Tag Archives: history

Kansas City fountains and the people they memorialize

I was perusing the University of the Western Cape Library when I discovered a pair of books celebrating the architecture and arts of my home town, Kansas City. I felt so fortunate to have a taste of home, half a world away! I wanted to share a bit of what I learned from Fountains of Kansas City: a History and Love Affair, by Sherry Piland and Ellen J. Ugoccioni. Specifically, who are the Kansas Citians we celebrate with our most elaborate fountains?

Thomas H. Swope (1827-1909) and Alfred Benjamin (1859-1923)

The grounds of Swope Park were donated to the city in 1896. This 1911 map from the Kansas City Public Library illustrates the original size of the park.

I decided to group together Swope and Benjamin to reflect their shared resting place. When Swope Park was first dedicated as a public park in 1896, the land was four miles south of the city limits. Today, the park falls within the I-435 loop that surrounds the Kansas City Metroplex. The park has gradually gained more amenities over time. It is home to Starlight Theatre, the Kansas City Zoo, and the Lakeside Nature Center.
The area had only been a park for thirteen years, though, when the donor of the lands passed.

Thomas Swope came to Kansas City in his 30th year. He proved to be a very shrewd land investor. On April 16, 1857, Swope re-sold a valuable tract of land to the city (near 10th Street and Grand Avenue), one of the early expansions of the city’s original boundaries. Despite Swope’s involvement in large-scale land investment, he remained a very private man, eventually moving to occupy a room in a family mansion at Independence, Missouri. I am sure he would have been mortified that his death in 1909 became such a public scandal. Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde, the husband of his niece, had served as Swope’s doctor in his final illness, and the man was brought to trial for the murder of Thomas Swope. Three trials for Thomas Swope’s murder followed. Thomas Swope’s body only arrived at its memorial in Swope Park in 1918, and the memorial construction continued in three different phases of construction until 1931. It incorporates a mausoleum and colonnade (begun in 1917), a fountain and balustrade (begun in 1922), and a gate and stairway (begun in 1930). Rob Scott‘s photograph of the memorial appears at the top of this post.

This statue at the center of the Alfred Benjamin Memorial celebrates his generosity. Photo from kcfountains.wordpress.com

Alfred Benjamin came to Kansas City with his family in 1880 to launch a branch of the Abernathy Furniture Company. Benjamin rose to prominence, serving as vice-president of the company, and in 1905 he became president of the United Jewish Charities. Benjamin demonstrated a clear desire to help those in poverty, regardless of religion or race, and he donated a substantial portion of his own income to the cause. At his death in 1923, both Catholic and Jewish leaders spoke in his memory. Four years after his death, the memorial beside the road to Starlight Theatre was completed. The statue and fountain illustrate the principle he lived by, that those with much should contribute to the welfare of those who don’t have as much.

James F. Pendergast (1856-1911)

The Pendergast Machine dominated Kansas City politics for the first four decades of the twentieth century. “Alderman Jim” set the stage for his brother Tom’s domination, serving nine terms as alderman on the city council. His populist political style won him praise from the Kansas City Times obituary writer: “his generosity, his big-heartedness, his readiness to do favors for the ‘boys’…” By the time his memorial was dedicated in 1913, however, Prohibition had changed the appraisal of Jim Pendergast; his ownership of a saloon made him a participant in “an unnecessary business and a bad one” (Kansas City Journal-Post).

This image of the James Pendergast Memorial in its contemporary location comes from Flatland KC, the digital magazine of KCPT.

It may be unsurprising, then, that his memorial has had a checkered history. The monument shows him seated in a throne-like chair with flanking statues of youths with animals. The memorial started life in Mulkey Square Park, south of W. Twelfth Street, but the 1965 Crosstown Freeway project put it in storage for a while before it was replaced in the reshaped park. Whether James Pendergast was confused with his brother Tom or for another reason, the memorial has been a frequent target of vandals and thieves. Within a few years of its 1913 dedication, people had swiped the two flanking youthful figures (recast in 1916). In March 1933, the arms of the flanking figures were cut away. More damage followed, so that even the bronze panels showing the accomplishments of Pendergast were removed. Despite these challenges, the James Pendergast Memorial has been reconstituted. In 1990, the memorial was shifted to its current location at W. Ninth and Jefferson.

William Volker (1859-1947)

The vocation of William Volker would not seem hugely profitable, but his business in wholesaling picture frames led to a business selling window shades and soon other home furnishings. The Volker company eventually was able to open branches throughout most Western cities. Holding aside one million dollars for his wife’s benefit, he otherwise contributed tremendous sums of money to philanthropy on the large scale and to individuals. William Volker granted the land on which the main campus of University of Missouri– Kansas City was constructed, and he also launched the Research Medical Center.

This statue of the William Volker Memorial Fountain celebrates St. Martin of Tours. Photograph by Donald L. Smith

Piland and Uggucioni spend twelve pages of their book describing the development of the ambitious fountain celebrating William Volker. The puzzling character of Swedish sculptor Carl Milles delighted me. The principal subject of the fountain is Martin of Tours on horseback; the saint is known for having sliced his cloak in half to help a destitute person. Milles’ sense of whimsy really comes through in his sculpting a wristwatch on one of the angels! Carl Milles died in 1955, so he was present only in spirit for the fountain to be inaugurated at Theis Park in 1958. I have frequently driven past this enormous fountain in its second location on the south bank of Brush Creek. You can be sure I will stop to get a closer look the next time I visit my home town!

J.C. Nichols (1880-1950)

I could have sworn that the last fountain in this post was simply “the Kansas City Fountain” or “the Plaza Fountain,” but this probably reflects just how important J.C. Nichols was to the development of our city’s design. Many architects in our area were influenced by the City Beautiful movement of the 1890s and 1900s. J.C. Nichols was a pioneer in designing urban projects that make room for automobiles. In 1908, the Kansas City Star gave a useful summary of his intent with what became the Country Club Plaza:

A general plan has been adopted by which boulevards, winding roads, stone walls, rustic bridges and circular drives, shelter houses, systematic planting of trees and shrubs, the creation of private parks, the treatment of running streams, work out into a harmonious whole. The old method of laying out in squares regardless of topography is abandoned and the property is so divided as to permit intelligent treatment of hillside or lowland, thus escaping any ugly unsightly cuts or fills.

Kansas City Star, April 28, 1908, quoted in G. Ehrlich, KCMO: An Architectural History 1826-1990

The Plaza is an obvious place to visit for almost anyone who comes to Kansas City for the first time. Unlike most parts of the city, the Plaza has a very unified Spanish architectural style, taking its pattern from architect Edward Delk. The 1923 Tower and Mill Creek buildings set the stamp that would influence the design of all other commercial buildings nearby. By 1967, Kansas City had become “sister city” to Seville, and it constructed a small replica of the Giralda tower at the Plaza.

This image of the J.C. Nichols fountain, featuring the Giralda replica, was made available through Wikimedia Commons.

I was quite surprised, then, to discover that the iconic Plaza fountain celebrating the life of J.C. Nichols was in fact created for the Mackay “Harbor Hill” Estate in New York by Henri Greber in 1910! The vandalized and dismantled fountain was purchased by the Nichols family in 1952, just two years after the death of J.C. Nichols. A local sculptor, Herman Frederick Simon, created plaster models to replace the heads of the two children riding dolphins. A monument for the Daughters of the Confederacy was moved from the Plaza site to make room for the new fountain. Construction could only begin once the necessary funds had been raised, and so dedication of the fountain could not take place until May of 1960. In 2014-2015, the fountain was refurbished at the cost of a quarter million dollars. Two months after this blog was originally posted, the Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of George Perry Floyd, Jr.’s death elevated public awareness of J.C. Nichols’ efforts to segregate neighborhoods, making his homes available only to white families. In June of 2020, the mayor of Kansas City and its Parks and Recreation committees were debating plans to rename this fountain!

Conclusion

Naturally, these are just a few of the 200+ fountains offered by the City of Fountains. I love that some of the people who shaped Kansas City have been memorialized in this way. I feel some embarrassment that I haven’t also highlighted memorials remembering women, such as the American War Mothers Memorial,the Women’s Leadership Fountain, the Jane Hemingway Gordon Fountain, or the Mary Fraser Memorial Fountain. Our city was shaped by many people, and the joyful splash of running water can help us to celebrate all!

Kansas City origins: the bend in the river

The 1803 Louisiana Purchase nearly doubled the area of the United States. Settlers were soon on their way west to claim farms and trading sites throughout the Purchase, often using the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to speed their travel. This blog post will examine the settlements near the bend of the Missouri River to answer a basic question: why did Kansas City become the largest city in Missouri?

Missouri as a launching pad

Today, we have any number of options for long-distance travel. It would seem no remarkable feat to travel to a city many states away by jet, and reaching another city in the same state is generally a simple matter of driving a car for several hours. In the days before railroads, however, rivers were necessary for speedy bulk transport. The pioneers who established trade routes to Spanish / Mexican territory, Mormons who sought a place to practice their religion in peace, French fur traders who needed to ship their goods east, gold miners bound for California, and others saw the Missouri River as the natural route. The National Park Service illustrates this neatly with their map of the National Trails System.

Zoom into NPS National Trails System Map. Mormon trail (yellow), California Trail (red), Oregon Trail (brown), and Pony Express (blue) overlap through Nebraska and Wyoming.

In 1808, five years after the Louisiana Purchase, the federal government sent cavalry from St. Charles to construct Fort Osage near the Missouri River to extend its reach into the vast region and to protect a “factory” for the fur trade. The Osage Indians conducted an active trade with the fort, and they were willing to host missionaries from the United Foreign Missionary Society, which operated the Harmony Mission until 1837. The factory at Fort Osage, however, competed with the private fur trade, and it shut its doors in 1827. While Fort Osage was the first American outpost in the area, it did not nucleate a city.

This view of the rebuilt Fort Osage is from the riverside, courtesy of MormonHistoricSites.org

The French fur traders had established networks across the Purchase in advance of its sale to the United States, and they continued their activities after its annexation. The Chouteau family ran the American Fur Company from St. Louis, Missouri. The family used formal marriages to solidify their grip on the trade, and they frequently established common-law marriages with women from native American groups to solidify trust relationships with them. Francois Gesseau and Bereniece Chouteau may reasonably be called the first settlers of what is now Kansas City, arriving in 1821. After his initial fur trading camp was washed away in the floods of 1826, Francois established a home and warehouse on higher ground at the Randolph Bluffs. “Chouteau’s Warehouse” became a key depot and boat-to-wagon transition site. While a dozen other families joined in the settlement, it remained largely a commercial site, growing in value especially after the Fort Osage factory was discontinued.

Five early settlements each contributed to forming the Kansas City Metro.

For the first few decades, Independence, Missouri looked like it would be the dominant city of the region. As the eastern terminus of the lucrative Santa Fe Trail, Independence was just six miles from the Blue Mills landing on the Missouri River. The trail continued past Santa Fe to the south to reach Chihuahua, Mexico, allowing traders to circumvent the high taxes of naval trade at the port of Veracruz. Samuel C. Owens and others recognized that “traders needed a town where supplies and livestock could be purchased and freight could be transferred to and from St. Louis by river, a town where they might finalize legal transactions and assemble goods for freighting to Mexico, and where they could monitor each other’s business interests” [O’Brien p. 34]. Three factors interfered with the continuing growth of Independence. Their interaction with Mormon immigrants from the east rapidly became disastrous (1827-1833). The Mormons fled across the Missouri River to Liberty in Clay County, where the refugees found less-than-hospitable hosts. The primary school that I attended in Liberty was named for Alexander Doniphan, a lawyer, soldier, and legislator who agreed to represent the Mormons in court. The disputes with Spain and the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 compromised the value the Santa Fe trail represented. The Bleeding Kansas Border War between 1854 and 1861 had a heavy toll on the region, to say nothing of the American Civil War. Today, Independence has become the fourth largest city in the state rather than the first.

In many respects, Westport was an attempt to swipe Independence’s role as the trail head for Santa Fe. If one could unload steamers even closer to the bend of the Missouri River than at Independence, a couple of days could be cut from the wagon travel time. In 1833, John C. McCoy decided to divide the lands around his trading post into lots for sale. The site, approximately four miles south of Chouteau’s Warehouse, lay along the trail from Independence to the southwest. Growth at Westport was sluggish at first, but then the 1837 Platte Purchase altered the Missouri state line to follow the Missouri River rather than head directly north; previously, this wedge of land had been used to re-home Native Americans from the east, and now they were being removed again.

1865 etching of City of Kansas, soon after its incorporation. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Gabriel Prudhomme, one of the settlers at Chouteau’s Warehouse, had acquired some premium property at the site including a rocky landing on the riverside. His untimely death in 1831 resulted in a sale of his lands, and the buyers were fourteen investors who bought it to create the “Town of Kansas” (among them was John McCoy). In effect, the Prudhomme estate purchase made it possible to link Chouteau’s Warehouse with Westport. An 1838 survey established a set of lots for the expanded city, but a variety of mistakes led to contested claims. After a powerful flood of the Missouri River in 1844, the first brick buildings in the city were constructed in 1845, with the last of the initial lots selling in 1847. In 1850, the Town of Kansas was finally incorporated. Only three years later, it was renamed the City of Kansas. By contrast, nearly forty years had passed before the name was changed to “Kansas City!”

Who are the heroes among Namibia’s Herero?

I grappled with Marion Wallace’s A History of Namibia, but I kept feeling like I was getting lost. Natasha suggested that I try to focus on a more narrow topic than an nation’s complete history, and Jan-Bart Gewald‘s Herero Heroes seemed a great place to start. At first I tried reading a scanned PDF available on the net, but I quickly shifted to reading a print copy from my university library. One might guess from the title that it would be a laudatory paean to remarkable men and women among the Herero, but instead the title kept taunting me as I read about the profound challenges the Herero faced during the lifetime of Samuel Maherero (1856-1923). Who are the heroes Gewald wants to celebrate?

Introducing three populations of Namibia

This 1876 map from UCT Digital Africana shows the Ovambo, Damara (Herero), and Namaqua regions from North to South in the region that became Namibia. The Namib Desert lines the coast, while the Kalahari is further inland.

A bit of orientation will help for those who have never visited Namibia. Gewald’s book centers upon the Herero people of central Namibia (the green box above labeled “Damara Pasture” from Windhoek northward) who speak dialects of Otjiherero, including the Ovaherero, Ovambanderu, and Ovahimba. The Herero also go under the name “Damara,” which is confusing because the Berg Damara are an entirely different population. The Herero were largely pastoralists, traveling with their herds among permanent and transitory water sources as heavy rains alternated with droughts.

The Ovambo, by contrast, customarily lived much further north in a region straddling what is now the Namibia / Angola border; this map notes that they live in the best agricultural land of the region (green crescent at map top). The Ovambo barely take part in Gewald’s book. In effect, Ovamboland functions as a separate country until a Portuguese attack combined with a drought sent refugees streaming south in 1912-1915. I believe the 1992 dissertation from PM Hayes would be informative for this group.

The Nama people of Greater Namaqualand, however, play a major role, particularly in the earliest part of the book. I would definitely recommend a look at Brigitte Lau’s 1982 UCT dissertation for the emergence of these groups at the start of the 19th century. The Nama people incorporated a fair number of groups named for major family heads, such as the Red Nation, the Bondelswarts, or the Swartboois. By contrast, the Oorlam people were migrants who had come north from the Cape Colony. Both Nama and Oorlam groups gave rise to two early candidates for Gewald’s “Heroes,” though neither came from the Herero population.

Leaders from the South

Jonker Afrikaner (1785-1861) is the emblematic Oorlam. His grandfather Klaas Afrikaner led the Oorlam’s invasion into the southern part of Greater Namaqualand during the first decades of the 19th century. Jonker Afrikaner established a strong relationship with the most senior Nama chief to dominate trade relationships with the Cape Colony to the south. Together, they built the system of “kommando politics” that provided Brigitte Lau the title for her dissertation. In many respects, the city of Windhoek owes its founding to his son, Jan Jonker Afrikaner. For all that he accomplished, though, Jonker Afrikaner was something of a warlord, and he was Oorlam rather than Herero. He is not the hero of Gewald’s book.

Hendrik Witbooi adopts a very similar mien among his photographs. This one, by Lange, appeared in Laura Konrad’s “Die Macht des Visuellen.”

Hendrik Witbooi (1830-1905) has almost legendary status in Namibia; his statue stands before the Parliament building, and his resolute face looks back from its currency. This Nama leader was a committed Christian, and he believed he had divine instructions to move his people to the north. He was a devoted letter-writer and diarist, with almost the status of prophet for his writings against imperialism. His charisma drew together a powerful band of fighters who caused any amount of trouble for the Herero to the north as well as for the first German attempts to establish colonies. Given that he is not Herero, though, Witbooi cannot be the title character for Gewald.

The problematic Samuel Maherero

Samuel Maharero, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Samuel Maharero (1856-1923) would seem an obvious pick for Gewald’s “Hero,” given that the book is framed to the period of his lifetime. Becoming the first paramount chief of all Herero is quite an accomplishment, no? Is Samuel Maharero the equivalent of George Washington for central Namibians? For many reasons, I must give an emphatic “no!”

An empire seeking to establish a colony is always going to seek ways to divide the population of that area, and the 1890 death of Chief Maharero Tjamuaha (Samuel’s father) was the perfect crack in central Namibia for Germany to exploit. Although Chief Maharero held a prominent position among Herero at his capital of Okahandja, recent attacks by Hendrik Witbooi had destroyed much of the wealth of that city. The Herero used bidirectional inheritance, along patrilineal (Oruzuo) and matrilineal (Eanda) lines. Samuel Maharero was in competition with his cousin Nicodemus Kavikunua and his father’s half-brother Riarua for the chieftancy in the patrilineal inheritance. Over the four years of the succession dispute, however, Samuel Maharero “alone successfully solicited the support and power of Germany, the new player on the ballfield” [Gewald p. 41]. The moves he made to secure chieftancy and paramount chieftancy were divisive and destructive to groups of the Herero:

  1. Samuel Maherero sold large tracts of land that he didn’t actually control to the German colony (he was not alone in this).
  2. Although Samuel Maharero formed an alliance with Hendrik Witbooi against the German incursion in early 1893, he returned to beg for German military support against his father’s half-brother Riarua in 1894. Riarua was compelled to give Samuel tremendous wealth he had inherited from Samuel’s father. The Germans installed a garrison at Okahandja.
  3. When the Germans browbeat Manasse Tjisiseta into accepting a garrison at the wealthy settlement of Omaruru and losing its valuable lands during 1894, Samuel Maharero agreed to accompany the Germans to play the role of paramount chief over Manasse Tjisiseta.
  4. In 1895, Samuel Maharero and his allies forced removals of Herero from lands he had signed over to the Germans. He used the threat of war with Germany as a club to subjugate his cousins Nicodemus Kavikunua and Tjetjo Kandji to his own rule and take their wealth.
  5. Samuel Maharero captured and coerced people from the Berg Damara villages to sell into labor contracts in the German colony and in the Cape Colony (he was not alone in this).

I have less to say about Samuel Maharero’s conduct during the rinderpest plague and during the German-Herero conflict of 1904-1907 (it may be appropriate to call it an attempted genocide rather than a war). Whenever Samuel Maharero appears in those two chapters, he seems to be passenger rather than a driver of events. After the war, he remained in exile for the remainder of his life, though Gewald paints a remarkable picture of his burial at Okahandja. In brief, it seems unlikely that Samuel Maharero is intended as the hero of this book.

German antagonist

In a book focused on the experience of the Herero, one might expect a very one-dimensional view of the Germans. Instead, Theodor Leutwein comes across as something of a Henry Kissinger-type, someone who will always seek the lowest-cost route to get what he wants. Leutwein’s arrival at Windhoek in 1894 was closely followed by an accelerating erosion of Herero property throughout the region. Contrary to Imperial German stereotype, however, Leutwein always seems more content for Samuel Maharero to pound the table than to do it himself. Whenever Leutwein sent troops to a place, he almost always sought a comparable number from Samuel Maharero; certainly, Leutwein strongly preferred that his soldiers display their weapons rather than fire them. What Gewald paints in his book is a partnership between Leutwein and Maharero, not between an imperial martinet and a flunky.

Theodor Leutwein with Zacharias Zeraua, Manasse Tjiseseta, and Samuel Maharero (1895) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Gewald’s depictions of Lothar von Trotha and Ralph Zürn leave less room for subtlety. Their willingness to warfare is nothing to celebrate.

The unlikely heroes

When I read between the lines written by Gewald, I see three groups of Herero who stand for him as heroes. All three come together in the moving passages about the funeral of Samuel Maherero. First, throughout the book, Herero are compelled to take to their feet to avoid the encroaching German colonial forces. We learn of a substantial Herero exile community, some passing north to the Ovambo, some passing east to Botswana, and others making their way to the Cape. When Hebrews were forced into exile after the loss of Jerusalem, they responded by recording the Pentateuch; how would the Herero keep their cultural center in exile? I believe Gewald sees Samuel Maharero’s posthumous return to his homeland as a message of hope. I believe that Gewald had intended another chapter about the exiles for this book, but some of that material appeared later.

When Gewald first introduced the Truppenspieler Movement in his book, I worried that he was having some fun at the expense of “weekend warriors.” As I read further, though, I came to understand that the Herero that had served as part of the German colonial armies numbered in the tens of thousands, and they felt a strong sense of dislocation when the South African army boiled into Namibia during World War I. (If that invasion interests you, I strongly suggest you read Louis Botha’s War, by Adam Cruise.) Why not reassemble the brigade? I can imagine the bewilderment when clothing stores asked whether uniform clothing could be sold to Herero. Why not practice marching and drill with your friends, if that is the world you know? The Truppenspielers developed welfare funds to support their communities, much like the asafos who built posubans throughout Ghana.

Thousands of Herero survived the concentration camps that were run by the Rhenish Mission. As I passed through the final chapter of the book, I realized that Gewald was portraying a religious evolution on the part of camp survivors. The missionaries who sought to shape these Christians were discovering that their parishioners had ideas of their own. Europeans may have come to southern Africa to bring Christianity to the heathen, but in the end many of their converts came to embody Christian principles better than the Europeans who invaded their country.

At base, Herero Heroes makes agency its central tenet, quite the opposite of Scramble for Africa. We learn about the motivations of leaders among the Herero as they moved to manage the incursion of Germans into their homeland. We sense Hendrik Witbooi’s frustration that the Nama and Herero are fighting each other instead of the real invaders. We learn of a complex Samuel Maharero who may have lost sight of the good of his people as he scrambled for power of his own. I am convinced that the best history books are not those that “tell a good story” but rather those that help us understand the people of another time. Herero Heroes should definitely be included in that list.

Rinderpest virus, the scourge of Africa

In 1841, a ship docking at Alexandria unleashed a panzootic with dire consequences for Africa (a panzootic is the equivalent of pandemic, but for animals). Within two years, 665,000 cattle had died throughout Egypt [Cattle Plague Chapter 22]. Much worse was yet to come, though. During 1888-1896, the “rinderpest” plague blasted from the horn of Africa all the way South to the Cape Colony and all the way West to Senegal. The rinderpest caused over 90% mortality in the previously flourishing cattle populations of Africa. Wild herds of buffalo and wildebeests also suffered tremendous losses, sometimes acting as disease carriers between distant kraals of cattle.

This image from the AVIS consortium relates the symptoms of rinderpest.

Cattle have long held great socioeconomic significance in the traditional pastoral societies of Africa. Cattle’s role in these societies is not simply one of economics and survival because cattle play a key role in ritual and social definition. A person’s wealth and social importance could be shown in the size of herds; a man’s ability to accumulate and loan cattle defines the role he plays within his community. Even the spatial layout of villages is defined by cattle/male spaces and non-cattle/female spaces. The central kraal is where male elders would conduct their work. Cattle meat is exclusively reserved for the consumption of chiefs and for ritual practice. Dairy products, however, are a key part of the agro-pastoralist diet. Cow milk and blood from living animals may be mixed with millet to create a nutritious porridge. The fermentation of milk to produce amasi is commonplace. Cattle knit society together; for a leader to entrust part of the herd to a follower’s care could represent a statement of alliance. In some cultures, a young man cannot marry until he has acquired cattle. Wars have been initiated by ceremonially stealing a single animal from another group (such as the 1863 ovita vyongombongange described in Wallace, p.63). The great rinderpest plague destroyed far more than a food source; it undermined the fabric of traditional societies across Africa.

A general diagram of the central cattle pattern from Badenhorst (2009).

In 2011, the rinderpest virus was announced to be eradicated in the wild, only the second virus to reach this status (after smallpox in 1979). Today, laboratories that still house samples of this virus are being urged to “sequence and destroy” them to prevent their ever escaping into the wild. In this post, I’d like to detail the rinderpest virus and describe how we eradicated this threat.

An introduction to Rinderpest morbillivirus

Morbillivirus diagram from ViralZone

Rinderpest is an example of the morbillivirus genus within family Paramyxoviridae. This genus harbors some genuine killers. The one everybody cares about is rubeola, the virus that causes measles. Rubeola is one of the most contagious viruses in the world for person-to-person transmission, as summarized in the “R naught” metric of 12 or higher (rinderpest scores 4.6 on this scale). Until recently, almost every child was vaccinated against rubeola infection, typically in the “Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR)” vaccine. This vaccine definitely counts as one of the miracles of modern medicine, so I am frankly irritated that people make up nonsense to suggest that ordinary children should not receive this vaccine. Save a life, perhaps your own child’s, by ensuring your kids are vaccinated.

The CDC says so, and I agree!

Superficially, paramyxoviridae such as rinderpest seem quite similar to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Both are enveloped viruses of around 150 nm diameter that contain a single-stranded copy of the genome in RNA. Rinderpest, though, has a “negative sense” genome rather than the “positive sense” genome of SARS-CoV-2. The rinderpest genome is only about half the size, at 15.88 kb (thousands of nucleotide bases). The set of genes for paramyxoviridae is pretty different from those of SARS-CoV-2. Here’s how the changes play out:

Structure 1E8T illustrates the hemagglutinin-neuraminidase protein from the Newcastle Disease paramyxovirus. [Susan Crennell et al, Nature Structural Biology]

The grappling hook: Hemagglutinin, made famous by the influenza virus, is one of those proteins that makes me think “sinister!” Our cells frequently use sugar molecules on their exteriors as doorbells of a sort. Hemagglutinin attaches to sialic acid, triggering the cell to engulf the virus. While it’s ringing the doorbell, the Fusion protein causes the viral envelope and cell membrane to merge so that the viral contents can enter the cell. Nasty.

The production line: Negative-stranded RNA viruses need to send messenger-RNA to the cell’s ribosomes to produce viral proteins. It cannot use the cell’s transcription machinery to do that, though, so it must contribute its own RNA-dependent transcription equipment. We think of the Central Dogma of molecular biology allowing mRNA to be built from a dsDNA template, but viruses don’t really care about our “rulebook.”

An “antigenome” is a wrong-sense copy of an RNA genome. Figure 1 from Sarah Noton and Rachel Fearns.

The genome copier: Every virus wants to manufacture more viruses once it has sufficient control of cellular machinery. The same enzyme that built the transcripts for individual genes of the virus can switch to another mode that creates a complementary copy of the virus genome. “Not so fast,” you say, “the complement of a negative sense viral genome is a positive sense strand. You can’t ship that out and get a functional virus!” Here’s the tricky part: once the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase has made a full-length positive-sense complement to the genome (“antigenome”), it can build a complementary strand to the positive-sense genomic RNA that will then be a negative-sense genomic RNA, ready for packaging. One gene is capable of making 1) mRNAs from the viral genome, 2) full-length complementary RNA genome copies, and 3) a full-length negative-sense RNA genome ready for viral packaging. The virus has placed our Central Dogma in the trash and closed the lid!

How we beat the rinderpest

(1896, probably near Vryburg) Eradication teams slaughtered all livestock in areas expecting arrival of the rinderpest virus.

Initial efforts to prevent the spread of rinderpest into South Africa were reminiscent of zombie movies. A pair of massive fences along the border with Botswana was intended to prevent infected cattle from wandering from Matabele lands. The area near Mafeking was proclaimed a “cattle-free zone,” and many herds were shot and buried. Despite these efforts, rinderpest repeatedly appeared within South Africa. Any herd with a single infection reported was immediately slaughtered. Thousands of animals were destroyed to forestall the spread of the disease, but eventually a transport rider brought the disease to the Eastern Cape. An estimated 2.5 million cattle died in Southern Africa between 1896 and 1899.

The agro-pastoral communities understandably did not have a lot of trust for the white settlers’ claims about the best way to manage the spreading plague. The people of these communities didn’t generally appreciate the disinfection of their persons, particularly when it was used as retribution rather than a clinical necessity. The destruction of a cattle herd was eviscerating to people living in traditional communities in a way that it was not for white farmers. At a high level, the relationships among leaders were destroyed when the cattle that represented those links were dead. At the ground level, people were forced to eat “roots, grubs, locusts, and even decaying meat” to survive. Rinderpest played an out-of-scale role in the destruction of traditional society throughout sub-Saharan Africa, just as the Scramble for Africa was reaching full steam.

Local researchers Dr. Arnold Theiler and Dr. Herbert Watkins-Pitchford banded together to fight rinderpest, but the government wasted their time by compelling them to test the spurious “remedies” put forward by farmers such as water deprivation and snake venom. European expertise was recruited at substantial expense. German Scientist Dr. Robert Koch resided in Kimberley from 1886 to 1897 working this problem, and a team of French scientists from the Pasteur Institute came to South Africa near the end of Koch’s period in country.

Dr. Koch, already famous for his work in anthrax and in enunciating “Koch’s Posulates,” arrived with considerable star-power. He brought Dr. Paul M.J. Kohlstock to assist him. Koch was initially skeptical of Russian Professor Eugene Semmer‘s findings that fluids removed from infected animals could evoke a protective response if injected into an animal that had not yet developed illness. When Koch announced in February, 1897 a treatment based on this strategy, using 5 mL of bile from sick animals, he was celebrated as a hero. Kohlstock accepted an invitation to German Southwest Africa (the colony that later became Namibia) to introduce a refined technique there.

Robert Koch was widely considered a great man by the time of this 1897 photograph from the Wellcome Collection.

In practice, the Koch “Bile Method” was nearly as problematic as the absence of a cure. The death rate of treated cattle was approximately half; the protective benefits only began days after treatment and lasted less than half a year. In German Southwest Africa, some indigenous farmers objected when they saw that cows were repeatedly taken from their farms for bile production to save cattle at other farms (this process was, of course, painfully fatal for the cow). The French team of Mr. Jean Danysz and Dr. Jules Bordet built upon experiments by Theiler and Watkins-Pitchford to develop the “Serum Method,” which soon bore the moniker the “French Method.” It was announced just six months after the Bile Method and soon came to supplant it. When war was declared at the start of the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1898, the panzootic was nearly under control within South Africa.

The modern world was not freed of rinderpest by these early strategies. A tissue culture-based vaccine was created by English Research Veterinarian Walter Plowright at Kenya in 1960. I feel a sense of kinship with him because he also left his homeland to join in the amazing story of Africa! His vaccine was applied aggressively in cattle throughout Africa by Joint Project 15 project to reduce the rinderpest pockets to just the Niger Inland Delta and an area of southern Sudan. A renewed effort by the Pan-African Rinderpest Campaign in the late 1980s followed another wave of the disease out of these pockets. A 1992 effort created a thermostable vaccine that could be used even if left unrefrigerated for a week!

Stamping out rinderpest took a worldwide effort over decades (from Our World in Data).

As detailed in Mariner et al, rinderpest eradication required much more than just a viable vaccine. Teams of “local intermediaries called community-based animal health care workers” were recruited and trained, though some locals perceived this effort as competition for their jobs. Eradication was not a strictly top-down effort. Instead, community knowledge of herds and migration schedules and made a significant difference in handling local outbreaks quickly. The network created by the PARC effort may be useful in controlling other diseases such as “peste des petits ruminants,” bird flu, Rift Valley fever, and foot and mouth disease.

Rinderpest posed a tremendous challenge to African communities in the late nineteenth century, but the rapidly evolving field of veterinary medicine was able to control it long enough that it could be eradicated by modern techniques. When the chips are down, it’s a good idea to have some scientists on call!

[I want to offer a special thank you to Natasha for helping me understand the importance of cattle in indigenous societies.]

Rivers and Agency in Pakenham’s _Scramble for Africa_

[The map above comes from the Atlas of British Empire.]

If humanity first developed on the continent of Africa, why was the continent so vulnerable to the greed of European nations during the Victorian era? How did the life of David Livingstone, inveterate explorer and ardent opponent of slavery, inspire European commercial interests to exploit forced labor on an altogether massive scale throughout the continent? The Age of Imperialism destroyed indigenous governments throughout Africa. Despite European claims that they were bringing the “three Cs” to Africa (Commerce, Christianity, and Civilization), it now seems clear these claims were just euphemisms behind which they hid robbery, barbarity, and subjugation.

Thomas Pakenham has authored three books on African history (The Mountains of Rasselas, The Boer War, and The Scramble for Africa). While he doesn’t have graduate training in history, his books have dramatized history for popular audiences. Having recently read Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa (1991), I wanted to share some of my thoughts about the work.

“Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” from the French edition of Stanley’s book “How I Found Livingstone” (via Wikimedia Commons)

The book launches its story from the last years of David Livingstone, a missionary and explorer who developed a profound anger at the activities of slave traders. His 1857 speech at Cambridge resounded long after his death in 1873: “I go back to Africa to make an open path for commerce and Christianity; do you carry out the work which I have begun. I leave it with you!” His successors such as Henry Morton Stanley, however, drifted quite far from Livingstone’s humanism. Stanley was apparently born for confrontation, earning himself the nickname “Bula Matari” by his penchant to dynamite any rock in his way. This predilection extended to his treatment of human beings, too.

Image from Ernst Keil’s Die Gartenlaube, 1884 in Wikimedia Commons

Before reading the book, my vague understanding of the Scramble for Africa was that the “The Berlin Conference” (1884-1885) amounted to a conspiracy among European nations to parcel out the continent of Africa to zones where each had already established or intended to establish a colony. In the book, however, this conference is positioned in roughly the middle of the Scramble. The conference is cast as an effort to prevent tensions over acquisitions in Africa from boiling into European wars, with some nations playing their cards openly and others indulging in deceit. The book does a good job of illustrating why a crown domain (such as King Leopold’s special zone in the Congo Free State) was different from a federation (such as one where Britain handled international affairs for the Transvaal) or from the gradually solidifying trade relationships that predated the Scramble, such as between Britain and what is now the nation of Ghana.

The mighty rivers of Africa

The rivers of Africa were the points of entry for colonial powers. Created in R with Natural Earth and GGPlot

What I most needed to help my understanding of the Scramble was a proper river map of Africa. For a continent reputed to be dry, Africa has a considerable number of major water-courses, particularly in the sub-Saharan region. There’s a temptation for a modern reader of Pakenham’s book to ask, “in what modern country does this chapter take place?” Frequently, the place names are challenging to pin down to modern locations. I was confused for quite a lot of pages why British, French, and Belgian forces were all careening hell-for-leather to reach Fashoda, for example, when I could not place it on the map! Today it is the town of Kodok, in South Sudan. Its importance, however, stems from a marsh in the upper White Nile. Britain and France might easily have gone to war over its ownership, since Britain was determined no other nation would control the upper Niles while it controlled Egypt.

Image of Pool Malebo (sometimes called Stanley Pool) taken from the International Space Station

Americans are frequently taught that the Amazon River discharges more water to sea every second than any other on earth. The second-largest river on earth, however, is the Congo River. It was the site of a bitter rivalry between Henry Stanley and Pierre de Brazza, an explorer of Italian birth who worked for the French. Both were hoping to create a navigable channel from the “Stanley Pool” (now called Pool Malebo, with the capital cities Brazzaville and Kinshasa on opposite banks) to the Atlantic Ocean. True to his nickname, Stanley was blasting the lower cataracts of the Congo River with dynamite, while Brazza explored a route inland via the Ogooué River, flowing through what is now Gabon.

Dakar-Bamako railway map from Margaret O. McLane “Railways or Waterways: the Dakar Railway Network and the Senegal River

Before reading Scramble, I had never heard the name Gustave Borgnis-Desbordes, a French military commander tasked with establishing forts to connect the Senegal and Niger Rivers by railroad. (Awkwardly, Pakenham makes no mention of explorer Paul Soleillet, who had championed this railway.) The challenge of linking these two rivers fills me with awe. In the maps above, the Senegal and Niger Rivers appear quite close together, but of course river basins generally are separated from each other by high ground or even mountains. The French were making the best of their established position in Algeria and the Sahara; if they could link the two rivers by a railway across the desert, they would be able to reach any part of the Niger basin by navigating up the Senegal River instead. A route from the Atlantic Coast to the Niger River was actually completed, though not until 1923, running from Dakar, Senegal to Bamako, Mali on the Niger River; the finalized train route bypassed the Senegal River entirely! This theme of connecting river systems also explains why the Belgians (who eventually controlled the royal colony in the Congo) were interested in Fashoda on the Nile. If a reliable route could be found between the upper Congo and upper Nile, the interior of Africa would be ripe for exploitation.

This image from Wikimedia Commons illustrates the relationship between the Vaal and Orange Rivers.

If I may, I’ll highlight one more story about rivers, this time as borders. Sometimes South Africans will speak of the Boer South African Republic (1852-1902), but instead one generally hears the area called the “Transvaal.” This reflects that the Boers traveled across the Vaal River to reach an area beyond Britain’s claims at the Cape Colony. The Vaal River, in turn, is the northern tributary to the Orange River on the river map above. The Orange (or !Garib or Gariep) River is itself a national border between South Africa and Namibia. I had not realized just how suddenly Germany changed from its position that colonies were a distraction to claiming four areas of Africa as national colonies. Namibia and Tanzania are two that I have written about previously. Scramble had quite a lot to offer in explaining how the nations along the northern border of South Africa were established. Cecil Rhodes definitely comes across as a man who needed watching; his “adventures” launched any number of wars in Southern Africa.

Agency: Africans were not passive in the face of invasion

If one were to read Scramble for Africa inattentively, it would be easy to come away with the conclusion that Africans were bewildered and helpless in face of Europeans coming to plant a flag on a given riverbank. A closer look, though, shows many forms of effective resistance on display in even this Eurocentric account (many historians have commented on its weaknesses). I want to highlight a few of the African leaders that really stuck with me.

Cetshwayo spent 1879-1884 exiled from his Kingdom. British Library HMNTS 10097.df.8 via Wikimedia Commons

King Cetshwayo of the Zulu humiliated the British Army at Isandlwana in 1879. On many occasions, the armies of Europe failed to take seriously the African forces opposing them. To assume that African tactics were ineffective or that their warriors were cowards or fools was dangerous. To assume African soldiers were armed only with spears was foolish given that Europeans had been trading arms to Africans for more than a century. At Isandlwana, perhaps as many as 1500 British soldiers and support staff died because of the arrogance of Lord Chelmsford. Pakenham’s Scramble for Africa describes the Battle of Isandlwana almost entirely from the perspective of the British, doing little to let us understand the movements or motivations of the Zulu.

This 1896 image of Menelik II was cropped from an image in a 2016 Estelle Sohier paper from African Arts.

Emperor Menelik II of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) successfully defended his country from an army of Italians seeking to colonize Ethiopia from the neighboring Italian colony of Eritrea. The Italians under General Oreste Baratieri had attempted to bait the Ethiopians into attacking their well-prepared lines, but then the Italians attempted to advance toward the enemy in a mist-shrouded night, precipitating the Battle of Adwa. 4000 Italian soldiers and staff died, and another 1900 were captured. Ethiopia is right to feel pride in avoiding becoming a European colony during the Scramble! Sadly, Mussolini decided to send Italian forces into Ethiopia during World War II, using chemical weapons to break resistance. Italian forces occupied Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941, as a result. Again, Pakenham’s treatment of the Battle of Adwa emphasizes the foul-ups of the Italian troops rather than the careful maneuvering and preparation of the Ethiopian forces facing them.

Muhammad Ahmad of Sudan (1844-1885) came to be seen as the Mahdi for many Muslims in that region. His followers, the “Mahdists,” challenged Egyptian forces (led by British officers) in much of the upper Niles. The city of Khartoum, Sudan, sits at the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, making it a key point for control of the river. As the Mahdists gained power, the British elected to withdraw many of their forces from the upper Nile, but Major General Charles Gordon refused to leave the colony he led there. The Mahdists laid siege to Khartoum, and British relief forces were unable to reach the city in time. Gordon’s death and beheading in 1885 represented a profound setback to British morale. For years, the Mahdists controlled the Sudan, though Khartoum itself was reclaimed by British / Egyptian forces under Kitchener fourteen years later. Pakenham makes clear that the Mahdist army was a substantial barrier to British consolidation of its Egyptian colony, but the only portrayal of events within the Mahdists comes from Rudolf Slatin, an Austrian soldier held captive by the Mahdists who had converted to Islam.

Image from p.16 of Timothy J. Stapleton A Military History of Africa, Vol. 1

West Africa presents us with at least three different empires that resisted the incursions of the French and British. The Tukolor Empire under Ahmadu Seku pushed west as the French were pushing east on the Senegal River during the 1850s and 1860s. They were problematic enough for the French that they used treaties to buy time for building up their forces. The Tukolor held substantial power until 1890, when the French obliterated their capital Segu with artillery. Three years later, the last rump of the army was defeated by the French. Samori Toure had been developing the power of the Mandinka Empire by purchasing firearms from the British. By the 1880s, his army of 30,000 soldiers had become a substantial force in the area, resisting the French push southward to link up with the Ivory Coast. The 1883 French occupation of Bamako gave their colony access to the Niger River. The Mandinka counter-attacked in 1885 to destroy two French forts built too far forward, and a treaty was signed to pause hostilities. Despite the treaty, the French came after the Mandinka again in 1891; the Mandinka had prepared by acquiring repeating rifles. Samori Toure and the Mandinka were driven steadily further east until they came up against the Asante, whose military conflict with the British I have discussed before. While the Tukolors and Mandinkas account for quite a few pages between them, the Asante Kingdom barely rates a paragraph in Pakenham’s Scramble for Africa. Essentially his only mention is that the British were intent on taking down King Prempeh, whose “bloodthirstiness” is taken as a given.

My assessment

I am glad I took the time to read Scramble for Africa at last. To read academic papers about each of the different conflicts that the Scramble entailed would take quite a lot of time, and Pakenham generally keeps the narrative flowing through nearly 700 pages(!). I would certainly caution readers that this book reflects an older style of historical narrative that largely ignores the perspectives of “the other.” Since its 1991 publication, we’ve had three decades of scholarly soul-searching and reappraisal. The notion of Africa as the “dark continent” has been brightened considerably by subsequent research. This may be one reason why the (racist) original subtitle of the book (The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912) has been omitted from later printings. Pakenham’s Scramble for Africa is a relatively easy way to get a grip on Europe’s sudden mania for colonies in Africa. Read it to understand the interplay of European interests. Read it to grasp the gestalt of “explorers” invading river systems across a continent. Do not expect, though, that this book will shed much light on the lives of the people most affected, the 19th century inhabitants of Africa.

Kimberley: visiting the McGregor Museum and the Big Hole

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

December 24, 2019

Natasha and I started our Christmas Eve by a bit of reorganization. Both of us like to travel, but both of us feel a strong impulse to return home from this three-week road trip. We decided to cancel our reservation at Beaufort West and drive the whole distance home on Christmas Day. Today’s visit to the McGregor Museum and the Big Hole Museum would finish off our tourism for this trip. I then marched off to shower for the day, only to discover that it was only able to produce a trickle of water. Natasha thought my expression was very funny as I sat wrapped in a towel with the handyman working on the valves.

McGregor Museum

The McGregor Museum makes use of an amazing building.

The McGregor Museum is the central organizing body for several museums and monuments throughout the Northern Cape Province. We had already seen one of its branches at Calvinia, for example. The curator is an excellent researcher, having created a book on the history of resistance in the Northern Cape and developing a rather comprehensive exhibit on the involvement of South African forces in World War I. I was grateful to visit with her again this morning; I thought the museum might be operating with a skeleton crew given that it was Christmas Eve! That said, the museum opened at 9AM and closed at 11AM, so Natasha and I were moving at a more-than-comfortable pace to see everything. The docent was switching the lights off in wings as soon as we were finished with them, so we definitely felt the push.

This 1963 convent chapel is now home to displays on world religion and religious institutions in Kimberley.

I was impressed by how many different topics the McGregor tries to cover. A 1963 Convent Chapel houses an interesting exhibit on world religions as well as the development of churches within Kimberley. A neighboring passage and set of rooms gives a rather all-encompassing timeline of the fight against Apartheid. Next to that, a natural history exhibit offers taxidermy animals for a variety of South African species. From there, one can move into anthropology / archaeology of hominid development up through rock art. There’s a substantial exhibit on different indigenous people of South Africa. Certainly there’s plenty about the history of Kimberley and of South Africa, too. The building served as Cecil Rhodes’ headquarters during the Siege of Kimberley in the Anglo-Boer War, and his rooms have been preserved. The Kimberley Regiment gets a room of its own upstairs, as does the history of the building and the history of the Convent that was based here. Nominally, the original building for the McGregor Museum, a couple miles away on Chapel Street, is its history museum, but there’s plenty to see on Atlas Street!

I cannot get enough of the grand stairway in the main entrance of the McGregor Museum.

The Big Hole

The model, constructed from historic photographs, shows the scramble as diamond miners worked their small plots by hand.

Natasha and I decided to press our museum luck and try for the “Big Hole” Museum, named after its most prominent exhibit. The Vooruitzicht farm of the De Beer family was changed forever after Esau Demoense found a diamond there in 1866. Previously, diamonds had only been discovered in India (in sediments throughout antiquity) and in Brazil (first in 1725). The small hill where diamonds were discovered was quickly turned into a pit by hopeful men with shovels. When those methods tapped out, powerful equipment such as the “head gear” was installed to allow miners to chase the “Kimberlite pipe” ever deeper. This feature was probably created by volcanic activity around 90 million years ago (for context, the dinosaurs died out roughly 65 millions years ago). The name Vooruitzicht quickly became “New Rush” to reflect the fervent activity, but a British administrator changed the city name to his own surname because he though that “New Rush” was unseemly.

The “head gear” was necessary to remove the loads of rock being cut from the hole as it became ever deeper.

We opted to take part in the guided tour since it would include an informative movie as well as a walk through their on-site museum featuring a vault of real diamonds. Even at the start, though, I found that being part of the large tour group was frustrating (I sometimes suffer from agoraphobia) for both photography and my hearing. The guide urged everybody to make kissy faces when being photographed in front of the massive hole. When he guided us underground for an area demonstrating the mining techniques, we were less than enthusiastic about their very loud sound track, emulating a dynamite blast to release the Kimberlite.

I kept up with the tour group for the diamond vault visit even though it meant being enclosed with a mass of people. The exhibits in there were a little hard for me to follow. They can show me a diamond and describe it as “yellow” or “green,” but I frequently didn’t see much hue difference. Some of the elongated and variant crystals were interesting.

The lighting in their mockup of the mines was likely better than the original.

From there I slowed my pace to enjoy the museum exhibits by myself. Natasha continued with the group to watch the video, but I learned more about five famous international diamonds: Koh-i-Noor, Florentine, Hope, Great Mogul, and (Natasha’s favorite) Dresden Green. Each was represented by a replica (some of these are lost, and others are part of crown jewels). The same was true for six domestic diamonds: Star of South Africa, Tiffany, Jubilee, Cullinan I, Premier Rose, and Centenary. I can certainly see that the production of diamonds at the Big Hole would introduce a big distortion in the world price of these gemstones!

I was happy to see that the McGregor Museum had contributed posters to commemorate seven individuals who had played big roles in the growth of Kimberley. David Harris was a triple-threat, with deep connections to diamond mining, serving for decades as a member of Parliament and as an officer in the military. His cousin Barney Barnato was a rival to Cecil Rhodes as the diamond industry consolidated in the last decade of the 19th century; he owned a beautiful town house just down the hill from Natasha’s parents in Cape Town. Basil Humphreys was profiled in large part because he was instrumental in getting the museum at Kimberley off the ground. I have already mentioned Esau Demoense for finding the first diamond at the Big Hole. Awayi Tyamzashe was an inspiring leader in the black community due to his role as one of the first ordained ministers in the growing city. Henry Tucker was a name I hadn’t heard before, but he seems to have had quite a colorful life, both in trading without a license and in fomenting the Black Flag Rebellion. It’s quite a roster of people.

This small shack saw considerable business in its original location!

I joined Natasha for a drink in the air-conditioned facility. The cafe owner tried very hard to persuade me to drink honeybush tea rather than green tea, but I resisted his multiple efforts. With that, Natasha and I took a lovely walk through the many historic buildings that have been relocated to make a little village outside. I was particularly happy to see the Wernher, Beit, and company diamond buying office. These two names are also associated with a building where I work at the medical school of the University of Cape Town on Tuesdays. It was a good reminder that the infrastructure for the early days of Kimberley was quite rugged. People had to be willing to put up with a lot of discomfort and a lot of work to create this industry. Today, the Big Hole is no longer “worked,” and ground water has re-filled much of the original excavation. Landslides are still quite common, making it a rather risky site for further exploitation. Just across town, north of the McGregor Museum, another mine is being worked by De Beers. Who knows what wonders they’ll find?

December 25, 2019

Our drive home over Christmas Day was mostly unremarkable. A squad of gas station attendants at Kimberley were hilarious as all four of them contributed to getting our car ready for the drive. The roads were nearly deserted, but we waved at every driver we passed. We were nearly home when we stopped at Worcester for gasoline. I loved this picture Natasha captured!

Worcester is the first city of note one enters after passing the Hugenot Tunnel from Cape Town.

Kruger National Park: the “tenth province” of South Africa

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

December 14th-22nd, 2019

Kruger National Park is routinely named as one of the greatest national parks in all of Africa. Nearly two million visitors a year enter its gates. Many opt to stay overnight in the park; it currently offers 4179 beds in twelve main rest camps in addition to a large number of campsites. Nearly 900 kilometers of tarred roads and nearly twice as many kilometers of gravel roads enable visitors to drive to areas teeming with wildlife. Our week in “Kruger” was a first for both Natasha and me.

Our course passed through all the southern areas of Kruger National Park.

In this and the posts to follow, I will talk about our experiences starting with our entry to the park at Phalaborwa, three nights at the Mopani Rest Camp, two nights at the Satara Rest Camp, and three nights at Skukuza Rest Camp, followed by an exit via the Malelane Gate. For some visitors, Kruger can feel like a bingo card; did you see all of the “Big 5?” The equivalent among bird watchers is sometimes derisively called a “twitcher.” For other visitors, coming to Kruger is a quasi-spiritual experience, imagining that the park is what all of Africa would be like if humans had not built cities.

On December 20th, Natasha and I discovered that our rondavel at Skukuza was barely a rock throw away from the Stevenson-Hamilton Knowledge Resource Centre. We had wanted to see the museum that describes the genesis of the Kruger National Park, and here it was on our doorstep! I am adding information from Jane CarruthersThe Kruger National Park: a Social and Political History. If you cannot find it at a local library, much of the information is available in her 1988 Ph.D. thesis from UCT.

The Stevenson-Hamilton Library and Museum is centrally located at the Skukuza Rest Camp.

The Library and Museum has a nice display on the archaeology sites within the park. People have been living in Africa for millennia, of course. Given that Mapungubwe is so close by, it seems inevitable that the rich lands of Kruger Park would have attracted people to live here, as well. Thulamela is revered as a “place of birth” for the Venda people. This royal city in stone dates from 1240 AD to 1700 AD (essentially in the period immediately following the decline of Mapungubwe), and it was located in the northernmost “Pafuri” section of Kruger Park. Several artifacts from this kingdom were on display, reaffirming that their ceramic and metal-forging technologies were quite advanced. Their trade links are illustrated by the presence of Chinese porcelain fragments and glass beads.

Why was Kruger National Park named after Paul Kruger?

Photograph by Lynn Meskell

The Sabi Game Reserve (proclaimed 1898) and Singwitsi Game Reserve (proclaimed 1903) were originally created by the South African Republic (a republic created by the Boers who crossed north of the Vaal river– later called the “Transvaal”). Paul Kruger was president of the South African Republic from 1883 to 1900. Sabi and Singwitsi were merged into a national park in 1926, after the Union of South Africa joined together the Cape Colony, Natal Colony, South African Republic, and Orange Free State. Jane Carruthers and Hennie Grobler had a lively public debate about Paul Kruger’s leadership in creating the Sabi Game Reserve. Carruthers argued in a 1994 paper that Paul Kruger’s name was attached to the park largely to gain support from the Afrikaner community, creating a myth of Paul Kruger’s foresighted wildlife conservation. She noted that the first game reserve created by Paul Kruger was actually Pongola Game Reserve (1894); Kruger prioritized asserting the Republic’s eastward expansion above protecting its wildlife. Grobler shot back in 1996, describing Carruthers’ methods as “blunt instruments,” portraying Paul Kruger as a stalwart supporter of South Africa’s wildlife heritage during the “crucial 1890s.” Carruthers was given right of reply in the same journal issue, engaging each of Grobler’s points in succession. Sometimes academics are portrayed as boring, but I note that researchers occasionally require sharp elbows!

In the years since 1994’s first democratic election in South Africa, the Kruger Park brand has proven too valuable to dislodge through a renaming. Paul Kruger’s head was sculpted by Coert Steynberg in the 1970s from a granite boulder quarried in Paarl, a town associated with the growth of the Afrikaans language. A flood in 2000 submerged the base of the statue, but it was in no danger of being swept away!

How did Stevenson-Hamilton gain so much control over this area?

Apparently this rail bridge at Skukuza will become home to a river hotel!

The headquarters for the game warden of Sabi Game Reserve was established at the bridge across the Sabi River before 1907. This bridge, serving the Selati Rail Line, is still in place, though trains stopped rumbling across it in 1973. When Kruger National Park gained that status in 1926, the Report of the Game Reserves Commission (1918) specified a five-fold purpose (paraphrased here):

  1. Visitors could see what nature would have looked like before civilization developed.
  2. Students in the sciences of botany, zoology, and others would gain a valuable training ground.
  3. Animals that were becoming extinct throughout the rest of the country would be visible in something other than a zoo.
  4. Animals would be able to behave naturally rather than living in terror of huntsmen.
  5. Winter months would enable visits without fear of fever.
Harry Wolhuter’s 1904 battle with a lion is memorialized by a small statue, the lion pelt, and the knife that saved his life.

In 1936, the Sabi Bridge station was renamed “Skukuza,” a nickname for game ranger James Stevenson-Hamilton, a former British officer who set his stamp on Kruger Park by serving as its warden from 1902 to 1946 (contrary to a lot of the information one finds online, I note that he was actually its third warden; his two predecessors were short-lived). In the first years of the Sabi reserve, Stevenson-Hamilton gained an incredible amount of authority over it:

Anyone wishing to enter the reserve had first to obtain a permit from him and he was therefore aware at all times of who was within the reserve boundaries. Stevenson-Hamilton was appointed Resident Justice of the Peace as well as a Native Commissioner and, at the beginning of 1903, he arranged that the regular police vacate the reserve and hand over their powers to the Warden and his rangers.

J. Carruthers, The Kruger National Park: A Social and Political History, page 40

The warden was also able to forestall the movement of livestock into the reserve and prevent miners from prospecting within its bounds. In many respects, the reserves that would later become Kruger Park were separately administered from the Transvaal Province of the Union of South Africa in which they were located. It is worth noting that Kruger Park is much older than the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces of South Africa; these boundaries date only from 1994. This is why I call Kruger the “tenth province” above.

What did we lose by creating this park?

The nickname Skukuza, though, is not a pleasant one. Stevenson-Hamilton gained this name because when he first arrived at Sabi Game Reserve, the warden apparently accepted the popular contemporary prejudice that the black population of the area were the chief killers of wildlife, though the Voortrekkers and English sportsmen, armed with rifles, were largely responsible for the tremendous losses of wildlife in the nineteenth century. The quagga and the blue antelope both became extinct during this era.

“Skukuza” means “to sweep away like a flowing river.” Even if no white cities were established in the area of Kruger Park, people of color had been living in this area for some time. Stevenson-Hamilton gained the nickname Skukuza because he insisted that the Sabi Game Reserve could only thrive if all humans were moved out of the area. As he developed the administrative and legal power to do so, he evicted families who had lived within the Reserve’s boundaries for generations. By the time Singwitsi Game Reserve was also placed under his control, Stevenson-Hamilton had changed his mind, perceiving the people who lived in that vast area as being helpful in catch poachers. The damage had already been done to the families removed from Sabi, though. Some communities continue to use “Skukuza” as a nickname for the entire Kruger National Park to this day.

Even if families were allowed to continue living in the Singwitsi Reserve, Stevenson-Hamilton transformed their lives in many ways, some very negative. Those who continued to live in the reserve were forbidden from eating wildlife, and substantial penalties applied to those who broke that law. The inhabitants of the reserve were held to owe rent from continued occupancy, and compelled labor was expected as “payment.” Many whites claimed that forcing blacks into the wage laborer role was part of a “civilizing” mission.

Of course, people of color were not allowed to enjoy the National Park on the same basis as whites, either. Black visitors were not offered equal accommodations at the park, and they weren’t allowed the same recreations within the park. Stevenson-Hamilton recorded in his diary that he was concerned that a visiting Japanese chargé d’affaires would be segregated as an “Asiatic” by the “fatheads” (J. Carruthers, page 99). These discriminatory policies have echoes today, as domestic park visitors still skew strongly to the white citizens of South Africa.

Bringing people to nature: park infrastructure and future

Today’s rondavels offer fully-featured open-air kitchens and, critically, air-conditioned bedrooms!

Today, Kruger National Park offers a wide range of accommodation for guests and a great road network to enable tourists to go almost anywhere in the park, often touching artificial watering holes charged by windmills. In several respects, Stevenson-Hamilton acted as a brake on building out this infrastructure in the game reserves and later in the national park, favoring genuine wilderness. In fact, the park opted in 1931 to allow visitors only in winter to forestall problems with malaria and thunderstorms. In the early days of the National Park, the Board formed an agreement with South African Railways to manage most aspects of the tourism operation. A system of concessions evolved in the 1930s, though, and general stores began opening at the rest camps springing up across the park. In 1932, a road connecting Letaba (a rest camp near the Phalaborwa Gate) and Punda Maria (a camp at the extreme north of the park) was completed, opening the north to visitors and making way for the Shingwedzi rest camp.

Kruger National Park occupies a substantial part of South Africa’s northeast, running from its border with Zimbabwe down the majority of its border with Mozambique. Because Mozambique has named its side of that border the Limpopo National Park, it’s possible to think of this entire region as one conjoined park. The governments of South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe have formed agreements to unify the entire area as the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Two big problems have stood in the way of this unification so far. One is that a fair number of rhinoceros poachers have entered Kruger Park across this border; the two governments have actively collaborated to arrest or otherwise stop the poachers. The second problem is that economic conditions in Zimbabwe mean that people are attempting to move back into Gonarezhou National Park, designated for wildlife in the 1940s. Zimbabwe’s ability to merge Gonarezhou with the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park has been on-again, off-again as it navigates its current economic crisis.

The anti-poacher squad is ready for action!

I would like to dedicate this post to Paul van Helden and Eileen Hoal, researchers whose love for the great outdoors is apparent to all!

Mapungubwe in the public eye

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

Mapungubwe was the first royal city in southern Africa’s history. The treasures found at this site are so great that they have received a museum all to themselves plus a permanent exhibition at a neighboring art centre! How have our perceptions of this civilization changed through time? I hope this post can help fill in some of the gaps in the public understanding of Mapungubwe.

Key Events in Mapungubwe Site History

Golden Treasures of Mapungubwe

Figure 1 from “Dating the Mapungubwe Hill Gold,” by S. Woodborne, M. Pienaar, and S. Tiley-Nel.

Exciting as I found our visit to Mapungubwe Hill, the experience would be even more marvelous if the relics that were unearthed there were also on display (the replicas were lovely, of course). Mapungubwe first drew the attention of South Africa because of the gold objects found in the “royal graves” at the hilltop. The workmanship on display in the manufacture of the pictured golden rhinoceros and gold anklet coils reflects a high level of skill. In many cases, the sheets used for manufacture were less than 0.5 mm in thickness. The tiny eyes that you see on the golden rhino were special nails with rounded heads. The gold foil of the exterior was originally anchored to a wooden interior by dozens of tiny nails. In several of the cases, the miniature animal form is no longer clear because the wood has vanished with time, and the foil of the delicate creatures was also damaged through looting of the graves.

The other distinctive factor making the gold artifacts of Mapungubwe rather special is the very large amount of gold found in these graves. One particular burial site contained 2.2 kilograms of gold (>70 troy ounces), including more than 12,000 gold beads formed by punching an awl through a flattened blob. I would strongly recommend you find a copy of Dr. Sian Tiley’s “Mapungubwe: South Africa’s Crown Jewels” for its absolutely luscious pictures! She has recently written a booklet for the National Treasures exhibition at Javett Art Centre that is available freely online.

Objects to signify power were also found in these burials. A large bowl-like headdress was found beside a cranium in one of the burials. Another featured a scepter of gold foil wrapped around a wooden core. I was reminded of the luxury I saw in the “Gold Hat” at Berlin.

Beads and Trade Goods

Ostrich shells and snail shells can be used for large beads or small. Some of the beads at Mapungubwe are less than a mm in diameter.

Why do people get so excited about beads in archaeological sites? In the African Middle Ages, most indigenous beads were made from bone, ostrich egg shells, or even land snails. The huge numbers and great diversity of beads at Mapungubwe reflect an active engagement in trade, probably via cities like Kilwa, Chibuene, and Sofala on the eastern coast of the continent. Glass beads could not be manufactured in sub-Saharan Africa at the time of Mapungubwe; the technology’s origin in the Middle East spread east to China by 1000 BC and to India by the third century BC, but the technology hadn’t spread to the south. Black beads from Egypt, Cambay red beads from India, and others coming from the Mediterranean or even Southeast Asia can all be found at Mapungubwe. These beads tell us that the trade network of Mapungubwe was international and indeed intercontinental. Gold and ivory from this region were worth a lot of trade goods from afar. The cowrie shells that can be found at Mapungubwe had crossed thousands of miles to be found there; these shells really did represent a type of currency for world trade!

Figure 2 from “Raman classification of glass beads excavated on Mapungubwe hill and K2, two archaeological sites in South Africa” by A. Tournie, L. C. Prinsloo, and P. Colomban

Dr. Tiley mentioned the importance of “garden roller” beads at Mapungubwe in her book. Even if the technology for making glass beads wasn’t available in sub-Saharan Africa, workers at Mapungubwe found that they could modify glass beads by melting them and reforming them in clay molds. They were able to recycle whole or broken small blue beads into larger, barrel-shaped beads by this strategy. It reveals the ingenuity of the civilization that developed here.

Mapungubwe Ceramicware

While I am barely literate in the world of ceramics (I can hardly tell the difference between a lug and a bevel), I would be remiss to ignore the importance of ceramics in the Mapungubwe story. The re-discovery of the site came about because Mowena offered some guests water in a ceramic pot that he had been given by a hermit living near the site (top bullet point in timeline above). His guests simply couldn’t understand why Mowena wouldn’t sell the pot! It is because the patterns of ceramic decoration changed that archaeologists were able to detect a shift in population pattern from the K2 valley to the Mapungubwe Hill (and differentiate Mapungubwe from the Schroda settlement, as well).

I would also emphasize the presence of Celadon pottery fragments at Mapungubwe. These ceramics were almost certainly manufactured in China. Their presence at Mapungubwe could reflect direct purchases from Chinese traders (individual Chinese traders had reached the east coast of Africa by this time in the Middle Ages), but of course the interaction might be far more indirect, with Indians acquiring celadon from China, then selling them at sites like Kilwa, after which they were traded for ivory, etc.

Wrapping up

Mapungubwe is more than a plateau in a far corner of South Africa. It is the first royal city of international reach within the borders of the nation. At present, a large fraction of the visitors to Mapungubwe are domestic visitors. This may reflect that several groups of South African perceive themselves to be the descendants of this civilization. It is my hope, though, that more of the international community comes to see this civilization as one of importance. While the archaeological site is quite a distance from the main tourist districts of South Africa, the museum of its artifacts is in the heart of Pretoria, well within reach of many guests of this country. I look forward to seeing it myself!

Mapungubwe: an iron-age city in South Africa

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

December 13, 2019

In many respects, this Friday the 13th was the day I anticipated most highly for this entire three-week road trip. Natasha and I would get our chance to tour Mapungubwe, the center of a twelfth-century kingdom at the northern-most point of South Africa. To give you an idea of its importance, Prof. Thomas N. Huffman described the Shashe-Limpopo River basin as the “Nile of South Africa!

I have it on good authority that the tank of diesel fuel was _not_ to be used on the baobab tree!

Getting to Mapungubwe is not so easy; the national park abuts the national border with Botswana and Zimbabwe, at the Shashe and Limpopo River confluence. From our base at Polokwane, we set a course north on the R521 To Alldays. On a map, that looks straightforward. This highway is not in the lovely condition of the local N1, though. It’s one lane north and one lane south, separated only by a dotted line. Especially in the northern stretches (plus the R572 east), the road is randomly littered with potholes, some deep and wide! On our course north, we frequently were stuck behind trucks moving slowly, so much so that we nearly missed our 10AM “Heritage Tour.” Our way south again was much calmer, but we encountered some deeply pathological drivers as we approached Polokwane. Driving the N1 would have been simpler, but it would have added an hour to the journey, by Google Maps reckoning.

Our road trip had a few other features I would highlight. First, this was my first time to pass the Tropic of Capricorn by car. Natasha and I sang a little song about sunburns to celebrate. Our course took us past the western end of the Soutpansbergs, and they were a lovely mix of reds and greens. Baboons were visible at several points on the way up, but quite an army of them were lurking by the side of the road on the way down. They would have a scrap on their hands if the termites in all those mounds decided to attack, though!

If you show Natasha a steep talus slope with balanced rocks and an ancient tree, she’ll find the rock art that must be nearby.

Our heritage tour started very near the entrance gate. A massive baobab tree drew my eye. Our group contained just five tourists; the others had some problems getting permission to join since their child was 10 years old rather than 12. In any case, Cedric was a very patient guide, and he had quite a lot of facts at his command. The tour started as he drove the group into the park in a nine-passenger open-side truck. On both our paths in and out, the truck paused when interesting wildlife were on offer.

I am glad that elephants enjoy this national park, as well!

On our day, we had the opportunity to see a giraffe, zebras, elephants, impala, and of course baboons. The elephants were particularly charming because their family included a young one. Our guide was equipped with a bolt-action rifle, and happily it stayed unused by his side the whole time.

Our path led through the Southern Terrace (large boulders at left) up to the top of Mapugubwe Hill via a wooden staircase rising through a gully. The summit is only 30m in height, but it is 300m in length.

After around 6km in the truck, we had reached our entry point for the climb to Mapungubwe. After rounding a small lake, we walked across a level field immediately below the flat-topped wedge-shaped hill. Natasha mused that the field we were crossing had once been filled with the kraals of highly influential members of the Mapungubwe civilization. The community had originally been centered on a hill called “K2,” or “Leopard’s Kopje,” some seven kilometers away (1000-1220 AD). Their shift to Mapungubwe (1250-1290 AD) represented several substantial changes. Most notably, the reservation of the hilltop for royalty marked a shift to monarchy. Gold items intended for use by the king have contributed greatly to the notoriety of Mapungubwe. The number of other metal artifacts at Mapungubwe is also substantially greater than at K2.

Archaeologists generally try to rebury the sites that they excavate so that the sites will be intact for later investigations and to protect against erosion and pilfering. I was glad that a “dig” at the base of Mapungubwe has a viewing station at which visitors can see four distinct layers of the site, spanning its approximately two-hundred year history. The floors of dung and clay are remarkably hard layers, even a millennium later.

The modern stairway follows the same path as the ancient one. Folks with mobility challenges may find the climb untenable.

As we began our climb to the top (via a wooden staircase, unlike the ancient inhabitants), we noticed that a modern pottery jar had been nestled beneath a leaning rock. Three different cultures claim the Mapungubwe civilization as their ancestors: the Shona, Tswana, and Venda. Each year, one of the three is allowed by the park service to perform ceremonies at the site, whether to honor their predecessors or to ask for good weather. Later, Natasha and I would encounter more than a dozen people from a Venda Church Group in the local museum.

Near the top of the stairs, Cedric reminded us that it was a privilege to be atop the hill, that almost none of the people living on the plain around the hill would ever come to its top. Only a short distance away, he stopped at a mopane tree. This site, he solemnly explained, had originally held the three royal burials at Mapungubwe. We looked in confusion at the solid rock beneath our feet. Cedric noted that hundreds or thousands of basket loads of soil had been brought to the top of the hill to allow all the grass around us to grow. This rocky area had been covered with enough soil to manage three graves, and the corpses were interred sitting up. The graves were rich in gold goods, and these are what created the legend of Mapungubwe.

The Golden Rhino has widely become a symbol for Mapungubwe. Photos of it appeared in our Johannesburg hotel hallway (the Mapungubwe Hotel). A meter-long version of it was located just a block away from that hotel, on Johannesburg’s Main Street (see image at the top of this post). It was also used as the title of a book we have been reading about medieval Africa. The original is now housed at the Mapungubwe Collection or Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria; this is why were so sad to be unable to visit! The rhino was just one of several golden treasures, including a scepter and a bowl or crown plus several necklaces. This burial was clearly intended to mark someone special.

Our guide really knew his stuff. Caching water and grain at the hilltop was essential to support the royal family.

The top of Mapungubwe Hill offers more than a royal burial place. Reconstructions show a variety of living spaces. Over the course of time, more burials accumulated over the hilltop. One finds many signs of life, such as iron-dug post holes and footings for circular houses, like rondavels. Two impressive cavities have been dug in the top, probably for grain and for water slogged up the hill from below. Having just visited the Owela Museum in Windhoek a few weeks ago, I was pleased to see a stone-carved mankala board that was first used 1000 years ago; the game is also called Owela!

The game of mancala has been played for more than 1000 years.

The hill commands a majestic view of the surrounding plain. Natasha and I got a nice picture up there. I took a photo of the Limpopo River in the distance. The land I could see to its west was from Botswana. The land to its east was Zimbabwe. This is the first I have seen of either country!

The confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers, visible from the top of Mapungubwe Hill

Once we returned to the entrance, we visited the museum showing many artifacts from K2, Mapungubwe, and an accompanying site called Schroda (occupied by the Zhizo people from 900-1000 AD). Sadly, no photos were allowed inside. I was delighted at last to see (a replica of) the Golden Rhino. Natasha was enthralled by the architectural design of the museum, employing barrel vaulted dome roofs. This technique uses three layers of tiles to create highly-arced roofs without internal support beams. She captured the look of the place as we drove back toward the entrance gates.

These domes are self supporting, without internal columns!

All good things must come to an end, and Mapungubwe is no exception. One key outcome from the departure of groups from Mapungubwe is that some traveled further north to launch one of the most spectacular civilizations of the African Middle Ages. Great Zimbabwe might never have evolved if not for its origins in Mapungubwe!


If the story of Mapungubwe interests you, you might also be interested in posts I’ve written about other city-states centered atop hills across a range of times throughout history:

Polokwane: the Irish House and Exton Photography Museums

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

December 12, 2019

After our visit to the Voortrekker Monument, we hit the road for Polokwane, the capital city of Limpopo Province. Our destination was around three hours northeast on the N1 highway, and so we settled in for a long haul (I drove the first half, and Natasha drove the second). We noticed something a bit strange, though. We had encountered any number of “e-tolls” in Johannesburg and Pretoria (though we haven’t registered our plate for payment); the run from Pretoria to Polokwane, however, switches back to conventional toll plazas, and our three hour voyage passed through *four* toll road stretches! The first toll was negligible (R12), but the final toll was a bit more substantial (R58 ~ $4). If one layers toll upon toll, the cost starts to mount. The roads were, on the other hand, much nicer than the N1 passage through the Karoo. From the arid Great Karoo at the start of our trip, to the waving yellow grasses of the Free State, we had moved to “highveld,” scrub brush and grasslands. I could easily imagine an elephant lurking invisibly just a few meters from the road.

We arrived in Polokwane (population 628,999) well on schedule. The city has fewer people than Bloemfontein (population 747,431), to say nothing of Pretoria (population 2,921,488) or Johannesburg (population 4,434,827), and the traffic was quite a lot easier to navigate than any of the above. Our hotel suite at the Polokwane Lodge offers a sitting room, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom, and it was hardly expensive.

Having learned that Polokwane offered four museums in our web reading along the way, I resolved to visit the “Irish House” Museum and the Hugh Exton Photographic Museum, conveniently located across the street from each other. The catch was that their web information suggested that they closed at 15:30. I rocketed away from the hotel even as poor Natasha was offloading our cooler into the refrigerator. Arriving at the parking lot next to the museum, I was frustrated to discover that roughly six “car guards” were all jostling each other out of the way to serve each arriving vehicle. Two of them were giving each other an earful in laying claim to “watch” my car. I simply walked into the museum.

Irish House: The Polokwane Museum

The Irish House Museum is on a very busy intersection in Polokwane.

The Irish House gets its name from Irishman James A. Jones, who purchased this Victorian building in 1920 to operate a fashion store. The previous building at this location had burned in the city fire of 1906. In today’s museum, opened in 1984, the first floor is devoted to the liberation struggle of South Africa and the second floor relates to the history of the area and of Polokwane in particular. Fresh from the Johannesburg Apartheid Museum, I headed upstairs.

The museum does not exhibit a large number of artifacts, but it does have some rather nice ones, such as ceramic pipes and a bellows for iron smelting from centuries ago in indigenous populations. I also liked the pottery vessels from Schroda and K2 (a predecessor to the Mapungubwe site we will see tomorrow). For the most part, however, the very informative panels on the walls incoroprate photographs and maps and diagrams to illustrate the fact-filled paragraphs rather than explaining one exhibited artifact after another.

I really appreciated that the museum tried hard to represent all the parties who have made this area grow. Within the settler communities, they are sure to include the Jewish and Indian groups alongside the Voortrekkers who took several efforts to find the right site and the right relationships with neighbors to succeed. The iron smelting I described above was brought by the Blackburn branch of the Urewe tradition some time after 1000 AD; these “Bakone” people were described as “Sothonised” in adopting language and culture of the Sothos (see also my post about Lesotho). In the 13th century, the Moloko branch of the Urewe tradition arrived, bringing some Tswana influence to the area. Icon and Pedi groups have also contributed to the area. It’s a rich mix.

I apologize for breaking the rule against photography inside the Irish House Museum.

I particularly liked the descriptions with Sotho-Tswana leaders of the area featuring Kgosikgolo Sekhukhune (1861-1879), Kgosi Maraba II (1870-1881), and Kgosi Malebogo (1894). The second of these two fell into conflict with white settlers in a really interesting but terrifying narrative:

“Because the Boers were people who liked to hunt, they often left their horse carts at Chief Maraba’s kraal, until they returned from their hunting. It happened one day that when they returned from hunting the Boers found that Chief Maraba was driving one of their carts. In spite of much apologizing and promises, Chief Maraba was killed and the royal kraal of the Mandebele burnt to the ground.”

Oral history,recorded from S. Moifatswane

The text goes on to explain that the city of Pietersburg (which later was renamed Polokwane) was founded on one of Maraba’s farms. The name Polokwane comes from a misunderstanding of the term “Bulugwane,” which describes the grass bangles woven by girls at the riverside. [In researching this claim later, I encountered this alternative explanation: “What everybody knows is that the whole of that area is mainly flat [bulu], and has a lot of big round boulders [ngwane] on its hills.“]

The Irish House museum is not large, but it certainly rewards an hour of time from the visitor. Even better, it’s free!

Polokwane City Square Park hosted a music festival earlier in the day when I visited. The Hugh Exton Museum is the white church behind the trees.

Hugh Exton Photographic Museum

Since I had just a few moments before it closed, I ran across the street to the Hugh Exton Photographic Museum. Owen, my guide for the day, arrived moments later to introduce the facility. The building first served as the Dutch Reformed Church (NG Kerk) of Pietersburg / Polokwane, built in 1890. The church was turned into a business, with a two-story facade built in place of its entry vestibule (and the steeple was removed due to city codes). In 1986, the church was restored to its original appearance (with a new steeple), and a lovely wooden vaulted ceiling was constructed. A painting of the frontier town was added high on the far end.

The Hugh Exton Photographic Museum is housed in a former church.

This museum is built on an amazing collection of 23,000 glass negatives from the cameras of Hugh Exton and James Jones (of Irish House fame). Hugh Exton was a young man when he arrived at Pietersburg / Polokwane in the last decade of the 1800s. Though he taught himself photography, Mr. Exton soon had a thriving business as photographer for the community. Rather than limit his practice to staid portraits, he photographed the community around him as well as the buildings of the town. It is through his work that we can see the buildings of Polokwane before the fire in 1906.

During the Anglo-Boer War, Exton served as a British news correspondent. This was no doubt controversial as the Transvaal was very much on the other side of that war. James Jones, however, captured many images in this area throughout the conflict, and Exton copied many of those images into his collection. It’s a valuable archive for understanding local history.

I wanted to share this text from one of Exton’s marketing posters: “But you can always send them a deputy, that silent yet faithful messenger which speaks to them only of you and serves ever as a tender reminder of your affection– your photograph.

The Hugh Exton museum is picture-perfect.

Voortrekkers Piet and Hendrina Joubert were credited as the founders of Pietersburg, later renamed Polokwane.

The Mall of the North!

Two hours later, Natasha and I were on our way to dinner at the Mall of the North, right on the edge of Polokwane. It’s a really deluxe mall, far larger than one might expect for a town of this size. Natasha liked that the upper floor made copious use of skylights to reduce the feeling of closed space. We went shopping at several places inside (the well-organized Checkers, the well-stocked Woolworths, the Milady, and others) as well as sitting down for dinner at Ocean Basket.

Our departure from the mall was a bit confusing, and I resorted to following the white car in front of us, but this put me on a road leading away from the mall and away from Polokwane! I made jokes about Google directing us to a site where aliens planned their awful experiments on us, but Natasha seemed unamused. I turned around in a driveway, returned to Munnik Drive, and soon we were back at our hotel.