The Bavenda's Sacred Beads
By Eugène Marais

          A small necklace of dark translucent pottery or glass beads, scarcely long enough to span the neck of a grown man, strung on twisted sinew and closed with a tiny metal clasp, the last quite evidently of Bantu manufacture; the whole, as an ornament, apparently not worth as many pence as there are beads on the string. Such is the "great" necklace of the Bavenda which, only a few years ago, was estimated to be worth a king's ransom and was as carefully guarded as if its constituents were graded pearls of priceless value. Unfortunately for its present owners, its value was determined otherwise than by the criterion which places a changeless worth on the rare and beautiful jewels of the world. Today it would hardly purchase the liberty of a captured king -- even of the race for whom it once bore a superstitious value infinitely greater than its intrinsic one.
          There is one other similar necklace in existence, in possession of the petty chief Sebaza; but the one here described is the necklace of the paramount chief, which is held to be an inseparable appendage of Bavenda "royalty". The Sebaza necklace was made from a few beads detached from the "great" necklace and formed part of the political compromise which resulted in the elevation of Sebaza to the sub-chieftaincy, which he still holds.
          Some years ago The Star published certain articles describing this intriguing and mysterious tribe. It is known that they are immigrants from within the Congo basin, and the story of their odyssey from the far north is still preserved in their legends and folk-tales. They relate that their ancestors formed establishments beyond the Zambezi and in Matabeleland, where they resided for several generations before moving on to the Limpopo and then to the region which they still occupy. It is an interesting fact that one of the first things they did was to build a Zimbabwe of dressed stone in Zoutpansberg, the ruins of which still exist. The "temple" was never completed -- for what reason is not known -- but it is known that the growing danger of militant neighbours in the end drove the tribe from the level country into the mountains, where they eventually occupied an impregnable stronghold beyond the Doorn River, which enabled them to bid defiance to all assailants, both Black and White, for several centuries. Under the government of President Kruger they maintained an absolute indeperidence during the lifetime of the Chief Magato. It was under the chieftaincy of his son, M'Pefu, that the virgin fortress was captured for the first time and the race brought under White subjection.
          The existence of the "sacred" beads and the importance which the tribe attached to them was known to most White people who had come into contact with them. It is related that these beads were brought with the Bavenda from the Congo and were passed by the paramount chiefs from father to son as the supreme emblem of kingship. A later story is that the beads in the possession of Sebaza were recognised by a White traveller as extremely rare ornaments, a few of which had been found in the Congo by anthropologists. They are said to be of ancient Egyptian make, and the only similar ones known up to the present came from royal pnestly tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Whether this story is true or not has not been determined -- at least not as far as relates to the Bavenda beads; nor has it been proved definitely that the Sebaza beads are identical with those found in the Congo.
          The small necklace of which mention has been made is at present in the possession of Colonel Mentz, ex-Minister of Lands. He was kind enough to relate its history, as far as it is known to him, for the benefit of Star readers.
          The little ornament is certainly in no way remarkable, except for the unusual appearance of the beads. They are pipe-shaped octagonals, of which no two are exactly alike, and they are quite different from any beads which natives ordinarily employ for the ornamentation of their persons and clothes. They are, in fact, different from any beads of present-day European manufacture. Colonel Mentz tells the following history:
          Of the few White men who ever attained any degree of intimacy with the old Bavenda Paramount Chief, Magato, the late Dr Holz, district surgeon of Zoutpansberg, was certainly one of those whom he most trusted. Customarily his intercourse with Whites was governed by an attitude of sullen reserve and suspicion. In every White man he saw a possible agent of the Boer Government whom he feared and hated as the one enemy who continually threatened his treasured independence. In time he learned to trust Dr Holz as much as he trusted his own indunas; he welcomed his visits and extended to him the generous hospitality of a great chief to a friend and equal.
          Dr Holz was generally interested in Bavenda history, in their language, customs and folklore. He was told of the ceremonials connected with their mystic societies, of many customs which were usually preserved as state secrets as far as the Whites were concerned.
          Dr Holz had heard of the beads and the extreme importance which the whole tribe attached to them, and on one occasion he asked Magato about them. He expressed a desire to see and handle them. The old chief, with evident reluctance, consented to satisfy the curiosity of his White friend. All his attendants were ordered to leave the room where he ordinarily received his guests, and when he and the doctor were alone he uncovered a small cavity in the floor and produced a bag or box, in which was the necklace. He told Dr Holz the story of the beads as it exists in Bavenda legend. According to this account they had been in possession of his ancestors as far back as their history went and while they were still settled in their far northern home, near "the Great River". The beads were religiously handed down from father to son and were the most treasured possession of the Bavenda chiefs. He admitted that the only other human being who had a few of these beads was the sub-chief Sebaza, to whom they had been handed as a proof and emblem of his chieftaincy when he was given the government of Findusi -- the eastern portion of the Bavenda country. The old chief strenuously refused to give or lend even a single one of the beads to Dr Holz for further examination. "It would bring," he said, "dreadful misfortune -- misfortune to the Bavenda chief who parted with them; evil to his people and to the stranger to whom they were given. That is the prophecy attached to the beads, and every Bavenda chief before his death imparts this fact to his heir. If I were to give you any of these beads it would mean the end of my liberty. The White men would drive me from my mountain; and as for you, it would bring death and misfortune to you and to all who gain possession of the beads after you. About this there is no doubt. That is why these beads are so carefully guarded. I wear them only on great occasions."
          The beads were again deposited in their little receptacle, while Dr Holz regretfully surrendered all hope of ever securing even a single specimen.
          As a matter of fact, it was so fated that very shortly afterwards the entire necklace should fall into his hands. Magato died and was succeeded by his son M'Pefu, and it was then that the Boer Government decided to bring the recalcitrant tribe to subjection by force of arms. A commando was sent against M'Pefu and Dr Holz was in charge of the medical corps. The resistance of the Bavenda was short-lived. After a brief bombardment, the hoofstat was stormed, while M'Pefu hurrriedly abandoned his possessions and fled to Matabeleland in a wagon drawn by six fast horses. Dr Holz knew more of the hoofstat than any other officer and recognised without difficulty the chief's house, which had been blown to ruins by a shell. He had the sacred beads in mind. With little trouble he uncovered the floor space where the receptacle had been kept by Magato, and within it found the Bavenda necklace. It was given to General Joubert, who eventually returned it to Dr Holz with permission to retain it as his own. M'Pefu in the terror and confusion of his flight, had forgotten the most precious possession of the Bavenda chiefs.
          Dr Holz preserved the little necklace as a very valuable possession. Without disclosing the fact that he possessed it, he consulted several Bavenda head men about the necklace. He was told by all the 'big men" of the Bavenda that, if ever the beads were lost by the chief, the tribe would, for their recovery, give any price that the possessor demanded and which the Bavenda were able to pay!
          Then Dr Holz became ill. He attached, of course, not the least importance to the dreadful power of evil which the superstition of the Bavenda attributed to the beads. Nevertheless he became rapidly worse, and on the approach of death he gave the necklace to his wife as something which might become of considerable monetary value if ever the Bavenda should be re-established as a tribe.
          As far as the tribe was concerned the alleged evil power of the beads (if they fell into the possession of strangers) had been proved to a bitter extreme. The independence of the race was lost for ever.
          Had they known that the beads were in the possession of Dr Holz, the Bavenda would without doubt have attributed his untimely death to their evil influence.
          Then Mrs Holz, the new owner of the beads, in turn became ill. She was at the time in one of the concentration camps during the latter end of the Anglo-Boer War. A countrywoman very devotedly nursed the sick lady, and when she realised the approach of death she handed to the nurse the string of beads, telling her at the same time the story related by her late husband. She had always hoped to be able to convert the necklace into a substantial fortune if ever M'Pefu returned to his country. Apparently neither Mrs Holz nor the nurse had been told of the alleged evil influence accompanying the possession of the beads by alien hands.
          The late Dr Holz had left with a friend a written account of the manner in which the beads had come into his possession, and in this he related the evil influence described to him by Magato. But he did not inform his wife of this part of the story -- for very obvious reasons.
          The superstitious reader is not to be cheated out of the anticipated dénouement! Misfortune seemed to follow possession of the necklace as inevitably as the night followed the day. The nurse into whose possession it now came, encountered at once a cloud of serious trouble, which eventually overshadowed her entire family. It was at this stage that Colonel Mentz appeared upon the scene as an actor in the little drama of the necklace. It was some time before he had joined the Ministry of General Smuts, and while he was still practising as a solicitor in Pietersburg. He was in a position to be of service to the lady and to mitigate considerably the ill fortune which she and her family at that time had to struggle against.
          Shortly afterwards Colonel Mentz accepted from the Prime Minister the Portfolio of Lands, and it was then that his grateful client, as the only possible return for the services he had generously rendered her, expressed a wish to present to him the Bavenda beads. He agreed to accept possession of the necklace, on the understanding that if ever he should be able to convert it into a sum of money anywhere approaching its legendary value that sum should be handed over to the lady intact.
          And so Colonel Mentz became the conditional possessor of the Bavenda necklace.
          While Minister of Lands he arranged on one occasion a pitso, with M'Pefu and the indunas of his tribe at the Magato hoofstat.
          Colonel Mentz described the chief as sullen and suspicious in behaviour. His long exile in Matabeleland and subsequent misfortunes had evidently imbued him with no very friendly feeling towards the White race. Among other things he insisted on being addressed by his guest indirectly through an interpreter or secretary, although he could speak both English and Afrikaans well.
          In the course of the pitso, Colonel Mentz asked the secretary to inform the chief of the fact that the beads were in his possession. If a bomb had exploded in his vicinity it could not have had a more startling effect on the chief. For a while he seemed dumbfounded and then, in a gust of passion, he rose from his chair and called out in a loud voice: "It is not true! It is not true! I am the chief of the Bavenda and the beads are where they have always been -- in my possession."
          "Will the chief show me the beads?" asked Colonel Mentz.
          "No," he replied, with intentional discourtesy. "I will not show them to you. It is not the custom to show them to strangers." And there the matter was dropped. Later Colonel Mentz discovered that M'Pefu's conduct was no more than a piece of studied camouflage. It was due to his anxiety to keep the loss of the beads from the knowledge of his indunas and witch-doctors.
          Shortly after that came the general election and the Government was defeated. A superstitious friend has suggested that Colonel Mentz's bad political luck since that time was due entirely to the evil aura of the beads! If that is so, it would not be a negligible suggestion for the Opposition to distribute the beads as birthday gifts among the leaders of the party in power!
          In the meantime Colonel Mentz retains possession of the necklace unperturbed. M'Pefu, after a long period of suffering, died. His successor drives a high-powered car, dresses in the latest fashion and smiles at all Bantu superstitions. It is questionable whether he would be prepared to pay any price at all for the necklace.
          As stated, the question as to the alleged antiquity of the beads has not been determined. Colonel Mentz some years ago handed them to Mr Kanthack, who was interested in the story, and undertook to try to elucidate the mystery of their origin. Mr Kanthack sent them to the well-known Egyptologist Professor Flinders-Petrie. The letter which the professor wrote with reference to them has unfortunately been lost, but Colonel Mentz recollects that it was to the effect that the beads were very ancient and were certainly not of Bantu manufacture. The professor suggested that they had probably come into the possession of the Bavenda chiefs through Arab traders from the north. It is not known whether Professor Flinders-Petrie's attention was directed to their alleged similarity with ancient Egvptian beads found in the tombs of the Pharaohs. In any case, he did not express an opinion on the matter.
          Superstitious beliefs in the supernatural power of jewels and gems is coeval with their manufacture and use by human beings. In the myths of all nations appear magical crowns, rings, necklaces and bracelets, and many had the alleged power of bringing evil upon any but the rightful owner. During the Middle Ages art was frequently employed to supplant the supernatural. There was, for instance, a Borgia ring with a drop of the deadly aqua tofana introduced under the bezel. A prick from a hidden needle-point introduced the venom into the blood of any wearer unacquainted with the secret of the ring. It has been suggested that the Bavenda beads were infected with germs by placing them in contact with an individual suffering from some special disease, or that they were poisoned in such a way that they could at any time be rendered harmless by washing or immersion in an antidote whenever the chief himself wished to wear them. This would perhaps not be beyond the art of the Bavenda witch-doctors, but a more likely suggestion is that the alleged evil influence of the beads has in this instance been supported by a series of coincidences. Many human superstitions have no sounder foundation.

from Eugène N. Marais, Versamelde Werke, onder redaksie van Leon Rousseau, (J.L. van Schaik, n.d.), volume 2, pp.1255-1260.

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