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Sunday, 12 June 2011

Transport, 19th Century Natal

When I watch the 18 wheelers roar down the four lane highway behind my cottage, I wonder if anyone ever thinks what it was like to transport goods around Natal 140 years ago. Today you can travel hundreds of kilometres on four lane highways and other secondary roads, where all of natures obstacles have been overcome. Back in the 1870's just moving about was an adventure, and a test of fortitude.

I came across this description of ox wagons and the problems that went with their use. 

This photo was taken in the early 20th century, showing typical ox wagons. This was taken at a nagmaal (communion) service. Back then people came in their wagons and camped around the church. 

All commerce moved in ox-drawn wagons which resembled the Conestoga prairie schooners of the American plains. The Boers had trekked in these wagons, and with slight body modifications they were still in use for transport. They were long and narrow, eighteen feet by six, and the great rear wheels, shod with half an inch of iron spanned six feet and were fixed on a solid axle. The smaller front wheels turned on a pivoted axle, and a heavy top of double canvas was spread over wooden hoops fastened to the high sides.The wagons were pegged and lashed together, not only because nails were scarce but also because, a dozen times on a journey, the wagon might have to be broken down and manhandled over obstacles the oxen could not surmount.

A full span of oxen ran from fourteen to eighteen beasts. Less than ten were rarely yoked, for while they might still move the wagon with a ton of goods aboard, they would be stopped by the slightest rise. On steep hills and at drifts where the wheels sank into the mud or sand, double spans were needed, and up to forty oxen might be needed to breast the mountain passes. The beasts were yoked two and two, each in his assigned place, with the strongest pair on the disselboom, from which a stout leather or chain trek touw led forward between the rest to the oldest and most experienced pair in the lead. The driver carried a long whip and rode on a box seat or walked alongside. There were no reins, and a voorlooper, usually a native boy, strode in advance to guide the team.

Two breed of oxen had been developed over the years - short compact beasts of great endurance that were used for long hauls on flat terrain, and a tall breed of enormous strength for sandy country and steep mountain tracks. The teams were matched in colour; the Boers preferred red-and-white or black-and-white animals and had an aversion to white or slate-gray oxen. Every adult Boer owned such a span, and he was not secure in his manhood until he had it. The owner of a wagon and a trained team was a person of consequence; he had a roof and a livelihood, and all Africa was his to choose a home from.

Within the limitations imposed by their digestive tracts, such spans did excellent work. An ox required eight hours a day to graze, and a further eight hours to rest while the results of his grazing passed through his multiple stomachs and was regurgitated as cud for a second leisurely mastication. This left eight hours a day for work, during which a full fresh span might move more than a ton of goods at a steady three miles and hour along a level road. If a team was kept spanned for the full eight hours, it would need several days to recover from the experience, and the teams were usually outspanned for a couple of hours at midday. Under ideal conditions, this meant that a wagon might move as much as eighteen miles in a day, but since there were hardly eighteen miles of surfaced level road in all of southern Africa, few wagons ever covered more than ten miles a day. A stony track, a sandy drift, or a rainstorm might reduce might reduce progress to three or four miles, or even stop it entirely. A broken disselboom or a snapped trek tow would cost a full day, a smashed wheel or a broken wooden axle might take a week to repair. The wagons could hold up to four tons, but no one ever loaded more than one, since the wagons might have to be unloaded and reloaded several times a day in bad country.

Excerpt from: Washing of the spears, 1967. Donald R Morris.

One of the amazing things about a trained span of oxen happened at the inspaning, or yoking. Each ox had it's specific place in the team. The trek tow, (made of plaited rawhide thongs, later an iron chain) with the yokes laid out and attached to the trek tow on either side of it. The oxen were rounded up and driven to the wagon, where each ox went and stood in it's specified place to the left or right of the trek tow. There was no need to chivied them into place, they just knew where to go.

The old pioneers were a tough breed, weather in South Africa, America or Australia, or any other place you care to name. Today it's very easy for us to criticise them. You often hear people saying if only our forefathers had done this, or done that, we would not have had the problems we battle with today. Hindsight is a perfect science, back then people were using all their energy and wits just to survive.

Oxen being trained to work in a span. The oxen used here are from the Afrikaner breed of cattle.


Gorges Smythe said...

What an interesting post! Well done!

Kay L. Davies said...

It's wonderful how they know their place in line. Oxen are seldom given credit for intelligence.
— K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

The Griper said...

the history books tell of the exploits of the famous yet, if we be honest, the real history is about the everyday lives of the common people.

Philip Robinson said...

A great post, and really fascinating (I have an interest in cattle droving in Ulster in the 19th century). I also love the "cottage", and your doggy family. My own dog (a Collie-Labrador cross) had to be taken to the vets last month to be put down as he was 17 years old, very arthritic, but then had a stroke and couldn't get up. It was pathetic to hear his tail thumping on the floor when I went to take him away. Ben is now buried beside my chicken run and vegetable patch, keeping an eye on things as always.