One Hundred and Four Horses/ posted in: Book Review, Reading One Hundred and Four Horses by Mandy Retzlaff
on August 15th 2013
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Published by William Collins
‘A letter is handed to you. In broken English, it tells you that you must now vacate your farm; that this is no longer your home, for it now belongs to the crowd on your doorstep. Then the drums begin to beat.’
As the land invasions gather pace, the Retzlaffs begin an epic journey across Zimbabwe, facing eviction after eviction, trying to save the group of animals with whom they feel a deep and enduring bond – the horses.
When their neighbours flee to New Zealand, the Retzlaffs promise to look after their horses, and making similar promises to other farmers along their journey, not knowing whether they will be able to feed or save them, they amass an astonishing herd of over 300 animals. But the final journey to freedom will be arduous, and they can take only 104 horses.
Each with a different personality and story, it is not just the family who rescue the horses, but the horses who rescue the family. Grey, the silver gelding: the leader. Brutus, the untamed colt. Princess, the temperamental mare.
One Hundred and Four Horses is the story of an idyllic existence that falls apart at the seams, and a story of incredible bonds – a love of the land, the strength of a family, and of the connection between man and the most majestic of animals, the horse.
What would you do if you had to leave your home in a few hours? Could you leave your animals behind knowing that animals left on other farms had been killed? That was one of the issues facing farmers in Zimbabwe when Robert Mugabe’s government instituted a series of land seizures.
The Retzlaff family didn’t leave Zimbabwe right away like many of the other white farmers they knew did. They moved farm to farm but the chaos followed them. As they moved across the country over a series of years, they collected animals. Eventually, they moved to the neighboring country of Mozambique.
I imagine that this is a book that could have a hard time finding an audience. Readers who care more deeply about people than animals might be offended by the effort and resources that went into moving and housing the horses when so many people were suffering. Horse lovers don’t like to read books where horses are mistreated. Horse lovers do need to be warned. Most of the horses you meet in this book don’t survive until the end. Many bad things happen to them regardless of the efforts of the Retzlaffs.
Another issue in this book is historical accuracy versus personal experience. Reading the book, the land reform movement seems to come on suddenly. I’ve been looking a bit more into the history because I assumed that there had to have been some colonial shenanigans that resulted in all these large landowners being white people. Yes, Rhodesia (the former name of Zimbabwe) had favored whites in land distribution. The black population was put onto the least productive land.
“Following Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence, land legislation was again amended with the Rhodesian Land Tenure Act of 1969. The Land Tenure Act upended the Land Apportionment Act of 1930 and was designed to rectify the issue of insufficient land available to the rapidly expanding black population. It reduced the amount of land reserved for white ownership to 45 million acres and reserved another 45 million acres for black ownership, introducing parity in theory; however, the most fertile farmland in Regions I, II, and III continued to be included in the white enclave. Abuses of the system continued to abound; some white farmers took advantage of the legislation to shift their property boundaries into land formerly designated for black settlement, often without notifying the other landowners.”
“In 1977, the Land Tenure Act was amended by the Rhodesian parliament, which further reduced the amount of land reserved for white ownership to 200,000 hectares, or 500,000 acres. Over 15 million hectares were thus opened to purchase by persons of any race.Two years later, as part of the Internal Settlement, Zimbabwe Rhodesia‘s incoming biracial government under Bishop Abel Muzorewa abolished the reservation of land according to race. White farmers continued to own 73.8% of the most fertile land suited for intensive cash crop cultivation and livestock grazing, in addition to generating 80% of the country’s total agricultural output.”
“The Lancaster House Agreement  stipulated that farms could only be taken from whites on a “willing buyer, willing seller” principle for at least ten years. White farmers were not to be placed under any pressure or intimidation, and if they decided to sell their farms they were allowed to determine their own asking prices”
“Between April 1980 and September 1987, the acreage of land occupied by white-owned commercial farms was reduced by about 20%.” – all quoted from Wikipedia
Ok, so they can’t say they didn’t know this was coming. They talk a little about the politics of it and how they weren’t paying any attention. They mention the vote on a referendum in 2000 only because their black workers asked to borrow transportation so they could all vote. It was the day before voting and they hadn’t really considered it?
“The government organised a referendum on the new constitution in February 2000, despite having a sufficiently large majority in parliament to pass any amendment it wished. Had it been approved, the new constitution would have empowered the government to acquire land compulsorily without compensation. Despite vast support in the media, the new constitution was defeated, 55% to 45%.” Wikipedia
It was after this failed that the government started to encourage mob violence to steal land without compensation. I understand that they were both born and raised in Africa and felt protected because they legally owned their land but the writing was on the wall. Things were about to get ugly and they were completely unprepared.
What happened as a result of the seizure of white-owned farms was a complete disaster. They were given as gifts to friends and family of powerful people who didn’t know the first thing about farming. Zimbabwe’s economy was based on farming and when the farms collapsed it collapsed. So no one is saying that this was a good and just plan but it couldn’t have been completely unexpected.
There are also some other statements that come across as very colonial. One time when they move to a new farm she discusses her family moving into the farm house and then talks about her workers settling into the huts around the property. She also has this quote – “John’s was a good old-fashioned cattle ranch of the kind the first pioneers in this part of the world had kept.” Sure, they were the first people in the area if you ignore millennia of existence before then. The author has commented negatively on reviews on Goodreads that bring up these aspects of the book. That’s never a good look.
As a horse person I wish there were more details. They talk about sometimes transporting horses in trucks. Where did the trucks come from? How many trips did you make? How many horses did you have at any given time? The synopsis refers to over 300 but the book doesn’t talk about that number. How are you affording all this?
What happened to this family is bad. But I can’t muster 100% sympathy for them. I would have liked to see a bit more self awareness. This book would have benefited from including the perspectives of the black workers who traveled with them. A few of these people are mentioned once or twice by name but generally they are described as a faceless group of grooms. That’s a big oversight in a book that describes many different white horse owners in detail.