Shortly after the discovery of diamonds near the Northern Cape town of Alexander Bay in 1925, a syndicate sold its diamond rights to German geologist Hans Merensky.
According to AW Wells’s 1939 work, SA, A Planned Tour of the Country, the syndicate declined Merensky’s offer of £10,000 in cash and a half share in all the diamonds found. It wanted £17,500 in cash for the rights, and that was what it got.
So prodigious was the output at Alexander Bay that government took control of it to prevent the collapse of the market. A shuttle service — "the diamond planes" — made regular flights to the town, carrying back uncut diamonds worth £250,000 per trip.
It was not long before reports circulated that bribes of £25,000 had been offered to the pilots to make forced landings in the desert at a prearranged spot.
In the 1950s, a Capetonian is said to have flown an Auster plane to a spot on the diamond coast. He either crashed or the plane became stuck in the sand, and he was arrested by a police patrol.
That plane was later exhibited in what was the Barclays National Bank Museum on Johannesburg’s Market Street. In later years the pilot was often spotted drinking a pint in the Pig & Whistle in Rondebosch, Cape Town.
Wells’s book also tells of how King Moshoeshoe, who ruled the mountain kingdom now known as Lesotho from the top of Thaba Bosiu mountain, was able to claim at the end of his life that he had never been defeated.
Though there were many attempts to dislodge Moshoeshoe from his mountain stronghold, none succeeded. Boer commandant Louw Wepener and his commando came close to scaling Thaba Bosiu, but were driven back before reaching the top. Wepener was killed in the battle.
An impi of Zulus also fared badly. They stormed the mountain almost carelessly, so confident were they of victory. Then an avalanche of stones came hurtling down, followed by a shower of spears, which drove them from the mountain.
The following day, as the Zulus started their retreat home, a Basutu man driving a herd of cattle told them: "King Moshoeshoe salutes you ... and sends these cattle that you may eat them on your way home."
At yet another battle, Sir George Cathcart was ambushed by Moshoeshoe, who again showed his diplomatic skills. He realised that Cathcart represented the British empire, which would keep sending troops to fight him. So he sent Cathcart a message saying that he had been punished enough, and that he wished to make peace. Needless to say, Cathcart was only too happy to accept this face-saving offer. It was after this that Basutoland became a British protectorate.
Not much is said about Moshoeshoe’s mentor, Mohlomi, who taught that it was better to thresh corn than to sharpen a spear. Somewhat different, according to Wells, was Pieter van Noodt, regarded as the most brutal of the Dutch East India Company governors in the Cape.
On one occasion, he sentenced a group of soldiers to be hanged for attempting to desert. As they were being led to the gallows in the Castle, they had to pass the window of the room where Van Noodt was sitting. One of the convicted soldiers turned and, facing the window, said: "I summon thee, Governor Van Noodt before the judgment seat of omniscient God, that thou may answer for my soul and the souls of my companions."
Wells also tells of SA’s shipwrecks. As well known as the Grosvenor, which was wrecked on the Pondoland coast in 1782, is the Waratah, which disappeared along the Wild Coast on its maiden voyage from Australia in 1909.
The ship was last seen before the Mbhashe River, when it was reported to be listing. No wreckage of the ship or sign of the passengers’ luggage ever came to light. Interestingly, one passenger had disembarked at Durban after a disturbing dream.
Also intriguing is the legend Wells recounts of mermaids who supposedly lived in Groenvlei Lake, Knysna. It was said that they used to sing on moonlit nights or bask on the shimmering surface of the lake.
The story originated in the 1890s, when an Anglican clergyman discovered San paintings in a cave about 22km from Groenvlei, including one depicting human females with fish tails.
The Groenvlei paintings must be hundreds of years older than the European influence in that area.
"Not only that," writes Wells, "it is a legend that existed among two completely different groups of people without the slightest link of communication or the awareness of each other’s existence."
As he says: "Make of it what you will."
AW Wells’s SA, A Planned Tour of the Country is on auction at jellyfishtree.com