Bushmen, rustling & the adoption of livestock

In the last days of their independence in the highlands of the Eastern Cape, Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal, the Bushmen became stock thieves and integrated domestic livestock into their rock art and spiritual beliefs, writes Mike Burgess.

Bushmen, rustling &  the adoption of livestock
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Some people believe that the Bushmen failed to grasp the concept of owning animals and therefore stole livestock with the same clear conscience with which they had pursued game for thousands of years. It could also be argued, however, that faced with dwindling game populations and shrinking frontiers, the Bushmen were consciously adapting to their environment in a new world where game had, by and large, been replaced by domestic animals.

We shall never know, but what is certain is that their tampering with the livestock of others was a recipe for disaster.
Before the arrival of Europeans, Bushmen co-existed with game and even with nomadic African farmers. Bushmen rock shelters in the Eastern Cape, Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal are decorated with paintings of Africa’s mightiest antelope, the eland.

The great migrating herds that moved into the Drakensberg in summer held a special place in the Bushman’s hunter-gatherer culture, heralding a time of plenty. Apart from having a large carcass, the eland was the Bushman’s ‘power animal’, a spiritual link to the natural world, according to retired farmer and rock art enthusiast Victor Biggs from East London.

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Bad to worse
Black farmers, meanwhile, sought the Bushmen’s services as rainmakers. But Bushmen were just as often hunted down
and killed in retaliation for stock theft, as was the case with Xhosa Chief Rharhabe and Bushmen bands near the Kei River in the 1700s. Things went from bad to worse. By the mid-1800s, Boers and British farmers (and groups of mixed descent such as the Korana, Bastards and Griqua) added to the pressure on game, and Bushmen bands retreated deeper into the Drakensberg’s Orange River catchment in today’s Lesotho. With game numbers dwindling rapidly, they made a last stand in the mountains.

Wherever cattle have existed, they have been deemed valuable – and the target of stock thieves. And the punishment, inevitably, has been harsh. But it seems that when the Bushmen turned their attention to stealing cattle as a way of life in the mid-1800s, it was more an act of defiance at the destruction of their way of life, than a desire to own cattle.

Commandos chasing these bands after the 64 recorded Bushmen raids into Natal between 1845 and 1872 were often shocked by the way Bushmen would first mutilate, then kill, livestock before disappearing into their mountain hideaways. Here, they would turn on their pursuers, fighting back with their bows and poisoned arrows.

This incomprehensible slaughter of livestock only made it easier to see Bushmen as ‘not quite human’, leading to even more vicious retaliation by farmers and soldiers. The situation was exacerbated by the Bushmen’s insatiable appetite for cattle. According to Victor, cattle had replaced the eland as the people’s ‘power animal’. In some caves, cattle have been painted over earlier depictions of eland.

TIme of the horse
There was perhaps one animal that had a greater impact on the Bushman way of life than cattle – the horse. For Bushmen, seeing men riding on horses was like the advent of the motor car in another age, says Sheila Bell-Cross, a rock art expert from the Maclear region of the Eastern Cape. The horse, which was introduced into South Africa in the mid-1600s, was embraced by Bushmen livestock thieves, she says.

According to Patricia Vinnicombe in People of the Eland, in 1846 a band of Bushmen as far east as Griqualand East were riding horses stolen from the Cape and Natal. The horse was loved by Bushmen not only for the ease with which it allowed them to pursue game, but also for its sweet flesh after an unsuccessful hunt.

“If they went out hunting and didn’t kill anything, they would slaughter and eat one of their horses and then go steal another one,” says Victor. But it was for cattle rustling that the horse proved a gift for the Bushman. Often working with groups of people of mixed descent, Bushmen are said to have been unwilling to part with their horses when dividing the spoils with their accomplices.

This is understandable if one considers that it was the mobility provided by the horse that allowed them to evade pursuers.
It’s also a further sign of how notions of ownership were entering Bushman culture. Whatever the case, many Bushmen traded their stolen cattle to African tribes, such as the Bhacha of the Eastern Cape, for tobacco, grain and dogs.

One of the great stock theft partnerships was between Bushmen and the Puthi king, Moroosi, who by 1865 had been pushed deep into southern Lesotho by the Free State Boers. Here, along the Orange River, the Puthi made contact with the last Bushman bands of the region to whom they offered protection so along as the Bushmen shared the cattle they stole.
Soon Bushmen-dominated bands were rustling livestock from the north-eastern Cape to Natal and diligently returning to Moroosi’s mountain fortress, Thaba Moroosi.

Moroosi was eventually killed in 1879 after a nine-month siege of Thaba Moroosi by Cape Colonial troops and their allies (which included Sotho warriors). But the legacy of his Bushmen thieves has lived on through the ages, as depicted in Frank Brownlee’s classic 1929 novel Cattle Thief, which describes the stock theft so common to Lesotho and the former Transkei, and that continues to this day.

Dogs and Small-stock
Although not nearly as common as cattle and horses, paintings of a host of other domesticated animals are found in the old Bushmen shelters across South Africa. One deserving of special mention is the Africanis, the African dog, which can be traced back 7 000 years to Neolithic herdsmen in the Middle East. Bushmen obtained these dogs through trade with migrating groups entering Southern Africa. And although the animals are depicted mainly in paintings of human processions, it would be fair to assume they were used for hunting, as some Bushmen paintings do indeed show.

Another domestic animal that features regularly in rock art shelters in the Eastern Cape is the fat-tailed sheep, brought into Southern Africa between AD200 and AD400. Bushmen are said to have liked the breed for its fat content and, although sheep were never stolen on the same scale as cattle, they were taken on occasion by Bushmen. At least one band, the Thola of Griqualand East, kept a flock of sheep during the mid-1800s.

Paintings of goats
are extremely rare, says Victor. In fact, he knows of only one shelter that depicts then. It is in the Stormberg region of the Eastern Cape, and shows a handful of goats painted between a large flock of fat-tailed sheep. He has yet to visit this site and was alerted to its existence by celebrated Eastern Cape artist Stephen Townley Bassett. Stephen, who specialises in creating documentary paintings of rock art, has also never seen another depiction of goats. It is a strange absence, considering how widespread goats were among the early farmers of Southern Africa.

Pigs in the picture
One of Victor’s most curious photographs shows domestic pigs in a rock art shelter in Lesotho. It is anyone’s guess why pigs merited a showing in this highland cave, especially given the various theories on how South Africa’s only recognised indigenous pig breed, the Kolbroek, actually got here.

According to one, they arrived with Portuguese seafarers, while another has them linked to the Coalbrook, which was wrecked on the Cape coast in 1778. Although unusual, these paintings are simply one of many depictions of domesticated livestock that ironically represented the ‘writing on the wall’ for the Bushman way of life, which had disappeared by the early 1900s.

Phone Victor Biggs on 082 728 1245.
www.indigenousbreeds.co.za; www.africanis.co.za; The Native Races of South Africa by George Stow; People of the Eland by Patricia Vinnicombe; Bushman Raiders of the Drakensberg 1840-1870 by JB Wright; Reservoirs of Potency: The Documentary Paintings of Stephen Townley Bassett; and The House of Phalo, by Jeff Peires.