“SOLDIERS three were we” –P. J. Conroy, P. J. Farrelley, and C. J. Hennessey. Military discipline and social ethics are not rigorously enforced in the vicinity of the Equator. We took considerable liberty with the army code during the period of our service with the South African Engineers. When the days of relief came, the intensity of a bush campaign demanded a complement of riot and hilarity.
Both Conroy and Farrelley were veterans of the Indian campaigns and had served Britain all over her colonial possessions without losing their virus against British rule in Ireland. Such a conflict of loyalties is a puzzle to other nations, and to explain the phenomenon is to strain the bridgework of logic. They were ” pukka ” soldiers, and would probably wear a uniform for the rest of their lives — servants of the King in uniform and enemies of Britain in mufti. Both of them were older than I by more than two decades, but they looked to me for leadership in our many escapades.
In the idleness of a few weeks, while stationed near Bagamoyo, I conceived the brilliant plan of running a boat across the channel to a small island near the coast of Zanzibar in order to get a cargo of rum. The expedition was underwritten by a small group at the post, each contributing ten rupees. I took Farrelley along as first mate, deck-hand, and cook, appointments which he accepted without enthusiasm. But the lure of the liquor was a fair bait and he came along, only to curse me later for the villainous suggestion.
The islands of Zanzibar, which means ” black coast in Arabic, are only five degrees below the Equator. The experience of sailing in an open vessel without adequate provisions and no protection from the sun was worse than any torture we endured in the African bush. I might mention that we had stolen the post-commandant’s boat; a water-logged tub that needed a hurricane to push her through the sea, and a Goliath to steer her. Going across to the pleasant isle of Pemba, Farrelley maintained a haughty silence. I had deluded him with a fanciful mirage, and here he was blistering under a pitiless god of fire.
We loaded a rich collection of viands and Scotch whisky, and we drank heavily on the return to numb the agony of the huge sun blisters. “Here I am dying in a God damned boat, after ducking bullets in fourteen battles,” he soliloquized, “and it’s all your fault, you little Derry lobster.”
Indeed, I looked like a lobster. The flesh on my face was so inflamed I dared not touch It. How I kept conscious during the painful hours I do not remember. All I know is that I beached the boat at Bagamoyo, and made a purgatorial trip to camp to tell our confederates to unload the craft. Farrelley was in a very serious condition, and urgent medical attention was needed to save his life. I spent three weeks on my back in the hospital after that affair. By the time I recovered the entire cargo was gone. For all our suffering, except for the five bottles we consurned on the voyage, Farrelley and I did not get a taste of it!
The boat lay on the beach until the tide and surf battered her to pieces. The angry commandant posted reward signs for information about his craft, but he never knew what became of the ship. It was a good riddance to a maritime menace anyway, and I suppose some Government department made good for the loss.
Farrelley had a close call, but the resiliency of a Celt is beyond medical comprehension. He pulled through after the doctors had given him up for dead. He and I were inseparable despite his avowed threat to throw me overboard a dozen times during the rum-running trip. I was spared this fate because of the terrible burning he received. On account of our condition we were sent back to Durban in Natal with a draft of casualties.
Before leaving the South African scene I must tell some anecdotes about Farrelley. Earlier in the campaign, after an attack of fever at Dodoma, I was sent up to Mobana to relieve Farrelley, who was in charge of the construction of a pontoon bridge across the Ruaha River. Although it was my job to relieve Pat and send him back, I knew he would linger long enough to educate me in the ritual of his style of tropic engineering, as well as entertain me with all the hospitality of a native ruler. Pat, in his appointment, was a benevolent despot over a whole village and received the homage of a chief.
With two native porters I trekked through the bush and swamps for 150 miles, reaching Mobana nine days later. Pat staged a party to honor the reunion, and the banquet was a contrast to the table set by the Askari chieftain. Pat served real pombe, a potent native beer, and palm-wine. A pleasant liquor in the absence of Sauterne or Burgundy! The festivities lasted for several days, much to the delight of the natives, who shared vicariously in the joy of our meeting.
Farrelley was a born forager who never operated a military manceuvre without knowing a source of supplies along the route. The meat came from bountiful herds of buck, while the rich river muck produced delectable vegetables. Pat had the respect and confidence of the officers, and knew more about military strategy than most of them. With his long record of service in the East he could have had a dozen commissions. But Pat preferred freedom (and perhaps license, which is the soldier’s lot), and the gentlemen with the bars and braid gave him as much tether as was desirable.
The building and maintenance of a pontoon bridge on the Ruaha River were hazardous problems. The river teemed with crocodiles and hippos. These behemoths took pleasure in cruising up and down the stream scratching barnacles and warts from their backs on the pontoons as they dived underneath. Many times a hippo severed the bridge and splashed down the river with a whole section athwart his spacious rump. We usually salvaged the section by firing a salvo over him. This would cause the brute to dive and free the precious pontoons, which were retrieved by the natives in dugouts.
The bridge across the river at Mobana was of great strategic importance. Safaris moving south crossed daily, and a broken bridge interrupted transport all along the line. Whenever the bridge was cleft by a hippo, Pat raged terribly, and the natives scurried like a hive of bees until traffic across the river was reopened.
Before Farrelley left Mobana we made a survey of the neighboring tribes. This expedition was in the nature of a military assignment, but I did not confine my observation to campaign information. The tribal life of the remoter natives was more interesting than topography. The anecdote which follows will perhaps cause me to be libelled as a member of the Munchausen family.
In most African tribes I observed the women toiling in the fields with their pickaninnies strapped on their backs, or wallowing in the mud beside them. On my tour near Mobana, I saw the women in the patches of mealies and yams, but no children were in evidence.
” That’s strange,” I remarked to Farrelley. “Where are all the pickaninnies?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you where they are. So, Charlie Hennessey, I’ll show you.”
I said no more, but followed him with our carrier until we entered the clearing of a village. The huts were spread in a large circle with the usual variety of fowl scratching around the entrances. In the center of the village was a boma, or palisaded enclosure, which protects the cattle from the wild animals. Old men sat in front of their huts cooking mealie pap, which is a staple for the tribe, and the only food not eaten raw.
Farrelley walked over to the boma, and beckoned me to follow. I peered inside the shelter and saw some sturdy young mothers suckling their babes. It is neither unusual nor indelicate to behold such a picture in the tropics, but I turned to walk out of the nursery.
“Come here,” Farrelley said, ” and use your eyes.”
Amazed, I drew closer, and the sex of the wet nurses was obvious at once. They were men! Whether the babes that sucked at their well-developed breasts received nourishment or not I am not prepared to say. Doctors, to whom I have mentioned the case, greet the story with courteous doubt or weak explanation. Enough for me to assert that the children were pacific despite the dtrange gender of the nurses.
A member of the tribe told me that boys are selected for this service before puberty. While not emasculated, they are given glandular treatment that makes them hermaphroditic. They are timid and womanish in manner and enjoy the protection of the tribal braves. My informer gave a sound African reason for the development of these sexual freaks. The woman is the beast of burden, and a clinging child is a handicap to her efficiency in the fields. With a nursery of children in the boma, she can increase her acreage of mealie corn and yams.
Pat left Mobana after a few weeks for a respite at the base at Dodama.
My command at the Mobana bridge was uneventful., and after a few months of luxury I was relieved.