by Alexander Schattil, with comments
by Leslie Comaroff
Not much is known of the
early life of Joseph Schattil. He was born in
Lithuania, then part of Imperial Russia, on 14 February 1876 and
emigrated to South Africa at an early age.
He arrived in Rhodesia at the pioneer town of Bulawayo in 1897. He
traveled from Cape Town by train to Mafeking with two countrymen: Harry
Sussman and Moses Grill. (Leslie points out that Harry Sussman went on
to acquire the Woolworth's franchise in South
(click on image of family to enlarge)
At that time, the railroad to the North had only been constructed as
far as Mafeking and a mule wagon coach service connected the railroad to
Bulawayo. It appears that Joseph and his companions could not afford the
coach fares so they completed their journey to Bulawayo on foot.
Mafeking was about 200 miles from Bulawayo and they walked among the
African bush which then teemed with wild animals and hostile tribesmen.
They followed the coach road and there must have been travelers in the
same position as themselves. It must have been in the dry season so it
would seem that they arrived in Bulawayo about May or June, 1897.
Joseph remained in the new country of Rhodesia, but Harry Sussman and
Moses Grill later moved on to the adjoining colony of Northern Rhodesia
where they became successful businessmen. Bulawayo was a typical
frontier town with many saloons and hotels catering to the needs of the
locals and new arrivals. Gold mining was the main activity in those
early days and large and small mines were opening all over the country.
Joseph must have gone into business opening up trading stores in the
mines. In 1907 he surfaced in Salisbury where he met and later married
Dina Masinter, a recent arrival from Russia. They established themselves
at Mazoe, then a mining camp about 20 miles from Salisbury.
Ralph was born in Salisbury in 1908 and shortly thereafter the family
moved to the Lonely Mine, a newly established gold mine situated in
dense bush country about 40
miles from Bulawayo. The area was isolated as the connecting roads were
little better than well defined tracks and the many rivers between
the Lonely Mine and Bulawayo had no bridges and could only be crossed at
fords called "drifts."
When the rivers came down in flood, as they frequently did during the
rainy season, the little mining camp would be completely cut off from
the rest of the country
until the floods subsided. Between 1909 and 1911, Lena and Alexander
were born in Bulawayo. Before 1914, Dina took her three children on a
voyage to England to see relatives. Their visit was cut short by the
imminent outbreak of War in 1914 and she returned accompanied by a
governess to help look after and bring up the children. By this time the
family had moved to the Eiffel Blue Mine near Gatooma where Joseph
operated a business in partnership with brothers Jacob and Victor.
click on image of the
family circa 1920 to enlarge
Joseph had earlier been in partnership with Julius and Jacob, but it is
not certain when and where they carried on business. It is at this time
that the spelling of the
name surfaced as "Schattil" as has already been described.
Julius left Rhodesia and settled in the U.S.A. and Jacob later joined
Joseph in partnership with Victor at the Eiffel Blue Mine.
Around 1916, Joseph acquired his first motor car; a Model T Ford. This
was when the primary means of transport was by horse and cart. Joseph
had owned a pair of horses: "Custard" and "Bob."
Custard died of horse sickness and Joseph decided it was time to
modernize and travel by motorcar as he disposed of the surviving horse
and sold his carriage.
The Eiffel Blue Mine closed down around 1916 and Joseph moved to the
Queens Mine some 20 miles from Bulawayo where he operated a trading
store. Ida had been born in Salisbury in 1914 before the family
left the Eiffel Blue Mine.
When the Eiffel Blue partnership came to an end, Victor returned to
South Africa and became an hotelier and Jacob traded in the Battlefields
mining area near Gatooma in 1922. When Joseph and his family were at the
Queen's Mine, Rhodesia was struck by the Spanish Influenza epidemic in
1918 and Dina caught a bad attack of the flu. Joseph closed the business
and took the family into Bulawayo where they remained until Dina
(Leslie says that they stayed at a hotel in Bulawayo, rather than
putting Dina in a hospital because the hospitals were filled and the
risk of contagion was greater there.
During her recovery, people from the large and active Jewish community
in Bulawayo delivered food to Dina. Leslie remembers how children of
friends would drop off food, including tureens of soup, at the hotel for
family members to bring to Dina. This way, the messengers would not be
exposed to the influenza germs.)
Joseph was soon in business again, this time at the Wankie Colliery
which was in a low lying area and an extremely hot part of the country.
When he moved to Wankie,
Joseph sold his Model T Ford which then represented his total capital.
The business prospered and in 1922 he sold out for health reasons
(Leslie says that Ralph developed a fever in that hot climate) and
decided to take the family on a holiday overseas to Lithuania to see his
mother, Miriam and Dina's mother, Malka.
When the family returned to Rhodesia in 1922, Joseph was soon back in
business after acquiring the trading rights at the Sherwood Starr Mine
which was a new discovery in the Que Que district and he remained
there until 1926. He then became involved once again in prospecting and
he was soon developing the Golden Snake claims near the Sherwood Starr
Mine. Shafts were built under Jacob's supervision and the property was
offered for sale. It is believed he was offered £10,000 for the mine
but the offer was turned down. Thereafter, he arranged for the
Goldfields Co. in
Bulawayo to take a sampling option over the mine and it sent a mining
engineer to report on the property and take samples of the ore. However,
the report and samples
were unsatisfactory and no deal eventuated.
During the visit of the Goldfields engineer, an exciting incident
occurred which severely tested the nerves of young Alexander, then 14
years old. Joseph, Jacob and the
mining engineer were down a shaft some 150 feet deep examining the ore
body and taking samples. The shaft was timbered and access was by means
of a large bucket attached to a steel rope connected to a windlass
operated by an African worker who immediately curled up and went to
Young Alexander kept watch at the shaft head with a loaded shotgun on
the lookout for snakes in the mine timbers as the area was notorious for
the deadly black mamba, one of the world's most venomous snakes. Sure
enough, a black snake soon crawled out of the shaft and made its way to
the sleeping African. Alexander could not call out in case he disturbed
the sleeping man. (Leslie explains that if a person moves, the snake
will strike.) He had to wait and see what the snake
would do. It crawled over the sleeping African and appeared again on the
opposite side of the shaft.
At this stage, Alexander had a clear field of fire and discharged both
barrels of the shotgun at the snake, which was blown up into a thousand
pieces, most of which fell
down the shaft onto the three men below. Loud bellows came from them
demanding what was going on and soon thereafter they were hauled up to
the surface. When Alexander described what had taken place, Joseph asked
"Was it necessary to use two cartridges to kill the snake? Wouldn't
one have been enough?"
(Snake-shooting seems to run in the family as Leslie tells it. She says
that one day her daughter Bernice saw a snake crawl out from behind a
settee in Joseph's house
and he picked up a gun and shot the snake.)
After the failure of the Golden Snake venture, Joseph sold the business
at the Sherwood Starr Mine and moved to Bulawayo. In the meantime, the
last of his five
children, Esther (Esme) was born at Gwelo in December, 1926.
Joseph's fortunes did not prosper and he moved from one mine to another
hoping that one of them would turn out to be a bonanza. In 1929 it
seemed that his luck was about to turn when he opened a business at the
Alaska Mine in the Sinoia district. This was a promising copper and gold
mine but the bottom dropped out of the copper market as the Great
Depression of the 1930s set in. The mine closed and Joseph was on the
From 1931 to 1938 he was trading on a number of small mines in the Que
Que District. Joseph had a stroke of luck around 1938 when he and his
brother Jacob found a nugget of gold of 150 oz. in a river bed. This
realized about £600 and helped keep creditors at bay. In 1938 he bought
the store at the Que Que Limeworks when his fortunes started to improve
again. The Limeworks turned into the Rhodesian Iron and Steel
Corporation when deposits of iron ore were discovered
Joseph remained at the Limeworks until his death in 1950. By this time
he had seen his little shop turn into a thriving business which was
cared for by his widow and family.
Before concluding this biographical note, there is a story about Joseph
which is worth recounting. When he lived at the Lonely Mine, he used to
ride a horse to Bulawayo
to transact his business. On one occasion, he was riding a horse called
"Pompey" when he rode into a storm. The horse was struck by
lightening and died instantaneously but Joseph escaped relatively
unscathed except for a gold Hunter watch which he was wearing at the
time. The watch was damaged beyond
repair and was sold many years later when the price of gold began
The incident was reported in the "Bulawayo Chronicle" at the
time and was repeated in a section of the paper "25 Years
Ago." At that time (1936) Alexander was working in the Tax Office
in Bulawayo and he showed the article to an accountant who was in his
office. To his surprise, the accountant exclaimed that he had sold the
horse "Pompey" to Joseph Schattil and he remembered the
The long arm of coincidence!