Read At the Fireside--Volume 1 Online

Authors: Roger Webster

At the Fireside--Volume 1

BOOK: At the Fireside--Volume 1
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Let Us Not Forget The Stories Of Our Past

Mantatisi – the African Boadicea … the quiet recluse … Scotty Smith … Modjadji … Peince Louis Napoleon … The first Cape Slave Revolt … Alfred Aylward … Marabastad … Isivavani … Sekhukhune's Treasure … the story of Maria Oosthuizen … the Adam Kok trek … Steinacker's horse ... the SS Mendi … the Malmani goldfields … Willem Prinsloo … The First Frontier War …

At the Fireside
was born out of the need to preserve, retell and rekindle some of the stories of events and lives that have shaped and coloured this remarkable country of ours.

This book recalls our history and enables the reader to relive the stories of our sometimes forgotten past. These are tales of bravery and honour, greed and failure, hope and despair, but ultimately the stories are of real people who went beyond the expected and of events that surpassed the ordinary.

Roger Webster, an itinerant researcher of South Africa's past, compiles and writes stories about South Africa's histories, which are broadcast on radio as the popular ‘Fireside Chats'. The demands from his listenership are at last met with this, the first published selection of his favourite tails.

Title Page


Roger Webster





It was Patricia Glyn who first introduced SAfm Weekend producer, Bruce Whitfield, to the idea of Roger presenting a series of short stories, broadly entitled, ‘Things they didn't teach you at school'. Bruce undertook the project enthusiastically – deftly handing it on to Jacqui Reeves when she took over the programme.

Fireside Chats
was an immediate hit. It has become a much loved and talked about series. Each week Roger takes a ‘pocket' of South Africa's past, and brings it to life in a way seldom done before. We have heard stories of magicians, shipwrecks, love found and love lost, ghosts and madness. He has touched on wars and cattle raids, justice and injustice and loyalty and betrayal. History was never like this at school.

He has breathed life into characters who until now lived only on the pages of textbooks and forgotten, dusty tomes in libraries around the country. He has fleshed out their personalities and provided an understanding of what motivated them. He has given them their rightful place in history, ensuring that they will not be forgotten. But Roger's mastery lies not just in the subject matter. His skill lies in the telling. They are ‘stories' in the truest sense of the word – with all the drama and emotion that you would expect from a suspense novel or blockbuster movie. But they are true stories, not make-believe, though on occasion you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

I am not a political analyst, nor an anthropologist. I am a radio presenter. So who am I, really, to tell you what the value of history is? I am eminently under-qualified, having only obtained a ‘C' for Matric History. But let me venture an opinion anyway. Roger reminds us that although life is transient, our past shapes our future almost as much as our present does. By hearing these stories on SAfm, now also published in this book, we can measure ourselves against both our past and our present. And, hopefully, we can move forward more confidently, and with greater moral strength to better manage what lies ahead. History is all about learning from our past and, while the history of our country may never be completely told, this book takes us one step closer.

And if all of that sounds too lofty to you – never mind. On these pages of real make-believe you will meet fascinating people and experience bizarre situations. This book is a supreme drama. Enjoy it from that perspective and, as an added bonus, you'll learn more about this country than you ever imagined possible.

Tony Lankester

Presenter: SAfm Weekend

September 2001

Fireside chats

Fireside chats

This is a book containing stories of and for all South Africans. The stories are edited transcriptions of talks given over twenty months, by Roger Webster, on SAfm on Saturday mornings, under the rubric, ‘Fireside Chats'.

They are all true stories of people and events that will continue to shape the future of our wonderful land.

After landing at the Cape, the Dutch wrote and recorded events from their point of view, to suit their particular needs. Then came the British and they recorded events with their own colonialist mind-set (ask any Xhosa in the Eastern Cape). Then came Union and the eventual rise of Afrikanderdom, with its own agenda.

So it is that from 1652 onwards, unbiased stories, and stories of foolishness, bravery, happiness and sadness, have seldom been told truly in our country. It is only since 1994 that we have been free to correct these many biased views. Here, for the first time, is an honest attempt to tell the wonderful stories of all our peoples which, we hope, will spread a healing balm on the terribly fractured psyche of our great Nation.

The story of Ernst Luchtenstein

The story of Ernst Luchtenstein

Many men – soldiers, voortrekkers, trekboers, outlaws, etc. – for diverse reasons have chosen to disappear into the solitude of isolated places. One of the most interesting such stories that I have come across is that of Ernst Luchtenstein and the Karas Mountains of Namibia.

Ernst Luchtenstein's father was a transport rider, carrying supplies to the German army in the field during the war against the Hottentots. He later sent for his family. Frau Luchtenstein, along with Ernst, his two brothers and a sister, landed at Lüderitz bay in 1906. They travelled along the dusty road to Keetmanshoop in a convoy of seven ox-wagons, loaded with army provisions and the family's scant belongings.

Between the German outposts of Aus and Konkiep the train was intercepted by Cornelius, the feared leader of the Bethanie Nama. Ernst's mother, knowing that the country and its people were wild and wishing to preserve her family from certain death, ran up to Cornelius and knelt before him, begging him to spare them, but he told her to stand up. ‘Kneel before God, but not before any man!' he said in perfect Geinian.

The wagons were looted and all the military supplies taken, but not one thing was taken from the Luchtenstein wagon. There are so many tales of chivalry, of black men not harming women and children, particularly during the Frontier wars in the Eastern Cape – our history is full of them.

The family pressed onwards and met up with Ernst's father in Keetmanshoop. Ernst stayed in school only a few months and then decided to go and work for his father as a ‘touleier' (the leader of the team of oxen). He and his father soon fell out, however, and Ernst went to live with the Mackay family.

The Mackays were a different sort of family. Mackay had married a local Nama woman, and Ernst had the privilege of growing up with the Nama, learning to speak their language fluently and finding out about game tracking and all the lore of the veld, including how to gather veldkos and medicinal herbs and their uses. The Mackay farm was called Paradise and was situated 22 km north of Keetmanshoop.

In 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War Ernst was, of course, conscripted into the German army. Both his brothers were captured by the South African forces, but Ernst remained free until German South West Africa was surrendered to General Louis Botha in July 1915. Having lived as he pleased for so long, Ernst did not take to the idea of becoming a prisoner of war. He had heard that all the German soldiers were to be interned. As a matter of fact, he ranked as a reservist and would have been allowed to return to the farm, but he knew nothing of this.

A train loaded with South African troops was going south and as they wore only the semblance of a uniform, he tore off his German badges and shoulder-straps and, dressed in war-stained khaki, he passed as a member of the Commando. Just before Keetmanshoop he jumped train and vanished into the vast veld of South West Africa.

If you have ever seen the Karas Mountains, you would be able to imagine the wilderness Ernst sought refuge in, convinced that, if caught, he would lose his freedom and be interned as a prisoner of war. The summer rains of 1915 had been far more abundant than usual. The natural springs and fountains had revived and veldkos was everywhere. Owing to his upbringing in the Nama family, Mackay, Ernst was able to live off the land. At the outbreak of the war he had buried his rifle along with fifty rounds of ammunition, and this he took with him into the mountains. His worldly goods consisted of a field-grey army greatcoat, a spear, a few mess-tins, his rifle and ammunition, and a mongrel dog that had followed him into the mountains.

Ernst trained the dog to catch dassies and each day when the dassies came down to graze, the dog would pounce, so providing a regular meal for both of them. Often Ernst would make Nama-type snares for guinea fowl and partridge and when this failed, he would resort to the age-old Bushman trap, consisting of a flat stone supported by a stick and baited with seeds. That stone fell upon many a guinea fowl! Ernst had so much meat that he seldom used his rifle, but when he did, he made sure that he brought down a kudu or a gemsbok. He cured the skins and used the leather to make shoes and clothing.

After six months of avoiding all humans, he felt it was safe to make contact with the Nama in the area, who gave him milk and later a goat. For the meat-satiated Luchtenstein this was an absolute luxury!

Beginning to feel secure, he visited local farmers near the mountains, but after almost eighteen months he learned from the local Nama that the police were looking for him. He became more careful and decided to wander off across the great plains to the Karas Mountains, where the last of the Bondelswart clan had made their stand against the Gelinans, prolonging the war for a further two years. From these peaks Ernst could scan an enoinious area – westwards was the old dry bed of the Fish River and in the north-west he could see the cone of the extinct volcano, Brukkaros. This vista covered hundreds of square kilometres, but never did he see any signs of pursuit. It lulled him into a false sense of security and one afternoon, while resting in his little hut, he heard the sound of horses' hooves. He knew the game was up.

Two police troopers entered the hut. They said they had been searching for him for a very long time and that an army Captain in Keetmanshoop wanted to see him urgently! Despondently, he accompanied them to Keetmanshoop, but when he was taken to see Captain Tilley, the officer said: ‘I want to go hunting and everybody around here says that not only are you the best shot, but you also know where all the kudu are! Will you take me hunting please?' All the way to Keetmanshoop Ernst had been thinking miserably about being put behind bars, so he was staggered by this outcome. Naturally he accepted gratefully! After the shooting trip Tilley gave him a contract to supply grass for army horse fodder and he made £2 000 in four months.

Finally, he was able to go farming, and the time he had spent in those mountains proved to be invaluable. He had come to know every hectare of ground there and, as land was cheap in those days, he purchased land where he knew it would rain. Later on, when the karakul sheep industry boomed, Ernst made a fortune. At one time he owned more than 400 000 ha – nearly 1 000 000 acres of land. However, a change in the land tax system forced him to reduce it to a mere 60 000 ha.

Later, he opened a general dealer's store in Keetmanshoop and used to fly to New York to buy goods. Often he would fly over the mountains and look down, reminiscing on how he had managed to survive and to succeed in becoming so wealthy.

Luchenstein's family and children have left Namibia now and are living in the Cape and the Northern Province. They contacted me after the story of their father was broadcast.

The Emperor of North America

The Emperor of North America

This is the almost incredible story of an 1820 Settler who became ‘Emperor of the United States of America and Protector of Mexico'.

The boy, Joshua Abraham Norton, destined to be Emperor, was only one year old when he arrived in Cape Town in the
Belle Alliance
, with his parents, John and Sarah Norton, and his brother Lewis. His father acquired a farm in the Albany District and also opened a general dealer's store in Grahamstown. His elder brother Lewis enjoyed the distinction of being a foundation pupil of SACS, that famous college opened in 1829 in Cape Town.

As a young man, Joshua worked in his father's shop in Grahamstown. When he was twenty-two years old, he decided to start his own business in Port Elizabeth. This enterprise was not successful and after struggling along for a couple of years, he became insolvent in 1844.

Joshua's father had in the meantime transferred to Cape Town, where he had established a chandlery business and a general store. He too was unsuccessful and died in 1848, just before he was to be declared bankrupt.

It was at this time that the rumours of the fabulous gold discoveries in California reached the Cape, and the young thirty-one year old Joshua, sickening of the hardship of his life at the Cape, decided to seek his fortune in the Californian gold rush of 1849.

He arrived just in time to qualify as a ‘Forty-niner' and within a few years had made a considerable fortune as a commission agent. But a number of rash speculations, including an abortive attempt to corner the rice market, led to his being involved in lengthy litigation and his eventual bankruptcy. This must have been the final blow.

Encouraged by his friends, he now began to have delusions of grandeur and to talk about what he would do if he were Emperor of America. Out of this arose his belief that he was indeed Emperor.

The usual fate of a paranoiac is the lunatic asylum, but fate was exceedingly kind to Joshua Norton. When the aspirant Emperor put forward his claims to imperial rank and power, his friends treated this as a joke, while the great mass of his future ‘subjects' remained completely uninvolved.

But fantastic things happened in the rough, pioneering days of that amazing mining camp – San Francisco. The public, already fed up with mob rule, scandalous rackets, street murders and public lynching, was now ready to welcome any new diversion. One of the newspapers, the
San Francisco Bulletin
, seized the opportunity and began to play up ‘Emperor Norton'. In an astonishingly short space of time, the joke caught on, and the Emperor was established, first as a local and then as a regional figure and, finally, as a celebrity of international repute.

It all began when the
of 12 September 1859 published the first of his Imperial Edicts, that were soon to become such a feature in the life of the people of San Francisco. On that fateful day, the citizens opened their papers and read the following amazing notice:

At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, 1, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now, for the last 9 years and 10 months past of San Francisco, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States, and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in the Music Hall of this City on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may be applicable under which the country is labouring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.

Signed: Norton the First, ‘Emperor of the United States'

At first this caused only a ripple of amusement throughout the country, but as edict followed edict in quick succession, the public began to rally to the support of their new ruler. Soon, he had a huge following of loyal, devoted subjects, and his regime became firmly enshrined in the hearts of the people. For the next twenty years, this kindly, lovable, eccentric, self-appointed despot, guided the destiny of his adopted country with a firm, patriarchal hand.

‘Since he has worn the Imperial Purple', said a local San Franciscan newspaper, ‘he has shed no blood, robbed nobody, and disposed the Country of no one'; and it is to his credit that, unlike so many other dictators, he lived and died a poor man.

The ‘Imperial Palace' was a small, poorly furnished room in a third-rate boarding house. Here the Emperor would attire himself in the royal uniform – a gorgeous blue military affair with glittering brass buttons and huge gold braid epaulettes. It was actually the cast-off uniform of an army officer who had donated it to him. His sword of state hung down by his side and on his head was perched a tall white beaver hat, decorated with the plume of an eagle, peacock or rooster feather, held in place by a brass cockade. In his hand he held a heavy, twisted stick, which bore the inscription, ‘Norton the First – Emperor of the United States'.

Dressed in his royal unifoliti, he would issue forth to receive the obeisance of his subjects and to collect the Imperial dues and, as even Emperors must live, he devised his own method of taxation. On the leading citizens of San Francisco he levied a tax of 50 cents a month. In return he issued his own promissory notes – ‘Bonds of the Empire' they were called. These were valued at 50 cents, carried a 5% interest rate, and were payable in 1880.

When one or two of the bondholders were unscrupulous enough to present these in 1880, the Emperor was placed in a position of deep embarrassment, as the imperial coffers were empty. He solved the dilemma by accepting these bonds and issuing a new series in their place, payable in 1890!

Very rarely did any of his subjects refuse to pay up, but the Emperor did not need much, as the Imperial patronage was of such high advertisement value that exclusive restaurants were proud to entertain such royalty free of charge. The fashionable tailors made his uniforms for nothing. Leading railroads and at least one shipping company provided free transport when the Emperor felt inclined to travel. Moreover, his bond notes and proclamations were printed for him free of charge.

During his reign, Norton the First issued hundreds of proclamations by means of which he settled the affairs, not only of America, but the whole world. It is true, of course, that the telegrams that he so frequently despatched to his fellow rulers never got further than the wastepaper basket of the San Francisco Post Office, but he was unaware of this. Soon his subjects entered into the joke, and began to send him telegrams, which came ostensibly from famous people all over the world!

A sore point with Joshua was that, in spite of his proclamation as Emperor, the American Constitution still continued to function. This slight on his authority could not be overlooked, so he issued a number of fiats by which he abolished the House of Representatives, the Californian Supreme Court, the Republic of the USA, the President, the Vice-President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, along with the Democratic and Republican parties.

In 1862, the Emperor, grieved at the suffering of the people during the Mexican Civil War, issued an edict annexing that country to his own realm and adding ‘Protector of Mexico' to his title.

Inevitably, as reports of his wise and beneficial rule spread, many famous people ‘wrote' to him for advice and guidance, among others Queen Victoria, Leon Gambetta, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, the Emperor of China, Queen Isabella of Spain, Benjamin Disraeli and the Czar of Russia.

Quite early in his reign, the Emperor realised that it was his duty to marry a princess of royal blood and he received many advantageous offers. After much careful consideration he reduced the list to three. These highly honoured ladies were Princess Alice of England, the Queen of the Friendly Islands and Queen Victoria! But in his heart of hearts, Joshua had the greatest admiration for Victoria Regina and was firmly convinced that an alliance with her would cement the bonds of friendship between Britain and America. You can imagine his excitement when he received the following telegrams in quick succession:

Paris September 26th 1879

To: Norton the 1st Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

Through diplomatic circles, we understand that Queen Victoria will propose marriage to you as a means of uniting England and the United States.

Consider very much and do not accept. No good will come of it. Watch for letters.

Signed: Grevy, President of the French Republic.

The next one was even more impressive:

St. Petersburg, September 26th 1879

We are advised that Queen Victoria will join you in wedlock to bind closer ties between the United States and England. We approve most heartily and congratulate you.

Signed: Alexander II, Czar of Russia.

Unfortunately, there must have been a last-minute hitch, as Victoria Regina failed to offer her hand in marriage.

On the evening of 8 January 1880 the Emperor, still a bachelor, was walking to attend a meeting of the Hastings Debating Society when he slipped and fell. A loyal subject hurried to his assistance, but the Emperor was beyond human help. Within a few minutes he had passed away. Joshua Norton's body, clothed in a black satin robe, a white shirt and a black tie, lay in state at the San Francisco Coroner's office and, between 7 a,m, and 2 p,m, on the day of the funeral, 10 000 mourners, representing every stratum of Californian society, passed the coffin to pay their last respects to their gentle, beloved sovereign.

Today, the remains of this one-time 1820 Settler lie in the beautiful setting of the Woodlawn Masonic Cemetery on the outskirts of San Francisco and over his grave stands a red marble tombstone bearing the simple inscription:

Norton the 1st

Emperor of the United States of America


Protector of Mexico

Joshua A. Norton

1819 to 1880.

BOOK: At the Fireside--Volume 1
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