Our featured author for this week takes us on an incredible journey into the past – to the days of the Boer War, the rule of the British in South Africa and the dusty roads of the Groot Marico. To say that Herman Charles Bosman was an extraordinary writer would be an understatement in the extreme. The mark he has left on South African literature, I would hope, is impossible to erase.
Born in the Cape at Kuils River in 1905, Bosman’s family moved up to the Transvaal a few years thereafter. He spent his formative years with his mother’s family in Potchefstroom, where he was encouraged by his grandparents, mother and uncle, all educated and intelligent people, to read and discuss politics, history and literature.
Bosman’s mother, Elisa, an educated young woman from a well-to-do Afrikaans family, had married a mine-worker, to the consternation and confusion of her parents. Many years later it emerged that she had confided in a close friend that she had married Jacobus Bosman as a “necessary evil” – Herman was a love child, whose father she said she was “unable to marry”.
In 1918, Jacobus Bosman had found a job in Johannesburg as a waste-packer on the mines, and he promptly brought his family to live in Jeppestown. Bosman attended Jeppe High School, where for the first time he came up against mathematics, the subject that he would never master and would eventually cost him his matric. However, he had the good fortune to be blessed with an excellent English teacher, a subject he fell in love with and obtained excellent marks in. He began to contribute to the school magazine, and at the age of 16, was writing short stories which were published regularly in the Sunday Times.
He attended Houghton College in 1922 to study for his Cape Matriculation examination, but mathematics was again to be his ultimate academic Achilles heel. When he sat for his matric algebra paper, he decided to write the examiner an essay confessing his regrettable deficiencies in the subject, and suggesting they be overlooked given his talents in English.
It was during this year that Jacobus Bosman died in a mining accident. The only person who was truly grieved by this was Bosman’s younger brother Pierre, who was close with his father. Elisa was determined to take the insurance payout and find a new husband better suited to her “station” in life.
After eventually managing to graduate at the University of the Witwatersrand with a T2 teaching diploma at the end of 1925, he was posted as a teacher to the Groot Marico district on the border with Botswana. The experience was enthralling and enriching for Bosman, and eventually gave birth to his famous Oom Schalk Lourens and Voorkamer stories, all set in the Groot Marico region.
Tragedy struck soon thereafter, when Bosman went home to his mother for the holidays. Elisa had re-married a wealthy widower, William Russell, who had children of his own, three of whom came to live with Elisa when their father married her. Not long after Bosman arrived in the house, he killed one of his step-brothers with a hunting rifle. There are many hypotheses of what really happened that fateful night. But whether it was an accident, a heated disagreement turned violent or simply cold-blooded murder, Herman Charles Bosman was, after a sensational court trial, sentenced to death for murder.
Bosman spent nine long, agonizing days on Death Row in Pretoria Central Prison and then finally received a reprieve from the Governor-General, brought about by friends and family who had been campaigning tirelessly to save him. Bosman was sentenced instead to ten years’ hard labour, but served half his sentence before he was released on parole in 1930.
Bosman’s years in prison served as the basis for his semi-autobiographical Stone Cold Jug. After being released, he threw himself into writing stories and poetry and started his own printing press, associating himself with many poets, journalists and writers. He then took a nine-year hiatus and toured overseas, spending a lot of time in London, where he wrote the famous Mafikeng Road.
Upon his return to South Africa, he found work as a journalist and also managed to translate the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam into Afrikaans. He married Ella Mason and the couple were well-known for their bohemian lifestyle and parties.
One of Bosman’s closest friends was Gordon Vorster, a local artist, and the two spent many nights together drinking at Johannesburg’s old bars and taverns, getting drunk and coming up with outrageous ideas. Together they decided to compile and anthology of English South African poetry and the criteria for selection were eccentric and probably decided upon in a drunken state. For example, a poem entitled “Pissed in Gaza” would be accepted solely on its title, while a more conservatively-titled poem might be rejected for the same reason, irrespective of the poem’s content.
Uys Krige, a great South African author, received a rejection letter from Bosman that went as follows:
"Liewe Uys, Ek het baie siek gewees met die griep. Hoe gaan dit met jou? Hierdie gedig is sommer 'n klomp kak. Jou vriend, Herman."
(“Dear Uys, I have been very sick with 'flu. How are you? Your poem is a load of shit. Your friend, Herman.”)
After a housewarming party, Bosman was taken to the Edenvale Hospital with severe chest pains by his concerned wife. When asked by the doctor as to his place of birth, he replied, “Born – Kuils River, Died – Edenvale Hospital”. He was released after his examination, telling Ella it was merely indigestion from the night before. When they reached home, Bosman collapsed shortly thereafter and died as he was wheeled into the Edenvale Hospital once again.
Bosman is buried in Westpark Cemetery in Westdene and his gravestone reads:
"Die Skrywer, The Writer, Herman Charles Bosman, b 3.2.1905, d 14.10.1951."