The Mark of Cain

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For me as a teenager, reading voraciously on the Natal sugar farm that was then my home, what gave Herman Charles Bosman an edge over other writers was that he was a murderer. That he was also one of a handful of South African writers who could confidently be called ‘major’ seemed incidental. From my adolescent perspective, lounging in a rattan chair on the veranda, with the sea of sugarcane swaying in the distance, it was his infamy that was beguiling.

The scene of the crime was a suburban house in Johannesburg, where late one night in 1926 Bosman shot dead his step-brother. It was a fractious household, set up after his father’s early death and his mother’s marriage to a widower with children of his own. Hearing in an adjoining room his brother exchanging blows with their step-brother, in a mad impulse of fraternal loyalty the 21-year-old Bosman kicked open the door and fired a shot. As it later emerged, this reaction was part of a pattern, for there had been other occasions when he had displayed a similar explosiveness followed by a trance-like state of bewilderment. He was in the house because he was on holiday from the Groot Marico, a deeply rural bushveld district in the western Transvaal, not far from Bechuanaland, where he had begun a career as a teacher. The murder weapon, purchased from a farmer, was a rifle which together with a hat bristling with guinea-fowl feathers he had brought home in a display of frontiersman bravado.

In a holding cell at Johannesburg’s Marshall Square police station, Bosman found himself among a dozen inmates. After some desultory conversation, a dapper little man, who was particularly talkative and who seemed to exercise some form of leadership in the cell, began to circulate, asking each inmate why he had been nabbed.

‘Liquor-selling,’ said the first. ‘Stealing a wheelbarrow from the Public Works Department,’ said the second. ‘Drunk and disorderly and indecent exposure,’ said the third. ‘F

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About the contributor

John Conyngham lives on a smallholding outside Pietermaritzburg where he reads, writes and tows things with his old Massey Ferguson tractor. With three novels behind him, he has written a sugar-fields memoir, Hazara: Elegy for an African Farm, published by the Natal Society Foundation this year.

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