Freelance photojournalists, Chris Marais and Juliette du Toit, travel widely across the thirstland and are often asked which is their favourite town. Like loving parents, they find something special in almost every one, however, they decided to find out what appealed to others. On their Karoospace and Facebook pages they listed 38 towns and asked which one their followers preferred. Some nominated five or six places, but for the purposes of the poll only the top one was counted. Top favourites – in order of preference – were: Prince Albert, Willowmore, Graaff-Reinet and Merweville. Fraserburg, Sutherland and Williston, all got the same number of votes, so did New Bethesda, De Rust, and Steytlerville. Then came Cradock, Calvinia, Ladismith, Montagu, Loxton, Somerset East, Victoria West, Middelburg, Richmond and Beaufort West. “The results surprised us, not so much with what came in, but rather by what was left out. We wondered what was wrong with Barrydale, Klaarstroom, Bedford, Tarkastad, Jansenville, Port Nolloth, Leliefontein, Loeriesfontein, Brandvlei, Rietbron and the southern Free State places like Gariep, Smithfield, Bethulie, Philippolis and Springfontein? Do folks know they too are part of the Karoo? When next you are in search adventure, look at a map of the dryland and see places like Vanwyksdorp, Vosburg, Pella, Riemvasmaak, Springbok, Middelpos, Touws River, De Aar, Hanover, Noupoort and Colesberg . Then, pick one, fuel up and just go there”.


In 1865 making a late-night cup of coffee for a friend cost Mrs Hickey her life. The Worcester Advertiser and Mail of September 13 reported “a dreadful accident” had happened at Newman Villa, the residence of J D Lindsay, Justice of the Peace. After the family and other servants had retired for the night, the housekeeper, Mrs Hickey, remained in the kitchen to enjoy a cup of coffee with a friend. They sat close to the fire because it was so cold and, at some stage, Mrs Hickey’s clothes started to smolder, but neither noticed. Mrs Hickey’s garments burnt away slowly for about 15 minutes before they became aware of this. When they smelled smoke, Mrs Hickey shot to her feet in horror and fled from the room. That was the wrong thing to do. Her sudden movement fanned the smoldering flames into inextinguishable flames. Her friend could not help. Their screams brought the Lindsays racing downstairs, but they too were helpless and within five minutes Mrs Hickey was dead. “Sadly, up to the moment of her death she was perfectly conscious,” stated the reporter.


A young man whose mother trained him to be a thief when he was seven, and, who later “ran a school for thieves”, drowned while escaping from Robben Island in 1844. William Smith, a habitual criminal and widely known across the Colony., escaped from the prison hospital with a man named Hunt. They ran to the beach, found two small casks and a piece of plank and ‘put out to sea’. “Their escape was quickly discovered, and soldiers fired at them,” reported the Commercial Advertiser of March 2, 1844. Hunt lost his balance, fell into the water and tried to swim away, but was caught. “In the darkness Smith seemed to have escaped, but he did not get far because his body was found on the rocks next day.” Earlier, Smith, a Londoner, had told authorities that he was regularly sent out on petty thieving expeditions by his mother. He became a highly skilled pick pocket, shoplifter and housebreaker. When things “got too hot for him in England” he came to South Africa and lived totally off these skills. He admitted to giving private “lessons to young men keen to learn the trade”. They helped him lead the police on many a wild goose chase, he said.


The Brisbane Courier of April 9, 1900, reported “great excitement” at the arrest of two would-be train wreckers. The men were arrested by British authorities at Beaufort West, on the main railway line, to Cape Town, for attempting to wreck the train on which Sir Alfred Milner was travelling from Bloemfontein.


Gold changed Cradock-born Joseph Benjamin Robinson from a humble general trader into one of the wealthiest men in South Africa. After buying some “pretty stones” he raced to Hebron (now Windsorton) and started digging. He was one of the first to arrive and, at 27, a bit older than most of the others, yet he threw himself enthusiastically into prospecting and diamond buying. Sadly, diamonds did not work out well for him. It was gold that paved his way to riches. Born in Cradock on August 3, 1840, JB as he was known, was one of 15 children (some say 19) born to 1820 settler, Robert John Robinson and his wife, Maria Rozina (nee Strutt). Like many young men of his day he started out as a soldier and fought on the Orange Free State side in the Basuto War. He later became trader, wool-buyer and livestock dealer. Details of his “first diamond discovery” are sketchy. Some say that while in the Vaal River area in 1867 he heard of a Mrs Van Wyk, of Dorstfontein farm, who had two bottles of “interesting stones” which she had found in a donga. He bought them for four sovereigns and among them found about eight diamonds. Another tale states that JB one day shot a springbok on the farm of a Mr De Beer who showed him a diamond, which he had picked up under the tree, allegedly at the exact spot where De Beer’s mine was later established. In any event, JB acquired land, fame and fortune, albeit it of a somewhat notorious nature in the world of mining. He managed to attain some respectability and influence as he became mayor of Kimberley, MP for Griqualand West and president of the Chamber of Mines. He was the only man to own a brick house and private horse and carriage in Kimberley in the 1870s.


Robinson was this country’s first South African-born mining magnate – all others came from Europe. After discovering the “stones” he left his home in Bethulie, took some labourers, and sped to the Vaal where, within six weeks, he found 30 diamonds worth £10 000. Luck, however, was not on his side. His diamond mining venture was cut short by continuous rock falls and collapsing reefs. By the mid-1880s he was on the verge of bankruptcy and had to sell some interests to pay off his debts. On the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886, Alfred Beit financed a ₤25 000 partnership with JB who then purchased Langlaagte and founded Randfontein Estates, which became the largest individual undertaking on the Reef and one of the biggest in the world at that time. Beit dissolved the partnership because of Robinson’s bad temper and maverick business dealings. Then, JB correctly prophesied the route of the main gold bearing reef – despite the fact that almost everyone disagreed. He rocketed to success and he became one of South Africa’s richest men.


Robinson was a tall, disgruntled man with florid features, a strong jaw and piercing blue eyes, “as sharp as a diamond drill”. He was not liked and was excluded by his peers. He was called “The Old Buccaneer”. Tight lipped, sour, normally seen wearing a pith helmet, he was well built – some said robust – alert, pugnacious, parsimonious, but full of energy. Contemporary Louis Cohen claimed that Robinson was never popular and no one connected his name with charity. A less flattering journalist wrote that JB had no personality at all, no magnetism and that he always “resembled a mortal with a tomstone on his soul”. It was said he would only act the Samratian if it cost him nothing His forceful business tactics came in for much criticism and his name was usually preceeded by disparaging adjectives. The fact that he disliked Rhodes and maintained a friendly relationship with President Paul Kruger made him even more unpopular. He was knighted in 1908 and in 1922 nominated for a peerage by British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. He, however, declined the honour to the relief of many. Most considered him so unsuitable for such an honour that it led to parliamentary debates. Some went as far as to say that the nomination had only been made because of his huge donation to party funds and others said if the nomination went through, he should be named Lord Verneuker (a cheat).


JB married a Victoria West lass, Elizabeth Rebecca, daughter of James Ferguson, in Kimberley on October 3 1877. Many wondered what on earth she saw in this brusque and somewhat unprincipled man. She was timid and silent, always in the background and totally overshadowed by her domineering husband. She did, however, have the capacity to organise and she hosted some spectacularly lavish gatherings. In 1903 she received a “palm” for the best event of the season at which entertainers like Clara Butt, Nelly Melba, and Sarah Bernhardt appeared. When JB died in October 1929, his will caused a great scandal in South Africa and Britain. He left his personal fortune of £12 million to his heirs but excluded a daughter, who received a mere £2 000. He gave nothing to charity. The Cape Times published a scathing article about this.


It’s a far cry from the Karoo to the opulent high society of old England. Further still from the dry dusty plains to flower-filled rooms with perfume so overpowering that some guests actually fainted. Yet, this is what happened at the first party given by former Karoo couple, Elizabeth and JB Robinson at Brook House. A press report stated: “It has taken this couple only a few months to establish themselves and to organise a magnificent event which belies the fact that they have just arrived from the colonies. The handsome staircase had broad bands and a superb trellis-works of roses. The reception rooms were exquisitely decorated with orchids. The music room was filled with carnations. A harp, lyre, and a ‘cello were outlined in pink blooms. Carnations also filled the supper-room, where everyone was enchanted by the wonderful fruit, champagne and exotic dishes, which included quail eggs, caviar and other luxuries. An electric lighting system was put in for the night and Venetian glass candelabras twinkled like diamonds. Huge bells, decorated with masses of roses, hung from the ceiling. Pretty pink, flower-filled pagodas were everywhere. Bowls of pink flowers adorned the centre of each round supper-table. There was also much praise for the music. It was quite divine. The Australian operatic soprano, Nellie Melba and Emma Albani, the first Canadian to become an international opera star, vied with each other as the queens of song. Adding to the enchantment was Sofia Scalchi, the Italian contralto, who also sang in the mezzo-soprano range.”


Two people, who were to make their mark on South Africa, sailed from England on the Garth Castle in September 1887. One was Cecil John Rhodes, who definitely was destined for greatness, and the other was a Russian Jewess, Annie Lazarus, who in her own quiet way, also left a mark on South African history. Born in Bailystock, England, in 1870, Annie moved to London with her parents when she was six. She received her basic education in England and, as was the fashion of the day, then spent two years at a finishing school in Paris. On returning to London, she married Myer Krenski on June 22, 1887, at the Duke’s Palace Synagogue. At the time, it was decorated for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, so the wedding seemed a totally grand affair. Shortly after the wedding the couple set off for South Africa and settled at Modder River, near Kimberley, where they opened a trading post. The trials and tribulations of running a shop at such an isolated spot would have taken their toll of any ordinary lass, however, it almost finished the very refined and sophisticated young Annie. But she was very loyal and determined. She resolved not to let anything get her down. So, ignoring all she disliked, she threw herself enthusiastically into helping her husband develop his business. She loved him dearly. She ran a most efficient house and in it raised her children. Her eldest son, Julius, was the first Jewish infant to be circumcised in Johannesburg (the operation was performed by Rabbi Harris). All of her other children were born at Modder River.


Disaster struck in 1890. Myer died suddenly leaving Annie to fend for herself. She was the only Jewish woman in the district and her children were all infants. She screwed up her courage. The trading store was all she had. It had been doing well and she knew if she kept it on track it would continue to do so. So, despite the anti-British feeling and the rumblings of war, she bravely carried on trading and she was supported by surrounding farmers. When hostilities broke out, she considered it her duty to repay their loyalty by keeping the store open. The troops also needed supplies, so Annie applied to Captain Ross, provost-marshal to Lord Metheun, for permission to trade with the 40 000 soldiers stationed in the area. After this was granted, she sent her children to Cape Town with Mrs Jefferies, the station master’s wife.


Annie was an eyewitness to many dramatic events. Almost daily she heard tales of battles, wounds, and deaths. She saw Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener and she heard the sound of gun fire. When the Boers occupied the district, Annie, who considered herself a loyal British subject, refused to supply them. Jacobsdal’s Magistrate Van Heerden came to see her and asked her to resume her business. She was affronted: “Do you expect me to trade with the enemy?” she asked, her eyes flashing with anger. He diplomatically took her hand and explained that even in war there was a middle route and that humanity was to be considered. She re-opened the store. After eight years as a widow Annie married Moss Lazarus. They left the area for a while, but she returned to run her store again mainly for workers of the South African Railways. She supplemented the produce available with fresh fruit and vegetables from her own garden.


The man who led the Yeomanry across the Karoo and hinterland during the Anglo-Boer War should have been a General Higgins. His father, however, assumed the name Brabazon by Royal Decree in 1852 and this ensured that Major-General John Palmer Brabazon, became part of south African history. Aman who had an exceptional military career, he was the son of Luke Higgins and Catherine Brabazon. Born on February 12, 1843, he entered the 16th Lancers as soon as he was old enough. Then, after obtaining the rank of captain, he retired from the army on September 24, 1870, at the time of the second famine in Ireland, and went to manage the family’s in Swinford estates. He had inherited these in 1864 via a rather complicated route involving men who died without issue his father’s name change. Ironically, though, it is through the great general that the Brabazons are best remembered in Swinford. He was the last member of the family to live at the Mansion House. Those who knew him said that his physical appearance owed more to his Brabazon blood than his Higgins line, but they added that his politics were Higgins – Unionist rather than Nationalist.


John Palmer Brabazon re-joined the army as a subaltern at the age of 31. He served in the Grenadier Guards as aide-de-camp to the Viceroy of India and also to Queen Victoria. He went on to become Winston Spencer Churchill’s first commanding officer in the 4th Hussars in 1893. He gained great experience in the Ashanti, Sudan and Nile campaigns. An exceptional soldier, determined, cool and a clear thinker, he was hailed as a typical British commander. He was extremely charming, suave, generous and gregarious. He was popular, well liked, respected, said to be a “lady’s man” and a bit of a “Victorian dandy”. Winston Churchill once said: “Although he will always be remembered as a bachelor, he was by no means a misogynist.” Brabazon’s had excellent social connections. His superior leadership powers and personal acquaintance with many VIPs and senior army officers led to his being appointed commander of the Imperial Yeomanry in February 1900. He died on September 20, 1922, in Montreaux, Switzerland, aged 79.


Despite strict rules and regulations several errors of judgment, called “slippages”, occurred when recruiting the Yeomanry during the Anglo-Boer War. Yeomen of the Karoo explains that many volunteers should never have been accepted, but that there was not sufficient time to train them as there was a war on the go. This led to severe criticism from men like Lord Kitchener. He was not captivated by the Yeomanry. In a report published in the London Gazette during May and June 1900, he stated that men, so rapidly recruited and “forwarded to the seat of war” were “totally unsuitable, knowing no drill, unable to ride or shoot, and medically unfit for active service”. Some men were sent straight back home because they were cowards, drunks or just plain incompetent. The St James Gazette, a British Jingo newspaper, said the yeoman were unfit, street loafers and disease-ridden rapscallions. “Some have heart disease and varicose veins, others are virtual cripples and some are nearly blind.” In March 1900, Lieutenant-General Lord Paul Metheun, said the yeomen were “out of hand, lacking knowledge and discipline”. A nurse, Nurse Katherine Nisbet, wrote: “These new yeomen are undersized, pale, seedy-looking youths of 18 and 19 years old. This hospital (the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital) is already full of them. Some openly brag that they only came out for the trip and for their health. Many have heart disease, phthisis, no teeth and some refuse to be operated on for fear they might recover.” General Sir Charles Warren, called the contingent “very bad” and Colonel E Crabbe stated, ‘they were absolutely ignorant of the rudiments of soldiering and knew nothing about horses.”


John Brabazon was offended by these criticisms. He described the yeomanry as “physically magnificent intelligent men; largely gentlemen, and vastly superior to the regulars”. Despite the drawbacks associated with the chaotic mobilization and organization, he said many of the volunteers possessed potential that regular recruits did not. And, in the long run, he argued, this enabled them to overcome any initial shortcomings. While they might be lacking in military experience, he said, they were “well-born, well-educated, anxious to learn and do the right thing.” Military specialist, Colonel Iain Swinnerton, pointed out that the yeomanry was a great regiment made up of ordinary working-class men. Sir Percy Fitzpatrick was also kindly disposed: “We must allow those who are not first class to become so.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said the yeomen were “highly mettled, good sportsmen of the shires who gave up jobs to serve”.

All politics is based on the indifference of the majority. – James “Scotty” Reston