Selati Line – Part 2
On To the Sabi Bridge
They All Cried, “Corruption!”
To recap: In 1893, the Selati Railway was to be the new line to the Selati Gold Fields, situated around the Selati River near Gravelot, where a mine is still mining gold today, all-be-it not much. In 1865 a teacher, – come geologist and explorer – Karl Mauch from Germany suggested there was gold in ‘them-there-mountains’ near the Selati River. See the map below at the 8725 foot Mauch Peak, named after this man. It might be of interest that Karl Mauch recorded the Great Zimbabwe ruins on 3rd September 1871. Later in 1871 a party consisting of Edward Button, James Sutherland, George Parsons and Thomas MacLachlan having followed Mauch’s trail, found gold at the mountains they named the Murchison Range (named apparently after the great geologist Sir Roderick Murchison) and reported it to the Transvaal Government, as was then the law. A government official was sent out and confirmed it was a workable gold region. What ensued was a gold rush to a very inhospitable area and considering the gold was sparse, only a small town was established.
And of course, the Oppenheim banker brothers from France, believing this claim to be rich, applied to the Volksraad for the right to build a private railway line from Komatipoort to the Selati Gold Fields. Now, things really get complicated. How the Volksraad was persuaded to grant this right to a foreign private investor was no secret back in the day.
All the newspapers in South Africa, as well as papers in England, Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the interested world, carried the stories of the Oppenheim, Volksraad corruption. It was bribery all the way from the lesser members of the Raad to Paul Kruger, President at the time.
No History Makes for an Uncertain Future
A small digression is necessary here. Swaziland, an independent country, is to the south of our Selati rail region. The Swazi’s claimed this Selati line region, as their land and to this end, fought against the other tribes in the region every year to keep themselves safe and independent. These wars took place from the Swaziland northern border, as far as the Limpopo River further north and if needed beyond into what became Rhodesia.
From the early to middle part of the 1800’s, Swaziland faced some major threats to its safety, not only from the north but also from the south of the country as well. To protect Swaziland’s southern border from any Zulu Mfecane (ethnic cleansing as was done by Shaka) and having many warring tribes on the northern boundary, the Swazi king Mswati II, ceded the rights over the land between the Crocodile and the Limpopo River to the Lydenberg Boer Republic in the 1850’s. To the Swazi king, this was a trade-off for the protection he received from whom he believed was a non-warring people, securing his borders in the north, which ended up paying off handsomely in time. Because of this pact, the Swazi’s could concentrate on the threat from the Zulus in the south – its chief then being Dingaan – and avoid fighting a war on two fronts, having threats from the Tsonga people as well – in the north-east.
A little while later during the early 1880’s, it became necessary to finally establish the northern border between Swaziland and the Transvaal Republic where the intended Eastern rail line to Delagoa Bay was to go. At this time the region between the northern Swaziland border up to the Crocodile River had been governed by the Swazi’s after the native wars (or let say claimed by them).
Before the line could be mapped and built the border had to be defined. The persons chosen by the Republic for the negotiations with the Swazi King Mbandzini were Able Erasmus (native name Madubula – ‘he who shoots’ – a very capable explorer, hunter, negotiator (later after the war, became the native commissioner at Lydenberg under the Union) and George Hutcheson a trader and both well known by the Swazi King. The negotiations that took place at the Lomati River resulted in the King relinquishing Swaziland’s claim to this territory in favour of the Republic and so the line could be built and the Transvaal border was established as it is today.
And so most of the immediate region we are dealing with became controlled and owned by the government of the white settlers. This, except for other isolated tribes who mostly formed a part of the Kruger Park when it was later proclaimed and they paid rent for services – i.e. grazing – by the Kruger Park. The tribes of the south in the Crocodile region were generally divided as follows.
The first modern native people of this area were the San people, otherwise known as the Bushman, evidenced by their cave paintings in the region. The next occupants who took over from the San were the Sotho and Tsonga speaking tribes, such as the BakaNgomane, some of whom were driven off or absorbed by the Swazi’s, who’s war policy was to subdue and absorb. An interesting point is, Swaziland’s native name is KaNgwane, and the Swazi people are known as the BakaNgwane, which refers to the people of Ngwane.
In 1896, Shangaan refugees from Mozambique joined the Ngomane tribe of the Crocodile River region. Part of this area and Gazaland (Mozambique) was also occupied by the Tsonga Chief, Soshangaan and the Shangaan people, as they were later named. Then under Soshangaan’s son, Chief Mzila, the Shangaans moved to the Acornhoek area in Gazankulu.
Upside Down and Inside Out Economy
For more clarity and a better understanding of this time period, some further history is needed for a very fast tracking economy.
- The first Anglo-Boer War had just been fought ten years before, between 16 December 1880 and 23 March 1881. By 1899, the most money and personnel associated with the Transvaal Gold Fields was British, there were also large contingents of Irish, Canadians, Australians and Americans. America had just experienced the worst winter in living memory, killing cattle and livestock, wiping out many a farmer and it was these who now ventured out seeking gold.
- At this time, Consolidated Gold Fields of South Africa makes an annual profit of 2.1 Million Pounds, becoming the largest return ever recorded by a limited company listed in London. This yields a 125% dividend in 1895. The white population of Johannesburg is 50,000. Apart from the few mentioned above, most come from the Cape and Britain, with only 6,000 being Transvaal burghers.
- Further, the Sabi Game Reserve between the Crocodile and Sabi Rivers was about to be proclaimed by President Paul Kruger’s Government, which was duly done in 1898. The reserve covered an area of 4,002 sq miles (10,364 square kilometres). Then in May 1903, the Shingwedzi Game Reserve to the north was added, forming the upper part of the Kruger National Park and with additions and subtractions is now an area of some 7,523 sq miles (19,485 sq km).
Subterfuge Was Not a Submarine
As you can see, there were a substantial number of local residents available for labour to build a railway line, yet few were used. In an account given by Warden Stevenson Hamilton – chief warden of the Sabi Game Reserve – in a book, where he refers to numerous experienced railway construction workers, both white and black who died during construction of the railway. So where did they come from? My version you will read further on in this story.
The cost of the Selati Line amounted to £9,600 a mile instead of the standard cost of £7,200 a mile, which was the accepted norm for that time. This among other things made the Selati Line the most expensive railway line in the world. More about that later.
The Selati Railway Company contractors under the Oppenheim brothers went ahead and laid the 50 miles of track from Komatipoort to a camp known as ‘Sabi Bridge’, on the banks of the Sabi River, at a point where the Skukuza camp now stands in the Kruger National Park. The next step was to build a bridge across the Sabi River. This bridge was to conform to the newly completed bridge across the Crocodile River – damaged in the 2000 floods of this region – built by Westwood & Winby in early 1893.
See you for the next adventure: Selati Line – War Spies, Corruption and Death