The Skeleton

Early in 2014, a team of diggers, some of them mechanical, dug trenches in order to lay new power cables; eventually they got to Carden Street.

Carden Street is the longest road in the Village and is famous for being named after Cecil Carden, manager of the very first Springbok team to tour the British Isles and France.

It is also famous for leading to the Zwartkops Rowing Club, where you will find an ancient flag brought home from that tour and plenty of cold beer.

A hundred metres north of the ZRC, there is a sub-station, one of three in or on the outskirts of Redhouse. Why our little village of 100 houses needs three I have no idea, but they do guarantee that we don’t suffer from Eskom’s rolling blackouts.

Carden Street runs past the sub-station on the right; on the left, a thin strip of grass separates the road from the railway station’s protective palisade fence.

When the diggers arrived opposite the sub-station, the plan was to dig a hole on this grass strip, and another one on the sub-station side of the road; then they would burrow horizontally between the two; eventually they would dig the final stretch of trench up to the sub-station; we waited eagerly to see what the bees who live on top of the building would do to the diggers.

But that piece of drama was replaced with something way more exciting! The mechanical digger took a bite out of the earth and, to the consternation of its human friends, there sat a skeleton!

Soon a small crowd of Villagers arrived to see the fun – mostly comprised of those idle buggers who have no work to do and cycle about on a permanent weekend.

Of course, skeletons are a police matter; eventually they did arrive, not always something you can count on as a certainty, unlike an Eskom outage.

A cordon of tape was erected, the nosey inhabitants shooed away and no doubt a forensic team took fingerprints.

But the crowd had seen enough to report that the skeleton was of slight build, was in a sitting position and had a bullet hole in the skull.

The skeleton was taken away, there were no immediate arrests and digging resumed.

I volunteered to find out more from the police; I asked for a case number; my plan was to visit the coroner or whoever is the custodian of unknown bones, and ask for a DNA check on our Village skeleton. Needless, to say, this project is still ongoing, but I have not given up.

Meanwhile, there is no harm in speculating, as Sherlock Holmes would doubtless have done.

Firstly, even in Redhouse, where wives are more troublesome than usual, it is unlikely that a murderer would chose to bury his victim next to Carden Street, which is busy enough to make grave digging risky even at the dead of night.

In any case, the River provides a much more convenient method of disposal, and fingerprints are soon obliterated.

So, reluctantly, we can probably ease up on investigating current Villagers; we really don’t want to find out more than we already know about some of them.

I did some research on burials amongst the San and the KhoiKhoi; it appears that only sometimes do the San bury the dead in a sitting position; this is more common amongst the latter group; what is interesting is the account of a skeleton of a young female found two years ago at Plettenberg Bay; also slight, and found in a sitting position.

The remains were analysed at the University of Cape Town, and said to be between 500 and 1500 year sold – but perhaps much older –  although definitive results are awaited from DNA tests being conducted in Canada.

Apparently, burials took place not far from encampments, which generally moved away after the ceremony.

From this we may deduce that our skeleton belonged to a KhoiKhoi group that lived at the River many years ago; perhaps on the site of the ZRC, from where there is a beautiful view, upstream and downstream.

But what about the hole in the skull?

The Third Frontier War (1799-1803) was a confused affair which included a number of Xhosa and KhoiKhoi tribes living between the Sundays and Gamtoos Rivers, Dutch trekboer communities and the lately arrived British, who were puzzled by the situation, to say the least.

There were temporary encampments of Boers and KhoiKhoi near the Zwartkops River during this period and it is known that the British had to keep them apart to prevent fisticuffs.

Then the Brits gave the Cape back to the Dutch and withdrew the garrison from Fort Frederick and sailed away, probably very grateful to be out of that mess; when they left they handed over quantities of stores to the KhoiKhoi who had settled at the Bethelsdorp mission station.

Other KhoiKhoi decided they wanted some of that and brawling broke out; the northern townships of Port Elizabeth haven’t changed much in 200 years.

Then the Boers decided to burn the Bethelsdorp houses; Fort Frederick was full of refugees; it is not unlikely that fighting also occurred in and around the future Carden Street.

Perhaps our skeleton was victim of this period.

But it is quite probable that KhoiKhoi people lived happily next to the River for hundreds of years before that; it is also very likely that early Portuguese sailors would have sailed up the River to hunt game, do some fishing and to find water and salt; and after them came an endless stream of Dutch and English East Indiamen, not to mention pirates en route to the lucrative East Indies.

So our victim could have been done to death by musket shot at any time from the late 1400s until say 150 years ago.

But until we get a forensic report nobody can say whether or not the hole in the skull was caused by a bullet; it could have been a well-aimed arrow or assegai or even – and here we admittedly do enter the realm of the less probably – a Phoenician spear.

Around 600 BC the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II organised Phoenicians – excellent sailors – to travel around Libya – as Africa was then named – from east to west. They apparently stopped twice to grow crops and refurbish their ships; they may – just may – have decided that sheltered Algoa Bay and the wide and inviting Zwartkops estuary were just the spot for some rest and recreation.

Having rowed up the River they would have spotted an encampment on the site of the future ZRC; beached their boats in anticipation of ice cold beer; been bitterly disappointed at being told that the pub was closed on Sundays; this lead to forced entry, resistance by the locals and finally, a burial.

When I find out the truth I will let you know!








Categories: Close to Home


  • Sue Crear

    Why so quiet our intrepid scribe – missing your endlessly amusing articles – just following up to find out if this Sherlock Holmes case of who-dunnit has been solved.

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