I had visited South Africa once before, but only briefly — very briefly. I was writing about the revolutionary leader Samora Machel, who became Mozambique’s first president after independence. In October 1986 Machel was returning home from a meeting with other African heads of state when the plane carrying him crashed – mysteriously, suspiciously – in the Lebombo Mountains in South Africa, not far from the Mozambican border. He and thirty-four others died there.
With a Mozambican guide I crossed over into South Africa at the border post of Ressano Garcia, and drove up into the mountains. I stood on a bleak hillside, where parts of the wreckage have been left half-buried in the ground, and I listened to the wind sobbing and wailing around the sculpture of thirty-five metal poles that memorialises those who lost their lives. We were the only visitors. The emptiness of the surrounding landscape made it feel as if the place were inhabited only by the ghosts of the dead. I felt as if they were within earshot.
Talking to the dead is what biographical writing is about, I think. The dialogue can take place in an archive, or as you turn the pages of a book, but perhaps the best way to open up a conversation with someone from long ago is to visit the places where they once were.
When I returned to South Africa last year it was to Bloemfontein, to research a book about the English writers who were there during the Anglo-Boer War. Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling – two of my subjects – had turned up there, separately, soon after it fell to the British army in the middle of March 1900, when the war between Britain and the Boer Republics was in its sixth month.
Kipling arrived by train from Cape Town with a group of other journalists. He was invited to share the editorship of The Friend – a local paper commandeered by the British forces – and in his spare time he would ride off on a pony into the surrounding veldt in search of some action. Doyle arrived a week or two after Kipling, travelling north from the port of East London with fifty staff and enough equipment to run a small field hospital for the troops.
Although both men were strongly patriotic and deeply committed to the ideals of empire, neither of them, I suspect, was driven by jingoism alone to this distant, dusty African town. Rudyard Kipling was still deep in mourning for his beloved eldest child Josephine, who had died the year before at the age of six. Having left his wife and two surviving children in Cape Town, he was now seeking the familiar and comforting camaraderie of military life, and hoping to escape his grief in action and adventure. Doyle, although he had everything ‘to make a man contented’ – literary success, financial security, a happy family life – had become nostalgic for the footloose adventures of his youth (recounted in his autobiography Memories and Adventures). And perhaps, like Kipling, he also was running from something. It was seven years since, with a hearty sigh of relief, he had sent Sherlock Holmes plunging to his death over the Reichenbach Falls; now the reading public were demanding a resurrection.
On the last day of March 1900 the Boer rebels successfully ambushed a column of British soldiers a few miles east of Bloemfontein at a place called Sanna’s Post, and after the ensuing battle the Boers seized and destroyed the town’s water supply. Over the next few weeks more than 2000 British troops died of typhoid. Doyle, who had been expecting to deal with the heroic battle-wounded, found himself instead trying to cope with ‘death in its vilest, filthiest form’. The stench of the disease could be smelled from six miles away. Kipling renamed the town ‘Bloomingtyphoidtein’.
In present-day Bloemfontein I failed to find much trace of either man. I peered through some railings at a building that at some point, although not necessarily in Kipling’s time, had housed the offices of The Friend (now empty flats for sale); I peered through some other railings at the pavilion and cricket grounds of the elegant Ramblers’ Club (currently closed and locked up), where Doyle had set up his field hospital.
But even if I found little trace of the two men, I did find out all sorts of other things that I hadn’t known: that the Boer commandos (as they called their fighting men) conducted what was essentially guerrilla warfare, making sorties from their scattered farms on swift ponies, taking shots with their long-barrelled Mausers at the lumbering British lines, before vanishing in a cloud of brown veldt dust; that the British sent the captured Boers, including men in their sixties and boys as young as ten, to prison camps at the furthest reaches of the empire; that the families of the ‘bittereinders’ (the Boers who refused surrender, and fought to the ‘bitter end’) were punished in the camps by receiving half of the (exiguous) rations allowed to the families of the ‘hansoppers’ (hands-uppers, who had surrendered or defected to the British); that many Europeans came to Africa to fight alongside the Boers in an early form of the international brigades; that the ashes of Englishwoman Emily Hobhouse, who campaigned vigorously against the concentration camps, are interred in Bloemfontein, at the foot of a monument to the 27,000 women and children who died.
Much of this I found out from the fine Anglo-Boer War Museum, where I saw photographs, pictures, guns, a child’s blood-stained bonnet, and a model of the concentration camp that was set up on the edge of Bloemfontein the year after Doyle and Kipling were there. But although I learned a great deal, I didn’t feel anything other than an intellectual connection to what I learned. I hadn’t seen or heard Doyle or Kipling.
When I met up with Johan, a local historian and unofficial guide, and asked if he could take me to the site of the battle of Sanna’s Post (also known as the battle of Koornspruit), things began to change. On the way there we stopped at the site of the concentration camp, an area of scrubby wasteland behind a chain-linked fence, with a patch of marsh at one end where the women used to do their laundry. In the museum I’d seen photographs of some of the sad processions in which tiny coffins were carried from the camp along the dusty road to the graveyard at the other end of town. Now, with nothing particular to catch the eye, I found I was peopling the wasteland with Boer women and their children.
At Sanna’s Post we stopped on a low incline and looked out across a stretch of pale brown land towards a clump of eucalyptus that, Johan told me, concealed the deserted buildings of the old railway station. He pointed out to me the course of the Koornspruit river, marked by a thin greeny-yellow line of willow and sweet thorn, on the dry bed of which the Boer commandos had concealed themselves under cover of darkness. In the morning, as the British guns rolled down to the ‘drift’, or ford, the Boers had seized their drivers and, disguised in the stolen uniforms, driven the guns up the far bank and away.
Doyle arrived in Bloemfontein two days after the battle, and visited the site some weeks later. He found that ‘the poor artillery horses were still lying in heaps where they had been shot down, and the place was covered with every kind of litter – putties, cholera belts, haversacks, and broken helmets.’ He later wrote about the battle in vivid (if not exactly impartial) detail in his The Great Boer War. The liveliness of his account was surely nourished by his visit to the silent desolate battlefield scattered with dead horses and detritus.
‘There’s something else you might like to see,’ said Johan.
We climbed back into the jeep, drove over the bridge that now spans the river, and jolted down a dirt track towards an enclosure of some kind surrounded by a low wall of variegated red and brown brick, semi-camouflaged by the surrounding grass and scrub. We stopped in front of a metal gate, which was hanging half-open, and I saw that the walls enclosed a small cemetery. A tarnished plaque let into the wall told me this belonged to the South African War Graves Commission. Inside the gate stood two white marble crosses on stepped plinths, engraved with the details of three British officers who fell in ‘the action of Koornspruit’ on 31 March 1900. Beyond them stretched two lines of grey basalt headstones that marked the graves of the private soldiers, differentiated by rank in death as in life.
Prairie grass was pushing up through the gravel between the headstones. Behind us the eucalyptus rustled in an invisible breeze. In front of us open veldt stretched eastward, unbroken as far as the distant flat-topped kopjes on the horizon.
‘Do you often bring people out here?’ I asked Johan. He told me I was the first person this year. ‘And last year?’ I asked. ‘How many?’ ‘One only,’ he replied.
The smallness of the cemetery amidst the vast emptiness of the veldt reminded me of the lonely hillside some hundreds of miles to the east, where Samora Machel had met his death, and where I’d felt that the ghosts of the dead were within earshot. And here, where the bones of those who’d fallen had lain quietly for more than a hundred years, I suddenly felt that if I listened very carefully I might catch a whisper from Doyle, from Kipling, of what they really were doing there, of their hopes, their fears, their troubles.
I don’t know why Kipling wasn’t present at the battle of Sanna’s Post, taking notes. Perhaps that day he’d ridden out in the other direction, and it was his misfortune to miss it. He loved what he called a good ‘skirmish’. One he did attend (as indeed did all the staff of The Friend) took place further out in the ‘enormous pale landscape’ of the veldt at Karee Siding. ‘Oh, there’s nothing to see at Karee Siding,’ Johan said when I asked him about it. ‘No sign of anything.’ I thought it sounded like just the kind of place where I wanted to go.