ELIZABETH RUSSELL CAMERON:
AN EIGHTY YEAR OLD
by Win de Vos
A Trip to America.
Mr. Cameron had been asked to represent the Transvaal at the American Exhibition. He and his wife went from the diggings in a post-cart drawn by oxen which had been taught to trot, and it was surprising how quickly they travelled. Every six miles the animals were changed at relay stations.
The post-cart on this occasion was guarded by an armed escort because of the Bapedi, who, under the leadership of Sekukuni, had risen against the Boers in the Transvaal. When the passengers arrived at the first relay station it was strangely quiet and lifeless. No fresh team was awaiting them and there was no sign of a living soul. They pressed on to the next station and there again found the place utterly deserted. After outspanning and letting the oxen rest for a couple of hours, they resumed their journey and reached Krugerspost in the evening. Here, too, all was desolate. On account of the native rising everybody in the neighbourhood had gone into lager, the wagons of which were drawn up some distance away from Glynn's Store, which was the usual way-side hotel and shop combined found at irregular intervals along most of the roads in the Transvaal at that time.
Mr. Glynn was fetched to open the store for the hungry travellers, but there was no food-stuff left as it had all been taken to the lager. On one of the shelves Mrs. Cameron discovered a roll of plaited dried peaches which had been overlooked, and this the hungry travellers shared but, of course, it was far too inadequate a meal to appease their hunger. After showing the Camerons, who preferred to stay at the store, to a sparsely furnished bedroom, Mr. Glynn accompanied the other passengers and the escort to the fortified circle of wagons where they spent the night.
There was no bedding in the room, as it, too, had all been taken to the lager, so Mrs. Cameron rolled up her coat for a pillow, settled herself on one of the beds (which consisted of a frame-work of wood with cross slats fixed on four poles driven into the mud- floor) and slept soundly until morning. She was too tired to worry about the Bapedi. Her husband had a wakeful night and wondered that she could sleep so calmly when there was every likelihood of the kaffirs attacking them.
Next morning, after they had washed in a stream and had eaten the bread and fat pork which had been sent to them by the people in the lager, they felt greatly refreshed. The post-cart, which had been put in the lager overnight, was brought back to the store with horses in place of the oxen. From here the guard returned and the travellers had to continue their journey without an armed escort. After a couple of hours they reached Lydenburg, where the Camerons spent the rest of the day and the night at the home of Mr. Jansen who was the magistrate of the dorp. Here Elizabeth did not sleep for throughout the whole night constant false alarms were brought to the magistrate that the kaffirs were coming to attack the village.
The following morning the Camerons continued their journey in one of Cobbs and Company's post-carts which was drawn by six mules and which was packed with passengers bound for Pretoria.
A Mr. Pretorius had the postal contract from Lydenburg to the capital, and it was his son's work to ride from one relay station to another to see that everything was in order. When this youth was on his usual round of inspection that afternoon, he found no people nor animals at the different stations. Instead of returning to warn the post-cart he went on to the further stations which were deserted too. When night overtook him he found himself near a lonely, dark farmhouse, the doors and windows of which were all locked. There was no sign of life about the place. After putting his horse in the stable, he hid in a Scotch-cart which he had discovered close to this building. It was the longest and most terrible night he had ever spent as he kept imagining he heard the Bapedi coming as he lay awake crouched down in the vehicle through the seemingly unending hours of darkness. He was afraid to move his cramped limbs lest he should betray his place of concealment to Sekukuni's warriors.
Tn the early houra of the morning he heard distinct footsteps and his heart thumped madly until he became aware that the approaching people were speaking Dutch. He yelled out: "Moenie skiet nie" ("Don't shoot",) and then showed himself. He climbed out of the cart to meet the farmer, his wife and children who were returning from some caves in a neighbouring mountain-side where they had hidden every night for safety since the rising of the kaffirs.
The road along which the post-cart travelled from Lydenburg to Middelburg, then called Nazareth, went via the farm, Geluk, where, the village, Machadodorp, has since been established. As there were no fresh mules at the relay stations, the travellers pressed on with the same animals until they were too exhausted to go any further. By dusk they had covered close on ninety miles so the driver was compelled to give them a long rest. When he outspanned they made straight for a stream to enjoy a well-earned drink, while the passengers stood in the veld and watched a number of the hostile kaffirs moving about in the light of their beacon-fire on a mountain-top. It was anything but a pleasant journey, as everybody was in a great state of anxiety lest the Bapedi should attack the post-cart. Soon the weary travellers settled down to sleep, some in the long grass, some under the cart, while Mrs. Cameron and another lady spent a most uncomfortable night in the vehicle.
When they wished to resume their journey early next morning, they found the mules, still very tired, lying down near the stream, but the driver had no alternative, he had to inspan the poor animals again. Mrs. Cameron was dreadfully sorry for them. After a few hours the party arrived at Bergendal where they enjoyed a good breakfast. They also managed to get a team of horses so, to her great relief, the poor exhausted mules were left behind to enjoy a much-needed rest. That night was spent at Nazareth and early the following morning they set out in one of Cobbs and Co.'s coaches which was drawn by eight horses. After this no fresh team was secured along the way so these animals had to complete the rest of the journey.
Late in the evening the coach arrived at Grey's farm which was about twelve or fifteen miles from Pretoria. The passengers decided not to go to the homestead, as there were so many of them, so they slept in the veld again. The horses had travelled a distance of about eighty miles that day, with only the shortest possible outspans on the way, consequently they were almost exhausted when they were unhitched for the night's rest.
Great was the surprise of the inhabitants when the travellers reached the capital next day, as rumours had been afloat that the coach had been attacked along the way and that all the passengers had been murdered.
Mrs. Cameron felt no fear throughout this dreadful journey. She reckoned that, if it were in the scheme of things that she should die then, nothing could prevent the course of events and she would have to pass out, whereas if the appointed time for her death was not yet due, nothing would happen to bring about her end. Holding this fatalistic belief she did not see cause to feel any fear.
She and her husband stayed with her parents in Pretoria and while here they heard that Tucker had joined the burghers to fight against Sekukuni. After an enjoyable sojourn in the capital they set out in one of Cobbs' coaches for Colesberg Kopje, now known as Kimberley. The journey to Colesberg Kopje was uneventful. Between this place and Cape Town they spent one night in a house which had only calico partitions separating the rooms, and Mrs. Cameron kept thinking of the three thousand pounds worth of raw gold they had with them. One of the passengers whom they met in the coach was a Mr. Provis from Cornwall who had come out to South Africa on a geological expedition. He was greatly interested in the country and its wealth of minerals and they thoroughly enjoyed listening to his opinion of their adopted land.
They passed through Victoria West and Beaufort West and on reaching Ceres, one of the prettiest villages in South Africa, Mrs. Cameron was offered a warm bath by the people with whom they spent the night. That warm bath was so refreshing and enjoyable after the long journey that it still stands out vividly in her memory though fifty odd years have passed by since then.
At Ceres Road, now Wolseley, to which place the railway had been extended the previous year, they left the coach and travelled by train in trucks as there were no carriages at that time. When they arrived at Cape Town they went to St. George's Hotel where they were joined by Annie who was on a visit to friends at the capital. It had been arranged that she should accompany them to America.
Chevalier Fossman, who then lived at the Cape and who afterwards became Consul for Portugal in the Transvaal Republic, invited them to his place. He had a beautiful home and they enjoyed the visit immensely.
A few days later they sailed in the Edinburgh Castle which was a new steamer at that time, the voyage to England being her second trip. Mrs. Cameron proved to be a very poor sailor so she did not enjoy the voyage. One passenger stands out clearly in her mind for she nicknamed him "The Jumping Frog" because he was so noticeably en bon point.
Before they reached their destinaticn, certain customs officials came on board. She chatted to them on deck and they asked her many questions. She had no idea that they were customs officials. She told them about the three thousand pounds worth of raw gold her husband had with him, but it was evidently not dutiable as they said nothing about it on the arrival of the ship in Engand. On landing they asked her for her keys to examine the contents of her boxes. The only thing they opened was a carpet-bag, filled with soiled linen, which they immediately closed again and handed back the keys. The three from South Africa were among the first to pass through the customs office.
Mrs. Cameron had heard so many stories about pick-pockets and thieves in London, and she was determined not to lose any of her luggage which had been dumped down on the ground, so she sat on top of it while her husband went to call a cab. She held a closed umbrella in her hand, and every time a man or boy approached to offer to help carry her belongings, she poked aggressively at him and called out: "No you don't!" Annie stood some distance away as she was ashamed of her sister's behaviour and extremely annoyed about it, but this did not worry Elizabeth as long as her luggage was safe.
They stayed in London for a fortnight. Mrs. Cameron was bitterly disappointed in the great city, the place of her birth, as it differed so vastly from the mental picture she had formed of it. The reality appeared so grimy, smoky and gloomy to her.
The two sisters met a woman selling matches which to them was an unusual sight. They were touched by her poverty-stricken appearance and gave her a shilling. That evening a number of poor people with a barrel-organ serenaded them at the hotel where they were staying. From their bed-room window they threw small coins to the crowd, much to Mr. Cameron's amusement, who asked them if they wanted to be besieged by all the ragamuffins of London.
Elizabeth had heard and read so much about the gin-palaces in the East End that she was determined to see them before she left the capital. She did not inform her husband nor Annie about this desire on her part for fear they would not care about the idea and would try dissuade her from going, so, accompanied by a policeman, she set out on a tour of the slums. She was tremendously interested in all she saw. They passed many of the notorious gin-palaces and the sights of poverty, drunkenness, brawling and lewdness they witnessed were indescribable.
When she was a child her mother had often told her how delicious fresh salmon was, and, as she had eaten only the tinned variety, she, along with Mr. Cameron and Annie decided to try some of the fresh fish. They entered a restaurant for this purpose and enjoyed the meal but the salmon did not come up to their expectations. After tipping the waitress and paying their bill they prepared to leave but, as they approached the door, several waitresses lined up and chanted in a sing-song way: "Remember the waitresses! Remember the waitresses!" At first the travellers could not make out what the girls were saying but soon they realised that they were being asked for tips. They did not comply with the request as these waitresses had not served them in any way.
Mrs. Cameron thought it scandalous the way tips were expected in London. She did not mind giving one where it was really deserved, but no waiter nor porter would render the slightest service without expecting extra remuneration.
Her husband had much business to transact so, while he was away, she and her sister went to the West End to have a look round, and when lunch-time approached they decided to have the meal at a restaurant. As soon as they entered a waiter came to them to hear their needs and they asked to be shown to a table for two. He hovered about them for a minute or so and then walked away. They waited, thinking he would return soon to conduct them to a table, but he did not come back. A few minutes later another waiter approached them and again they stated their requirements, with the same result - he walked away and did not return. After standing at the door and feeling most awkward and uncomfortable for about ten minutes, they departed in disgust. Later on when describing the incident to some English acquaintances they were informed that at that restaurant, which was considered very select, unless a waiter was tipped at the entrance, he would not worry to show customers to a table.
At the end of the fortnight the trio went on board the Egypt to sail for America. The cabins in this ship were very roomy and comfortable and Mrs. Cameron would have enjoyed the voyage had she been a better sailor.
On the way to America the people on board sighted a man and a dog in a small boat on the open sea. The Captain of the Egypt, thinking they required help, stopped the ship but found on enquiry no assistance was needed. Some time later it was reported in the newspapers that the man and the dog in the boat had arrived in England.
The South Africans had no trouble at the customs office and soon passed through when they landed at New York. Here they stayed at the Union Hotel. Mrs. Cameron liked this city far better than she did London. With its beautiful, broad streets New York impressed her as being much cleaner and brighter than the English capital. The hotels were excellent. The waiters, who were most obliging, were all negroes in dress-suits, and no tips were allowed. What a contrast to London! This rule of "no tips" was made by all the hotels in the large American cities during the centenary celebrations.
While in New York the sisters had a ride in an aerial tram, but Elizabeth did not enjoy the experience and was glad to get to the end of the trip. As they wont along they were able to see right into the bedrooms of the two- and the three-storeyed houses they passed. This she thought was not at all nice.
She was greatly interested in the comfortable rest-room provided for the use of the employes at the Steinway factory, where she and her husband bought a Grand piano which was to be sent out to South Africa for them. She considered it would be an excellent thing if all factories and other places of business had similar rest-rooms.
The travellers visited Tiffanys, the jewellers, whose buildings occupied a whole block in the city. There they saw a most magnificent silver dinner-service which included vases, fruit-bowls, vegetable-dishes and so forth. It had been made to order for John William Mackay, a Dublin Irishman who had emigrated to the United States and who was the discoverer of one of the richest of the Nevada Silver Mines. He was considered to be the wealthiest man in America at that time. It was said that he paid £30,000 for the workmanship only of the dinner-service and he supplied the silver for it. The Americans spoke well of him. They said his sudden access to wealth had not spoilt him at all. He never forgot his old friends and at 'Xmas-time always sent them each a cheque or some other useful present.
From New York the visitors went on a trip through Connecticut and then proceeded southwards to Philadelphia. While the whole train was being taken across the Hudson River on the steamer, the Maryland, the South Africans together with the other passengers quitted their compartments and went upstairs to have light refreshments. When the other side of the river was almost reached an official sang out: "All seats, please," whereupon the passengers returned to the train which soon afterwards left the car-ferry and proceeded on its journey. Mrs. Cameron did not feel the train either go on nor leave the Maryland. This method of crossing a river was a strange experience to her as there is nothing like it in this country.
She thought Philadelphia a very picturesque city. The three stayed at a boarding-house called Marble Terrace. It was a lovely place comprising a whole block of buildings, the frontage of which consisted of marble. The broad steps leading up to the main entrance were of marble, and the spraying fountains amid green lawns were also of marble. Surrounding the grounds, which were beautifully laid out, were palings of a soft green shade with gold tips. It was here that Annie, the Camerons' first child was born. When they attended the exhibition they left her at Marble Terrace in the care of the proprietor's wife, whe was very much interested in the South Africans and was extremely kind to them.
The trio went by tram to the Exhibition Grounds which covered a good many acres of land at Fairmont Park. Many countries were represented and there were wonderfully interesting exhibits. Mr. Cameron took different kinds of minerals and grain from the Transvaal with him. He also showed some crocidolite from Kimberley and a number ef moonstones. The crocidolite caused quite a sensation among geologists. Up to that time it had been found in only one other place in the world, so geologists from all parts of America came to the Exhibition to examine the specimens brought from South Africa.
The Americans were greatly interested in several of the South African cereals which they had not seen before. Among these were kaffir-corn, "klein-koring" (a species of wheat) and bread mealies. They were so anxious to have samples of these grains that Mr. Cameron sold them some at twenty-five cents for a pill-box full.
Mr. Riley, who represented the Orange Free State had samples of coal and minerals and a number of diamonds. Among his exhibits was a perfect little model of a buckwagon loaded with bales of wool. Thia small model had a native driver and a touleier complete and attracted much attention. Some Americans asked Mrs. Cameron where the kaffir sat whilst driving. She explained to them how he walked alongside the oxen, shouted to each of them by name, used his long whip to urge them on, and how, when they were going well, he jumped up on to the moving vehicle and sat on the small seat at the front which was almost hidden by the bales of wool. She also explained why there was a touleier and how the brake was used. This mode of driving seemed to amuse the Americans greatly.
The Cape Colony was also represented but she thought their display very poor. It consisted mostly of wines and brandies and was not arranged to advantage at all.
During the six months that the Exhibition lasted the visitors from South Africa went to it frequently. Mrs. Cameron was tremendously interested in the exhibits from other countries.
The wax statuary was an outstanding feature. Christ's life was wonderfully portrayed, all the figures in the different scenes being life-size. She specially liked the scene where the Holy Babe was lying in the manger with the cattle standing around. A group of Laplanders stands out clearly in her memory as it was so truly picturesque. On opening the door of one room in the building where this statuary was exhibited, she was confronted by eight German cavalrymen. She started, drew back, then suddenly realized that they too were but wax though so life-like.
She was greatly struck by the beautiful shoes from Vienna, and the apples from California made her mouth water. A most magnificent ball dress from Paris was much admired. It had a long train and was trimmed with very dainty, coloured flowers made of kid. The work put into it was exquisite. This frock, which was valued at three hundred pounds, was sold to a lady from New York. Many people flocked to see the "Butter-woman" which was the head and shoulders of a woman perfectly modelled in real butter.
A competition in fireworks took place between America and France. The fireworks were wonderful. As the many-coloured bright lights lit up the heavens and the thousands of spectators crowded together down below, the thought passed through her mind that the scene was exactly as she had pictured the Day of Judgement. The last of this display was the words, "Peace and Goodwill," written across the sky in letters of fire which appeared to be about six feet in length.
Not far from Marble Terrace was a cemetery which was beautifully kept. It had roads running through it for vehicular traffic and there was a large number of family vaults in it. While the Camerons were in Philadelphia, a girl whose uncle was a physician, was buried in one of these family resting-places. A day or two after her funeral the watchman who was on duty in the cemetery heard a queer noise in the vault in which she had been laid to rest. He stood still and listened intently, and again he heard the same peculiar sound. Scared to death he rushed off to report the matter, but was laughed at and asked whether he had seen a ghost. He persisted that he had distinctly heard an unusual noise and he refused point-blank to go on watch again.
Another man was sent to take his place. He had scarcely gone on duty when he, too, heard the weird sound and feeling decidedly uneasy hurried off to report the matter. The family concerned, on being informed of the incident, immediately sent a couple of men to the vault to make investigations. Their diligent search discovered nothing to account for the strange noise the watchmen had heard, so, following insturctions, they opened the coffin of the girl and a dreadful sight met their eyes. She had been buried while in a trance, had come to, and in her terror and struggle for breath in the closed coffin had torn her face to pieces. She was quite dead then for she had suffocated. Of course this caused a great stir in Philadelphia and for days was the one topic of conversation.
Mrs. Cameron, who never did have much faith in doctors, had a poorer opinion than ever of the medical profession after this occurrence.
The South Africans received invitations to practically all the States but could not accept them as their time was too limited. Many of the American women whom the travellers met were greatly interested in South Africa and asked innumerable questions. On one occasion they enquired of Mrs. Cameron what kind of floors the houses in her country had. Then informed that practically all the houses at that time had mud-floors, they wanted to know how these were kept clean. On hearing that they were periodically smeared with fresh cow-dung, they were dreadfully shocked and exclaimed: "What a filthy idea!" Mrs. Cameron felt annoyed for the minute, and never again during her visit did she speak about the floors of the houses in her adopted land, as she did not wish the American women to get the wrong impression that South African women were "filthy" in their ways.
The trio did not leave America without visiting the famous Falls. They had to travel to this beauty-spot in a sleigh as it had been snowing a great deal. It was a glorious drive and the keen air stung the colour into their faces. Icicles were hanging from the branches of the snow-clad trees and the country-side looked beautiful with its thick white carpet.
What impressed Mrs. Cameron very greatly on this trip was that all the domestic animals were stabled and fed. Always fond of animals, she thought it would be an excellent thing if South Africans would follow the example of the Americans and make proper provision for their farm-stock in winter. Very little was done in this country in those days with regard to winter feed and stabling.
After seeing the Falls the tourists went to the Whirlpool Rapids, some three miles further down the river. Here they were shown into a room which had two windows with iron bars across them and they were directed to sit down. When they had waited a short while they felt the room begin to move. It went down and down until it landed on a platform which jutted far out over the stream. The sightseers went out on to this platform and got a splendid view of the churning waters of the aptly named Whirlpool Rapids. Elizabeth did not like this way of seeing the swiftly eddying currents and was glad when the machinery was set in motion and she found herself safely on the bank of the river again.
While the travellers in their sleigh were crossing a bridge over the St. Lawrence between the Falls and the Rapids, they heard a great, rumbling noise and on looking up saw a train passing overhead. Mrs. Cameron felt quite nervous until she saw the tail-end of the train disappearing, as this railway-bridge with a carriage-way some eighteen or twenty feet below it was indeed a novelty to her and her companions.
At Montreal the prettiness of the girls attracted her attention. They had the loveliest complexions imaginable. Here she bought a pair of moccasins made by the Indians. She saw some of these yellow-skinned men too but, much to her disappointment, they did not dress as in the pictures she had seen of Red Indians.
The visitors returned to New York in time to spend 'Xmas Day there. It snowed heavily all day which seemed very strange to the South Africans as a cold Yule-tide was a new experience to them.
The menus at the hotel, especially those for 'Xmas Day, included so many courses that Mrs. Cameron got tired at the idea of so much food and began to long for a simple South African dinner with only two or three courses. Some American friends were very keen on her tasting the canvas-back duck which they considered a great delicacy. She ordered a helping but to her it had the appearance of bruised flesh so one look at it was enough - she did not taste it.
Professor Forbes of Yale College invited the trio to his home in Brooklyn for dinner. He sent his carriage and pair to meet them at East River which they crossed on a ferry. They thoroughly enjoyed the evening except for one small incident - they were given live oysters at dinner. This proved almost too much for Mrs. Cameron. She put one in her mouth and gave a gulp, inwardly shuddering to the soles of her feet. That was the first and the last time she ever ate a live oyster. She still shudders as she says: "It may be correct to eat them alive but it's horrible."
While in New York, the South Africans witnessed a torchlight procession in connection with the presidential election when Rutherford Birchard Hayes was returned. It was a tremendously long procession with the Europeans walking in the van and the negroes following in the rear.
After a happy and interesting sojourn in the land of Mr. Cameron's birth, the travellers returned to London en route for South Africa. The voyage to England was extremely rough. For two days the seas were so high that Mrs. Cameron remembers being tied in her bunk, and the fiddles had to be used to prevent the crockery from rolling off the tables at meal-times. Needless to say, she was dreadfully sea-sick.
A few days were spent in London after which they went to the docks to go on board the Edinburgh Castle. It was evening, and loose among their luggage was a long gun which Mr. Cameron had had specially made for shooting elephants. When their belongings had been piled on the ground, ready to be taken aboard, he went off to enquire about their cabins. Immediately after his departure a man stole up out of the shadows, quietly took the gun and made off with it. Thinking he had not been noticed, he leant it against a wall, a short distance away in a dark spot, and went round the corner. Mrs. Cameron, who had witnessed the whole incident, with her usual presence of mind dumped the baby into Annie's arms, dashed to the wall and recovered the gun before the thief returned.
Much as the travellers had enjoyed their trip, it was with great delight that they sighted Table Mountain. The steamer touched at Cape Town and then went on to Durban at which port the trio landed. Annie went home to her parents in Pretoria while the Camerons took a house on the Berea to await the arrival of the goods, including machinery for a mill and furniture, which they had bought overseas.
Copyright Win de Vos.
Put onto the web by Joan Marsh(2002) a great-grand-daughter of ERCameron