My great grandfather told the story of how he met my great grandmother and this tale has remained part of family lore. During the latter part of the 18th Century, gold miners were ordinary men who were attracted from all over the world by the lure of riches. They left their homes and birthplace and abandoned the comfort of friends and family in the hope of striking it rich. These men who rushed to exploit the rich gold strikes in South Africa lived harsh lonely lives in a raw untamed country that had few material comforts. Amongst the many hardships faced by these men was loneliness, made worse by the scarcity of marriageable women. Naturally there were hardy and resourceful working women who were also attracted to places where easy money and easy women went hand in hand. But for many of these men, a woman renting love by the hour was not able to meet their deeper needs. By the same token, marriageable women, left behind in the mother countries experienced a shortage of marriageable men. Nature and business abhors a void, so into the breach stepped the marriage broker. These enterprising businesses would act as trusted go betweens linking the gold miners with decent women who were willing to face the hardships of pioneering a new life in a strange new country in return for the security of marriage to a man who could offer them a chance at a new life outside of their homeland where opportunities were limited and the competition for marriageable men was fierce. A particularly innovative London marriage broker provided a printed catalogue of marriageable brides and this was regularly delivered by ox-wagon from the coast to the Johannesburg gold fields. My great grandfather Jock, would eagerly peruse this until one day he spotted great grandma Olive and immediately sent off a telegram to commence negotiations.
Almost a year later, once the negotiations were completed, he received a telegram confirming that Olive, his new bride was on her way and providing the name of the sailing vessel in which she would travel to the port city of Durban. He decided to leave his gold claim in the care of his trusted partner and to combine business with his personal affairs. To this end he led a string of donkeys to transport mining supplies that he had also ordered from England along with his mail order bride. He preferred the donkey train over the commercial ox wagon transport since the more agile donkeys would make better time than the heavy and cumbersome wagons that were forced to use a longer route from the coast in order to utilise more accessible mountain passes to reach the gold fields located on the highlands. This also meant that he could reduce the time he was away from his gold claim and save money too. He timed his journey to perfection and was waiting on the dock with his donkey train as the schooner anchored and began to offload her cargo and passengers.
Great Grandma Olive tells how she first set eyes on Great grandfather Jock sitting on a wooden barrel surrounded by his donkey train as he carefully ticked off his purchases in his battered red ledger, alternatively speaking to himself and barking instructions to his men as he did so.
“Coffee, two barrels, check. Load those on donkey one” he instructed his servants.
“Flour, four barrels, check. Load them on donkeys two and three.” And so it went on with the pile of cargo on the quayside getting smaller and smaller as the goods were assigned to different donkeys, strapped onto their backs and meticulously recorded. Eventually she brightened as she heard him say;
“Wife, one, complete with dowry and luggage, check.” Load them on donkeys twenty to twenty four. Olive records how she was astounded when Jock did not even greet her nor spare her a second glance as he ensured that the donkey train was loaded and she and all the rest of his goods were accounted for.
She decided to remain silent lest it anger him and result in her having to return home in humiliation. Soon Jock was satisfied took up his position at the head of the donkey train and cracked his whip and gave the order for the donkey train to begin the long trek up to Johannesburg. Olive was near the back of the donkey train and had to be content with catching the occasional glimpse of Jock as the procession meandered along the track through the foothills. Unexpectedly the donkey in front of Olive stumbled, lost its footing and fell heavily to the earth in front of her. A warning shout went up from Jock’s trusty Zulu Induna stationed at the rear of the donkey train. Jock responded immediately by halting the train, dismounting and carefully making his way back to where the stricken donkey was kicking its legs frantically in the air weighed down by its load as it ineffectually attempted to regain its feet once more. Olive watched Jock kneel down next to the donkey and painstakingly untie and remove its load before gently helping it to its feet again. Jock replaced the load looked the donkey in the eye and said;
“That’s one.” and he strode back to the front of the train without so much as a backward glance to Olive. A crack of the whip and a shout got the train moving once more. Before long, the donkey in front of Olive stumbled again and fell kicking its legs in the air as it lay helpless on the ground in front of her. The shout went up from the rear, Jock halted the donkey train and once more made his way back to where the struggling creature lay. Gently but firmly he removed the load from the struggling creature, helped it to stand again and restored the cargo. Again, without even briefly glancing in Olive’s direction he looked the donkey in the eye and said ;
“That’s two” and strode back to the head of the donkey train and set it in motion again. Before long the same donkey, probably weakened by its ordeal, stumbled and fell again. The shout went up, the donkey train halted and Olive stifled a yawn as Jock walked back to where the donkey lay. This time he did not help the donkey up. Instead he looked down at the feebly struggling creature and said;
“That’s three” and shot it in the head with his pistol.
Shocked and splattered with blood and brains Olive protested.
“Why did you do that?” she cried. Jock stared directly into her eyes for the first time and said:
The story became a family lore and legend and is told to anyone who crossed a boundary or deserved a warning. It is commonplace for any outsider to be told the story as a friendly but firm warning. The telling constitutes the first donkey. Needless to say, once someone let us down three times and received three donkeys we shoot their donkey and cut all ties with that person.