The Cannibals of St Fort
Words Peter Howard, Pics Shaen Adey, Peter Howard
The Little Caledon Valley is a beautiful place, but it has a strange aura. Possibly because they used to eat people here.
Around 1815, while King Shaka’s rampaging Zulu army was laying waste to the Free State plains, one small clan sought sanctuary on an impregnable mountain top. This was all very well until they were besieged, ran out of food and had to resort to eating their own dead relatives. However what started as a desperate necessity soon became an acquired taste and after their besiegers had got bored and moved on, they continued to dine on human flesh. Hapless captives were imprisoned in a secluded mountain cave, fattened up, butchered and served on the braai.
This prison larder cave proved very suitable. It had only one small entrance, which could be easily guarded and an interior large enough to confine a number of persons. Years later, about 1878, the first permanent resident and owner of the farm, Alexander Walker discovered this cave quite by chance and unaware of its previous role named it Leopard’s Lair as these beautiful beasts roamed the area at that time.
Confirmation of this dramatic history came from an extremely aged Sotho lady named Letlotlo (meaning proud) whom the Walkers employed. As a very young girl she had been incarcerated in the holding cave and would have been eaten by the cannibals if she had put on weight. Although her skinniness saved her, she was instructed by the chief to attend to the cooking of the corpses over an open fire, a gruesome task. Nevertheless, her nebulous good fortune continued as a young cannibal guard named Letsoana, to whom she was attracted, fell in love with her. They covertly conspired to use the first opportunity of escaping to start a new life together. And so it was. One dark and moonless night they managed to slip away and safely crossed over into open territory, which later was to become Lesotho today.
But sadly their hopes of an idyllic life were soon dashed as cannibalism spread rapidly to these parts as well and forced them to move on. Wearily they struggled across and around the higher Drakensberg range until, down in Natal, near present-day Bergville, they at last found the shelter and refuge they had been searching for so bravely. This, she said, had been an arduous walk of many days during which they nearly died from exhaustion and hunger.
After sixty years Letlotlo’s erstwhile rescuer and husband died, her children had flown the nest and being alone she decided, despite awful memories, to return to St Fort where it was rumoured the farmer was very kind. She felt certain he would help her find a place to stay and this time not in a cave!
These details were passed to me by Marion Walker, the eldest daughter of the first permanent resident, Alexander Walker, whose wonderful command of the Sotho language had enabled her to closely befriend Letlotlo and spend many hours in deep conversation with her.
In his anthology To The Banks of the Zambezi, renowned historian T.V. Bulpin notes “Another remarkable wanderer of the day, Sebitwane, had recently (1823) made his way all the way north from Basutoland where Zulu raids had thrown his own homeland into an uproarious mess of cannibalism and destitution.” Dr Peter Becker, writing in Hill of Destiny also confirms “The Basotho leaders agreed (1824) the surrounding country was overrun by cannibals…who would have to be exterminated” – both sources giving credence to the existence of cannibalism in the early 1800’s and the resultant havoc.
The superbly laid out Cannibal Trail over hill and dale on St Fort is in some way a tribute to the memory of those two very courageous people who fled the clutches of the cannibals. So if you wander those scenic pathways today, spare a thought for this poor frightened little couple who, nearly two centuries ago, clothed in animal skins, feet shoeless and under desperate conditions, trudged through the cold dew-drenched veld in that vicinity on their own long walk to freedom. And be on the look out!
For more information on the two-day Cannibal Trail phone 058-256-1345 or visit www.stfort.co.za.