Africana Notes

Sibello: a glint of history

The glittering substance rubbed on their bodies and hair by many of southern Africa’s indigenous people comes from a remarkable rock called Blinkklip.




Pisolitic iron ore

Pisolitic iron ore

IN December 1947, Helen McKay, the supernumerary librarian at The Gubbins Library, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, handed me some of her notes on sibello, the seSotho word for pisolitic iron ore. It was used by them and other tribes as a shimmering powder with which to adorn their bodies. An opportunity having arisen, I am now able to go through these notes and the following article is the result. Much of it is as she wrote it.


About 119 miles (191km) west of Kimberley, on the Kimberley-Lohatla railway, is a siding called Blinkklip. It takes its name from a remarkable rock which rises up from the eastern end of a ridge of hills. This rock was famous long before it was visited by white men for, from a cave in it, the southern tribes of the Bechuana procured their supply of "blinkklip" or shining rock powder for their adornment. The name "blinkklip" usually refers to diamonds today but this rock had achieved this name before diamonds were known in this region.


It was called sensaván by the Bechuana and gotlhosis by the Hottentot, from whence it was also called gat kop by the Dutch. There is a description of the cave by PB Borcherds in his Auto_Biographical Memoir (1981, p23). He was, in 1801, a member of the PJ Truter and William Somerville expedition to the Bechuana and about blinkklip, he said: "Hearing that at about one-and-a-half-hour's distance from our camp, a natural grotto was to be found, Dr Somerville, one of the interpreters, and myself proceeded to examine it, and found a cave abounding in red earth mixed with mica and iron ore. The natives dig this out and besprinkle themselves with the powder, after besmearing themselves with grease, which gives their bodies a reddish shining colour. Above the cave was a small conical hill. The interior of the cave in itself was sufficiently deep to observe object at its fullest extremity. Wood pigeon inhabited its crevices, and there were occupation. Having admired the situation of this grotto and gathered some of the ore, which was very heavy and glittered in the sun, we returned to our camp well pleased with our little excursion."


Cartographer and statesman John Barrow does not give this detail in his recording of the Truter and Somerville expedition.


Captain W Cornwallis Harris in The Wild Sports of Southern Africa (London 1839, p51) comments on the use of sibello among the Bantu. Describing the Bechuana he writes: "The appearance of these ladies is masculine, and far from attractive. Fat and grease of all kinds form their bodies and skin cloaks being also plentifully anointed with sibilo, a grey iron-ore sparkling like mica, procured from mines in the neighborhood [of Motito], which are visited from all parts of the country."


The next description we have of blinkklip is from Martin Lichtenstein, the German explorer and zoologist. In the 1815 – Vol. II of his Travels in Southern Africa, p275 and Van Riebeek Society Vol. II, p347, we writes: "A considerable hill, with a high conical summit, was the first object worthy of remark that presented itself. It was composed of brown iron stone, and on the east side was a cavern with a broad entrance, rugged, and running deep into a vast stratum of ochraceous iron. The whole base on this side consisted of an iron clay, sometimes of a more or less deep rose colour, sometimes of an ochre yellow, sometimes of a brownish iron clay, mingled abundantly, with crystal of mica, very brittle, and a lead colour. This sinstance, rubbed to powder, and mixed with fat, is much used by the Beetjuans [Bechuana] to smear their skin and hair: and for that purpose large quantities of it are brought by them from this spot. The cave bears the name of Sobihlong, and it is the most southern point to which the wanderings of the Beetjuan people extend. The colonists call the mountain Blinkklip [glittering rock] and formerly used to relate stories concerning it of extravagance beyond all bounds.


"We went into the cavern, carrying lighted lanthorns in our hands: and when we had descended about thirty paces, came to an archway not more than a foot and a half [about 0.5m] in height. Through this we were obliged to crawl, when we entered a sort of passage, running in a horizontal direction, by which we soon arrived at a spacious lofty arched sides and roof, the crystals sparkled with the reflection of our lights, and our hands and cloaths has acquired, from the soft and greasy nature of the stone, quite a shining brown appearance. Large pieces of the stone were broken off with a little exertion and great masses about the roof seemed ready to be shaken down with any convulsion. A few weeks before, as Kok [John Matthias] told us, three Beetjuans, having broke off a piece of the stone incautiously, or perhaps, in order to see the better, having made too large a fire occasioned a violent shock: and when search was made for them it was found that they had fallen into a large carven in the interior of the mountain. Although there was nothing disagreeable in our situation, as far as damp or cold were concerned, yet the idea of so dreadful an example made us soon retrace our steps, and quit the cavern: two of the company still endeavoured to explore a steep passage to the left, just at the entrance. They, however, returned almost immediately, having found the fresh dung of a lion: this seemed to indicate that it was not safe to venture farther."


Explorer William John Burchell was at Blinkklip on 18 June 1812. He writes about the remarkable rock, calls attention to the fact that there are three or four similar masses though much inferior in size, and goes on to say, (Travels, Vol. II, p256): "The Sensaván is one of the most celebrated places of the transgariepine: being the only spot where the Sibilo [Sibeelo] is found. Hither all the surrounding nations repair for a supply of that ornamental and, in their eyes, valuable substances. It constitute in some degree an article of barter with the more distance, tribes and even among themselves: so that the use of it extends over at least five degrees of latitudes, or among every tribe which I have visited … The mode of preparing and using it is simply grinding it together with grease, and smearing it generally over the body, but chiefly on the head: and the hair is often so much loaded and clotted with an accumulation of it, that the clots exhibit the appearance of lumps of mineral. A Bachapin [Batlhaping] whose head is thus covered, considers himself a most admirably adorned, and in full dress: and indeed, to lay aside European prejudices, it is quite as becoming as our own hair-powder, and is a practice not more unreasonable than ours: with which it may in some respects be compared … I have succeeded in preparing from the Sibilo a very singular kind of paint, which may be used either in water-colour or in oil-painting, and grinding it either in gun-water or in oil: and in finishing my drawings of the natives, I have found it most admirably suited for giving the exact colour together with that peculiar glittering which it would be impossible to imitate by any other means."


Burchell gives a description of the cavern: "On descending the hill and approaching the rock, I found a large open cavern or excavation about twenty feet high, and penetrating about thirty feet inwards. This, being open to the daylight, afforded a better situation for examining the mine, than the deeper excavations which can only be seen by the light of a torch or lantern. The whole rock appeared to be composed of the species of iron-ore, mingled in some placed with a quartzose rock. The ore is mostly hard and ponderous; but frequently friable and easily falling to pieces, so that the floor of the cavern was found deeply covered with loose powder … A narrow and low passage leads from the outer cavern to an inner chamber, from which this one is principally dug. The size of this excavation, supposing it to be wholly the work of art, proves that this powder has been in use during many generations: and indeed its glittering property, its red colour, and its soft greasy quality, seem to render it exactly suitable to the ornamental taste of all the neighboring nations."


Burchell's interpreter, Inachunka (meaning poor man), who was half Batlhaping and half Kora, told of several Batlhapings having lost their lives in the mine when parts of the roof collapsed while they were at work.


The cavern is no longer open. Boulders and overgrowth would have to be cleared before there any trace of an entrance could be seen. But the Batlhapings, which means the people of the fish, still use sibilo. RG Cumming was at Motito in April 1844 and he wrote in his A Hunter's Life in South Africa, Vol I, London, 1850, p232: "Both men and women go bareheaded: they anoint their heads with ‘sabelo', a shining composition, being a mixture of fat and a grey sparkling ore, having the appearance of mica."


Mr Cunningham, the native commissoner, writing from Taungs in 1940, said: "There are small supplies [of sibilo] available on the border of the district, but the Batlhaping women are reluctant to reveal this secret. It seems clear that the Batlhaping of Mokhubangwe's days [he died c. 1810] obtained their supply from Gatlhosis on the Kuruman boarder near Postmasburg. It is stated that there was also a deposit at Ditlokong or Litlakong as it is sometimes spelt." Dithakong is near Bootscap.