Sacred Texts  Africa  Index  Previous  Next 

Specimens of Bushman Folklore, by W.H.I. Bleek and L.C. Lloyd, [1911], at


THE Bushmen were members of a division of the human species that in all probability once occupied the whole, or nearly the whole, of the African continent. It would seem that they were either totally exterminated or partly exterminated and partly absorbed by more robust races pressing down from the north, except in a few secluded localities where they could manage to hold their own, and that as a distinct people they bad disappeared from nearly the whole of Northern and Central Africa before white men made their first appearance there. Schweinfurth, Junker, Stanley, Von Wissmann,[1] and other explorers and residents in the equatorial

[1. The following volumes may be referred to:--

Schweinfurth, Dr. George: The Heart of Africa, Three Years' Travels and Adventures in the Unexplored Regions of Central Africa, from 1868 to 1871. Two crown octavo volumes, published in London (date not given).

Junkier, Dr. Wilhelm: Travels in Africa during the Years 1875-1886. Translated from the German by A. H. Keane, F.R.G.S. Three demy octavo volumes, published in London in 1890-2.

Stanley, Henry N1.: In Darkest Africa or the Quest, Rescue, and Retreat of Emin, Governor of Equatoria. Two demy octavo volumes, published in London in 1890.

von Wissinann, Hermann: My Second Journey through Equatorial Africa from the Congo to the Zambesi in the Years 1886 and 1887. Translated from the German by Minna J. A. Bergmann. A demy octavo volume, published in London in 1891.

Casati, Major Gaetano: Ten Years in Equatoria and the Return with Emin Pasha. Translated from the original Italian Manuscript by the Hon. Mrs. J. Randolph Clay assisted by Mr. I. Walter Savage Lauder. Two royal octavo volumes, published at London and New York in 1891.

Burrows, Captain Guy: The Land of the Pygmies. A demy octavo volume, published in London in 1898.]

regions, who have had intercourse with the pygmies still existing in the depths of the dark forest west of the Albert Nyanza, have given descriptions of these people which show almost beyond a doubt that they and the Bushmen of South Africa are one in race. All the physical characteristics are the same, if we allow for the full open eye of the northern pygmy being due to his living in forest gloom, and the sunken half-closed eye of the southern Bushman to his life being passed in the glare of an unclouded sun.

The average height of adult male Bushmen, as given by Fritsch and other observers from careful measurement, is 144.4 centimetres or 56-85 inches. Von Wissmann gives the height of some pygmies that he measured as from 140 to 145 centimetres, or about the same.

Schweinfurth's description not only of the bodily but of the mental characteristics of his pygmy would hold good for one of the southern stock, Junker's photographs might have been taken on the Orange river; and no one acquainted with Bushman can read the charming account of the imp Blasiyo, given by Mrs. R. B. Fisher in her book On the Borders of Pygmy Land, without recognising the aborigine of South Africa. Whether he is blowing a great horn and capering under the dining-room window, or caning the big Bantu men in the class which he is teaching to read in the mission school at Kabarole, in order to make them respect him, the portrait in words which Mrs. Fisher has given of that exceedingly interesting pygmy is true to the life of one of those with whom this volume deals.

But those isolated remnants of a race that there is every reason to believe was once widely spread do not offer to ethnologists such an excellent subject for study as might at first thought be supposed, for it would appear from the observations of travellers that they have lost their original language, though this is not altogether certain. Savages though having the passions and the bodily strength of men, are children in mind and children in the facility with which they acquire other forms of speech than those of their parents. The rapidity with which a Bushman learned to speak Dutch or English, when he was brought into contact with white people in South Africa, was regarded as almost marvellous in the early days of the Cape Colony. And so the Bushmen or pygmies of the north, hemmed in by Bantu, although not on friendly terms with them, learned to speak Bantu dialects and may have lost their own ancient tongue. This is to be gathered from what travellers have related, but no one has yet lived long enough with them to be able to say definitely that among themselves they do not speak a distinct language, and use a corrupt Bantu dialect when conversing with strangers. But whether this be so or not, they must have lost much of their original lore, or it must at least have changed its form.

South of the Zambesi and Kunene rivers, in addition to the Bushmen, two races had penetrated before our own. One of those was composed of the people termed by us Hottentots, who at a very remote time probably had Bushmen as one of its ancestral stocks, and certainly in recent centuries had incorporated great numbers of Bushman girls. But these people never went far from the coast, though they continued their migrations along the border of the ocean all the way round from the Kunene to a little beyond the Umzimvubu, where their further progress was stopped by the Bantu advancing on that side. Where they originally resided cannot be stated positively, but there is strong reason for believing that in ancient times they occupied the territory now called Somaliland. The references to Punt in early Egyptian history, and the portrait of the queen of that country so often described by different writers, may be mentioned as one of the indications leading to this belief. Another, and perhaps stronger, indication is the large number of drilled stones of the exact size and pattern of those used by the Hottentots in South Africa--different in form from those manufactured by Bushmen--that have been found in Somaliland, an excellent collection of which can, be seen in the ethnological museum in Berlin. The Hottentots, according to their own traditions, came from some far distant country in the northeast, and they cannot have crossed the Kunene many centuries before Europeans made their first appearance at the extremity of the continent. This is conclusively proved by the fact that the dialects spoken by the tribes in Namaqualand and beyond Algoa Bay on the south-eastern coast differed slightly that the people of one could understand the people of the other without much difficulty, which would certainly not have been the case if they had been many centuries separated. They had no intercourse with each other, and yet towards the close of the seventeenth century an interpreter belonging to a tribe in the neighbourhood of the Cape peninsula, when accompanying Dutch trading parties, conversed with ease with them all.

In our present state of knowledge it is impossible to say when the Bantu first crossed the Zambesi, because it is altogether uncertain whether there were, or were not, tribes of black men in the territory now termed Rhodesia before the ancestors of the present occupants moved down from the north; but those at present in the country cannot claim a possession of more than seven or eight hundred years. When the Europeans formed their first settlements, the area occupied by the Bantu was small compared with what it is to-day, and a vast region inland from the Kathlamba mountains nearly to the Atlantic shore was inhabited exclusively by Bushmen. That region included the whole of the present Cape province except the coast belt, the whole of Basutoland and the Orange Free State, the greater part, if not the whole, of the Transvaal province, and much of Betshuanaland, the Kalahari, and Hereroland. The paintings on rocks found in Southern Rhodesia at the present day afford proof of a not very remote occupation by Bushmen of that territory, but they give evidence also that the big dark-coloured Bantu were already there as well.

By the Hottentots and the Bantu the Bushmen were regarded simply as noxious animals, and though young girls were usually spared and incorporated in the tribes of their captors to lead a life of drudgery and shame, all others who could be entrapped or hunted down were destroyed with as little mercy as if they had been hyenas. On the immediate border of the Hottentot and Bantu settlements there was thus constant strife with the ancient race, but away from that frontier line the Bushmen pursued their game and drank the waters that their fathers had drunk from time immemorial, without even the knowledge that men differing from themselves existed in the world.

This was the condition of things when in the year 1652 the Dutch East India Company formed a station for refreshing the crews of its fleets on the shore of Table Bay, a station that has grown into the present British South Africa. The Portuguese had established themselves at Sofala a hundred and forty-seven years earlier, but they had never penetrated the country beyond the Bantu belt, and consequently never made the acquaintance of Bushmen. From 1652 onward there was an opportunity for a thorough study of the mode of living, the power of thought, the form of speech, the religious ideas, and all else that can be known of one of the most interesting savage races of the earth, a race that there is good reason to believe once extended not only over Africa, but over a large part of Europe, over South-Eastern Asia, where many scientists maintain it is now represented by the Semang in the Malay peninsula, the Andamanese, and some of the natives of the Philippine islands,-and possibly over a much greater portion of the world's surface, a race that had made little, if any, advance since the far distant days when members of it shot their flint-headed arrows at reindeer in France, and carved the figures of mammoths and other now extinct animals on tusks of ivory in the same fair land. It was truly an ancient race, one of the most primitive that time had left on the face of the earth.

But there were no ethnologists among the early white settlers, whose sole object was to earn their bread and make homes for themselves in the new country where their lot was cast. They too soon came to regard the wild Bushmen as the Hottentots and the Bantu regarded them, as beings without a right to the soil over which they roamed, as untamable robbers whom it was not only their interest but their duty to destroy. They took possession of the fountains wherever they chose, shot the game that the pygmies depended upon for food, and when these retaliated by driving off oxen and sheep, made open war upon the so-called marauders. It was impossible for pastoral white men and savage Bushmen who neither cultivated the ground nor owned domestic cattle of any kind to live side by side in amity and peace. And so, slowly but surely, the Europeans, whether Dutch or English, extended their possessions inland, the Hottentots-Koranas and Griquas,-abandoning the coast, made their way also into the interior, and the Bantu spread themselves ever farther and farther, until to-day there is not an acre of land in all South Africa left to the ancient race. Every man's hand was against them, and so they passed out of sight, but perished fighting stubbornly, disdaining compromise or quarter to the very last. There is no longer room on the globe for palæolithic man.

When I say every man's hand was against them, I do not mean to imply that no efforts at all were ever made by white men to save them from absolute extinction, or that no European cast an eye of pity upon the unfortunate wanderers. On more than one occasion about the beginning of the nineteenth century benevolent frontier farmers collected horned cattle, sheep, and goats, and endeavoured to induce parties of Bushmen to adopt a pastoral life, but always without success. They could not change their habits suddenly, and so the stock presented to them was soon consumed. The London Missionary Society stationed teachers at different points among them, but could not prevail upon them to remain at any one place longer than they were supplied with food. In the middle of the same century the government of the Orange River Sovereignty set apart reserves for two little bands of them, but by some blunder located a Korana clan between them, and that effort failed. Then many frontier farmers engaged families of Bushmen to tend their flocks and herds, which they did as a rule with the greatest fidelity until they became weary of such a monotonous life, and then they wandered away again. Other instances might be added, but they all ended in the same manner. The advance of the white man, as well as of the Hottentots and the Bantu, was unavoidably accompanied with the disappearance of the wild people.

On the farms where a number of Bushman families lived white children often learned to speak their language, with all its clicks, and smacking of the lips, and guttural sounds, but this knowledge was of no use to anyone but themselves, and it died with them. They were incompetent to reduce it to writing and too ill-educated to realise the value of the information they possessed. Here and there a traveller of scientific attainments, such as Dr. H. Lichtenstein, or a missionary of talent, such as the reverend T. Arbousset, tried to form a vocabulary of Bushman words, but as they did not understand the language themselves, and there were no recognised symbols to represent the various sounds, their lists are almost worthless to philologists.

So matters stood in 1857, when the late Dr. Wilhelm H. I. Bleek (Ph.D.), who was born at Berlin in 1827, and educated at the universities of Bonn and Berlin, commenced his researches in connection with the Bushmen. He was eminently qualified for the task, as his natural bent was in the direction of philology, and his training had been of the very best kind, in that he had learned from it not to cease study upon obtaining his degree, but to continue educating himself. For many years after 1857, however, he did not devote himself entirely, or even mainly, to investigations regarding the Bushmen, because of the difficulty of obtaining material, and also because he was intently engaged upon the work with which his reputation as a philologist must ever be connected, A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages. In this book he deals with the Hottentot language and with the Bantu, the last divided into a large number of dialects. In 1862 the first part of his valuable work appeared, in 1864 a small volume followed entitled Renyard the Fox in South Africa, or Hottentot Fables and Tales, and in 1869 the first section of the second part of his Comparative Grammar was published. That work, regarded by everyone since its issue as of the highest value, and which must always remain the standard authority on its subject, was never completed, for in 1870 a favourable opportunity of studying the Bushman language occurred, of which Dr. Bleek at once availed himself, knowing that in the few wild people left he had before him the fast dying remnant of a primitive race, and that if any reliable record of that race was to be preserved, not a day must be lost in securing it.

To abandon a work in which fame had been gained, which offered still further celebrity in its prosecution, and to devote himself entirely to a new object, simply because the one could be completed by somebody else at a future time, and the other, if neglected then, could never be done at all, shows such utter devotion to science, such entire forgetfulness of self, that the name of Dr. Bleek should be uttered not only with the deepest respect, but with a feeling akin to reverence. How many men of science are there in the world today who would follow so noble an example?

The task now before him was by no means a simple or an easy one. The few pure Bushmen that remained alive were scattered in the wildest and most inaccessible parts of the country, and it would have been useless to search for them there. A traveller indeed, who was prepared to live in a very rough manner himself, might have found a few of them, but his intercourse with them would necessarily have been so short that he could not study then thoroughly. But, fortunately for science, unfortunately for the wretched creatures themselves, the majesty of European law had brought several of them within reach. That law, by a proclamation of the earl of Caledon, governor of the Cape Colony, issued on the 1st of November 1809, had confounded them with the Hottentots, and made all of them within the recognised boundaries British subjects, but had placed them under certain restraints, which were intended to prevent them from roaming about at will. It had very little effect upon the wild people, however, who were almost as difficult to arrest on the thinly occupied border as if they had been baboons. Then, in April 1812, by a proclamation of Governor Sir John Cradock, their children, when eight years of age, if they had lived on a farm since their birth, were apprenticed by the local magistrate for ten years longer. In this proclamation also they were confounded with Hottentots, and it really had a considerable effect upon them, because it was no uncommon circumstance for Bushman parents to leave their infant children on farms where they had been in service, and not return perhaps for a couple of years.

By a colonial ordinance of the 17th of July 1828 all restraints of every kind were removed from these people, and they had thereafter exactly the same amount of freedom and of political rights as Europeans. It seems absurd to speak of Bushmen having political rights, for their ideas of government were so crude that their chiefs were merely leaders in war and the chase, and had no judicial powers, each individual living the right to avenge his own wrongs; but so, the law determined. It determined also that the ground upon which their ancestors for ages had hunted should be parcelled out in farms and allotted to European settlers, and that if they went there afterwards and killed or drove away an ox or a score of sheep, they could be sentenced to penal servitude for several years. It seems hard on the face of it, but progress is remorseless, and there was no other way of extending civilisation inland. The pygmy hunter with his bow and poisoned arrows could not be permitted to block the way.

But he, though he could not argue the matter, and regarded it as the most natural thing in the world for the strong to despoil the weak, being the feeble one himself resented this treatment. He was hungry too, terribly hungry, for the means of sustenance in the arid wastes where be was making his last stand were of the scantiest, and he longed for meat, such meat as his fathers had eaten before the Hottentots and the big black men and the white farmers came into the country and slaughtered all the game and nearly all of his kin. And so he tightened his hunger belt, and crept stealthily to a hill-top, where he could make observations without anyone noticing him, and when night fell he stole down to the farmer's fold and before day dawned again he and his companions were gorged with flesh. When the farmer arose and discovered his loss there was a big hunt as a matter of course. Man and horse and dog were pressed into the chase, and yet so wily was the little imp, so expert in taking cover, and it must be added so feared were his poisoned arrows, that it was a rare thing for him to be captured. Once in a while, however, he was made a prisoner, and then if it could be proved that he had killed a shepherd he was hanged, but if he could be convicted of nothing more than slaughtering other men's oxen and sheep he was sent to a convict station for a few years.

So it came about that Dr. Bleek found at the convict station close to Capetown several of the men he wanted. There were two in particular, whose terms of imprisonment bad nearly expired, and who were physically unfit for hard labour. The government permitted him to take these men to his own residence, on condition of locking them up at night until the remainder of their sentences expired. After they had returned to the place of their birth, two other Bushmen were obtained, who ere long were induced to proceed to their old haunts and prevail upon some of their relatives to accompany them back again, so that at one time a whole family could be seen on Dr. Bleck's grounds.

The material was thus obtained to work with, but first the language of the primitive people had to be learned, a language containing so many clicks and other strange sounds that at first it seemed almost impossible for all adult European tongue to master it. To this task Dr. Bleek and his sister-in-law Miss Lucy C. Lloyd, who had boundless patience, untiring zeal, and a particularly acute ear, devoted themselves, and persevered until their efforts were crowned with success. Symbols were adopted to represent the different sounds that are foreign to the European ear, and then it became possible to take down the exact words used by the Bushman narrators and to have the manuscript checked by repetition.

Before the results of such prolonged labour were ready for publication, but not until a very large quantity of valuable matter had been collected, to the great loss of students of man everywhere Dr. Bleek died, 17th of August 1875, Miss Lloyd then continued during some years to collect further material from. various individuals of the Bushman race, and after adding greatly to the stock on hand at her brother-in-law's death in 1887 she proceeded to Europe with a view to arranging it properly and publishing it. For nine years she endeavoured, but in vain to carry out this design, the subject not being considered by publishers one that would attract readers in sufficient number to repay the cost of printing, as that cost would necessarily be large, owing to the style of the Bushman text. In 1896 Messrs. Swan Sonnenschein & Co. undertook to get out a volume, but then, unfortunately, Miss Lloyd fell ill, and her impaired strength has since that time delayed the completion of the work. It has only been at long intervals and by dint of much exertion that what is here presented to the reader, with much more that may perhaps follow, has been got ready. This is a brief account of the manner in which the material was collected, and of the causes which have delayed its publication for so many years. It would be quite impossible to gather such information now.

As to the value for scientific purposes (if the contents of this volume, a great deal might be stated, but it cannot be necessary to say much here, as the book speaks for itself. The religion of the Bushmen is made as clear from their own recitals as such a subject can be, when it is remembered that the minds of the narrators were like those of little children in all matters not connected with their immediate bodily wants. Their views concerning the sun, moon, and stars seem utterly absurd, but a European child five or six years of age, if not informed, would probably give no better explanation. Their faith too, that is, their unreasoning belief in many things adult European seem ridiculous, is seen to be that of mere infants. Every reader of this book has gone through the same stage of thought and mental power him or herself, and our own far remote ancestors must have had beliefs similar to those of Bushmen. The civilised European at different stages of his existence is a representative of the whole human species in its progress upward from the lowest savagery. We may therefore pity the ignorant pygmy, but we are not justified in despising him.

On many of their customs a flood of light is thrown in this volume, but I shall only refer to one here. In the early Dutch records of the Cape Colony there is an account of some Bushmen eating almost the whole of an animal, the intestines included, rejecting only two little pieces of flesh containing the sinews of the thighs. When questioned concerning this, they merely replied that it was their custom. not to eat those parts, beyond which no information is given. Who could have imagined the cause of such a custom? They had devoured parts tougher to masticate, so it certainly was not to spare their teeth. That is all that could be said of it, but here in this volume the reason is given, and how well it fits in with the belief of the wild people that certain men and animals could exchange their forms, that some animals in former times were men, and some men in former times were animals.

Probably, however, the value of this volume will be greatest to the philologist, as the original Bushman text, which will be unintelligible to the general reader, is printed side by side with the English translation. Students of the growth of language have thus the means of ascertaining how ideas were expressed by a race of people so low in culture as the Bushmen. Their vocabulary, it will be seen, was ample for their needs. What is surprising is that, though they had no word for a numeral higher than three, and though the plurals of many of their nouns were formed in such a simple manner as by reduplication, their verbs were almost, if not quite, as complete and expressive as our own. The myths indicate a people in the condition of early childhood, but from the language it is evident that in the great chain of human life on this earth the pygmy savages represented a link much closer to the modern European end than to that of the first beings worthy of the name of men.


LONDON, 1911.


Next: The Mantis Assumes The Form Of A Hartebeest