Unto Dust by Herman Charles Bosman

In Unto Dust by Herman Charles Bosman we have the theme of mortality, war, equality, meaning and loyalty. Narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator the reader soon realises after reading the story that Bosman may be exploring the theme of mortality. There are several deaths in the story and each one leaves the narrator thinking differently about death. Particularly the deaths of those who are older. This may be important as the narrator finds it easier to identify with the deaths of the men and women he knew who were either of a similar age to him or older. The deaths of the young people also leave the narrator uneasy. As though the young have not lived their lives. What is also interesting about the story is the fact that the narrator begins to wonder is there any difference between people. Stoffel Oosthuizen finds it difficult to distinguish between the bodies of Hans Welman and the black Africans when they are collecting the bones. So similar are the bones that the Oosthuizen doesn’t know if he has all of Welman’s body in the casket. This may be significant as symbolically it is possible that Bosman may be suggesting that when it comes to war no one is different. Each and every man is exactly that a man. Who happened to be fighting on different sides’ but each have families and loved ones.

The fact that Oosthuizen has difficulty with being sure that the body he is putting in the casket is Welman suggests that war may have no meaning. Those who died cannot be identified and as such their lives can’t be celebrated or their bravery and skills as soldiers associated to their cause. If anything Bosman may be suggesting that war in meaningless. That there is no real reason for Oosthuizen to fight the black Africans. Though it is clear as to why both groups fight. One is protecting a land they see as their own while the other group is attempting to protect that land they invaded. One interesting thing that might also be important is the fact that due to the fact that Oosthuizen can’t identify the bones of both white and black men may suggest that all men are equal. Something that would not have been the doctrine at the time the story was written. In the history of Africa white men invaded and attempted to subdue the native black population. Black people were not seen as equals to white people.

There is also a sense of loyalty in the story. Oosthuizen believes it is his responsibly to bury Welman even though he knows that not all the parts of Welman that he is burying belong to Welman. Similarly the yellow dog stays by Welman’s grave because he knows that his black master or parts of him are buried in the same grave as Welman. It would appear that the yellow dog has more surety about who is in the grave than Oosthuizen. It is also highly unlikely that Oosthuizen told Welman’s wife that the bones in the grave where mixed or that he could not distinguish between bones. Should Oosthuizen have told Welman’s wife not only would he have upset her but there might also be feeling that the grave is tarnished due to the fact that a black man (his bones) were also in the grave with a white man. With war comes uncertainty and Oosthuizen is unsure or has his doubts about the legitimacy of the contents of Welman’s grave.

The fact that the black man is not named throughout the story and is only described as being a ‘kafir’ may also important as there is no sense of equality. White men who invaded Africa did not consider black men to be their equal. Though ironically after Welman’s death the black man becomes his equal by being buried in the same grave as Welman. Oosthuizen also appears to be determined to win the war carried by his own belief that he is superior to the black men in Africa. It does not register with Oosthuizen that the land he now calls his own is in fact land that was owned by black people for several centuries if not thousands of years. There is no sense that Oosthuizen or men like him will change their outlook. For them they are thinking of what money can be made from farming the land without any regard for the previous occupants. In today’s terms Oosthuizen may be considered to be a mercenary or tyrant though Oosthuizen most likely saw himself as a business man. A white business man bringing the practices of Europe to Africa without consideration for those who were already there. When black Africans were given the possibility of the vote Oosthuizen and his men went to war rather than give back to those who had their land stolen. The driving factor for Oosthuizen’s decision was two fold. One he knew he would lose what he had gained and secondly he would have to accept black African’s as his equal. Something Oosthuizen was no prepared to do.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Unto Dust by Herman Charles Bosman." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 31 Aug. 2017. Web.


  • What is the main conflict in the short story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I would suggest that one of the main conflicts in the story is the inequality between black and white people.

  • How does tension and excitement come about for the character and for the reader?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I’m not sure. It’s been quite a while since I read the story. Perhaps by way of the fact that Oosthuizen is unsure of what body he is putting in the casket.

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