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A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 4: Arrival in Cape Town March 3, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
Tags: , , ,

Transatlantic steamship of the late 1890s

This is the continuation of a good old-fashioned piece of serial fiction about Jack Brown, from St. Louis, who has decided to go to South Africa to fight with the Boers. The time: early 1900. The serial starts here.

The voyage from New Orleans to Cape Town took 25 days. The H.M.S. Bacchante was quite an impressive structure, Jack thought. Above a vast hold packed with hay and oats, it had three stories of mule stalls, each stall three feet wide. The mules faced each other companionably across an aisle, their tails pointing toward the sea. Using a system of inclined ramps, the muleteers led the animals after their breakfast up to the top deck and walked them around for exercise. Then they were tied to the rails and had a chance to admire the foaming ocean while the muleteers hosed out the stalls. Jack had expected the whole ship would stink to the high heavens, but in fact the ventilating fans kept it bearable. He only felt sorry for the ship’s veterinarian, who had to shove a thermometer up the back end of each of 500 mules every day. Any infectious disease would be disastrous, as the cost of mule plus shipping amounted to $400 apiece.

Amid the muleteer crew of fifteen, Jack had forged a friendship with Wilbur, the fellow he’d met on the dock. Wilbur was a carpenter from Memphis who’d decided he needed to turn a new page after his wife ran away with another fellow. Wilbur was his own age, 25, but he looked weathered enough to be 35 at least. The two had their own game of poker going during the long evening hours. By some circumstance—normally these things took care of themselves—the crew found that it only had three decks of cards, and Jack and Wilbur were stuck with the one missing the queen of spades. Wilbur tended to insist that the odds were high that if the card had been present, he would have completed his flush or his three of a kind, and Jack generally conceded the point. Wilbur tried to interest Jack in this new craze called lowball, but Jack decided he wasn’t smart enough to play it. Not that it really mattered who won or lost, since they played for lengths of straw, and Jack was already far behind.

Jack whiled away some hours by regaling Wilbur with examples of conspicuous consumption in his much-admired Thorstein Veblen: the fancy dress ball, servants in livery, and of course the ladies’ corsets that he had also discussed with Sarah. Wilbur found it all fascinating, and Jack was able to provide further examples from his own experience (some slightly embellished), since he had a more fortunate background than Wilbur.

Some day early in February, Wilbur brought up the subject that Jack had been anticipating all along. “So, are you going back on this tub, or are you going to spend a little while in Cape Town and maybe get the next boat back?” Jack had been unsure whether to confide his plans in Wilbur—after all, he was at this moment an employee of the British with plans to go over to their enemy—but he had a gut feeling that Wilbur was safe, and he told him the plan. Thought he’d enroll in the British transport service, get to the front, and then go over to the Boers.

“I’ll go with you,” said Wilbur. “Are you in support of the Boers?” asked Jack. “Well, aren’t they the ones whose country is being invaded? Maybe they could use a little help from us.” Jack thought it was his duty to discourage Wilbur—after all, he didn’t want to be leading him to his death on some bleak South  African battlefield. He said, “You know, most of  ’em don’t even speak English.” That seemed to set Wilbur back for a moment, but then he replied, “We can use sign language. That worked fine with this fellow from Poland that I met one time.” Jack laughed and clapped Wilbur on the back. “All right, I think you’re going to do fine!”

They arrived in Cape Town on February 5, and it took a day or so to get their braying, stamping cargo unloaded. The docks were flooded with newly arrived British soldiers—the Tommies. Jack saw them lined up along the edge of the pier, getting their kit out ready for their first inspection. Poor fellows—those cork helmets just made them look silly. They looked pale and young. Of course he wouldn’t see any Boers here, but he found himself scrutinizing the Dutch-speaking Cape colonists he ran across, as if it would provide some clue to the strange future he faced.

He had information from one of the ship’s officers about the transport service recruitment, so he and Wilbur headed over to the address he was given and found that they were welcomed with open arms. Experience with mules—willing to go out to the veld—what it boiled down to was, the new commander-in-chief, Lord Roberts, was getting set to move his army of 40,000 to Kimberley and relieve the siege that had been going on since last October. The logistics were mind-boggling. The supply lines—the mules—the oxen—food for the soldiers—artillery—tents—how would it ever be done?


Lord Roberts

Jack learned that Roberts had experienced a personal tragedy lately. Just arrived in Cape Town January 10 to take over command from the beleaguered General Sir Redvers “Reverse” Buller, he found out only as he stepped off the ship that his beloved son Freddy had been killed in the catastrophic (for the British) battle of Colenso, December 15. Freddy had bravely attempted to rescue the twelve 15-pounder field guns being captured by the Boers. Much to the horror of the bearer of the news, Roberts had broken down and wept.

Jack couldn’t help but sympathize. Well, things would be different once he got into contact with the Boers. Here he was surrounded by the British, who were had great respect for their commander, hero of the Battle of Kandahar. He and Wilbur busied themselves with loading mules onto trains bound for the border of the Orange Free State. There they would detrain and begin a very long march.

What ‘e does not know o’ war,

Gen’ral Bobs,

You can arst the shop next door—

can’t they, Bobs?

Oh ‘e’s little but ‘e’s wise,

‘E’s a terror for ‘is size,


Do yer, Bobs?

Rudyard Kipling, “Bobs,” 1898.

Freddy Roberts, killed at Colenso


1. Thomas Stazyk - March 3, 2011

Great story–and the pictures are perfect for helping to set the mood.

Jenny - March 3, 2011

Thank you! I always enjoy looking for appropriate pictures. My only frustration this time around was that I couldn’t find a good photo of Cape Town docks during the war that was in the public domain.

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