MEMOIR OF THE LATE ROBERT BELL
of “CRAIGIE LEA”
New Scotland , South African Republic
(by D.D. Buchanan)
As I knew Mr. Bell very well, I have been asked to write his Memoir, and although I know that I shall not do justice of the record. I shall submit to my readers a "plain unvarnished tale, in the hope that it may assist some more competent writer to record the life and doings of one of South Africa's ablest pioneers, and of a gentleman whom to know as to love and esteem.
I have said I knew him well, and the fact of my having come out in the same Steamer from England to South Africa with him in 1867, alone warrants my saying I knew him. for if you cannot know a man after a long voyage with him, you can never know him: and I am further warranted in my assertion, as I knew him for ten years after that pleasant voyage in the good old "Saxon", - that is up to the time of his death in 1877.
On leaving Cambridge University in 1867, I called on my father's old friend Mr. Alexander McCorkindale, the founder of New Scotland, who was then in London, to tell him I was leaving by the "Saxon''. The old gentleman seemed inordinately pleased at my having booked by that Steamer, he was so emphatic in his delight that I asked him the cause, and he at once said "Because you will have Robert Bell as a passenger, he's going out as Manager of the "The Glasgow & South African Land Company's large tract of country now known in the Transvaal as "New Scotland" - a very responsible position which the Company has re-called Bell from New Zealand to fill, because he had been so faithful and hardworking there as on the Company's representatives" adding "and because he's a right good fellow, and one you'll like awfully!"
And he did prove to be a "right good fellow" in every sense of the expression, not only throughout the voyage, but throughout the following ten years, not only to myself but to the many who met him.
Mr. Bell and I shared the same cabin, and a better chum no fellow could desire. In common with myself, everyone on board, from the jovial Captain Raynton to the cheeky Cabin Boy, and from the Cape Colony's new Attorney General (Mr. Griffiths) to the last passenger, and particularly the ladies, liked and respected Bob Bell the more we saw of him.
If there was any matter for arbitration, or difficulty requiring solution, Griffiths and Bell were at once sought after; Bell was "all there", and his part as Bones in the Christy Minstrels, and Clown in the Pantomime, and tragedian in the Play, were never better taken by any amateur. He and the First Officer, Mr. Cothupe, were the life of the voyage, and were almost inseparable, their hearty laughs were some of the greatest treats of the trip, and were heard in the worst and even dangerous weather, resounding above and drowning the curses of the sailors, when the weather was at its vagaries such as only at sea it can be, and even the plump, smiling Captain was anxious and serious.
Here I win jot down what I remember Bob telling me of his Australian career, for it cannot but interest his children for whom I am principally writing this memoir.
He told me, inter alia, that he and a brother of his had been sent out in the early "sixties" to Australia to assist on the vast possessions of the Glasgow & South African Land Company in New Zealand, when they were mere boys and ought to be at school, that they had to commence their new life in the wilds of a wild country at the lowest rung of the ladder, their work being hard and trying, and their pay no better at first than that of an ordinary Natal kaffir, if indeed as good as most kaffir’s get at the present day, that they were at first compelled to herd and frequently count vast flocks of sheep and herds of cattle running over tracts of country in extent from five to ten miles square country in those days full of "undesirables'', in the form of wild beasts and Bushrangers and other savages.
He told me of many occasions when he and his brother had, of necessity, to be separated from each other for weeks at a time, and by perhaps as much as eighty to a hundred miles distance, without a chance of corresponding with each other of anyone else, or even the chance of seeing or talking to a white man.
He told me of how at times their food consisted of what was hardly fit for Bushmen, - the dregs of creation, and they were glad to, at times, when suffering from the torments of thirst they could only allay it by chewing the glossy green leaves of the lovely currajong tree so familiar to Australian travellers in the wild bush. Year after year, riding and walking long distances daily, through unfriendly, not to say treacherous tribes, whose room was always preferable to their company; without books or newspapers, herding stupid sheep and refractions cattle and counting them, their only companions at nights being opossums rushing squirrel-like through the branches, the wild cats and the native bear with its queer grunt from the dense bush, and the wild dog or dingo with its hideous howl, year after year with often no food except the inevitable damper cooked in ashes and washed down with water at times hardly fit to wash in, with now and then as a great treat a lump of beef or mutton and onions slung into a tin-billy, with some rice as a thickening: very few visitors, and letters from the "old country" or the Motherland about as scarce and few and far between as angel’s visits, often without boots and medicines and medical comforts, tired and weary and lonely night after night with no one to talk to except the faithful silent hound, and to be able to relieve the monotony of their life only by a visit to the mixed humanity of a small Mining Camp, at that time comprised of a few good and many bad English, a doubt-at -all-times lot of swarthy black-eyed Spaniards. Germans and Chinese inhabiting weather-beaten tents illuminated for the best part with tallow candles stuck in bottles: the nightly amusements of the motley concertinas or equally execrable Jew sharps. The latter passed from mouth to mouth, the programme being varied by a drinking-bout followed up by a concomitant amount of head breaking and language more emphatic than polite, and only heard at Billingsgate and in low canteens: and consequently a little of this sort of change and relief from the monotony life, went a long way.
However, as will be seen presently, Bob's hard work, honesty of purpose and faithfulness to his Company, brought in a high position in New Zealand, and in 1867 he and his good brother were re-called by the Company, and after tramping some hundred and more miles with their swag on their shoulders, took ship for England.
After a brief stay in Scotland, Mr. Bell boarded the "Saxon" as the duly appointed Manager in New Scotland of the Glasgow and South African Land Company whom he had served so well in New Zealand.
In addition to his responsible position of Manager of the above Company, Mr. Bell was soon appointed a Justice of the Peace and subsequently Resident Magistrate of New Scotland, and Captain of the New Scotland Border Corps, which position he held for ten years and up the time of his sad death on the 22nd September 1877, when he was brutally murdered by an outlaw from Swaziland - a native named Mabekana, whom he had good naturedly permitted to settle with a few followers on one of the Company's farms about eight miles from "Craigie Lea", on condition that he would behave himself have no authority over the natives, and would pay such taxes as might be demanded.
Judging from what I have heard, the statements published regarding this cold-blooded murder, and appended hereto, are not quite correct in detail.
When Sir Theophilus Shepstone went up to annex the Transvaal, he stayed for a rest at "Craigie Lea", and when Mr. Bell mentioned that Mabekana had defied him and refused to pay taxes, Sir T. Shepstone told Mr. Bell to take some of his (Bell's) native Police over to Mabekana's kraal and arrest him. Mr. Bell accompanied by Mrs. Bell on horseback and ten Native Constables, started for Mabakana's kraal on the 22nd September, 1877, calling at ''Clarence"' Mr. Bell's brother-in-law's farm, en route, where Mrs. Bell was left by her husband, who proceeded to Mabekana's with the small police band. Towards evening of the same day, Mr. EJ. Buchanan, Mr. Bell's brother-in-law, whilst thatching his house on his farm some or five miles from "Craigie Lea", was startled by the sudden appearance of one of Mr. Bell's Native Constables wounded in the leg with an assagai, and who had come to report that he had gone with Mr. Bell to Mabekana's kraal with the other Native Constables, that after some conversation between Mr. Bell and Mabekana the police were attacked by Mabekana's men and all killed with the exception of himself, that when he last saw poor Mr, Bell he was standing with his arms folded talking to Mabekana, but he was afraid he (Bell) had been killed too. Mr. Buchanan lost no time in collecting his kaffirs, and warning the Field Cornet, Mr. A. King, and a many others as he could of the dreadful occurrence, and proceeded to Mabekana's kraal, where he arrived late at night and found poor Mr. Bell stabbed through the heart and stiff on his back, his head in his hat and the whole kraal silent and deserted. Mr. King and others having joined Mr. Buchanan with all the whites and kaffirs they could bring, went in pursuit of the fugitives and murderers and captured them near the Swazi Border, and Mabekana with them.
Mabekana and his men were subsequently trailed in Pretoria where Mabekana was sentenced to death and hanged, and his men got various terms of imprisonment with hard labour.
One most painful incident was that his wife, who accompanied him on horseback part of the way, was awaiting her husband's return on a neighbouring farm. As hour after hour passed, she grew terribly anxious, and then came the dreadful news, and the more dreadful task of breaking it to her. What a change! Only a few days before many were eyewitnesses to the happiness and contentment reigning at "Craigie Lea",and to the expression of satisfaction at the prospects of the owner. Now the affectionate wife is a widow, and "Craigie Lea" is fatherless.
Mr. Bell was well known, not only in the Transvaal but the neighbouring Colonies, He came there about ten years ago with the Scotch emigrants, holding a responsible position under the Glasgow & South African Land Company. Previous to this he had resided in New Zealand, where by dint of perseverance and honesty of purpose, he had risen from the bottom of the ladder to a position of trust. The Glasgow Company appreciated his services and qualities and called him from that Colony, and offered him the position he held so long and filled so well in New Scotland.
Mabekana is a refugee from the Amaswazi, being compelled about a year and a half ago to fly. He was allowed to squat on Mr. Bell's farm, and this is the return for such kindness. No one will look upon this in any light but that of a cowardly murder. Nor will it be doubted that our allies and faithful allies of the Colonial Government are as sorry for what has happened as we are, and will readily give him up if caught in his own country, which is scarcely likely, considering that he is looked upon by them as an outlaw. Zululand will be his most probable point. Cetewayo has already been instructed in this matter, and will be only too ready to give him up if caught in his territory.
No political importance can be remotely attached to this sad affair. Mabekana is only the head of a small kraal of refugees and must have acted on the impulse of the moment, taking advantage of Mr. Bell's defenceless condition.
This dreadful murder has cast quite a gloom on all, and the same time it is much to be regretted that Mr. Bell's courage should so far have blinded his judgement as to induce him to approach unarmed such a well-known dangerous character, who had nothing to lose in committing the awful deed. Moreover, everyone will feel sorry that Mr. Bell did no prefer returning after the failure of his mission, and allow the law to take its course, to taking active measures with a few unarmed men.
The "Natal Colonist" of 5th October, 1877, published the following statement-News has just arrived from New Scotland that Mr. Robert Bell, who lived on the Swazi Border, has been murdered by the kafirs.
It appears that when Sir T. Shepstone was at New Scotland a few weeks ago, Mr. Bell complained to His Excellency about some kaffirs residing on his farm who were disobedient. His Excellency said the best course would be to drive them off the farm, and last Saturday, the 22nd Sept, Mr. Bell and ten of his kaffir Policemen went to the kaffir kraal to arrange some business with the Headman, and to tell him to quit his farm, but neither he nor his policemen took any weapons with them, thinking it wiser to make no demonstration. Mr. Bell told the Chief of the kraal to come up to his house to settle their business; he refused to do this, and said he would finish the business there; and it appears after some talk on die matter, Mr. Bell gave his policemen orders to apprehend the Headman, and to bring him to his (Mr. Bell's) house.
Mr. King, the Field Cornet, was informed of the murderous deed, and started offwith a few other men and kaffirs, and on arriving at the kaffirs' kraal found poor Mr. Bell dead, and the four policemen quite dead, but the kaffirs of the draal had fled, it is thought to the Zulu Country, but their cattle were captured, so I am told.
Mr. C- Buchanan (brother-in-law to Mr. Bell) passed up yesterday to Utrecht or Newcastle to inform Sir T. Shepstone of this sad event. It is hoped his Excellency will have this treacherous deed properly investigated, and the murderers brought to justice.
The remains of poor Mr. Bell were buried on the 24th ult. He leaves a wife and four children to deplore his loss.
Mr. Bell was Captain of the New Scotland Border Corps, Justice of the Peace, and 1 believe he was lately appointed Resident Magistrate of New Scotland.
My informant says this murderous deed has nothing to do with the Amaswazi King, but from a private letter just received, it seems that Mr. Erskine, Government Land Surveyor, who was surveying the land belonging to the Estate of the late Mr. A. McCorkindale, has been driven off the ground by the Zulus; they will not allow him to put up his pegs, so I think it means more than murder."
This sad news has naturally caused a great deal of excitement, Mr. Bell having been well known to many here, and by his marriage to a daughter of the late Mr. David Dale Buchanan, has a great number of connections.
The following official correspondence with reference to the recent murder of Mr. Bell has been published :-
( Not all of these letters were put on this web)
His Excellency the Administrator of the Government has been pleased to direct the publication for general information of the following letters which contain all the information that has as yet reached the Government concerning the melancholy incident to which they refer.
His Excellency thinks it best that these documents at once be made public, to prevent the unnecessary alarm which might arise out of a natural but unfounded supposition that the Amaswazi Chief or Tribe had sanctioned or had in any way been privy to the act.
(Sg.) H.C.SHEPSTONE Secretary for Native Affairs Utrecht, Transvaal, September 27th, 1877
And now dear reader, gentle and otherwise, whilst I have borne hi mind the motto "nil nisi bonum Mortuis", to depart one iota from which in the present memoir would have been wilfully to have postponed the truth, not to say, to have lied, and libelled a gentleman, and what is more, one of the best of husbands and fathers, and men, friends and Colonists South Africa has ever known. I leave my simple record of his life feeling assured that there are still many living who will peruse it with pleasure albeit not unmingled with genuine grief.
Email from Mike Bell
From: Mike Bell
Sent: Thursday, December 04, 2014 6:36 PM
Subject: Robert Bell
Well done a comprehensive website that is doing a good job of promoting Lake Chrissie.
You have the Memoirs of the late Robert Bell posted on the website. For more detail on this upstanding first citizen of New Scotland and his tragic demise you could consider placing a link to his WikiTree page. http://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Bell-7270
He is quite an interesting fellow not the least being his belief in not being armed, and also a ghost that was believed to be him. He is also the centre of an unbroken line of 8 Robert Bell stretching from 1748 till 1962. He was my great great Grandfather.