Hospitality on remote Karoo farms: 1835

In the mid-1800s, farmers of the hinterland were said to be “hospitable to a fault.” They loved nothing more than endless talk over a pipe and mug of coffee, writes Eric Anderson Walker in The Great Trek. These farmers were related to the people of the Cape Town Peninsula by blood or marriage, but they “were less touched by outer influences, less versed in book learning, much more easy-going in a land where it was always afternoon and more limited in their ideas and interests.” They had no interest in England, Europe or India. They never went to Cape Town unless they had to. The 30 mile journey across the sandy Flats was arduous and they considered the people of the Mother City lived at a “flighty pace best shunned by God-fearing people.” Resilience was the mark of Karoo farm life. Up to 100 souls could live on one farm under the care of a patriarch, assisted by slaves and servants. They only looked to the outer world for a few luxuries and raw materials. Life in the little villages or “dorpies” was much the same. Their community leaders were the Dutch Reformed Church minister, the schoolmaster and the magistrate. It was a lovely, laid-back lifestyle, but the very rules and regulations which they’d moved inland to avoid slowly followed them. And by 1835, after dreadful droughts had taken their toll on the land, many of these men were off again. A year before The Great Trek began, a Beaufort West farmer reported that there’d been no rain for four years. Another farmer told an English traveler that his boreholes had dried up, the river was so brackish that the water was undrinkable; the alkaline soil had killed his garden, and his third attempt to grow wheat that season had only produced a crop in patches. His cattle were dying, lions had just carried off two of his horses, he had had no bread for several weeks. Also, he had no ammunition, so he was unable to shoot game. “He said all this in such a matter of fact way, taking it all as a day’s work,” said the English traveler. “So, I assumed that there were scores of others just like him.” Further west in the forbidding Roggeveld, conditions were far worse. “Hyenas, leopards and wild dogs played havoc with horses and stock. Beside these wild animals, there were also wild men. This was Bushman country,” wrote Eric Walker.

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Vol 2 No 47 – August 2007