Africa was not receiving her new tenants graciously that day.
Veiled by clouds swirling about her craggy coast, she spitefully hid most of Table Mountain from sight, exposing only the windswept beach at her foot where foolhardy mortals had presumed to build their town. A raging northwester hurled gulls across her bay where a lone fishing craft did battle with the white-topped sea, inches away from capsizing.
The Cape of Storms lived up to its name.
· · ·
Shuddering, the Dutch ship Vangalen rounded the mainland into Table Bay. Most of her canvas had already been furled and the wind howled through the naked rigging, adding to the thunder of waves crashing against her hull. Her decks awash, the ship pitched and rolled and the two young men who ventured on top almost lost their footing as they made their way to the railing. Once there they stood swaying with the movement, each soon lost in his own thoughts.
Claes de Jonghe revelled in the almost tangible presence of the Dark Continent. There, beyond that barely visible hulk of rock, he would build a future for himself and Catherine. He still could hardly believe his good fortune that she had accepted his proposal and would be joining him in a few months’ time to become his wife. Sweet, beautiful Catherine! For a fleeting moment the smile left his face as ghosts of the lies and deceit he had left behind threatened to intrude on his mood, but he shrugged them off. There had been no other way. Only in this wild land could he ever found his dynasty.
· · ·
He was brought back to reality by Baptiste’s voice shouting against the storm.
‘We might as well have stayed home!’
Claes turned to him. His friend was rubbing both hands together in an effort to keep them warm and a particularly savage gust nearly caused him to lose his balance.
‘Damn!’ he cursed as he clutched at the rail. Just then there came a momentary lull and a ship’s officer joined them. His face was sombre, looking across the angry water toward land.
‘Winter’s setting in,’ he commented, ‘not the best of times at the Cape.’
‘Thank you, that’s good to know,’ Baptiste mocked. He pointed to the far-off settlement.
‘Where’s the harbour?’
The officer shook his head.
‘There is no harbour. We anchor in the Bay.’
For a moment Baptiste was silent, then he asked in a not unreasonable tone, ‘So how do we get to land? Swim?’
‘Pray God we won’t have to,’ the officer replied, ‘it all too often comes to that.’ He made a visible effort to be more cheerful. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll weather this storm, it’s not a bad one. But the Captain wants me to tell you to stay below deck for the time being.’
‘And after that?’ Claes asked.
‘You’ll be taken ashore with tugs as soon as the wind allows. Now you must please excuse me.’
He saluted and turned to go, but was stopped by Baptiste.
‘What happens if the storm gets worse?’
The officer hesitated for only a moment, then said, ‘It won’t. It’s too early in the season.’
Baptiste watched his retreating back and shook his head.
‘That man is a veritable ray of sunshine.’
Before Claes could respond, a renewed onslaught of wind and icy rain drove them from the decks.
· · ·
It still rained the next day and the wind had dropped only slightly when they finally set foot on land. As soon as they were settled in at one of the many inns lining the muddy backstreets of the Town, Claes suggested that they start securing their future.
Outside again, Baptiste asked, ‘Where do we begin?’
Claes looked around.
‘Let’s ask someone,’ he said.
Despite the rain there were plenty of people about and soon Claes had what he wanted to know.
‘The government offices are either in the Castle or at the top of Adderley Street,’ he reported to Baptiste who had stayed huddled in the doorway of the inn.
‘Adderley Street is nearer, we’ll try there first,’ Claes decided. ‘Come on.’
Reluctantly Baptiste left his scant shelter and in silence joined his friend who set off at a brisk pace to where he had been directed. They were lucky. Not only did they find the building without any difficulty, but after having waited for only a few minutes, they were taken to the office of one of the assistent land surveyors. On one wall of the richly furnished room hung a big map of the Colony and the surveyor himself sat at a desk, writing. He seemed pleased at the interruption and shoved the stack of papers aside to welcome his visitors.
Having introduced himself as Peyton and as soon as the other two were seated, he asked, ‘What can I do for you?’
‘We want to buy a farm,’ Claes said.
‘Ah, I see.’ Peyton seemed slightly amused at the singlemindedness of the statement. ‘Well, I’m sure that could be arranged. What did you have in mind – wine, cattle, wheat?’
Baptiste’s eyes lit up.
‘Wine,’ he said, but Claes got to his feet and went to the map on the wall. He pointed to the large open space of the interior and asked, ‘How about here?’
Peyton shook his head.
‘I’m afraid that’s all just about taken,’ he said. ‘It’s only suitable for sheep and out there you need a lot of grazing.’
‘Won’t somebody be prepared to sell?’
Peyton shook his head.
‘Not that I know of right now. The established farms are left from father to son and the rest is leased because the Government wants all land occupied.
‘Why is that?’
‘To keep a measure of safety,’ Peyton explained. ‘It’s still relatively wild out there, with outlaws killing and plundering — ’ he grimaced. ‘Rough.’
Claes pointed to a blue line crossing the map more or less horizontally.
Peyton had joined him and looked where Claes pointed.
‘That’s the Orange river. North of there we have no jurisdiction.’
‘Nobody, so far. But from what I hear it’s certainly not a place for such fine young gentlemen as yourselves.’
‘Can you tell us more about it?’
‘Sure, I’ve been there,’ Peyton replied and went on to say that he had liked what he saw. The river banks were of fertile soil and overgrown with masses of trees and bush, while further up was good grazing. Several dry rivers ran through the land, which meant wells could be sunk in the beds with almost guaranteed success, and he had also come across some eyes where fresh water sprang from the ground. A few days’ riding to the north was the Kalahari, a desert, he said, but even there grass grew on the dunes and judging by the great number of game he had seen, it would support a good deal of livestock.
‘Do people live there?’ Claes wanted to know.
Peyton pursed his lips.
‘Some tribals, one or two white traders, very few and far between. Nothing to be concerned about.’
‘So there would be no formalities if we just went there and picked ourselves a piece of land?’ Claes asked hopefully.
‘No formalities whatsoever,’ the surveyor assured them. He thought for a moment and added, ‘But I would advise you to go and see the local headman first. One Kora, I never met him personally, but he runs the roost out there and could make things a bit sticky if he didn’t like you. Which he won’t. Hates all whites, apparently. Better sweeten him up, a few bottles of Cape Smoke and maybe an old rifle should do the trick.’
· · ·
‘At least now we know where we’re going,’ Claes said with satisfaction once they were out on the street again. Baptiste scowled.
‘To a desert, God help me. Why did I ever listen to you?’
Trudging back to their lodgings the wind and driving rain made further conversation difficult and they went on in silence. Gloomily, Baptiste wondered if there might still be a way out of the twisted plot Claes had hatched and into which he had been drawn against his better knowledge. He hated being consistently rained upon and he hated the prospect of living in a barren desert even more.
· · ·
With the help of friendly tradesmen it wasn’t too long before they owned three wagons, one covered with tented canvas to protect them against the elements if need be, and the other two open for hauling the goods they would need in their new home. They also had three teams of ten oxen each.
The two men watched the shaggy beasts jostle each other in the small kraal where they were penned, long horns clashing with each irritated shake of the enormous heads.
Baptiste said, ‘I’m definitely not going in there.’
‘We need a handler,’ Claes agreed.
Determined to let nothing stand in his way, Claes asked around and was referred to Moses, renowned for driving oxen as well as a hard bargain. At first he flatly refused, saying it was way too far, but after half an hour of serious haggling he consented on condition that Claes also employ his young son as tow leader. Claes agreed only too gladly.
They bought horses, unlovely animals worth much more than their looks merited because they had survived the dreaded horse sickness and were now immune to it.
It was at a horse trader’s that Claes saw a tall black stallion and for a moment was jolted back to the homestead in Friesland where just such horses were stabled. Once more the enormity of what he was doing constricted his throat.
He would never be able to go back, never be part of his family again for, hoping that she would understand and give them her blessing, he had told his mother about Catherine. He should have known better. Forever in his mind’s eye he would see her face frozen in outrage.
‘I pray your father will never find out for it will be the death of him,’ she had said. ‘Just know that if you marry a papist you are not my son any more.’
For a moment he wavered. Was it worth it? Stroking the horse’s arched neck, he thought that he might still reverse everything, beg forgiveness —
But then he pictured Catherine’s sweet face and knew he could never give her up. He bought the stallion and they made a strange pair, the proud black trotter and the lanky bay mare Baptiste rode.
· · ·
While Claes saw to the wagons being loaded and inspanned for the long trek, Baptiste was at the market making a last purchase. Just as he turned to go, he was knocked off his feet by someone running into him. Both fell to the ground, Baptiste cursing heartily. He held on to the other and was about to give him a piece of his mind when a big man in a butcher’s apron came trotting up.
‘This time I’ll whip the life from him!’ the man panted. ‘Don’t let him get away, Mister.’
Baptiste raised his head to look at the small human lying on top of him. He had thought it a child, but now he realised it was a Bushman, one of the little people of the African veld. Baptiste sat up, struggling to get out from under him.
‘What has he done?’
The butcher grunted, ‘Stole from me, the godforsaken little heathen — but I’ll teach him if I have to kill him doing it!’
Baptiste felt the Bushman tremble and said in disbelief, ‘Oh come now, kill a person for stealing?’
‘This isn’t a person, it’s a slave,’ the butcher retorted.
With murderous intent he reached for the Bushman who cringed against Baptiste.
‘Heavens man, slavery was abolished before I was even born,’ Baptiste said, but the butcher gripped the Bushman’s arm to pull him away.
‘Regular slaves, yes, not this vermin.’ Suddenly his eyes narrowed in understanding. ‘You must be new here?’
‘Well, yes,’ Baptiste admitted, ‘but surely — ’
He hesitated, came to a decision and stood up slowly. Still holding on to the Bushman, he said, ‘Look here, it seems this Bushman is of no value to you, so how about I give you a guinea and take him off your hands?’
With one hand he fished in his pocket for some coins. His offer was met with an astonished blink.
‘A guinea? You want to give me a guinea for this fine young slave here? He’s worth a hundred times that!’
Baptiste’s face took on an expression of stern regret.
‘Then you leave me no choice, I’ll have to confiscate your slave and report you. We don’t take kindly to this specific conduct.’
‘But I’ve done nothing wrong,’ the man protested. ‘What do you mean, we? Who are you?’ he asked, becoming suspicious.
Baptiste raised his eyebrows, slowly and meaningfully.
‘Do you want to chance who I am or would you rather have the money and go?’
He held out his hand. Muttering a colourful oath the butcher dropped the Bushman’s arm, snatched the coins and hurried off, obviously no stranger to the British authorities’ way of dealing with Dutch defiance. Relieved that his bluff had not been called, Baptiste helped the little ex-slave to his feet.
‘There you are then, you can go home now.’
A small triangular face turned up to him.
‘I have no home, I must go with you.’
‘You bought me, you are my master.’
Baptiste shook his head.
‘Nobody owns you. You’re free to go. Off with you.’
But the Bushman stood where he was and when Baptiste started toward the wagons, he followed.
‘Who’s that?’ Claes wanted to know when he saw him.
‘My slave and a thief. Apparently he’s coming with us,’ Baptiste replied.
Claes eyed the small man with interest.
The Bushman nodded.
‘Good,’ Claes said evenly. ‘Silly of me not to realise that what our expedition lacked was a criminal element, I’m sure a thief will come in handy. Do you have a name?’
‘The butcher called me Ham, after somebody in his bible, but it’s really !Xam, if you don’t mind.’ The Bushman exaggerated the click at the beginning to make it easier for their white tongues. He repeated it a few times as they struggled with the unusual sound until !Xam said that Baptiste’s effort would do.
Claes never got it right.