ELIZABETH RUSSELL CAMERON:
AN EIGHTY YEAR OLD
by Win de Vos
She has reached the ripe old age of eighty and still retains all her faculties to a wonderful degree. Her hearing is excellent, her sight quite good, her memory marvellous, but her outstanding trait is her wonderful mind. Her mental activity is astounding. She still takes as keen an interest in world-wide current events as a man in his prime would do. A volcanic eruption of Vesuvius, a critical political situation in America, a flood causing distress in India, the politics and municipal affairs of her own country, are one and all as absorbingly interesting to her as though they were personal affairs - such is the mentality of Mrs. Cameron, nee Russell, who now lives in the Transvaal village, Volksrust.
Born in London on the 29th of May, 1850, Elizabeth Russell came out to South Africa with her parents when she was four or five months old. For the first eight years of her life she lived at Maritzburg, Natal, and does not remember any event of particular interest happening during that time.
In 1858 the Russell family trekked to the Boston saw-mills which were about thirty miles from Maritzburg. There they stayed for ten years. Elizabeth was the eldest child of a family of seven.
The Boston saw-mills were established by two Americans named Few, and belonged to the Chiappini family of Cape Town when H. B. Russell hired them. To one side of them were miles of forest, the trees of which were probably hundreds of years old. The mills, which included a circular-saw, gang-saws, machinery for grinding mealies, a smithy and a carpentering department, were of the old picturesque type, water-driven. The waters of the Ingwati River turned the old wheel. There was a depot at Maritzburg to which the sawn timber was sent.
Each member of the Rusell family had a riding-horse, as, in that part of the country in those days, riding was the usual way of getting from one place to another. The only other means of conveyance was a small, light type of wagon drawn by oxen. Ponies of the Basuto type - sturdy, hardy and excellent mountain-climbers, could be bought for five pounds apiece, and that included saddle and bridle.
It was a regular custom on Saturday afternoons for the mill-hands off duty to go for long rides. Most of these men were sailors from two ships wrecked on the Natal coast. Elizabeth laughs with enjoyment as she recalls how one of them mounted a horse for the first time. He scrambled up somehow, hugged the horse round the neck and off they went. What a scamper they had midst roars of laughter from the other mill-hands. After a short while they returned safely with the sailor still clinging more than lovingly to the animal's neck.
The Bushmen were a constant source of trouble to the farmers in the neighbourhood of the mills. These tiny, yellow-skinned men, armed with bows and poisonod arrows, would come from the mountain, and steal the cattle belonging to the Europeans. This became so prevalent that a law was made by the then government that a Bushman could be shot on sight. Native policemen were posted at the entrances to the mountain passes to stop the passage of these little cattle thieves.
One very misty afternoon, just after the mid-day meal, an old Scotchman named Spiers, who lived near the mills, had all his cattle stolen while his herdsmen were beer-drinking at a kraal. The natives were able to follow the tracks for some distance, but these ceased at the nearest mountain pass, where three or four of the animals which had been killed by the Bushmen were piled on top of one another to block the entrance.
The men within a radius of fifty miles of old Spiers' farm decided to form a band of forty or fifty to give chase to the thieves to recover the cattle. These men were all mounted and armed. They had breakfast at the Russells' place and then set off in pursuit of the raiders. Old man Spiers persisted in accompanying them in spite of the protests of his sons, Charlie, Bob and Alec.
After some hours of hard riding, they reached the flat summit of a long mountain, which was quite bare of vegetation and which was covered with rocks. Among these they sighted a number of the little people and immediately fired a volley at them.
It was here that Hodgson, one of the pursuers, was shot dead by Dix, another member of the party. This mishap cast a gloom over the whole company. It was a sad group of men that buried the unfortunate victim on the top of the mountain and piled stones on his lonely grave to keep the wild animals from getting at the body.
The volley put the tiny folk to flight and the troop of riders, having buried their comrade, gave chase. When they reached the spot where they had first sighted the marauders, they found that only one middle-aged Bushman had been wounded by their firing. As they approached, the little yellow man with diminutive ears and low forehead, so typical of his race, feigned death, probably in the hopes that they would go on and leave him lying there, but the canny old Scot, Mr. Spiers, examined him carefully and declared that he was still alive. The old man then tied a riem, the one end of which he attached to his stirrup, round the Bushman's waist. When the latter saw he was to be dragged, he got up quickly and kept pace with the horses in spite of the severe wound in his shoulder.
After proceeding in this way for a short distance old man Spiers refused to go in the direction that the others wished to take. He declared that, on account of the formation of the country there, it was most improbable that the raiders could get through that way. The others did not agree with him, so they went in one direction and he in another. Before they parted they agreed to meet again at sun-down. The wounded Bushman was left in Charlie's care.
Soon the band of men saw the marauders going at a rapid pace down a steep decline, and, as they found they could not follow on horseback they scrambled slowly down, with the greatest difficulty, on hands and knees. Owing to the time it took them to descend they lost sight of the cattle thieves altogether, but at the bottom of the steep descent they found caves with numerous Bushman paintings on the walls.
When they, accompanied by the wounded Bushman, reached the meeting-place agreed upon, old man Spiers was nowhere to be seen. Search was made for him but in vain. Some days later he was found by a couple of natives on the mountain-side. His mind was wandering, he had no horse nor gun and he was busy eating white ants. The natives took him to one of their huts and tended him until he became strong enough to travel. They then took him home and he recovered fully but could never remember what had happened to him.
The posse of riders who went out after the Bushmen brought back a large number of cattle. This was made known, and people who had lost stock were requested to go and see if theirs were among those recovered. However, nobody claimed any of the animals so the government gave them to the men who had rounded them up.
The wounded Bushman was taken to Grey's Hospital in Maritzburg, and, although several days had elapsed since he had been shot, he did not wince nor utter a sound when the doctor cleaned and dressed the dreadful wound. When it had healed completely and he had been discharged from the hospital, a certain Mr. Boshoff kept him as a servant.
One bitterly cold day he disappeared and all search for him proved unavailing. After the mid-day meal, as was the custom, Mrs Boshoff retired to her room to rest for a short while. The bed felt lumpy and uncomfortable so she lifted the edge of the feather-mattress to see what was causing the trouble. Imagine her surprise when she discovered the missing Bushman who had crept in between the feather and the coir mattresses to get warm.
After he had been with the Boshoffs some time and could talk Afrikaans, he offered to guide them to a place where they would find many horses. Two white men decided to accompany him. Much to their surprise he had told them the truth, and after a few days they returned with a large number of sturdy ponies, which the government allowed them to retain as no one claimed them.
The Boshoffs told the little yellow man that he could return to his own people if he wished to do so, but his reply was that he preferred to stay with the white people because since coming to them his tummy had always been full.
The Bushmen who were from three and a half to four feet in height, were adept at hiding behind quite small rocks or bushes. They would lie so perfectly motionless that the Russell children or the adults at the mills often went to within a yard or so of one of them before they became aware of his presence. They probably passed many times within a few feet of these little men in hiding without knowing it.
When going for a walk in the neighbourhood of the mills, if any of the Europeans came thus unexpectedly upon one of these tiny men, they would pretend not to see him, as, if he knew that he had been discovered, they ran the risk of having a poisoned arrow, which he invariably held strung ready for action, shot at them with unerring aim.
On one occasion, near the mountain pass, some natives came across a naked Bushman woman who was leading a small child by the hand. By gesticulations she made them understand that she and her little one were starving. The natives had not the heart to kill them on sight so they fed them and gave the woman a setwaba (a short leather skirt). They took them to Mr. Russell for him to decide what had to be done with them. He sent them to Maritzburg but the natives who accompanied them, brought back an order that the woman and child were to be allowed to return to their own people. A couple of natives took them some distance out into the veld and left them to find their way back to their own folk.
A fortnight later the woman returned without the child. When she reached the kraal, by gesticulations and very realistic acting - she lay stretched out at full length on the ground, perfectly still, without the flicker of an eye-lid, she made the natives understand that her child had died. Once more she was sent away with two natives who escorted her as far as the Umzimkulu River, and she was never seen again. It remained a mystery how she came to be separated from her kinsfolk and whether she ever rejoined them.
Copyright Win de Vos.
Put onto the web (2002) by Joan Marsh, a great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Russell Cameron