Friday, 2 June 2017

The freedom tree

The relationship between people and plantshas always been profoundly important and plants affect every aspect of our lives. 

The AmaMfengu fled from Zululand during the time of King Shaka (1818-1828) and settled in the Eastern Cape in Hintsa’s land. On 14 May 1835, the AmaMfengu gathered under an old Sideroxylon inerme (Botanical name), milkwood (English), melkhout (Afrikaans), umqwashu (Xhosa) tree in Peddie district, in the presence of the Rev. John Ayliff, and swore a great oath to obey the Queen, to accept Christianity, and to educate their children. 
This oath was to have momentous consequences. The AmaMfengu fought alongside the colonial forces in
all the Frontier Wars that followed, and were rewarded by extensive tracts of Rharhabe land. The AmaMfengu became the first Bantu in South Africa to use ploughs, demonstrated to them by the missionaries, and also the first to plant wheat.

As the 'better-educated' and more European-aligned group, they naturally secured the bulk of elite positions as clerks, teachers, peasants, and petty traders that were available to Blacks in an elective system based on merit and achievement, as opposed to the pre-colonial Xhosa pattern of strong hereditary chiefs. They viewed themselves as the bearers of a great universal Christian civilization, and tended to regard the Rharhabe and other amaXhosa as backward and uncivilized. Several educational institutions, such as those at Lovedale, Healdtown and St Matthews supported these developments.

Every 14 May since the day the 'Fingo-Oath' was sworn has been celebrated as Fingo Emancipation Day, with a ceremony held under the old milkwood tree where the oath was sworn. The milkwood is a low-growing, evergreen tree. It is rarely found with a straight trunk; instead, its gnarled, sprawling branches often create impenetrable thickets that are home to a variety of wild life. Although also occurring inland, milkwoods are found mainly along the coast from the Cape Peninsula to northern Zululand.

The small, yellowy-green flowers have an unusual sour-smell (Jan-July). The edible, juicy, black fruit (July-Jan) are enjoyed by birds and baboons. The milky latex which gives the tree its common name makes the leaves and the bark unpalatable to grazing animals. The wood is very hard, heavy and strong. In the past, it was used for ship building, bridges, mills and ploughs. It is very durable even when wet and it shrinks little with drying.


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