South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

The 1820 Settlers

The wars had left the Zuurveld an empty wilderness devoid of habitation, which the Boers did not dare to enter for fear of the Kafirs nor the Kafirs for fear of the Boers. Now at this time many people in England were in a state of dire distress. The terrible strain of the wars which ended in Waterloo was having its after-effect; soldiers and sailors were disbanded by the thousand; shipping ceased to be a British monopoly; and the high price of bread and the bad state of trade combined to make the poor somewhat more miserable than usual and the rich less able to help them. The hungry began to clamour, and the Government, at its wits' end, conceived the brilliant idea of sending some of their surplus population to a land where there was soil to till and no one to till it. Mr. Vansittart in the House of Commons, and Lord Sidmouth in the House of Lords, described the Cape as a sort of earthly Paradise, and the scheme caught the public mind. Nearly a hundred thousand people offered to go, and of these close on five thousand were selected. Parliament voted fifty thousand pounds to defray the expense of conveyance, and on the 10th of December 1819 the first of the transports sailed from the Downs, about twenty others following as fast as they could get the people and stores on board.

They were a mixed assemblage—shrewd Scottish farmers, burly Somerset yeomen, loutish field labourers whose ancestors had chewed bacon from the days of Hengist and Horsa, fine ladies and gentlemen, exquisites who were tired of gaming and thirsted for the simple life, weather-beaten watermen and sailors from the Thames and the English seaports, old soldiers who had fought in every country in Europe, and pale-visaged artisans and mill-hands from the great cities. There were Anglicans and Presbyterians, Methodists and Dissenters, for the emigration was unlike both that of the Huguenots and the Puritans in the happy circumstance that religious persecution had nothing to do with it. But religious zealots there were, and on one of the ships, the Brilliant, the peace of the voyage was wrecked by two such fanatics as had given so much trouble to van der Stel more than a century before. One, as Pringle tells us, was "a tall, grave Wesleyan coachmaker," and the other "a little dogmatic Anabaptist surgeon," and these two soon split the emigrants into two discordant factions of Arminians and High Calvinists. "Heated by incessant controversy for three months, many of them, who had been wont formerly to associate on friendly terms, ceased to regard each other with sentiments of Christian forbearance; and the two rival leaders, after many obstinate disputations, which became more intricate and intemperate every time they were renewed, had at length finally parted in flaming wrath, and for several weeks past had paced the quarterdeck together without speaking or exchanging salutations." There was a sad end to the quarrel. The Wesleyan died on board and was carried ashore to make his long home in the new land in which he had hoped to live. The little Anabaptist wept bitterly over his grave, and then he too, only a few days after, was seized with an illness of which he died. He was buried beside his old enemy, and there they still lie together, "their mouths stopt with dust," in eternal amity, somewhere beneath the busy streets of Port Elizabeth.

As for their followers, the lesson was felt to be from God. There was an end of strife, and the two parties settled down amicably together in the village of Salem.

In the meantime the work of landing went busily on. Party after party was brought through the surf by the cheerful sailors, to be placed in the brawny arms of the Highland soldiers, who worked like heroes on the beach, often up to their necks in water. A busy camp was soon formed on the shore, where the settlers, surrounded by their belongings, ranging from Scotch ploughs to fashionable carriages, waited for their turn to march into the interior.

While they were waiting, Sir Rufane Donkin appeared on the scene. He was a brilliant soldier who had served his country all over the world. His latest service had been with the Marquis of Hastings in the Mahratta War in Western India, where by his skilful movements he had cut off the enemy's line of retreat. But his triumph was marred by a terrible sorrow, for his young wife, whom he had married only three years before, died at Meerut. Broken in mind and body, he was invalided to the Cape, and there, during the absence of Lord Charles Somerset, he acted as Governor. He threw himself with his whole heart into the work of settlement, and after making arrangements for the reception of the settlers in the interior, went down to Algoa Bay to superintend the last stage of their journey. Here he laid the foundation-stone of the first house of the new town, which he called Port Elizabeth, in memory of his dead wife, Elizabeth Markham, eldest daughter of Dr. Markham, Dean of York, and he also built an obelisk to her memory on one of the adjoining heights. Sir Rufane lived to be an old man, honoured for his work in war and in scholarship, but he never forgot his first love, and when he was buried in Old St. Pancras Churchyard, the urn which held his wife's heart was buried with him. But the real memorial of this sad love story is the great town of Port Elizabeth.



Sir Rufane had brought together a large number of Boers with their wagons. These wagons were stronger and heavier than any vehicle the new settlers had ever seen. They were built of well-seasoned colonial wood by the wagon-makers of the Paarl. They were covered with canvas tilts to protect the travellers from sun and rain, and were drawn by teams of from ten to sixteen oxen over all sorts of country—rock and bush and river drift. In front sat the driver wielding an enormous whip which made the oxen strain on the long rope of twisted thong, while a young Hottentot, running before, led the first pair of oxen by a thong attached to their horns. In this way the settlers jogged along through a country stranger and wilder than anything they could have conceived. At night they pitched their tents or spread their blankets on the ground, and Pringle has given us a vivid sketch of these encampments. The Boers of those days, as we may see from the coloured plates of Daniell, wore huge broad-brimmed hats with high crowns, short coats of blue cloth of the cut known as spencers, and country-made trousers usually cut and sewn by their wives or Hottentots out of the skins of antelopes. Round their waist was a broad leathern belt, from which hung a pouch of home-made bullets and a large ox horn full of powder. They wore neither boots nor stockings, but what was much more suitable, veldschoens or mocassins made of dressed hide. Pringle describes how fires were lighted to scare away the wild beasts, and the horns of the oxen fastened to the wagon wheels:—

The Boers unslung their huge guns (or roers, as they called them) from the tilts of the wagons, and placed them against a magnificent evergreen bush, in whose shelter, with a fire at their feet, they had fixed their place of repose. Here, untying each his leathern scrip, they produced their provisions for supper, consisting chiefly of dried bullock's flesh, which they seasoned with a moderate xoapje, or dram, of colonial brandewyn, from a huge horn slung by each man in his wagon beside his powder flask. The slave men and Hottentots, congregated apart round one of the watch-fires, made their frugal meal, without the brandy, but with much more merriment than their phlegmatic masters. In the meanwhile our frying-pans and tea-kettles were actively employed; and by a seasonable liberality in the beverage "which cheers but not inebriates," we ingratiated ourselves not a little with both classes of our escort, especially with the coloured caste, who prized "tea-water" as a rare and precious luxury. . . . The Dutch-African Boors, most of them men of almost gigantic size, sat apart in their bushy Meld, in aristocratic exclusiveness, smoking their huge pipes with self-satisfied complacency. . . . These groups, with all their variety of mien and attitude, character and complexion—now dimly discovered, now distinctly lighted up by the fitful blaze of the watch-fires; the exotic aspect of the clumps of aloes and euphorbias peeping out amidst the surrounding jungle, in the wan light of the rising moon, seeming to the excited fancy like bands of Caffir warriors crested with plumes and bristling with assegais; together with the uncouth clucking gibberish of the Hottentots and Bushmen (for there were two or three of the latter tribe among our wagon leaders), and their loud bursts of wild and eldritch laughter, had altogether a very strange and striking effect, and made some of us feel far more impressively than we had yet felt, that we were now indeed pilgrims in the wilds of savage Africa.

Let us follow Pringle's party to its destination. Including Thomas Pringle the leader, his father, and other relations and their friends and servants, this little band of Scots was composed of twelve men, three of them farm hands, six women, and six children. With their Boer convoy, they crossed the Great Fish River, and arrived at its tributary the Baviaans, which five or six years before had seen the hatching of the Slachter's Nek rebellion. Up this river they went, meeting on their way our old friend Groot Willem Prinsloo, pardoned for his share in the rebellion, and now living peacefully on his farm at the mouth of the glen. He treated the visitors kindly, and they went on, fortified by his brandy and fruit and vegetables, up the wild bed of the river. Sometimes the mountains drew back from the river, leaving space for pleasant meadows sprinkled with mimosa trees. At other times they came close, so that only a narrow defile was left just broad enough for the stream to find a passage, while precipices of naked rock rose like ramparts to the height of many hundred feet, and seemed to overhang the stream upon whose huge boulders the oxen slipped and stumbled. Sometimes the party had to hew their way through tangled jungle, sometimes they had to remove rocks with crowbar and pick; but at last, when the oxen were nearly worn out and two wagons had broken down, they got through the last poort, and from a high ridge looked down on the end of the valley.

"And now, mynheer," said the Dutch-African field-cornet who commanded our escort, "daar leg neve veld"—"there lies your country." Looking in the direction where he pointed, we beheld extending to the northward a beautiful vale, about six or seven miles in length, and varying from one to two in breadth. It appeared like a verdant basin, or cul de sac, surrounded on all sides by an amphitheatre of steep and sterile mountains, rising in the background into sharp cuneiform ridges of very considerable elevation; their summits being at this season covered with snow, and estimated to be about 5000 feet above the level of the sea. The lower declivities were sprinkled over, though somewhat scantily, with grass and bushes. But the bottom of the valley through which the infant river meandered, presented a warm, pleasant, and secluded aspect; spreading itself into verdant meadows, sheltered and embellished, without being encumbered, with groves of mimosa trees, among which we observed in the distance herds of wild animals—antelopes and quaggas—pasturing in undisturbed quietude.

This pleasant spot the party called Glen Lynden, and here they pitched their tents, and sang that old Scottish Paraphrase:

O God of Bethel! by whose hand

Thy people still are fed;

Who through this weary pilgrimage

Hast all our fathers led.

Here too they kept the Sabbath, with two services, the first of which "concluded with an excellent discourse from a volume of sermons presented to me on parting by my honoured relative the Rev. Dr. Pringle of Perth." An antelope, we are told, came and listened, "gazing at us in an innocent amazement." What an odd conjunction of circumstances when one comes to think of it—an African oribi listening to a Scottish Paraphrase or a sermon by the reverend minister of Perth.

Here too the party built huts "which were constructed after the fashion of the country, simply of a slight wooden frame, thatched with reeds down to the ground." They ploughed the ground with their Scotch ploughs to the wonder of their neighbours; they raised stock; they made butter and cheese, soap and candles; they tanned sheepskins with mimosa bark, and cut them into jackets and trousers; they had face to face encounters with lions; they killed snakes when they came in through the doors; they built an oven out of an old ant-hill; they "planted an orchard of apple, pear, peach, apricot, almond, walnut, plum, and lemon trees, and a small vineyard, the whole encircled by hedges of quince and pomegranate." They succeeded in raising abundance of pumpkins, melons, beetroot, parsnips, carrots, lettuce, onions, cabbage, cauliflower, etc." In short, they did everything that van Riebeck had done when he came to Table Valley nearly two hundred years before.

And so it was with the other settlers. Some of them throve and some of them foundered. Some went into the towns and took to trade, others traded with the natives, others became hunters; but many stuck to their farming through good and evil fortune. They generally chose some fertile bottom or narrow ravine of the Zuurveld, an immense plain of undulating park-like country. Here they built their wattled cabins and raised their cattle and sheep-folds and garden fences. At first they had very hard times. They sowed wheat, and the wheat was blighted for three successive years their vineyards and orchards were eaten up with locusts; Kafirs stole their cattle; great floods swept away about half of the houses of the whole settlement. Jackals and hyaenas killed their young stock, lions went off with their horses. Elephants, "too big to wrestle with," as one old lady said, trampled down their gardens; baboons stole their pumpkins. Worse still, their friend Sir Rufane Donkin had a quarrel with Lord Charles Somerset, an obstinate and cross-grained old gentleman, who upset the former's wise administration and bullied or neglected the settlers.

All this weeded out the weaklings; but the others held on obstinately, and, at last, in the darkest hour, help came. An association was formed in Cape Town for the relief of the settlers, and the good Pringle used his eloquent pen to draw the attention of the British public to the position of affairs. Money poured in to the extent altogether of 10,000; Lord Charles Somerset visited the eastern districts and himself set right his own mistakes; loans and title-deeds were issued, credit was re-established, and the position was saved. Thence-forward, though they had many calamities, the Eastern Province settlers steadily rose in prosperity, and now they are a grand race of farmers and townsmen, good colonists and brave sons of the Empire, who have turned their country into one of the finest parts of South Africa.