Chapter 46 - History and Adventures of a Cape Farmer and his Family by Mayne Reid

Totty and the Chacmas.

Von Bloom and his family had now been months without bread. They were not without a substitute, however, as various roots and nuts supplied them with a change of food. Of the latter, they had the ground or pig-nut (Arachis hypogea), which grows in all parts of Southern Africa, and which forms a staple food of the native inhabitants. For vegetables they had the bulbs of many species of Ixias and Mesembryanthemums, among others the “Hottentot fig” (Mesembryanthemum edule). They had the “Caffir bread”—the inside pith of the stems of a species of Zamia; and the “Caffir chestnut,” the fruit of the Brabeium stellatum; and last, not least, the enormous roots of the “elephant’s foot” (Testudinaria elephantipes). They had wild onions and garlic too; and in the white flower-tops of a beautiful floating plant (Aponogeton distachys), they found a substitute for asparagus.

All these roots and fruits were to be obtained in the neighbourhood, and no man knew better how to find them, and “crow” them up when found, than did Swartboy the Bushman. Well might he, for in Swartboy’s early days he had often been compelled to subsist for weeks, and even months, on roots alone!

But although they could procure a constant supply of these natural productions, they considered them but a poor substitute for bread; and all of them longed to eat once more what is usually termed the “staff of life”—though in South Africa, where so many people live exclusively upon the flesh of animals, bread is hardly entitled to that appellation.

Bread they were likely to have, and soon. When trekking from the old kraal, they had brought with them a small bag of maize. It was the last of their previous year’s stock; and there was not in all over a bushel of it. But that was enough for seed, and would produce many bushels if properly planted, and carefully tended.

This had been done shortly after their arrival at their present home. A fertile spot of ground had been selected, only a few hundred yards from the nwana-tree. It had been turned up with the spade, for want of a plough, and the seeds planted at proper distances.

Many an hour had been given to the weeding and hoeing of it, and around every plant a little hill of soft mould had been raised, to nourish the roots, and protect them from the heat of the sun. The plants were even watered now and then.

Partly on account of this attention, and partly from the richness of the virgin soil, a splendid growth was the result; and the stalks stood full twelve feet high, with ears nearly a foot long. They had almost ripened; and the field-cornet intended in about a week or ten days to gather in the crop.

Both he and all his people were anticipating pleasant feasts of maize-bread, and “hominy,” with “mash and milk” and various other dishes, that with Totty’s skill could be manufactured out of the Indian corn.

About this time an incident occurred that nearly deprived them, not only of their whole plot of maize-plants, but also of their valuable housekeeper, Totty. It was as follows.

Totty was on the platform in the great nwana-tree, which commanded a view of the corn-patch, and also of the plain beyond, as far as the bottom of the cliffs. She was busied about “house” affairs, when her attention was called off, by some singular noises that came from that direction. She parted the branches and looked through. A singular scene was before her eyes—a spectacle of no common kind.

A body of odd-looking animals, to the number of two hundred or more, was coming from the direction of the cliffs. They were creatures of ungainly forms—in make and size not unlike large ill-shaped dogs—and of a greenish brown colour. Their faces and ears only were black, and these were naked, while their bodies were covered with harsh coarse hair. They had long tails, which some of them carried high in the air, and flourished about in a very eccentric manner.

Totty was by no means alarmed. She knew what sort of animals they were. She knew they were baboons. They were of the species known as the “pig-faced” baboon or “chacma” (Cynocephalus porcarius), which is found in nearly every part of South Africa where there are high cliffs with caves and crevices—the favourite dwelling-places of the baboon.

Of all the monkey tribe the baboons, or dog-headed monkeys (cynocephali), are the most disgusting in form and features. Who does not feel disgust when regarding the hideous mandrill—the drill—the hamadryas—or even the chacma? And all these are baboons.

The baboons are peculiar to Africa, and there are six well-known species of them:—the common baboon of North Africa, the “papion” of the south and western coast, the “hamadryas” or “tartarin” of Abyssinia, the “mandrill” and “drill” of Guinea, and the “chacma” of the Cape colony.

The habits of these animals are as disgusting as their appearance. They may be tamed, and made “pets” of; but dangerous pets they are, as they will, upon the slightest provocation, bite the hand that feeds them.

Their great strength of body and jaw, and their long canine teeth, give them a dangerous power which they often make use of. No dog is a match for one, and the hyena and leopard often come off second-best in an encounter with a baboon.

They are not carnivorous, however, and only tear their enemy to pieces without eating it. Their food consists of fruits and bulbous roots, which they well understand to dig out of the ground with the sharp nails of their hands.

Although they will not attack man if left alone, they become dangerous assailants when hunted and brought to bay.

Many odd stories are told of the chacma baboon among the settlers of Southern Africa, such as their robbing the traveller of his food, and then going off to some distance, and mocking him, while they devour it. The natives also say that they sometimes use a stick in walking, “crowing” for roots, and in self-defence. Also, when a young one has succeeded in finding a choice root, and is observed by an older and stronger one, that the latter takes it away: but, should the young one have already swallowed it, then the bully picks him up, turns him head downward, and shakes him until he is forced to “disgorge!” Many such tales are current in the country of the boors, and they are not all without foundation, for these animals most certainly possess the power of reflection in a high degree.

Totty from her perch saw enough to convince her of this, had she been herself inclined to philosophise. But she was not. She was only a little curious about the manoeuvres of the animals, and she called Trüey and little Jan up into the tree, in order that they might share the spectacle with her. All the others were off hunting.

Jan was delighted, and ran up the ladder at once. So did Trüey, and all three stood watching the odd movements of the four-handed creatures.

They perceived that the troop was actually marching in order; not in line, but with some understood arrangement. There were scouts upon the wings, and leaders in front. These were baboons of greater age and size than the others. There were calls and signals, and the change of accent and tone would have convinced any one that a regular conversation was going on. The females and younger ones marched in the middle for better security. The mothers carried their infants upon their backs, or over their shoulders. Now a mother would stop to suckle her little offspring—dressing its hair at the same time—and then gallop forward to make up for the loss. Now one would be seen beating her child, that had in some way given offence. Now two young females would quarrel, from jealousy or some other cause, and then a terrible chattering would ensue, to be silenced by the loud threatening bark of one of the chiefs!

Thus proceeded they across the plain, chattering, and screaming, and barking, as only monkeys can.

What were they after?

That question was answered very soon. Trüey, and Jan, and Totty, saw, to their dismay, that the baboons were not out upon an idle errand. They were after the maize-plants!

In a few minutes most of the troop had entered the corn-field, and were hidden from view by the tall stems and broad leaves of the plants. A few only could be seen,—large old fellows, that stationed themselves outside as sentinels, and were keeping up a constant interchange of signals. The main body was already stripping the plants of their precious fruit.

But a singular appearance presented itself beyond the corn-field, where a line of baboons, stationed at equal distance from one another, extended away to the very bottom of the cliff. These had been left by a regular manoeuvre,—a deployment—as the troop traversed the plain in coming to the field. For what purpose?

That was soon apparent. In less than two minutes after the crowd disappeared under the shelter of the maize-plants, the long heads in their husks were seen showering out towards the line, as if flung by the hand of man! Those placed at the near end of the line immediately took them up, pitched them to the next, and these to the next, and so on, until, in a very short while from the time a head was plucked from the stalk, it was delivered to the storehouse of the baboons far off among the cliffs!

Had this work gone on much longer the field-cornet would have had but a poor gathering in harvest-time. The baboons thought the corn ripe enough, and would soon have made a crop of it, but at this moment their operations were interrupted.

Totty knew but little of the danger she underwent, when she ran forth with nothing but that long broom-handle to drive off a troop of chacmas. She only thought of the loss her kind master was sustaining; and down the ladder she hurried, and ran straight out to the corn-field.

Several sentinels met her by its edge, grinned, chattered, screamed, barked, and showed their long canine teeth; but they only received a blow over their ugly snouts from the broom-handle. Their cries summoned the others; and in a few moments the poor Hottentot was standing in the midst of an angry circle of chacmas, that were only prevented from springing in upon her by the expert manner in which she continued to ply the broomstick.

But this slight weapon would not have served much longer, and Totty’s fate—that of being torn to pieces—would soon have been sealed, had not four horsemen, or rather “quagga-men,” at that moment galloped up to her rescue.

These were the hunters returning from the chase; and a volley from their guns at once scattered the ugly chacmas, and sent them howling back to their caves.

After that the field-cornet looked well to his maize, until it was ready for gathering; when it was all brought home, and deposited in safety out of the reach of either birds, reptiles, quadrupeds or quadrumuna.