ELIZABETH RUSSELL CAMERON:
AN EIGHTY YEAR OLD
by Win de Vos
Ten years at Amsterdam
Mrs. Cameron set out with Rod, who was then twelve years old, on horseback for Amsterdam to find out if there were any possibilities there for her to earn a livelihood.
From Fair View they first went to Barberton and then on to Moodies, which, about six years previously, had been the principal centre of the De Kaap Gold Fields. Here they spent the night with some old friends, the Turtons.
The roads were mere treks [tracks] and in parts practically impassable. From Moodies to the Komati River they did not pass a single house along the way. At the Komati they off-saddled to rest the horses a while, and, after having had some refreshment at a store owned by two men, they crossed the river on a punt which was worked by eight kaffirs, while the horses were driven across the stream a little distance higher up where the water was shallower.
In the afternoon, a few miles beyond the Komati, they met some people who had come from Steynsdorp, and, as this was the destination of the riders for the night, Mrs. Cameron made enquiries as to the state of the road. These people strongly advised her to turn back and stay at the store until the following morning. They told her it was too late to go on as before she reached Steynsdorp she would have to cross a huge donga, and in the dark it would be utterly impossible to find the way through this gulley even if she knew the place, which she did not. However, she was very anxious to continue her journey so she decided to push on in spite of the warning.
After riding through bush country for some time, she and Rod came to a steep ridge on the summit of which all the grass had been burnt. By this time it was quite dark. It was here that they had to cross the donga. They went to the edge but the horses refused to go down and persisted in turning back. Three times they tried to enter the gulley, but in vain, as their mounts resisted every attempt in spite of the whip being freely used. As it was too dark to see why the animals refused so stubbornly to proceed, they gave up trying to force them and went back to the top of the ridge. Here they sat down holding their horses while they waited for someone to pass who would be able to help them. They waited and waited but nobody came. Rod, tired after the long ride, fell asleep so his mother held his reins too.
After a while the dead quiet and dense darkness got on her nerves and she felt that she simply could not stand it any longer, so she shouted and shouted in the hopes that someone would hear her and come to her assistance. There was no response. The silence grew unbearable. The atmosphere was close and depressing. Suddenly the black silence was broken by crash upon crash of thunder. A storm was upon them. What a night they had!
After a slight shower the thunder grew less and less loud as the storm died away in the distance. The weary travellers were damp and in truly miserable plight.
At dawn the far-distant crowing of a cock sounded like the sweetest music to their ears for it told them that there were other human beings somewhere in that vast, wild country. As soon as it was light they saddled their horses and went down to the edge of the donga. There they found a sheer drop of five feet for the bank had given way, hence the reason why their mounts had refused to proceed the previous evening.
Near this place was a tree with branches spreading out over the gulley. Rod climbed this and scrambled along one of the branches which bent down under his weight as he neared the tip. He was then able to let himself down easily into the donga. His mother threw down the one end of a long leading riem, the other end of which she had attached to the head-stall of one of the horses, and he tugged at it while she tried to drive the animal on with her whip. The horse was still hesitating to take the plunge when the bank on which it was standing suddenly gave way, and down it went pell-mell almost on top of Rod who just managed to scramble out of the way in time. The animal was unhurt, and the falling of the soil made the slope of the bank gradual so Mrs. Cameron chased the other horse down quite easily and was able to follow it on foot!
Mounting again they proceeded on their way and would soon have been hopelessly lost in the mazes of the donga, had it not been for the tracks made by the people from Steynsdorp the previous day. Luckily the little rain there had been overnight had not obliterated these spoors. They went up one small rise, down another, then round another, until after a while they lost all sense of direction, the way through the huge gulley was so bewildering. They dismounted and led their horses so as to be able to follow the tracks more easily!
After what seemed to them an eternity they eventually reached the other side of the donga. Here they scrambled up the steep bank and in the near distance to their delight saw a building. They hurried forward with thoughts of warm, refreshing coffee running through their minds. Imagine their disappointment when on closer approach the supposed building turned out to be a mass of rock!
A little later on, weary and hungry, they reached Steynsdorp. Here they had a late breakfast, after which they went to bed and slept for several hours! The horses had a splendid feed and rest too. Some of the Steynsdorp people, when chatting to the riders, informed them that they had been exceedingly lucky to pass the night in safety on the ridge, as only the week before two donkeys had been torn to pieces at that spot by leopards.
In the afternoon the pair set out for Darkton, which was the usual wayside-hotel and store, and which had been named after the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Dark. They spent the night there and resumed their journey next morning after breakfast!
When they had gone some distance they lost themselves, but were fortunate to meet a couple of Boers who directed them to the right road. At dusk they reached another store owned by two well-educated men. Their house, which was attached to the shop, was in spick and span order although there was no woman at the place. These two bachelors cooked excellently and gave the travellers fresh buttered scones among other things for padkos.
The riders crossed the Usutu River and went on to Dingley where they rested awhile before starting on the last lap of their journey. At nine o'clock in the evening they reached Amsterdam where they stayed at a boarding-house for a few days while Mrs. Cameron looked round to see what possibilities there were for making a living. She found there was a good opening for a school in this small village so she decided to settle there.
Before leaving to fetch her other children, she was able to hire a house and also a building which had once been a government school. Having arranged matters to her satisfaction, she and Rod returned to Barberton by the same route along which they had come, but they took good care to reach the donga in broad day-light.
When they arrived at the Komati, they did not cross in the punt again but rode through the drift. The water was so deep that it reached up to the saddle-flaps and Mrs. Cameron expected to see Rod fall off any minute as she feared the rushing stream would make him giddy. However, they both gained the other side in safety.
They went back to Fair View where the other children had been left in the charge of Mrs. Wray. Later the Wrays with their only child were all three drowned when the Drummond Castle went down off Ushant.
Mrs. Cameron sold her house but took her furniture with by wagon. On their journey they outspanned at a wayside-hotel owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Dunn who had two daughters. Two or three years later, when a malarial epidemic was raging, a traveller passing this hotel touched in at the store to buy some fresh supplies. When he walked into the shop there was nobody there, so, after waiting a few minutes, he rapped loudly on the counter to call someone to attend to his wants. There was no response. Impatient at the delay, he knocked loudly at the door which was the connecting link between the store and the house. As this too met with no response, he hammered on the door which stood ajar, but no one answered the summons so he pushed it open. All the inside doors were open and everything was uncannily silent so he walked into the bedrooms where he found Mr. and Mrs. Dunn and one daughter lying dead and the other daughter unconscious.
He hurried to the nearest farm and got the woman there to go down and attend to the unconscious girl, who came to after a short while and told them that the whole family had gone down with malaria. She had nursed the others until they had all three died, and then, feeling ill herself and also being utterly worn out, she had lain on her bed to rest. That was the last she remembered until she regained consciousness. She could not say how long it was since she had gone to lie down.
As soon as Mrs. Cameron was settled in Amsterdam she opened a private school and also gave music lessons as she owned a piano. In this way she earned on an average twenty-five pounds a month which was quite a good income in those days.
When 'Xmas-time approached she formed a committee with some of the women of the dorp to provide a tree for the children. The public thought it an excellent idea and subscribed willingly. The funds thus raised amounted to about forty pounds and the toys were ordered from Maritzburg.
A few days before Xmas the goods for the tree had not yet come and the ladies began to feel very anxious as transport was so uncertain in those times. However, on the 24th, the wagon on which the toys were loaded arrived. When the owner of the vehicle heard what the boxes contained, he very kindly refused to take any payment for the transport and said that that was his share towards the tree.
The goods were unpacked immediately and the members of the committee started dressing the dolls. They were busy until three o'clock next morning before the last stitch had been put in and all the beautiful brides and babies had been clothed.
The greater part of the day was spent in getting the tree ready. A lovely, green one was planted in half a barrel filled with soil, and was placed in the centre of the school-room which the ladies had made gay with decorations. Numbered tickets were fixed to the toys on the tree and cards with numbers corresponding to those on the toys were put into two bags, one for the girls and the other for the boys. Under the tree, all round the barrel, lay piles and piles of gaily-coloured little bags of sweets.
In the evening, when the children arrived, there was a buzz of pleasurable excitement. None of them had ever attended a function of this kind before, so, with eyes filled with wonder and anticipation, they gazed on the resplendent tree with all its alluring toys and many-hued candles. What happy laughter and ejaculations of delight filled the air. Excitement became rife when the drawing of the tickets took place. Oh, what a 'Xmas it was. The ladies of the village supplied refreshments, and at half-past ten it was a sleepy, tired but happy crowd of children that went home to dream about the most wonderful 'Xmas they had ever had.
A few days later Mrs. Cameron made several copies of the list of subscribers and the amounts they had given, to each of which she attached a statement of the expenditure. These documents were nailed to the doors of the post-office and two of the stores, so that the people could see how the money had been spent. She considers that, if funds for any purpose are raised by subscriptions from the public, it is only fair that the public should be duly informed how the money has been spent.
The people of the village were so pleased at the success of the party that many of them, in talking to her afterwards, stated their willingness to contribute on any future occasion to anything she wished to get up for the children.
When she had been in at Amsterdam for two or three vears there was an epidemic of malarial fever. There was no doctor in the dorp so the inhabitants did the best they could and helped one another. The medicine they used was quinine powder and the usual dose was half a teaspoonful in a wine-glass of gin. When this had brought the fever down, the patients were given chicken broth or beef tea to build up their strength. Nobody in the village died during the epidemic. Mrs. Cameron escaped infection but her servants all went down, so one of her friends sent a boy to chop wood for her and to milk her cows.
There was no resident minister of any denomination in Amsterdam in those days. Dutch services were conducted by visiting ministers and Church of England services were held about once a month. Sometimes Dr. Carter, then Bishop of Zululand, came to the dorp for this purpose. Mrs. Cameron played the harmonium for the singing of the hymns for both churches.
It was in Amsterdam that she lost her youngest child, little Nellie, who died at the age of five.
In time Mrs. Cameron bought two ervon adjoining each other and had a stone house built which is now used as a school hostel. In 1929 Annie and Rod paid a visit to the dorp and saw the house that had been their home some thirty years ago. They met with a real welcome and Annie considers this was because their mother had been so well known and liked there years ago.
A few years after her home had been built Mrs. Cameron had a beautiful orchard with a great variety of fruit trees. She also had a lovely flower garden. Each year she made a large quantity of jam and jelly and often sold bottles of these preserves. Water was plentiful and she bartered matches and such like commodities for bags of bones. On rainy days she set her servants to grind these for fertiliser for her garden. She also used the usual stable manure.
One old Dutchman seeing the grinding of the bones enquired what the idea was, and when informed, he shook his head and walked away mumbling: "Daardie vrou is nie reg in haar kop nie." ("That woman is not right in her head.")
That season was a bad one, and she was the only gardener in the village who had a good crop of pumpkins owing to the fertiliser she had used. She sold these at a shilling each. Next season all those who gardened followed her example and bought up bones, even the old man who had thought her a bit mad.
After she had been in Amsterdam some years, the government school was reopened, and, of course, this meant the loss of her means of livelihood, so she opened a general store and as a side- line speculated in oxen. In time she was considered an excellent judge of cattle. She used to ride on horseback to Piet Retief and to the Assegaai River beyond this dorp to buy up oxen. These she sent to Barberton where they were sold at a profit of seven and sixpence to ten shillings per head. Soon she received orders for whole spans so this side-line proved to be a great help financially.
One night a kaffir broke into her store. He was a notorious thief and was serving sentence in the village gaol. Rather small and of a yellowish colour, with soft,brown eyes like those of a seal he was the most inoffensive-looking individual imaginable.
The gaoler, on his usual evening round to see that everything was in order, unlocked the cell in which this thief was kept in solitary confinement, but on looking in saw no one so he stepped into the room to investigate the matter. Quick as lightning the native dashed out from behind the door, pulled it to and locked it, leaving the gaoler a captive. That night the inhabitants of the village who lived in the vicinity of the gaol heard someone calling and calling. They, however, concluded that it was one of the prisoners, so did not worry about it and the gaoler had to spend the whole night in the cell.
Next morning a leg of mutton, which Mrs. Cameron had hung on the verandah overnight, was missing - and so was one of her pots. When she went down to open the store she found it had been broken into and a pair of boots, some clothing and matches had been stolen.
The escaped convict was soon recaptured and a policeman was told off to escort him to Ermelo where he was to be tried. On nearing the dorp, in spite of his being handcuffed, he managed to escape into one of the swamps. There were several of these in that neighbourhood, one of the largest being Buhrman's Vlei. After hunting for him for several days the police gave up the search as thay concluded he had lost his life in the swamp.
A week or two later a number of natives heard a disturbance among their cattle one night. They stole out quietly just in time to see a man driving off their animals. They gave chase and after capturing him, they took him into Ermelo and reported the matter to the police. He proved to be the notorious thief, and by some means or other he had rid himself of the handcuffs.
He was brought up for trial and Mrs. Cameron and Mr. Jordaan the gaoler at Amsterdam, were summoned as witnesses. For the journey to Ermelo the latter furnished the cart, which was a rickety, tentless affair, while the former supplied two mules which she had borrowed. A boy, Windvoel, was to act as agterryer. When they reached the first small spruit, the mules took a flying leap over it and the two in the cart almost landed on the ground with the unexpected jerk as there seemed to be no place to cling to in the miserable little vehicle. At every drift and rut the animals repeated this performance, and if the drift happened to be too wide for their jump, the cart landed with a mighty bump in the middle of it.
As they were going along a flat stretch of country the mules shied and then reared. Mr. Jordaan jumped clear but Mrs. Cameron was thrown into the grass, and the cart lay upside-down, with the splashboard all broken, at the side of the road. The mules stood still. Her face and body were badly bruised, and she seethed with indignation when she saw the leisurely way in which Windvoel rode up to help right the cart. At dusk they arrived at a farm-house, owned by some people named Botha, and here they spent tho night.
Next morning the trio reached Ermelo before the court opened, so Mrs. Cameron hastened to one of the shops to procure a veil to hide her bruised face, which she thought made her look as though she had been drinking. Mr. Joubert, the magistrate, was very considerate to her. He did not ask her to enter the witness-box but went down to where she was sitting and put a number of questions to her. The native thief was sentenced to a long term of imprisonment.
On the same day, after the trial was over, she and Mr. Jordaan returned to the Bothas' farm and the following day they went back he home without mishap.
One afternoon a terrific cyclone passed over the village and caused much damage. The roof with the ceiling attached was blown off the Trents' house. Later on portions of this roof were found three miles away - such was the fury of the storm. Mr. Trent was in his store at the time, and his wife and children crept under the dining-room table for protection from the hail which followed the wind-storm. Strange to say, the Rademeyers' house which was just across the way was not touched, though their new buck-wagon which had been standing near the house was blown over and the tent was smashed to pieces.
Across the spruit, the roof of the Reynekes'home was also taken off so the five children crept under the big, double bed and their parents sat on top of it to prevent it from being lifted bodily by the force of the wind. Jacob Reyneke, a lad of fifteen, put a feather- mattress over his head for protection, but the hail cut it to ribbons and scattered the feathers in all directions. A maid in the Reynekes' service, wiser than Jacob, put a three-legged pot on her head.
When the storm had abated, Mrs. Cameron went round the village to see what damage had been done as she did not believe all the reports she had heard from the excited citizens, but she found them all true. The damage was terrible.
One morning the whole village was agog with excitement as the news spread that Theunis Botha, an inhabitant of the dorp, had been murdered.
One of his pigs had been stolen so he set out on horseback to follow the spoors which led away from the sty. His horse came back riderless. His daughter, a girl in her early teens, immediately saddled her pony and followed his tracks up to the edge of a swamp which was a few miles distant from the village. Here the tracks ended so she returned, and the news that Botha was missing quickly spread.
The police and a number of the inhabitants turned out to search for the missing man. They rode to the edge of the vlei where they dismounted and, after a short search, discovered some cave-like hollows in a hill almost bordering on the swamp. Tn these they found a number of Bushmen and the murdered man. Large quantities of fat and a great number of skins were found hidden in the vlei.
For some time past these little thieves had been stealing sheep and cattle from the farms roundabout. Mr. Forbes, who owned Athol which was a block of six farms, had missed many sheep, and had had suspicions that some poor Boers who lived in the neighbourhood were responsible for the thefts. The discovery of the Bushmen, however, exonerated these people.
The little men were all arrested and tried at Pretoria for the murder of Botha. One of their number, who was half Kaffir and half Bushman, turned King's Evidence and told how Botha, after having dismounted at the edge of the swamp, had by chance discovered their hiding-place. He had held his gun resting on the ground while he made enquiries about the stolen pig. The little, yellow men, terrified because he had found their hiding-place, struck him from behind, killing him.
The three leaders were hanged for murder and the others were sentenced to terms of varying length.
At sunrise one morning, a big, dark cloud was seen approaching the village. It proved to be a tremendous swarm of locusts. The inhabitants made fires, tied tins to their fences and rattled them, and yelled to try to frighten the locusts away and prevent them from settling in the dorp, but all to no purpose - the destructive little creatures kept coming and coming in myriads and myriads.
At dusk when they settled in some long grass, Mr. Coetser, the Vrederegter, sent men with paraffin to soak the grass and then set it alight. In this way countless numbers of the insects were destroyed. During the day the inhabitants of the village had killed so many of the locusts that in several places they were lying a couple of feet deep. The horses, cows and pigs of the dorp became rolling fat from eating them.
On one occasion there were rumours of the Swazis rising and the people in Amsterdam feared an attack.
Mr. Krogh, who had been a magistrate at Pretoria at one time but who at that time was Commissioner for Swaziland, had his head- quarters at Bremersdorp.
The Swazi king, Umbandeni, with his councillors asked to be shown into the presence of Mr. Krogh. When the request had been complied with, the king stood insolently and began to address the Commissioner. In the distance huge hordes of armed Swazis could be seen. Mr. Krogh, fully realizing the danger facing him and his handful of police, showed great bravery by calmly ordering Umbandeni to sit down and by refusing to listen to him until he had done so, as it is Swazi etiquette to sit down in a white man's presence.
After hesitating a minute or so the black man did as he was bid, and then Mr. Krogh informed him that he and his councillors would be held as hostages until the bands of armed Swazis dispersed, and that if they did not go away immediately the hostages would be shot. This was truly an act of gsreat bravery as the Commissioner knew he had only five policemen at head-quarters to back him up. Fearing for his own life and that of his advisors, Umbandeni sent one of his councillors in all haste with the order for dispersal to his followers who departed at once, and the whole trouble was ended.
While this was taking place at Bremersdorp, General Joubert with an armed band of men was on his way from Pretoria to quell any attempted rising. Owing to the Commissioner's bravery, however, the trouble had all blown over before the General arrived in Swaziland.
When rumours of a rising were afloat, the inhabitants of Amsterdam made preparations in case of an attack on the dorp. Mrs. Cameron went to Mr. Coetser, the Justice of the Peace, and asked for guns, but he refused the request. He in turn asked her to give him three hundred grain bags from her store as he wished to barricade the gaol with sandbags, but she informed him that if he wanted them he could pay for them.
As she could get no firearms, she set about making other preparations. She had a fence of six strands of barbed wire put up round her erven, and secured a load of bottles which she had broken up and scattered round the house, with the thought that these would cut the Swazis' bare feet if they should try to storm the building. She nailed sheets of zinc over the windows, leaving a space only a foot wide open at the top for light and air. The idea was that if the assailants hurled their assegaais through the windows, these would stick in the ceiling and so harm nobody. She also nailed zinc over all the doors except one which the inmates had to keep open for use.
She laid in a good supply of paraffin, crackers and pepper. and she managed to get a few syringes. Her plan was to squirt the paraffin through the spaces at the top of the windows on to the Swazis and then throw out crackers, just about to explode, in the hopes of setting the paraffin-soaked attackers alight. It was hoped too that the kaffirs would think the explosions of the crackers were gunshots and so take to flight. The pepper was to be used as a last resource. It was to be thrown into their eyes at close quarters. Her servants were to help in the defence. For days she and the children lived in twilight caused by the zinc-covered windows. She laughs heartily at the remembrance of all these preparations which proved to be unnecessary - the Swazis never came.
Copyright Win de Vos.
Put onto the web by Joan Marsh(2002) a great-grand-daughter of ERCameron