ELIZABETH RUSSELL CAMERON:
AN EIGHTY YEAR OLD
by Win de Vos
At the Diggings.
What an exodus of people there was from Maritzburg when the rush to the Diamond Fields at Kimberley began. Many of the friends and acquaintances of the Russells set out to seek their fortunes at the diggings and Elizabeth decided to follow suit. Her father however, turned up unexpectedly from Heidelberg and he forbade her to go.
Most of the people who went from that neighbourhood left their farms and houses in the charge of native servants, and it was wonderful how trustworthy these caretakers proved to be. In one case a certain Mrs. Stansfield who was very highly connected in England had a large amount of valuable plate. This she showed to her servants, and having explained to them that it was worth a great deal, packed it in boxes and with their aid buried it in deep holes dug by them in the garden for the purpose. She gave them strict instructions to guard her hidden silver during her absence. Many months later when she and her son, Henry, returned from the Diamond Fields they found the plate intact.
When Mr. Russell left for Heidelberg again Elizabeth went with him, but at Harrismith she gathered information that there were splendid possibilities there for a good private school so she decided to undertake the work and her father was agreeable. She charged a pound a month for each scholar and, as she soon secured a number of music pupils too, she managed to earn a monthly average of twenty-five pounds. She stayed there for a year and a half during which time she bought a piano for seventy-five pounds besides putting by a useful sum of money.
While there she heard much talk about the Gold Diggings in the Lydenburg district and this fired her imagination. Teaching was much too tame a life for her. Towards the end of 1871 she and Tucker, who worked at a shop at Harrismith at that time, decided to try their luck at the diggings.
She sold her piano and was lucky enough to obtain the same amount that she had given for it. She set to work and made a tent of heavy canvas herself. This task completed, she bought thirty bags of wheat, stores of food, blankets, picks and shovels. When all was ready the pair set out on their adventure in a wagon which they had hired from a Mr. van Rensburg. Their father was dreadfully angry about their going and forbade the rest of the family to communicate with them. He warned them that if they failed to pay their way they were not to look to him for help.
Often on the journey they had difficulty in finding their way as in many places the road consisted of mere indistinct tracks. Along the way they stayed a week with some people named Viljoen who owned a mill. Here Elizabeth had her wheat ground with the idea of selling the meal at the diggings, as, owing to the difficulty of transport, provisions fetched a high price there.
As they neared Lydenburg, the farm-houses became more frequent and they were able to buy large quantities of butter and dried fruit which they also intended selling to the diggers. When they reached the dorp they laid in a fresh store of groceries, after which they continued their trek until they crossed the Bly River and arrived at Pilgrim's Rest, their destination.
The diggings were divided into three Camps. As soon as the number of people warranted it, a store was opened and the place was called a Camp. The diggers paid five shillings a month for the working rights of a claim and this included water rights. If a claim remained unworked for a week it was jumpable.
Near Bly River the two adventurers met some old friends, Captain and Mrs. Diedericks, so they decided to pitch their tent alongside that of these people. This spot was about two miles from the Lower Camp to which Elizabeth went on a tour of investigation. Here she met ever so many old friends and acquaintances from Natal. At the store she sold some of her meal, making a considerable profit on it. She engaged eight kaffirs and took out a claim in the Creek below this Camp.
The shovels she had brought with her proved to be useless as they were the ordinary short-handled ones. She found she had to buy a sluice-box, a crowbar, a gold-pan and other shovels the handles of which were about six feet long so that the soil dug out could be easily thrown from the hole. When she had made these purchases, she and Tucker together with the eight boys set to work on the ground they had pegged out and kept hard at it for a month, but by the end of that time they had obtained such a small quantity of gold that they decided to abandon this claim and try their luck elsewhere.
At this juncture Mr. R----, a dandy with bold, dark eyes, offered to let Elizabeth have one of his claims to work on shares. Informing her that his ground was paying splendidly, he made his offer sound most attractive by giving a glowing description of how well he was doing, and, besides some samples of gold-dust, he showed her a number of large nuggets which he stated had been found on his ground. He suggested that she should pitch her tent alongside his so that she would be conveniently close to her work.
She discussed this offer with Alec Spiers, an old friend of her childhood in Boston days, who was also seeking his fortune at the diggings. As he knew R---- to be an "outsider" he strongly advised her not to become a party to the proposed scheme, and on his counsel she decided to consult Yankee Dan about the matter.
Yankee Dan, who had most pedculiar eyes which were never still for a moment and whose real name was never known by the diggers, had gained a reputation all over the Gold Fields for his absolute honesty. If he said a thing, it was so. Any digger would take Yankee Dan's word as gospel in all circumstances.
Elizabeth went to his claim and asked him what he thought about the proposition. His reply was: "Now, look here, Miss Russell, you are only a young girl so I am going to talk pretty straight to you. Have nothing whatever to do with R----. He is a plausible scoundrel. The samples of gold he showed you were not found on his claims and as to your pitching your tent next to his - don't do it. He has a black woman living with him - that is the kind of man he is. See!" Elizabeth thanked him for his kindly warning.
Soon after this she met an old friend, a Mr. Shires, who lived a few miles distant at Mac-Mac, where there were also diggings, and he informed her that he had more ground than he was entitled to in the Middle Camp at Pilgrim's Rest, and suggested that she should re-peg his surplus ground there and have it registered in her name. She was very glad to do so and immediately set about procuring the necessary rights to start work in that locality.
A Mr. Raubenheimer who worked in partnership with several young men offered to buy her abandoned claim for thirty pounds. She, however, with her strict sense of honesty felt she could not accept payment for it because she considered it worthless, so she informed him that he was welcome to it if he would like to take it. He and his friends worked this claim for a while but with such poor results that they soon relinquished it and marked out ground at the top of a waterfall in the Creek close to the lower Camp. The old diggers called this place "Fools' Rush", but it belied its name for Raubenheimer and his mates did extremely well there.
By this time Elizabeth's funds were running low, and as the boys had to be fed and their wages paid, when Tucker and seven of them went to the Middle Camp to start work there, she remained behind to try to make money. The eighth native, Shilling, stayed to work for her. It was decided that she should keep the tent and that her brother and the boys should build a couple of rondawels for themselves on the new claim.
Mrs. Diedericks baked and sold bread during the week to augment her funds. On Saturdays she gave Elizabeth the use of the stove and the latter made as many sausage-rolls and as much ginger-beer as she could possibly manage. She sent Shilling out to sell these. The rolls were sold at sixpence each and the ginger-beer at a shilling a bottle, the bottle and the cork to be returned. In this way she made from four to six pounds a week.
She carried on thus for some time, then one day she went up to see how matters were progressing at the new claim. There she found her brother with a friend shooting target at a lighted candle suspended from the roof of the hut, while the kaffirs were smoking dagga. Practically no work had been done on the claim. She was very indignant especially as she had been trying so hard to keep things going by making beer and rolls. She spoke angrily to Tucker. For a few months he would work at break-neck speed and for the next few months he would do nothing at all. Resenting his sister's ire, he went off to seek employment with some of the other diggers and left her on her own. With her usual grit she decided to move up to the Middle Camp and work the claim herself. The difficulty was to get her tent and stores transported. Raubenheimer came to the rescue as he wished to show his gratitude to her for letting him have the abandoned claim for nothing.
Having pitched her tent near that of Dr. and Mrs. Scoble, she got some of the old hands to teach her how to work the gold-pan and soon she became quite expert at it. She found no way of earning money in this Camp, and, as her financial resources were at a very low ebb, she reduced the number of her working-boys. She toiled with a will but luck evaded her at first so to minimise expenses she was forced to dismiss more of her boys. Finally she had only one old kaffir, Basket, left. This faithful old soul said his missus had always paid his wages regularly up to then so he was going to continue working for her even if she could not pay him. He was sure that one day she would find gold and he knew that when this occurred she would reward him in full.
At this time she had often to go without tea and other things but she had far too much pride to appeal to any of her friends who would willingly have helped her, had they known the true state of affairs.
Basket picked away steadily day after day and threw the loosened earth into the sluice-box with the head-race on, while day after day Elizabeth watched doggedly as the tail-race carried away the ground, after which she would throw what remained on the riffles into her gold-pan and wash it carefully, but for four long, hard months the results were very discouraging. They found practically no gold.
One day Basket was picking away patiently as usual when sudden ly he started dancing as though he had gone mad and shouted: "Itollile, Inkosisane! Itollile, Inkosisane!." (I have found it, Princess. I have found it, Princess!) He handed Elizabeth a nugget weighing four ounces. Her hopes soared to the skies and the last four weary, anxious months were forgotten in a flash. The next day, it was a Saturday, they found a nine-ounce nugget.
On Sunday her brother, Harry, turned up quite unexpectedly with a wagon-load of stores which he sold at a big profit. He joined forces with his sister and from that time on they made two hundred pounds clear profit per month. They shared everything equally.
When Elizabeth paid old Basket she presented him with a thick, warm overcoat as a reward for his faithfulness. He was delighted and exhibited it with much pride to all his envious friends.
Every Sunday the diggers attended church which was held in a tent that was used as a store-room during the week. The Frosts had a harmonium on which Elizabeth played the hymns. The men came in shirt-sleeves and bags of mealies served as seats. At the evening services each member of the congregation carried an improvised lantern. To make this a white whisky bottle, the bottom of which had been knocked off, was turned upside-down and a small piece of candle was dropped into the neck and lighted. The worshippers, each holding a lantern by the neck in one hand and a hymn-book in the other, made a quaint picture as they rose to sing.
Elizabeth's eyes twinkle with merriment as she remembers the concerts and dances at which these lanterns also did service, only then they were tied to the poles of the big, oblong tent where these functions took place. What real enjoyment and friendliness there was, and romance too, at those dances as the merry-makers tripped lightly to the strains of accordion or mouth-organ over the buck-sail stretched smoothly on the ground floor of the tent.
At one time there was a good deal of sickness in the Camp so it was decided to found a hospital. Elizabeth and a Miss Jessop went round collecting for this purpose. A great many nuggets were given to them and these were sold to the bank in the Camp. Besides this a number of the diggers got up a concert to raise funds and made thirty odd pounds so before long a hospital-tent was established.
The diggers kept their gold and money in tins and buried these in the ground which formed the floors of their tents. Many of them did not take even this precaution but kept the tins under their beds, and Elizabeth cannot recall a single case of theft.
One day she wished to do some shopping so she weighed out as much gold - a pennyweight was worth three and sixpence then - as she would require. She put the nuggets into her purse and the gold-dust into a small bottle, then, quickly setting the table for Harry's lunch, she went off to shop.
It was only when she neared home at dusk that it suddenly entered her mind that she had left her tin of gold on the table, and the scales, which formed part of every digger's equipment, beside it, and that she had not even fastened the flap of the tent. She anxiously hastened her steps and hoped that her brother had put the gold away at lunch-time. On arriving, however, she found it untouched, just as she had left it. Harry had come in for his midday meal but had been in such a hurry to return to his work that he had not noticed the tin.
On one occasion she hired some natives who had come from Inhambane in Portuguese East Africa. They all wore blankets which looked like coarse brown felt and which had been made from the bark of certain trees by the natives themselves. An old boy in her employ who could speak their language told one of them to fill the kettle. This newcomer had not seen a kettle before so he took it up and turning it round and round examined it in wonderment. He then tried to fill it by pouring water into the spout.
Every night these natives would make a fire and sitting round it would chant weirdly while they swayed their bodies untiringly to the rhythm of their singing. They would keep this up for hours.
While they were at the diggings, one of their number died. The others hollowed out a niche, about seven feet in height, in the side of a hill. In this they stood their dead compatriot upright and, having put his calabash and other belongings alongside him, they filled the niche up with soil to within a foot of the top so that the corpse was entirely covered. A stone was then placed above his head, after which the aperture was filled up completely. When asked why they buried their dead thus, they explained that, when the Big Spirit called, the man would shake the stone from his head, take up his belongings and walk forth. It struck Elizabeth as very strange that these untaught natives should believe in the resurrection of the dead.
It was at the diggings that she met Mr. Cameron and became engaged to him. He was an American and later on was elected Member of the Volksraad for the Gold Fields. In 1874 they were married at Pretoria where her parents lived. After staying at Heidelberg for two years her father had settled at Pretoria where his family, which had remained at Maritzburg, until then, joined him. The old people stayed at the capital for the rest of their lives and were both buried there.
Among the guests at Elizabeth's wedding were President Burger and his wife, Mr. Buchanan, the State Attorney, and his wife and several other high officials who were friends of the Russells. After the ceremony the young couple returned to Pilgrim's Rest and resumed their work at the diggings.
While they were there a certain digger who was a novice at the game came to a big boulder when working his claim. After clearing the soil away all round the rock, an old hand would have dug a large hole at one side, and on the same side he would then cautiously have scooped away as much soil from under the rock as he could with safety. When this was done he would have tilted the boulder over into the hole with a crow-bar. The novice, however, was finding small nuggets and in his eagerness went on scooping the ground away beneath the rock. Not realizing his danger he went in further and further until the rock suddenly sank down on top of him.
Some of his friends fixed chains round the boulder and with the aid of oxen managed to remove it. The unfortunate man was still living but was so badly injured internally that he died during the night.
A similar fate overcame one of Mr. Cameron's boys. This, however, was not brought about by ignorance but by a lack of precaution on the native's own part. While superintending the work on his claim Mr. Cameron was called away on business to another part of the Camp. During his absence the boy, who was an experienced hand, bragged to the other kaffirs that he was going to show the Baas what he could do. He proceeded to scoop away the soil, but alas! he went on too long and the boulder, a huge one, sank down crushing the life out of him. It was a dreadful sight that met the onlookers' eyes when the rock was removed.
Shortly after this Mr. Cameron had to go to Pretoria on business. While he was there he was invited to a dinner given in honour of Mr. J.A. Froude, the Historian, who was visiting South Africa at that time on a mission from the British Government. The men all dressed for the occasion but the guest of the evening appeared in an ordinary grey suit. He apologised at once in his unaffected way and explained that he had not expected to meet with such formality out here. By his naturalness and personal charm he won the liking of all who met him at the dinner.
The Camerons stayed at the diggings until the beginning of 1876, when they left for America to attend the Centenary Exhibition.
Copyright Win de Vos.
Put onto the web by Joan Marsh(2002) a great-grand-daughter of ERCameron