CERTAIN South African native tribes seem ever to have been on the watch for herbal poisons which could be used with deadly effect upon enemies or upon unwanted associates in the kraals. These poisons have no doubt played as dramatic a part in the native territories as they have in European regions that have figured prominently in literature.
The arrows of the Bush tribes of the Kalahari, South-West Africa, and Angola have been tipped with poisons of various sorts, and these have been preserved a close secret. When Livingstone came in contact with these people he observed that they used the entrails of a small caterpillar the Bushmen called “Nga” to manufacture poison, and he remarked that men wounded with it expired slowly and in great agony, sometimes afflicted with spasms of violent delirium.
The “Nga” is actually the “leaf beetle”, and it is possible to compound from it a poison with most of the qualities of snake venom. This poison retains its properties indefinitely.
Most poisons have their antidotes, and the best antidote for this poison is said to be the beetle, which must be swallowed, but no reliable tests seem to have been made. Bushmen in another part of South Africa were observed to use the secretion of certain euphorbia trees in the manufacture of their poisons. This juice was sometimes mixed with snake venom or with a certain type of black spider, and the whole was reduced to a thin bladder powder, which was afterwards painted upon the arrow tips.
There are many points of similarity between the Bushmen of South Africa and the pygmies of Central Africa, and the latter people produce a most deadly poison by compounding the red ant with certain vegetable substances. This poison was often used in hunting, and it is believed that a scratch from an arrow so doctored is sufficient to kill an elephant.
In South-West Africa the Ovambo tribes have successfully employed a species of the adenium to provide poison for their arrows, and they have discovered a few poisons of mineral origin. Along the banks of the Zambesi, through Northern Rhodesia to the Congo there are native tribes which make considerable use of the strophanthus seeds for preparing poisons.
A poison known popularly as “Death Snuff” is manufactured from secret ingredients by certain Central African tribes. Recently a few traders managed to secure specimens of this poison, and analysis reveals that it is prepared from the fungus of the Baobab tree, the roots of the giant Narcissus, a species of poppy, and then mixed with some secretions from the stomach of the crocodile. After that the decoction is dried in the sun and presently ground into a powder and administered as snuff.
Vegetable poisons consisting largely of sassy bark and calabar bean were usually prepared by the West Coast natives for the trials by ordeal which once were very popular among them. Should one man accuse were forced to drink potions of this poison, and the man who died was judged the one at fault. Should both survive the poison, another trial must follow, for its efficacy could only be judged by a fatal result.
Not all the growths suspected of being poisonous are actually so. One such root was that of the East African blue grass, which the natives used to mix into many of their poisons. It must have been an innocuous ingredient, for a prospector suffering from dysentery chewed a piece of this root and found that it relieved his pains. Continuing with the roots he was eventually cured. This man has repeatedly suggested that these roots be exported as a cure for this complaint.
On the other hand apparently innocent herbs are deadly poisonous. Some time ago a new poison of this sort was discovered in the Transvaal, and it was stated to be so powerful that even its smell might have fatal effects. Whether this is so or not, it has been shown that one-thousandth part of a grain can be fatal. Thus it is 5,000 times more powerful than strychnine, but the most sinister feature of this poison is that it leaves no trace in the organs of its victim. Subsequent research may discover a means of detecting when this poison has acted upon the stomach tissues.
Dr. H. H. Green made what was probably the first reference to this poison, but some time ago a gang of white labourers working near Bienaars River rediscovered it. They dug up several bulbs which contained so much moisture they thought they might be used for quenching their thirsts.
The bulbs were cut up and shared out in portions. Although all the men tasted this moisture, only one of them chewed a piece of the bulb. That man died within a short period, and those men who had only touched the bulb with the tips of their tongues became violently ill. They had to be taken to hospital, and there they recovered. In fact, they have only the distasteful flavour of the bulb to thank for their lives.
The extract of the plants gifblaar (Dichapetalum cymosum) and gousiektebossie (Vangueria pygmaea) has been used on the backveld in a few poison cases. The poisonous properties of these plants have also been exploited by the natives. The gifblaar has been observed to cause death within thirty minutes, but the action of the gousiektebossie is much slower.
These poisons chiefly affect the heart by causing chronic inflammation of the muscles, and seriously weakening it. The toxicity of the plant varies from year to year, and it is also affected by climatic variations. It is deep-rooted and has a very high resistance to drought.
Knowledge of the toxicity of South African tulips is still incomplete, and it is at present the practice to regard all as dangerous. The Cape blue tulip (Moraea polystachya) are known to be extremely poisonous. These plants grow in veils, furrows and along river banks. As with other tulips, this poison is an alkaloid, with a serious effect upon the heart. It is a fairly stable poison, and long after the flowers and bulbs have dried they remain dangerous. The slangkop bulbs are also poisonous.
These include the Transvaal slangkop (Urginea Burkei), the Natal slangkop ( U. macrocentra), the Cape slangkop (Orinthoglossum glaucum), and the Urginea (U. capitata). Slangkop poisoning is in many respects similar to tulip poisoning.
The wild cucumber or bitter apple (Cucumis Myriocarpus), which is found growing in maize lands in many parts of South Africa, has definite poisonous properties. The fruit when ripe is about the size of a small walnut, and its brownish or yellowish skin is covered with small fleshy prickles. The internal structure of the fruit is similar to that of the ordinary cucumber, and in smell the juice resembles that of the cucumber. The slight bitter flavour of the green fruit becomes more noticeable with ripening.
The active principle of this fruit in a comparatively small quantity is believed to be sufficient to kill a man. It is said that men have been killed with the juice of two or three pounds of the fruit.
To one way of thinking the native doctors who claim to have the power to cure herbal poisoning are picturesque old fellows. Often they are emaciated and dressed in loin cloths made from the skins of wild cats. In the pouches of those loin cloths are carried numerous herbs and roots, some of which are proved cures for certain types of poisoning. Around their necks they carry strings of grass and dried roots, which are placed there as the mark of their profession. The method of administering antidotes would seem queer to the civilized practitioner.
After a brief examination the doctor would draw from his loin cloth a wizened root and savagely bite at it and chew the bitter red pith until his lips are crimson. He then spits this juice and the chewed pith into a calabash of lukewarm water and forces his patient to drink it.