Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/March 1883/A South African Arcadia

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THE traveler, coming fresh from Europe into Damaraland, is struck by the complete communistic freedom with which every man appropriates the land and its natural products. Roads have been worn through the thickets by foot-men and the heavy ox-wagons, and the chief villages are connected by a kind of highway, but no one is obliged to keep the roads if he does not want to. They are of no more significance than the zebra or rhinoceros tracks which led to the drinking-places before man appeared in the country; and there is no reason why the traveler should not make a new road at pleasure. The pasturage is free for the teamster's hungry cattle, the wood for the fire needed to cook his supper. If a stray spark sets the grass on fire, no one thinks of complaining; if a hunter commits devastation among the game, the native may grumble at the waste, but he will not imagine that his rights are trespassed upon, or venture to interfere with the proceedings. The game is as much the strange hunter's as his. If one sees a spot that pleases him, he is at liberty to settle upon it, and build himself a house there. If any objection is made to the stranger, nothing worse happens than that something unreasonable is demanded of him, in the same way that people in other parts of the world are not ashamed to overreach strangers: this is not so easily done, however, if the intruder is a native or a member of the same tribe; and even a stranger, if he does not allow himself to be scared away, is at last permitted to remain undisturbed. Whoever settles in any particular spot must, however, expect that other persons, finding it well supplied with water and pasturage, will bring their herds there too; and it is the practice of the Herero, when they wish to get rid of an unwelcome neighbor, notwithstanding their communism, to bring up so many herds and establish so many cattle-ranges about his house that he becomes disgusted with the frequent intrusions, and is obliged to go away from the exhausted tract. Some of the Herero chiefs have recently begun to drive single settlers away by force, but they are actuated by ulterior political views. The people are not disposed to grudge a stranger the particular spot of land he occupies, but they wish to drive foreigners out of the country altogether. An incident from Damara history will help to illustrate the extent to which this sense of communism goes. When the Hereros had succeeded, after nine years of warfare, in shaking off the domination of the Namaquas, to whom they had previously been subjected, the Namaqua chief, Jan Afrikaner, asked the missionaries to help him make a peace with them. The missionaries proposed that the two parties should fix a boundary between themselves, which they would both respect. Both refused to do this. They were ready to make a peace, they said, and keep it, but they would have the land, over which they had fought so hard, in common. The Herero chief, Kamaherero, declared repeatedly that Jan might live in any part of the land he chose after the peace, and that he should expect a fair proportion of his own people to be allowed to live in Jan's land. The peace contracted on these terms lasted fully ten years.

The custom is the same with regard to that which the earth conceals: every one takes of its treasures wherever he finds them. All, from all directions, fetch iron and copper ores from those parts of the land where the mines have been known to exist from time immemorial; and the people who ordinarily live near the mines have never on that account thought of assuming any right of proprietorship over them. There are but few salt-licks in the land; and, as soon after the rainy season as the ground becomes passable, the herders from all quarters drive their cattle across the pasture-lands indifferently to the springs. The dwellers around these places look on quietly, while the cattle and the sheep, flocking up by thousands from all the regions around, tread down and destroy the grass of their pastures. They may complain to themselves about the destruction, but it never occurs to them to drive the strangers away. It would be decidedly foreign to the Damara mind for any one to undertake, as Europeans are accustomed to do, to monopolize the salt-springs and charge a higher price for the use of them as they become more indispensable to others.

The Hereros will even resist, in every way, any one conceding, by sale, a particular right to any person to hold any piece of land. The Roman Catholic missionaries, who recently sought to gain a footing in Damaraland, made themselves suspected more than in any other way by representing to the people that they would do better by them than the Protestant missionaries had done, for they would buy land for their churches, schools, and dwellings, while the Protestant missionaries were occupying land for those purposes free. They ruined their cause, and prompted the heathen chief to try every device to get them away. In a similar manner, the chiefs told us German missionaries, whenever the subject came up, "You may live in our country as long as you wish, and no one shall molest you so long as the land belongs to us, but we will not sell a bit of it to any man."

There are not even any real boundaries between the different tribes. Some of the chiefs have, indeed, set up exclusive claims to particular tracts, but have never assumed to enforce them; and other tribes have never been required to leave the land. The natural result of this communism is, that no one has a personal care for the land, but gets all he can out of it, and then leaves it waste to go to a new spot. Hence the language of the Hereros has no terms for home, fatherland, or boundary-lines.

This communism extends to all the productions of the earth that have not been separated from it. Whatever a man has put his hand upon, that becomes his private property. Whoever takes from a man anything that he has appropriated to his own use, is a thief. Game, free in the fields, belongs to whoever can kill it; but to take it away from a hunter who has bagged it is a theft, or robbery. In Damara law even game which has only been hit, and has afterward been killed by some one else, belongs to the hunter who first hit it, although he is expected to give a share of it to the other one. This feeling is so strong that, when shooting-parties are made up, the right to the first shot passes from one to another by turns, so that it may be possible for each one to get a piece of game. The hunter who has to make the first shot is in that case the real hunter, and the others are only his helpers; but, if he misses, the right passes over to the next one.

Any one can cut down a tree who wishes to, but another is not allowed to appropriate the wood after it has been taken possession of. Any one may dig a well for his cattle wherever there is hope of finding water, but no one can drink out of the well which another has dug without the permission of the owner. The lord of the well, when he is asked for water, will generally order his people to wait upon the one making the request, so that he does not get paid for the water, but for the attendance; and, if he does not choose to permit the well to be used for another man's cattle, the argument that he did not create the water has no effect upon him. When any one finds a piece of land suitable for a garden, he can fence it and till it, and the crop will belong to him; and it is generally considered wrong for any one to enter upon land that has been put under cultivation by another and till it for himself. But it would be contrary to custom, and provoke resistance, if any one, leaving the place and abandoning his garden, should attempt to sell any right in it. The tract again becomes free for the first comer to occupy.

A kind of property in personal goods is theoretically recognized, but the right is, in practice, one that rather appertains to the family than to the individual. A general principle seems to prevail that it is not right to refuse a gift to one who asks it, particularly if he is a relative or a friend, or is powerful or rich. People of this class have no hesitation in begging, and the stranger may be sure that the ragged fellow who asks him for a new shirt in place of his worn-out one is a person of wealth who thinks he is doing him honor, and is according him the recognition he would give to his lord or his father. The denial of the first request does not generally give offense; but, if the request is granted, the asker will demand more and greater things, and will expect to get them; and, if a person gives to one of a number of beggars, he must give to all the rest, or they will think he is dishonoring them.

The people, however, exercise without scruple the right to appropriate their relative's goods to their own use, if he is not there to prevent it; and this state of public opinion leads to some comical scenes. A wealthy old chief, who had hundreds of dependents, possessed numerous articles of European clothing, without owning a complete suit; but, whenever he went out, he had to put his clothes all on, however hot the weather. He came to me to be photographed one day, having on a pair of shoes, three pairs of thick moleskin trousers, a waistcoat over an indefinite number of shirts, a large shawl around his body, a thick jacket, a shawl around his neck, with a large dressing-gown over the whole; and on his head a kerchief, a Calabrian cap, and a velvet cap with pearl ornaments; and all this in a heat in which his aboriginal nakedness would have been much more comfortable—because he was afraid, if he left the garments at home, the members of his household would appropriate them. This same chief asked one of my friends for a piece of soap, so that he could wash his clothes himself; for he was afraid, if he gave them to any one else to wash, they would not be returned. If the clothes are locked up in a trunk they will be safe, for it is considered stealing to take them when they are thus secured; but, if the trunk is left open, Damara custom permits the clothes to be lifted carefully out and put one side, and the trunk to be carried off. Articles of personal property may, however, be devoted to special uses, or to special persons, by a kind of form of consecration, when the right to them is respected. A custom of this kind has prevailed from antiquity with reference to cattle and milk-vessels. Frequently, also, the head of the house has the right to the first use of things; among the Hottentots they are his so long as they are whole, but as soon as they are damaged the relatives are at liberty to get them if they can.

New milk must be taken to the master to taste before the rest can partake of it; and this imposes no small labor on the lord of a thousand milch-cows. Likewise whatever is killed must be brought to him first. If he is not at home, the ancestral staff represents him, and must be dipped into the milk or touch the meat. Particular animals are sometimes milked for each member of the family, into a vessel set apart for him, and then it is wrong for any one to touch the dish without the owner's permission. The master's dish is filled even when he is absent, and must not be used by any one else under penalty of bad luck; but, when it is needed for the next milking, the milk already in it is poured out on the ground. If, however, a visitor comes to the place, he, as the master's guest, can use his dish and drink his share of the milk without impropriety. After the owner of the cow and the vessel is dead, the vessel is still regularly filled and emptied, unless some guest comes along to whom the contents can be given.

The principal property of the Herero consists in cattle. As the lambs and calves and the mother-cows are never slaughtered, and other animals only on festal occasions, the herds increase very rapidly in the warm climate of the country, and require constantly larger pasturage tracts. This leads to frequent interferences, with occasions for contention; and at intervals the pasturage becomes exhausted, and great suffering ensues. The Hereros are thus exposed to periodical alternations of wealth and poverty.

The chiefs have, however, a tolerably secure possession in their retainers; and the feudal and patriarchal relation in which the men stand to each other is in strong contrast with the community of title to the land and soil. Theoretically, the function of head of the family descends to the eldest son; practically, it is exercised by the strongest member of the family—who is most likely an uncle of the heir—around whom the other members group themselves as dependents. The position of the women is not essentially different from that of the women of the working-classes in Europe. The work is divided between the two sexes about as it is in Europe, and the women are not called upon to do men's work, except in case of need, while the men are willing enough to help in the peculiar women's work whenever they can make themselves useful and have nothing better to do, provided no strangers are in sight. Polygamy is freely allowed, and as many alliances as possible are formed by the head of the family, as a means of strengthening his influence and conciliating his neighbors and rivals. The provisions of matrimonial alliances are carefully considered and guarded, so that each family may receive all the honor it is entitled to, and neither shall get the advantage of the other. Slavery exists in a mild form, but the sale of slaves seldom occurs. Children are taken into the council of their parents, and are consulted about important matters from a very early age; and the parent will seldom disregard the advice of his child, or exercise constraint upon him in any matter except indirectly and in the most gentle way.

The most wealthy cattle-owners number their herds by the thousand head. It is impossible to keep them all in one place, and they are therefore distributed at different stations under the charge of particular herdsmen. The herdsman's position is a considerable one, and brings with it privileges enough to make it desirable. The cattle are not distinguished by any specific marks, and the owner's only means of recognizing them is by his personal acquaintance with them. This requires him to be continually on the watch, and to go frequently the round of the stations to inspect them, else his herdsmen might make some of them their own. Most owners become extremely skillful in noticing and recognizing the individual peculiarities of their animals.

The system of inheritance is determined by the circumstances of the country and its customs, which require that the head of the family must be strong and wise enough to maintain his rights. By its operation, when a chief dies and leaves a family of minors, his whole personal estate goes, not to his widow and children, but to the nearest man of might in the family. The cattle and servants become his, and the widow and children become his wife and children, the latter on an equal footing with his own children, so precisely that the language of the country has no word for step-father and step-child. One of the results of the system is that the rich and powerful grow more wealthy and influential the longer they live, while the children and younger members of the family receive nothing as of right. It has, however, become customary for the children to be given particular animals as their own, their right to which, with the increase, is regularly and formally recognized; and with these and what additions to their stock they may acquire in one way or another, they are able gradually to accumulate a considerable property as they grow up.

The wealth of a man who has grown fat in riches may consist in what he has inherited from his father, or from the chief of his family; in what he has received from more distant relatives; in what he has gained in fees from his herdsmen; and in what of the property of other estates he has received by becoming the head of the family. The line of descent of all this property, which consists almost wholly of the pedigrees of the cattle, is carefully preserved, and the accumulations of each kind can be as carefully computed and allotted as is done in the case of the accounts of European bankers. When the lord dies, all this property, with its increase, must go where it came from. The division, or the fact that it is to take place, brings all the connections of the family from far and wide around the bed of the lord when he has died or is expected to die, for each claimant must be present in person to assert his claim, or it will be overlooked or overpowered. The herdsmen must likewise bring up all the cattle from the various stations, that they may be identified according to their pedigrees. The division of all these animals and the adjudication of the claims of all the pretendants who appear, sometimes consumes months of time, with discussions which are often carried on in the midst of great excitement. The dying man may himself give directions respecting the division of his property, which are then implicitly carried out, otherwise the man who disregards them may be troubled by his ghost.

  1. Translated for "The Popular Science Monthly" from "Das Ausland."