jump to navigation

“Afrikander Cattle” – 4 December 28, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, literature, nature.
Tags: , , , , ,

Waterberg landscape

This is the final installment of a series that starts here.

Observation of nature. That’s what it’s all about. Not idealization of nature, not reverence for nature. Let me give you an example from American literary history: the diverging approaches of Emerson and Thoreau, those well-known New England Transcendentalists. Walking in the woods around Concord, Massachusetts (where Thoreau had famously built his cabin on the shore of Walden Pond), the two would be conversing. Then Thoreau would stop, noticing the unusual profusion of acorns in an oak grove this particular winter, jotting down a note about it to add to his journals. Emerson would seat himself comfortably on a log and begin pontificating on grand themes of the universe and the human connection with it.

Nothing wrong with either approach, but who would you want by your side if you had to find your way across a confusing complex of beaver ponds and alder thickets? You, the readers of this blog, understand my particular bias. I would want to notice the particular asymmetrical mountain on the horizon to my left as I started across the ponds, and to make sure it was over my other shoulder as I retreated. Not that I’ve always been successful at these kinds of things by a long shot—but at least I understand what might be involved in getting out of such a place.

The story of Eugene Marais, “Afrikander Cattle,” brings together all those wonderful themes of human observation of nature, communication with animals, ingenuity in working with rather than against the obstacles and the difficulties of wild places. In this story, the setting itself is essentially another protagonist.

Bushveld scene

The Waterberg area that Marais describes is obviously not an easy place to navigate. As I read, I revel in the descriptions of its obstacles: the infinite varieties of thorn trees, the smooth steep rockfaces, the shadowy ravines. These are the kinds of places that it takes years to learn how to negotiate.

Reading the story brings me back to the reasons why I got interested in the Boer War in the first place. I could see how these people knew how to pay attention to, for instance, the exact number of dry stream valleys you have crossed or to the tiny movements—possibly hostile—that can be detected on the ridgeline. The other thing that intrigued me was that these people fought as citizens, not as soldiers.

One could argue that the story of Marais in “Afrikander Cattle” is unrealistic, or perhaps a kind of magical realism, like that of Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A Boer scout rides his faithful horse bareback, without even a halter, and is able to control his movements precisely by a kind of harmony of man and beast. And then the scout is actually upstaged by Hendrik, the Bushman, who can control the exact movements of a large herd of cattle. But I would say, based on my experience in working with horses (see the first installment of this series), that I believe these things could literally have happened.

It’s also worth pointing out that Marais, an Afrikaner who supported the movement to have his language recognized internationally for its literary value, was nonetheless able to go against the prejudices of his people and to appreciate African tribal culture.

Marais was an unusual and sensitive man, one who was tormented for many years by an addiction to morphine and who ultimately committed suicide. He had the intensity and he had the vision, but he did not fit seamlessly into his world. He experienced tragedies and disjointed events. His young wife died shortly after the birth of his son. During the Boer War, he wanted to aid the cause of his countrymen by joining a German expedition to ship supplies to them via Portuguese East Africa—but he was devastated by malaria.

He is better known for his poetry and for his scientific works about the group behavior of animals than for his prose. For an interesting and insightful discussion of his poetry, please see the essay by my friend Roon Lewald, here.

His addiction killed him in the end. But we can say quite emphatically that his ideas did not die with him at age 65, in 1936, from two self-inflicted shotgun wounds.

* All quotes from “Afrikander Cattle” by Eugene Marais and translated by Madeleine van Biljon. In A Century of Anglo-Boer War Stories, edited by Chris van der Merwe and Michael Rice. Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg, 1999.

Eugene Marais, 1871-1936

“Afrikander Cattle” – 3 December 19, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, literature.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

Waterberg rock

This is a continuation of a series that starts here.

Old Hendrik the Bushman and Gool Winterbach the Boer scout are deep in the ravines of the Waterberg, hiding from the numerous British troops that have encircled this rugged place of thornbush and rockface. Hendrik’s herd of wild Afrikander cattle stand nearby in a great pool of black shadow, quietly breathing, their eyes catching a beam of moonlight here and there. Winterbach despairs of any escape. “And now, old Hendrik, we’re finished. I’ve taken a good look at the area and we won’t get out of here. You’ll have to give up your animals and I my life. It’s my own fault that I let myself be trapped like a stupid wether in the the corner of a kraal.”*

But Hendrik has a plan. “…The first thing we have to do is make the cattle accustomed to you. Just hold my arm and never make a sudden movement and never lift your other arm. Leave your gun here.” Hendrik leads him in slow circles through the herd. “Their reception was diverse. Most of them raised their heads and tested the stranger’s smell with distended nostrils…. Several times an enraged young bull, with a muffled roar and lowered head, came past his mates towards them, challenging in a cloud of dust. In such cases old Hendrik pushed the scout behind him, faced the enraged animal head-on, grabbed it by one horn and turned its head aside. Only a few words from the old Bushman were always enough to restore immediate silence and to let the threatening bull’s temper evaporate. Never before had Gool seen anything like it.”

Cattle of southern Africa

Hendrik has selected a place—a wide ravine—where they and the cattle can get through the British encirclement. Winterbach is skeptical. It is guarded by many rows of tents, and two mountain guns overlook it. Hendrik fastens a long line of sinew to Winterbach’s wrist and ties the other end to his belt. He takes Winterbach through the herd and blows on a calabash flute in the pattern of droning cicadas—a signal to the animals. “In a deathly hush the herd immediately rose and moved soundlessly through the soft dust of their sleeping quarters to bunch together at one central point.”

Hendrik and Winterbach move forward to where they can see the British sentries patrolling back and forth. Winterbach looks down into frightening black depths and suddenly realizes that Hendrik plans to lead him down the face of the treacherous ravine. “Invisible tree trunks and undergrowth was the ladder by which the two climbed fifty feet down and fifty feet up the other side, not without effort and danger.” Then they move along at a fast jog on a footpath surrounded by hook-thorn. Eventually, the exhausted Winterbach realizes they have passed the enemy lines.

But the cattle are still behind those lines. Hendrik takes out his flute again, this time imitating the call of the tufted Bushveld owl. “But old Hendrik, the cattle can never hear it, whatever your plan with them might have been, they’re miles away from us.” “They’re much nearer than you think… We walked in a huge circle to get behind the enemy. Listen!”

Hendrik uses the sight of the Milky Way over a baobab tree as a point of orientation

An incredible sound comes to their ears. “It was like the far-off rumbling of storm water over a rock-strewn river. The sound was immediately picked up by the enemy sentries. They could clearly hear a bewildered ‘Halt, who goes there?’ from one frightened soldier.”

The meeting of cattle and soldiers is screened by clouds of dust, “but Gool could see burning logs scattering in all directions and people, blankets and bits of cloth along the line flung into the air with frightening violence. The noise was terrifying. The thunder of hooves and the enraged lowing of cattle were not enough to muffle the screaming, swearing and moaning of badly injured humans.”

Over the next couple of days the cattle gather near Hendrik again as he moves from the bushveld to the higher-elevation middleveld. And Winterbach’s beloved horse, Kousband, finds his way out. Winterbach at last rejoins his commando, long after his comrades had assumed he must be dead. “He came riding up on Kousband, barebacked with not even a rope for a halter.”

In the next and final installment of this series, I will return to the subject of author Eugene Marais himself—a mysterious and fascinating individual.

* All quotes from “Afrikander Cattle” by Eugene Marais and translated by Madeleine van Biljon. In A Century of Anglo-Boer War Stories, edited by Chris van der Merwe and Michael Rice. Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg, 1999.


“Afrikander Cattle” – 2 December 11, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, nature, wildlife.
Tags: , , , , ,
add a comment

San tribesman

This is a continuation of a series that starts here.

Just when it seems that Marais has established that Gool Winterbach’s scouting skills are superior to those of anyone else, that he has better rapport with animals, a higher ability to survive—in other words, that he knows what the Boers called veldkraft better than anyone around—another figure appears on the scene who knows much, much more than Winterbach.

Winterbach and his horse Kousband are surrounded by British columns. He knows that the khakis are looking for a big herd of cattle believed to be hidden in the maze of the Waterberg ravines—but Winterbach has seen nothing but old tracks and does not believe the cattle are present. Night has drawn in and he is trying to come up with a plan. “This was the hour of the deepest silence in the Bushveld. Very soon, the inhabitants of the night would go about their business and from all sides he would hear the joy of the night birds, mixed with the rejoicing and crying of murderous lust and terror which the night always mercifully covered with its dark veil. It was a night when the carnivore left its hiding place to stalk its defenceless prey.”*

Spotted Eagle Owl, a resident of the Waterberg

Winterbach decides to ambush a British sentry post. He carefully conceals Kousband in a dense guarri bush and creeps forward in the darkness, his rifle at the ready. But then, all of a sudden, an invisible hand reaches out of the shadows and catches his right wrist! And a voice calmly says to him, “Stand dead quiet, Master Gool—it’s me, old Hendrik.”

Hendrik is an elderly Bushman, or member of the San. I will use the word “Bushman” here, because it is the word used by Marais and because sources are divided as to whether the term “Bushman” is considered offensive to anybody. After looking at the subject for a bit, I am leaning toward the feeling that while the term is not always considered politically correct, it is often used by the people themselves—somewhat parallel to the situation in the U.S. in which the term “Native American” is considered more correct, but the people themselves generally use the word “Indian.”

Winterbach already knew Hendrik quite well. The Bushman had been famous in the area for his mastery of a large herd of Afrikander cattle. After the war started, not one of them had fallen into enemy hands, despite the constant crisscrossing of the area by British troops.

The classic Afrikander cattle have red hides and long horns

“His Afrikanders speedily became wild—so wild that no stranger could come near them. Only for old Hendrik were they tame…. He lived with them as if he were one of them…. Old Hendrik could imitate the voice of any animal or bird so accurately that no person could ever discover the imitation, and it was with whistles that he communicated with his cattle. He had altered the usual manner of ‘herding.’ Instead of driving his herd, he was always at the forefront. They followed him the way dogs follow their master and if he were separated from them for half a day (he occasionally had to visit the commando to confer with the general), their lowing could be heard for miles and the dust they raised, rushing about, rolled above the trees like storm clouds. They couldn’t rest until they had old Hendrik back.”

Hendrik tells Winterbach that he must calm the cattle. “They noticed you a long time ago, although the wind is coming from their way. They heard you coming down the mountain.” Winterbach is surprised: he had not been aware of any cattle nearby. Hendrik points toward a level area shadowed by candlewood trees, but Winterbach does not see anything.

Candlewood tree

However, as they walk together, he does notice that Hendrik has a small fire burning. He is shocked! So foolish to have a fire when the enemy are all around! But Hendrik laughs and says he’s been watching the English—and Winterbach—for three days, and he knows exactly what they have been doing. He even knows precisely what Winterbach has had to eat the past three days. The fire is visible from only one side, and that side is guarded by the cattle.

For the first time Winterbach sees the cattle. “Under the big trees Gool noticed a stretch of black shadow which seemed to be in perpetual motion. In the dim light of the small fire he could occasionally see eyes shining, like many searchlights aimed in his direction, and then he also noticed for the first time the pleasant odour of a great herd of cattle, breathing.”

Now they must plot a way out of the encircling British columns.

* All quotes from “Afrikander Cattle” by Eugene Marais and translated by Madeleine van Biljon. In A Century of Anglo-Boer War Stories, edited by Chris van der Merwe and Michael Rice. Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg, 1999.

Bushveld sunset