Sunday, August 19, 2007

First hand accounts of life at the Cape...Part 1

A final update in the saga of Jan Blanx. Quite simply he disappeared from Van Riebeeck's Journal after his last misdemeanour. I can only assume that Commander Van Riebeeck was only too pleased to get rid of this irritating thorn in his side and packed him off to the 'Fatherland' on one of the many ships returning from the East. The only way to continue a search for him would be to consult documents relating to the Company's employees e.g. discharge papers or further trials, for I don't think that our Jan would have changed his ways much on leaving the Cape! This I will leave to someone else! There are so many interesting things in Van Riebeeck's Journal and it is a must for anyone researching the earliest settlers as well as the future history of the settlement.

In fact journals and diaries remain one of the richest sources of life in general for any family historian and there is a vast array of them to be found that were written in the early days at the Cape. The most famous of these would be those of Van Riebeeck and later that of Lady Anne Barnard, written between 1797 and 1801. Apart from being an accomplished writer, Lady Anne was also an interested and adventurous observer of life in all its facets. She obviously loved people and her great love of animals and her compassion for them is evident throughout her letters and journals. She tells of a buck in the following manner: "I reared him myself, without a mother, and he seems now to regard me as one, following me like a dog, and begging hard at night for Barnard's [her husband] permission to sleep on my feet." She also had a couple of secretary birds and a sea calf which she says "I gave in charge to a slave, with orders to seize the golden opportunity of his bleating to insert the spout of a teapot in his mouth and give him his bellyful of milk." Then there was a penguin "the penguin is half the day in the pond with the calf and the other half of it in the drawing room with me." She had two jackals which were 'the delight of the dogs in the garrison...and allow themselves to be chased all round the flat topped wall of the fortress for about 2 hours," before they hid for the night in a cellar in the Castle. She also had two wild cats, a horned owl and a green chameleon from Madagascar..."but the buck possessed my heart."

Lady Anne left a vivid account of life at the Cape. She mentioned people in detail, she travelled far afield and wrote about who she met and the places at which they stayed. She wrote about the price and quality of food and wine and laughed at those who sneered at the local wines. Her sense of humour is evident throughout her letters most of which were addressed to her great friend Henry Dundas, First Viscount Mellville. She was curious and down to earth when it came to interacting with 'local' people. Politically she was aware of the nuances prevailing at the Cape between the Dutch and the new British occupants and made sure that she did not heed the snobbery of some of her countrymen when it came to socialising.

All in all this is a fantastic read - but there are other diaries which you will find just as fascinating. More on these later.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Story of Jan Blanx Part 2

You will no doubt be pleased to know that Jan Blanx did indeed survive being keelhauled in the icy waters of the Cape, a truly unpleasant experience even for the most hardy of creatures. If one did not drown while being dragged underwater from one side of the ship to the other, one's body would be scraped to pieces by the hundreds of barnacles clinging to the bottom of the hull. But our Jan was a stout fellow and he made it. He also made it through 150 lashes from the Cat-o' nine Tails. One wonders at the staying power of certain individuals but...let's see what happens next.

The third part of Jan's sentence was to "to work as a slave in fetters for 2 years" but fate was to smile upon him and his fellow prisoners. On New Years Day 1653, after only two and a half months in chains, they were all released "through the intercession of various persons and on promise of amending their conduct". I would imagine that they would have promised anything to get out of those chains!

And that should be the end of the story but alas, Jan Blanx seems to have a penchant for mischief. Just over a month later on February 21st 1653 he and his partner in crime from the previous misdemeanour, Willem Huijtjens were found to have slaughtered a calf belonging to the Company. They made a fire and braaied the meat "in the dunes behind the Lion Mountain" and according to reports this had happened a number of times before. As food was pretty scarce and Commander van Riebeeck was trying so hard to build up his herds, this latest escapade was not well received and they were clapped in irons once more. But this lasted only a few days "as we have so few men who are fit for the necessary work on the Company's has been decided that these men, who are the most robust of them all, should be released upon trust on Monday next and be kept at work until the arrival of the Fleet from India, when their case can be taken in hand again and be settled."

Well to cut a long story short, our Jan was not going to wait for any Fleet from India. He, together with four others, decided to run off again, this time by stealing a galiot (a small boat) and some sheep but before they could carry out this ambitious plan they were ratted on by Jan van Leijen "who previously deserted but now behaves himself better". Blanx, Huijtjens and Dirckssen were caught and 'confined' probably in irons again. The other two escaped but handed themselves over later because they were starving. In the entry in Van Riebeeck's diary for the 19th March 1653 the following sentence was passed:

"Today the Commander and Broad Council for the return of ships came ashore and the cow and sheep thieves were sentenced most mercifully by the same: three were to fall from the yard-arm with 100 lashes and 1 year in irons and 2 also to fall from the yard-arm with 60 lashes and for half a year to do the common labour, in chains." The sentence was carried out on the 21st March. This time they would remain in irons until the 12th August 1653 "after numerous intercessions, and more particularly because they had acquitted themselves with diligence and willingness at the Company's works."

By today's standards that sentence is not merciful at all but once again we should not judge out of the context of the time. I have now read through the second volume of Van Riebeeck's diary and have found no further mention of Jan Blanx but....there is one more volume to go. Our Jan either turned over a new leaf or he left the Colony on one of the many ships that stopped over in Table Bay. I hope we can find out what happened to him.

The above extracts are taken from the Journal of Jan Van Riebeeck - edited by H B Thom for The Van Riebeeck Society and published by A A Balkema, Cape Town, 1952. Well worth reading!

I used the following website in my research:

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Wheels of Justice in 1652 - The Story of Jan Blanx Part 1

On this day in 1652, some 355 years ago, an entry was made in Jan van Riebeeck's diary concerning punishment meted out to one of the men under his command at the fledgling settlement at the Cape. It makes for interesting reading - they certainly did not mess around with discipline in those days!

The full entry for the day reads (the square brackets are my own inserts):

" 8th July 1652
Fine, bright, sunny weather, wind as yesterday [gentle north westerly breeze]. Have once more had some carrot seed sown in the soil prepared for it. These last 7 or 8 days of dry weather have again made the ground so hard that picks and mattocks can hardly penetrate the surface. This makes the digging of the moats and the filling up of the points and the ramparts [of the fort] slow and irksome work.

Today Jan Planx, arquebusier on the yacht Goede Hoope, for having wilfully and petulantly defied the captain, was condemned and sentenced by the Council to fall from the yard-arm and receive 50 lashes, as can be seen more fully in the sentence book under today's date."
An arquebusier was a soldier who carried a gun or arquebus, the forerunner of a musket or rifle.

This sentence was not a pleasant one by any means but this did not seem to deter our Jan, who did not appear to be a happy sort of a chap. His hair raising experience dangling from the yard-arm of the yacht did little to prevent him getting himself into hot water again. In little over 2 months he was one of four men who absconded from the settlement at the Cape of Good Hope. On Wednesday 25th September 1652 our Jan (in this entry his surname is spelt Blanx) together with Willem Huijtjens of Maestricht, a sailor; Gerrit Dirckssen van Eltsen of Maestricht and Jan Janssen [later called Verdonck] of Leijden both soldiers "departed from the Cabo de boa Esperance in the evening and headed for Mozambique." This quest was, to say the least, quite ambitious seeing that the distance they had to travel was in the region of 1622kms or 1008 miles, and that is as the crow flies! They took with them 4 biscuits, fish, 4 swords, 2 pistols and a dog and set off on this epic journey which, alas, lasted all of 6 days. It is not surprising that things got a bit rough for these lads because within 7 miles of the Fort they were charged by two rhinoceroses and lost a sword. Before that their dog had chased a porcupine and was wounded in the neck. According to the journal kept by Jan Blanx and later copied into the journal of Jan van Riebeeck, the 4 deserters marched about 25 miles altogether, facing many dangers along the way, before reaching what is believed to be the Hottentots Holland mountains near Gordon's Bay on the 29th September. Jan Blanx writes [we were]"intending to cross the mountains. When we did not meet with much success, Jan Verdonck [Janssen] and Willem Huijtjens began to repent. Nevertheless on the the 30th we continued until the afternoon, when Gerrit also grew tired. I could not manage by myself, so decided to return to the Fort in the hope of receiving ''compassion and mercy'. In God's name."

Fat chance of that I'm afraid. Although they all surprisingly escaped the death penalty, their punishment was extremely harsh. The entry for 10th October 1652 states that Jan Janssen (or Verdonck), who it turns out was the first to suggest absconding, was "to be tied to a pole and have a bullet fired over his head. Jan Blanx, the guide is to be keelhauled. Also to receive one hundred and fifty lashes, and in addition, together with Jan van Leijen [Verdonck], to work as a slave in fetters for 2 years doing the common and all other dirty work. Willem Huitjens and Gerrit Dirckssen van Eltsen, who allowed themselves to be persuaded by Jan van Leijen to abscond are only sentenced to 2 years in fetters as above." The sentences were carried out the very next day.

One wonders if Jan Blanx survived being keelhauled in the freezing October waters of Table Bay when the water temperature would have been about 13 degrees Celcius and if he did, what he must have looked like after 150 lashes to his body. I have yet to see any further mention of him in the translated diary - will let you know if I do.

The above extracts are taken from the Journal of Jan Van Riebeeck Volume 1 - edited by H B Thom for The Van Riebeeck Society and published by A A Balkema, Cape Town, 1952. Well worth reading!

I also used the following websites in my research:
Distance between destinations

Monday, June 04, 2007

Earthquakes at the Cape of Good Hope

I recently thought about the earthquake that hit the Western Cape when I was a child in 1969. We have not had a major earth tremor since then and I got to wondering how often these things happen in our part of the world and whether they have ever been documented. To my delight I found that there is an historical list of quakes and tremors and on examining it found the data very disturbing. Why? Because according to the patterns displayed in the data, we are long overdue for another 'significant event'. Let's take a look.

On the website of the Council for Geosciences there is a list of known events dating as far back as 1620 when a ship which was becalmed off Robben Island reported "two startling sounds like thunderclaps". The next recorded incident of significance was in 1695 when there was a"loud noise like thunder, earth trembled, no damage, no injury". Modern experts estimated that this tremor would have measured approximately 4.5 on the Richter Scale to produce this kind of effect.

In 1739 there was one that registered 4 on the Richter Scale and in 1766 a "Strong tremor, noise like thunder, at Simonstown, hospital beds knocked against wall, people frightened, only damage caused was that old cracks in walls and gables opened again." That one was estimated to be about 4.3 - 4.8 on the Richter Scale.

In 1809 an earthquake almost identical in intensity to the 1969 quake shook Cape Town. "Three strong quakes, second most violent on 4th [December], loud reports, everybody frightened, fled to streets, tremendous noise continuous few minutes, no wave-like motion, all buildings suffered numerous cracks, water spouts etc. in places. Another 4 tremors from 5th to 12th, some strong" It registered 6.1 on the Richter Scale. Another of 5.6 followed in June 1811: "Two loud reports and shocks, second about same violence as first shock of 4 Dec 1809, strange unusual motion felt, last 5-6 seconds, everybody ran outside, walls cracked, some unsafe, urns again tumbled from parapets"

In November 1835 a tremor measuring 4.8 rumbled through the Cape. "Smart shock, rumbling sound lasted 30 seconds, residents awakened and alarmed, furniture moved, water shaken from glass, windows rattled, no damage to buildings" There was a tremor of similar intensity in 1857. Then there is a bit of a gap until 1902. There could be two reasons for this - either it was a 'quiet period' geologically speaking or quite simply no reports of tremors have been found.

Then in 1912 and 1920 two big quakes measuring 6 and 6.2 on the Richter Scale were experienced and were felt all over South Africa. After this quakes measuring 4 and more were recorded every 2 - 5 years, right through the rest of the 1920's up to the fateful day of 29th September 1969 when an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter Scale rocked the Cape. I remember it well. The comparison to loud thunder is justified and I seem to recall that this roar continued for what seemed like ages. Our family tried to get outside but the floor was shaking so much that we slipped and stumbled around until it was over.

It is now almost 40 years since the 1969 quake - if one looks at the full list on the Council for Geosciences website one can't help noticing that this is quite a long stretch of time without a major incident even though the Ceres fault is quite active and minor tremors are recorded often. Mmmm...makes one think doesn't it?

Another great site to visit is The US Geological Survey website which has a 'Latest earthquakes in the World' map and one can zoom in and see what's been happening.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Window to the Past

Recently I had occasion to go through some newspapers from the 1880's and it was an eye opener to read about day to day life from that time. Apart from the political and social aspects of the paper there were many reports of incidents concerning the local folk.

There were some amusing items as in the case of the rowing team from Cape Town who were visiting East London to compete in a race. A few days later the local newspaper reporter stated that he did not doubt that the clothing worn by the Cape rowers might be all the rage in Cape Town but it was a little risqué in East London! He was also shocked to the core that one of these rowers had dared to appear in front of a group of ladies dressed in these rowing shorts!! It's a good job they can't see the spandex items available today!

As with all newspapers, reports on accidents always feature prominently. Bad news sells, right? Accidents involving horses and guns as well as drownings were amongst the most prevalent types of accidents reported on and virtually every edition had some kind of bad luck story.

There was the incident involving a 9 year old lad who, instead of saddling up the horse he was going to ride into the village, tied an old sack over the animal's back instead and climbed on. The horse bolted and the boy fell. His foot got caught in the handle of the sack and he was dragged for miles over walls and ditches until the horse was caught. Of course the young lad was quite dead by this time. As I read this article I was shocked at how a young boy of 9 years had been allowed to ride an animal unattended into the village. What were the parents thinking etc etc. but of course things were different then and one cannot judge out of the context of the time. Children grew up around animals in those days; this after all was the main form of transport and all boys would probably have been riding from the time they were knee high.

Accidents involving guns happened more often than one would think for an era when having a firearm was an essential part of the household, especially, on the frontier. One story involved a man who was killed when the trigger of his loaded rifle hooked on a part of his saddle, fatally wounding him. Another story once again involved two young boys who had gone hunting in the veld. On the way home one of the boys put the rifle across his shoulders, behind his neck, and draped his arms across the stock on the one side and the barrel on the other. As they made their way over the rough ground, the rifle discharged a round killing his cousin who was walking next to him. It was reported that the surviving youngster was so traumatised by the incident that the doctor had ordered him to take to his bed. How tragic!

Alex Bowker, a member of the Bowker clan of 1820 settler fame, almost came to a gruesome end while handling a revolver. He did not know it was loaded and pulled the trigger with the barrel facing his head. The bullet missed his head by a squeak but was fired from such proximity that the powder burned his left eye!

On a lighter note there was the report of a farmer's wife who took down her husband's rifle from where it hung over the fireplace and accidentally fired a round right through that outraged gentleman's derrière leaving him unable to sit for quite a while. Bet he thought twice before leaving a loaded gun hanging on the wall. On second thoughts, I suppose that in those dangerous times on the frontier, having an unloaded gun would have been considered to be foolhardy in the extreme.

Drownings were quite a common occurrence. A well known farmer in the frontier area was on his way to another town with a wagon of supplies drawn by four oxen. With him were his wife, two Fingo servants and another gentleman who had come along for the ride. They reached a river only to find that it was running higher than usual. The farmer decided to risk crossing as it was getting late. He forged ahead and was about half way across with the water up to the necks of the oxen, when the two lead oxen's harnesses unhooked from the yoke and they swam away. The two remaining oxen were unable to move the wagon by themselves and the current overturned it sweeping everyone downstream. Only the farmer's two Fingo servants survived to tell the tale and a verdict of accidental drowning was handed down at the official inquiry. This however did not help the 8 minor children the couple left behind.

Unprotected water cisterns on private properties was another common cause of drowning especially of children. Many an article in these newspapers related the sad details of children who went missing only to be found floating in these cisterns. After a few of these accidents one would think that more care would have been taken with their construction.

Reading through newspapers from times gone by is an invaluable tool for reconstructing what life was like back then. They not only give us an insight into the social norms of the day but cover everything from court appearances (in detail sometimes), political events and the day to day happenings which affected the lives of our ancestors. This is the news they would have read and possibly discussed at the dinner table.

The National Library of South Africa keeps copies of the majority of South African newspapers either on microfilm or as hard copies. Spend a day looking through some of them. You will come away with your mind reeling!

Until next time...

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Aliwal Road Primary School

I cried on my first day of school. My Sub A teacher at Aliwal Road Primary School (ARPS), Mrs Blomerus took me by the hand and led me to the Sub A classroom where she sat me down, gave me a little wooden board and big dollop of green clay and in her kindly voice soothed away my sadness and helped me to make a little clay figure. She was amazing. The years that followed were the happiest of times.

I have the fondest memories of Mr Haupt the headmaster, or 'Hooftie', as we called him and of Mrs Blomerus who were firm but kindly in their manner. The vice principal, Mr Naude was a bit intimidating and no-one intentionally got on the wrong side of him and although corporal punishment was not used at ARPS, Mr Naude had his own way of dealing with naughty pupils. He had the "Look"! I shudder to think of what would happen to some of the kids today if they ever had to experience the 'look' from Mr Naude. He could wither a child on the spot with one of his stares and, especially the boys, would feel the effect of one of his controlled but scathing tongue lashings if they stepped out of line. He did not brook any bad manners or bad form when it came to the classroom or playground.

Hooftie on the other hand was like a kindly grandfather. If you were ever summoned to his office for a misdemeanour you felt so bad about it for disappointing him that you made sure you never did it again. He would talk softly and make you understand why you should not do things like that. We all loved him. Assembly was held every morning when Hooftie would read from a children's Bible and we would sing things like "Jesus loves me this I know" and "All things Bright and Beautiful". Then Mr Haupt would give us a little talk. He retired in 1970 after many many years as principal of the school. On his last day the school presented him with a cheque for R400.00 which he was going to use to spend time caravaning around the country. Sounds such a little now but back then it was a small fortune.

The school itself was founded as a School of Industry for Girls in 1836 by Lady D'Urban, wife of the Governor of the Cape. In 1909 it became co-ed and changed its name to Aliwal Road Primary School and continued until 1988 when it was forced to close due to dwindling numbers. I remember hearing of its closure with great sadness.

Because of its great historical value, the building has been preserved and it is now an education museum as well as a Centre for Conservation Education currently under the curatorship of Ms Sigi Howes. Part of the museum's function is to collect as much archival material as possible on schools all over the country. They have for instance the most amazing collection of school brass bells and very old classroom desks and equipment. Some schools are very well represented and have box files full of photographs and even items of uniform dating back years and years. The first time I visited the museum I eagerly looked for the box file on Aliwal Road school and to my great disappointment found only a handful of items in the box. For one of the oldest schools in the country it saddens me that all that history is 'missing'. I immediately went home and looked through all my photos and old report cards and made copies which I gave to Sigi the next time I was there. I even have my old Prefect's badge and house badge (blue for D'Urban - the other house was Van Riebeeck which was yellow...more orange really) which I am a bit loathe to give up just yet.

Please please....if there is any body who went to ARPS please contact me. I will co-ordinate any material and hand it over to Sigi who I am sure will be thrilled. She is planning to write a comprehensive history of the school and is busy collecting information. Without your input a valuable part of Cape history could be lost forever. I will include a photograph of the school taken in the 1960's shortly.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

History? Bah Humbug!!!

Winston Churchill once said: "The further back you can look, the further forward you are likely to see." I like that - comes in very useful when sermonizing to teenage daughters on the merits of learning for their history tests. There is so much truth in that statement and yet it is almost impossible to get young people to read about history let alone enjoy it. Why? Where does it all go wrong? Hang on...I hear the philosophers among us saying maybe 'the history haters' are all 'right' and us 'history huggers' are all 'wrong'; that history is just a boring old pile of stuff that happened in the past and we should all just forget about it and move on. *thinks very hard about that...mmmm* Nah. I don't buy that theory. History has everything to do with the present and the future. Respect for the past is respect for what one's ancestors have achieved, what they strived for and what we can learn from the mistakes they made, after all we are geographically, physically, spiritually and financially where we are today because of the choices they made in their lifetimes.

When I was at high school we were fed a very bland diet when it came to history. We learned everything parrot fashion just to get through the dry, boring syllabus and nothing was ever done to make it more interesting. We did not discuss, debate, challenge or unpack, as they say today, any part of it. So my love of history certainly did not come from that quarter. There was also no television to switch on so that we could watch excellent documentaries nor was there any Internet to surf. So my love affair with history began with my family and in libraries . My parents encouraged reading and nurtured my tender interest in archaeology. We often visited the library - all those fascinating books on Ancient Egypt and underwater archaeology published by Life (anyone remember those?). As a kid I particularly loved books on dinosaurs, fascinated that these creatures had ruled the earth for millions of years and then 'Poof' ...gone in the blink of an eye (well, in evolutionary terms that it is). Doesn't that last part make the hairs on your neck stand up and a niggle of concern tickle your grey matter? If it could happen to them, then what about us and our blatant disregard of the warning signs of global warming, large scale extinctions of animal species and the era of super bugs. Maybe the next era in evolutionary terms will be that of viruses...but I digress.

History can be made interesting. One only has to look at the example set in many British Museums where re-enactments and interaction are the order of the day. The recent film "A Night at the Museum" starring Ben Stiller sparked a lot of interest and I read somewhere that one of the Museums in Cape Town had staged a Night at the Museum 'experience' where actors posed as the people in the exhibits and came to life to huge shrieks from the public.

There are exhibits in British Museums where one can experience what it was like to be in a World War One trench with the sound of gunfire and flashes of artillery lighting up the set - even the smell of rotting mud I am told. Never having been to it I am not sure if the last part is true but with or without the mud, history needs to be brought to life in order for younger generations to become interested in it. When children begin to ask questions about what they see then you know they are interested. When my children ask questions about history I am so happy I have to stop myself from bombarding them with a lot more than they bargained for!

The murder of historian and raconteur David Rattray was a very sad event and it made me think about him and what he had achieved when it came to bringing history to life in this country. He was a story teller of note specialising in the Anglo-Zulu wars and he would take people out onto the plains where the battles were fought and one could feel the tension rise as he told how the impis had appeared on the hill 'over there' and the pandemonium that followed below. Apparently no-one who heard him had anything but praise for the man and his fans amongst others included Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi - traditional Prime Minister of the Zulu Nation and Prince Charles. Read Prince Buthelezi's tribute to David Rattray - it says everything (click on Funeral Tribute). If only there were more people like David and I am sure there must be, who would be given more prominence on our TV channels and at our schools so that a lively interest in history would be sparked.