< back to Back Issues list
History of Madikwe and connection with Herman Charles Bosman
We are now past the coldest part of the year and the winds that signify the winter’s end are beginning to blow. The last of the leaves are falling from the River Bushwillows around the suites, creating a soft brown carpet that sighs under the hooves of the bushbuck as they move through the trees. The nights are still cold and crisp, we pull our chairs to the fire and sip sherry or the local speciality, a volatile brandy called Mampoer.
Sometimes, deep into the night, you are reminded of the long history of this area and you can almost sense the ghosts of the past sharing the fire with you.
With the lodge surrounded by lions and elephants, it is easy to imagine that they have always been there, and that we are the first people to live in this area. But believing that would be ignoring a large part of the history of Madikwe. The area has a rich and varied cultural history, various fascinating cultures have inhabited this area through the ages.
In 1991 when the park was proclaimed, farms were purchased and fenced in to create the Madikwe Game Reserve. The farms were purchased from local farmers, tough but colourful people entrenched in the struggle to make a living off an unforgiving land.
The original creators of Mampoer, they too pulled their chairs close to the fire and enjoyed good company over a bottle of the fiery spirit.
Perhaps the person who best captures the spirit and lifestyles of these farmers is the writer Herman Charles Bosman. Widely regarded as the greatest short story writer to come out of South Africa, Bosman’s work is wry, unpretentious and very humorous. Typically his unsentimental tales deal with the quirky aspects of human nature and are often subtly satirical. With rich South African flavour, he describes the deep rural world of the Boer (farmer) who inhabited this area. He lived in the area for only a relatively short amount of time in 1926, but the characters he came to know here where to influence his writing permanently. He accurately captures the slow, measured way of the life of the local farmers, lacing his stories with sly humour and irony, which belie the simplicity of his poignant tales.
Bosman himself was an interesting character, in many ways not unlike the people he describes in his stories. According to the Bosman family Bible, he was born on the 5th of February 1905 in Kuilsrivier, near Cape Town. His Mother, Elise Malan, married his father Jakobus Abraham Bosman, a mine labourer, in 1904.The family moved to Potchefstroom in what was then the Transvaal in 1916 and in 1918 moved on to Johannesburg. After the death of his father, Herman’s mother married William Russel, a Scottish engineer with three children.
At the age of sixteen, Herman wrote stories for his school’s magazine and for the Johannesburg Sunday Times. At school he was far more interested in languages than in mathematics and science and for his matriculation algebra paper, rather than answering the questions, he handed in an essay explaining that he felt that he would dispense with his knowledge of algebra, as his command of English was so exceptional.
He studied at the University of the Witwatersrand and, although apparently a very difficult student, he completed his studies at the age of 21. He was posted as a teacher to a farm in the Groot Marico district, some 120km from where the Madikwe Game Reserve stands today. Just prior to leaving, he married his first wife, Vera Sawyer, leaving her in Johannesburg while he travelled into the Marico district.
Once here, he found himself in an area full of storytellers, people who told wonderful tales of the Boer Wars, the great trek and the salacious events on surrounding farms.
These raconteurs later formed the basis for his Oom Schalk Lourens character.
During this time Herman purchased an ex-military ‘303 rifle from one of the farmers. Using this, he later won a shooting competition on a local farm. He took the weapon home with him when he returned home to Johannesburg in 1926 for the school holidays. One night Herman got into an argument involving his younger brother and his stepbrothers. During the argument he shot and killed his eldest step-brother. He was convicted of murder and, although originally sentenced to death, this sentence was reduced to 10 years imprisonment. This was later commuted and he served four and a half years in Pretoria Central Prison. During his time in prison he wrote Cold Stone Jug and began writing his Oom Schalk Lourens stories.
Once released on parole in 1930, he started his own printing press and embarked on a career as a journalist. He wrote short stories and poetry using the nom de plume ‘Herman Malan’. In 1932, he divorced his first wife and married Ella Manson, the couple soon becoming well known for their bohemian lifestyle. Bosman was a great party giver and his parties, marked by brilliant and witty conversation, could always be expected to continue far into the night.
During the 1930’s he spent nine years in Europe, living in London, Paris and Brussels. While in London he worked as a journalist, writing a serial for the Sunday Critic. He also wrote a number of short stories, later collected together as Mafeking Road.
When war broke out in the 1940’s, he returned to Johannesburg where he worked as an editor and a journalist. He also translated Rubyat of Omar Khayam into Afrikaans during this time. In 1943 he moved to Pietersburg (now called Polokwane). On 6 March 1944 he divorced his second wife, Ella, and twelve days later married Helena Stegman, a local schoolteacher. The relationship between the three people remained close, the small and conservative community of Pietersburg being shocked by Bosman living openly and happily in the same house with both wives.
He died on the 14th of October 1951 at the age of 46 in the Edenvale Hospital, Johannesburg.
Only four of his works were printed during his lifetime:
Jacaranda in the Night
Cold Stone Jug
His other works include:
A Cask of Jerepigo
Old Transvaal Stories
A Bekkersdal Marathon
Herman Charles Bosman remains the only literary convicted murder in South African history. His stories frequently mention the town of Derdepoort and the hill Abjarteskop, both of which are on the perimeter of the Reserve. He is a great storyteller, his tales deceptively simple, but full of wit, leaving the reader moved by their poignancy. Bosman himself says:
“For it is not the story that counts. What matters is the way you tell it. The important thing is to know just at what moment you must knock out your pipe on your veldskoen, and at what stage you of the story you must start talking about the School Committee at Drogevlei. Another necessary thing is to know what to leave out”.
His tales accurately capture not only the atmosphere of the area but also the essence of the people that lived here, the essence that even now lingers on, ghosts to join you around the fire on a cold winter night.
‘Hey you!’ says the sunflower to the sun
Just like that,
In tones of mockery
Where’s your stem?’
Herman Charles Bosman