Ever wondered what life was like when the Boer War hit the small Karoo villages? A recently launched book, The Forgotten Front, reveals this in an interesting way. It details how the war touched the lives of the ordinary man in the street in and around Colesberg. Townsfolk were suddenly caught up in the extraordinary circumstances of war. People who had lived tranquil lives were suddenly thrown into turmoil and surrounded by soldiers. The story, written by Professor Mike de Jongh and Belinda Gordon, is gathered from historic documents, newspapers, diaries and letters. General French’s first defeat at Suffolk Hill is told in letters written by his regiment and Boer soldiers to their families back home. Boer and Brit accounts also tell the astonishing story of General De la Rey’s victory over General Clement’s force of 8 000 men. This story vanished into history because it took place on the same day as the relief of Kimberley. Colesberg was close to the front and residents were suddenly confronted with wounded and dying soldiers being brought into the little town hospital, while other makeshift hospitals sprang up in places like the church hall. The sound of the battle seemed to rage all around. Daily news was dramatic, and action packed, the villagers were divided, Martial Law was proclaimed, Boer sympathisers were imprisoned and sent to faraway POW camps. Then, five Boer rebels were executed. It seemed as if peace had gone forever. It was more real than anyone could have believed possible.


The Karoo Development Foundation is hosting the launch of the new Go Ghaap! Heritage Route, on October 30, at Red Sands Game Lodge, near Kuruman. “This all-day event, mainly in the format of a heritage conference, will start at 08:30” says Professor Doreen Atkinson. “It costs R100 person, and this includes lunch and teas. There will also be a craft exhibition, and some very good music.” The route passes through the Kuruman, Kathu, Deben, Vanzylsrus, Postmasburg, Danielskuil, Griquatown, Prieska, Campbell, Douglas, Kimberley, Groblershoop and Barkly-West districts.


Itinerant tinkers – Gypsey-like people – who travelled from place to place mending pots, pans. kettles and other metal utensils were among the early entrepreneurs of the Karoo. These men who trailed from farm to farm and town to town to ply their trade were a familiar sight along hinterland roads. Mostly they ambled along in rickety, two-wheeled, donkey-drawn carts, equipped with simple tools and sheets of galvanised iron to help them effect their repairs. A range of blackened cooking pots and pans of various sizes swung beneath theirs wagons and created a cacophony. This “symphony of the tinkers”, which announced their coming could be heard from miles away. A vital canvas bottle of water swung beneath the carts to deliver cool, refreshing water to the tinker and his family who rode along inside the wagon with all their possessions. Most farms had odd jobs for these men and they who camped out on “the werf” (in the yard) while the work lasted. These “nomads”, and other early traditional craftsmen, had a range of useful skills which contributed greatly to the economy of the early Karoo. Marj Noel discussed some of these men and their skills in Stoep Stories No 34 – Tales of the Karoo, published by the Graaff-Reinet Heritage Society on June 3, 2014. Other skilled travelling tradesman of the early Karoo were the basket makers “They also travelled in carts with their entire families and possessions in all kinds of weather and they too found work on many farms. For the base of the baskets they used laths of fine Kareehout which also served for the handles and the finished edge. Where cane was available it was split and used for the sides,” said Marj.


The dryland is the keeper of many fascinating tales. One tells of a tiny Namaqualand village, established by the church in 1850 and killed by it 72 years later. This is the tale of Bowesdorp, a ghost town, initially named Boweville in honour of the well-liked district surgeon, Dr Henry Bowe. The story began when part of the Dutch Reformed congregation in Clanwilliam decided to split from the mother church in 1850. After looking about for a while, they chose a picturesque kloof in a valley on the farm Wilgenhoutskloof and decided to create a new town there. Plots were surveyed, laid out and sold. At first, all went well, but disaster loomed. By 1864 the first Dutch Reformed Church in Namaqualand was completed and inaugurated. Moses Schuur opened a shop in 1867. Then came a hotel, post office, police station, jail and a major threat from Springbok, a small town, established in 1863 and just 37½ miles (60,3 km) away. The parson was the first to go, states researcher, Heather MacAlister ( In 1919, when Dr W P Steenkamp was called to Namaqualand, he found Bowesdorp a bit too far-flung for his liking, so he arranged for a church to be built at Springbok. In 1922 he recommended that urgently needed repairs to the Bowesdorp church be stopped. He used high building costs, water scarcity and poor location to motivate this recommendation. This was the death knell for Bowesdorp. A new church, nearer Springbok, was completed in 1824. After its inauguration, the post office, police station and shops also moved and Bowesdorp died. Plots, originally sold for £160, were purchased for £8 by Adriaan Visser, a WWI veteran and former Bowesdorp constable. He was the only buyer, but he loved the area and so he turned it back into a farm. Now only the ruins and ghosts remain.


Henry was the youngest of three sons born to London linen draper, Thomas Bowe, and his wife, Elizabeth (nee How), who had roots in Cumbria. Their son Thomas, born in 1823, studied medicine, became an apothecary and with his wife, Harriet, moved to South Africa. He ended up as chief pharmacist at Cape Town’s Somerset Hospital. The second, Talbot, born in 1824, was a mariner. He came to South Africa with his wife, Mary, and became a farmer and transport rider. Henry, who was born in 1826, also studied medicine, qualified as a doctor, and came to South Africa with his wife, Eliza (nee Allan) and young daughter, Julia. He and Eliza had married in 1854, They were in their 20s and very much in love. Sadly, the marriage lasted only 15 years as both were in poor health and suffering from tuberculosis. They had hoped that the fresh, dry, clean air in the South African hinterland would effect a cure as they sailed for Cape Town from a cold, damp, smoggy England. Eliza was pregnant and the voyage was difficult for her. In Cape Town Henry registered as a doctor before leaving for Namaqualand to take up a position as district surgeon, at a salary of £75 a year. Their first son, Henry Allan Talbot, was born en route at Caledon on December 2, 1856. All their other children were born in Springbok. First came Kate (1858), Essie, (1859), Flora, who died as an infant (1861). Charles arrived that same year, Arthur was born in 1863 and Ernest, who lived only a few months, in 1868, states Wendy Bonus in The Faberge Connection: A Memoir of the Bowe Family. Henry resigned as district surgeon in 1868 and died the following year aged of 43. Eliza followed him to the grave in 1872.


Their deaths orphaned the six children, aged between 9 and 17. They were passed around the large extended Bowe family. Allan was sent to relatives in Devon. He later moved to Switzerland and, in 1879, to Moscow, to take up a job with his father’s cousin, James Steuart Shanks, a successful jeweller. When Shanks’s Swedish partner, Henry Konrad Bolin died Allan was promoted to manager of this very exclusive jewellery business. A creative man, he had a natural business flair and loved making jewellery. Allan married Emma Billet, a member of a British ex-patriot family living in Russia, and they had one daughter, Essie. In 1886, on the eve of his marriage he met Carl Fabergé, on a train travelling between Moscow and Paris. Fabergé, a brilliant artist and craftsman, recognized Bowe’s business skills and, in 1887, he and Allan forged a partnership in Moscow. The business was named Bowe and Fabergé and placed under Allan’s control. The timing was perfect. Moscovites had money and a taste for decorative items. The business flourished. Within short they had over 200 workers and branches in Odessa, Kiev, and London. Allan’s brothers, Arthur and Charles, as well as some other relations, joined the firm. Bowe and Fabergé dissolved their partnership in 1906. Allan sold his house in Moscow and moved to England where he began dealing in precious stones. The damp English weather did not agree with Emma and she died in 1922 shortly before her 60th birthday. Allan lived on until 1939. His circumstances, however, were severely reduced, because his assets had been confiscated by the Bolsheviks, states the Bowe Family Archive.


During the Anglo-Boer War, Sergeant D Sandford, of the Victorian Rifles, was recommended for the Victoria Cross after displaying great gallantry on the battlefield in the Zuurberg region of the Northern Cape. His unit was returning from reconnoitering in a mountainous area on March 30 when they ran into a party of Boers. In a special despatch on April 1, Colonel A C Henniker stated that a man’s horse fell while he was galloping away under heavy fire. He was pinned to the ground, Sergeant Sandford, with Lance-Corporal Ledgerwood and Trooper J Browning, also of the Victorian Bushman’s Contingent, rode to the rescue. Sergeant Sandford helped the man onto the horse that he himself was riding and brought him to safety all the time surrounded by “an overwhelming number of Boers” and under heavy fire, reported the Brisbane Courier of April 10, 1901.


In 1901 William Craig, assistant engineer in the Public Works Department of Cape Colony, visited Australia to discuss the diversity of woods being used in various building projects. Formerly the municipal engineer in Ipswich, England, he was well-known to many of the government architects and engineers that he called on. He discussed the best woods for bridge building and for the construction of small country buildings, such as police stations, post offices, and Government offices. He explained that there was a dearth of good timber in South Africa, reported The Sydney Evening News of March 30, 1901. William also discussed building methods and enquired whether tenders could be obtained in Australia for the types of structures needed in South Africa, and if so, whether the necessary material could be transported to South Africa for erection there. William also visited several timber yards to obtain quotations for round hardwood for piles and girders. He explained that while the Cape was using West Australian jarrah for wharves and bridges, this wood, despite its reputation for being very hardy, had not been able to withstand the ravages of the Cape weather. Ironbark, he said, was preferred, but added that the Cape authorities desired to have it delivered in a round state, so that they could fashion it themselves. The meetings were all most successful, said William. He added that he had been promised a series of blueprints by the Works Department, subject to approval by the Minister.


A well-known Eastern Cape farmer, from Hangman’s Bush, Mr D Kettles could not wait for the 1880 Easter weekend because both his sons were coming home from Mr Muller’s School, to spend time on the farm. He collected them from the post coach stop but reports The East London Dispatch by the time the boys got home, the eldest, Edward, was ailing. Thinking it was an ordinary cold, his parents put him to bed and dosed him with the usual remedies, but he steadily declined. Dr Ross was sent for and he quickly rode out from King Williamstown, only to discover the boy was suffering from a severe attack of typhoid fever and was beyond treatment. The poor lad died the following day. Dr Ross was of the opinion that the Edward must have contracted the disease at least a week before he left school, reported The Grahamstown Journal of April 12, 1880. His parents were devastated.


A post coach overturned in May 1880, and claimed the life of Mrs Lundgren, a well-known Grahamstown resident. She suffered both internal and external injuries and was the most severely hurt of all the passengers. She was rushed to the local hospital while the other passengers, who had enthusiastically been looking forward to attending the races next day, were attended by local residents and nurses. Mrs Lundgren received the best medical assistance available. She was carefully nursed both day and night and her every want and need were attended to states The Grahamstown Journal of June 23, 1880. She lingered for a few days and then died in early June at her Hill Street home. Grahamstown’s Reverend J A Chalmers officiated at her funeral service which was well attended by the villagers.


The Watchman reported that William John Lawler, of Clarksbury in the Eastern Cape, was cleaning his double-barrelled shotgun on June 2, 1880, when a shot rang out He had thought both barrels to be empty, but hadn’t checked. He was relieved – he was uninjured. He turned around to put the gun down on the table while he got over his shock, but it struck against something and exploded. Some of the pieces hit him in the stomach and despite help being called William was too severely wounded to recover “The unfortunate young man, who had only been married for about four months, lingered on from one o’clock till twenty minutes to five in the afternoon, when he breathed his last,” reported the newspaper. He was buried next day.


South Africa is well known for its rich diversity of plant life. Many have unique curative properties as Henry Charles Stevens, a 19-year-old consumptive from Birmingham, England, found when he came to South Africa in the hope that the fresh air and sunshine would alleviate his tuberculosis. That didn’t happen and then a Basuto traditional healer began treating him with a concoction made from the bright red roots of a small, unobtrusive shrubby little plant that grows in the cold, dry and stony areas of South Africa. Henry drank this mixture and it really did the trick. He soon felt very much better. He learned that this treatment had been used in Africa for over 100 years. He returned to England, was declared TB free. He was so excited that he decided the concoction might present him with a lucrative business opportunity. He began to import the raw ingredients and developed Stevens Consumption Cure. Some said it helped, but the British Medical Association did not agree. They declared that the main ingredient was similar to an astringent known as krameria and was not described in the British Pharmacopoeia. They prohibited the sale. Henry spent a fortune on legal actions, but didn’t win, but there was something in the remedy because despite medical and political opposition, Stevens’ Cure remained available until the early 1950s, states a pharmaceutical journal blog.


Despite the objections of the British Medical Association news of Stevens Consumption Cure, spread and in 1920 a German missionary doctor Adrien Sechehaye of Geneva approached Henry and acquired some of the raw materials. He too developed a product and after his first patient recovered, he went on to prescribe his remedy to about 800 TB sufferers over the next nine years. His remission rates were excellent, and he kept meticulous notes and detailed case studies. “In fact, an analysis of his records revealed better results than many obtained by using today’s approved antibiotics,” says researcher, Mary Alexander at The consumption cure, known as Umckaloabo, the Zulu word for heavy cough, continued to be produced in Europe. There was a break in production during WWII when it was difficult to obtain the raw materials from South Africa and for a while it disappeared from the market. Then, in the mid-1970s that it was revealed that the main ingredient of this cure was a decoction of the roots of Pelargonium sidoides, It was shown to have significant antibacterial properties against multiresistant Staphylococcus aureus strains. In the 1990s a German natural-medicine company Schwabe acquired the rights to manufacture Umckaloabo and, at that time, accessed plants material from the Lesotho mountains.


There was a further development in 1995. Ulrich Feiter, a German-born horticulturist living in South Africa, visited the home of the Schwabe Company in the hopes of selling them the rights to some of the herbal extracts he manufactured from plants which he cultivated on his Wellington farm. The company was not interested but asked if he could propagate Pelargonium sidoides. He said “Yes”, thinking it would be easy, but it was not so. He had confused the plant with a species red geranium, the ubiquitous flowering plant found in suburban gardens and window boxes across the world. So, unaware of the many pitfalls he faced a myriad of problems back home. Yet he persevered. He found that harvesting from the wild was a delicate procedure because it threatened the plant’s survival. Also, only mature deep red roots had commercial value, and early harvesting was futile. Also, the plant needed wide open spaces and it liked to live on the edge in wild, cold, dry, rocky areas. The plant did not have any specific growing season and, because it has almost no stem, it was difficult to grow from cuttings. In the end he had to propagate plants from seeds.


Research proved that the side roots of the tuber would break off when it was pulled up and these grew again, allowing the plant to recover. However, sometimes this was a long process, so Ulrich decided to expand by interesting some neighbours in growing the plant. Today Schwabe buys about 98% of their output and in Germany today P sidoides extract is an approved drug for the treatment of acute bronchitis. Ulrich did some research and developed a cough remedy from the remaining material. He called it Linctagon. It was different and Schwabe’s product and exempt from their patents. By doing this he proved the value of research and the importance of preserving the biodiversity of South Africa’s flora, said Mary Alexander.

The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary. Men alone are quite capable of every wickedness – Joseph Conrad