|Our thanks to Gail Welch for sending this
Captain Alexander L. McDonald
1821 – 1880
This memoir of a very remarkable man is inadequate to the
interest of its subject. Captain McDonald was born in Perthshire in
1821 and died in Newcastle, Natal, in 1880.
left a vast collection of papers, all eminently readable, but it has
been possible in the following pages to give only a faint hint of their
scope, for no branch of science and literature was uninvestigated by his
tireless curiosity. Much that he wrote is lost for ever, and it was to
rescue for the edification of those of his descendants who may be
interested, something of what is left in documents that time is rapidly
disintegrating, that the work of editing some of the most interesting
papers was undertaken.
Written by his
Eric Alexander McDonald
in Johannesburg, in the
"We may enjoy the present
while we are insensible of infirmity and decay; but the present, like a
note in music, is nothing but as it appertains to what is past and what
is to come. There are voices, O Rhodope, that are not soon mute,
however tuneful; there is no name, with whatever emphasis of passionate
love repeated, of which the echo is not faint at last."
Landor's 'Aesop and Rhodope'
In the early forties
of the last century a sailing vessel slowly tacked its way into Table
Bay. At the rail stood, quietly taking in the scene, two young officers;
one tall and blonde, with lively deep blue eyes, and the other short and
swarthy, paying but casual heed to his companion's earnest conversation.
They had come to take up stations in the military organization of the
Cape, the first Subaltern McDonald, in the Paymaster's Office in the
Castle, and the second, Lieut. McInroy, in the naval squadron at
Simonstown. McDonald was pale and worn from the effects of the long
voyage from England. He was a rotten sailor and had spent most of the
time of the voyage in the little wave-tossed cabin and now, at the age of
23, was about to land in a country which he was not to leave for more than
thirty years; years full of stirring history forming the background to
the life of as gentle and cultivated an officer of the Crown as ever
worshipped the Christian God in the Church of the Presbyterians. His
passion for religion and knowledge amused Lieut. McInroy, who was
indifferent to such interests, and thinking rather of fun and frolic far
removed from the reproachful eye of his father, the Earl, who held
McDonald's views about conduct, but with all the tears thrown in.
During that early stage of
the development of our now flourishing sub-Continent the attention of the
military was focussed on the movements of the Amaxosa tribes who displayed
a dangerous tendency to actively oppose the intrusion of the English in
their rich and fertile territory. The Frontier was situated at
Grahamstown, from which centre the 'Kaffir Wars' which established
the foundation of our 'white civilization' were successfully waged.
The two friends landed and took up their
quarters at the Castle, and soon afterwards were married to two sisters of
the name of Brooksbanks. From this period the course of their lives is
described, in McInroy's case rather vaguely, in a Diary which McDonald
kept until his death 36 years afterwards. Where and how they met their
wives we can only conjec-ture, but in that young community it is possible
that they were companions, McDonald would have indignantly rejected the
appellation 'servants', employed by comfortably cir-cumstanced immigrants
from Home who had settled in the Cape Peninsula.
The two young couples shared a domestic
establishment, but affairs did not progress harmoniously. Children were
born without any approach to modern fashionable procrastination and then
we read in the Diary, "During the month there have been occasional
un-pleasantness and petty disputes between the women of the house, and
McInroy himself pays too much attention to trifling matters. I don't see
how we can continue our present arrangements, and McInroy must certainly
look out for a separate house… Have been regularly to Church, and
frequently at the week evening services."
McInroy appears to have been going the pace,
for, "9/5/45: Endorsed a Bill for ₤150 for McInroy, Mr Jerrain discounts
it". Then, "Lodged ₤10 in Savings Bank, an effort to save a little. This
is Hannah's birthday, and we made merry over it in the evening." A happy
occasion, when trivial differences in the household were, we hope,
temporarily forgotten in an atmosphere of brotherly (and perhaps
sisterly?) concord. We may be sure that McDonald, when the
merrymaking was done, offered up a prayer, and that the rest of the family
took the action as a matter of natural course. On another occasion, when
he was busy entertaining a newly wed couple just off for their honeymoon,
he expresses delight and satisfaction over their holy regard for
religion. "We exchanged many sympathetic remarks on Church doctrine" he
writes, "and parted after joining in worship of our Maker upon our
The truce was not to last very long.
30/6/45: "During the last two days matters have come to a crisis between
us and the McInroys and ended in their leaving, a moment much too long
The McInroys were not the only cause of
domestic irritation in the Castle, for we learn that the McDonalds had
some trouble during the month with 'old Mrs Dallas', "… who lives
too near us on the Ramparts. She possessed a notoriously evil tongue, and
scandalizes her neighbours at a sad rate. What makes the matter so much
worse is that she makes such a loud profession of religion." Old Mrs
Dallas vanishes into oblivion at this point, for we hear nothing more
about her. Who were the victims of her 'evil tongue' ? Probably
the McInroys, and particularly the spendthrift disposition of the young
Lieutenant, upon whom McDonald characteristically refrains from sitting in
judgement – has he not backed a Bill for (to him) a rather terrifying
On the 19th August: "… The
McInroys embarked today for England. Hannah and I went on board and
stayed a while. He has sadly displeased his father by leaving the Service
in which his prospects were so bright, but we may, on going home, do
something in the way of reconciliation."
"Received a letter from the Purveyor-in-Chief
at the War Office informing me that I was placed on the list of Purveying
Clerks and would receive Servant's Allowance. This in-creases my income
nearly ₤30 and now gives me upwards of ₤190 a year." Not a great sum
after three years of married life and two infants (boys) to rear.
To add to the difficulties, the Bill of
McInroys had been dishonoured and was being pain-fully liquidated. "This
is very annoying and Hannah is in a great state about it. We had had
quite enough trouble with the McInroys already to be spared this
misfortune." The burden grew intolerable, so, "… wrote to McInroy's
father stating how matters are in regard to this Bill". "Of course", is
the charitable comment, "such a contingency as this was far from my
thoughts when I endorsed the Bill, and I do believe that McInroy himself
had no intention whatever of deceiving me."
The Earl McInroy proved most ungracious, as we
subsequently learn. "Received a letter from McInroy's father in reply to
the one I wrote about the Bill. He positively refuses to pay, having, he
says, made a firm resolution to decline doing so on account of the many
Bills he has had to meet of the same kind. This is rather bad news for
me, but the whole affair is not nearly settled." Even now, no indication
of censure of the ungrateful McInroy and his selfish father, but the Diary
says little more about them until McDonald's return to England 36 years
later. The first cordiality was, however, never resumed.
With so much crying out to be done, the
earnest and energetic young officer soon forgot the small unpleasantnesses
of the first years in Cape Town. Church, morning and evening, and work in
the 'Sabbath School'. Books of an edifying and instructive nature to be
read and absorbed; schemes for the assistance of missionary effort
amongst the Hottentots and 'Kaffirs' to be considered, pressure of
work in the office, because of Frontier disturbances to be grappled with;
the direction and instruction of a young wife and family, and the writing
up into the small hours of the morning of the Diary.
The editing of this Diary, which is here being
attempted, is baulked by the fragmentary nature of those portions which
survive. McDonald kept it as a method of self-examination and confession
and has withheld details of his life prior to his arrival in the Colony.
In a periodical called the 'School Reformer' which he conducted in
Grahamstown, we are told that a purely military career was early
discovered to be unsuited to his temperament and that he had been engaged
during his youth as a military schoolmaster and then transferred to the
office of the Paymaster.
He was of Highland peasant origin. In an
unrelated note amongst his papers he says "I remember when we were very
young, we assisted on the farm. One of our occupations was winnowing the
corn. It was hard work, and we longed for it to be over. We used to
watch my father as he came round to look at it and decide whether or not
it was clean enough. He would take up a handful and, putting on his
glasses, he would look and pause and hesitate, and sometimes throwing it
back he would say to our dismay, 'Put it through again'."
It was through self improvement, untiring
energy and inborn talent that McDonald wormed his way into the
aristocratic ranks of the Victoria Officer Caste. He was a nature similar
to that of General Gordon with whom he did, in fact, once appear publicly
in London on the Evangelical platform. The difference between the two was
in the interest that McDonald consistently took in scientific and literary
affairs. In Grahamstown he sponsored a Literary Scientific and Medical
Society and poems and articles from his pen frequently appeared in the
Press of the Infant Colony. It is with his personal life that I am most
concerned here, although I will try to include some samples of his work in
general culture further on in this memoir.
The 'Servant's allowance'
permitted the employment of one Mary Jane as a nurse for the
children, a doubtful acquisition according to this entry: "Mary Jane has
been very trouble-some of late, and today has run away somewhere, causing
us great anxiety. Having heard that M.J. intended to go to Simonstown, I
at once hired a gig and started in pursuit. Saw nothing of her in
Simonstown, but just on leaving, I fortunately caught sight of the young
fox and bundled her at once into the gig, started for home again which I
did not reach till pretty late. Again, much annoyance with M.J. who
cannot be trusted out of our sight, and is growing full of tricks and
24/7/1849: "My birthday.
Twenty-seven years of age; 27 years spent, I fear, to very little purpose
spent thoughtlessly and carelessly with reference to the important matter
of Eter-nity. I pray the new year now entered upon may be a great
Having sown her wild oats, Mary Jane
eventually married and settled down and was to play an important part in
the tragedy of Subaltern McDonald's second marriage.
Life was running normally
in the little menage in the old Castle. Our young Subaltern was beginning
to have thoughts about the future of his little family. "Applied for
admission to the Mutual Life Assurance Society. I had intended to do this
long ago. Sir Harry Smith & Staff arrived in the 'Vernon'. The
town was splendidly illuminated at night in honour of his arrival."
An outbreak had occurred
amongst the Amaxoxas, the most turbulent of the native tribes, and there
was a lot to do in the office. There was church morning and evening and
often lectures and readings, and soirees in the company of kindred pious
and earnest spirits. Naught remained to fill the cup of happiness, but
more of the dross of this world to feed and clothe the family properly.
"As it is urgently
necessary that something should be done in the way of income, I have
determined to turn to account the little knowledge I acquired in youth of
the very useful if not very noble art of making shoes. Through a most
capricious and wayward freak of fancy, three of the most interesting and
important years of my youth (about 16 to 18) were spent in this work. My
poor mother remonstrated, but in vain, and knowing full well that a
thoughtless young fellow as I was would soon grow tired of such employment
managed to engage me to a master for the least possible term of
apprenticeship. I certainly did very soon realize in some degree the
position in which my waywardness placed me, and my progress in the art was
very slow, so much so indeed that, had I been destined to continue the
trade, I would have made but a sorry livelihood. At all events, I
acquired sufficient knowledge to enable me to superintend a small business
with one or two men employed, and this being the limit of my present
design, I have resolved on commencing forthwith. Macklin has recommended
a native man to begin with – so here goes for the next attempt of
setting my wits to work towards supplementing my small government
The 'native man' turned out incompetent
and dishonest and the venture was a wretched failure. Shrewd commercial
enterprise was not a strong point with McDonald, nor with any of his
descendants up to this hour.
In the meantime, the little boys had their
share of accidents and sickness. "Alick had a severe fall from the bed
today – not much hurt. Dr Chiapinni was called to see William, the
eldest, who fell seriously ill. The doctor still visits William, but the
dear little fellow is nearly well. We have had a great deal of anxiety on
William's account, and Hannah feels it more deeply than I could have done,
for day after day when he was so unwell, she sat weeping over him for
hours. Indeed his pinched, pale, emaciated little face, and his large
dark eyes with such an unusual and unearthly brightness, and which
fastened on yours with such calm resignation, could not but awaken the
Then the old bogey of
want kept nagging. "Had a reply to my application for increase of
salary. Unfavourable." Hannah's father, who appears to have had no fixed
occupation of any kind, was a source of anxiety, and mother-in-law had to
A serious drain, all this, on that poor ₤190 a
year; there are occasional references to letters from his mother in the
Highlands and from William, a brother, who subsequently emigra-ted to
Canada. William was also a keen seeker after knowledge and in the army,
but not in the fighting forces.
This same William once rather seriously
displeased his brother. "Letter from William who tells me he has been at
the theatre. I am much pained to hear this and must write him about it.
He seems to have felt that he was doing something wrong and had some
compunction, and I don't suppose it is likely to occur again in a hurry."
A sister, Catherine, is living with her
mother, and tells him "that Ronald has decided on learning the saddlery
business, and has commenced with Mr Robertson of Invergordon." Was
Ronald another brother, or Catherine's husband?
25/5/1850: "Have lately thought of a study of
the French language and have done a little towards it, but have not a good
dictionary, so have ordered Turrenne's. Could speak colloquial
French pretty freely when in St Lucia, West Indies."
This entry throws a little light on McDonald's
movements immediately after leaving his Highland home. For this bilingual
South African generation the preference of French for Dutch seems very
unpractical. There is hinted evidence in the Diary that McDonald had no
high regard for the Cape Dutch with whom he mixed. The failings and
degeneracy of the Northern Boers are often admitted by Africaners
who will brook no criticism of the 'aristocratic' Cape Dutch.
But, listen to this, quoted with approval from
a book of observations written by a traveler, Richard Barnard Fisher, in
1816. His description of the Africanders (or Dutch) is woeful.
Coldness, apathy, ignorance, indolence, selfishness, pride, and immorality
of all kinds are attributed to them. "They universally rise on account of
all the heat, at a very early hour, and take their coffee. The men
immediately take their pipes and the women walk with folded arms up and
down the stoep. A second breakfast takes place about 8 or 9 of the clock,
after which the men are again at their doors with pipes in their mouths,
and the women when dressed walking as before on their stoeps. As they are
cold , shy and indifferent, even in their address to each other, and
certainly possess no very fine feelings in their mode of living, they are
equally disagreeable to a European. They are enormous eaters, but
not great drinkers. They dress well, which seems inconsistent with
the custom of smoking with the men, and the filthy habit of spitting, with
both men and women, prevalent in the best houses. With the wretched education, if
any, that they receive, and such lax notions of religion and morality,
neither purity of manners nor chastity of conduct can be expected to
prevail. On the contrary, I am apt to think there are few countries I
ever heard of where the social virtues are less in practice, or where
immorality and debauchery exists, than the Cape. There are well
authenticated stories in Cape Town that fill the mind with horror. The
illicit intercourse between the sexes is everywhere notorious, not only
amongst the slaves and inferior sort, but with the higher ranks, and the
offspring from such intercourse are variously disposed of – some, indeed
very many, becoming slaves to their own fathers. The parents of such
children conceived they have the power of life and death over them, at
least until a certain period, and may destroy them at pleasure. The women
of colour are almost all prostitutes…. The records of the place will
furnish instances of the most savage cruelty and barbarity ever practiced
in any country and the Hottentots come in for such treatment as well as
This picture may be over
coloured, but it aptly describes the present day Africaner of the
bigoted and illiterate variety. If the Cape Dutch were really like that,
when they had the political control of the country, then one can only
account for their improved character through association and intermarriage
with the immigrant European (British and French) stocks. Testimony of
this kind makes the doctrine of 'Pure Afrikanderdom' not only a stupid and
inexpedient doctrine for any sane South African to embrace, but a
dangerous and wicked one as well. McDonald had no preconceived prejudice
against any race. His disposition, and the manner in which he interpreted
the tenets of Presbyterianism, to which he was so steadfastly devoted,
made him an advocate of the brotherhood of man. He mixed with natives in
the true spirit of equality before God. His own sons attended elementary
schools where they sat by the side of 'kaffirs'. He studied and lectured
about customs and origin of the Hottentots and Bushmen tribes. It is all
the more striking that he should have gone to the pains of entering such
stuff in carefully preserved notebooks.
Before going on with McDonald's personal
history, I am tempted to quote a little more from Mr Barnard. It is
hardly likely that his work will be found in any Afrikana Museum.
Proceeding with his description of the Cape under Dutch rule he says:
"The murder of a slave or Hottentot is never punished with death and the
murder of infants is quite unregarded. The most open profligacy and
unrestrained intercourse of the sexes every day and every hour, exists not
only without notice taken of it, but even women of apparent consideration
are known to live solely on the wages of the prostitution of their
"Many offences committed
by the Dutch and French settlers are hardly, or never, taken notice of by
the Courts. An instance is mentioned: A person of considerable property,
Stephanus Johannes Cloete, and one of the first families of the Cape, most
cruelly and deliberately shot a poor Hottentot woman with a child at her
breast. At the express command of the Governor he was tried and
convicted. The sentence was not one which one would naturally suppose. A
ridiculous farce was to be exhibited of a drawn sword over the head of the
criminal, in a kneeling posture before a heap of sand, blindfolded and his
neck bare, by the common executioner, and afterwards a partial sort of
banishment. From this mild and lenient sentence he had the temerity and
impudence to appeal to the Governor. The appeal was indignantly
dismissed. The punishment of slaves is very severe. I have often heard
the mode of punishment described, but it is too disgusting and horrid to
relate. Whatever may be the sense of feeling in the poor wretches, they
are not allowed even to cry out under their sufferings, for the mouth of
the criminal is either extended to the utmost expansion of the jaws, of
filled up with rags, old rope, or tow."
What a terrible picture of
early Africaner culture… Is it not to be wondered at that an 'Old
Hanoverian' put the precedence of ladies in Africa in the following order:
1. The Madagascar women who are the
blackest and handsomest.
2. The Malabars.
3. The Buganese
4. The Hottentots… and last and worst of all, the white Dutch women.
26th June: "On
getting home from work I found Hannah in great pain, and after tea it was
thought advisable to go for Mrs McDougall without delay. The pains
increased and continued till 20 minutes to 10 p.m. when I was blessed with
an additional member to my small family. A girl this time, and she seems
remarkably stout and healthy and at present very like William."
A letter arrived from
brother-in-law Lieut. McInroy. "Heard from McInroy. He has just had a
son, this is his third boy, named him 'Henry John' after his own brother
and Hannah's father." We may be sure that McInroy said nothing about the
unpaid Bill. With three sons and his expensive tastes there could have
been no surplus in the exchequer.
God was about to deal his
servant a cruel and undeserved blow, for Hannah, after the confinement,
Friday: "This is the most eventful day of my life, for all is over with
my dear wife. God has seen fit to lay upon me the bitterest affliction
which man is called upon to bear. The stroke is heavy, the trial is truly
severe. God, do Thou grant grace to bear it all. I watched at her pillow
all last night with intense pain and anxiety. Oh, how it pained me at
heart to hear her moan, and how distressing to look at her lying before
me, intently gazing at me but unable to speak. This morning I knew that
her last moments were rapidly approaching. She declined the usual
nourishment, found great difficulty in swallowing anything and showed
other alarming symptoms. She kept her eyes steadily fixed upon me till
her last breath, and made several efforts to speak, but failed. I had
William and Alick brought to her, and though she could not move a limb, I
could clearly see from the emotion in her now sadly pale face that she
knew her dear boys and would gladly speak if she were able. Poor little
fellows, they looked very sad, but did not understand the loss they were
just about to sustain. About half past twelve her moans were heartrending
as life was struggling to maintain its hold in vain. Never did I look
upon such an agonizing scene. I grasped her hand firmly and felt the cold
damp of death too surely upon it. I held it firmly till that poor dear
pain-distracted frame succumbed to its sufferings.
"Oh, what a time of agony,
never did I expect to have to encounter this shock. My long pent-up
feelings now found vent, and I could not help weeping aloud for some
time. This had been a morning of deepest sorrow and weeping. After the
first violent outburst of feeling a painful depression took hold of me,
worse to bear than the excitement of grief. My loneliness is hourly felt
more keenly and distresses me much.
"After a few days, the
poor little boys seem a little concerned at all that has been going on
around them, and though not conscious of the loss we have all suffered,
they seem to know that something of a very sad nature has happened. One
of the most heartrending scenes of this fatal illness was the taking away
of the baby. The wet-nurse who, from the great difficulty of getting one,
only came yesterday, attempted to take the child who was lying by dear
Hannah's side. She would not, however, let baby be removed, but gathering
unusual strength she clasped the little creature to her breast, looked
wildly round for help and sympathy as if the child was about to be removed
for some evil purpose, and persisted in retaining it. I tried to soothe
her fears and release the baby from her arms, but found it a difficult and
most painful effort. Finding at last that we would insist on the removal,
she pressed the child to her bosom in a paroxysm of love, kissed it wildly
and in a most reluctant manner, suffered her treasure to be handed to the
The prematurely bereaved
young father's head was bloody but unbowed. He accepted his destiny
courageously and immediately made the future well-being of his three
little ones his principal concern. Hannah was buried on Lot 21 and a
removal was made from the Barracks to a cottage in Orange Street,
accompanied by Mary Jane, now thoroughly sobered and sympathetic, and a
St. Helena woman as nurse for the babes.
The infant was baptised, Hannah Elizabeth,
after her mama and my own mother.
Did McDonald reproach
Providence? On the contrary. He applied himself with greater earnestness
to prayer and the practice of the Christian life. He decided to hold
family prayers daily, with some misgiving. "Of course, William and Alick
are young and will not take much notice of what is taking place, but there
is the nurse and Mary Jane, who no doubt have their own ideas and
impressions and are not likely to think much favour on this new phase of
domestic daily routine, and doubtless will laugh between themselves at
what so deeply troubles my mind." But, the plan had to be executed. Let
the 'little fox' snigger as she may, and a visit to Hannah's grave
confirmed the pious resolution.
"How difficult", he sighs in the Diary, "to
realise fully that she (Hannah) is really gone. Her image constantly
before my mind, and suggests continually saddening and melancholy
musings. Ah, me, Ah me, there is little Alick with a painful swelling on
his neck which the doctor thinks may not come to a head and directs the
application of hartshorn and oil. It is very painful to the poor
little fellow. Anxiety was so great that he was not in time for Church
and for the first task of Sabbath School teacher, and Mary Jane is up to
her tantrums again."
"Mary Jane not going on well at all. The nurse has no control over her
for she seems to be rather a giddy being herself."
What is a troubled and conscientious young
father, not yet thirty, to do? Well, the call to life on a healthy young
man is not to be unanswered. "Went picnicking with the Maclins and Mr & Mrs Jennings
to Camps Bay. The day was warm, but very happily and pleasant-ly spent.
Had to carry my little fellows part of the way going, but to my agreeable
surprise they walked all the way home. I had a bathe in the sea and a
great deal of running about."
Again, "Have been somewhat
diligent lately in improving my French. Have also been acquiring a little
knowledge of the flute, and dipping into the science of Botany. These
pursuits occupy my spare time very profitably."
"Wrote to William proposing that Catherine be sent out to the Cape at
once." (It would appear from this that Ronald was a brother). "She
could take charge of the little ones who sadly want the care of someone
who would have an interest in them. The nurse is very careless on the
whole and requires close looking after, and, as I am away so much all day,
she has it all her own way. I often see baby in a dirty, wet condition
– at times groping about the yard on the dirty flags and in a wretched
plight. If Catherine were with me she could rectify all this, and take
proper care of us all. The undertaking will be a serious matter to her,
unless she chanced to come out with some friend."
Serious indeed, in those
days when the voyage occupied weary weeks instead of days, with perhaps
the family tendency to sea sickness to bear as well. In the meantime the
glorious summer of the Cape Peninsula provoked sentiment in keeping with
A poem entitled "Dew Drop"
appeared in a local paper, the Mirror. Amongst McDonald's papers
are many poems, some in manuscript and others cuttings from various papers
in which they were published. Most of these are of a religious nature, a
few describe the change of the seasons, and fewer still are extremely
chaste appreciations of the beauty of women. They all show a command of
descriptive and picturesque English truly astonishing in a man almost
entirely self-taught. There is no space here for more than the quotation
of two or three verses from a poem entitled: "A
Garland for Ellen"
"The saucy poppy
aye too merrily dancing
Flaunting and proud seeks the glare of day,
The gorgeous tulip enrobed in dress cerulean
Wantonly dallies with
the glowing ray.
Bring me not these, not the ruder
Nor folly's own flower, the columbine
The mournful cypress, nor the sad sighing willow,
O, these I shall not in thy wreath entwine.
I would weave thee a garland of
spring's gleesome blossoms,
That charity, faith, love and hope reveal,
These emblems true of the heart's deep mysteries,
Telling the feelings that our lips conceal.
And round thy fair brow the floral
Shall scatter a playful and mystic wile,
And brighter still seem the nameless witchery
That gleams in thy winsome and sunny smile."
About this time appear references to some new
acquaintances, the Jandrell family, and it is significant that they are
contemporaneous with quite an efflorescence of shy love poems similar to
the one quoted above.
Alick and William were afflicted with
bothersome ailments, and a discouraging reply had come from sister
25th June: "Had a long letter from
Catherine in which she tells me with great regret that she is afraid to
come out alone. There would doubtlessly be difficulties to encounter and
I must not lose sight of this, but perhaps the strongest objection she has
to leaving home is the parting from mother, and it is most natural that
mother is most loathe to lose her, and this is just what I might
reasonably expect. I wish she could have come, but under the
circumstances I must be content."
27th September: "My lines, 'I
saw her in life's dawning' appeared in the S.A. Journal today.
24/7/1852: "My 30th Birthday. Had
a letter from McInroy's brother William. He says that McInroy is not at
all doing well, and declines receiving any more letters and papers for
him. What an unfortunate reckless fellow he must be and hardships and
poverty seem to have no good influence upon him in awakening him to sober
thought and energy. I am heartily sorry for his family. I thought that
he was doing well, and feel sad at receiving so unfavourable an account of
him. When will he do well?"
22/4/1853: "Took William and Alick to Mr
Paul's place and had their likenesses taken. The thing was very
successful and the likenesses look well. They were both dressed in their
usual Highland costume. Took Miss Jandrell to Mr Paul's to have her
Our sober and thoughtful hero was about to
commit the most serious indiscretion of his career. One can see in the
Diary his timid approach to the crises, which was hastened by the plight
of the sadly neglected little children. Little Hannah especially, was a
constant perplexity. The boys he could look after in a fashion, but baby
Hannah was moved from pillar to post amongst well intending strangers in
that small Cape British community with, only too often, disquieting
Mr Jandrell, we glean from a casual entry, was
an elementary schoolmaster of sorts and the two boys were sent to him for
instruction, with but little satisfaction to the solicitous father.
Jandrell was indolent and over indulgent and the boys made little headway
under his care. The father with his sense of high responsibility notes
this, and he notes other things, that Jandrell was always in money
difficulties, which he seems surprisingly eager to assist in liquidating.
The lesson of his experience with harum-scarum
McInroy was deliberately forgotten, despite the circumstance that pressure
of financial liabilities was as relentless as ever. There is no doubt
that infatuation with pretty 15 year old Maggie Jandrell, daughter of the
impecunious schoolmaster, was the cause of this temporizing with
The nameless witchery in the winsome and sunny
smile of fair Maggie was the cause of the undoing of the vigorous
sex-starved young officer of 30. There is a suspicion that both Mr and
Mrs Jandrell looked upon McDonald as a good catch for their daughter. In
their strained financial circumstances the placing of Maggie in matrimony
was a natural ambition. What Maggie's feelings about the projected union
were we cannot definitely say. She was a mere child and it is hard to
conceive that she took any serious view of marriage with a man with three
small children. Her behaviour during the tragic affair is explicable on
the theories of modern sexologists. Any deep disturbance of the sexual
norm during or near the period of puberty is likely to result in the
distressing physical symptoms so poig-nantly described by McDonald.
With our wider knowledge we can feel for her a
sympathy which was not possible for the bewildered husband. Goaded by the
urgency of nature, he knew not what he did, and if Maggie had not been a
neurotic, all might have turned out well, as it did in so many similar
21/5/53: "For some time past I have felt a
more than friendly partiality for Miss Jandrell, and it is sufficiently
evident that the attachment was mutual. I have just come to an
under-standing with the young lady on this delicate point. I think the
commencement of house-keeping again has become urgently necessary, as the
boys are not properly attended to nor cared for, and then baby is growing
up and becoming quite a little stranger to us all. I have often thought
of these matters with great anxiety. Miss J. is still young, but I hope
teach-able and I must, by attention to the housekeeping arrangements,
endeavour to make up for her inexperience."
There follows a few illuminative entries by
the impetuous lover…
9th August: "Maggie Jandrell's
birthday, so we had lots of fun and amusement in the evening. Stayed
10th August: "Stayed very late at
"Have caught a nasty, severe cold, no doubt from coming home so late at
night from Jandrell's. I must be more careful of myself and certainly
more considerate of them."
12th August: "After all my
resolutions for amendment, stayed too late again at Jandrell's."
The Subaltern was obviously head-over-ears in
17th August: "Still overstaying
reasonable hours at Jandrell's. I wish I could resist this."
18th August: "Late again last
19th August: "Failed again in
keeping my oftmade resolution of observing proper hours at night." He
was burning the midnight oil in Venus's honour with a vengeance. Maggie
showed the strain.
Maggie has been at Macklin's all day and looks
unwell. This no doubt the result of sitting up so unreasonably late at
night. The pace was getting too hot and Ma & Pa Jandrell hastened events
to the desired end.
"Had myself measured for some wedding clothing. A black dresscoat, of
course, and a handsome white-flowered silk waistcoat. These to be made by
Mr Steedman, but I prefer Meredith for making trousers. He makes trousers
Tailor Meredith was the father of the
illustrious novelist George Meredith. He was estranged from his famous
son and is said never to have read a line written by him. If he shared
McDonald's religious convictions this antipathy is understandable, for
George Meredith was the prince of heretical Victorian artists.
Slender as were his means, he bought a
handsome little gold watch for Maggie which he got for ₤8.10.0. There are
signs of perturbation.
3rd October: "Banns published last
time. Feel somewhat anxious and uneasy as the time approaches. Spent
most part of the day with M. who is in a fever of restlessness and
excitement, indeed hardly knows what to do with herself. Tomorrow is our
wedding day, which of course accounts for all this."
4th October: "I rose about 7
o'clock after a pretty good night's rest, and in some sort of manner,
passed the time till 9 when I began to dress. Saw that the carriages were
got ready, of which I have three, each drawn by four horses. Found a
great many folk at the Church waiting there to witness the proceedings.
Maggie was dressed very neatly and looked really well. Wore a fine white
figured satin dress, a handsome wreath, a very large white veil and white
satin shoes, and the usual softness and simplicity of her face were
heightened by the seriousness of the matter in which she was engaged.
During the ceremony and for some time previously, her face and neck were
deeply flushed and she seemed deeply agitated. All this however soon
passed off. After the knot was tied, we all drove to two miles beyond
Wynberg, and here we had a small dinner."
After a short honeymoon, the couple returned
to housekeeping, the scattered family again under one roof. Trouble was
not long delayed in coming.
24th October: "Maggie very unwell
all day, grew worse, and in the evening showed evident symptoms of
10th December: "Mrs Jandrell spent
the day with us, and the day being wet, had to remain all night. Gave two
Bills to Jandrell (₤16 and ₤15.10.0) he being in difficulty."
What with an importunate father-in-law and an
hysterical young wife, the prospect looked uneasy enough. Maggie got
worse and the atmosphere of religion with which she was surrounded, helped
nothing at all.
The good folks at the church must have shaken
their wise heads a lot over McDonald's selection of a wife. "Fits have
been less frequent and taken the character of long and stressing faintings."
McDonald had added another child to his family
circle, and by no means a teachable child. Disillusionment slowly dawned
upon him. "Paid a Bill, ₤9.1.0. for Jandrell. I was never so urgently
in want of money, and have lately become involved deeply in debt through
M's thoughtlessness. Indeed, this was no doubt the cause of her late
illness, for having contracted large debts and dreading my soon having to
know all about it, the thing had so preyed on her mind as to bring on
those hysterics so severely. I sincerely hope this may be a caution for
the future, for I dread the idea of being so hopelessly involved as I
appear so suddenly to be at present."
1/3/1854: "M. told me of a heavy bill she had
contracted, and I feel much hurt about it. This is foolish and unkind and
she sees the evil of it and feels grieved. She is very unwell this
10th April: "My cash box
containing ₤10 or ₤12 was taken from the Book room. This is a serious
mishap, and I the more regret it as I feel fully convinced the thing was
not done by a stranger."
Hoping against hope, the unfortunate McDonald
assiduously attended his beloved church, composed poems, wrote articles on
all kinds of 'self-improving' subjects, and delivered lectures to a
devoted band of admirers. He tried by such means to check the dismay that
threatened to shatter him, but sometimes the struggle was more than he
He got ill, off and on. At times the unheard
of occurred – his enforced absence from the tabernacle of the Lord on
the Sabbath. What did Maggie do with the money she squandered so
unkindly? Perhaps the neighbours knew a thing or two.
27th June: "Our next door
neighbour, Mr Freeman, has been making himself awfully offensive. He has
abused Maggie like a pick-pocket and I have thought it advisable to have
the fellow brought up. This was the sequel. Having had notice to attend
the Police Court, we went, but the evidence was not sufficient to prove an
assault and so the wretch got off." After this, the neighbours surely
were more than careful to hold their tongues about Maggie.
25th July: "Finished reading
'The Life of Newton', a noble and most deeply interesting life. The
parts relating to his wonderful discoveries are tough reading and require
close thought and attention. His Theory of Light has been almost
quite superseded, modern speculation and experiment seeming to support and
confirm the theory of undulations in ether."
No problem was too abstruse for McDonald to
tackle and, had he lived in our day, he would almost certainly have been
amongst the few laymen to understand Einstein's theory. His curious and
active intelligence denied the application of advancing knowledge to only
one venerated object, The Holy Bible.
In the course of his life, Christian orthodoxy
was shaken as never before in history by a withering scientific criticism
and the publication of Darwin's 'Origin of Species'. There is
evidence that he read the works of the enemies of his Faith, some of their
philosophical writings he quotes with approval, those of George Henry
Lewes for instance, although one is inclined to question whether he
realised that Lewes lived in sin, with George Eliot, from whose novels he
seems to have extracted much pious edification. He was probably un-aware
that this cunning delineator of the religious character was also an
'infidel', a name he was fond of applying to free-thinkers.
Like many of his great contemporaries, he
clung with stubborn fanaticism to the doctrine of the infallibility of
Holy Writ. For him it was the indispensable foundation of the good life.
This might be a suitable place to indicate his reaction to the growing
asceticism of the times.
"After dinner H. brought on a discussion on
religious topics, and it is really painful to listen to well-educated men
and hear how lamentably deficient they are in the knowledge of those great
truths on which their eternal welfare is based. I endeavour with
pleasantness and a good-natured way to disabuse their minds on some
important subjects of which they appeared to have but a very imperfect
acquaintance. H. insisted that an infidel who led a (godly)? life, would
go to heaven sooner than a Christian who led a longer career of sin and
only repented a short time previous to his death. Also that we are saved
by Christ's example (?). E. in his turn insisted on the uselessness of
going to Church, that he can be equally right by keeping at home and
reading the Church Service. I tried to reason them out of these foolish
and childish ideas, and though I did so in a pleasant and cheerful manner,
yet I did not suffer them to remain in ignorance of the real merits and
nature of Religion. We often talk on religious topics and sometimes I
blame myself for showing apparent indifference to a subject of great and
paramount importance, the absolute necessity of sincere religion, but on
the other hand, if I did not present the truth in a good-tempered and
friendly manner, I would lose the opportunity of doing so at all. As it
is, H & E take what I say in good part, even when it bears hard upon their
own way of thinking."
But, he was mortally terrified of 'The
Theory of Evolution". "Attended distribution of prizes to Art &
Science classes. The Chairman gave an interesting address with the
exception of its close relating to the descent of Man, which he might have
left untouched before an audience composed principally of young people.
He seems to look on this theory with some degree of favour." One wonders
what the good man would have felt if he had listened to some of the
lectures addressed to the young today, on birth control, etc.
17/8/54: "Meeting at Mr Ross's, but Maggie
insisted on going to Mr Greig's entertainment." What the nature of Mr
Greig's entertainment was we are not told, but Maggie apparently enjoyed
it, for 20th September Maggie would attend the second
entertainment by Mr Greig, "… though I disapproved of it. Such silly and
persistent indifference to my wishes is sure to bring its own evil fruits
by and bye."
So what could the poor man do but trudge off
alone to the Meeting and Church & Lecture Hall with sad regrets for the
happy days when his dear Hannah was only too eager to join him in these
pious and instructive exercises. Still, he had married this headstrong
Maggie and he meant to carry out the responsibility like a good Christian
man; besides, he was really fond of the little ingrate on balance; no
woman with a soft and simple face like that could be really bad.
The wretch Freeman. His blood boiled with the
unpunished insinuations the cad had made. Perhaps, he may have reflected,
the interests I have are too austere for a child-wife. So, picnics were
arranged and jaunts into the country, one of them lasting ten days, and
his only regret was the expense ₤8 odd, hardly spared from small savings
at the mercy of the Jandrell family.
We learn that Maggie was good at fancy needle
work and a teacher was engaged to make her better still. Then he bought a
flute for Alick and a guitar and violin for himself, upon which he learnt
to "scrape out a few lively tunes". A parrot, purchased from a sailor,
was installed on the stoep, and a pretty little canary bird and cage,
"bought at a sale for 22/6". With all these enlivening domestic
amenities one could surely anticipate some peace. One could even take up
intellectual pursuits again.
4th November: "Having agreed to
give a course of Conversational Lectures on 'Optics' in the Mechanic's
Institute, I commenced this evening. The attendance was good. I had
previously written the lecture carefully out, but having given the subject
such close attention for some time past I was able to deliver it
extempore, merely assisted by a few memoranda of headings."
26th November: "My beautiful
parrot made its escape. Extremely sorry for this."
7th December: "My poor little
canary bird has escaped from the cage which was carelessly left on a chair
outside and blown down by the wind… I am sorry for this and shall buy no
more pets. Little Hannah, we note, is growing tall, but has not been to
school yet. Her hair is still quite white and flaxen. She is rather
mischievous and occasions us much trouble sometimes. Alick was affected
with a ludicrous lisp; a tall and spindly youngster, and slow at
William was father's pride, industrious and
alert. On Constitution Day the precocious little chap composed and
presented an address to the Admiral of the Fleet on behalf of the children
of Cape Town. He was only 9 years old.
3/1/1855: "Maggie's 17th
birthday. She is oppressed with that abominable drowsiness which is the
certain precursor of those hysteric fits. The gloom is
30th March: "Most agreeably
surprised to get a letter from Mrs McInroy (Lude, Blair Athol) offering to
pay one of those rejected Bills for which I stood security some time ago.
The amount ₤25 was paid long ago and I had not the least hope of
repayment." It will interest McDonald's descendants to know that McInroy,
his brother-in-law, was in some way connected with the stock of the Duchy
of Athol. The present Duchess of Athol is a well-known member of the
House of Peers.
Welcome promotion came to the Subaltern on the
recommendations of the Governor, Sir Harry Smith. He was appointed
"Paymaster, Quarter Master and Superintendent of Levies" a high resounding
title with but a vague indication of duties to the present writer.
The Amaxosa were giving much trouble to the
Military stationed in Grahamstown, the details of which are now familiar
to all students of South African history, and McDonald was transferred
with the greatest expedition of the zone of disaffection. His friends
were sorry to lose him: "The grand soiree came off last evening and it
was a most superb affair. The evening was delightfully pleasant and the
rooms were crowded with choice company. To me, of course, the evening was
more than ordinarily interesting as I had the honour and pleasure of being
presented with a purse of 30 sovereigns as a token of the estimation in
which my services were held. The eloquent Colonel presented it
accompanied with the highest eulogiums, so I did the best I could in
manufacturing a short speech in reply and I imagined I did very well."
There must have been
upwards of 200 persons, the half nearly being ladies. We must presume
that Maggie was amongst the company. From the Church folks tribute was
equally unanimous. "Dr. Abercrombie handed me a parcel accompanied by
some kind expressions of his feelings and wishes on my behalf. The parcel
contained 10 volumes of 'Dr Cumming's Works', 'Layard's Ninevah &
Babylon' and 'Jos Montgomery's Poetical Works', all very
handsomely bound." The dust of oblivion has buried the works of Cummings
and Layard, but Montgomery still survives faintly as a hymnologist. He
wrote 'Songs of Praise the Angels Sang' and 'Forever with the
The steamer sailed on the 3rd
May for Port Elizabeth. It was decided that Maggie should stay with her
parents until it was convenient to send for her. Little Hannah was left
with friends, and William and Alick went with their father.
The faithful but wayward
domestic Mary Jane was now married to one Archie, an early
prospector in the hinterland, of amiable character but very unsteady
habits. There are frequent references of counsel and money given to this
incorrigible Archie. Mary Jane eked out some sort of existence in Cape
Town and kept up a desultory correspondence with her former employer in
"Poor Maggie is awfully
cast down about my leaving and I feel extremely low spirited myself, tho'
it is but a temporary separation. On the voyage to Port Elizabeth, felt
sick all the time and took nothing whatever to eat or drink. The boys are
There follows a description
of a week's journey by cart from Port Elizabeth to Grahams-town, which has
in it nothing of interest, apart from the necessary hardships of the
under-taking except a note of a meeting with Archdeacon Merriman, father
of the late John X., at the Bushman's River.
At first McDonald missed
his dear Cape Town friends and felt strange and lonely amongst the new
faces and it is probable that the anxiousness gnawing at his heart about
Maggie and the children did not dispose him to foster fresh contacts
readily. But he was destined to remain with short intervals at the Cape
for many years in Grahamstown and they proved to be the most active and
happiest years of his life.
"Forgot to note on the 26th that it was Hannah's birthday, and
the boys, who insisted on it, had a good treat of cakes etc. at tea. The
little creature is now six." From this we gather that the little
creature had not long delayed in following her papa and brothers. Her
step-mother can be assumed not to have cared a jot about her and some kind
friend must have brought her on the long journey to the father.
Maggie's conduct, in fact,
becomes more and more unruly. There are letters from Mrs Jandrell
admitting that she can do nothing with the impossible girl. "Heard from
M. that she has resolved to leave her mother's and has got a small place
to herself. Her mother is greatly annoyed and hurt at this, and I think
it a foolish move…"
"Suffering from toothache for the last week or so. Last night I had no
rest at all." No. Rest was to be out of the question for troubled
months to come, as we shall see.
24th July: "My
33rd Birthday. Should be wiser and better at this time of
29th July: "No
answers to my letters from M. Spent a restless and feverish time of it
all last night. I am awfully anxious. How can this be?"
How indeed…. The age-long
interrogation of the good on the torture rack of Fate. Now for a
surprise. "Heard from M. who wishes to join me at once. Advised her to
do so in the September trip of the 'Natal'. She insists on coming
to the Frontier at all hazards. Perhaps it is as well. But by the same
mail there is a letter from Mr Jandrell. He has mentioned some matters
about M. which are exceedingly painful, and I am beginning to lose hope.
Heard also from Mrs Jandrell – news most unfavourable and painful. All
these things make me intolerably unhappy." We can read between the lines
that Maggie was a fickle jade. Urged by her parents she had married
McDonald "for a lark" and for the gratification to her vanity of having an
officer as a husband. She was "carrying on" now to such a degree that
even her parents were obliged to tell her husband. Her behaviour in this
crisis was not that of a stern and unforgiving puritan.
Deceitful as was the
conduct of his wife, he never calls her by the awful (in those days) name
that she deserved, an adulteress. Rather are the reproaches aimed at his
"Heard today from M. She says she wishes our connection to cease.
Foolish girl. She is badly advised by evil and designing persons. Wrote
to M, very seriously and plainly, for I cannot stand these things any
longer. No sleep at all last night. The boys are somewhat surprised at
my wretched and mopish manner, but have no idea of the cause." A
fortnight later: "No rest at nights till my eyes are sore and bloodshot,
which makes people take notice that something is wrong. However, I keep
these matters to myself and try to do and bear them alone… My heart
sinks under the many harassing thoughts that oppress me and seems as if it
would really burst. Never experienced anything to be com-pared to this."
"Second anniversary of my wedding which has unfortunately brought much
unhappiness with it." 7th October: "Letters from Mrs
Jandrell and M. and to my great surprise the latter leaves Cape Town today
in the 'Natal' for Algoa Bay. This sudden move takes me unawares
and gives me no time to prepare. Must start by the first opportunity for
the Bay in Stubb's Cart."
Stubb's Cart, with its
worried passenger, left Grahamstown on the 9th and arrived at
the Bay on the 11th, where Maggie had already disembarked and
was lodged in the Union Hotel. "After all that had passed, our meeting was
a happy one on both sides." Old Nature, it seems, forced a truce, but it
was an exceedingly short one.
"Since meeting M. she insists on returning to Cape Town again to settle
some business." What business the tactful husband would not
enquire. "I strongly opposed such an absurd notion, and at last prevailed
upon her to relinquish it."
A cottage had been
hurriedly prepared for the re-united couple. Indeed, "Colonel Carey had
been so kind and thoughtful as to order a fine dinner for us by the time
we would arrive. After dinner we went to see Mrs Hay who had charge of
the children in my absence, and on the way to the Prayer Meeting in
Trinity Church" – which he doubtless hoped would have an exalting effect
upon the soul of the erring woman beside him. But, real conciliation was
After only a few days spent
in the new home her husband had made for her, "M, speaking again of
returning to Cape Town. All arguments and inducements to remain seem to
be in vain. As she positively insists, I got her a seat in Stubb's Cart,
and she has gone… This work has crushed my spirit again and I am out and
out unhappy and miserable. Mr Hunt brought me a bill for a quantity of
articles purchased by M. at his shop. Rather a disagree-able and
startling piece of news. Suspicious letters from the Cape… See through
the whole affair…. base doings…. did not expect these troubles were
coming upon me."
Despite the clearest proofs
of unfaithfulness to him, and the shameless exploitation of his generous
forgiving nature, the dismayed young man was still ready to take back the
un-deserving hussy to his bosom. His infatuation lasted until the bitter
end, until 25th Nov. "A letter from M., but what an
announcement she makes. Let me commit no more to writing. 'Tis a black,
killing letter, with harrowing contents. But I must write no more and
only bear this crushing grief as I best can."
In this black killing
letter Maggie must have told him of her intention never to return to him,
perhaps of her affection (if she was capable of affection) for another.
Nevertheless, 30th November: "Wrote to M. but avoided harsh
upbraiding, for this would serve no useful purpose and only make both all
the more miserable."
During this painful
interlude of marriage with a Messalina, the sweet and gentle nature of
McDonald shone its brightest. There was nothing of the harsh ranter about
his religion, as in the case of Milton, the Christian Faith hung like a
sombre mantle on shoulders ever erect and squared to the vexation of
life. And the mantle of Faith was not altogether dark and saddening, as
it was amongst so many of his Highland forbears from whom he took it over
almost in detail, for a gay and sunny temperament had seen to the weaving
of some bright threads in the gloomiest folds of doctrine. Hell had no
terrors for him, for although he never expressly repudiates belief in this
country, he certainly never affirms it. We can be quite sure that time
left no rancour in his heart for Maggie. Pity, yes, perhaps mingled with
traces of remorse at such a foredoomed union.
Months elapsed before he
took legal steps to conclude it. About a year later he records: "Had
letter from Mary Jane today and the news of M. quite knocks me up. I must
at once resort to measures I have been for some time contemplating." A
divorce suit resulted, a tremendous calamity in those prude Victorian
days, and we learn nothing more of Maggie in the Diary until a note is
made of her marriage to one Jones, with whom he cannot with-hold an
expression of compassion upon such as alliance. We can afford to be
indulgent to the memory of the hapless Margaret and hope that she was
happier with her Jones.
Like all the subjects of
this sketch, she has vanished, as we too will vanish and, "left not a
wrack behind". We have still to accompany the pious officer through some
happier years before we part from him forever.
24/7/1857: "My 38th
"Read my Essay on 'Oscine's Poems'. I made it rather long which
much displeased me."
"Rev. Green has an excellent voice but his manner is not agreeable. There
is too much motion of the hands and not of a graceful kind." Evidence
here that the spectacle of worship was not above the notice of McDonald's
artistic observation. "Bought 'History of Highlands' and
'Highland Clans', 50/-…. I was tempted to buy – always very
extravagant in books."
"Received a long letter from William (brother in Scotland). Somehow it
has been a long time in coming being dated 18th May." Rather
different to our present Air-mail service. "William got bitten by a
monkey… not at church on account of his hand. He had no rest all last
night and still complains and cries. My paper on the 'Polarization of
Light' appeared in today's Journal. Spent last evening at
Tudhope's where we had a long and tough conversation on the merits of
Teetotalism." This cause was to occupy a lot of McDonald's attention in
Enthusiasts banded together
and financed a paper called 'The Social Reformer', previously
alluded to, of which McDonald was the Editor. The paper ran for some
years until McDonald left Grahamstown, when it languished and died for
lack of his talent and enterprise. Although the editorials and tales with
morals were devoted to Teetotalism, the Social Reformer in the
hands of its energetic Editor was much more besides. A few faded issues
of the paper are before me and they betray a wide range of interests in
the mind of the Editor. There are from his pen, poems, articles, dealing
with scientific research and literature, problems in mathematics, reports
of lectures on all kinds of topics, and interesting reprints dealing with
the lives and work of the Great Victorians. The issue dealing with the
relinquishment of his editorship is full of glowing tributes from
colleagues to his talent, ability and charm. A special portrait was made
of him of which 300 copies were distributed amongst his many and sincere
Let me cite a paragraph
connected with his work in the Library, 'Scientific and Medical
Society': "He was ever ready for work whether it was the reading of a
paper, the delivery of a lecture, conducting an object class, or acting as
cicerone to juvenile parties visiting the museum." Amongst the documents
of this period is a letter from an interesting old book-seller in Cape
Town by the name of Sammons, which has an amusing postscript:
"There is a correspondent of your paper who writes Temperance Chapters
under the signature of 'John H. Chilton'. He was intemperate enough to
leave the Cape without paying me. Will you have the kindness to find his
whereabouts and try and get the money, 18/-. Have the kindness to say
that not hearing from him, I have deputed you to receive it, with my
respectful compliments, for he is a courteous gentleman." This
bookseller had been a writer as well as a seller of books and he was the
friend and correspondent of Tom Hood, the poet, and George Cruikshank, the
famous caricaturist and illustrator of Dickens.
31/1/57: "Received a long
letter from Mr Maclear, Astronomer Royal, in which he has given me much
information on certain points of Meteorology. He expresses himself as
being pleased with the observations I sent him. Finished last night the
reading of another volume of 'Hood's Poems', those of a more solemn
and serious cast. Some of them are inimitable for pathos and as showing
deep penetration into the miseries and wretchedness of the lower and
Of Tennyson, then at the
threshold of fame, he writes, "There is a great similarity in his pieces
to those of Wordsworth, but I think on the whole Wordsworth's are much
superior." Posterity confirms this judgement, although it opines that it
is rather shocking of a pious Victorian to pour such unqualified praise on
Wordsworth, a hypocrite who conveniently forgot in his heyday that he had
begotten an illegitimate daughter in France. Probably McDonald had never
heard of this scandal.
Poor Laurence Sterne comes
in for a scolding. "Finished reading Stern's 'Sentimental Journey'.
It contains many photographs of great elegance and exquisite beauty and
pathos such as have been so frequently quoted. There are also some short
apostrophes of striking beauty. In the midst of all this, however, there
is much that is exceedingly injurious to good morals throughout the book.
Matters that are both immoral and indecent are clothed in language in
which their repulsiveness is hidden, and the meaning and tendency are
unmistakable by even the most cursory reader. One might tolerate a work
of this character from a mere novelist or romanticist; but coming from a
clergyman it is disgraceful. One shudders at the idea of being taught in
high and holy things by such a worthless and unfit teacher, but there are
many kindred spirits in the Church to which Sterne belonged, which makes
one wonder the less that there is such a meagre amount of gospel religion
amongst them… all being trifling ceremony and external show."
Well, one shudders at the
idea of many present-day works, not even clothed in a decent obscurity,
which might have come into our hero's hands had he been alive. Readers
will note the 'to us' rather unctuous references to the "lower and
poorer classes" and the characteristic Victorian insistence on a moral in
a work of art in the criticism of Sterne. Such attitudes are of merely
archaic interest to the intelligent of this generation. In those respects
McDonald was the creature of his environment. Here is a well written
description of an eloquent Grahamstown minister… "Went to hear Mr Guard.
He is a pleasing and eloquent preacher but wants solemnity and substance.
The prevailing characteristics of his discussions are beauty and felicity
of imagery and expression, and graceful gesticulation. His views are
neither deep nor original and he is carried away with his subject so that
he makes a fearful noise with his loud harsh voice and pounding of the
Bible… then he speaks so rapidly in those flights that it is difficult to
The number of those who
have heard the sermon's horrid sound is dwindling, but in my tender youth
I remember to have listened to it here and there in the nonconformist
pulpit. The species of declaimer is now almost extinct, and for this
McDonald would have been thankful. But men of ability are rare in the
Church compared with his day, "Significant of Much" as Carlyle used to
The mention of Carlyle
reminds me that there are numerous references in the Diary to the works of
this writer, who appears to have exercised much influence on McDonald's
thought. He was the most conscientious of readers, and whatever he read
he absorbed and estimated the value of in notes written with the greatest
care. This sketch would swell to a volume were I to attempt to copy even
a fraction of the notes that are before me and these are only a portion of
much besides which time and carelessness have irrevocably lost to us.
I believe that the author of the notes would not have been
concerned about the neglect of prosterity. He wrote primarily for
self-improvement and recreation and was extremely modest about his
literary skill. He was what we vulgarly call a great 'stop-out'. Only
when indisposed did he go to bed at nights before the early hours, and
nothing tempted him from the self-imposed duty of writing up his notes and
diary, often after a heavy evening spent in social service. Of the
practice of reading he says, "Periodicals are useful in their way, and
serve a very useful purpose when properly used, but they were never
intended as a substitute for the heavier volume; and whoever makes them
such, and expects to possess a well stocked mind, is labouring under a
certain delusion, is pursuing a practice that may leave his heart sound
enough, but that is assuredly transforming his head into timber. One
work, of any good author well read and thought over, will make a more
profitable impression on the mind than all the weeklies, monthlies and
quarterlies of a year. Don't be afraid to read a book merely because it
opposes your own personal prejudices. This is cowardly; it warps and
cramps the mind… it shuts up our sympathies and crushes our charities…
it makes us unamiable. When the opposition comes from a manly, rational
and candid pen, then hear what is said… follow your own judgement and
judge charitably and just as you would yourself be judged." A wholesome
lesson here for these times of rabid newspapers and bitter political
prejudices. Let the reader search his or her own conscience.
The following are some of the early
Grahamstown period: "The Temperance Society held a social Tea Meeting
which a large number of people attended. I was kept up rather late, in
fact, we are growing intemperate in our temperance."
"Letter from mother. She tells me father
arrived from Namaqualand and, as usual, he is in great complicated
difficulties. I believe he shall never be out of such troubles, for as
soon as he gets possession of money he spends it in the most extravagant
way, often absurdly." This refers to the parents of his first wife, and
sheds a little light on their mode of living. Old Brooksbanks was
evidently a wandering adventurer not fond of hard work, and here again
must have existed a further drain on McDonald's slender resources.
"I find that poor F. is no more. I thought
the last time I saw him that he was not far from his end. Poor fellow. I
fear his end was not a happy one. He lived an honourable, upright and
trustworthy life, but without the least regard for religion, which he
called 'rank hypocrisy' and seemed to have little or no faith in the
Bible." McDonald did not believe that an unbeliever could die with
resignation and dignity. In fact few, even the hopelessly incurable, die
happily. His own tragic and premature end in Zululand can
hardly be de-scribed as a happy one.
A new chapter of romance had opened for our
Lieutenant (for as such he now ranked). Nineteen year old Emily Diamond,
a tiny vivacious and intelligent girl of strictly pious and orthodox
habits, had come out from Scotland to act as a companion to her Uncle and
Aunt, Mr & Mrs Mackenzie. I dimly remember her as a little old lady in a
white cap and black Victorian bodice holding views pronounced enough to
make her not exactly easy to get on with. To my childish eyes she was
rather a forbidding old lady, but then she was in the period of her long
bleak widowhood. She bore her husband 6 sons and 2 daughters and lived
with him in unbroken harmony.
Like Queen Victoria, whom she resembled, Emily
never got over the shock of her bereavement, for she had loved and adored
her husband with all the strength of a grave and earnest woman's heart.
It is comforting for us to remember that McDonald enjoyed this blessing,
for had he not undergone sore travail?.
Let us glance at his account of the ripening
of this romance –
19/4/1856: "Had an answer from Miss Diamond
which has put me into a state of anxious and painful excitement." Here,
it will be noted, is the same urgent lover who wooed Maggie Jandrell. "I
was quite surprised at some of her scruples which are groundless in the
extreme and rejected by the great majority of professing Christians.
However, I have no right to find fault with her conscientious
convictions. I must not attempt to describe my present feelings." These
were feelings of deep mortification, we may be sure, but scrupulous little
Emily must be forgiven for hesitating to accept the addresses of a
divorced man, however ardent her own sentiments might be and however
welcome his proposal. "Last night I wrote a very long letter to Miss D.
principally justifying myself for holding the sentiments I entertained
with reference to herself."
"Met Miss D. this afternoon and walked home
with her. Sorry to hear so unfavourable a state of the reception of my
letter by her uncle and aunt. This puts me into a shocking state of
However, faint heart never won fair lady, so a
letter of exculpation was dispatched to stubborn Uncle Mackenzie, but….
"Received an answer from Mr Mackenzie and, as I had been led to expect, a
very unfavourable one, and written in a very ungentlemanly spirit… it was
quite uncalled for by my letter to him. Of course, this settles the
question with regard to the uncle and aunt and it has thrown me into a
state bordering on delirium. I must now have a serious talk with Emily
and say what I think should be done and then ascertain what she thinks
would be the best."
Emily was torn with conflict between the
claims of respectability and affection. Mean-while, the love-sick suitor
records: "I have had a fearful time of it last evening and I feel now in
a state that baffles description. About half past 4 o'clock I saw Emily
in the street and hurried after her, but I could barely overtake her she
walked so fast. A few words passed… they were very, very few.
She begged me not to mention the subject lately spoken of between us, as
she would now be watched. So I bade her 'Good Evening' and thus we
parted. I have not been well treated in this matter at all and I was
quite unprepared for the resolution Miss D. seems to have taken. It has
greatly upset me, but perhaps all these things may work for good. Let me
Later: "I did not get ten minutes sleep all
last night, I feel so much excited from having seen Emily in the Museum
and hearing of the interest she took in my portrait in Atkins".
Emily, artful little minx, had aroused dying hopes. "I did not go to bed
till about 2 a.m. and then did not sleep any the whole night. I feel
therefore very unwell today."
At long last the Mackenzies grudgingly yielded
to the pleadings of the lovers. "I have for some time past visited at
Mackenzies every afternoon. I manage somehow to find time for this
additional tax on my day's routine… so well I may too as this is the
pleasantest portion of my time." Aunt Mackenzie was rather a trial
though. "My poor dear little Emily felt much annoyed today through some
of her aunt's capricious whims. I do feel so deeply that she is subject
to these things and fondly hope that circumstances may conspire to hasten
to the day when she will leave her present most ungenial and uncomfortable
"I hear from Emily that her aunt does not
relish my calling so frequently. I never met such a changeful minded
woman. However, she shall not have cause for such complaint in future."
There are limits to a proud lover's toleration of an insinuating aunt. He
deliberate-ly absented himself for a cruelly long period, nearly a whole
week. "I did not call at Mackenzie's since Monday last, and I have felt
quite uneasy through the week. I had intended to call this afternoon.
This morning Emily sent a note giving me a sound scolding for not having
called and saying I must do so today… or else… what would she not
think? I was both amused and grieved at the earnest and grave tone of the
note. So I went over a little after 4 o'clock and found them all in the
very best of temper."
At this point the Mackenzies must have changed
their tactics of obstruction and affairs progressed comparatively smoothly
to a happy conclusion. Comparatively, I say, for there was a rival to
Emily for McDonald's hand: "I received a note from S.B. which struck me
as rather curious, for she said she had a very particular message for me
and would be glad to see me for a few minutes in the evening. I
accordingly carried out her wishes and called about 6 o'clock. She
appeared in a very dejected mood, with a sad looking face. After being
seated for a short time, she said she had just heard that I was paying
attentions to a young woman, and earnestly desired to know if this was
true. I said, yes, it was the case. And, continued she… almost
suffocated with the words 'are you going to be married?' I said, that
was not definitely decided on, but it was of course likely. She then
endeavoured to say that she hoped I would be happy and that the woman I
was to make my wife would love me as I deserved and be kind to my
"After stammering out in some such way these
words, she burst into a bitter fit of weeping, and wished to God she might
die this evening, saying that now she had nothing to live for and many
other expressions of a similar kind. I did not know what to do, but when
the first paroxysm subsided I told her she ought to have more sense than
allow her feelings to over-come her in that way, and so forth. However,
she went on weeping in such a bitter manner and saying so many strange
things, that I thought Hysteria would follow. Thinking that it would be
best to quit such a painful scene, I rose and bade her 'Good Evening',
telling her she should compose herself. She told me it was easy for me to
say so, but the case was not so on her part. She then hurried away to
another room and I left, with a saddened and gloomy mind. I am truly
sorry that such a thing should occur and that any young woman should be so
indiscreet as to cherish hopes and feelings which had not the least shadow
of encouragement from me. I esteemed S.B. as a highly respectable and
pious lady, and as a very old acquaintance, but I certainly had no idea of
making love to her, nor have I given her any reason whatever to think so.
"However, this will wear off in time, and as
she intends to leave town very soon now, she will meet other faces and
forget mine. May God give her grace to overcome everything in which she
has so injudiciously indulged, and soon may her peace of mind be restored
and her wounded feelings become calm and composed."
Isn't this like a scene from a novel by Jane
Austen? I trust I am not doing the character of McDonald an injustice by
retaining a vestige of suspicion that he was not sufficiently conscious of
the magnetism of his personality when cultivating the society of pious and
respectable young ladies. And who says that Victorian girls were all a
crowd of simpering and timid misses… ?
10/7/1858: "Bought the ring for
Emily!" The personal note rarely obtrudes in the Diary after McDonald's
marriage with Miss Diamond. He was now joyfully united with a lady who
fully shared his interests and would have gone to Church with him a dozen
times a day had he so wished. Many years of congenial activity followed
during which children were born. William obtained a situation in the Cape
of Good Hope Bank, and Alick, after serving an apprenticeship with an
apothecary and a short term in the Post Office, went into commerce in Port
Brother William and the old mother in the
Highlands died, but sister Catherine survived him to a ripe old age.
Hannah grew up and married a Mr Birnie, after energetically re-fusing a
match made her by her father and stepmother with a Mr Bompas. A large
young family inevitably meant money difficulties which the two eldest sons
took a pride in relieving whenever they could afford to do so.
Like most of those who are conscientious and
of a proud and independent nature McDonald was shamefully exploited by the
authorities. He performed his official duties with superb efficiency but
promotion was denied to him because he refrained from following the custom
of intriguing for what he knew full well were his just deserts. I will
now attempt to give a short outline of the last years of this loving
life. In an appendix will be found copies of other interesting notes he
made in the course of his reading.
In the early seventies McDonald was
transferred to Cape Town, the troubles with the Amaxosas at the Frontier
having been finally settled. His departure was deplored by the wide
circle of friends he had made, but the pulpit of Trinity Church from which
he had so often communed with the Faithful was never to hold his gracious
and persuasive presence again. The place called Grahamstown was to see
him no more.
On arrival at Cape Town he found the visit of
Prince Alfred making a great stir. "Looked in at the 99th
Regiment Ball…. a most brilliant and imposing affair…. the place was
profusely decorated and there was the great luxury to the dancers in the
shape of punkhahs, which were kept in motion by relays of soldiers. I
stayed to supper for the sake of the presence of the Prince, who most
thoroughly enjoyed himself."
"Eclipse of the sun this afternoon. Had not
thought of it and was quite surprised at the peculiarly dark ominous
appearance of the sky, as if a storm was brewing. The light of the sun
gave a leaden hue to surrounding objects and the general aspect of things
Hannah's wedding to Birnie is noted: "Quite
forgot to note a few days ago that we at last received a lump of Hannah's
wedding cake, and Emmy and I enjoyed it very much, accompanied by a bottle
of champagne indulged in for the occasion." Was this an aberration on
the part of these usually steadfast advocates of temperance? If so,
Hannah's joy was to blame.
"The rejoicings of the Queen's Birthday were
held today so there was an opportunity of wearing my cocked hat, to the
great merriment of the children. Had baby baptized… called him Duncan
Munro… the former a name in my father's family and the latter my
mother's maiden name."
He was not long in Cape Town. Did he visit
Hannah's grave, one wonders? An order came for his return to England.
We next find him installed at the Royal Woolwich Arsenal, as full of zeal
for good works as ever!
20/5/1876: "Changed my socks for the summer.
During the month have been reading among other things the 'Tragedies of
Sophocles', a copy of which I picked up in an old bookshop." (How the
old London bookshops must have delighted his heart). "They are extremely
interesting reading and throw a light on the ancient modes of thought."
Church interests, as usual, predominate.
"Took the childrens' service in the Chapel, Plumstead, this evening…. a
large number there, but a rough lot." But his second love, literature,
was by no means neglected: "At the Literary Society this evening a paper
was read by Mr C. on the 'Times and Works of Shakespeare'. Poor
C. has no knowledge whatever of grammar and, as might have been expected,
made a great number of most ridiculous blunders and excited many a hearty
laugh. It won't do to have lectures of his stamp."
At the Arsenal he was Honorary Secretary of
the Soldier's Central Widows Fund, and the great city afforded many
opportunities for exercise of the Christian duty of visiting the poor and
the afflicted. "Called this evening to see Sgt. Major Adams who looked
very ill indeed. He could not speak much and expressed a regret that he
could not read, so I offered to do so for him, with which he seemed much
pleased. I read the 90th and the 103rd Psalms and
endeavoured to offer a few remarks upon these beautiful passages of
Scripture. I then asked him whether he would like me to pray, and he
faintly replied: 'If you like to do so, Sir'. I therefore engaged in
prayer for a few minutes and then left. When I took his hand to say good
evening he pressed me warmly and cordially and thanked me repeatedly for
coming to see him."
There was, of course, much sightseeing to do
after all those years away from Home. As soon as he could arrange it he
visited Scotland, and Emmy and the children went to see her father and
mother who lived in Exeter. "It was good to see the old Highland home
again. In the afternoon went to the Sunday Sabbath School where I had
been both a scholar and a teacher in days of yore. We drove to Ardross
where we had a real picnic tiffin under the widely spreading boughs of a
giant beech." In Edinburgh he met his brother-in-law McInroy, now a
widower. "Had not seen him for about 33 years, so of course we both were
very much changed. McInroy had almost forgotten the roistering Cape Town
days of his early manhood and appears to have subsided into a condition of
querulous and stodgy middle-agedness."
There is a letter to McDonald welcoming the
latter back to Scotland, full of complaints about the dullness of
business. The envelope bears the Athol crest, but his was evidently a
case of faded gentility. I have not been able to trace what sort of
business he was struggling in. McDonald was not interested enough in him
(?) to tell us.
The religious atmosphere in which McDonald
found himself in England was vulgar com-pared to that he had become used
to in the Cape. There he had worshipped God in the select company of
individuals akin to himself, elegant, entertaining and of careful
behaviour and speech. In Britain lots had happened since he had left it
as a youth. The working masses were reaping the privilege of elementary
education and all sorts of men of the people were saying very unkind
things of good well-fed Christians of the higher orders who came to exhort
and advise them in their irredeemable poverty. Furthermore, the work of
the great "infidels" which McDonald had laboriously explained away to his
own satisfaction, had wrought havoc among the poorer classes.
There was Charles Bradlaugh challenging in
public a horrified House of Commons for the right of an atheist to be
treated as a normal human being. And Charles Darwin, that absurd
monkey-theorist, had actually been acclaimed by the world as one of
England's most illustrious scientists. Nothing is said of all this in
McDonald's papers. In common with Mr Gladstone, he rested on the
Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture, but, remembering his advice to read
books of opposing views, the great controversy must have worried him a
great deal. Amongst his papers are exercise and pocket books filled with
reflections written in a clear, fluent style justifying the doctrines of
Presbyterian orthodoxy to his own intellectual conscience.
He was a man who had never stopped learning
for it was the passion of his life, and had he lived to enjoy the leisure
for doing so, it is possible that the rigidity of belief he clung to might
in time have been changed to a cautious acceptance of the results of
modern biblical criticism. As it was, church-going had to be something
more for him than rather dismal audience with the Creator. He looked for
a social event whereby the soul might be thrilled and inspired in addition
to being redeemed. He found this in the Presbyterian Conventicles in
South Africa with their elegant and eloquent ministers and their
congregations made up for the most part from the military, the
professions, and the prosperous trades people. And there were always the
natives upon whose humble and necessarily prostrate heads the brimming cup
of Christian charity could conveniently be emptied.
5/8/1877: "Went to Dunottar Parish Church
where we had a good sermon, but the whole church, its surroundings and the
service were awfully and painfully slow. The singing was extremely poor.
Glasgow: Took Gospel Address in the Mission Room. A rough noisy lot. I
have little hope of anything being done with them."
The short holiday in Scotland was marred by
annoying bouts of indisposition –
14/8/1877: "After being about half an hour in
the train to London, felt quite squeamish and was unwell all the way.
Fortunately had a whole seat to myself which enabled me to lie down, which
I did mostly the whole day. It took some time to recover from the
exhaustion caused by the journey." 18th August: "Quite bad
with severe cold. Hardly any sleep last night… stayed at home."
There were the usual troubles with the baby.
Sutherland, Malcolm and Norman were still small boys and contributed their
quota of anxiety. The eldest daughter by Emmy, called after her mother,
was making a name for herself in pianoforte playing and was shortly to
marry Mr McColl and relieve the drain on the family purse.
10/10/1877: "Distribution of prizes to Pope's
Service classes in Alexandra Hall, General Gordon in the chair… Moved a
vote of thanks." It is interesting to know that he met this famous
Victorian with whom he had so much in common. Luxury steamships are now
in the picture. 29th October: "To docks to see the Thompsons
away to Cape. They go by the splendid steamer 'Dunrobin Castle'."
8th November: "To London to hear
Spurgeon in the Tabernacle preach the sermon to Sabbath School
Teachers." Another famous Victorian, whose admonitory voice has become
faint at last.
An uncle dies: "Heard that poor old uncle
Goddard died on Monday evening. Funeral in Highgate Cemetery."
19/2/1878: "Today took Flora, Norman and
Duncan to Madame Tussauds, and of course they were highly delighted with
all they saw."
9th March: "To London to Officer's
Prayer Meeting… A meeting I always very much enjoy." Is religion still
strong enough in the British Army to support an Officer's Prayer
On the 1st April 1878, McDonald was
gazetted a Captain in Her Majesty's Paymaster Forces. Since his return to
England he had been engaged in easy and nondescript duties at the
Arsenal. The promotion, with its increased pay, was the occasion of great
family rejoicing. "New commission comes into force now, for which I
cannot feel too grateful. Long have I yearned and prayed for means of
keeping body and soul together, but never expected it was to come as it
Unfortunately petty ailments kept recurring.
20th April: "Had a bad night with earache and restlessness.
In bed all day." But still the promptings of unflagging zeal urged the
tired body to labours for Christ. There were Synods to be attended and
meetings of the executive of the young Y.M.C.A. of which body he was a
He was not far off from his 60th
year and could surely hope for more leisure to devote to the causes he
loved so well. 1st July: "Have commenced shaving again,
there being a probability of my being transferred to the District in a few
months when I would have to do away with the beard." The day of the
bearded warrior, so characteristically Victorian, was over.
4/9/1878: "A fearful accident on the Thames
last night, some 700 people drowned. Town in great commotion, but bodies
have all been taken to the Dockyard and this brings the crowds to that
district. Passed through a shed today where there were about 60 or 70
bodies…. a fearfully ghastly sight."
The newly encouraged family was not to enjoy
calm for long. 27th September: "Quite un-settled lately by a
warning that I am first for Foreign Service. It appears that Mauritius
and Barbados are vacant, and if I must go I have chosen the former." He
evidently did not care about returning to the West Indies where he was as
a young soldier. Fate, however, intended him for another destiny. The
conflict with the Zulus under the turbulent Getawayo was giving more
trouble than had been anticipated and it was to be expected that the
military authorities would seize upon all officers with colonial
experience for active service in the threatened territory.
8th October: "The Accountant
General wants me to leave for Natal almost at once. Of course this throws
us into a sad state of mind. On reaching home I met Emmy at the door
going to the Meeting at Mr Balgarnie's, and we went on together, but had
both to leave and get home again before the service was half through,
being so unwell…. "
9th October: "Have had hardly any
sleep all night, the anxiety and perplexity of this sudden move prayed so
much on my mind." He must have been told that the move to South Africa
would be permanent, and it was, therefore impossible to think of leaving
his wife and little children in England.
11th October: "To London to see
Donald Currie about the passage. To cost ₤216. They are willing to take
a Bill on Alick for ₤100 if I pay another ₤100 here. Things looking very
gloomy indeed…." To us the action of the Military authorities in ordering
a man of his age and circumstances to break up home and proceed to a
distant land at less than a month's notice seems heartless in the
extreme. I cannot help thinking that the bureaucrats of the War Office
shamelessly imposed upon his loyal and honourable nature, and that had he
protested his situation, he would have succeeded in obtaining more humane
The man who left England for Zululand was a
partially ailing man, unfitted to withstand the rigours of a campaign. In
the whole length of the Diary, mention is never made of a holiday relieved
of care and responsibility and nature was revolting at length at this
25th October: "Large Tea Meeting
to enable me to take farewell of the congregation. Many presents and many
flattering and kind addresses made. I could hardly say anything.
Presented with a very nice Bible and purse with 27 sovereigns. Painful
ordeal in taking fare-well of the children and teachers. Many of them
wept freely." Even in the short time he had spent in England, he had
become deeply and widely loved. After tearful and affecting partings, the
steamer bearing the McDonalds pursued a mercifully tranquil course to the
Cape. Nevertheless, McDonald and his wife were frequently ill, but the
children escaped the ravages of seasickness. "There was fun on the Line
with 'Neptune' and his followers, and the amount of ducking and
shaving was quite refreshing."
Arriving at Cape Town, he reported at the
Castle, then 28th November: "Today came the time which poor
Emmy has been so much dreading. By unavoidable arrangement I have to go
on with the 'Melrose' which sails for Natal this afternoon, and
leave the family to go on to Port Elizabeth on Saturday next. About 3
p.m. Emmy and I took a cab to the Docks. After seeing that the start of
the ship would be postponed, Emmy thought it would be best not to wait, so
we very sorrowfully and painfully parted. She felt it very much and so
did I, but thought it best not to give way, for her sake. She returned
with a very depressed heart, but I trust that her care for the children
and the bustle that must entail, will engage her mind so that she shall
not brood over the separation too much." Emmy was never to see her
With stops at Port Elizabeth and East London,
McDonald eventually reached Durban. At Port Elizabeth he writes:
"Reached P.E. about 7 p.m. and William, Alick, Birnie, Hannah and Lexy
came on board and found me actually knocking about the deck. They stayed
about an hour and we had a very welcome and hearty chat together."
In Durban, where he at once hunted out the
good Church folks, he put up at the Belgrave House Hotel and expressed a
hope that he should be permitted to make the place his head-quarters, but
alarm about the menace of the Zulus, already proved in several severe and
not always successful encounters, hastened his departure for the Front.
On the eve of setting out, he complains: "Very seedy all last night and
today… stomach quite out of order and I am altogether as weak as
possible. Called at the Apothecary's and got a draught of some-thing to
settle my stomach.'
Newcastle was the objective, by train as far
as Pinetown and the rest of the way by cart. "Had a fearful drive up the
long winding steep out of Pietermaritzburg. The mud about knee deep and
the horses barely able to drag the cart… Drove as far as the Mooi River
where we put up for the night. Awfully tired and knocked up with the
rough drive, for we not only had the disagreeable jolting in an overloaded
cart, but had to walk up two or three steep hills as well."
It took nearly a fortnight of "tough going" in
the most inclement weather, with bad food and roughly improvised
accommodation at nights, before McDonald settled for a while at Utrecht.
"At the last drift the driver was careless and let one wheel get on the
bank so that the cart capsized. I noticed it tilting over and made a jump
out, so got from under it as it fell, but hurt my hand and leg."
Work connected with the pay of the troops
commenced at once and entailed many trips to Newcastle and back. He
mentions taking out of the Bank in Newcastle on one occasion ₤10,000 in
gold and silver.
18/1/1879: "News that a large band of Zulus
were in the neighbourhood."
23rd Jan.: "Very sad news, that the
24th Regiment and some others of the Helpmekaar Column have
been murdered by the Zulus. Very grave and ominous intelligence. Think I
had better go into the Lager tomorrow for security." This is a reference
to the now historic disaster of Isandlwana where a Column, under the
command of Col. Durnford, was surprised and annihilated by 20,000 Zulus
led by Getewayo.
12th February: "Letter from my
dear Emmy, for which I am truly thankful."
Captain McDonald continued to live in an
environment of scares and rumours and hard-ships more than his weakening
condition could stand, but he stuck to his severe task working day and
night, uncomplainingly. Torrential rains fell. "I have been over the
ankles in clay and mud all week. Blankets quite damp at night too."
14/3/1879: "A severe attack of windy spasm or
colic this evening." There follows, in quickly succeeding entries,
accounts of the slow and reluctant retreat of his vital powers. The will
to fight against death was tremendously strong, with the thought always of
the anxious and loving waiting hearts in Port Elizabeth nerving him for
the struggle. "Spent a night of great agony, could hardly reach the Lager
from dinner and then could not take off my clothes, but lay on the bed as
I was all night. Got no sleep and could have no rest whichever way I
lay. Rose between 5 and 6 and soon after walked up to the doctor who gave
me a prescription for a dose of castor oil. I then lay down in an easy
chair all day. In the afternoon he gave me another dose which purged me
freely. The pain in my side abated, but still very bad. Last night the
whole Camp aroused and alarmed by the firing of a gun, which is the signal
for the approach of the Zulus." After a great deal of bustle and
excitement it was ascertained the gun was fired by a drunken sentry. "Express
this evening to announce attack on a convoy of wagons and the murder of
about 40 men of the 80th Regiment."
30th March: "Good news from the
Front. The Zulus, flushed with their successes, attacked Col. Wood's Camp
yesterday and were repulsed with great loss – a thorough defeat.
Several killed and wounded on our side."
6th May: "Lord Chelmsford and
Staff, including the Prince Imperial, came in this after-noon, so we had a
merry time of it at dinner this evening. His Lordship, a handsome and
most affable man and the Prince, all smiles and courtesy." (The poor
smiling Prince Imperial of France was murdered a little later on, as we
all know, in an ambush by the Zulus).
9th May: "Working all day and
night. Feel dreadfully seedy. Almost forgot to note that I had a private
letter from Lord Chelmsford telling me that my services here shall not
fail of reward." Church and praying were far away in the regions of
peace. How he yearned to be back there again….
26th May: "This evening commenced
with a Bible reading class amongst the men. Major Elliot and his men were
present. I have been greatly longing for some work of this kind and trust
that it may be successful."
7th June: "Another bad time all
last night. Today unable to work." And, with all the suffering, the
Central Widows Society in Woolwich was not overlooked. "Sent cheque for
₤2.8.0. to London, my promised contribution to date to the Widow's Fund."
No tribulation that the President of the Immortals put upon His faithful
servant could break that brave and proud heart. Even his
natural gaiety never altogether forsook him.
"At Miss Hutchinson's Wedding Breakfast.
About 16 there and a good supply of eatables furnished and plenty of
champagne. Bradshaw came in last night and made me drink off a pint
bottle of champagne which has not done me great benefit. Feel a little
better, but very unwell and weak as possible. How I long for the tender
nursing of home…."
12th July: "Improvement sensible
today, but very weak. Doing some work again, though it is a great
21st July: "The decisive fight in
the 'King's Kraal' on the 4th has broken the neck of the
War." So he looked forward soon to rejoining his beloved Emily and
catching up the threads of his broken health.
24/7/1879: "My Birthday. I believe I must be
59 now, though there is some doubt about the year of birth, whether 1821
or 1822. Had a telegram from Port Elizabeth of congratulations.
31st July: "At Zuitamans till late
last night or rather early this morning. An evening rather insipid, for
these Dutch people think nothing of but dancing when they have a small
gathering. Suffered a good deal from indigestion during the latter half
of the month.
I am now unable to take dinner, as it only
involves a wakeful uneasy night.
13th August: "Started for
Newcastle for specie…. and intend to remain here a few days.
15th August: "So weak that I can
barely ramble about for half an hour… Thought that my change here would
prove beneficial, but not so. Made up my mind that as soon as my
Accounts, now a little in arrears, can be licked into shape, I shall apply
to be relieved and endeavour to get some sick leave. I am really nothing
more or less than a mere invalid, for my strength is all gone for work.
"A letter from General Wood thanking me for
all my work while under his command. He tells me that, in a recent report
to Lord Chelmsford, he has given me a meet of praise. This is all
gratifying, but what about my broken-down health…. ?" An attack of
African Fever came on top of everything and life gradually ebbed to a
close. He resolutely kept up his Diary until within a few hours of
his end. Very moving and touching it is to look at those final pathetic
entries. The firm and strong handwriting begins to scrawl and then there
are mis-spellings and incoherencies.
Sadly and proudly, he died alone there, far
from the loved ones who were praying for his welfare, sacrificing himself
without an unmanly murmur for the glory of his Queen and Country.
had completed the loving labour of sorting out his papers for the purpose
of com-piling this memoir, I found, written on a page of the little
notebook he never lived to fill, and folded over as if in preparation for
tearing out and dispatch, a heart-rending note addressed to Emmy. She saw
it only a long time after he had gone, with his papers which were sent on
To me, it is one of
the most sorrowful missives ever written. Here it is:
"Oh, my dear Emmy, I could not
tell you what I have suffered since I wrote you last.
God grant it may be the worst, and amendment is in store for me. I have
since I reached Newcastle, and trust to a few days to enable me to go on.
I can't leave here much under a fortnight, and then it takes about 6 or 7
days to reach Pietermaritzburg, and once there, surely there need be no
This must have been
one of the last notes he ever wrote.
Written by his
grandson, Eric Alexander McDonald
Johannesburg – 1937.