THE NATIVE RACES OF SOUTH AFRICA
GEORGE W. STOW, F.G.S., F.R.G.S.
4. WEAPONS AND IMPLEMENTS OF THE BUSHMEN
Having thus obtained a slight insight into their means of subsistence, we will now proceed to make some inquiry with regard to their Weapons and Poisons.
In entering upon this portion of our subject we find ourselves confronted with the important and interesting fact that the Bushmen were not only cave-dwellers, but also the manufacturers of the stone implements which are found scattered all over the surface of the country ; and, moreover, it is equally certain that implements of this kind were still manufactured and used by some of their more isolated clans until within as recent a period as the last fifteen or twenty years. This circumstance was so well known that when any of these implements have been presented to old Koranas or Bachoana, with an inquiry as to what they were intended for, they have invariably answered, “They are Bushman knives !”
Some have questioned the authenticity of these stone relics of South Africa, asserting somewhat emphatically that the whole of them were merely natural exfoliations from the parent rock. It is quite possible that exfoliations of this kind might have first taught primitive man the benefit to be derived from a sharp-edged tool, and that he subsequently learnt the method of striking them off himself when no others were to be found, and, finally, of improving the efficiency of their edges by chipping and grinding them, varying their shapes according to the uses for which they were intended.
The proofs, however, of their having been shaped by human hands are too overwhelming to be gainsaid. The writer has found them in all parts of South Africa which he has visited. Numerous chipping places are to be found where the flakes are scattered round, and the cores lying amongst them. He has seen these places near the banks of rivers, on the tops of kopjes, whence an extensive view of the country could be obtained, and especially near their caves, where among the refuse belonging to the larger ones immense numbers are still frequently to be found.
The favourite rock for making them was Lydite, although any other hard rock was frequently employed. These materials must in most cases have been brought from long distances, as no similar rocks could be found for many miles. Arrow-tips and small drills were generally formed of flint, agate, or chalcedony, which in many instances could only have been obtained from distant tribes.
As an illustration of this, the following were the results of the examination of a small Bushman cave in the kloof near the native location at Smithfield, which had evidently been only an occasional residence of an insignificant family or clan. The rocks of the surrounding country are composed exclusively of those of what are termed the Karoo or Lacustrine formation, with igneous dykes protruding through them, while the micaceous-sandstone, schistose and jaspideous rocks here spoken of are only to be found among the older formations which formed its ancient coast-line or boundary, the nearest known point of which must be at least some one hundred and fifty to two hundred miles from Smithfield. The agates, chalcedony, etc., could have been obtained from the Vaal, the Orange, or Caledon rivers.
The examination of this cave was made through the energetic aid of Mr. Charles Sirr Orpen, who pointed it out to the writer and accompanied him to it, taking with him a man and the necessary implements for a vigorous search. The floor of the cave was then gradually cleared out, and the soil and refuse ashes thus obtained carefully sifted and sorted, with the following interesting results. They were found to comprise from the animal kingdom fragments of bone, pieces of ostrich eggshells, and fresh-water shells ; from the mineral numerous stone implements and chips, together with some relics of native manufacture. They were as follows —
Animal remains, among numerous small fragments of bone :—
Leg bones, broken fragments, various antelopes ... 5
Small scapula, animal unknown ... 1
„ clavicle ,, „ .... ... 1
Fragments of various small skulls, among which two under-maxillary bones of small rodents .... 6
Teeth, antelope 4
“ wild-boar 2
i rib, antelope 1
Fragments of Ostrich Shell : —
Fragments comparatively recent 12
„ ancient, slightly damaged I2
,, ,, almost fossilized 5
Some of these had evidently been broken up with the intention of manufacturing beads.
Fresh-water Shells : —
Fragments probably used as scrapers — 4
Total of animal remains 53
Stone Implements, etc. : —
Knives and drills (Lydite) 8
Scrapers ,, 12
„ (Micaceous sandstone) 4
,, (Schistose-rock) 1
Chipped agates, drills and scrapers 11
Quartz and chalcedony — chipped fragments .... 13
Fragments — jaspideous-rock 5
Total of implements — 54
Native manufactures, pottery, etc. : —
Plain pottery, fragments 4
Pottery, showing bordering edge, one with worked pattern upon it 2
Bone shaft of arrow, fragment made of ostrich leg bone . 1
Stem of clay-pipe, fragment 1
Found in upper surface : —
Fragment of iron shaft of assagai much corroded . . 1
— 3 9
This was the only indication of metal discovered.
One small fragment of fossil reptilian-bone, derived from karoo-formation 1
Total of contents of cave 117
The interesting results afforded by the above examination of such a small cave clearly indicate the important discoveries which might be made could time and leisure be obtained to sift the accumulations on the floors of the greater caves which have been inhabited for many generations by some of the large tribes. Besides the writer's own personal and somewhat extended experience, the following extracts will tend to show the wide field which still remains unexplored : " The presence of many chips of implements, and a coarse kind of pottery, in some of the Stormberg caves," says a writer in the Cape Monthly Magazine, " leads us to hope that explorers may yet bring to light as startling facts from discoveries to be made there as have been elicited from the thorough search in the haunts of the so-called cave-men in England and elsewhere."
The prevalence of stone weapons in Basutoland and in the neighbourhood of Aliwal North, and also in the caves of the Stormberg range, is referred to in a very interesting communication inserted below from Mr. Alfred Brown, of Aliwal North. Mr. St. Vincent Cripps also discovered during his visit to Basuto- land a collection of arrow-heads and flakes near Stephenson's Drift, Orange River, in the Native Reserve. The implements were lying on the undisturbed surface, along the terraced ridges of the river-bank.
With regard to the ancient mounds and stone implements occurring in the vicinity of Aliwal North, and more especially some parts of Basutoland recently annexed to the Orange Free State, Mr. Alfred Brown writes : " I presume that a short noteN on these localities will not be unacceptable to the readers of your useful publication, as general conclusions are often affected by a more extended range of observations. About ten miles south of Koesberg, lately Poshuli's country, is an extensive plain, intersected by a valley nearly five miles in length and five hundred yards in width, which is the site of a very interesting series of ancient mounds or refuse heaps. The rocks forming the sides of the valley consist of coarse gritty and quartzose sandstone. Underneath the terrace band of sandstone, which, in general, considerably overhangs the valley, and affords secure shelter from the weather, are numerous caves, whose floors are covered with the refuse deposits and mounds, varying from two to eight feet in thickness. The mounds are now overgrown with a coarse rough grass, which binds them so firmly together that the rains and rush of water over the ledge of rocks have scarcely any effect upon them. Their uppermost surfaces are strewn with numerous fragments of stone implements, made of materials obtained from rocks which do not exist within many miles of the spot. They are composed of a mass of ashes, charred wood, fragments of implements, and numerous comminuted bones ; many of the bones have not only lost a large percentage of their animal matter, but sometimes occur in a subfossil condition."
Notes: Article in Cape Monthly Magazine.
Having thus shown some of the evidence which exists upon the connexion between the Bushmen and the stone implements found in the country, the following incident will tend to prove that the knowledge of their manufacture and use still exists among some of the Bushmen of the present day. When Mr. F. H. S. Orpen, the Surveyor-General of Griqualand West, was on one of his tours of inspection in the western portion of the province, accompanied by his son, the latter whilst out shooting with a Bushman after-rider, happened to kill a springbok in the middle of a large plain. When they wished to lighten the buck by disembowelling it and depriving it of its head, it was discovered that neither had a knife in his possession. In this dilemma the Bushman said that it was all right, and looking round selected a couple of stones. Giving a smart blow with one piece above one of the angles of the other, he immediately struck off a long flake found to possess a sharp cutting edge; with this he set to work, and in a short time opened the buck, dressed it properly, cut the sinews of the legs, and brought it into a state fit to place behind the saddle. He then threw away the stone implement which had proved so useful. This manufacture of a stone flake, merely for temporary use, seems to explain the reason why so many of this kind are found thickly strewn over different portions of the old game country.
The Bushmen, however, manufactured a large number of other implements intended for permanent use, which were formed upon certain patterns, and fashioned with considerable care. These comprised spear-heads (?), rubbers, wood and bone-scrapers, hammers, arrow points, drills, etc. One of their most valued implements was " the poison-stone," made of a smooth flat oval pebble about two and a half inches long, with a deep groove along the centre. This was kept for the purpose of working the poison upon the heads of their arrows, without the necessity of touching it with the fingers. This stone was so highly prized by them that it is said they would never part with it, except with their life.
A highly valued implement was a cylinder of sandstone about two and a half inches in diameter and three in length, with about five rather deep longitudinal grooves on its sides. These were intended for forming the round bone shafts of their arrows, and also for rounding the edges of their ostrich eggshell beads. The stone bowls for pipes we have already mentioned.
Still another valued and important implement was the large round perforated stone used to give weight and impetus to the 'Kibi or digging stick, which was said also to have been occasionally used as an offensive weapon or a club. The stone itself was called ‘T-koe or ‘Tikoe,N signifying " the strong hand," because they were enabled to dig into hard surfaces and make excavations which it would have been impossible for them to have accomplished without its assistance. It was therefore their veritable strong hand, and thus it was that they achieved labours in excavating such numerous pitfalls in some parts of the country that intelligent travellers have been astonished at these unquestionable proofs which they have given of their untiring industry.
The rock selected for making these stones was either a fine crystalline igneous one, or a tough close-grained sandstone. They were first, with infinite labour, rounded into the required shape, either a spherical or oblong ball, which varied from three to six, eight, or nine inches in the diameter of their longest axis. The smaller were generally of the former, the larger of the latter shape. The process of making a hole through the centre, or in those of an oblong or egg-shape through the longest axis, must have been a work of much time and patience, and was performed with a sharp-pointed piece of black stone which they called T'wing (Lydite).
At first a slight indentation was made at each end of the stone, in which a few drops of water were alternately placed and allowed to stand all night, and the next morning a little more was worked out, when a little more water was placed in the hollow. This process was repeated day after day, and thus by slow degrees a large hole was at last worked through the hard stone, which was then smoothed, and was fit for use. A strong stick of hard wood, rather more than two feet long, was then procured, which was sharpened at one end, the other pushed through the hole in the stone until it protruded about six inches, when it was firmly wedged in its place. This formed the Bushman's celebrated 'Kibi, or digging stick, upon which he had solely to depend in times of scarcity for a means of subsistence. Its origin, therefore, in all probability, is one of remote antiquity.
Notes: 1 With regard to this stone, the 'Tikoe, Miss L. E. Lemue writes that it was considered " such a valuable article with the Bushmen, that it was never left behind or thrown away." Notes of Charles S. Orpen. This, therefore, would seem to indicate that when these implements are found scattered over the country, their unfortunate owners must either have been suddenly slain, or they must have been accidentally lost in their panic and flight from their enemies.
The flat stones used for roasting the ants' "eggs" were slightly hollowed in the middle, which was formed by chipping out the hollow with another hard stone. Small tortoise-shells were sometimes used as drinking-cups, and the large ones as dishes for their different kinds of porridge, etc.
The Bushmen of the Stormberg, the Orange ('Nu-‘Gariep), and Caledon rivers used very short bows, while the tribes north of the Vaal ('Gij 'Gariep) and to the westward used bows of a much longer kind. Any one unaccustomed to the use of weapons of the former description was unable to draw them to their full strength. This was done by holding the bow itself firmly in the left hand, and placing three fingers of the right upon the string, steadying the end of the arrow between the thumb and first finger, then drawing the arrow up to the head. This could not be done with one straight pull, but with three jerky movements ; the first drew the string out of line, the second about half the length of the arrow, and the third up to its head, when the missile was immediately freed for flight. This extension gave great impetus to the poisoned shaft, and sent it not only to a considerable distance, but with sufficient force to pierce the thickest hide. A bow, however, thus drawn, when incautiously managed by a novice, was very apt to strip the .flesh from the tips of the fingers of the uninitiated one who ventured to try the experiment.
The Bushmen used two kinds of arrows, one of which had a very sharp bone point or pile. In making these, or the heads of their fishing harpoons, awls, and other similar bone implements, the bone of the ostrich leg was always preferred to any other, on account of its superior hardness and toughness. These piles were fitted carefully into the end of the reed, which was neatly bound round and strengthened with a narrow band of sinew. The arrows were from fifteen to eighteen inches in length, of which two-thirds were composed of the reed, the other of the pointed bone shaft ; in some cases they were tipped with sharp horn points.
The second kind was exactly like the first, with the exception of the head, which originally was made of a triangular chipped piece of flint, agate, chalcedony, etc, fitted into the bone, which instead of having a sharp point was cut off square, into which a groove or notch was cut rather more than the eighth of an inch in depth, into which the triangular head was fitted, and held in its place either with a little tough well-tempered clay or the milky sap of a plant called by the Basutu Setloko.
About an inch and a half from the head a small piece of quill was so fixed as to act as a barb, and was neatly fastened in its place with a binding of sinew. All this portion of the head was carefully covered with the poison, which had some- thing of the consistency of black wax, and which by firmly adhering to the sinew binding tended also to keep the head in its place. An arrow of this kind, having struck an animal and penetrated beyond the quill barb, would have no chance of falling out ; and even if in the efforts of the animal to escape the reed portion should become separated, the bone part of the shaft with its poisoned head remained behind, rankling in the wound with every motion which it made.
After the Bushmen came into contact with the stronger races which were acquainted with the use of metals, they adopted small triangular pieces of iron for their arrow points, instead of the more primitive materials used by their fathers ; many of the more isolated clans, however, still retained them to within a few years of the present time. Mr. W. Coates Palgrave informed the writer that at the time of his first visit among the Bushmen of the lower portion of the 'Gariep or Great river, they used invariably small chips of chalcedony, etc., probably obtained from some of the agate gravels of the river, for making the sharp points of their poisoned arrows ; but that after travellers had passed through their country and scattered a number of old bottles about in various directions, he found when he again visited them that they were using chipped pieces of glass m preference, having found that they could give a sharper edge to the new material than to that which they had before employed.
Mr. Palgrave sent one of the stone-headed arrows to Cape Town. This interesting specimen has been described by the same writer, in the Cape Monthly, as the one previously mentioned, and as it differs slightly from those which the writer himself personally examined, we cannot do better than compare it with the details of those already given. It came from the northern borders.
"The construction of it," says its describer, " is highly interesting as a key to the method of fixing stone arrow tips in the shaft. The workmanship is wonderfully neat and effective. The shaft consists of two lengths of fine reed, between which (for strength and weight) is socketed a bone of three inches in length. The joints are firmly secured by tightly bound strips of the sinews of animals. Into the end of the reed shaft is inserted a small leaf-shaped arrow-head of quartz crystal, the fissure is narrow, and the arrow-head, excepting the very tip and edges, is embedded in a fine cement, apparently clay, and evidently dressed with some poisonous matter. The stone arrow-head is sharp at the edges and the point. A horn barb is spliced on about an inch from the arrow-head. There is a coating of clay along the shaft for about three inches, securing the barb, and giving weight, as well as preventing the splitting of the reed. This constitutes a formidable weapon."
"It is remarkable," he further writes, " that in my collection I have a well-shaped arrow-head, found on the Cape Flats, of the same size and material as the one fixed in this Bushman arrow."
The present writer has himself found a considerable number in the vicinity of the different Bushman caves he has visited in the Free State and elsewhere. Some of the tribes carried their arrows in a leathern bag slung over the shoulder, but by far the greater number preserved them in a quiver, sometimes of leather or bark, but whenever procurable the bark of the Koker-boom, or Quiver-tree, a species of aloe widely spread over South Africa, and called Aloe Dichotoma by Paterson. This was frequently ornamented round the top with a band of snake or iguana skin, and contained from sixty to eighty arrows.
Besides these they frequently carried a number in a fillet round their heads, for rapid use as well as to strike their enemies with terror. Some wore them sticking out like rays all around ; others again had eight or ten on each side, so arranged as to represent horns, and others fixed these arrows in such a manner that the ends alternately crossed each other until they formed a kind of ridged roof or helmet over the head of the warrior-huntsman. They were able to shoot one of these arrows to a distance of two hundred paces, and could hit a mark, some with unerring precision, and all with a tolerable degree of certainty, from fifty to a hundred.
Besides their bows and arrows the Bushmen made use of other weapons in the chase or in war. We have already noticed that the 'Kibi occasionally served as a mace or club ; they also employed small darts, or assagais, which were thrown by the hand. Their construction differed from those belonging to the Kaffir races. They had remarkably short lance-shaped blades, and the heads, before their intercourse with the stronger races who were acquainted with the use of iron, were formed of chipped and sharpened pieces of lydite, etc. They were also poisoned in a similar manner to their arrows. The shafts of these weapons were about three feet long. They were never employed except at short distances, or at close quarters, and when hunting such large animals as the elephant, hippopotamus, etc.
The force with which an expert hunter could hurl one of these primitive missiles is well illustrated by an incident which Campbell recorded in his first journey into the Interior, when a Bushman showed his dexterity in using even a common stone with fatal effect. A quagga being wounded, but still attempting to escape, this Bushman threw off his skin kaross, ran towards it, and with great exertion threw a stone which sank into its forehead, on which he drew out a knife which had been given to him and stabbed it.
The Bushmen near Lake Ngami, who are great elephant-hunters, use a strong broad-bladed assagai attached to a thick shaft about five feet in length ; this is not intended for throwing, but is used as a spear simply for thrusting at close quarters, and is employed by them in their attacks upon the great pachyderm. These blades, being made of iron, are obtained from the neighbouring tribes, the chiefs of which claim the tusks of all the animals they kill. But long before the southern Bushman tribes had the slightest knowledge of the value, or even the existence of iron, a very large kind of harpoon or spear was used by them for the purpose of hamstringing the larger game, such as the elephant or hippopotamus. The blade or head was made of a sharp stone, generally poisoned, and attached to a long strong shaft. This weapon was evidently the forerunner of the broad-bladed assagai of the Ngami Bushmen of the present day.
Upon certain occasions some of their clans used shields made of eland's hide, such as are depicted in their own paintings, especially in some of their methods of hunting the lion, when this piece of defensive armour was fastened on their backs, so that should the brute spring upon them, they threw themselves on the ground and drew themselves up under it after the manner of the tortoise, and thus afforded their companions an opportunity of rescuing them.
In addition to the foregoing, the Bushmen of the 'Nu and 'Gij 'Gariep and their tributaries, all of whose streams abounded with fish, made very ingenious harpoons to enable them to capture them. These weapons were made with long, sharp, barbed points of bone. This portion of the harpoon was valued so very highly by the owners that, although the shafts after use might be thrown away, the bone points were always carried with them when they migrated from one spot to another, with the same care as that which they bestowed upon the preservation of the " poison stone " and their " strong hand," the T’ikoe of their digging sticks. The shafts were made of the stems of the mountain bamboo, to which a long line made from the back sinews of an antelope was attached.
Mr. Jan Wessels has assured the writer that he has many times watched the Bushmen using these weapons, and has been astonished at the dexterity and unerring aim with which they struck and landed fish of a considerable size. The use of this weapon must necessarily have been confined to such tribes as lived along the course of the great rivers mentioned and their affluents, and possibly some of those inhabiting the sea coast. Those which were seen and examined were in the possession of Bushmen belonging to the valleys of the 'Nu or 'Gij 'Gariep.
Another bone implement much valued by the Bushmen was the awl, made out of a piece of the leg bone of an ostrich, sometimes also of ivory, although the former kind appears to have been in more general use. They were about four inches in length, the thickness of a moderately sized porcupine's quill, and tapering gradually towards both ends to a sharp point.
A Bushman generally carried two or three of these of different sizes in his velzak, which he used when required after the fashion of a modem cobbler, by first boring the hole and then introducing the thread of sinew, and although this was a slow and tedious process, it was remarkable with what neatness and regularity they were able to place the stitches into the work upon which they were engaged. This was especially seen in some of the caps they manufactured of jackal's skin, very much in the shape of a Turkish fez.
The stone scrapers were of two kinds, one employed in cleaning and rounding not only their bows, but also the handles and shafts of their kerries, darts, and harpoons, which was generally a thin and nearly flat flake of stone, with a deep semicircular notch in one side, with a sharp edge, and varying in size according to the required thickness of the shaft to be manufactured. This was used as a kind of primitive spokeshave.
The other was also a tolerably flat, but thicker stone than the last, about two and a half to three inches across the broadest part, and of a rudely circular shape, but such as could be conveniently gripped by its outer edge between the fore-finger and the thumb. It was used in the preparation of their skin mantles and bags, in scraping and clearing away any extraneous matter adhering to the skin under manipulation, which after undergoing a course of scraping, rubbing, and stretching with the hands and trampling with the feet, was at last reduced to the required degree of softness.
The skin of the springbok was the one which was preferred in the construction of these mantles. In summer one only was worn, suspended from the shoulders with the head downward, forming a kind of ornamental appendage ; when cold they wore two, one hanging on each side. Their favourite bags for hanging at their waists were made of meer-kat skins. It was in a bag of this description that they carried the lump of deadly poison which they applied to their fatal arrows.
Having thus gained some insight into the description of weapons and implements used by the primitive Bushmen, we will now attempt to make a further advance by taking into consideration the means they adopted to render these apparently rude and, to modern ideas, almost useless weapons efficient and formidable.
From all the evidence which can be obtained from Korana and other native sources, the Bushman race alone of all the South African tribes used poison to render the effects of their weapons more fatal. We shall discover, as we proceed, that the early Hottentot tribes were ignorant of its use, and did not adopt the practice until after their retreat from the Cape districts, when they came in contact with the Bushman tribes of the valley of the 'Gariep or Great river.
The same may be said with regard to the Bachoana and Basutu, whose ancestors were also armed with bows and arrows from a remote period, with the exception that their bows, as might have been expected, were much larger, and frequently more elaborately polished and strengthened with strips of sinew bound round different portions of them.
The border tribe of the Batlapin, however, was the only known one of their race who made use of poison, a mode of warfare which they adopted to enable them to compete with the Koranas and Bushmen ; but for a long time after doing so they still remained ignorant of its mode of preparation, and had to depend solely upon whatever chance supply they could obtain from one or other of these people.
With regard to the antiquity of the use of the bow among the Basutu tribes, in an ancient Bushman painting in a cave in the Wittebergen of the Orange Free State, which represents a battle scene between the Bushmen and these people, the latter are armed with long bows, exactly similar to those employed by the Bamangwato and Mashoona tribes living between the Limpopo and Zambesi of the present day.
The last-mentioned tribe manufacture the most elaborate iron barbed points for their arrows, the shafts of which are not only fledged with the greatest neatness, but the shaft itself is often etched over with zigzag patterns. Such elaborations in their structure evidently shew that they have been manufactured by experts, and are not the experimental trials of novices, while their bows, as above noticed, are much stronger, longer, and more highly finished. In speaking with some of the old natives of these tribes, the writer has been assured that none of their weapons in the older times were poisoned, and yet the bow and arrow were the weapons of their fathers.
The origin of the old hunter race poisoning their darts and arrows was doubtless occasioned from the fragile materials of which they were made, and the necessity of rendering the wounds inflicted by their bone and flint-pointed arrows more certainly fatal than it was possible for them to be in the primitive state of their manufacture.
Witnessing the fatal effects of the bite of many of the venomous snakes which infested the country would, in all probability, be the first thing which suggested to the dawning inventive faculties of the human mind the potency of such an application to their arrows, and which would also at the same time point to the source whence the means could be procured of rendering their weapons equally dangerous ; and experience would ultimately teach them that different poisons, more or less virulent, were required to secure the different kinds of game which they hunted.
Those of the stronger races using more powerful and formidable weapons of the same class would not have to resort to the same expedient, but would naturally rely upon the greater penetrative powers of their well-fledged and cruelly double barbed arrows for equally fatal results. That such races may have, at a remote period, fashioned their weapons after the model of still more primitive hunters need not be questioned, as well as that of using at one time or the other poisoned points. At any rate, from all the evidence the writer has been able to gather upon the subject, the more advanced Basutu tribes for a lengthened period used bows with unpoisoned arrows, while the Bushmen, on the other hand, employed shafts whose fatal potency was attributable to the virulent poisons with which they were armed.
The Bushmen of the same locality used different kinds of poison on different occasions, according to the description of game they were hunting. Poisons sufficiently strong to destroy the springbok and smaller kind of antelopes were not equally successful with the wildebeest and the quagga ; the lion also required poison of considerable strength, while the buffalo and the ostrich required the most potent of all.
Different tribes .used different ingredients and modes of preparation, even with the poisons deemed the most virulent ; thus, according to Livingstone, the Bushmen of the North, living at Rapesli and Kama-Kama (Pools of Pools, or Pools of Water) used for their strongest poison the entrails of a caterpillar called 'N'gwa, half an inch long.
By a lucky accident Mr. Chapman discovered the antidote for this poison. The Bushmen were most unwilling to give any information upon the subject, denying the existence of an antidote at all. From the researches of the writer, he is convinced that there were certain secrets among many of the tribes which were not known to every member of them, but which were kept as heirlooms in a certain branch or family, and which gave them a superiority over the rest, thus laying the first foundations of " caste." This seems to have been especially the case, not only in the manipulation and preparation of poisons, and the antidotes suited thereto, but even in a more marked manner among those tribes that produced the great artists of their race, the proper mixture and employment of colours was only known to the few, and not to the many. This exclusive knowledge naturally gave rise to an amount of reticence on the part of those who were the guardians of these special secrets, that was most difficult to overcome.
It is not at all unlikely, however, that when one tribe after the other was broken up, and the fugitive members dispersed in all directions, after they were harried and hunted like so many wild beasts by the grasping invaders of their ancient hunting grounds, the knowledge of the composition and preparation of the various poisons employed by them, and so necessary to their preservation, became more widely diffused ; but as far as can be ascertained, in the days of their undisturbed possession this was not so, such secrets being retained exclusively in the families of the ruling chiefs, the knowledge being rigidly with- held from those outside this sacred circle, an illustration that even among the Bushmen the truth of the axiom was recognised that " Knowledge is Power." Thus it is that frequently so much difficulty is experienced in obtaining information from this old-world race. Acting up to the traditions of their fathers, they often either profess a profound ignorance, evade the inquiries, or maintain a mysterious silence.
However, in discovering the antidote alluded to, Mr. Chapman states that he had asked the question again and again, but could never obtain the desired information, until one day happening to hear some Bushmen expatiating on the wonderful powers of the white men, especially having with their own eyes seen them consulting the stars by means of a glass, he took the opportunity of a lad's coming in with a collection of insects, among which were the poison grub and beetle, to ask them abruptly, just as if he had known all about it, " What do you call that plant with which you cure the poison of the ‘Th-a ? "
The Bushmen answered at once “ 'Kalahetlue," its Sechuana name, adding, " But who told you about it ? " and concluded with the remark, " These white men are children of God, they know everything ! " In making further inquiries on the subject from different Bushmen, he found they were reserved about this antidote, and as he heard, had even preferred death to divulging the secret ; but although they all professed ignorance of the antidote for the 'Th-a, yet finding that Mr. Chapman knew a great deal about it, these men corroborated everything he had before heard.
This 'Kalahetlue grows wherever the grub is found. It is a tuber, which he discovered was the favourite food of steenboks and duikers ; the leaves are long, thick, narrow, pulpy, and lanceolate, with a strong indentation down the middle, and in colour a dull green. The mode, however, of applying this antidote seems still to remain a secret.
There is, so Mr. Chapman asserts, a creeping tendrilous plant, called " eokam " by the Bushmen, which they consider a specific against snake-bites. It is with the root of this that the Bushmen are said to cure themselves of the most venomous bites. About eight or ten grains, either eaten or taken as a decoction, act as an emetic. The dose is repeated about three times, when the patient is cured. They also tattoo and scarify their bodies, and make an incision near the wound, which they suck with some of the root chewed in their mouths. This is evidently to prevent the poison from acting upon the gums in case of bleeding. The sucking out of the poison is not necessary, but is done by way of precaution. Bushmen having a piece of this root strung among their charms and medicines around their necks " laugh at snake-bites."
But still so difficult is it to obtain information from Bushmen with regard to this poison and these antidotes, that Mr. Chapman states it was only after waiting ten years that he succeeded in gaining the knowledge here detailed, and he considered it quite a triumph that he at last succeeded in extracting so much of the secret from them. He believes that to become an expert naturalist one ought to turn Bushman and conquer the language, when one would learn more about the natural history of many things than from books and years of study and experiment. They live and depend for existence on animals and insects, and therefore are obliged to know all about their habits and instincts.
Another poison used by them was extracted from the Amaryllis distichia (Paterson), which was called " mal gift," or mad poison, by the Dutch and Namaqua Hottentots, from the effects usually produced on the animals which were wounded by the weapons impregnated with it. It was thus prepared : the bulbs were dug up about the time they were putting out their leaves, and cutting them transversely, a thick fluid was extracted, which was kept in the sun until it became quite of the consistence of gum. It was then kept fit for use, and laid on the arrows near the points. This poison was used chiefly for animals which were intended for food. The milk of one species of euphorbia was also used both for their arrows and for poisoning water.
The Bushmen of the West used a poisonous insect for one of their most virulent preparations. This was the most horrid-looking of all the African spiders, commonly called the trapdoor spider.N This appears to have been pounded and mixed with the extract of the amaryllis.
Notes: The following anecdote is sufficient to show the venomous character of this spider. Dr. N. Rubidge, F.G.S., was collecting insects near the Van Staade's river, Uitenhage, and after having filled all his boxes, found a very rare specimen of a tree frog of a beautiful green colour, and for want of a better receptacle placed the captive in a wide-mouthed pickle-bottle. Shortly afterwards he discovered one of these spiders of large size, which he also consigned to the same prison. As soon as the spider reached the bottom, the frog seemed to recoil with horror, and pressed itself close to the side of the bottle. When the spider recovered it turned upon its fellow-captive, darted savagely at it, and gave it two savage bites in quick succession. The frog, although larger than the spider, did not attempt to move. A few seconds after it was seized with trembling, followed by a convulsion, and it expired immediately.
The Bushmen of the East (the present Queenstown division and beyond) principally used the venom of snakes, the milk of the euphorbia, and the extract from the poison amaryllis.
The poisons most relied on by the Bushmen of the 'Nu 'Gariep, the Caledon, and the 'Gij 'Gariep were the venom of snakes, together with scorpions and spiders crushed up, the poison amaryllis, and the milk of a small plant found growing in many parts of the Free State and British Basutoland, called Motlatsisa by the Basutu. So poisonous do some of the natives believe this latter plant to be that they refuse to touch it, lest any of the milk should get upon their fingers.
These Bushmen adopted the following method in the preparation of their poisons. A fiat, smooth, stone was procured, very similar to the one used for roasting the " ants' eggs " ; this was placed on the fire, and the milky juice of the Motlatsisa or of the amaryllis was set upon it. This was then worked up with a wooden spatula until it began to attain a certain consistency, when the venom of the snake or other poisonous ingredient was gradually added, and the mixing continued until the whole mass had acquired a dark wax-like appearance, when it was worked up into a lump and reserved for use.
The season for making this preparation was during the summer months. It was kept in a little bag until required for use. In employing it a small portion was placed upon a " poison-stone," and the part of the arrow to be anointed pressed upon it and worked round and round until it had acquired the proper shape. It was never touched with the fingers, and great care was taken that none adhered to the hands or nails during these processes.
The Native Races of South Africa
01. Editor's Preface
15. The Koranas
17. The Griquas
24. The Barolong