Umtagati by William Charles Scully

Story type: Literature

“The great witch-doctor has come, and all
Sit trembling with cold and fear
As they list to the words from his lips that fall,–
The words all shrink to hear.
Lo! look at the seer as he whirls and leaps
The awestruck circle within,
Where each one shudders, and silence keeps
As he thinks of the untold sin.

“On his head is a cap of dark brown hair,–
The skin of a bear-baboon,
And the tigers’ teeth on his throat, else bare,
Jangle a horrible tune;
The serpents’ skins and the jackals’ tails,
Hang full around his hips,
And a living snake from his girdle trails,
And around each bare limb slips.”

The Witch-Doctor.


THE motive and controlling factors of great issues are not always recognised by those most interested, neither does honour nor yet reward always fall to those who best deserve or earn them. In proof of the foregoing propositions the following narrative is adduced.

Teddy’s full name was Edmund Mortimer Morton. He was a Government official holding the appointment of clerk to the Resident Magistrate of Mount Loch, which district, as everybody knows, is situated in the territory of Bantuland East, and just on the border of Pondoland.

Vooda was a native Police Constable attached to the Mount Loch establishment.

Teddy’s age was twenty-six, but he looked several years younger. He was a pleasant-looking little chap, about five feet four inches in height, slightly built, with blue eyes, yellow hair and an incipient moustache upon which he bestowed a great deal of attention. His hobby was popular chemistry. This he indulged in, greatly to the entertainment of his friends and the detriment of his hands, which were generally discoloured in a manner that defied soap. He lived in a little hut just outside the village. This hut consisted of one room, and was shaped like a round pagoda. It had a pointed roof and projecting eaves made of Tambookie grass. The walls were of sod-work, plastered over and white-washed. Here Teddy dwelt–taking his meals elsewhere–and experimented in parlour-magic to his heart’s content.

Vooda was a constable. He was a short, stout man, with a deep, although not wide knowledge of human nature; not wide only for lack of experience. He had dwelt all his life amongst the natives surrounding Mount Loch, and he could read them like so many books of Standard I. He could, moreover, tell by looking at a witness in court, whether that witness were speaking truth or lying, and the magistrate recognised and utilised this faculty. Vooda and Teddy were great friends, Vooda taking a lively and intelligent interest in Teddy’s experiments.

Every one knows that in the early part of 1894, Pondoland, the last independent native State south of Natal, was annexed to Cape Colony. Much to the general surprise, the annexation was effected peacefully, but for some months afterwards the greatest care had to be exercised in dealing with the Pondos. The people generally were glad of the change from the harsh, arbitrary, and irresponsible rule of the native chiefs to the settled and equitable conditions of civilised government; but the chiefs gave trouble. They naturally would not, without struggling and agitating, submit to the loss of power and prestige which they sustained, and they bitterly resented being no longer permitted to “eat up” those who annoyed them. Now, the instincts of clannishness and loyalty are so strong amongst the Kafirs, that even against what they well know to be their own vital interests, they will follow the most cruel and rapacious tyrant, so long as he is their hereditary tribal chieftain, into rebellion.

Now, the Kwesa clan of Pondos dwelt just on the boundary of Mount Loch, and within thirty miles of the Magistracy. The head of this clan, a chief named Sololo, had not objected to the annexation, and was consequently looked upon as well-affected towards the Government. But within a few months after the annexation, a serious difficulty arose between the authorities and this man. One of his followers quarrelled with another, and after the time-honoured local custom, assuaged his feelings by means of a spear-thrust, which had a fatal result. The murdered man was one whom Sololo disliked, whereas, on the other hand, the murderer was one whom the chief delighted to honour. Consequently, when the magistrate demanded the surrender of the culprit for the purpose of dealing with him according to law, Sololo refused delivery, and couched his refusal in an extremely insolent and rebellious message.

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Cajolements, remonstrances, and threats were of no avail; Sololo remained obstinate. His tone, however, somewhat changed; he sent polite, but evasive and unsatisfactory replies to all messages on the subject. The Chief Magistrate was at his wits’ end. Of course the law had to be vindicated, but were an armed force to be sent against Sololo, the odds were ten to one that within twenty-four hours signal fires would be blazing on every hill, and the war-cry sounding from one end of Pondoland to the other. The Chief Magistrate’s native name was “Indabeni,” which means “The one of counsel.” He was a man of vast experience in respect of the natives, and moreover, he did not belong to that highly moral, but sometimes inconvenient class of officials who are known as “the hide-bound”; that is to say, his ideas ranged beyond the length of the longest piece of red tape in his office, and he knew for a certainty that things existed which could not conveniently be wrapped up in foolscap paper. He was, moreover, one who trusted much to the effect of his own considerable personal influence, and he believed in utilising the talents of such of his subordinates as possessed faculties similar to his own in this respect.

Indabeni had taken Vooda’s measure accurately. He knew the Constable to have a persuasive tongue, to be honest, loyal, and discreet, and, above all, to possess that nameless and almost indescribable quality of imparting trustfulness in those with whom he came in contact.

One afternoon a telegram marked “confidential” came from Indabeni to the Resident Magistrate of Mount Loch. The purport of the message was that Vooda should go to Sololo and talk quietly to him, endeavouring by means of persuasion to effect a compliance with the reasonable demands of Government. Teddy, being in the fullest confidence of his Chief, was present when instructions were accordingly given to Vooda, who was directed to start early next morning for the kraal of the Chief of the Kwesas, in Pondoland.

When the offices were closed for the day, Teddy went home to his hut, and it was noticed by one who met him on the road that his manner was very preoccupied, and his walk unusually slow. Shortly afterwards he was seen to stroll over to the police camp, and go straight to Vooda’s hut.

At eight o’clock that evening Vooda visited Teddy’s dwelling, and a long and serious conversation ensued. This was varied by a series of experiments of a nature so striking that even Vooda was startled. At about ten o’clock a stranger passing noticed strange flashes lighting up the back of the hut behind the reed fence. Shortly before eleven Vooda returned to camp, carrying a small satchel which contained a packet of lycopodium powder, a piece of potassium about as large as a walnut, and a number of whitish lumps about an inch in diameter, such as are known amongst practitioners of parlour magic variously as “serpents’ eggs” or “Pharaoh’s serpents.”

At daylight next morning Vooda left the police camp, but it was late in the afternoon when he reached the kraal of Sololo. He found a. number of strangers there, including Shasha, the “inyanga,” or war doctor. The men, all of whom were armed, were sitting on the ground in a half-circle. Before them stood a number of large earthen pots of beer. Vooda, being an old friend of the Chief, was invited to sit down and drink, so, after removing the saddle from his horse, he joined the party. He soon saw, however, that his presence had imported an element of restraint. He was careful as yet not to allude to the business upon which he had come. Later on others began to arrive, some carrying guns, some spears, and some assegais. It was plain that an important discussion was on hand, and that Vooda’s presence was unwelcome. The beer was not in sufficient quantities to cause intoxication, but nevertheless all were somewhat mellow when the sun went down.

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Shortly afterwards Sololo asked the visitor point blank “Where he was thinking of.” This was an unusual thing to do under the circumstances, such a question to a visitor being held amongst natives to be discourteous and suggestive of inhospitality.

Vooda replied to the effect that he had an important matter to discuss with the Chief, and asked Sololo to grant him a private interview.

Now Sololo, having had experience of Vooda’s persuasive tongue and knack of casuistry, did not wish to argue the point–knowing, as he did full well, the object of Vooda’s visit–and at once made up his mind that he would not see the glib-tongued constable alone.

“Son of my father,” he said, “what you have to say, let it be said before these my councilors and friends.”

Vooda saw there was no chance of a private discussion, and determined therefore to play his game boldly and in public. The dusk of evening was just setting in, and some women had kindled a bright fire.

“My Chief,” he said, “I come with the words of Indabeni, who has chosen me because he knows I am your younger brother” (figurative).

“Indabeni is a great man,” said Sololo; “he has eyes all round his head. His words are good to hear–speak them, son of my father.”

“Indabeni’s heart is heavy, my Chief, because you, the leopard, are placing yourself in the path of the buffalo, which is the Government. Men have told Indabeni that you refuse to deliver to the Magistrate one who has done wrong.”

“The leopard may stand on one side and tear the flank of the buffalo as he passes. He may then hide in the caves of the rocks where the buffalo cannot follow,” said Sololo, sententiously.

“The buffalo may call the wolves to his aid to drive the leopard from his cave,” rejoined Vooda, developing the allegory further; “but why will you not give up the wrong-doer to the magistrate?”

“Why must I give up my friend to be choked with a rope?” said Sololo, excitedly. “He has not slain a white man, but one of my own people. Government must leave him to be punished according to the law of the native. If one of my tribe slays a white man, I will deliver up the slayer.”

“But you know what the Government is, my Chief–it is over all of us. Even Indabeni himself has to do as it tells him.”

“Indabeni is not a Pondo, neither am I Indabeni,” said Sololo, appealing, with a look, to the audience.

“Yebo, Yebo, Ewe–E-hea,” shouted all the men.

“I did not ask Government for its laws,” continued the Chief. “‘U-Sessellodes’ [The native attempt at pronouncing the name of Mr. Cecil Rhodes, Premier of the Cape Colony.] came here and said in a loud voice that we all belonged to him. We were surprised, and could not think or speak. Besides, who listens to the bleating of a goat when an angry bull bellows? Now we have thought and spoken together, and we can also fight; I will never give up my friend to be choked with a rope.”

“E-hea,” shouted the audience.

“My Chief,” said Vooda, “your words are like milk flowing from a great black cow ten days after she has calved, but there is one thing you have not seen, but which I have seen and trembled at.”

“What is this thing that frightens a man who is the father of children?”

“The magic (umtagati) of U-Sessellodes, which he has taught to Indabeni–the terrible magic wherewith he overthrew Lo Bengula and the Matabele.”

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“We, also, have our magic,” said Sololo, glancing at Shasha, the war-doctor.

Shasha came forward in a half-crouching attitude, and approached Vooda, who appeared to be very much impressed. The war-doctor’s appearance was startling enough. He was an elderly man of hideous aspect. On his head he wore a high cap of baboon skin. Slung around his neck, waist, elbows, wrists, knees, and ankles were all sorts of extraordinary things–cowrie and tortoise-shells, teeth and claws of various beasts of prey, strips of skin from all kinds of animals, inflated gall bladders, bones, and pieces of wood. In his hand he carried a bag made by cutting the skin of a wild cat around the neck, and then tearing it off the body as one skins an eel. Out of this he drew a long, living, green snake (inusbwa, the boom-slang), which he hung over his shoulder, where it began to coil about, darting out its forked tongue.

As Shasha advanced quivering towards Vooda in short, abrupt springs, all the things hanging about him clashed and rattled together. He bent down and beat the ground with the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet, making the while a low rumbling in his throat, the apple of which worked up and down. His eyes glared and his nostrils dilated. The snake hissed, and wound itself round his neck and limbs. The whole audience appeared to be struck with superstitious dread.

Shasha suddenly drew himself straight up, and chanted in a sing-song voice, rattling his charms at every period:

“I am the ruler of the baboons and the master of the owls. I talk to the wild cat in the hush. I call Tikoloshe (a water spirit) out of the river in the night-time and ask him questions. I make sickness do my bidding on men and cattle. I drive it away when I like. I can bring blight to the crops, and stop the milk of cows. I can, by my magic medicines, find out the wicked ones who do these things. I alone can look upon Icanti (a fabulous serpent) and not die. I know the mountain where Impandulu (the Lightning Bird) builds its nest. I can make men invulnerable in battle with my medicines, and I can cause the enemies of my Chief to run like a bush-buck pursued by dogs.”

The speech ended, Shasha again bowed down, quivering and contorting, beat the ground with his hands and the soles of his feet and then sprang aside into the darkness.

Sololo looked at Vooda as though he would say, “What do you think of that; is he not a most terribly potent war-doctor?” All the other men looked extremely terrified.

Dead silence reigned for a few moments, and then Vooda spoke:

“O Chief, the magic of your war-doctor is indeed dreadful to behold, but, believe me, the magic of U-Sessellodes and Indabeni is stronger, and I can prove it.”

This caused a murmur of incredulity and indignation. The magic paraphernalia of the war-doctor rattled ominously in the gloom.

“U-Sessellodes,” continued Vooda, “has found the Lightning Bird sitting upon its nest, and plucked its feathers; he has discovered how to make water burn, and he has robbed the cave of Icanti of its eggs, which he can strew over the land to hatch in the sun, and produce snakes that will kill all who see them. These secrets he has taught to Indabeni, and Indabeni has taught them to me so that I might warn you, and having warned, prove the truth of my words.”

At this a loud “ho, ho,” accompanied by a rattling noise, was heard from the war-doctor. Sololo laughed sarcastically. Several of the audience did the same. Then Sololo said:

“Are we children, to believe these things?”

“My Chief,” said Vooda, impressively, “you are not a child, neither is Indabeni; as you know,–nor is the potent war-doctor, nor are any of these great men (madoda roakulu) that I see around me. For that matter, neither am I a child. I have said that I can prove my words, and I say so again.”

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“Prove them, then,” said Sololo.

“Three things will I do to show the magic of U-Sessellodes, which he has taught to Indabeni–I will show you a feather of the Lightning Bird, I will make water burn like dry wood, and I will produce some of the eggs of Icanti and make them, when touched with fire, hatch into young serpents before your eyes.”

There was not a breath of wind. Vooda seized a small firebrand, and stepped a few yards away from the fire. He held the firebrand in his left hand, and put his right into one of the pockets of his tunic. This pocket contained a quantity of loose lycopodium powder. He filled his hand with this, waved it over his head several times, and then projected the handful of powder high into the air with a sweeping throw. Then he slowly lifted the firebrand, and as the cloud of powder descended, it ignited with a silent, blinding flash. A loud “Mawo” from the spectators greeted the success of the experiment.

The war-doctor gave a harsh laugh and shouted that there was no magic in the business, and that the Lightning Bird’s plumage was still intact so far as Vooda was concerned; he, the war-doctor, knew how the thing was done, and would presently explain. Sololo and the others murmured amongst themselves.

“Now,” said Vooda, “I will make water burn with a bright flame like dry wood.”

“You have, no doubt, brought the water with you in a bottle,” said Shasha, the war-doctor, with a sneer in his voice. He was evidently thinking of paraffin.

“No, O most potent controller of baboons,” said Vooda, “I will, on the contrary, ask you to get me some water for the purpose, in a vessel of your own choice.”

Shasha went to one of the huts and returned with a small earthen pot full of water, which he placed on the ground near the fire.

Vooda look the lump of potassium which he had cut into the form of a large conical bullet, from his pocket, and advanced to where the chief was sitting. He beckoned to the war-doctor to approach, and then, said:

“This, O chief, and O discourser-with-the-wild-cat, is a new and wonderful kind of lead which U-Sessellodes has dug out of a hole in the ground far deeper than any other hole that was ever made. You will observe that my knife is sharp, and therefore I cut the lead easily. You may see how the metal shines when newly cut. Now, if a bullet such as this be shot into a river, the water blazes up and consumes the land.”

“Give it to me that I may examine it,” said Shasha.

Vooda handed a small paring of the potassium to the war-doctor, saying;

“Be very careful, O you-whom-the-owls-obey-in-the-dark, because it is dangerous stuff.”

Shasha did exactly what Vooda anticipated–he looked carefully at the shred of metal, and lifted it to his mouth, meaning to test it with his teeth. When, however, the potassium touched the saliva, it blazed up, and the unhappy war-doctor spat it out with a fearful yell. His lips and tongue were severely burnt. Sololo and the men, who had seen the flame issuing from Shasha’s mouth, were terror-stricken.

Vooda now cut the lump of potassium into several pieces, and these he dropped into the pot of water. The lumps began to flame brilliantly, dancing on the top of the water and gyrating across and around. All the spectators were horribly frightened, and shrank back, their eyeballs starting, and their lips wide apart.

“Now,” said Vooda, who felt that he had practically won the game, “I will produce the eggs of Icanti, the terrible serpent, and make them hatch out live snakes. Were I to do this without having other greater magic ready wherewith to overcome them, the snakes would kill us all. The only magic stronger than that of Icanti is the magic of the Lightning Bird, so I will drop a feather plucked by U-Sessellodes from the tail of Impandulu upon the snakes as they come out of the eggs, and that will cause them to turn into dust.”

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Vooda took five large Pharaoh’s serpent-eggs out of his pocket and placed them on a flat stone about a yard from the fire. He then asked Shasha to approach, warning him to be very careful, as the serpents might be dangerous. After the experience with the potassium, such a warning to Shasha was quite a work of supererogation. He came forward with hesitating steps, and stood behind Vooda, watching.

Vooda had a small quantity of lycopodium powder in his left hand. With his right he seized a blazing firebrand, and with this he touched each of the eggs in turn. At once five horrible looking snakes began uncoiling, blue flame surrounding the spot at which each emerged from its egg. Vooda then shouted loudly, calling on the name of Impandulu, and making mystic passes over the coiling horror with his fire-brand. Stretching forth his left hand, he liberated a small cloud of lycopodium powder, which ignited with a brilliant flash. At this, all the spectators leaped to their feet, wildly yelling, and, with the exception of Sololo, who stood still–although the picture of terror– disappeared into the surrounding darkness. For some seconds after the sound of the last footfall had died away, the rattle of Shasha’s charms, as he fled, could be heard.

Vooda approached Sololo:

“My Chief, what word am I to carry to Indabeni?”

“Tell Indabeni that the wrong-doer will be given up to the Magistrate to choke with a rope. Yet you need not tell him, because the man will be in the Magistrate’s hand before your voice can reach Indabeni’s ear.”

And so he was.

Thus was a war averted, and yet neither Vooda nor Teddy Morton ever received any reward for their distinguished services.

The end.


Allemagtig, almighty

Boomslang, an innocuous colubrine snake

*Donga, a gully with steep sides

Drift, the ford of a river

*E-hea, exactly so

*Ewe, yes

Hamel, a wether sheep

*Icanti, a fabulous serpent, the mere appearance of which is supposed to cause death

*Impandulu, the lightning bird. The Kafirs believe the lightning to be a bird

*Impi, an army or any military force on the war path

*Induna, a Zulu councilor or general

Kapater, a wether goat

Kerrie, a stick such as is almost invariably carried by a Kafir

Kloof, a gorge or valley

Kaffirboom, a large arboreal aloe

Kopje, an abrupt hillock

Kraal, (1) an enclosure for stock; a fold or pen. (2) a native hut, or collection of huts

Krantz, a cliff

*Lobola, the payment of cattle by a man to the father of the girl he wants to marry

*Mawo, an exclamation of surprise

Mealies, maize

Op togt, on a trading trip

Ou Pa, grandfather

Outspan, to unyoke a team

Raak, hit

Reim, a leather thong

Reimje, diminutive of foregoing

Schulpad, a tortoise

Sjambok: a heavy whip made of rhinocerous hide

Stoep, a space about two yards, in width along the front or side of a house. Usually covered by a verandah in the case of South African houses

Taaibosch, “tough bush,” a shrub. Rhus lucida

*Tikoloshe, a water spirit who is supposed, when people are drowned, to have pulled them under water by the feet

“Ukushwama, the feast of first fruits;–celebrated by the Bacas and some other Bantu tribes

*Umtagati, magic;–witchcraft

Veldt. unenclosed and uncultivated land. The open country

Veldschoens, home-made boots such as those in general use amongst South African Boers

Voor-huis, the dining and sitting-room in a Dutch house

*Yebo, yes

*Kafir terms are marked by an asterisk.

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