About Prudence Mary Anne Theresa Brent (Gifford)
History: THIS HISTORY WAS TOLD BY PRUDENCE GIFFORD (BRENT).
The Gifford family had always been town dwellers, so I will begin by explaining how we came to be interested in an agricultural trek, known as the Edenburg trek, which went to Gazaland in 1894 to take up farming.
My father told me that Rhodes sent agents to lecture on Rhodesia, and appropriate literature was also widely distributed. Thus the inducement to obtain cheap land at 1s 6d per morgan, added to a spirit of adventure, lured ourselves and others to our vicinity. Three men, Cannell, Grootwahl, and Swanepoel were selected to go to Rhodesia and report on the country, and their expenses were paid by the would be settlers. They met Dr.Jameson, and he persuaded them to take up land east of the Sabi river, with the object of holding back the Portuguese. Our emissaries certainly told the people a fairy tale – stories about beans growing wild, also cucumbers; honey by the ton in every dry tree; and bacon to be got by shooting a hippo. The rivers were full of them. Alas how misleading. Our emissaries had gathered a general impression of the country from the farm occupied by the Moodies, which was the official headquarters of the B.S.A. Co in Melsetter.
Certainly in the Sabi valley, tons of honey could be bought from the locals every year by the traders; but in the high veld, where we lived, the hives of the wild bees contained little other than bee bread and young bees. As for hippo. I don’t think that any of our trek ever saw one. Beans. Yes, but Buffalo beans, which cause the most excruciating irritation if you dare to touch them.
The Gifford family going to Gazaland consisted of my father and mother [Mr and Mrs Alfred Gifford], myself, Edith, Alice, Alfred, and Margaret Gifford. Being the eldest and of a serious turn of mind, I took it upon myself to procure a supply of books from our local schoolmaster for he benefit of the children of the trek. With an amused smile the headmaster supplied me with the books, etc. This forethought was of inestimable value to the children, some of whom never had the opportunity to have any further education. Although I was but a girl, not yet in my teens, I had begun my elementary teacher’s work at school, and took myself – and my teaching ! – very seriously. Later on, in Melsetter, when there were no locusts to scare away, and on days when it rained, I carried on my school for my brothers and sisters.
The date set aside for the trek to leave Edenburg was 13th March 1894. Preparations for the great adventure were put together. Wagons were built to special specifications to accommodate the families, advice sought and rejected; histories of the great trek studied; all news about Matabeleland, Mashonaland, Gazaland eagerly read, or listened to. The village buzzed with excitement, especially at the smithy, where the wagons were being put together.- some of them entirely unique as to their construction and equipment. The trek children felt very important and superior as they had crowds gathered round them during recess at school. The last Sunday before we left, a special service was held in the Dutch Reformed church. The text referred to the land of Gaza. How we thrilled.
The day of departure finally dawned, and the mustering took place at 11.30am – wagons, cattle, horses, sheep, dogs, etc, making an indescribable noise. We were 34 Europeans, with ten wagons, a mixed bunch of Colonials, Home born English, and South African Dutch. The burgers had gathered all mounted, and armed with flags and rifles, flags were flying, speeches made, prayers said, and God speed sung. Finally volley firing, cracking of whips, and off we went. The majority of people were new to wagon trekking. And even to farming. How can I do justice to the scene? Picture the great wagons with the wide high tents, upper and lower berth, outer canvas painted green, inner canvas a soft rose colour. Two were like this, ours and Herbst’s. There was a white tent built onto the wagon, with gable ends, a window and bunker seats at each side, convertible into beds. The rest of the wagons were of the full tented variety.
I remember the gay sunbonnets, the galloping horses, cows lowing, donkeys braying, and the plaintive b-a-a of the sheep; the good byes and tears, the God-speed you – all will remain a very vivid but rather sad memory picture to me. I can see the scene today, as clearly as I did on that day in March 1894.
The great wagons lumbered slowly with donkey teams. The pity of it all! Then the first outspan! The mystic darkness, twinkling firelight, the pungent smell of smoke, tired children, the packing and unpacking to find the right box containing the food and cooking utensils; the first meal on the open veld – our very first experience of a wagon and camping. Oh the waste from inexperience; and the wrong kind of this and that! Then the confined tent, upper and lower decks, which was to become ‘home’ to us for nine months. How my parents stood the strain of those first few weeks, I wonder to this day. We were inexperienced trekkers, and not even farmers.
Next morning found us all still at the same place, as the horses, donkeys, etc, had broken back during the night, and had to be rounded up again. The breakfast, when my mother fainted. The smell of paint on the canvas tent , and the heavy Dutch “kappie”, which we thought was the correct and only thing to wear on a trek had proved too much for her after the terrific strain of the previous day. Her fainting caused consternation and panic. The kappie was discarded, but the fainting was almost a daily occurrence. Slowly we moved forward. It took us two weeks from Edenburg to Kimberley through heavy sand, and in places heavier mud. Then came rain, spoilt provisions, spoilt clothes, canvasses chafed and leaking! Here, horses were sold for a mere song; extra donkeys bought on the way to Vryburg. Oh the pity we had donkey teams! Oxen were supposed to die of bush sickness in the Northern Transvaal; but donkeys proved even more susceptible to disease than oxen. Eighteen foot wagons carrying several tons, are impossible for donkey draught. Those who had ox transport were certainly the best off.
President Kruger would not grant us a permit to trek through the Transvaal, owing to the amount of ammunition and rifles the trekkers were taking, so we had to skirt the borders of the Transvaal Republic – a long way around. One evening our road led us across a corner of the Republic, and two mounted police gave us safe conduct, and twenty four hours to pass through the territory.
The teams as well as the flocks and herds had been dying from disease. Those that remained now picked up lung sickness; and even some of our beautiful cows died soon after leaving Palla. By the time we reached Macloutsie, there were no more breeding cattle or sheep – only a few donkeys left – too few to draw the wagon. It was discouraging work trekking, teams dying, and our servants deserting owing to reports brought down from Bulawayo by transport riders about a fever in the country from which people died in a few days. Also, about the murderous Matabele. At Macloutsie we sold what was left of the donkey teams, and bought Matabele oxen from the B.S.A. Co. These had been captured in the 1893 Matabele war. Once more we replenished our stocks of food; and with leaders, or hind oxen, loaned from the trained spans of the other wagons, we started off. And a flying start it was too! The newly bought, untrained oxen went off at a gallop; their idea being to get away from the yoke. Helter-skelter they went. Things fell off, and out of the wagon in every direction and away we careered through ditches and dongas until we ran into a donga with the brakes off. At the opposite bank, snap went the trek chain, and back went the wagon into the donga. Then pandemonium! Oxen entangled, yokes and skeys broken; with the result that two oxen broke away, and are lost to this day. At the next outspan, we had to camp for several days making new yokes and skeys.
Here we had our first initiation into the ‘dust’ tick, so tiny that one can hardly see the little pest until it had fed on you. The only way we could free ourselves of the hundreds that were on our bodies, was to anoint ourselves with salad oil, and move camp to where there wasn’t any dry grass.
Mother had now learned quite a lot about cooking and baking on an open fire. Also about trekking. Washing of clothes was a great trial too, as we knew nothing about laundry work. We used bars of soap, where others used but a small piece. Their clothes, too, were more suitable than ours – such as dark colours and checks which didn’t show the dirt. Also coloured pillow cases. We foolishly struggled with white linen ones, and even white sheets.
On, slowly on, oxen dying from lung sickness. Then one evening we reached the Tokwani river, and Mother gave birth to a son, Robert Rowland. No Doctor or nurse was available, but Mrs Campbell helped. The doctor at Macloutsie had kindly made arrangements for Mother to be taken care of at Fort Victoria. Fortunately both mother and little Robert progressed favourably.
The Scotts, both bachelors, remained with us. How grateful we were to them. They brought a fresh egg every morning for Mother’s breakfast. Alice my sister, afterwards married Mr J.W. Scott. We caught up with the rest of the trek at Fort Victoria, and visited Zimbabwe Ruins – which at that time were just mounds of earth and crumbling stone walls, with one great wall surrounding the temple.
At Fort Victoria, cows, pigs, and food were bought. Many of the trek were almost destitute, owing to losses of stock. We had now been six months in a wagon with many hardships and privations, but we were still undaunted. After leaving Fort Victoria we felt we were truly in a land of barbarism. Wild looking people peeped at us from every granite kopjie, and the road was a mere track. Utter desolation and solitude surrounded us. I recollect how awe-inspiring the granite hills were to me in the tense darkness, and even in the sunlight there remained something sinister about them. I am sure many minds were dubious about the wisdom of going forward. Beyond Victoria there was only the great unknown – no police, no settlers of any kind until we should reach Waterfall camp, where the Moodie family were settled, and two other families, the Moolmans and Du Plessis, who had arrived earlier in the year.
In the rough granite county, we reached a pass where it seemed as if we could not possibly get down. But the Moodies had blazed the trail; and if they had gone that way, so must we. It was a sheer drop. A small part of the cliff had been broken down to form a slope. Teams were taken out, the disselboom tied to the wagon, the men gave a push, and down went the wagon, rush, thud. Days were spent in repairs.
Next came the great and wonderful Sabi river. Now we felt our goal was near. At first sight the Sabi looked uninteresting, disappointing – half a mile of white sand, a channel of water, another stretch of sand, another channel of water. Where we crossed, at Moodie’s drift, was deep water, which reminds me that the men took off their trousers to wade through, and drive the oxen. To this day I can see the funny sight of the men’s shirt tails floating on the water.
While splashing in the river, I nearly got drowned. A large flower came floating downstream, and being a venturesome miss, I went after it, got out of my depth and was washed into a deep swift eddy between two large rocks. The others screamed; ‘She’s drowning’. But I managed to scramble out. Charles Moodie came to meet us with an extra span of oxen to negotiate the great Threespanberg. We had sent no word, but people had told him that we were at the Sabi.
At last the Promised land flowing with milk and honey (especially the honey) was reached. We saw a windswept plain, some nice huts, a glorious stream of water. This was Waterfall Camp. After a short rest we were on the move again – east. Moodie came to show the people their farms, but what a farce the whole thing was! Dr Jameson had told Moodie to push the Edenburg trek as far east as they would go, with the result that when the survey was made to determine the Anglo – Portuguese frontier, the majority of the Edenburg trek, original grant, fell into Portuguese territory. My father told Moodie that on no account would he take his family into that low-lying, jungle country, so a compromise was reached, and we settled at Wolverhampton.
Could anything be imagined more hopeless or more discouraging, and needing determination and courage, than for a man with a wife and six children to find himself in a heathen country, hundreds of miles from supplies of food or medical attention, surrounded by limitless veld of dense grass and bush, but not another family for miles - all alone in the African jungle. Poor father! Poor mother! I wish I knew the thoughts of these my brave parents, during the months that followed – months crowded with discomfort, hunger, and the death of a number of the trek. I know that at times utter despair assailed the men and women of the trek.
The site selected on which to build was on top of a kopjie with trees. We attempted to engage some natives, but everything and everybody seemed afraid of us. When we approached a kraal, even the fowls cackled and flew into the jungle, goats fled, and every man, woman and child, slunk off into the bush, and remained there until the coast was clear again. With only one person to help, my father began to farm. Can anyone imagine it! One man and two delicate little girls of ten and twelve respectively, stumping trees and ploughing from dawn to dusk. There were no big trees to fell or stump, but oh, those dreadful wild custard apple’s roots! The hundreds we took out! Then the ploughing – one little girl leading the oxen, a tiny boy driving them. Personally I also had to help with the preparation of the food, and herd the oxen when outspanned. Shall I ever forget the terror of those early mornings, when the fog was so heavy that the oxen appeared like some phantom creatures – dim and distant, when in reality they were near enough to touch. I never felt quite sure whether I was looking at an ox or at a lion. I was scared of the oxen, and frightened unto death of the terrors that stalked in the jungle at my back, especially as lions had stampeded the oxen out of their kraal and killed two on one occasion. My father and I went to set a gun at the kill next afternoon. Behold the lions were there already. He fired and wounded the lion. The lioness charged. At the second rush she made, he fired at her. There were now two wounded lions and no more cartridges, but fortunately the wounded animals slunk off. My father followed them into a thorn forest, matted with undergrowth, where he left them, deciding discretion was the better part of valour, when it came to wounded lions.
About this time, the Martin trek, Steyn trek, and Mynhardt trek arrived, all from the Orange Free State. The Mynhardts and Odendaals settled in Chipinga distict, south of Chipinga. The Martins and Steyns in Melsetter, and North Melsetter.
Now the rains began in earnest – tropical downpours, thunder, lightning. We children quaked with fear, scuttling around to get everything away. Our only habitation through the wet season was the wagon tents, placed on posts, and a very heavy tarpaulin stretched on a framework of posts to form a living room and a small bedroom. This was quite comfortable when the days were fine, but very stuffy when the rains were on, and a high wind blowing, so that everything had to be tied down for fear of ripping up the canvas. Want of labour had made it impossible to build huts, but a temporary kitchen of poles and grass was a great help to us.
Fortunately we were well away from the vleis and streams, the breeding places of the malaria – carrying mosquito. We had no sickness of any kind throughout the wet season. The rest of the trek was not so fortunate. They had been warned not to settle beside streams or vleis, but the lovely clear water, and open vleis for ploughing, proved too great a temptation. By Christmas, many were sick, and one or two had died. Words fail me when I try to convey the tension, anxiety, heartburnings of those months of rain, sickness and death. I shall never forget the stricken look on my father’s face when a messenger came from the Herbst’s settlement to say that J.Herbst was dead, and all the other people sick. We walked over to bury his comrade, and found a dreadful state of affairs – sick people everywhere in the confined tent. Even W.E.Scott, who had gone to help them, was down with the fever. A few days later, another call. Rubidge was gone, then Pienaar dead, then Webster, also Nel. And nowhere to take the sick people. Finally they moved to another farm where conditions were healthier. Strange to say, not one woman or child died at this settlement, although there were three women and eight children. We sent food such as it was – mealies and meal, but not even much of that. There was no quinine to be had. It was a year later that quinine came to the Reserve. And even then it was difficult to obtain. It was administered in a fever mixture, which had lovely opal tints, but tasted like aloes and a few other horrible things!
When the rains were over, settlers began to move around, principally on foot, as there were no roads, and horses, there were none. A general exodus took place of the survivors of the Herbst settlement, and I am sure many others would have left the country, had they had the money to take them to the Union. The idea of moving to one of the towns was not thought of. The remark was heard on every side; Rhodesia is a fever stricken country, but we might as well remain here for the time being.’
The first fruit of our labour was not a bumper crop. The mealies were unsuited to the climate and grew only two feet high. By shooting game and exchanging the meat with the local people for grain, we managed to live, but many a time we were on the verge of starvation. It took us some time to get accustomed to the local meal, which looked like a ball of clay when cooked, and hadn’t much taste. The local bean was a treat, and we occasionally got sweet potatoes.
Locusts made the raising of food a precarious proposition. Day after day, from sunrise to sunset, we kept at it, scaring them from the wheat and mealies, and vegetables until our feet were blistered and utter weariness brought sleep. Otherwise the thought of the next days work was enough to keep one awake. But we saved the crops with untiring exertion, and the expenditure of a tremendous amount of physical weariness, and will power. Lions, leopards and hyenas had also to be contended with. Many a time I have poisoned the carcas of some kill, and followed up the lion or hyena the next morning. I could use a shotgun, but could never bring myself to be a game shot. Even now I close my mind when I hear a shot, and know some beautiful, soft eyed gazelle is going down.
The year 1896 brought rinderpest. We did not lose heavily. It helped us, as later on oxen sold at a high price. In the rebellion of 1896 our local population kept loyal. They had now come to work and worked well. A ray of hope began to pierce the days of despair. My father left to build houses for the Government and the missionaries. We now had a magistrate and a police station. The seat of Government was removed to the highlands of Melsetter, partly because it was central.
In 1896 my little brother Robert Rowland died, we think of malaria. Father was away doing some work in Melsetter, fifty miles distant, and no means of getting the news to him unless by runner. After waiting two days, we were forced to bury the child. Being the eldest I had to make a coffin and somehow succeeded – a girl of fifteen to make a coffin and do an undertaker’s job, as well as having dug the grave. This had an effect on me, which has remained to the present day.
The year 1899 brought prosperity. My sisters and I were able to go to school again. More comfortable houses were built, and although still isolated to a great extent, a road had been made to Umtali, and it was now possible to get provisions by wagon transport.
Prudence Brent's Timeline
November 30, 1881
Orange Free State, South Africa
January 5, 1882
Jagersfontein, Xhariep, Free State, South Africa
March 13, 1901
May 5, 1902
September 11, 1903
April 25, 1907
Melsetter, S. Rhodesia
April 2, 1950
Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)