Editor’s note: I love this electronic campfire we’ve created, where Frontier Partisan folk from across the globe can gather. I received this missive from Kobus van Coppenhagen on Monday morning, and it absolutely made my day. With his permission, I have posted it in full here. Be warned: Here be sidetrails. (I’m looking at YOU David Wrolson…)
Good day Jim
I have been following Frontier Partisan for some time and want to “blame” you for re-igniting a nostalgia in me for almost forgotten times. I have also posted some comments, but it seems that it did not reach you, which is a regular issue with my old iPad and which explains resorting to e-mail. Obviously one wants to contribute where possible and sometimes even clarify a few points.
When one thinks about Africa, especially more than 100 years ago, one needs to switch on your imagination, because all the stories are essentially told in black and white and you have to add some color to it (Jamey Johnson; In Color, his Farm Aid rendition is moving). The journals of 19th century travelers to Africa, were eagerly lapped up by the adoring British public and in fact they were considered to be superhero’s (being the central figure in journals of their own creation). But at the same time, cryptic references to some of their contemporaries were incorporated, almost like breadcrumbs along the roads travelled. In all fairness, it must also be noted that some important journals have been published posthumously and that many also highlight the gross atrocities committed by black people against their own kind. To illustrate/confirm certain points, I have taken some quotations from the journals of Edward Mohr and Frank Oates, just for example, but there are many more such as Baines, etc.
No wonder then that many years later, T.V. Bulpin, and perhaps others, were able to successfully enthrall readers with stories of African adventurers/hunters, because the most fantastic story lines already exist in the journals of those travelers, which only required a little color(elaboration/enhancement) — in order to become a bestseller or to become the inspiration for one. Fortunately, many of those journals are now being digitized and are available for public consumption and in the process also revealing details about other interesting characters, two of which (amongst many others) are Johannes Lee and Petrus Jacobs.
This very long introduction brings me To the Banks of the Zambezi, which I have unfortunately not read (trying to find a copy), and I am relying on your podcast about Johannes Lodewikus (John/Jan) Lee for my inspiration. Strangely, I am almost flattered about the story of my grandpa’s sexual prowess, but it is not completely true. However, I do want you to take note of some of his other achievements which should rather render him as a truly colorful human being. Obviously it is not going to be possible to untangle everything in this e-mail but if you are interested I will point you to resources such a journals of contemporaries of John Lee, who made references to him and others, from time to time. (They referred to him as John Lee and I will stick to that).
It is also best to briefly explain some relationships: I am a descendant of a Dorslandtrekker, who left the ZAR(Transvaal) mid 1870s, and is one of the first generation to be born in South Africa, since then. John Lee’s daughter Sara (by his first wife) was married to David Jacobs (also an elephant hunter), the son of Petrus (Piet) Jacobs, the legendary elephant and lion hunter and in turn John and Petrus were my paternal grandmothers’ great grandparents. Another notable fact is that her father’s first wife (Anna Fourie) was killed in the Massacre of Derdepoort on 25 November 1899, which was the first atrocity perpetrated against civilians under English command in the Boer War and which was labelled as a war crime in Europe.
The picture on display was taken when John was already in his mid 80s and Baines painting of the elephant hunt, beside him, shows John mounted on his famous horse and it must have been made at the time when Baines resided at John’s farm at Mangwe. John said that this was the horse which made him (according to Oates below). It is interesting to note that the horse’s legs are locked (stretched ala American Saddle Horse), which made it possible to shoot the roer from horseback.
(Oates 1881ed p48) : “There was a picture, too, by Baines, of Lee shooting three elephants. The horse here represented, which I think cost him £100, was the making of him, he tells me. Lee was a Transvaal Boer, but speaks English. …. Lee described how his old favourite used to snuff when game was near and when it was elephant his manner was unmistakeable.”
(Oates 1881 ed p49) : “Lee tells me that a lion may often be stopped by throwing your hat at him, when you may have time to shoot. He says an elephant gun should never be longer than 27 inches (25 is better), nor weigh over 9 pounds. He shoots 8 drams of powder and an 8 to the pound ball. The recoil is avoided by the barrel being strong and nearly as thick at muzzle as at breech. His clothing in hunting is as light as possible, veldt schoen and he says not even a shirt if he could help. He carries needles and thread in his hat.”
John Lee was occupied (you couldn’t leave just whenever you wanted) at the King’s residence when his first wife died during child birth and by the time he arrived home their son Hans had already buried his mother. Hans killed his first lion at the age of 13 whilst it was attacking cattle in the kraal close to their homestead. Lobengula was so impressed that he invited Hans to hunt anywhere in the kingdom, where he chose to. Hans was also later on contracted to guide sir Randolph Churchill on his hunting expedition of 1890, for which he was granted 2 farms by the Company. This Churchill is also famous for the derogatory remarks he made about Boers in general, whilst he was ignorant enough to entrust his life into the hands of one.
John’s second wife eloped whilst he was gone, but I have to say that times must have been less romantic than one could imagine. Sometimes he was away for long periods on hunting trips. She returned later on (don’t know exactly when) after he married the next wife, but he allowed her to stay (in the settlement) and help to raise the children. One must consider what her fate would have been if he did not allow her to remain. The resident in-laws, ever present visitors at Mangwe (sometimes it teemed like a small village) and missionaries would have made him an immediate outcast if he was to practice polygamy (which also explodes that myth, unfortunately). The missionary, Thompson, came to Mangwe to conduct the ceremony for David and Sara, etc.
The story of the size of Lee’s farm is more or less correct although my own family history mentions a farm of 100 square miles, but if the 200 miles sounds more fantastic, so be it (although some other notes do exist which refer to 200 square mile). However, over and above that, a very large tract of land beyond his farm was also considered to be his exclusive hunting area.
(Proceedings of Royal Geographical Society (RGS) Vol 15 No2 p152/3.): “It appeared, from conversations with the chiefs, that the Ramakhobane River district was considered Mr. Lee’s hunting-ground and that it was desired that he should hold himself responsible for white men visiting that region. He, however, considered it quite impracticable to assert exclusive rights there.”
My personal opinion is that the area mentioned did perhaps also serve as a buffer zone between the Tswana and Matabele.
(E Mohr p199 & 253) : “ … Moreover, the granite rocks on the plains are of such peculiar forms that it is almost impossible to mistake their identity. To two of them-one resembling an old ruined Norman castle, the other a dilapidated round tower-we gave the names of Lee’s Castle and Lee’s Tower, after an elephant hunter settled in the neighbourhood.”
John Lee built his first residence at Mangwe before his first wife and children joined him there and was replaced afterwards by a second and later a third as he became more prosperous from hunting, trading and farming.
(Mohr p231) “My tent rocked so much in the wind, however, that I generally went down to Lee’s large thatched hut on the Mangwe, from which I had a very pretty view, embracing the river, the tents of my own and Baines’ encampment, the grazing flocks and herds, etc.” (perhaps this was his first or second house).
Oates (1881 ed p 47/48) “In about an hour a pretty white farm is seen on the right, towards which the road winds and the wild view makes the farm seem to welcome one”……. ” His house had an air of comfort and some luxury about it, owing to some handsome leopard karosses on couch and chairs.”
(Mohr p245) : “Lee… employed himself in cultivating some fields, which he planted with wheat and potatoes, subsequently adding almond and peach trees …”
Mohr also commented on the fact that the Englishmen (miners) of the Tati and the Ramakoban were suffering from scurvy, whilst they (who congregated at Mangwe) did not; he also refers to his own vegetable garden which he planted at Mangwe, which should also give an idea of the long periods spent waiting for permission, or for the malaria (unhealthy) season to pass before entering the interior.
(Oates 1881 ed p42) : “This John Lee is a noted Dutchman, who farm a large tract of country under the king.” (Oates 1881 ed p49) : “He is trying peaches, apricots and pomegranates. Potatoes grow well here and he is seldom without vegetables. He is trying several wild fruits. He has always water in the spruit close by and waters by hand. He showed me a wild grape. ..” and p51 “Talked with Lee and afterwards saw his garden.”
Lee the trader
(Oates 1881ed p49): “His place is very healthy, and it has got so good a name that in unhealthy times people stay about here and it has been like a town, so that he opened a store.”
(E Mohr p199); “On the 18th of October we heard that Lee, mentioned above, had arrived at the Tati with two waggons, containing provisions for Baines’ party; …….”
(Oates 1881 ed p48); “Lee has just sold twelve red oxen Afrikanders, with white faces for £100, unwillingly. His other oxen are all in the hunting veldt.”
This situation came about because the king would not allow cattle from the south to move beyond Lee’s farm, due to a new disease.
There is another interesting side to the John Lee story in the sense that he is sometimes described as an Englishman, when such an appropriation would fit the occasion and at other times as a Dutchman or a Boer. I suspect that he might even have quietly made effective use of this ambiguity himself, when it suited the situation, but I also believe that one can’t deny him that right.
(Oates p42 1889 ed) refers to him: “This John Lee is a well-known Boer, who…….farmed a large tract of land under the king.”
(RGS Vol. 15 No 2 p148): “Mr Baines reached the Mungwe river, where he found an Englishman, Mr. Lee, acting as the accredited agent of the Matabele tribe …”
Please note that I am not trying to pour cold water over a fantastic story, but rather when the enhancements are stripped away, a person with a slightly more solid character is portrayed. Some of the highlighted text would help to understand why he was such a successful hunter. I have found a substantial number of resources and some make good reading, whilst others are perhaps only a source of questionable information.
You have some wonderful stories on FP, which sets the mind wandering on interesting paths. The intrigue surrounding the demise of Kitchener, villain of the Boer War, brings to me the (new) probability of retribution by stealth and some closure, in my mind at least, for his role in the concentration camp atrocities of the Boer War.
By the way, some of the first Afrikaners(Boers) to settle in Rhodesia used the last name (surname) of Cornelius, maybe distant relatives?
An anecdotal story: The Ridgeback “originated” in Zimbabwe and many years ago an expat who settled in South Africa, had an engineering supply shop called Ridgeback Engineering Supplies. His prices marked on goods, were always a mystery until I enquired. The answer lies in the name and I think that s as in RIDGEBACKS served for the zero. Life is interesting.
Kobus van Coppenhagen