Prince Albert’s ever-popular Olive Festival will keep the village buzzing from May 5 to 7 this year. As always it promises to be a winner with many interesting stalls offering intriguing and unique items. Among them will be stalls with home-made preserves and fresh produce. Food stalls, as ever, will hold a special appeal for “city folks” and there will be a range of cultural and traditional taste treats to explore. Of course, the restaurants, bistros and coffee shops in the village will not be outdone. They are already planning some different dishes and olive-based treats. Over the years Prince Albert’s Olive Festival has become a major tourist attraction in the Great Karoo. Those wishing to be part of the full festival or stay over for a few extra days would be wise to check out their favourite venue and book early.


The beautiful little St John the Baptist church in Prince Albert celebrates its 110th anniversary this year. A week of special events is scheduled for June. The focus will be on story telling. The parish of St John the Baptist was founded in Prince Albert in 1867. A “mission school”, today the church hall, was erected by 1871. The church building, or “School Chapel” as it initially was called, was completed in 1895. By 1903 a rectory had been built for Rev J H Whaits at No. 36 Church Street. The little church and its congregation is closely tied to the development of Prince Albert and the building of the Swartberg Pass.


In 1869 when Sophy and Robert Grey, first Bishop of Cape Town, travelled into the Great Karoo they felt surrounded by an atmosphere of doom. Rain, of sometimes “flood proportions”, had fallen on the land which had just suffered a seven-year drought and an epidemic had decimated the horse population. Roads were in a shocking state. On this journey their horses fell twice and injured themselves. In The Bishop’s Lady, Thelma Gutsche writes that Sophy and Robert “plunged into the odious Karoo” through Seweweekspoort. Sophy recalled travelling “along little more than a bridle path, in a severe thunderstorm” on an earlier trip, in 1855. However, by 1869 there was a feasible road. In “over-powering heat” they drove into Prince Albert, a village, dominated by a Dutch Reformed Church that Sophy considered to be “the worst of Churchwardens Gothic”. Then it was on to unknown country and Sophy marvelled that they could drive along for hours “seeing neither man nor beast”. She found the Great Karoo empty, desolate and hostile, yet says she and Robert walked in “this loveless wilderness, glad at least to be alone and undisturbed”. Beaufort West was an oasis, where she caught up on letter writing.


Hendrik Jacob Wikar travelled through the Great Karoo in 1779 and discovered some curious customs. He wrote that on attainting manhood young Hottentot boys had to prove themselves by killing either a beast of prey or some ferocious animal “that could be eaten”, such as an elephant or rhinoceros. The boy, however, did not qualify for the enhanced status in the eyes of the tribe if he killed “giraffes, wild horses, or animals such as hartebeest, for these are not ferocious and do not offer resistance, therefore to bring down such an animal is not considered a deed of daring,” reports C J Skead in Historical Mammal Incidence in the Western and Northern Cape Province. On another trip Wikar wrote: “I was lucky enough to get a giraffe skin. She was a heifer, but fully grown.” He gave the specimen’s measurements and added: “Giraffes must be able to last without water for a long time.” Dorst and Dandelot confirmed: “they drink very irregularly when water is scarce, but they drink freely if possible.”


A Jewish pioneer, who’d never seen an ostrich feather before coming to South Africa, “trod a path of feathers” and became Griqualand’s “Cattle King” When N Meyersowitz came to South Africa in 1901, he saw ostrich feathers for the first time in his life in Cape Town and their beauty totally captivated him. Then he heard “feathers were doing well in Oudtshoorn”, so he went there to find out why. There he developed a keen interest in the feather industry and did extremely well. Fortunately, he got out just before the market for feathers crashed in 1914. He moved to East Griqualand and started farming with cattle. “He had over 6 000 head of cattle on his farm. These included Afrikaner, Hereford and Aberdeen Angus herds,” said an article in the South African Jewish Times of March 14, 1947. Meyerowitz also had milk cows and so started some cheese factories. He retired to Durban where he died in l947.


The first Jew to be laid to rest in Beaufort West was Sundel Senier. Not much is known about him, except that he was buried in this village in 1881. At the time Beaufort West had a large Jewish community with families coming from England, Holland, Germany and many places in Eastern Europe. The cemetery gives an indication of the cosmopolitan character of the community. This was also the last resting place of Siegmund Harpner, “a private official and Lieutenant in the Austrian Landwehr”. Siegmund was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1865. He came to South Africa in search of adventure and ended up in the Karoo when he joined the Cape Colonial Railways. According to an article in the South African Jewish Times of June 6, 1947, he was killed in a railway accident at Grootfontein in 1896.


In its day Beaufort West had the most active Jewish community in the Great Karoo. Prayer meetings were held regularly from1870, but 40 years, passed before the community considered itself “sufficiently settled” to establish a formal congregation. According to an early minute book: “A meeting of Beaufort West’s Jewish residents was held in the Masonic Hall on September 29, 1912, to discuss forming a congregation. Some key shopkeepers and men-about-town, such as Isadore Bakst, N Dubowitz, M Ellert, B Soleh, H Finkel and I Traub were there. August Cohen, a businessman, municipal councillor and school board chairman, was elected chairman. August, who lived in Whitelsea, a beautiful house in Donkin Street (site of The Oasis Hotel today). He held the post till 1918. Traub, was elected secretary and the treasurer was Isadore Bakst, (who succeeded Cohen as chairman). Dubowitz was appointed honorary collector of membership fees, which were “to be no less than 10/6 a month.” Parents wishing to have their children educated in Hebrew had to pay an additional 20/- a month. It was only during Bakst’s five-year period as chairman that the community decided to build a synagogue. The foundation stone was laid in March 1922. Later chairmen of the Beaufort West Hebrew Congregation and Zionist Society were H Bernitz, H Baron (whose son Harry served as a Lieutenant with the Royal Air Force in France, during WWI), I Brock, I Levy, I Karabus and Morris Garb. On June 6, 1947, The S A Jewish Times reported the congregation was “still going strong” under the chairmanship of L Magid. At that time Jack Dubowitz was secretary and M Bellon, editor of The Courier, treasurer and chairman of the Benevolent Fund. Mrs I Karabus and Mrs I Javin, headed a strong women’s organisation “reknown for its good work.”


A Beaufort West man, whose father was a preacher, made a name for himself in legal circles early in the last century. He was Jean Ettiene Reenen, son of Rev Willem Petrus de Villiers, minister of Beaufort West’s Dutch Reformed “mother church” from 1868 to 1875. Rev de Villiers was an extremely talented man who could speak and write seven languages. He was also a gifted musician. Jean Ettienne Reenen was born at Beaufort West on March 25, 1873. He studied at Cape Town and Cambridge where he received the Chancellor’s medal. In 1900 he started practising as an advocate at the Cape Bar, writes historic researcher Ray de Villiers, who practised as an attorney in Beaufort West before retiring to Somerset West. “In 1913 Jean Ettienne Reenen became a Judge of the Water Court and seven years later was appointed Judge President of the Orange Free State In 1933 he became a judge of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. He was knighted in 1923.” Jean Ettienne Reenen married Winnie Edith Drummond, daughter of Sir James Drummond in 1903. In 1915, she became the first woman to obtain an LL B degree in South Africa. She practised as an advocate.


A group of Bloemfontein businessmen recently discovered Beaufort West had some well-kept secrets. They found out that there was much more than politics, beggars, ladies-of-the-night, café owners and petrol attendants, to this little dry, dusty, Karoo ‘dorp’. “It has an intriguing history. The land speed record was broken here, the highest wind speed in S A was recorded at the airport,” said Rose Willis in a talk to Probus. “Also, politics here is not new, Sir John Charles Molteno, the man who became the first premier of the Cape Colony, was known as the Lion of Beaufort West in the Cape Parliament. The town lies in a fossil-rich area with ancient Stone Age sites. A major “open air” rock art “gallery” lies only 40 km north of the village. Few realise that in the 1700s this was one of the most blood-stained regions of South Africa. Wilder than the Wild West, it was a hard, harsh land, plagued by droughts, desperate for water and inhabited by people fighting for survival. And, despite horrific casualty rates suffered by the San, the colonial commandos were not able to achieve a permanent military victory over them. So, for long periods between 1770 to 1800, the Nuweveld area was totally abandoned. People, such as ministers, missionaries, swindlers, confidence tricksters, and murderers have all left their mark on Beaufort West, and oddly enough some of S A’s top lawmen also have links with the town.”


One of South Africa’s best-known criminal lawyers was born in Beaufort West. Henry Harris Morris, the man who defended Daisy de Melker, was born in this village on April 14, 1879. He called his hometown “the graveyard of the Karoo, where even Nature slept.” Nevertheless, he had a happy boyhood in the Karoo, where “cricket and football were unknown, where you could swim in the town’s water supply, sail boats on irrigation furrows and shoot at birds with catapults.” Henry’s father, Hyman, a teacher and later a banker, was a German-Jew and his mother, Maria Kramer, was a Gentile of German-Dutch extraction. Henry claimed to have inherited patience and a hard-working thoroughness from his German forefathers, a volatility and nimble mind from his Jewish ancestors, and a steady reliability from his Dutch forebears. He had a dry humour which was greatly admired by all who knew him, but he had a dreadfully squeaky voice. Sir William Solomon, Chief Justice of the Union, frequently referred to him as “that man with the awful voice.” When Henry began studying law there was much to interest him in the legal world. “The leaders of the Jameson raid were being hauled before the courts and condemned to death, though the sentences were later reduced to fines of £25 000. Also, in 1898 ‘Baron’ von Veltheim, an international crook and adventurer was tried for the murder of millionaire Woolf Joel, whom he had tried to blackmail. Young Henry snuck into the courts as often as possible to observe attorney-general, Dr F E T Krause, in action, little realising that he would one day work with him and win fame,” writes Benjamin Bennett in Genius for the Defence. Henry appeared as the defence attorney in two of Africa’s most high-profile murder cases. He defended Daisy de Melker in 1932. Then, in 1941, leapt to world prominence when he defended Sir Henry Jock Delves Broughton, accused of murdering Josslyn Victor Hay, the 22nd Earl of Errol in Nairobi in Kenya. This high-profile trail was portrayed in the film White Mischief, which captured the laid-back, devil-may-care attitude to life of the British in Kenya at the time.


Teaching offered no excitement. So, one day in 1856, in the middle of a lesson at the Jewish Free School in London, Hyman Morris decided to emigrate. He came to South Africa and finding no suitable job in Cape Town, moved to Beaufort West. There he became the accountant at the Cape Commercial Bank. Then, lovely Maria Kramer caught his eye and he married her. By the time he was 25 he was manager of the bank at an annual salary of £400. He had done well, but Beaufort West seemed to have the same dull tranquillity of his early teaching job. He decided to try his luck on the newly discovered Witwatersrand goldfields. Here letters from his nine-year son, Henry, whom he affectionately called Harry, comforted him. Soon his wife, other sons Philip and Reuben and daughters Ada and Milly were able to join him. Hyman made a name for himself on the Witwatersrand. He held discussions with President Paul Kruger and Rabbi Joel Rabinowitz called him a “man of sanguine disposition”, a man who dared and triumphed where others failed. Hyman served on many public bodies. A founder of Witwatersrand Hebrew Congregation, he was president from 1890 to 1903, and again in 1906. He served on the Helping Hand and Burial Society, was chairman of the Board of Deputies and President of the Zionist Federation until he died. When dissention split the community, Hyman helped form the New Johannesburg Hebrew Congregation. His daughter Ada was one of the first girls to attend school in Johannesburg.


Adolf Gaston Eugen Fick, a German doctor, who once practised in the Karoo, made and wore the world’s first contact lens. He claimed it was comfortable, but it made his nose run. Born in Marb-Lahn, in Germany, on February 22, 1852, Adolf was the second youngest son of a family of six children. His father, Ludwig, was professor of anatomy at Marburg University. Disaster struck him at an early age. His mother died when he was three and three years later, his father, died of a stroke at the age of 45. The little family had to be split up and Adolf was sent to his uncle and godfather, a well-known and highly respected professor of physiology at the University of Würzburg. A rare and beautiful relationship developed between uncle and nephew. It lasted until the uncle’s death and had a direct bearing on young Adolf’s choice of medicine and ophthalmology as a career. Adolf did not do well at school. His work was only average. He was almost expelled on July 3, 1870, for refusing to comply with school regulations. He joined the army and went off to fight in the Franco-Prussian War. When it ended, he returned and enrolled as a medical student at Würzburg University. He qualified in 1876. He worked as an assistant in Würzburg’s Physiology Academy, later taught anatomy at Breslau University, while he studied ophthalmology at Föster and Cohn’s eye clinic. Fick wrote many papers on anatomy and physiology. He introduced Fick’s Law which governs the diffusion of a gas across a fluid membrane, and he was the first to devise a technique, known as the Fick Principle, for measuring cardiac output. In 1879 Fick was offered a position as professor of physiology at the University of Cordoba in Argentina, but by then he was suffering from tuberculosis and he decided to try the Karoo in the hopes of a cure.


Fick set sail for “the land of the Boers” in 1879. He chose Richmond for its good, clean, crisp, fresh air and the fact that it had a small German-speaking community. He bought Dr Jones’s practice for £100, placed an advertisement in The Era of August 9, announcing that he would begin practicing as a physician, surgeon, gynaecologist and occulist as soon as his instruments arrived. He developed a lucrative practice, specializing in eye disorders and studying children with myopia. By 1884 he was able to return to Germany and marry Marie, the youngest daughter of Johannes Wislicenus, professor of chemistry, at Berlin University. After the wedding the couple immediately left for South Africa. Richmond came as a bit of as shock to Marie who was used to sophisticated German cities, but she soon settled. Their daughter, Hildegard, was born the year after they arrived. Their son, Roderich, arrived the following year. Then Maria contracted typhoid fever and for 93 days lingered between life and death. Adolf was distraught. He feared he may lose her. As soon as she was well enough to travel, he sold his practice and took his family back to Europe. There Maria regained her health and bore him another son and four more daughters. In Zurich Adolf had glass shells cut which he fitted to rabbits’ eyes. Satisfied with these studies, he took moulds from the eye of a corpse and tried the shells on his own eyes. They also worked well, so he had more made and tried these out on 17 patients. The results were totally satisfactory. He wrote his ground-breaking paper in September 1887. It was published by two authoritative journals in March 1888, and the world had a new word “contact lens”. And, once plastic materials were invented, it was also set on the road to multi-million-dollar industry. Fick never credited Richmond, nor any pioneers on the thinking behind lenses to fit onto the eye. Nevertheless, the people of Richmond like to think the Karoo gave him enough time and sufficient space to formalize his ideas.


The Leeu Gamka Indigenous Nursery has nominated “kankerbos” (cancer bush) Sutherlandia Frutescens as its Plant of the Month. This small, but well- known Karoo shrub grows to about a metre in height, writes Charlotte Bothma, quoting Medicinal Plants of South Africa. “The plant’s leaves are slightly to densely hairy. This often gives it a silvery appearance. Large red flowers are followed by bladder-like, papery pods. Cancer bush is an old Cape remedy for stomach problems and internal cancers. According to tradition, the virtues of the plant extend to include remedies for colds, influenza, chicken-pox diabetes, varicose veins, inflammation, liver problems, backache and rheumatism. The medicinal use probably originated with the Khoi and Nama people, who used decoctions externally to wash wounds. They also took it internally to counteract fevers and allied ailments. For these drinks leaves were mostly used, However, other remedies include all above-ground parts of the plant.”

“Strong and bitter words indicate a weak cause.”

Victor Hugo, considered by the French to be the country’s greatest thinker and poet