In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Percy Fitzpatrick would regale listeners with tales of his adventures through the bushveld in the northeastern region of South Africa. Life in the new colony was tough, and accompanied by his bull terrier cross, Fitzpatrick lived through perilous situations, beset on all sides by dangers that threatened their very lives.
Spurred on by his good friend, Rudyard Kipling (author of The Jungle Book), Percy Fitzpatrick was convinced to write his stories down. Beyond the campfires and bars, the story of Jock of the Bushveld found its way into people’s homes as well as their hearts, creating an enduring legacy of friendship that exists today as one of South Africa’s most beautiful stories.
This is the story of a man and his loyal dog.
Jock of the Bushveld: The Runt of the Litter
By the end of the 19th century, the areas of what is now northeastern South Africa were booming with immigrants. Many thousands of people migrated from the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe to seek their fortune in a land where the discovery of gold attracted diggers and prospectors, while others sought to capitalize with other business ventures in a land that was to become very wealthy.
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It was here that James Percy Fitzpatrick found himself in 1884. Born in King William’s Town in the Cape Colony (now the Eastern Cape) in 1862, both of James Percy Fitzpatricks’ parents were from Ireland. After working as a clerk for Standard Bank in Cape Town, Percy left to seek his fortune around the newly discovered goldfields of the East Rand.
Once in the north, he worked many jobs, including as a storeman, a prospector’s assistant, a journalist, and, importantly, an ox-wagon transport rider. Even on the established routes of the Bushveld, it was a dangerous job, not only because of the large wild animals but because of the swarms of tsetse flies whose bites can cause sleeping sickness. This often fatal disease decimated the trains of oxen needed to haul the wagons.
Dogs played an important role as companions to hunters, and while Fitzpatrick was traveling on one of his wagon journeys, a mother dog, Jess, gave birth to a litter of six puppies. The runt of the litter was, as Fitzpatrick put it, a very ugly dog that didn’t know he was ugly. He was half the size of the others, and the travelers decided that it may be best to drown him. Fortunately, this idea never came to fruition, and it’s just as well because the small, ugly one grew to be the bravest and pluckiest of all of them. All the other puppies were spoken for, and Fitzpatrick began looking after this puppy. The two became inseparable.
Jock the Hunter
Jock grew up on the trails between settlements. He had to learn fast, for plenty of dangerous things in the African bush could do harm. He learned about snakes, bugs, and scorpions, even being stung by the latter.
Percy Fitzpatrick taught Jock the fundamentals needed to be a good hunting dog. Jock learned to be silent when needed. He learned when to be aggressive and when not to kill. Much of this he learned while having to deal with chickens trying to steal his food.
On their first hunt together, the quarry turned out to be a duiker, and although small, it was a dangerous animal when cornered. Its razor-sharp hooves could rip through the skin, as both Percy and Jock found out. After shooting the duiker in the shoulder, it ran. Percy gave the signal for Jock to chase it down, and a furious struggle ensued. Jock’s skin was slashed all along his side, but he did not flinch. He held on with a tenacity for which he became well known.
After this hunt, Percy discovered how obedient and quick off the mark Jock was. He knew this dog was one of a kind.
They had many adventures together, some exciting, while others were terrible experiences. On one occasion, they got so lost chasing a herd of kudu that they wandered for hours through the Bushveld, walking in circles, not knowing the way back to camp. Percy and Jock made it out alive, but they were lucky. Many hunters had disappeared into the wild, never to be seen again. Sometimes the only thing left of them was a rifle and a boot, as they fell prey to one of the more dangerous animals of the African veld.
On another terrifying occasion, it was Jock who was lost alone. After the two had found themselves in the middle of a springbok stampede, Percy had managed to get off a few shots and wound a buck in the hindquarters. Jock gave chase but did not come back. Hours passed, and Percy returned to the camp, thinking perhaps that Jock had found his way there, but there was no sign of him. A friend of Percy’s, a Zulu man named Jim Makokel, demanded a gun and went looking for Jock too, only to return three hours later empty-handed.
Eight hours after he had disappeared, Jock arrived back at camp, out of breath, dying of thirst, and caked in blood. But the blood was (mostly) not his. He had made the kill and was fairly beaten up in the process, with a sore leg and a gash across his face. What had happened in those eight hours is anyone’s guess, but it must have been an arduous experience for Jock, fighting the springbok and defending its body from potential scavengers like hyenas and wild dogs.
Together, Percy and Jock managed to tackle bigger and ever-dangerous prey, even taking down a kudu bull, which Jock again protected through the night while Percy looked for him. It was another kudu, however, that would do permanent damage to Jock. During one hunting trip, Jock misjudged the situation and received a powerful kick to the head from a kudu which left Jock completely deaf.
More Dangerous Encounters
Being deaf added significantly to the danger Jock would face while out in the bush. He could no longer hear Percy’s commands and was likely to make grave mistakes. This proved to be the case when Percy was alerted by locals to the presence of an extremely large and old crocodile that had terrorized the area. He found the old reptile by the riverbank and took a shot, wounding the creature. It slipped under the water, and to Percy’s horror, Jock gave chase, jumping into the water after the mighty beast.
The crocodile went straight for Jock, but under the bombardment of assegais (spears) from the locals lining the riverbank, the old crocodile did not chomp down. He flicked its tail, sending Jock hurtling through the air. The dog was extremely lucky to have survived the encounter.
Jock’s biggest fight was not with a crocodile but with a fighting baboon owned by the official Justice, Field Cornet Seedling, who also owned an important general store. Seedling was known as a corrupt, unfair, and drunken man who delighted in the misfortune of others. His baboon had killed many dogs in arranged fights, and Seedling had made much money this way. The fight with Jock was not, however, arranged. Seedling agitated his baboon and pushed Jock towards where the baboon was tied up. The two animals began to fight viciously. Jim Makokel tried to intervene and ended up in a scuffle with Seedling. When Percy arrived on the scene, to everyone’s surprise, Jock had been the one to come out on top, dealing the baboon a mortal injury. By evening, the baboon was dead, and Seedling had been humiliated.
Jock’s Last Days
Business for Percy Fitzpatrick as a wagon transporter became a nightmare. The tsetse flies killed the oxen with sleeping sickness, and Percy decided to look for a new source of income. He moved to the town of Barberton, but Jock was miserable living in an urban environment. He longed to be out in the African bush. Percy decided Jock should stay with his friend, Tom, who lived on a farm.
Tom was having trouble with jackals attacking his chickens at night, and one night, he heard barking and rustling around the chicken coop. Spying the dark outline of a jackal, he raised his rifle and shot. To his despair, he only realized his mistake after the sun had risen. Jock lay dead, with his breast pierced by a bullet.
Jock’s body was buried under a fig tree that was, decades later, bulldozed during development. Percy’s daughter, Cecily Niven, in 1947, tracked down the exact location to 25°46’5.0″S 32°20’4.0″E.
Jock of the Bushveld: Legacy & Controversy
Sir Percy Fitzpatrick’s account was published in 1907 and reflected the mores of the time. It contained racist language and problematic attitudes that would be found unacceptable if written today.
Cleaner versions of the book have been written since, but the original remains a source of important history in the South African psyche.
In 1986, the story was turned into a major motion picture (with a great theme song by Johnny Clegg), but the movie proved unpopular with American audiences due to its sad ending. Another more palatable version was filmed in 1994.
In 2011, the story was adapted for film again, this time in CGI, and drew much acclaim. Jock the Hero Dog had an all-star cast of voice actors, including Bryan Adams, Helen Hunt, Mandy Patinkin, Ted Danson, Donald Sutherland, and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
There are few South Africans who haven’t heard of Jock of the Bushveld. As a story of a loyal dog, it resonates with the South African public and is seen as a part of South African culture and history. Through film, the story has reached a much wider international audience, and the name Jock will forever be associated with the stubborn little bullterrier, the runt of the litter, who grew up to become a beloved icon.
Fun fact: The two-minute silence observed on Armistice Day / Veterans Day / Remembrance Day (November 11) was initiated at the suggestion of Sir Percy Fitzpatrick and continues to be observed to this day.