For Halloween, I’m reprinting the only Ghost Story on my blog (so far). It is in several parts, and here’s part one:
Everything I’m about to tell you in this story is true.1 This is a long story, so it may span more than one blog post. You might not want to read this story while you are alone or while sitting in the dark.2
Kimberley South Africa is said to be the most haunted city in the world, and it certainly is a city with a remarkable and dark history. The culture of Kimberley is constructed from the usual colonial framework on which are draped the tragic lives of representatives from almost every native culture from thousands of kilometers around.
The city’s very existence is highly questionable from legal, moral, and ethical standpoints, yet it is historically central to South Africa itself, the resulting trope is a rather thick quaint denialism. The most significant historical event here was a military siege of the town, but during that siege, it would appear that black and other non-white labor3 built the protections that saved all the white women and children and many of the white men from death from either bombardment or starvation. Then the laborers went home and were exposed to the worst conditions imaginable, and the death toll is to this day left off all of the brochures and plaques. That is just one example of the problem that Kimberly has: All cities of prosperity and historical significance are linked to a darker side. In Kimberly, the ethical conundrum of modern civilization is neatly packaged within the municipal borders, set off from civilization in the middle of the arid lands of southern Africa, unconnected to any other place by anything more than a two lane road and a small airport.
Kimberley grew up next to and entirely because of The Big Hole. The Big Hole is where there used to be a butte rising above the surrounding landscape, formed by the remnant plug of an ancient volcano. But why is this hill now a hole? That is going to require some explanation.
It is now known that diamond is the natural state of carbon at very high pressure, so it seems that there are places at the base of the earth’s crust where carbon in the mantle has condensed into diamonds. Some volcanoes consist of large flows of magma that include unmelted hunks of this basal crust. A very long time ago such a volcano existed in this spot, at present day Kimberley. It did its volcano thing and then stopped and cooled down. Then, the landscape was eroded down quite a ways, so that the volcanic cone, the ash, lava, or whatever it is the volcano had belched out onto the landscape is long ago eroded into the sea a thousand kilometers away. All that is left is the vertical tube of hardened magma and bits of the lowest reaches of the earth’s crust carried along by the magma. Since the core of the ancient volcano is harder than the surrounding rock it stood above the surrounding landscape. If you go to this area of South Africa today you will see several such ancient “plugs” sticking up from the surrounding flatness.
Then the white people came to this interior region of South Africa between the Gariep and Vaal rivers, and discovered diamonds laying around on the surface. They saw that this was good, and they knew that God had put these diamonds there for them to prosper (more on this later). And somewhere along the line someone figured out that some of the diamonds were eroding out of this volcanic plug. They did not know this was a volcanic plug, as they had very little knowledge of geology. But God had put this hill there from which diamonds eroded, so that the whites could prosper, and that was good enough for them (more on this later). So they started to dig the plug and they found more diamonds. So they dug more and more and divided the plug into little horizontal patches, each a ‘claim’ just a few feet square, which were over time bought and sold and dug and sold and dug and bought and dug until many people died digging a hole that is larger than any hand dug hole ever dug by our species on this planet.
The Big Hole.
During this time, as the city of Kimberley was being built up, this location became a center of all sorts of activity. There were little wars going on everywhere in Africa at at that time, and so a rather brisk trade in illegal arms emerged. Mercenaries moved through the area, and there was illegal rhino horn trade, illegal ivory trade, and illegal slave trading. Cowboy-like miners and traders got drunk and killed each other now and then.
At the edge of town, someone seems to have had the job of digging one hole every day. The hole was about six feet long, two and a half feet wide, and six feet deep and perfectly squared off. This attention to perfection is an African thing. I feel almost like I know the guy who dug this hole (or more likely three or four guys sharing one job). The hole was perfectly positioned a couple of feet over from the last hole, and it was perfectly executed. And into this hole was placed, tossed, gently lowered encoffined, whoever happened to die that day. If no one died that day, which would happen only now and then, these guys had the next day off. If two or three people died that day, then the hole took less time to fill in because the bodies took up more space. If the person who died was just some slob (which was the normal run of events), the body was just tossed in. If the person who died was, perhaps, of some importance to someone and there was cash available, the deceased was placed in a coffin and lowered in. Or something in between happened.
At some point in Kimberley’s past, this is how the graveyard was filled with dead people. About one person a day on average, plus or minus.
There were some bad days. In 1888 202 miners died in one fell swoop owing to a fire. And, during the Big Siege, several hundred more people died. The 1918 Spanish Influenza was devastating here.
The Big Siege was the event most closely connected by modern day historians and ghost hunters with a particular building which is now the McGregor Museum, which is central to this story. The Siege of Kimberly was part of the Anglo Boer War.
The so called Anglo Boer war is a complicated mess of history. There are people who will get mad at me for calling it the Anglo Boer War instead of the First and/or Second Boer War or some other thing. But I’m not going to mess with these details here. Let’s just say that a lot of bad shit was going down in what is now South Africa in the late 19th century. Let’s just say that the Afrikaners and the British of the Cape Colony had two or three points of difference in opinion about things like the rules of government and society which would eventually become Apartheid, about slavery, and so on. And let’s just say that the discovery of diamonds near Kimberley … complicated things.
So there was a war (or two). And the British occupied and essentially annexed Kimberley and the surrounding mines, and the Boers (that would be the Afrikaners, the descendants of the Dutch in South Africa) surrounded Kimberley and bombarded the city with mortars and cannons. They did this for 124 days, but fighting continued around the city even after its liberation by British forces.
I think about three hundred people died in Kimberley per year in those days, about another 300 or 400 may have died during the siege, not counting babies (most of the babies of native Africans who lived in the city at the time of the siege died, but there is no good estimate of the number).
During the siege, a particular building, which was built as a hotel, was used as an infirmary. Later on, this hotel was converted to the McGregor Museum, which is part of the South African National Museums. This particular museum addresses the local history, the military history associated with the war and the siege, and the regional archeology. For several years, I’ve worked off and on in the Northern Cape (the province Kimberley is in) and had the opportunity to work with the folks at this museum. And one year, I stayed for a few weeks, with a small group of students, in the guest quarters of the museum itself.
Because the McGregor was the infirmary during the siege, many died here. It is said, true or not I cannot say, that many of the dead passed away in agony in the upper floors of the infirmary, in very rooms which now constitute the guest quarters, and in which we stayed during this period. It is said that these rooms, in this building, in this city … the haunted city with the infirmary of misery with the rooms of death … were haunted.
Indeed, we were warned when we moved in.
“Your’re a scientist, like I am,” said the archaeologist who lived downstairs from the Rooms of Death and Misery, as the students were carting gear and luggage up the stairs to the apartment, winging on about how they had to do all the work. “So I understand if you don’t believe me, but….”
“… But what?” I said, as I glanced up the stair wondering what the students were whispering to each other about and concerned that they were taking the good rooms for themselves.
“Well, the place is haunted, or so it is said,” he continued.
I stared at him. Like, what is that supposed to mean, I thought.
“The Norwegian scientists who came last month …. they were supposed to stay for three weeks but left after five days.”
“The ghost drove them out. Oh, by the way, avoid the bedroom that is an extension of the hallway.”
“Just avoid it.”
So I went upstairs and the students, disgruntled because they had personally carried all our stuff up the stairs while I talked to the archaeologist on the first floor, had indeed taken the two best bedrooms, set our stuff up in the third actual bedroom for use as a common space and informal office, and put my luggage in …. the dreaded hallway extension bedroom.
“So, who told you that the hallway was extra haunted?” I asked them snarkily.
“Everybody knows the hallway is extra haunted” one of them replied, super-snarkily.
That night, everyone was pretty tired which was good, because when the disembodied footsteps came walking down the hallway …. and back and forth a couple of times … I think I was the only person who heard them. But that was not to be the case for very long…
Footnotes will be found at the end of the last post in the series.