed to hire what was believed to be a
suitable farm near MacLean Town. It was called "Sunny Slope" and it
belonged to Mr. Benjamin Norton, who lived on the farm adjoining. Here
we began farming with about eight hundred sheep, and a few head of
cattle. The farm contained long, gentle, undulating slopes, divided by
shallow kloofs full of forest. The pasturage was rich and water was
plentiful. But our farming was not successful; it was hardly possible
that it could have been so. Farming is a trade, and has to be learnt.
Moreover, wool went down in price and the sheep contracted various
diseases. However, the latter evil was overcome with the kind
assistance of our neighbors.

In the days I write of, the whole of the coast of British Kaffraria
between the Kei River and the Keiskamma, with the exception of the then
insignificant town of East London and a small area in its vicinity, was
almost uninhabited. It was the custom for practically, all Kaffrarian
stock-farmers to trek down to the coast with their stock for the three
winter months. Then the range of forest-clothed sandhills forming the
coastline held a succession of camps. The scenery was enchanting; every
valley brimmed with evergreen forest, and between the valleys sloped
downs, clothed with rich grass.

Game was abundant, and the lagoon at the mouth of every stream piercing
the line of sandhills teemed with fish. The trek period was looked upon
as one of holiday. Care was thrown to the winds; picnics, hunting, and
sea-bathing were the order of the day. Social gatherings took place
alternately at the various camps not too distant from each other. More
or less impassable estuaries, where the larger streams broke through to
the sea, divided the coast tract into so many separate blocks.

Horses were plentiful; probably every individual, not too old or too
young to ride, had at least one mount available. Young men and maidens
thought nothing of riding ten miles to tea, and riding back in the
starlight when the gathering broke up. Homely song and the strains of
the now much despised concertina mingled with the softened thunder of
the surf, and, borne by the mild breath of the sea wind, no doubt
surprised the wild creatures whose sanctuaries we had invaded. I have
since heard some of the greatest singers and instrumentalists, but no
music has ever given me such joy as those rudimentary strains listened
to at night in a clearing of the forest near the mouth of the Gonubie
River, with the chastened resonance of the Indian Ocean surf as an

I often recall our bathing. The beach was level and sandy, not a reef
nor even a rock was within sight. Immense rollers fugitives from the
wrath of far-off tempests used to sweep in continuously. Just before
breaking these would tower aloft, their fine-drawn crests poised for an
instant in the sunlight. Our favorite sport was among these waves. We
would buffet our way out to the breaking zone. Then, as the mighty,
walls of glistening water swept up, we would drive through them, one by
one, or else lie flat on the water in the hollow, side to the advancing
wave. In the latter case the wave would pick the bather up with a
sudden swing, poise him for an instant on its trembling crest, and then
whirl him round and round as it swept restlessly shoreward. This
whirling was so rapid that I have occasionally almost lost
consciousness when in the grip of an unusually, powerful breaker. We
never considered that we were doing anything venturesome; the sport
described was followed by all and sundry, quite as a matter of course.
Nevertheless, I think the boys used to venture out farther than the
men. Sharks we never thought of. It was not considered possible that we
could be carried out to sea, for the greatest difficulty lay in keeping
oneself from being flung back on the shore by the rapidly advancing
waves. I wonder whether bathers nowadays venture out as far as we did.

The friends with whom I usually stayed were the Barbers, who lived at
Grey Park, a few miles from Sunny Slope. I mean Mr. Hilton Barber, now
of Halesowen, near Cradock, and his brothers Guy and Graham. The
latter, one of the truest friends I ever had, is, alas! long since
dead. He fell a victim to pneumonia at Johannesburg in the early days.
Related to or connected with the Barbers were the Atherstones,
Cummings, McIntoshes, and Dicks, whose tents usually, stood in the
vicinity of the Barber encampment.

I recall one incident which caused a great deal of laughter. Mr. Guy
Barber was then engaged to his present wife, who was Miss McIntosh, a
girl of remarkable beauty. A certain Mr. Larry O'Toole, who had come
out in the Asia under my father's protection, was staying at a camp in
the vicinity. One day a wild-duck shoot was in progress. Larry, who
knew little or nothing about shooting, was of the party. The sportsmen
took their stations around the margins of a large, sinuous vlei. The
ducks, after being disturbed, flew up and down. Miss McIntosh, with her
fiance, was on horseback opposite Larry, on the other side of the
water. Some ducks flew past and Larry fired. The birds were untouched,
but the horse ridden by, Miss McIntosh was severely peppered and began
to plunge violently. In the course of a severe reproof for his
carelessness, Larry was asked by Guy Barber:

"Now, supposing you had blinded or otherwise badly injured Miss
McIntosh, what would you have done?"

"Oh! begor," replied Larry, "I suppose I'd have had to marry, her."

Poor Larry O'Toole! We met, years afterwards, in a remote mining-camp.
He ventured into the Low Country beyond the Murchison Range at the
wrong season, and contracted fever. In the delirium which supervened he
blew his brains out. Larry had a brother, Edmund, who had been a
sailor, and who joined Butler's Horse in the Zulu War. He gained the
Victoria Cross the day before Ulundi. Together with the late Lord
William Beresford ("Bill," as he liked to be called, alliteratively )
he saved a wounded man from the spears of the enemy. For this exploit
the cross was offered to Lord William, but he refused to accept it
unless a similar distinction were conferred on O'Toole.

The latter had a varied career. I once hailed a cab in Cape Town and
found he was the driver. He told me he had saved 200 at cab driving.
But I judge from what I subsequently heard that the money did him no
good. He, like so many others of "the legion that never was listed"
with whom I have foregathered, has long since closed his earthly

One occurrence I heard of among the seaside camps merits relation. It
should be mentioned that the extraordinary, story reached me at
second-hand. The incident is said to have taken place one season when
I did not visit the coast.

At the end of the sixties no zoological garden contained a specimen of
the South African anteater. I do not know whether any such institution
contains one now. However, a very liberal price was offered for a live
specimen. This extraordinary creature is almost strictly nocturnal in
its habits, and is consequently extremely difficult to capture. One day
a man with whom I was acquainted was riding through the veld a few
miles from his camp. To his surprise he noticed a large ant-eater.
Mindful of the reward offered, he sprang from his horse and seized the
creature by one of its hind-legs.

The ant-eater has hardly any means of defense, its formidable claws
being used solely for digging. But its strength and its digging powers
are almost beyond belief. In sandy soil one will bury itself in a few
seconds. In this instance the captor had to exert all his strength
merely to keep the animal above ground. He was, in fact, only able to
do this by means of continually shifting his position, a process
involving constant and exhausting effort. He bethought him of the rein
fastened to his pony's halter. With great difficulty he loosened this,
and tied it in a noose around the ant-bear's loins. But matters were
not improved; the digging went on more vigorously than ever.

At length he realized that it was impossible to prevent the animal from
burrowing out of sight. One expedient remained. The pony, had a long
and bushy tail. He doubled the end of this, and securely fastened the
rein to it. Then he hastened to his camp for the purpose of fetching a
spade and calling people to assist him.

On returning a strange spectacle met his view. The pony was sitting on
the ground, erect, after the manner of a biped. Its head was in the
air, its hind-legs were extended horizontally, its fore-legs were
waving impotently up and down'. The ant-bear had carved its way deep
into the bowels of the earth, gradually but relentlessly dragging the
hapless pony down until its posterior parts hermetically sealed up the
burrow. It was, in fact, only the smallness of the latter which
prevented the animal from being completely buried. Eventually, however,
the rein snapped, and the pony was thus released from a durance
probably unique in equine experience. But I wish to make it quite clear
that I guarantee nothing in connection with the foregoing remarkable
tale, except that I have related it as it was told to me.

I often picture the rounded sandhills stretching from the Gonubie Mouth
to the Nahoon, with the dark, olive-green boskage that clothed their
curves with beauty, and the veil of orange tinted mystery that at dawn
hung like a curtain across that region where sea and sky awaited,
breathless, the advent of day. I suppose the placid lagoons still
mirror the drifting pageants of cloudland, while the purple kingfishers
flit from rock to rock, or poise, fluttering in the air, before they,
plunge into the crystal water.

I imagine that at windless nightfall the rich, throbbing organ-tones of
the Indian Ocean surf toll all the darkling glades. I wonder do the
green, flame-winged loories today call hoarsely through the aisles of
greenery, and the bushbucks bark their angry challenges from the deep
and tangled hollows. I wonder do the monkeys, when the forenoon waxes
sultry, swing chattering from bough to bough down the hillside, seeking
their daily drink in the coolest depths of the kloof, and do the great
Nymphalis butterflies, with wings of ochre and pearl, flit among the
tree tops!

But so much I know that a part of my youth which in some strange way
seems to have acquired an individuality, of its own dwells, and will
for ever dwell, among these scenes. And I shall never be so ill-advised
as to seek it, for the wraith, like a mocking dryad, would flit from
tree to tree, as beautiful and as elusive as the rainbow.

While living at Sunny Slope I paid my first visit to East London, the
occasion being an agricultural show. I accompanied the Norton family.
We traveled in an ox-wagon through the loveliest imaginable country.
Our course lay mainly down the valley of the Nahoon River, in which the
vegetation was then much richer than it is today. The little town of
East London was confined to the west bank of the Buffalo River mouth.
Where the town now stands, on the east bank, there was not a single
house in 1868. So far as I can recollect, Tapson's Hotel was the only
building between Cambridge and the sea. This building was still in
existence a few years ago. The Buffalo River had to be crossed by means
of a pontoon; the road to this was cut through dense jungle. Judging by
the spoors crossing the road this jungle must have been full of game.

After the show a large picnic was held in the forest at the well-known
Second Creek. The guests were conveyed to the spot by a paddle tug, the
Buffalo. This vessel now lies, a melancholy wreck, half-submerged, at
the mouth of the Kowie River.

At the picnic I sustained a severe moral shock. A certain doctor with
whom I was acquainted an elderly and much respected resident of King
William's Town looked upon the wine when it was red, and became
violently uproarious. My ethical orientation became disturbed; all my
canons got confused. I had seen this man wearing the insignia of
municipal dignity; he had been mayor of his town during the previous
year. Now he was acting the mountebank, to the huge amusement of a lot
of yokels.

I knew that disreputable Europeans and natives occasionally became
intoxicated, but here was my first experience of a respectable person
committing such a lapse. The shock was so painful that my enjoyment was
completely spoilt. I crept to a thicket, from which I could see without
being seen, and observed the old gentleman's antics with amazed horror.
He insisted on making a long speech, interspersed with snatches of
song. This only came to an end when some of his friends seized the
tails of his frock-coat and hauled him down. Then he was carried,
protesting loudly, to the tug.

It soon became abundantly clear that our farming could not prove a
success, so Sunny Slope was given up, and we returned to King William's
Town. Here my father, with the remainder of his capital, purchased a
property in the Alexandra Road, close to the present railway-station.
Sheep had fallen heavily in value; our flock could not be realized
without incurring a ruinous loss, so it was kept for a time on the town
commonage. Eventually, it was handed over to a native chief named
Toise, who lived on the other side of the Buffalo River, about five
miles away.

I was put to the grammar school, where I studied for something more
than half a year. This, it may be remarked, is all the regular
schooling I ever had. Mr. John Samuel, who afterwards became a school
inspector, was the head master. Dr. Theal, the historian (then Mr.
Theal), was in charge of the second division, or, as it was called, the
lower school.

It was my duty to ride out every Saturday to Toise's kraal for the

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