TINY VILLAGE WORTH A VISIT Tel No 082 777 1519
Fascinating facts are to be found in the hinterland. The tiny Klein Karoo village, De Rust, for instance, once had a large home for children orphaned by the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic. Sadly, the building fell into disrepair and had to be demolished. This little village still has many other historic gems to discover. A newly launched historic walking route now showcases its historic buildings and Victorian houses, many of which have been restored and most have interesting tales to tell. The route begins at Voelgesang, the original farmstead, which once had an old mill that served the district, and ends at Vredelus, once also part of the original farm. Several early owners, such as P J Meiring, his wife, Catherina Helena (nee Geldenhuys), S D P le Roux and J J Schoeman, are buried in the farm cemetery. A peek into the church will reveal a beautiful yellowwood and stinkwood pulpit crafted by Johannes Egbertus Vixseboxse.
Note: The ‘Spanish’ ‘Flu of 1918 was a global pandemic that killed about 500 million people – one third of the world population in a little over a year. In South Africa this lethal disease claimed about 350 000 lives – 5% of the population – in six weeks and a whole generation of ‘flu orphans appeared almost overnight.
A RICH LEGACY
Almelo-born Johannes Egbertus Vixseboxse left the Netherlands on September 1888 and came to South Africa where he left a rich architectural heritage. The sixth and youngest child of carpenter contractor Bernardus Vixseboxse and his wife, Janneken (nee Lulof) Johannes, with his brothers Bernardus and Gerrit Willem, learned carpentry by day and studied drawing at night. In South Africa he joined the Public Works Department, under the direction of architect Sytze Wierda, who came to this country at the invitation of President Paul Kruger. Examples of Johannes’s work can be seen in Cape Town, Grahamstown, Oudtshoorn and Bloemfontein. At the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War he left for Holland but returned in 1902. He is then said to have joined the practice of Charles Bullock and been responsible for some of the ostrich palaces in Oudtshoorn. Johannes also worked on the Calitzdorp and Beaufort West Dutch Reformed churches. He left Oudtshoorn when the feather marked collapsed. He was married to Anne Maria Witzand also from Almelo
KAROO PLAYS A KEY ROLE IN WIRELESS TELEGRAPHY
During the Anglo-Boer War the Royal Engineers set up a wireless telegraph communications system at De Aar. This regiment was among the first to use radio transmitters – the aerials were suspended from balloons, writes Duncan C Baker in the December 1998 Military History Journal. One of the key operators was Robert Poole whose interest in wireless telegraphy began after he attended a demonstration in Britain when he was 15. He was a member of the Royal Engineers electrical team which set up a system to warn columns of Boer movements and possible attacks. Getting these operational was hampered by adverse weather conditions, high levels of atmospheric interference from frequent hinterland thunderstorms and the poor conductivity of the soil. The steel masts, originally used by the British, had to be abandoned. Bamboo masts proved to be better, but sadly these split in the extreme heat, so the engineers had to resort to kites and balloons. “Antenna length was crucial to transmission and for tuning the system,” writes Duncan. Equipment was set up at De Aar station, but it quickly became apparent that the wagons used for the mobile installations were unsuitable. This was resolved by transferring the equipment to better sprung Australian pattern wagons. In time three systems were sited – at Orange River, Belmont and Modder River. Later an additional station was established at Enslin, 27 km from Modder River. Despite the problems effective wireless communications was possible between Orange River and Modder River by the end of December 1899, over a distance of some 80 km and via a manually operated relay station at Belmont.
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TRAGIC END TO A LIVE SAVING TRIP
Richard Birt, who was born in Bromsberrow, Gloucestershire, England, in May 1812, and ordained as a missionary in June, 1838, came to South Africa with his wife, Eliza Hanson (nee Budden) in July, that year. As he was attached to the London Missionary Society, he settled at the newly established Umxelo mission, near Fort Beaufort and Chief Bhotomani’s village. In time the station became known as Birt’s Mission. Early in 1843 Eliza became ill and it was recommended that she “go to the coast” where the “sea air would do her good”. They went and, to a degree, the change helped, so they decided to return home. On the way their cart overturned, and she was instantly killed. They had no children. After Eliza’s death Richard married Grahamstown-born Margaretha Fletcher (nee Hart), the daughter of Robert Hart of Glen Avon and his wife, Hannah May (nee Tamplin). Margaretha, a wealthy woman in her own right, was the widow of Uitenhage-born James Frederick Fletcher, who died at Glen Avon, aged 35, in 1843. She and James had three children, but their eldest daughter, died at the age of 7 in l842. Margaretha and Richard had four daughters.
NAMED IN HONOUR OF THE CREATOR OF THE ‘BOBBIES’
Birt’s Mission was destroyed in 1846 during the War of the Axe, states historian Franco Frescura. Richard and his family were forced to flee to Somerset East. In August 1848, they moved closer to King Williamstown where they established another station which was named in honour of Sir Robert Peel, a British statesman and Conservative Party politician, who served twice as Prime Minister and twice as Home Secretary. His liberal reform policies led to a new, modern police force in England, known as “bobbies” or “peelers. He was married to Julia Floyd and some of her descendants came to South Africa. Peelton Mission station was attacked on Christmas Day, 1850, and almost all the buildings were destroyed. Richard and his family fled once again. This time to Cape Town, however, in September 1852, he returned to King Williamstown to rebuild the mission and church, which became known as Peelton Congregational church. The school, which was attached to it, produced several South African leaders, states The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society. Richard, who served as a missionary for 53 years, died at Peelton on March 20, 1892, aged 82. He is buried in the north-west corner of the church garden. Margaret died on May 12, 1904, aged 89, in the mission house at Brownlee Station, but she is buried beside Richard.
SOLDIER WITH A HEART OF STEEL
South African-born Charles Whittingham Horsley Douglas, who joined the Gordon Highlanders in the late 1800s, saw action in his homeland during both Boer Wars. He also saw action in many other parts of the Empire. Born on July 17, 1850, he was the son of William Douglas and his wife, Caroline Fanny (nee Hare). His maternal grandfather, Captain Joseph Hare, came to the Cape as adjutant-general in 1807, and married Sally, the daughter of a merchant and philanthropist, William Wilberforce Bird. Charles, who was privately tutored, purchased a commission in the 92nd Highlanders (later the Gordon Highlanders) on December 16, 1869, when the regiment was stationed in India. He married Ida de Courcy (née Gordon) in 1887. They had no children. He was a shy, but a likeable and popular man. His natural reserve, however, led some to believe that he was hard, abrupt and overbearing. He was an exceptional solder, a quick decision maker and an outstanding administrator. He came to South Africa as assistant adjutant-general on the headquarters staff of the ill-fated General Sir Redvers Buller. When Buller was recalled Charles remained in the country until the cessation of hostilities in 1902. He died on October 25, 1914, of renal colic, bronchitis, and pulmonary congestion, brought on by strain and overwork. He was honoured as a magnificent soldier, a man with a heart as true as steel, who served with “great zeal and ability”.
ANOTHER BRILLIANT SOLDIER
Brigadier-general Sir George Grey Aston, of the Royal Marine Artillery, who was born in the Colony on December 2, 1861, also saw service during the Anglo-Boer War. He was the youngest son of a retired Indian army Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Aston, and his wife, Catherine Johanna Maria, the daughter of the Rev Abraham Faure, who was inducted in 1818 in the Dutch Reformed Church in Graaff-Reinet, the town where she was born. George was a founder member of the Naval Intelligence College, he rose through the ranks and help many top military positions in this country and abroad. He was on the General staff of the South African Defense Force from 1908 to 1912. He was knighted in 1913. He was a prolific author of military biographies, military history and books on fly fishing. Sir George married Lady Dorothy Ellen, daughter of Vice Admiral William Wilson. They had two sons and two daughters.
ANOTHER TAKE ON THE TRAITOR’S TALE …
There’s another side to the tale of Cradock’s Johannes Petrus Coetzee, who was mentioned in Round-up, April 2019, under the heading “The First Traitor”. Historian Marthinus van Bart says: “In actual fact Petrus was a mere teenager and only 16 years old when he was hanged for being on a farm near a train line, which was sabotaged by unknown Boers. The British military forged the Court Martial documents to make it appear that he was over 21, and thus “a major” and “a man”. If they had admitted his real age, they would have had to set him free.” It was that fact that he was “a minor” that caused the huge outcry in Britain after his execution. This fact was reported to the British Parliament by Emily Hobhouse, but her report was kept secret from the public and the press. The majority of the South African English newspapers reported that he was 21, but the Cape Town pro-Boer newspaper, The South African News, which was owned by the Schreiner and Molteno families, gave his true age. This newspaper also reported on many other war crimes committed by the British army during the war. In time the newspaper was closed down and the editor imprisoned.
… AND AN EVEN CLOSER LOOK
Johan van der Walt, author of Johannes Strydsman, Boer Scout and Cape Rebel, whose grandfather was banned to Bermuda during the Anglo-Boer War, also discovered more about the execution of Johannes Petrus Coetzee of Cradock. “He was captured on a farm near Lady Grey early in June 1901, with 15 other rebels and they were all tried in Dordrecht,” writes Johan. “Interestingly enough Johannes was not a soldier and he never took part in the fighting because he was mentally handicapped and couldn’t understand instructions very well, so he simply looked after the horses. After the trial in Dordrecht the British selected three of the rebels for execution. Johannes, however, was not one of them, but a young man named Steyn who was one of the three selected for execution was pardoned when his parson pleaded for his life and Johannes was then selected to take his place. In 2005 I spoke to Steyn’s son who was then 92 years old and he told me that the Coetzee family never forgave the Steyns for this.”
CAPE REBEL AT BOOMPLAATS
While Petrus might have been the first Cape rebel to be executed during the Anglo-Boer War, he was, in fact, not the first Cape Rebel to be sentenced to death by the British military courts, states Marthinus van Bart. “South Africa’s first rebel happened to be a young married Voortrekker from Winburg, Thomas Dreyer, who lost his horse during the Battle of Boomplaats in 1848. Many consider this battle to be the very first Anglo-Boer War, but it was never proclaimed as such. Thomas was caught by Sir Harry Smith’s cavalry, a Griekwa-commando from Philippolis. Thomas was then force-marched to Bloemfontein, where he was executed by a firing squad for being a “Cape rebel”, and “a traitor to her majesty, Queen Victoria.” His body was buried in front of the city hall, but during the night it was dug-up and re-buried in an unknown grave.
A REBEL WHO RETALIATED …
And, then there was a Cape rebel who retaliated in a most amusing way. He was Graaff-Reinet-born, Voortrekker-leader Andries Pretorius, a brilliant lawyer and military strategist. Many consider him to be the country’s first Cape rebel. Pretorius, a born leader, had several brushes with authority. He openly defied Sir Harry Smith and the British in the Orange Free State. He was branded as a rebel and had a price of £2 000 put on his head. He evicted British Resident, Major Henry Douglas Warden from Bloemfontein and this led to the Battle of Boomplaats on February 3, 1848. Pretorius was defeated but got away. Sir Harry doubled the price on his head, and he retaliated by proclaiming himself King Andreas I of the Trans-Gariep, leader of the Boer Nation. He declared Sir Harry an outlaw in his kingdom and offered 2000 head of cattle for his capture!
… AND ANOTHER WHO VANISHED
It was extremely dangerous for Colonists to join the Boers during the Anglo-Boer War. One Victoria West lad, Boy de Bruin of Abrahamskraal, learned that to his cost. He rode off from the family farm and just vanished, never to be heard of again. He was only 16 when he stole a neighbour’s horse and set off to join the commandos. Fifty years later his younger brother, Hugo, then in his late sixties, told the story to Dr Taffy Shearing. He said his parents thought Boy had been drowned in the Orange River, but that it was only a guess. No one ever found out what had become of him. “It was very foolish to ride out alone looking for a commando as there were many men on both sides who were desperate for a fresh horse,” said Taffy.
FIRST SOUTH AFRICAN TO WIN THE VC
Christopher Charles Teesdale, South African’s first recipient of the Victoria Cross, was born in Grahamstown on June 1, 1833. He was the third son of Lieutenant-General Henry George Teesdale of the Royal Artillery and his wife, Rose (nee Budd). Christopher joined the Royal Artillery at the age of 15 as a gentleman cadet and was posted to Corfu. On September 29, 1855, during the Crimean war, at the battle of Kars in Turkey, he was 22, a lieutenant, and Aide de Camp to Sir Fenwick Williams, when, he volunteered to take command of a key position. He threw himself into a fracas, pushed the Russians back and halted their progress. Later, at great personal risk, he saved a number of wounded men who were lying in the open under heavy fire. Christopher, who was wounded in this engagement, received the VC for supreme gallantry. He was held by the Russians until 1856. He was a talented water colourist and during this time painted scenes from the Kars battlefield. These were later used to illustrate in Humphrey Sandwith’s book on the battle. Christopher received the VC in November 1857. On November 29, 1893 he suffered a paralysis attack while at church and never recovered.
THE TALE OF A RABBIT NAMED GEORGE
In the 1960’s Professor Chris Barnard imported some German Lops rabbits for use in tissue matching research at Groote Schuur Hospital. They were chosen because of their very big ears, states rabbit breeder Karoline Steenekamp. “The doctors needed to test scrapes on their ears and no cruelty was involved,” she says. “The project, however, did not get off to a good start because the Lops refused to breed. My mother was called in to help. She brought the rabbits home and eventually managed to get them going. She was then able to supply the lab’s needs. The balance remained with us.” Karoline added that Lops are highly intelligent, outgoing and have “amazing personalities”. This was proved by a buck named George. “He stole the hearts of people across the country when he was sent to shows, but he was an unbelievable escape artist. He could get out of (and into) any cage at will and this earned him a dreadful reputation because he was a most virile fellow.” At home George had the run of the house and garden until one day Karoline’s mother found him “dying” on the back step. She was distraught. He was lying on his side, his head was back and he seemed not to be conscious. “Mom scooped him up, put him onto the kitchen table and raced to get the car keys to rush him to a vet. When she returned, she found a very wobbly George gorging himself on raw liver which had been on the table waiting to be cut up for the dogs. He recovered and no one ever found out what caused him to ‘faint’”. George died of old age in his favourite spot under a peach tree.
FYNBOS FISH – AN ANCIENT LINEAGE
The Western Cape is home to the descendants of some ancient freshwater fishes, most of which are found nowhere else in the world. Of the 21 currently recognised species, 13 are threatened with extinction, and nine are endangered, states CapeNature. These fishes are threatened by predation and invasive alien species. The greatest threat to the survival of the Clanwilliam sandfish, for instance, comes from largemouth bass and bluegill sunfish. The most widespread group of freshwater fishes in the Cape Floristic Region are the tiny, beautiful red minnows. Nine of the 12 endemic species are threatened with extinction. Fynbos fish require ecologically healthy, unpolluted rivers, free of alien fishes, to survive.
A DREADFUL MURDER
During the Cape Frontier Wars missionaries were often at risk and their work was seriously disrupted, but none were murdered, states John Prichard in Methodists and Their Missionary Society. However, shortly after the wars ended in 1879, James Thomas, who had been in South Africa since 1830, was assegaied to death. The wars started in 1779 and by 1855 only two missionaries were left in the area where there had been seven. James found himself in charge of five stations. One of these was Clarkebury, which was often without water. James found a better spot and named it Beecham Wood. He had hardly moved there when cattle raiders attacked and killed him. The village of Clarkebury was established in 1830 as a Wesleyan Mission station. When James Backhouse visited it in March 1839, he said “it consists of a decent, brick mission-house with a colonnade in front, a chapel, also of brick, but plastered with mud and with a paper-felt roof. There are also two or three rude cottages, and numerous (Xhosa) huts. About one hundred Tambookie families reside here.”
There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know. Harry S Truman