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The Great Hunters

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A Boer Hunting Party Described by Parker Gilmore, Great Hunter

Perhaps the most numerous hunters in the far interior of Southern Africa were small groups of Voortrekkers – some of whom lived almost exclusively by the gun. In 1876, on the bank of the Limpopo, Gillmore met up with such a party – one of whom he was invited to marry. His detailing of their customs and his friendly disagreement on a matter of geography with the patriarchal leader, a “flat-earther”, provides a valuable contemporary portrait.

Our trek completed, and the camping-ground reached, to my surprise I found at least a dozen Boer wagons there before me. Both males and females came forth and gave me a hearty welcome, the latter each bearing a plate of rusk bread as an offering. This habit I have not observed among the Boers before, and I should imagine it had a Biblical origin; whether or not, it is a very pleasant way of making the stranger feel that he is welcome. Just as night was closing in a religious service was performed. An old grey-headed man prayed and spoke a few words of advice to the listeners; his delivery was very forcible and earnest. I could but imperfectly understand him, still I felt that what was being said was truth fit for all to listen to, and practice. Twenty stalwart men, with numerous women and children, kneeling upon the ground, addressing their supplications to Heaven, in the middle of the forest, the whole scene illuminated by the fitful blaze of several; fires, was as impressive a picture as any one could gaze on. As I viewed it I thought of the Covenanters (1) in days of old, when the peat-moss and the muir-side (2) were the only places where they could offer their adoration to their God without fear of interruption and violence.

The Boers I am surrounded by all belong to a religious sect called Doppers (3).  Their dress is a short single-breasted coat, trousers very loose, and peculiar-shaped, broad-brimmed hats. They consider themselves to be the chosen people of God, and are still in search of the promised land, which they profess to believe exists farther north in the interior of Africa. As their sole support is the produce of their flocks and game, they have become expert hunters and fearless horsemen.

What their errand is here it would be difficult to say, although they profess to be trekking to Ovampo Land (4), north of Damara Land. I believe they wish to obtain possession, through the right of occupation, of the rich bottom-lands on the north and west side of the Limpopo.

There is no doubt that beautiful farms might be made all along this river’s margin, if irrigation were introduced – farms that would rival any in the habitable earth. But the Doppers are not the people to cultivate them as they would require to be, for they are opposed to all new inventions, mechanical contrivances, etc., that were not known or used by their ancestors; and to raise water artificially, build dams, form canals – all necessary to irrigation – are what they simply would not do.   

The old man who delivered the address and offered up prayer last night is a fine specimen of the genus homo (5). Over six feet in height, well-formed, and straight as a lath, with a great profusion of white beard and hair, he speaks sufficient English to be intelligible.

I went over in the morning to pay him a visit. He was seated on a chair, shaving down strips of giraffe hide for wagon-whips; underneath his foot was a yoke-key, on which he constantly stropped his knife. At his task he was evidently an expert, for the keen knife in his hands shaved off the edges with the precision of a plane. His granddaughter, a bonnie blooming lass of fifteen, brought me a chair and set it down close to the old man’s, who expressed himself particularly pleased at my visit. Again the young lady returned, and presented both of us with a pipe, already carefully filled with tobacco; on the top of the bowl of each was a glowing coal. Several large trees grew near, affording a grateful shade, for the sun was commencing to get warm. Surmisnig that I was in for a long pow-wow, I resolved to make a virtue of necessity, and submit. The surroundings were very pretty – numerous brilliantly-painted wagons – for such the Boer loves – with snow-white tents, several horses picketed close by, cattle, goats, and sheep a little way off; while quite a number of large yellow dogs walked restlessly about to avoid the persecuting flies. A tame wildebeest and young quagga were so much at home that they became a bore, and although driven by the children repeatedly off, returned in a few minutes to nibble the edge of your cap, or besmear your shoulder with the saliva that hung from their lips.

The old man informed me that he knew of my coming, and wished to know what a soldier wanted in this country. I told him my object was to hunt, become conversant with the people, and see the land.

“Yes to see the country, and bring back the red-coated soldiers to take possession of it. You Englishmen did this in the old Colony, in Natal, and now they are coming here,” he said.

“No, you are quite mistaken; I have no such object. The people of my culture have not the slightest idea that I am here.

I am -” and here I hesitated, for what I was going to say struck me with a peculiar force – “I am a wanderer.”

“A wanderer,” he rejoined. “That means one without a home, without vrou or kindertjies, (6) without friends?”

“Just so.”

“And how is this? You are not old, you are strong and brave, and you have a wagon and cattle, and plenty of guns and ammunition. Get a vrou before it is too late to raise heirs to your name; and if you do as I tell you, as you are a man skilled in war, come with us to Ovampo Land, where we will make a new home, and wax rich in our old age.”

In joke, I asked him where the wife was to be found.

His reply was given without hesitation. “My granddaughter is old enough to marry. She is like what my vrou was at her age, both in appearance and ways – and the Great Father knows she is a good wife;” and the old man heaved a sigh.

“Is your wife dead?”

“Gone to the promised land to await my coming.”

Poor old fellow! This was spoken so earnestly, so full of feeling, that I felt the loss of his partner had been a great and lasting sorrow.

And the pretty little girl, quite unconscious that she had been offered in marriage, came in childlike simplicity and placed a stool at her grandfather’s feet, busied herself replenishing his pipe, after accomplishing which she performed the same office for myself.

“Will you go with us to the new home we are about to make? You say you have no home, and we will give you one. You have no people, you shall be of us. You are also learned, you can read and write, and know foreign lands: when I am called away you would be the father of the volk.” (7)

“How van I answer now? I must think the matter over,” I responded. And the pretty girl looked up in my face with a pleading coaxing glance, so that I felt it necessary to brace myself, pull myself together, for past experience told me that I never could successfully face a battery (8)  composed of woman’s eyes.

Again the old man started the conversation. “You read ‘the book’ (9) and believe it the same as we do.”

“Yes; it is a wonderful book. And so, too, is the world we live in; only to think that it is not only revolving on its axis” – here the old man seemed puzzled, so, to simplify matters, I added – “but going round the sun”.

“Going round the sun!” exclaimed the old gentleman. “No; this world stands still, and the sun goes round the earth. I would have thought your learning and ‘the book’ would have taught you different”. I had evidently fallen very much in his estimation.

“The book!” I cried out; “where does it teach what you say?

I read it often, have read it from my childhood upwards, but I do not know where it tells us what to say”.

“Did not Joshua (10) command the sun to stand still? If it had not being moving would this have been necessary?” said my venerable friend, while a well-satisfied smile on his countenance showed that he considered that I had nothing further to say.

However, I must make an answer; it would not thus do to be beaten, and a happy thought struck me at the moment.

“True, it is quite correct what you say; you are well acquainted with the book. Joshua did command the sun to stand still, but we are not told, which we doubtlessly would have been, that he set it going again”.

The old gentleman pondered and wondered, but said nothing. I interrupted his reverie by shaking his hand and bidding him adieu.

Among the good qualities these people possess is honesty, for which they are noted far and wide – doubtless one of their principal virtues. You may even with safety take their word about the merits of a horse or ox they have for sale. I fear, as a rule, so much cannot be done in similar transactions with our own countrymen.

In the afternoon I went down to the river; there I met two young Boers, who were shooting crocodiles, the reptiles having incurred their enmity by having lately carried off several goats and sheep. I remained with them for some time, and saw some very good shooting done; one immense brute, quite sixteen feet long, although swimming rapidly at the distance of fifty yards, was hit fair in the eye. It turned on its back a moment after as dead as dead could be.

I attended prayers in the evening, and after worship was over, brought the old gentleman to sup with me; he enjoyed his food, his pipe, and last, though not least, his sopie of Martell’s cognac.

Notes

  • The Covenanters. In Scottish history groups of people bound by oath to sustain each other in defence of Presbyterianism. They at first combated Catholicism and, later, certain innovations in the Church of England.
  • Muir-side. A Scots variant of moor.
  • Doppers. A popular name for the Gereformeerde Kerk van Zuid Africa. Its membership seceded from the Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk in 1859. Their Calvinistic principals were even stricter than those of the older Church. Perhaps the best-known member of the sect was President Paul Kruger.
  • Ovampo Land. This was far to the north-west of their camping place on the Limpopo; in the northern region of present-day South-West Africa.
  • Genus homo. (Latin) mankind Characteristic of Gillmore’s occasional stylistic pomposities.
  • Vrou or kindertjies. (Afrikaans) Wife and children. The spelling has been regularized. Gillmore’s Afrikaans spelling is conjectural to say the least.
  • The father of the volk. (Afrikaans) people or clan. This old pioneer displayed a patriarchal attitude still considered admirable in Afrikaner thought.
  • Face a battery. A gun emplacement. Such a military metaphor must have come easily to the traveling soldier.
  • ‘The book’ The Holy Bible.
  • Did not Joshua command the sun to stand still? This was supposed to have occurred at the time of the Children of Israel’s victory over the Amorites in the Promised Land. Joshua 10:v.12.