John Dunn: Part 4 – Unspeakable Cruelty to the Donkeys

Now faded in the mists of time, the Bondelswarts Rebellion of 1922 is a mere footnote to the history of Southern Africa. In the early years of the 20th century, the whole of the area was in tumult. South West Africa was captured by the South Africans from the German colonisers in 1915. With South West Africa now controlled by South Africa in terms of a League of Nations mandate, the khoikhoi peoples of southern SWA were also restive. 

This series of blogs covers the first-hand account of a South African Police Force officer, John Dunn, who was involved in the suppression of a rebellion by the Bondelswarts people in southern SWA. 

In Part 4 of the series, John Dunn provides in graphic heart-wrenching detail the level of unspeakable cruelty inflicted on the donkeys during the convoy’s journey through impassable sand between Steinkopf and Goodhouse on the Orange River. 

Main picture: John Dunn in later years

The convoy moved off at 4 in the afternoon with eight fully laden wagons and four watercarts, each wagon being drawn by 16 small donkeys. Our first night’s destination was a waterhole known as En Riet, about 12 miles distant. The road out of Steinkopf was passingly good, with very little sand, and we arrived at the prearranged halt at 10pm.

In the olden days, folk must have been gifted in the art of nomenclature, but what occasioned the naming of this barren spot among sand dunes En Riet is difficult to understand. All that we found was a fountain of brackish water trickling from a rock, but in sufficient quantity to water man and beast. Perhaps there was a solitary reed thriving in the vicinity in those days.

The mounted men who had arrived several hours ahead had chosen a nicely sheltered spot, a small clearing surrounded by low-lying hills. This spot which was our resting place for the night, was lit up by hundreds of tiny fires which had a peculiar effect on the hills in the background. Within an hour of outspanning, man and beast had been suitably rationed for the following day.

Map of the Steinkopf to Goodhouse area

I lay down, tired out, with the vast expanse above open to my eyes. Brilliant stars shone like orbs in the pellucid air of the desert yet, strangely enough, seemed further away than ever I have seen them before. We moved off at daybreak the next morning and shortly after leaving the hilly country, we arrived at the fringe of the desert. I gazed upon a region consisting of nothing but miles of miniature sand dunes and utter desolation. Spread before us was an undulating sea of gold. Beyond, about 40 miles away, could be discerned the crests of a formidable barrier of black mountains, through which, our guide informed me, flowed the famous Orange River.

From our position, it was a stupendous and awe-inspiring scene. One seemed to be looking across the roof of a new world. The early morning sun spread its radiant glow on the drift sand in the ravines, the accumulation of desert storms through the ages, made a magnificent background, a lasting monument to the elements.

As time wore on, those ominous black mountains stood out like a cordon of stately sentinels challenging the right of puny man to penetrate them. I seldom raised my eyes in their direction without drawing breath quickly and growing chilled with excitement as they gradually shaped into a fantastic illustration seen in a book of fairy-tales. Towards noon, a heavy sand storm swept up, hiding the sun, and for an hour we struggled through fog composed of fine yellow dust.

Transport conditions were scandalous. The donkeys were a meagre, underfed, undersized, woolly-coated lot of creatures, many of them being scarcely larger than Newfoundland dogs. They had a strange, almost intelligent look on their long sad faces. Many of the mares appeared to be in excellent condition, but not without cause. Hardy they certainly were. They could scarcely be otherwise existing as they did on the scanty pickings of the desert and are often called upon to trek for days with nothing at all; not even water. The Steinkopf donkeys’ lot was a sad one and when their trek with the Police Squadron across the desert ended, their sore hides must have given them something to remember for many months.

The harness, with the exception of the breast plates of nearly all the spans, consisted mostly of used bailing wire from bales of lucerne. Traces made from this must have spelt torture to the beasts, and constantly breaking, and a source of trouble throughout the desert journey. The breastplates were also made up with wire but covered with strips of sheep’s skin. The wagons too, were a rotten lot. They were obsolete R.A.S.C. – Royal Army Service Corps – vehicles which had seen service in the days of the Boer War, 23 years previously. Imagine, then, our convoy of diminutive underfed donkeys hitched by wire to trek chains, struggling through heavy sand, pulling antiquated wagons across miles of desert with waterholes many miles apart, and sometimes on arrival found to be dry.

A Nama Woman

We pushed on, leaving the mounted men to make a wide detour to the south to water their horses that evening at a distant waterhole. As we descended into the desert, the air became warmer, and what little scrub there was began to fail. By the time that we had made our first outspan at 10 am, vegetable life was non-existent. For miles nothing was visible but long, low-lying ranges of shifting sand dunes, which sloped away to merge into shadowy obscurity, into a desolate misty nothingness. Nature had left this part of the world truly unadorned.

An all too brief outspan, gave the donkeys a badly needed break but no food or water. Their noisy braying made a strange contrast to the wonderful quiet of the desert. Within two hours we were again on the move. Although mid-winter, the sun beat down mercifully, and small particles of sand rising from the wagon wheels penetrating one’s eyes, nostrils and mouth until it was almost unbearable. As the weary hours passed, the strain on the unfortunate animals was beginning to tell. Many of weaker ones lagged noticeably, only to be urged on by their brutally inhuman coloured drivers by means of a 20 ft. lash of giraffe hide, often used indiscriminately. Manifestly, the constant flogging must have taken a lot out the poor brutes. I refer to the drivers as being “brutally inhuman” because, although the use of the whip was necessary to keep the team on the move, the satanic grin on their faces was they watched their donkeys cringe and almost fall, conveyed the impression that they gloried in the fact of having to do it.

Given a fair surface and some food, the poor brutes might have managed the loads that they had to pull, but with heavy sand and wheels often sunk to the axle, and without food or water to sustain them, that was a different matter.

Quiver Tree

We outspanned again at 3 pm and a more miserable, dejected looking lot of animals, it would have been hard to find. The creatures’ bellies showed signs of “tucking up” for want of water and many were obviously “played out.” We still had a further 10 miles to traverse before arriving at the pre-arranged halting place for the night. Moreover, we just had to make it, otherwise both men and horses of the Squadron would have been without food. I discussed the position without transport conductor, a huge, hulking brute of a man who, apparently, had as much time for a donkey as he would have had for a mad dog. Superb drivers the coloured men undoubtedly were – or could have been – with their amazing skill with their long whips but cruelty seemed to be innate in these half-bred villains. A 20 ft. thong is a terrible instrument in the hands of an expert without a soul.

At this juncture I heard the disquieting news that our trek with heavily laden wagons over this particular route was an innovation. Our conductor casually informed me that we should be lucky if we reached the mounted men before midnight. By the appalling condition of the donkeys, it was not clear to me how they could possibly journey another mile, unless the going improved.

The Richtersveld

Off again at 5:30 pm to the sound of the usual flogging of the animals. Thud, whack. Thud, whack. Mile are mile the thrashing continued. It was sickening. To add to our troubles, the sand became steadily heavier, ruts deepened and became more widespread, frequently sinking at times into vast pits. What could one do? The heavily laden wagons, especially one in particular, loaded with oats for the horses, had a knack of sticking fast and the donkeys from the wagon following it had to be attached to pull it on a bit.

The rear wagons came to a halt. Looking ahead, I could see that a donkey was down, and a great coloured brute was trying to beat it onto its feet again with the whip. The animal rose under the cruel lash, only to fall again prostrate. I pressed forward to put a stop to further wanton cruelty and was so disgusted that I threatened to shoot the driver of he lashed the donkey again. I was, in all probably, told – under his breath – to go to hell. My action, however, had done a little good. Drivers were hailed from two wagons ahead and helped to release the spent animals from its shamble of wire, and it was replaced by another from the lead.

It lay on its side and the driver, again by means of the whip, tried to encourage it to follow on, but the poor beast was unable to walk. When remonstrated with, the driver pointed out that it left it would probably die. With a view to alleviating further suffering, I suggested being allowed to shoot it. This displayed nothing but further callous indifference and, shrugging his massive shoulders, he drove on.

I halted one of the wagons ahead and removed a bundle of forage. The pitiful pleading look it gave on hearing my approach was memorable. It half turned over, with its head towards me, cringing, wincing and trembling visibly as though in anticipation, so it seemed, of further flogging. It moved as if in pain. It whinnied and for the first time in my life, I had heard a donkey cried. It rolled over once again and commenced to foal. At considerable risk – the use of water being restricted – I sent a boy ahead to stop a watercart, and gave the donkey, a half bucket of water.

Leaving the sick animal with its bundle of forage, I hastily overtook the wagons, informing the driver as to what had happened, and cursing him for his brutality. My heated remarks again elicited nothing beyond an evil grin, and instructions to his boy to return and bring it along. Yes, the swine, just like that. Hell, I would love to have had a few moments whip play on his filthy hide with his own whip. However, it wasn’t to be. I was a police officer.

By this time it was dark, and we trekked ever so slowly through heavy sand, the desert quietness being broken only by the frightful yelling of the drivers and the thud of whips, as teams were urged on.

We outspanned again at 8 pm for an hour to rest the animals and to make coffee. A casual walk around the convoy revealed many grim sights. Illuminations from a dozen tiny fires disclosed many donkeys lying prostrate, having insufficient strength to budge from the place where they were released from the contraption of wire. Others were seen licking the iron tyres of the wheels. The squadron was only five miles distant. Could we make it? The noise made by the drivers having ceased, a wonderful peace descended upon the convoy, a quiet that could almost be felt.

Mountains near Concordia

Immediately after inspanning, whips were once more in evidence, and the few miles to the shoulder of the hill where the troops were patiently waiting, was a nightmare. The spans, however, struggled gamely along. Only another two miles to go but conditions worsened. It was uphill all the time; sand became finer and, in consequence, the wheels sank deeper, calling for renewed energy from the spent animals. The wire harnesses were breaking more frequently, necessitating repeated halts for repairs. Though a haze of sand dust, could still be seen the Squadron’s alluring fires, but the short distance seemed endless.

Every now and again, the wagons were halted to remove an exhausted donkey which not even the whips could induce to rise from where it had collapsed, and it was left!

Their plaintive cries, their only means of resenting such wanton punishment, were making me feel ill. I trudged wearily ahead wondering whether flesh and blood could hold long enough to get us through to those phantom fires. The night was breathless. Dead still. Resting several hundred yards ahead, the distant screaming of the drivers floated weirdly across the desert. Later could be heard the strange noise made by wagon wheels as they ploughed through the sand. It recalled the noise heard when the surf was breaking on the reef during the crossing of the bar at Port Nolloth. It was fearfully cold from which I suffered intensely almost shivering to pieces, but everything has an end in this world, and so had this for me.

At four in the morning our convoy – what was left of it – staggered in, the teams being depleted of donkeys to an alarming extent, so many having been having had to be left behind. It was bitter to realise that I was in charge of a police convoy. Maybe it was all that was available at Steinkopf, but I was ashamed to have had anything to do with it. Welcome sleep benumbed my senses and I knew no more.

When I awakened, a long, pale line showed out the clouds in the east. It slowly brightened and tinged to red. Then the morning broke, and the sun in all its radiance, came peeping over the top of the sand dunes. Far away in the south could be seen the range of hills that we had come through. Nothing intervened but a stretch of golden sand. Through the pure air, the grey-blue mountains seemed to be a stone’s throw, yet they were at least 14 miles distant and we had taken 23 hours to cross.

Still without food, apart from desert scrub, and parched with thirst, the donkeys were scarcely able to move the wagons, but they gamely pulled on to the next waterhole which, after one outspan, we reached at 6 that evening. Conditions throughout the remainder of the few miles traversed were appalling. Strangely, the frantic yelling of the drivers had lessened, probably on account of them being too hoarse to shout. It was quite a respectable session compared with previous treks.

With water in abundance, but still no food, out stay at this little oasis was a revelation. The donkeys waded belly-deep and rolled in it. Many had to be assisted out, being too weak to withdraw their legs from the miry mess on the bottom.

As day was breaking the following morning, my protégé – the donkey left behind to foal only 48 hours previously – arrived, driven by a native piccanin. At noon, when he moved off, her ladyship was again in her place in the span accompanied by her long-legged baby trotting by her side, sorrowfully helping to share the heavy burden with her mate. Some donkey?

The animals appeared to be strengthened after their long drink and a nibble at the desert scrub. We moved on through sand – always sand. It hurt. That formidable range of black mountains drew nearer and nearer. Seen from this position, they appeared to be squatting like a gallery of gnomes peering over each other’s shoulder.

The day following, we trekked through a long valley with low-lying hillocks on either side. Then commenced the steep decline to the Orange River, the first strip of downhill since leaving Steinkopf. We moved always to the head of a cliff pocket, a veritable inferno, hot and vivid in the broiling sunshine. As we descended, it towered higher and higher above us. On reaching a certain point of the barrier a slight rumbling noise was heard, and we came out at last onto a winding trail cut in the face of solid rock, the first nit of man-made road seen since we started from Steinkopf. Below us we caught our first glimpse of the famous Orange River.

The Orange River

The donkeys managed to find substantial pickings from herbage growing along the banks, the first food of any consequence since leaving En Riet five days previously. Everybody was in good spirits and bathing was the order of the day. The river was made picturesque by hundreds of white, naked forms splashing in the lower reaches of the silvery stream. What an amazing contrast these conditions afforded when unwashed, we trekked through torrid heat with sand filtering through our clothes, spoiling our food, and blinding our eyes.

Early next day, we commenced an ever-memorable journey to Goodhouse. Having visions of some decent shooting en route, I moved off alone before sunrise. The scenery along the river is indescribable, for we were now down to the very bottom of that mighty mountain barrier. The deep world of colossal mountains, which had so mystified us a few days previously lay clear, pure and yet terrible in the rosy hue of dawn.

I trudged along still feeling considerably worried about the donkeys which had to follow on through everlasting sand, but I found solace in the knowledge that I should not have to listen to the thud of the whips as the teams were urged onto the final stages of their journey. By daybreak I was some considerable distance from our camping place. Climbing down to the river on the lookout for wild geese, I moved along under steep banks which at some places resembled a replica in miniature of the white cliffs of Dover. The reflection of an African sky lay blue in this beautiful strip of water where tint waves danced and fluttered.

Ragged, spear-topped, barren trees massed down to the water’s edge. Beyond rose bodily bald-knobbed hills in painful black relief. One could not help but gaze upon the scene spell-bound. Silence which was almost ominous, was only broken by the whirl of hundreds of spur-winged geese as they flew with their honk, honk, honk. I passed long lines of petrified trees, which through the ages had been washed down the river when in flood and must have been there for centuries.

Leading down to the river occasionally were long gravel stretches, and the spoor of mountain leopard was frequently seen. At one stretch, much larger spoor was seen which, I thought, must be that of lion, but I had no desire to meet any of these furry-coated gentry anyway. Lion hunting, which all sounds very thrilling, was not included in my itinerary. All the way to Goodhouse, game was very plentiful. Several species of buck, wild ostriches and guineafowl were common. A long pot-shot at a big buck – I think that it must have been a kudu ram – scampering into the bush did little more than frighten it. Guineafowls were particularly numerous. They came out of the bush in troupes and stood gazing with bewildered astonishment but showed no sign of fear as I passed. Many of these over-confident birds were brought down by the dexterous handling of the long whips by the drivers. Between them they bagged 27 prime birds, while a further five fell to my rifle since we arrived at Goodhouse.

Towards sunset, Goodhouse, surely one of the most astonishing farms in the Union, could be seen in the misty distance, a veritable oasis in the desert set down amidst beetling red cliffs. Goodhouse is an apt illustration of what the desert can be made to produce, given sufficient water, and is a model of scientific farm management and efficiency.

I was a guest of one of the overseers that evening. My host led me to his tiny abode through a miniature park redolent with flowers, which spread sheets of colour everywhere in the gardens enhancing their note of dignity and beauty as though in mockery of the arid surroundings not far away. In a well-appointed room, we dined sumptuously off soup, silver fish from the river, chicken and fruit, served by an unobtrusive but obviously well-trained Hottentot. By the time coffee was served I thought that I must be dreaming.


Typed manuscript by John Dunn

Photos from Wikipedia

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