Friday, April 4, 2014

Raiding the Dope Sellers of Capetown (1927)

Raiding the Dope Sellers of Capetown

Sourced and reproduced in its entirety from The Nongqai, March 1927 p 203 & 204.

Raiding the Dope Sellers of Capetown
By L.G.G.
The Nongqai, March 1927 p 204 & 205

1927 Detectives - SA Police
CAPETOWN HAS MANY sinister streets, grim alleyways, crime - haunted squares. You hear of this underworld occasionally; but because it is unseen you hardly believe it. Yet dark warrens of vice do exist in Capetown, and they are terribly close to the main thoroughfares of the city. Shining motor cars pass within a few yards of them. Drab tenement houses, many of them owned by rich speculators, leased to Indians, sub-let to coloured people, filled with kaffirs and human wreckage. Many a dingy little plaster hovel in District Six produces more rent than a Sea Point mansion. Twenty, thirty, fifty people in a room.

The men of the C.I.D. Liquor and Morality Branch know. Nearly every night they have to raid one or another of these houses. They have to face hordes of drink-soaked, drug-maddened men and women. Sometimes the women are worse than the men, for they carry razors. Now and again a member the C.I.D. Liquor Branch is invalided out of the Service. A raid, more often than not, means a fight in which the Detective must be equal to a dozen or more reckless assailants— men with little in the world to lose if they do take a life.

What makes the shebeens of Capetown possible? Partly the early closing of non-European canteens. A man inflamed with cheap wine or brandy is not satisfied when the doors of the canteen close at six or eight o'clock in the evening. He knows where he can buy more, and he does not mind paying heavily for it. A ninepenny botte of beer costs twice as much in a shebeen. A bottle of wine usually sold for 1s. 4d. fetches 3s. in the secret dens of District Six. And there are even stronger stimulants. Dagga, which is innocent looking green herb, may be smoked in these places. The law forbids the cultivation of dagga—yet large quantities reach the underworld. Some is grown on the Cape Flats. Much of it is smuggled down from Natal by Indians hidden in trunks and banana crates. Sometimes a gang of dagga smugglers will bring their cargo all the way from Natal in motor cars to escape detection. It pays.

I remember listening to a trial at the Criminal Sessions in which a native had committed murder under the influence of drink and dagga. The Judge asked what the effect of such a mixture would be. “Drink and dagga would give a man heart to do anything—he would be quite mad," the police witness replied.

There is opium, too, which is worth £45 a pound. It comes to Capetown by sea and is difficult to stop because tiny quantities are easily hidden. And kafir beer, made by boiling sprouting kafir corn over a stove and adding yeast. Five hundred gallons of the stuff where found recently in one shebeen. Also petrol and brandy are served late at night—about as deadly as dope as even the minds of the underworld could imagine. And bottles of “Opium mixture," of course, are found during many raids. Methylated spirits, ash, cayenne pepper—there is a long list of drugs and drinks which combine to form the destructive poisons of District Six.

Such is the traffic which goes on every night not so far from our own front doors. There is a large room at the Caledon-square Magistrate's Courts where everything seized by the Liquor Detectives is stored. It is a room of many surprises. Shelf upon shelf  of bottles, jars, barrels and tins. Rows of bottles—wine, brandy, stout, gin. All cheap stuff. Very little whisky is found in the shebeens of Capetown. No champagne has ever been found. But the C.I.D. store contains opium and dagga pipes and little boxes of pungent, dark brown opium, axes and hammers, a few revolvers and automatic pistols, hundreds of glasses and pannikins. When this strange liquor store becomes overstocked they take the bottles to a drain, pour away all the drink - good beer and poison alike—and sell the bottles and glasses. That is not the only revenue produced by the Liquor Branch. Fines for illicit selling in the Cape Peninsula last year amounted to over six thousand pounds.

A Notorious Part of District Six, Capetown.
Who goes to Wells Square and all those other evil streets of gambling hells and shebeens? Wells square, by the way, is the same old notorious dive of crime that it has been as far back as most of us can remember. Who risk their lives at night in this dreadful quarter of Capetown?

Sailors, of course, fall easily into the eager hands of slum sharks all the world over. After a riotous evening ashore, Merchant Jack shouts for a cab in Adderley Street, gives the name of his ship, and sinks back in the stupor of alcohol. Does the driver of that ancient hansom cab drive to the docks, He does not. He carries his passenger to a shebeen and, doubtless, receives a commission which varies with the amount of money in the sailor’s pockets.

For no such visitor leaves the shebeen with anything of value. He is the easiest possible victim—here to-day and gone to-morrow.

Then there are those untold thousands of unemployed and unwanted natives who live in the city in defiance of the law. Unless they are registered voters no canteen will supply them with drink. But the bold shebeen keepers will sell liquor to anybody. Their customers include many who ought to know better - Europeans with the craze for drink strong upon them. When the bars close they go to the shebeens.

Though scores of drinking dens are known to the police, trapping the illicit liquor seller is often difficult. The evidence required before a conviction can be secured makes an intricate system necessary. It is to the credit of the Liquor Branch that the shebeens of Capetown are held in check, that their numbers are not increasing.

The method of trapping never varies. There is a quiet gathering of Detectives at their Caledon Square Headquarters. They buckle revolver belts under their jackets, for use only in the event of an overpowering attack, and rely on their stout walking sticks to meet the usual rough and tumble of the raid.

Two native traps are brought in, searched, and handed marked coins. The Detectives set their watches, fix the minute at which they will rush the shebeen and send the traps away on their dangerous mission. The traps are shadowed every yard of the way to the shebeen. But this is a daylight raid, and the Detectives are a long way behind. They must give the traps sufficient time to pass the marked money, and make their arrest before the liquor seller has time to pass on the coins. Fine judgment is necessary, or the raid will be futile.

Carelessly the traps pass through a dirty archway. As the C.I.D. men approach, a sprawling group of gamblers on the pavement leap up and run. As they run they shout warnings. The sleepy streets of the slum are instantly thronged with men, women and children. Bursting through this excited, unfriendly crowd, the Detectives hasten through the archway into a room on the ground floor. It is dark, and filled with acrid-smelling smoke from a log fire. Such a room! The drinkers have escaped, but the Police are not seeking them. The woman, fat coloured, cursing, is there all right, sitting on a box among a litter of bottles. Her guilt is plain, for the marked coins were found in her hand. But there is a gleam of madness in her bloodshot eyes, and suddenly she draws a knife from her blouse and sways towards one of the native traps. A watchful Detective brings his walking stick down on wrist. She drops to her box again muttering.

The search begins. In this hovel there has been no attempt to hide the liquor. It is under the broken bed, in the chest of drawers, in boxes. Sometimes the cunning shebeen-keeper hides his store in a manhole in the yard, or up the chimney. Often a secret cellar is found under the fireplace, with a fire burning brightly on top. There are even secret tunnels between shebeens.
During the search the voices of the crowd are heard. They surge round the archway without spirit enough to hinder the work of the Police. At night it would be different.

So the woman is taken away. Before leaving the squalid room she collects a bundle of banknotes—enough to pay her fine. Few illicit liquor sellers go to prison. They pay anything from £20 to £50, return to their shebeens, and send out their runners for further supplies and more victims.

At Wale Street Police Station the raiders complete their task. The woman’s finger prints are taken, and the Detectives sit around a table examining the bottles they have seized. Each one is labelled, reports are written, the tired Detectives go home to their Sunday dinners. This is the second raid since midnight, and their wives will be glad to see them.

In the underworld the shebeens are recovering from the shock of the daylight raid, and are receiving their guests as usual. Nothing but the destruction of the slums which harbour them will stop this perpetual traffic in illicit liquor.

The results of a raid amongst the dope sellers of Capetown's underworld
The Nongqai, March 1927, p 205.

This article was originally published on the blog of


whiteson said... .....Click here to refresh this blog

Indeed a good read Tia. How they had their problems combating crime in those days, very interesting. Well they had the will and knowledge to do it right. In my opinion there is no comparison with todays farce of a force. Thanks for this good post.

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