A South African amaGaleca Slave in the USA

ImageRecently a really powerful movie hit the silver screen and swept up Oscar awards – 12 Years a Slave – a story about the kidnapping and enslavement of a free black man in the USA. In South Africa and the USA we have an equally harrowing story which has been a movie just waiting to be made, but most South Africans just don’t know the story. In fact academia and South Africans in general have always been in denial about slaves being taken from South Africa into slavery abroad. Hence the story of the enslaved Gobo Fango, a subject of King Sarhili of the amaGcaleka in the Eastern Cape, even although well documented and the subject of a book entitled Gobo Fango, has not been told in his home country. When I first came across the story ten years ago in an article – “The controversial death of Gobo Fango” by H Dean Garrett in the Utah Historical Quarterly Vol 41 – 60 No:3 1989 – it brought me to tears, and still does.

Gobo Fango was born in the upheaval of the middle years of the 100 years war in the Eastern Cape and died a violent death in 1886 at the hands of a German in Idaho in the USA, after recently having been freed as a slave in the Mormon community. The 100 years war in the Eastern Cape is glossed over in terms of its brutality, where white academics have focussed on the virtues of colonials and their civilising missionary quest projected as a noble mission. The truth was that the flooding of the Eastern Cape by British troops instructed to conduct a scorched earth policy and genocide was a travesty of epic proportions comparable to some of the worst acts of this type in the 20th century associated with the likes of Adolf Hitler. Following close on the military conquests, ethnic cleansing exercises and slaughter of people, livestock and burning of crops and homes, the Eastern Cape was flooded with British and German settlers who took over the lands of the conquered. Today the Eastern Cape still suffers the impact of this devastation and the Western Cape colonial descendants which became the beneficiary of the devastation still lords it over the people of this territory. White South Africans have a total amnesia about war crime and how they benefitted from the destruction meted out to others.

It is within this crucible that Gobo’s mother, weighed down by her two children, and in flight, left one of her children, Gobo, asleep in the crook of a tree on the farm of a British settler Mr Henry Talbot. The Talbots took in the 3 year old child who grew up to be an indentured labourer in the family. During these times many amaXhosa, Khoena and San children ended up as virtual slaves (called indentured apprentices) on white farms after their parents were either slaughtered or became wandering refugees as a result of the war, rape, pillage and land appropriation carried out by white troops and settlers. The recent usage of this term ‘refugee’ for Eastern Cape people by Helen Zille was outrageous for exactly this reason.

Mr Talbot later converted to the Mormon faith in 1857 and his whole family became Mormons. This sealed the fate of Gobo Fango. The Talbots packed up and shipped out to the USA on board the ship Race Horse. Gobo Fango was kidnapped by wrapping him up in a blanket and taking him on board the ship. When Gobo arrived in the USA, Mr James Henry Talbot presented him as his indentured slave. The Civil War had just began. Arriving in Boston the Talbots travelled through New York by train to Chicago and on to Iowa and Nebraska. From there they travelled to the Salt Lake Valley and later on to Utah. Here the record shows that Gobo Fango, a South African slave, was one of 29 slaves and a number of free blacks. Gobo worked as a slave labourer and shepard for the Talbot family and life was extremely hard for him. The earlier pretence in South Africa when he was a child that he was just another of the children in the large family had now completely fallen away. Gobo lived in a rogh shed at the back of the Talbot house and on one cold winter his feet froze resulting in his losing part of the heal of one foot. Thereafter Henry Talbot sold Gobo to the Whiteside family in Kaysville. After the Whiteside family, Gobo was sold to a Mormon Bishop, Edward Hunter, who then manumitted Gobo by signing his freedom papers and gave him a job as a paid worker on his farm. This was long after President Abraham Lincoln had made his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

While with the Hunter family at Grantsville, Gobo Fango was also able to develop his own sheep herd. Around 1880 Gobo, two of the Hunter brothers and a fella by the name of Walter Matthews went to an area called Goose Creek to run their sheep on the desert brush. Gobo and Matthews also leased a band of sheep from a man by the name of Thomas Poulton. The same area had attracted cattlemen with large herds from the Midwest and Texas. Tensions immediately broke out over grazing rights between the cattlemen and the sheepmen. The former and more powerful demanded that the sheepmen leave. This set the scene for the final tragedy in the life of our Eastern Cape countryman.

During the winter of 1886, Gobo Fango was herding sheep in the Goose Creek Valley in defiance of the order to leave. A certain German man Frank Bedke and a companion rode into Gobo’s camp and ordered Gobo to leave immediately. Gobo challenged the legality of Bedke’s action and demanded that documentation of land ownership be shown to him.

Gobo was summarily shot, beaten and the shot again and left for dead. Gobo recovered consciousness and crawled four and a half miles to Walter Matthews home, holding his intestines in his hand. He survived just short of a week before this son of the soil of the Eastern Cape gave up his spirit. He was buried at Oakley, Idaho Cemetery where his headstone marker says – GOBO FANGO Died 10 February 1886 – 30 years old.

In a famous and railroaded trial, Frank Bedke was tried for murder. He denigrated Gobo claiming that he killed him in self-defence. The jury was not entirely convince and was a hung jury. A second trial was held a year later and the German was found not guilty. The case was quite controversial as Bedke was not well regarded by the Mormon neighbours who saw through his contrived story. Bedke went on to be a very wealthy man and a leading donor and supporter of the US Democratic Party. Gobo was seen as just an expendable former slave from Africa.

The detail of the entire story of Gobo Fango is much more complex than this summary. The story of Gobo and so many others, including men and women such as ‘Clico’ Franz Taabosch and Sarah Baartman are tragic stories that arise out of the great wrongdoing in the annals of colonialism in South Africa. Somehow we have clinically separated Apartheid from the longer and more abominable colonisation story of South Africa and the heroic struggles against the crimes against humanity therein as well as the harrowing cameo stories of human beings who rose above the adversity of their times. Layer upon layer of lies and camouflage cloud our historical understanding and this continues to negatively affect relations amongst diverse South Africans today. Only the truth can set us free.


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