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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LXIV. - Off to South Africa


ON the 5th of November, 1865, my dear young wife and I, with our little boy, ten months old, and our loyal Irish maid, Kate Carty, embarked at Southampton for Cape Town, on board the "Roman," Captain Dixon, of the Union Line. We left port late in the evening, and had a rough night down the Channel. The next morning the sun was brightly shining on the "Roman" at anchor in Plymouth harbour. As we had to stay there until the afternoon, I went on shore and had a good look round the town and its neighbourhood. It was discovered when the ship came to anchor, that one of the crew was missing. There could be no doubt as to his having fallen overboard during the stormy night when still under the influence of the spree in which he had indulged before he left Southampton. The captain had to go on shore to report the incident, and to hand over the lost man's kit to the authorities. This caused the usual period of detention for passengers and cargo to be a little lengthened, but on leaving we had a good view of the bold Devon and Cornish coasts which are such a pleasant contrast to the flat east coast of England that from Kent to Berwick can only boast of a few romantic places like Whitby and Scarborough.

The rough weather in which we bade our native land good night, followed us through the ever restless Bay of Biscay, with sea sickness as its consequence. I am not a good sailor at any time, but on this occasion I was not absolutely sick, but miserably queasy for, I think, a whole week. I almost felt as if the cook and waiter, by showing the roast joints for dinner at the door of the saloon were in a conspiracy with the sea. But when the uneasy feeling passed and a keen appetite returned, all that discomfort was soon forgotten. Palmas was the only land we saw on the passage out. One fine morning it lay before our eyes, set in a calm sea with shores, hill slopes, and glen depressions like a panoramic little map. Another incident was an invasion of locusts which struck sails and ship further on when we were more than a hundred miles from the nearest part of the African coast. Lots of them fell on deck, and created quite a sensation, especially among those of us who had never seen a flight of locusts before. The wind was driving them out to sea where the cloud of them that passed over the "Roman" must have found a watery grave. The "Roman" was not trying to make a record, but merely an economical voyage. So when the wind was favourable coal was spared, and we jogged on for days under sail. We took thirty-two days between leaving the Southampton docks and coming to anchor in Table Bay, and that was then considered an average good voyage.

When the first uneasy days were over, we, the first-class passengers, settled down and soon became acquainted with one another. The Army was represented by a general and a captain, and the Navy by a quarter-master appointed to Ascension, who, with his wife, children, and governess, had to go to Cape Town in order to be able to get back from there to his grilling station, and its turtle beds. Mr Williams, who was going out to be Dean of Grahamstown, and had his wife, child, sister-in-law, and servant maid with him, represented the Church of England militant, and a Free Church probationer who was going out to be a Gill College professor, made a meek representative of Presbyterianism. I was going out to edit a new bi-weekly Conservative newspaper, "The Cape Standard." Three young ladies, one English, one Scotch, and one Irish, were going out to be married to gentlemen who could not get leave to go to fetch their brides. There were many Colonials who had been "home," as they affectionately called the old country, and were returning to their businesses, trades, and farms in South Africa. In addition, there were several who were voyaging for health and pleasure, or whose trade undertakings called them, after South Africa, to India, China, and Japan. The second class passengers were a decent lot of outgoing mechanics, and servants, and young men in search of situations. If there were any steerage passengers, they were so mixed up with the crew as to be not discernible. Upon the whole, we were a sort of happy family, well fed and lodged, and with as few frictions among ourselves as could well be expected. The children, although, poor things, they suffered from prickly heat, were a source of general pleasure and enjoyment.

Dean Williams, to his honour, instituted a daily short religious service Prayer Book readings and prayers, which many of us regularly attended. As the Dutch passengers were mostly Presbyterians, and as Dean Williams was so bellicose, so down on Bishop Colenso, so full of the Lambeth Conference, and so incapable of seeing good in any non-Episcopal communion, that he annoyed people of his own church, and also the Presbyterians on board, there was a move to set up the Free Church probationer as a rival to officiate turn about. But the probationer very sensibly declined to interfere with the Dean's monopoly; and in truth, for a short daily worship, the Prayer Book is more suitable than anything else. The Dean was as full of admiration for Pusey's "Eirenicon," published that year, as he was of condemnation for Colenso, and contempt for non- Episcopal denominations. He certainly had the full courage of his opinions. A time was to come when he would keep the Bishop of Grahamstown out of his Cathedral, because lie, the Dean, stood upon his right as a dignitary of the Church of England, and absolutely refused to recognise the newly formed Episcopal Church of South Africa, although it remained in union and communion with the Church of England. No two men could be more unlike than Dean Williams with his aggressive and unreasonable traditional dogmatism, and gentlemanly scholarly Bishop Colenso, with his logical and arithmetical habits of analysis, and yet circumstances placed them incongruously on the same platform of opposition to what most of their co-religionists naturally held to be canonical authority.

One night when we went to bed on the "Roman," we knew that Table Mountain and its outliers the Lion's Head and the Devil's Kop would be in sight next morning. I was one of those who were up on deck early to enjoy that sight, and truly a grand sight it was. We must have been still more than twenty miles out at sea when the shadows of night dispersed, the panoramic scene opened on the view, and the flocks of seabirds came out to meet us. Nature has been strangely niggard to Africa in regard to sheltered harbours and land- locked bays. As a rule that big lump of a continent has a low-lying malarial seaboard without openings, and in the few places where the coast line is high and rocky, it has breakers in front and no fertile land behind. Table Bay is a remarkable exception to the general rule. Delagoa Bay is an exception also, but in my time it was considered a malarial death - trap because of the surrounding marshes, which began only to be drained when the railway was made to the Transvaal. As for Table Bay, the approach to it from the sea is grand because of the range of high mountains. At the entrance to it is Robben Island, which, in 1866, was occupied by rabbits, lepers, political prisoners, and official caretakers of the two latter classes. The political prisoners were native chiefs and followers who had been involved in the Kaffir invasion of the Eastern Provinces or in rebellions elsewhere. Natives convicted of ordinary crimes, to the number of five hundred or more, were employed on the breakwater and grand docks then in course of construction. Sheltered as the bay looked, there was much need for the breakwater and docks to make it safe from the one wind which could sweep it, and had the year before driven about twenty ships ashore.

I was sorry to lose sight of the Great Bear, which had looked down upon all the great events in the past history of the human race, and felt strongly when I reached Cape Town that the Southern Cross had for incalculable milleniums been looking down on lands which were waiting their chance for making history of their own. Table Bay has few, if any, equals in the whole world. The Dutch founders of Cape Town deserve praise and everlasting gratitude for the judicious way in which they laid out broad streets sloping from the mountains to the shore, on the hill-enclosed plain. The castle fronting the bay was, I daresay, sufficient at first for the whole of the white people, as it had space enough within its circuit. But when the town became more a place of call for ships passing to the Far East, and returning, care was taken to make wide streets, and to set aside a large space for the splendid Government Gardens and residence for the Governor.


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