“It’s a strange irony that the much-decorated battalions of the most trumpeted army in history, had to come to the ‘Darkest Continent’ to face their greatest defeats.”
Extract from the 2014/15 Summerhill Sires Brochure.
Are you on the mailing list?
There’s a reason we chose to pitch our tent in this neighbourhood. Summerhill is more than good real estate. Rolling hills and deep complex soils over sandstone and basalt, hundreds of trees and emerald green pastures speak of a bountiful countryside, generous but not soft. With their stately Prime Ministerial residences, their rich racing heritage and the old chapel basking in the lee of Giant’s Castle, Summerhill and Hartford are national treasures.
These farms are deep in horse country, just outside Mooi River, a slow village with a sleepy railway station, left behind by the Anglo-Boer War. There are more churches per capita than anywhere else, and signs that the old families still have a bit of old money.
It wasn’t always thus. The anthropologists tell us that for tens of thousands of years, our district was the preserve of the ‘first people’, the Bushmen, who roamed these plains following their herds of Eland, Red Hartebeest and the Black Wildebeest. In their tens of thousands. Their peace was shattered by the arrival about 1500 years ago, of the Nguni tribes, headed up by the amaXhosa, the amaThembu, the amaMpondo, and what came to be known as the amaZulu. They came here not because they knew it was the land of milk and honey, but because they were fleeing the ravages of slavery. Long before the British and the Spanish began slaving on the West Coast, Arab and Phoenician traders were plundering our human resources in the East. These Ngunis gave us the Nobel Prize laureates Albert Luthuli , Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. One of my most cherished memories growing up was a photograph of a barefooted teenager strapping my grandfather’s horses for the Bizana Cup. Visitors to South Africa these days are greeted by the biggest airport on the continent, O.R. Tambo: just shows how far you can go with a grounding in the horse game.
The British established a trading post at Port Natal in 1824, and the Voortrekkers, or the “Boers” as they came to be known, trekked over the Drakensberg in the 1830s. When the latter arrived, they looked down upon the verdant valleys of the nation’s bread basket; here was the “promised land”, they said. It was understandable-they’d just left the Western Cape! In a matter of months, these three tribes, the Zulus, the British and the Boers were battling one another for the spoils of our region, more fiercely, more determinedly and more courageously than ever before in their histories. To put that into context, the British at the time held dominion over almost 40 percent of the earth’s surface; there was no territory they’d entered that they hadn’t conquered. In short, they had the keys to the greatest fighting machine the world had ever known. For their part, the Zulus were by now the undisputed continental champions, but taking on the British with a primitively equipped army, was like going to the World Cup with your hands tied behind your back. The Boers by contrast, were a somewhat disparate crew wracked by factionalism, but the things they had in buckets, were a defiant spirit, and superb skills of musketry and horsemanship.
In the end, it was a bit about politics, and all about land. The economies of the era were not propelled by finance or technology, mining or industry; the one indispensable commodity everyone yearned for was land. Good ground, good water and a good climate are the “not negotiables” of good stock country, and here was some of the best on the planet.
Summer in some parts of the horse-raising world, for example, means dust and a blazing sun that gives off a white glare. Summer at Summerhill is sublimely warm, there is always moisture in the soil, the grass holds a generous tinge of green and the clover stands to attention. Here there’s no need for farmers to struggle with stringy merino wethers; you can run five big Friesian cows to the hectare without difficulty. Things grow. As we’ve said before, this is the Tipperary of the South. Kind country, paddocks bordered with clipped hedges of Drakensberg privet or sweet-smelling may, poplars, planes and liquid ambers along the farm lanes, old oaks encrusted with lichen around the farmhouses. For a full century, since a Zulu king rejoicing in the name Shaka had laid waste to it, this homeland idyll was ravaged by the savagery of war, driven by a lust for the finest pastoral acreage in creation.
By no means was it the one-way traffic you might’ve predicted though. It’s a strange irony that the much-decorated battalions of the most trumpeted army in history, had to come to the “Darkest Continent” to face their greatest defeats. Lest we forget, Michael Caine , Stanley Baker and our good pal David Rattray, surely the greatest storyteller of all time, so romanticised the Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, that we overlook the crushing Zulu victories over the British at Eshowe, Nkambula and Hlobane. Yes, Isandlwana was an epic; yes, Cetewayo’s warriors preceded the opening salvos with the greatest piece of military choreography ever witnessed; and yes, in a matter of hours, Victoria’s heroes were in shambolic flight down the Fugitives’ Trail. But it pays to recall that it was the Zulus that destroyed the last remnants of the Napoleonic hegemony, that it was the Zulus that prompted the British Prime Minister, Disraeli, to enquire of the Commons “Who are these people, who convert our bishops, defeat our generals, and this day have put an end to the greatest European dynasty in history?”. It pays too, to remember that there is only one nation whose name is known to every airline pilot on the planet: “Z” for Zulu. And it’s because of what happened within in two hours of the Summerhill Stallion barn in those fractious days.
As for the Boers, they joined the fray in December 1838, with a bloody demolition of Dingaan’s impis at Blood River. The outcome was as much a reflection on the difference between those that excel at bisley and those that throw the javelin, as it was a signal that a small contingent of Boer men, women and children, armed only with muzzle-loading rifles, were here to play. Fifty years on, the British suffered the same lesson at Majuba, where General George Pomeroy Colley paid the ultimate price in the battle that ended the first Anglo-Boer war. Despite their subsequent successes at Talana and Colenso in the next episode, and whatever the Afrikaner historians might say about Magersfontein and Modderdrif, the one that sits most fondly in their bosoms, is Majuba. I was reminded of this when playing against the Junior Bulls at Loftus Versveld one day for Western Province; in those days, the Loftus pitch in winter resembled a road more than a lucerne patch. They had a monstrous winger in their side on the cusp of national selection, and while tackling wasn’t my biggest suit, I got him that day. We both fell hard to the concrete, and while I was prone in my agony, he could hardly lie there in the glare of the Loftus faithful. “Englishman,” he warned from above, “remember Majuba”. It was a hundred years later.
But the mother and the father of them all, whatever anyone may say, was Spioenkop, a mere 45 minutes from the nerve centre at Summerhill. It’s a poignant fact that on that hill that day, where the bodies on both sides lay three deep in the trenches, and drawn together by dint of the peculiar circumstances of our neighbourhood at the time, was an assembly of men whose influence on the affairs of mankind in the next century, would be immeasurable. Denys Reitz, future deputy prime minister and a field marshall in the British Army in the First World War, was there; Louis Botha, who had succeeded to the Boer leadership on this farm, the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa and a major role player at Versailles in the wake of the Great War, he was there; our man, the man the world invited to script the charters for the League of Nations and the United Nations after the respective World Wars, the man George V had hoped might one day be Prime Minister of Britain, Jan Smuts was there; Winston Churchill, the most famous Englishman of that century, captured right here by those self-same Boers who would repeat the act sixty years later with Nelson Mandela just 20 minutes from our front verandah, he was there. And as difficult as it may be to believe, the man that liberated India in 1947, Mahatma Ghandi was there.
For the British, the South African campaign had been their toughest passage in three centuries of glorious military history. It’s arguable that, despite something of a comeback with the help of the Allies in the fields of Flanders and the battle for their own island in the first few decades of the next century, what happened in our district in the nineteenth might well have signalled the beginning of the end for the Empire. It wasn’t all doom and gloom however; at Rorke’s Drift on the 23rd January, 1879, Her Majesty’s subjects celebrated their finest hour. One hundred and thirty four men, invalids, hospital orderlies, clerks, storemen and engineers took on a division of a Zulu army on a roll. This was the final endorsement of what had made that little island the masters of the known world, a victory acknowledged not only by the award of an unprecedented eleven Victoria Crosses, but by a Zulu regiment which paused before them as they collected their dead from the battlefield, and saluted those battered bodies in their scarlet tunics.
It’s as well that they do, because they fill our Hartford House with their visits, but it’s a strange quirk of the British psyche that they return, year-after-year, to these scenes of their greatest defeats. While I have a smattering of “British” in my own veins, I’ve never quite twigged what makes it so, though it’s true that they return to our fortresses at Newlands, Ellis Park and King’s Park too, year after year, hiding after hiding, and depart with those “never-say-die” smiles that promise they’ll be back again.
To grasp what this was all about, you need only ride out across the glories of the Hartford gallops, where the whole horseracing story had begun with an Italian prisoner-of-war in the 1940s. Mowgli , Cape Heath, Sentinel, Magic Mirror, Panjandrum, Alyssum, Master Polly, Magic Charm, Preston Pan, the legends that inspired the writings and artworks of Milner, Campbell, Langley and Vos, they’d all stepped out upon this hallowed patch of private turf. In a more recent era, the saga lives. Igugu, Imbongi, Spook And Diesel, Nhlavini, Rebel King, Imperial Despatch, National Emblem, Pierre Jourdan, Hear The Drums, Angus, Pick Six and Bold Ellinore, they all know what this scrap was about.