A South African Sweet-Tooth

IN my early Natal days my sweet-tooth was a matter of small concern. I only knew that I liked sugar-cane and could chew my fill, in season, off the great piles around the Kafir mill. I used to scramble, barefoot, over shaky mountains of cane until the grizzly-haired native owner, puffed with importance and European clothes, would nearly lose his tongue clicking Zulu maledictions upon me. There was plenty of risk, too, for the long heavy canes were never securely stacked, and might hurl me down at any moment to pin me beneath their sweet weight.

But my dearest delight was to abscond to the river-bank with half a dozen native companions and an armful of canes, and there bask in the sunshine on the hot sand or play in the lukewarm water, all the while munching the tough stalks. No Kafir youngster could outdo me, then, at peeling cane with my teeth. That is why my sweet-tooth now occupies so much of my time and attention, and why among my boyhood memories nothing stands out with more grim distinctness than the old sugar-mill.

Since my tooth remains, I suppose the old mill still sprawls on a wide stretch of bottom-land, like a big brown spider in the centre of its web. There is nothing much in the factory’s external appearance to suggest the Kafir ownership, unless it is the general air of decay. Observed from our house, which is on a hill overlooking the river, the curling old iron of the roof and the crumbling walls seem only the result of a respectable desuetude.

All around spreads a deep green sea of billowy sugar-cane, broken here and there by vari-colored islands of reeds and mimosa bush, and cut by a winding, yellow green isthmus of thick-set syringa trees, that shade the road from the river to the high lands. Touching the yellow isthmus and turning back the green sea in a russet-and-sienna wave of cut sugar-cane, the mill rises, dark and weatherbeaten, seemingly as old as the giant boulders sticking to the flanks of the distant blue hills.

It is only when you leave our veranda to descend the hill and cross the river that you begin to question the antiquity of the mill’s dilapidation. Whether you wade the shallow stone weir, or ride across in trap or on horseback, you cannot muffle by splashing feet or grinding wheels the noise of a periodic and most hideous screek-scrack, a sound that seems to fill the heavens, and yet is like nothing so much as a starved wheelbarrow. When at last you locate the din, you receive, then and there, your first lesson in native lack of thrift.

Upon the farther river-bank, about thirty feet above the water, lies a huge cylindrical tank of rusty iron; and mounted on this is a hand-pump and a dark figure of a man, who moves up and down with the handle of the pump, so automatically that you are almost ready to believe the pump is moving him. As you pass by up the dusty road he hails you in guttural Zulu; and if you can understand him, he is ready to stop his labor long enough to tell you what he is doing — in my day he would also tell you all there was to tell about the mill, the mission, the country, or anything else that would keep his tongue clacking, while his arms rested and the water-supply ran low in the mill.

This sociable darky, you soon find out, furnishes all the water used at the factory. That the pump should run by wasteful and uncertain hand-power is evidence enough of bad management, but that this same hand-power should be negligently weakened by lack of lubrication is proof conclusive.

The gurgle of water through a rusty pipe, lying above ground, speaks the way to the mill. After a quarter of a mile of level road, you come to an abrupt rise of about, twenty feet, where the river once made its bank; and there is the mill. The gurgling water is swallowed by an open cistern, — a few anteaten boards are all that remain of the cover, — from thence to be drawn by a whining steam-pump up to some concealed reservoir inside the building. And now, if the odor of dusty sugarcane and pungent syringa has previously withstood the crowning aroma of the mill, your nostrils are pleasantly assailed with the full quota of odors saccharine, from the sweety-sour smell of boiling sap to the bitter-sweet of burning sugar.

The boiler-room stands on the side nearest the river — a sheet-iron leanto, with the entire front exposed to the inclemencies of the weather. You see no coal nor any piles of wood, but the mystery of the fuel-supply is soon solved. Near the boiler-room are standing in the yard great stacks of dried refuse from the cane,—cut tops, raked-up leaves, crushed stalks, — and these are being fed by the armful into the yawning fire-box. The stuff burns like paper, and the constant attention of three men is required to keep the fire from going out, while six more are needed to replenish the stacks; but coal and wood are thereby saved. Such is the economy of the Kafir.

Next to the stacks of refuse, on the other side of the main entrance to the building, are huge piles of cut sugarcane. You wander around among the great heaps, which in the busy season mount as high as the gable of the single-storied mill, and wonder where it all comes from. Six more men are needed to feed the stalks into the lowgrowling calenders. Thence there flows across the mill to the boiling vats the sweet sap. filtered with only one mesh of screen and flowing along an open trough, where congregate innumerable bees, flies, and wasps, many of whom, full to repletion, tumble headlong into the fragrant flood, and are borne deliriously, like so many drunkards, to their doom.

From the vats, whose scummy steams assault your nostrils with almost sickening sweetness, the sap emerges a muddy brown syrup, that is cooled in broad, shallow pans resting on the rear floor of the main room. The broken window-panes are unscreened, as are the cooling-pans, and an interesting assortment of insects soon sacrifice themselves for their own sweet-tooth and the flavor of the sugar. From the pans you watch the syrup dipped up to hum merrily through a pair of centrifugal machines, and come out a dark, thin treacle; but inside the conical sieve of each machine you find a quantity of golden-yellow sugar.

There are other processes of which I have but a vague memory, that are used to separate the different grades of sugar, from the nearly white to the nearly black. I only remember toward the end of the room two large pans full of a very black liquid, in both of which two very black men were stamping industriously with bare feet. Of what advantage this process was, I never knew; but long afterwards I used to find much satisfaction in shocking those who knew no better by informing them that sugar was made by having Negroes wade in molasses until it crystallized.

At the rear of the mill is another open shed, and here a dozen more natives dip sugar out of numbered bins into burlap sacks, weighing them when full, and sewing them up for shipment. This shed, too, has its usual contingent of insects; so it is little wonder that the finished product seems more like a burying-ground for bees and wasps than a life necessity.

Turning, you walk back through the long low building until you come to a short flight of stairs which brings you to the engine-room and the front door. Here, at last, are signs of intelligent and provident care. The battered old compound working wheezily on the right-hand side of the room still glitters in spots, while the silent little auxiliary, standing on the other side, is a miracle of shining brass. The old engine, though asthmatic, performs its duty smootnly, and the big fly-wheel whirls with scarcely a sound. Instinctively you look around for a white man, and you find him. Though clad in greasy trousers and shirt, with face and hands as black as those of any Kafir laborer, you recognize the European profile, you understand the English, ‘Hi sye!’

He asks you first for a ‘ bit o’ baccy ’; then launches forth on a melancholy wail, spiced with picturesque halfEnglish, half-Zulu expletives, concerning the fate of this Kafir-managed institution. Should you happen to express your wonder because he stays there at all, under such conditions, he comes closer to explain that the mill belonged to a ‘dam fine Hinglishman’ when he first became engineer, and that afterwards he had become so attached to his engine that he could not leave it when the exchange of ownership was made.

He waxes sentimental, leaning even closer, and you get a sudden whiff, from his labored breathing, of tobacco soaked in cheap whiskey; and you back out of the front door, saying that you understand.

‘Hi sye!’ he calls after you in an anxious stage whisper, ‘ye hain’t got a drop about ye, hev ye?’

You understand very well.