Oorlam clans were originally formed from mixed-race descendants of indigenous Khoikhoi, European settlers and slaves from Madagascar, India, and Indonesia. Similar to the other Afrikaans-speaking group at the time, the Trekboers, Oorlam originally populated the frontiers of the early Cape Colony, later living as semi-nomadic, mounted commandos. Like the Boers, they migrated inland from the Cape, and established several states in present-day South Africa and Namibia.
In the early 18th century, Oude Ram Afrikaner was born in the Tulbagh farmlands in South Africa and died around 1760 in Cape Town. He was the leader of a clan that later became known as the Orlam Afrikaners, a sub-group of the Orlam.
Oude Ram Afrikaner was the first leader of the Orlam Afrikaners. After he died, his son Klaas trekked with the clan to South-West Africa. This group dominated the area that today is central Namibia for almost 100 years. This rule and domination started some-time after Klaas Afrikaner and his sons moved to South-West Africa in the 1770s and ended with the death of Christian Afrikaner, Oude Ram’s great-grandson, in 1863. When we refer to the ‘Afrikaners’ below, it is a reference to the Oorlam Afrikaners, and not the Trekboers.
The Afrikaners, like the Basters under Cornelis Kok and his nephew Barend Barends, were Dutch-speaking and arrived at the Cape with the advantage over the others of having lived part of their lives in a technologically more advanced colonial society. The advantage could be summed up in three words: horses, wagons, guns. But they used their advantage differently. The Afrikaners, being outlaws, had little alternative except to use it for spreading terror and enriching themselves by cattle rustling and plunder.
The Basters only wanted a place in the sun, where they could graze their stock and hunt. The Basters were very like the white frontier farmers in manners, habits, dress and the way they made a living. Dr Heinrich Martin Lichtenstein, the German explorer who passed their way at that time, even said they were superior in morals and religious observance. They were proud to be called Basters.
If they chose to live in collapsible mat houses instead of building stone houses for themselves, it was for the same reason that the Trekboers of the north-west continued using the same traditional Khoikhoi type of dwelling right into the present century. It could be made easily from local materials and was readily portable.
They did not all live together in a single Baster community. At places in the Kamiesberg and along the Great River (Gariep or Orange River) there were always a few in residence, but they were nomadic people, wandering in small parties with their cattle in search of grazing or away on extended hunting expeditions.
Cornelis Kok’s authority arose out of the respect of his followers, among whom he introduced the ideas of regularity, necessary conventions and social responsibility. His dealings with neighbouring tribes were based on understanding and a desire for peace, as his father’s had been. Knowing that poverty among those around him would lead inevitably to loss through theft to himself, he did his best to alleviate poverty among his neighbours. He hunted for the Namaquas and employed the Koranas and Bushmen as herders, giving them half the lambs born to the sheep under their care in payment. In the process he became a wealthy man and his stock increased until of sheep alone he had 45 000. It was to be expected that Orlam Chief Jager Afrikaner would see him as a prime target for his plundering parties.
Once he had established himself in a stronghold among the islands in the Great River above the Augrabies Falls, Jager Afrikaner found the number of his following growing rapidly. He was no longer the leader of only the remnants of the ‘Angry Tribe’ but also of a motley assortment of men who, for one reason or another, were forced to live outside the law. Runaway slaves, fugitives from the law, escaped prisoners, deserters from the army – all found security in numbers with Afrikaner’s band. More men made it possible for him to divide his band into several plundering parties under his brothers – Titus, Klaas, Dawid and Jacobus – who he could then deploy on raids in different parts of the country at the same time.
One of his plundering parties would fall unexpectedly on a peaceful community as far as 300 kilometres from their base and carry off everything of value. Anyone foolish enough to resist – white colonist, Baster, Namaqua, Korana or slave – died with his boots on. A Namaqua who had lived through this period as a child said years afterwards: ‘I was taught from infancy to look upon the hat-wearers as the robbers and murderers of the Namaquas. Our friends and parents have been robbed of their cattle and shot by the hat-wearers.’ Many an innocent solitary traveller died with a poisoned arrow in his flesh for no more reason than that he was wearing a hat.
The way battles were normally fought in that part of the country was for antagonists to exchange shots from under bushes and behind rocks, sometimes for whole days, until one side or the other decided it was getting nowhere and withdrew. Jager changed that. His men would immediately ride in among the defensive positions of the enemy and flush them out into the open where, in an unfamiliar battle situation, they could be cut down easily and quickly. And they were tough, determined adversaries. Titus Afrikaner on one occasion took on single-handed 20 men armed with muskets and only retired when his own musket was shot to pieces in his hands. Their own commandos having failed to dislodge Jager, the colonists offered Barend Barends a reward to do it for them. This led to a long series of skirmishes between the Afrikaners and Barend’s people in which neither side was able to defeat the other conclusively.
On one occasion, a strong, armed party under Barend’s brother, Nikolaas, fell suddenly on Afrikaner’s camp and seized all their cattle, leaving only a few calves. The Afrikaners fought back desperately all day, retaking and losing their cattle several times. When the day ended with the cattle in Nikolaas’s hands, Jager and his men returned to their camp and slaughtered all the calves. They rested for a few days while the meat dried in the sun and then, with the biltong in their saddlebags, they set off in pursuit. Jager followed the northern bank of the Great River eastwards for several days before his scouts sighted Nikolaas’s people encamped on the opposite bank. Passing them unseen on the northern bank, Jager’s men, under cover of darkness, swam the river with their guns and ammunition on their heads and prepared to attack from an unexpected quarter. Nikolaas’s men were awakened suddenly by stones raining down on their reed huts. They rushed out into a shower of arrows, and before they could rally to put up a proper defence, Jager’s men opened up on them with their muskets and they fled, leaving not only the captured cattle but also their own in his hands.
On another occasion, Titus Afrikaner and Nikolaas Barends were engaged in a desperate battle for several hours, in which a herd of cattle repeatedly changed hands. Both sides fought from behind the protective screen afforded by the cattle, but there came a moment in the battle when the herd suddenly parted, exposing the chief antagonists to each other. Without hesitation, Nikolaas and Titus raised their muskets and fired. Both were excellent shots and they were at point-blank range, but in the instant that they fired a cow ran between them and collected a bullet in either shoulder.
When Jager discovered that the colonists were behind Barend’s attacks on him, he decided to visit the Colony. In January 1799, he and 100 of his men raided deep into the Hantam, north of Calvinia, where they killed a farmer named Jacobus Engelbrecht, a Baster named Titus and two slaves, before carrying off 3700 sheep and goats, 446 head of cattle, eight horses, two wagons and three muskets. The commando sent after them failed and the (by then British) Governor at the Cape, General Dundas, in order to allay the fears of the farmers in the Roggeveld, stationed a squadron of dragoons in the vicinity until the alarm had died down.
Cornelis and his son Adam Kok II had managed to cope with the Afrikaners until the spring of 1798, when they had suffered heavy losses. Cornelis had then gone to see the landdrost at Stellenbosch to ask for Government assistance, but the financial and manpower resources of the Colony had been too extended for any of either to be diverted to dealing with the bandits. Five months after his raid into the Hantam, however, Jager began making peace overtures to the colonial authorities. In June 1799 he sent one of his men, Kobus Booy, to Stellenbosch to ask for a pardon. General Dundas refused a pardon and instead put a price of £100 on Jager’s head and sent another unsuccessful commando to capture him.
In November the following year, Jager again sent Kobus Booy to Cape Town. Sir George Younge, who meanwhile had taken over as Governor, was better disposed towards a peaceful settlement and was prepared to bury the past. He sent Jager and his brothers a safe-conduct valid for six months so that they could come to Cape Town to discuss peace terms and even made them a present of the farm Klipfontein in Little Namaqualand, to prove to the bandits that he wanted to provide them with an honest alternative means of supporting themselves. The real purpose behind Kobus Booy’s visits to Cape Town, however, seems to have been to acquire fresh supplies of ammunition, because Jager refused Sir George’s offer and continued raiding the tribes to the north.
Relations with the Colony did improve temporarily, however, to the extent that Jager was asked by the landdrost at Stellenbosch to put a stop to the activities of a renegade white farmer who, with his Baster attendants, was plundering the people of the interior. Jager approached the man’s stronghold, not mounted on a horse for war, but on an ox, in an effort to persuade him to leave that part of the country, but as soon as the farmer saw Jager approaching, he raised his long roer (gun) and put two shots into Jager’s shoulder. Jager’s men returned his fire and the farmer, knowing they were deadly shots, allowed them to withdraw.
As soon as the bullets had been removed and his wounds had been dressed, Jager and his men returned to the attack in earnest and succeeded in driving the farmer and his gang back into the Colony. But Jager Afrikaner was not able to retain his improved image for long. He and his band moved with their women, children and cattle from their island refuge to Blyderverwacht, north of the river in Great Namaqualand, from where they resumed spreading death and destruction among the tribes.
A Great Namaqua chief said later of Jager’s reign of terror: ‘I have, for fear of his approach, fled with my people, our wives and our babies to the mountains or to the desert, and spent nights among the beasts of prey, rather than gaze on the eyes of this lion or hear his roar.’
Acknowledgment and Source: With kind thanks to Alf Wannenburgh, author of Forgotten Frontiersmen