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The Ghost Ship Hms Mantua

Originally a passenger liner that was converted into an armed merchant cruiser during World War I, the H.M.S. Mantua is remembered as the ship that inadvertently introduced the virulent strain of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic virus to Africa.

On August 15, 1918 the Mantua docked in Freetown, Sierra Leone, remaining there until August 31, 1918 due to sickness onboard. By the time of its arrival the Mantua already had one death and 132 in sick bay with influenza. The ship’s captain put his vessel under quarantine, communicating to Sierra Leone’s Colonial Governor that he would thus be unable to attend a formal dinner that evening at Government House.

Due to the large number of naval ships then at the harbour the Governor was that evening entertaining a party, that included a Brazilian Admiral, a British Rear-Admiral, and several captains. When he mentioned the influenza aboard the Mantua to his guests he was reassured “that no communication whatsoever was being permitted between the Mantua and the shore.”

Unfortunately, the authorities failed to prevent ship to ship communication. The following day Freetown colliers sailed out to the Mantua to load coal into its hold. Ten days later, 500 of the 600 of the men working in the Freetown coal yard were too sick to come to work. From them it quickly spread to other ships in the harbour as well as Freetown’s general population, 70% of whom were soon stricken.

Notwithstanding this ongoing calamity in early September 1918, two additional ships that were together carrying over 2000 members of the South African Native Labour Contingent home from the Western Front, took on coal at Freetown. Within days of their departure, cases of influenza began to appear aboard both ships. When the first of them docked in Table Bay on September 13, 1918 (a Friday!) a dozen of the soldiers were laid up.

The corps’ medical officer insisted that the influenza on board was similar to ordinary influenza, but as a precautionary measure, the sick troops were placed in isolation at 7 Military Hospital in Woodstock. The rest of the men were put under quarantine at a military camp at Rosebank. There they were all medically examined thrice in 72 hours for signs of influenza before they could be demobilised.

But these examinations were apparently rather cursory. Three days later all were allowed to board trains for their homes across the country. Within a day of the soldiers having left the camp on trains for home, influenza cases began to appear. These ranged from the staff at the camp and 7 Military Hospital and members of the transport unit who had ferried the returned soldiers from the harbour to fishermen and stevedores working in the docks. But by then the trains were well on their way, carrying the newly-discharged soldiers all over Southern Africa.

Within a year the Influenza had claimed an estimated 5% of Africa’s population, including 6-8% of the population the modern SACU region including Botswana.

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Builders of Botswana

The First Car To Cross Botswana

25th August 2020

The first crossing of Africa by motor vehicle was successfully completed on May 1, 1909 when First Lieutenant Paul Graetz (24/7/1875 – 16/2/1968) and his team arrived in Swakopmund having left Dar es Salaam on August 10, 1907. 

At a time when “Horseless Carriages” were still being dismissed as rich man’s toys many thought Graetz was mad to attempt his journey, one newspaper observing that he might as well drive to the moon.

The over 9,500 kilometre journey included a drive across the then Bechuanaland Protectorate, beginning in Palapye on January 10, 1909 and ending at the modern Namibia border in the vicinity of Charles Hill on March 13, 1909.

At Palapye Graetz was joined by an Australian named Henry Gould. This was after Graetz’s previous four German co-drivers had dropped out. The third member of the crew was also a local African named Wilhelm. The team set out along a route that took them through Serowe (where they were greeted by Kgosi Khama III), Khumaga, Rakops and Ghanzi.

Although the trip across Botswana began with torrential rains by the time the trio reached the Ghanzi farms they had come close to perishing of thirst; Gould in a delusional state having nearly killed himself sipping petrol.

Having set off from Palapye with 800 liters on petrol and 100 liters of oil on board, they found that the additional fuel at their designated Ghanzi region depot had not been sealed properly causing it to have evaporated. This resulted in the car being pulled by oxen into Ghanzi police post, after being rescued by a local farmer.

As reflected in the photo of the team’s departure from Palapye, Graetz is also distinguished for his experimentation with early colour photography. At the end of 1908 Graetz had found himself broke in Johannesburg, but managed to raise money to complete the journey through lectures featuring his groundbreaking colour images of the African interior. He would subsequently film his second, 1911-12, expedition across Africa by motorboat.

Upon completing his journey, Graetz was congratulated by the German Kaiser Wilhelm II and the British King Edward VII. The Kaiser subsequently greeted him in Hamburg when he and his car had returned to Germany.

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Builders of Botswana

Jaguars and Leopards – Stanley Lester

11th August 2020
Lester Leopard kitchen-

Until his death Stanley Mervyn Lester (c.1918-1967) was a leading Lobatse based business man. His store, “Lester Brothers”, specialized in building supplies. As such it was well positioned to prosper from the pre-independence construction boom in South-Eastern Botswana centered around the development of Gaborone.

Lester is, however, remembered as much for his flamboyance as business acumen. From the late 1950s he turned his comfortable farm, which for some time boasted the only swimming pool in the area as well as a tennis court, in to a holding centre for lions, cheetah and leopards.

Although kept behind a high fence the big cats were often allowed to run freely around the household, there seemingly benign interactions with members of the Lester household becoming the subject of amazement on the part of visitors, including members of the press. An October 1962 Reuters newsreel is posted online as part of the film library at, which features leopards inspecting the family refrigerator and joining the younger Lesters during a tennis match.

Heads would also often turn when Mr. Lester drove around Lobatse in his red Jaguar Mark 1 with his favorite leopard “Bull” looking comfortable in the back seat. After being banished from South Africa following his discharge from the Treason Trial local ANC activist Fish Keitseng found employment as a foreman at the Lester Brothers store, where he worked off and on during the 1960s.

Lester’s respect for Comrade Fish was such that he recruited him rejoin the company after he had left it earlier when his responsibilities managing the ANC refugee pipeline had become a full time responsibility.

Photo: Stanley Lester and Bull raid the refrigerator.

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Builders of Botswana

Patrick Van Rensburg (Part 5)

28th July 2020

We left off at the end of September 1960 with arrangements having finally been made to allow a Ghana Airway’s flight to arrive at the then WENELA Francistown Aerodrome in order to evacuate Patrick Van Rensburg and eighteen other political refugees to Accra on a two day flight with stops in Elizabethville (Lubumbashi), Congo and Lagos, Nigeria.

After a brief stay in Accra, Van Rensburg was fortunate to get onward passage to London. There he once more became involved in the UK based Anti-Apartheid Movement, while further devoting much of his energy towards writing what would become his bestselling book “Guilty Land”, as an indictment of the Apartheid system.

He also co-authored another publication at the time, an Atlas of African Affairs. With the publications out of the way Van Rensburg was able to focus on an emerging vision of returning to Serowe to establishing a school.

Unable to return to South Africa, he began to think about working in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, which he perceived to be the safest and most appealing of the neighboring, then British ruled, High Commission Territories. By the end of 1961 he had acquired a British passport that would allow him to stay in the territory.

Van Rensburg was further encouraged in his ambition by others both outside and inside of the country, the later including Seretse Khama. Another key supporter was his lover and future wife Liz Griffin, who agreed to join him on an what would be an overland journey to reach the territory.

Thus it was that Van Rensburg took up permanent residence in the then Bechuanaland Protectorate in 1962 with the mission to build what would become Swaneng Hill School. The success of this project would lead him to also ultimately spearhead the  construction of Shashe and Madiba schools in association with the Botswana government, as well as the Swaneng Consumers Cooperative and Brigades Movement.

Photo: Lady Khama, Patrick Van Rensburg, Sir Seretse Khama, and Joe Rammekwe at Swaneng Hill school standing next to Seretse’s 1965 Chevrolet Impala.

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