Winner 2008

2008-10-03 00:00

This is the story of a group of men and a woman who lived on Durban’s beach front over 150 years ago. They died and are buried there too, but you won’t see any graves or street names to remember them by. In fact, you won’t see much history at all on the Durban beach front. It is being developed and every day more edifices squat triumphant over the past. The hunting and fishing people, the first African farmers, the inkosi Malinda who, before the rise of the Zulu kings, gave it the name KwaMalinda. All gone — buried under the rubbish, the tar and the paving stones, the smoked glass and concrete moving illegally towards the sea.

But it’s always been a place for those who live on the edge of the law. Today it’s called the beach front. In 1853, it was called the back beach. Jemmy Squaretoes lived there in the bush. Years before, he had been a sailor and had lost his toes through frostbite. His real name was Samuel Harris.

It was a hard walk back from the Point where Jemmy hung out during the day. He was drunk on May 12 as he lurched down West Street, called in for a drink at Joe Campbell’s beer shop and made his way past the army camp at the Old Fort. Near where Kingsmead is today he took off his trousers, hung them round his neck and began to wade across the vlei, first ankle then knee-deep, before reaching the beach dunes. It was a tough place to build a kraal, but with the Indian Ocean on one side, and marshland and mosquitoes on the other, it gave security to the desperados: the squatters with their tick-ridden cattle, the 45th regiment’s prostitutes at Seraglio Point and Flatta’s kraal where Jemmy lived.

Flatta was described as a Hottentot. As a result we know little about her. She’d built her huts here before Jemmy turned up and took them over. In 1853, two of her older sons, Hans and Ntshingwayo, lived there as well. So did Magiyana and Frederick Cooper alias Jack Elliot — runaway seaman, 24 years old and an Englishman. John Fisher, a West Indian sailor, just escaped from jail, was hiding in the bush nearby. Nyosi and

11-year-old Little John were Flatta’s younger sons and shared her hut. They lived by what they called lifting. They lifted cattle from the Mngeni flats, slaughtered them in the bush and sold the meat in town. They lifted clothes and drink and jewellery from the houses on the Berea. Trading their loot with the soldiers from the camp, they ran guns when they could.

But there was tension between Flatta and the people at her place, and with Jemmy. It was her kraal, but Jemmy had taken it over. And now he’d begun cheating and exploiting them. He was violent when drunk, fired a gun at them and threatened to drive Flatta and the children away. Flatta went to see John Fisher in his bush hideout. They used their different languages to communicate. They’d had enough of Jemmy. He hlupha’d [bothered] them. They had been to an inyanga at Inanda to get muti to bulala [kill] him and put it in his coffee, but nothing had happened. Flatta said that if Fisher would help doodmaak that infernal Englishman then she would be Fisher’s vrou.

She went back to the kraal and spoke with the men there. As they’d often done before, they discussed Jemmy’s future. This time they decided that it should be short. Jack said that if he was killed it must be done in a way that left his body with no marks.

It was dark when Jemmy waded through muddy water on his way to Flatta’s kraal. The crisp tones of the army bugler sounding the retreat followed him across the vlei. He refused the offer of food and lay down in Flatta’s hut. But he didn’t go to sleep. When Magiyana came towards him with hands outstretched Jemmy asked what he wanted and Magiyana mumbled something about his stick and sat down. The hut was quiet. Flatta came in and lit a fire then went outside again. She didn’t want to see him die. Inside no one spoke.

But it couldn’t last. Magiyana jumped up, and grabbed Jemmy by the throat. Ntshingwayo threw his arms around his waist. Jack held on to Jemmy’s legs and Hans grabbed his arms. Little John, Flatta’s son, peeped through the door. They were all holding or lying on him but Jemmy was struggling.

"Yissis, the man is so sterk."

"Mama! what have I done?"

"You have cheated us. You have humbugged us."

"Why don’t you help me Jack? Why do you let me die?"

At that Jack made for the door but he was ordered back. When Magiyana’s grip on Jemmy’s throat began to slacken, Hans took over. In the end he stopped struggling. They had smothered the life out of him.

The four men carried Jemmy down to the vlei. Little John followed and Flatta told him to go back and fetch Jemmy’s trousers. They threw him into the water at the crossing point and his trousers after him. The sun was up when Jemmy was found next morning. Flatta walked past and when she was told it was a white man she began to cry saying: "May it not be my man. What will become of me today?" They tied a riem to the wrist and pulled him out. The military doctor noted the arms were in a beseeching position — unusual for a drowning but nobody cared much.

Jack had warned them not to talk, but the men who had killed Jemmy couldn’t keep their mouths shut. In jail, Hans told his cell mates. They knew the value of such information and passed it on. John Fisher, the escaped convict, also talked.

On June 28, 1853, Flatta, Jack, Ntshingwayo, Magiyana and Hans were charged and tried for murder. Hans’s cell mates and John Fisher gave evidence against them. So did Little John. He tried to protect his mother but in the light of the other evidence, he failed. On June 29 all five were sentenced to death.

It was Durban’s first public hanging and would be staged as near as possible to the place where the killing took place. Early on Saturday, the crowds began to gather around the scaffold — "the hollow sound of the billows as they broke on the adjacent beach, producing the effect of a solemn requiem for the departing souls", wrote the Natal Mercury. The small number of Africans present were "grave and silent". German settlers from Pine Town brought their families in ox carts to the back beach for the show and a weekend in town. The prisoners were escorted by troops with fixed bayonets. Jack, Flatta and the three others climbed up the ladder, then stood in a line on the scaffold. The Reverend Calvert Spensely read the funeral service. Since their sentencing, he had worked energetically for the souls of the prisoners and believed he had convinced all five that they deserved to be punished for their sins. Jack wept, asking the forgiveness of his family, his mother especially. Flatta and Ntshingwayo prayed aloud.

The hangman, Mr Wardle, covered their heads, placed the nooses around their necks and lit his pipe. It had been arranged that the execution would take place when the Reverend Spensely closed his prayer book. The traps crashed open, the bodies fell and although they twitched spasmodically for some minutes the Mercury "confidently believed that sensation ceased from the moment of suspension". They were buried on the spot, near North Beach.

The Reverend Spensely’s work was not yet over. He handed the Mercury the signed confession and final letters of Jack, as well as statements by the condemned men and woman in which they expressed their happiness at finding God, and their profound regret that through their actions Jemmy had been denied eternal joy. The good minister was also greatly exercised over the predicament of Little John. How could one measure the damage done to a boy who had seen this dreadful murder and whose evidence in court had led to the hanging of his mother and his brothers? The reverend could also do with some help around the vicarage. Little John was taken into service.

It was not a success. In September 1857, the secretary for Native Affairs received a letter from a furious Reverend Spensely asking for help. Little John had absconded. He had stolen a horse and ridden off, no one knew where. The "most painstaking efforts to reform him have utterly failed and it is because of his immense capacity for evil ... that I venture to solicit your aid in his capture". John was short for a 14-year-old and had a scar from a burn on the lower part of his back. But these were only physical characteristics. "It is impossible for me to describe his inveterate, dextrous and daring character as a lying thief! Were I to speak half the truth, I might lay my veracity open to suspicion. The public interest demands his immediate apprehension."

I don’t know what happened to Little John. There’s no record that he was apprehended.

Let’s hope he got away.

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