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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LXVI. - Visitors of many Nations and Races


IT was not until 1869, when the Suez Canal was opened, that Cape Town lost its importance as a place of call. On the jetty there the new docks being yet in course of construction one could see men of almost all the tribes of earth coming ashore and going back to their ships, whether steamers or sailing vessels, whether traders or warships. Russian frigates manned by handsome Baltic coast sailors, took out big dusky Cossacks to Vladivostock or the mouth of the Amoor, and returned with the troops which had served their time in that region. The Siberian railway had still to be made, and to use a Yorkshire word, the gainest way for the passing back and forward of troops was by sending them in war vessels round the Cape of Good Hope, which its first Portuguese discoverers had just cause to call the Cape of Storms. We had visits from German and American trading ships, but I do not remember seeing any of their navy vessels in Table Bay in 1866. Spain and Portugal, like Russia, were regularly sending out to, and taking back from, their Far East possessions, armed forces and officials in warships. So was Holland and so was France. Even Ismail, Khedive of Egypt, sent down the east side of Africa his gunboats used as traders, which gunboats were usually officered by Europeans, English, French, Italian, and Greek, while the crews were meek -looking tillers of the soil from the valley of the Nile, Arabs with a dust complexion, hearty negroes and Levantine rascals. All the ships trading with India, China, Japan, Borneo, Cochin-China, Siam, and the Philippines, had specimens of the native races of their countries among their crews. The whale-fishing of the antarctic seas was then and, I suppose, is yet mostly in the hands of the energetic Yankees, who had sometimes strong Red Indians and many negroes in their companies. The rendezvous of the New England whaling fleet was St Helena, but some of its ships visited Table Bay. I do not think that even San Francisco could at any time boast of such a show of all the tribes of the earth as Cape Town of 1866 could do. As for the Chinese, the sugar-planters of Natal were then allowed to employ indentured Chinese coolies who, when they had served their term, and saved almost all their wages, as the majority of them managed to do, got free passage home to their native land. But some of them did not wish to go back, and cutting off their pigtails, made their way to Cape Town and other parts of Cape Colony, where they began new pursuits and hid their nationality. My barber at Cape Town was one of the ex-coolies who preferred the Colony to China, grew his hair in European fashion, married a half-caste wife, abjured the joss-house, and made himself a respectable and modestly prosperous citizen.

The hundreds of male convicts employed on the docks and the breakwater were compounded in healthy and spacious ground at the foot of the Lion Head hills overlooking the bay, and lying between the city and the Green Point villas. The enclosure was strongly fenced in and guarded by armed sentries, who were ready by night and by day to shoot down convicts who attempted to escape. Very few such attempts were made. The convicts were well fed, more comfortably bedded, housed, and clothed than they had been in their days of freedom; the labour was not excessive, and they learned many useful arts as well as discipline and order. They contained representatives of all the coloured races within the colony, from the big Kaffirs and Basutos to the puny and almost deformed bushmen of Namaqualand, whose favourite weapons were poisoned arrows. There were even among them woolly-headed negroes from the West Coast and Mozambique, who had some way drifted into the colony and got into trouble there. These pure- blooded negroes were physically far superior to the Hottentots, with hair in patches, who were the original inhabitants of the western provinces of Cape Colony, and are still very numerous there. Between the native tribes themselves mixed castes had arisen, and there were likewise thousands who were the descendants of white men and native women, and who bore the proofs of their origin in their persons. The largest squad of these who gathered themselves into a tribe were the Bastards, of whom big Adam Cok was the captain, and who in my time occupied the land on which, after the discovery of the diamonds, Kimberley was built. The Bastards had to be bought out before the whites took possession of their lands. Captain Adam Cook and his tribe were proud of their half-European descent, and wished to live pacific and orderly lives; but I under- stand that since then they have much dwindled away, although to look at them, one would expect them to multiply and hold their own. There seems to be some mysterious law about the dying out of hybrid races in Africa and everywhere. As for the Kaffirs, Basutos, Zulus, and their allied tribes, they are certainly not of the negroid stock, although in the long procession of time since they came down from the Persian Gulf or the backlands of Egypt, as the Arabs came afterwards, they got, by intermix- ing, partly marked with the African brand.

I soon found that the Malays formed a most important section of the population of Cape Town and the neighbouring districts. They had been slaves before their emancipation in the early days of Queen Victoria's long reign. Rebels in Java and Sumatra to Dutch rule, their ancestors had been transported to the Cape, and made slaves there to the Dutch officials and colonists. The banished ones had in most cases, I believe, belonged to the upper classes in their native land. Generations of slavery failed to degrade them. It might be truly said to have improved them. They stuck, under difficulties, to their ancestral Mohammedan faith, and learned in the furnace of tribulation to get rid of ancestral faults, and become a truly pious and patient people, with a high standard of morality. The instant they were emancipated they took to well-doing, and prospered. Very few Malays found their way to the convict establishment, except it might be as sellers of food supplies. Diligent and honest in business, and serving the Lord according to the light of their creed, the Malays of Cape Town and its neighbourhood gathered gear in a quietly progressive way as soon as they were freed. They highly valued education, and managed, I cannot say how, even when in bondage, to have their children taught to read the Koran. Afterwards, a higher education came within their reach, and they took full advantage of it. They owned much of the smaller house- property in Cape Town when I saw them, and plots of land outside the town limits. They were artisans, small traders, and general utility people, who did not often go into service, although always ready for any employment which did not interfere with their well-ordered domestic life. They would not taste wines or spirits, but the least strict of them had no objection to take a drink of the frothy Cape beer, or "pop," which had hardly any intoxicating power. The law did not interfere with polygamy among the native race. Whenever a native had money to spare he invested it in the purchase of another wife. The Koran sanctioned polygamy, but the Cape Malays were monogamists almost to a man. In fact, the only one I heard of who had two wives was my friend Ishmael, the imaum of one of the mosques, who, when an old man of seventy, was induced by his old wife to marry an orphan niece of hers, so that his property would descend to her. Ishmael was the swearering of Malay witnesses in the Supreme Court, and the interpreter when required. He was also paid a small sum monthly for the information he supplied to the "Standard." Great liars were many of the native witnesses, and some of the white men too, but a sworn Malay could be trusted to tell the truth under examination, although he might be a reluctant witness on many occasions.

Our Cape Malays were, I was told by persons who had been in Java, a handsomer people than the stock from which they had come. Under thirty they might pass with their clear olive complexions for Andalusian Spaniards. Their children were neatly if cheaply clad, and clean and bonnie bairns. Cleanliness was, no less than predestination, part of the Malay creed. A boy of twelve or so, who used to come to our door, selling fruit, would, for a painter or sculptor, have made a splendid model for a boy Apollo.

The loyalty of the Cape Malays appeared to be imbued with a spirit of religious fervour. On the Queen's birthday they mustered on the Castle esplanade in their gala dresses and ornaments, each mosque congregation headed by its imaum, bilals, and gatieps say, its minister, elders, and deacons. They had previously prayed in their mosques for long life, happiness, and prosperity to Her Majesty, and mingled their prayers ]with thanksgiving for their own redemption from slavery.


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