Locusts, drought, and devastation in the Graaff-Reinet district

The Cape passed into British hands in September, 1795, yet, by 1797 when Lord McCartney, became governor, there was still scant interest in the hinterland. Their only concern was that the Cape’s meat supply came mainly from Graaff-Reinet and some lesser interior districts. In journals reporting on his journeys to the Eastern Frontier, William Somerville mentions meeting “butcher’s knechts” (meat buyers) in this area. He also mentions that large cattle raids by the Xhosa and Khoi caused the colonists to evacuate the whole southern part of the Graaff-Reinet district. This led to the 1799 Van Jaarsveld Rebellion, which was suppressed in April that year. McCartney’s successor, Major-General Francis Dundas, had no men to send out as peacekeepers because fear of a French attack in India had depleted the Cape garrison.


When Graaff-Reinet district was separated from the Swellendam district in 1786, Magistrate Woeke succeeded to an uneasy legacy in Graaff-Reinet,, states Edmund Burrows in Overberg Outspan. Beyond dragoons and ammunition, the Company furnished only good advice, so any power it could hope to exercise on the frontier was limited. The new regime, however, failed to drive the Xhosas out of the Suurveld and the company still had insufficient men to police the tinder-box trade of cattle bartering and stock-theft. When Woeke called out a commando in1789 to check the cattle raids, Governor van der Graaff censured him. Anxious to avoid war, he appointed the much maligned Honoratus Maynier in Graaff-Reinet, to “impose the rule of law”. He, however, was not able to encourage support and all that he managed to do was to prevent the frontiersmen from moving further into the hinterland. They detested him for this. Into this explosive mix stepped J H van Manger, a parson who turned his pulpit into a “political cockpit,” said Burrows. An impotent anger filled Graaff-Reinet burghers who rued the luck that had brought them Maynier as a magistrate and von Manger as a minister. Just then, matters went from bad to worse and a plague of locusts, followed by a severe drought swept the land.


Somerville found the inhabitants of the Graff-Reinet district to be a motley bunch, states Edna Barlow in the historical introduction to a the Van Riebeeck Society volume entitled William Somerville’s Narrative of his Journeys to the Eastern Cape Frontier, etc.  William, a Scot, the eldest son of the Rev Thomas Somerville, had a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh and was the garrison surgeon. He was considered “an extremely clever and useful young man”. Somerville was very much a late 18th century man; courageous, urbane and broadly, rather than deeply, informed, says Edna.  He said the burghers of Graaff-Reinet were outcasts from all the nations of Europe and had been compelled to serve the Dutch East India Company as soldiers to extricate themselves from prison.  Now breeding cattle was their only occupation. They lived a great distance from the Seat of Government and, mostly because of the scarcity of water, far from each other. “These men were destitute of ties that bind men to their native countries and countrymen. They had no common interest to unite them and, since they had escaped from a rigid military discipline, were little disposed to education. Habit and choice led them to be farmers and the only means of indulging their slothful inclinations was to engage local inhabitants, i.e. Hottentots, to assist and serve them.


In the late 1790s, swarms of locusts ravaged the Karoo. The damage to crops was so great that in 1796 Maj-Gen Craig, who once referred to Graaff-Reinet as “the great magazine for meat”, was unable to buy fodder for his horses. George McCall Theal reports that towards the close of 1799 locusts again appeared in vast swarms. “They have ravaged the country for two years and eaten every green thing.   They have caused so much devastation that even the game disappeared.” Many families had no cattle left and most were in dire need of food. A drought followed in 1800 and the 223 grain farmers of the hinterland lost almost 3 000 draught oxen. It was feared that this would have a devastating effect on food supplies across the country. However, sheer will and careful planning triumphed. In his journals, William Somerville reported: “During the short six year period that the settlement has been in the possession of the British, it has twice undergone the most pressing crop failures.  Beside the backward state of husbandry this has been caused by unprecedented droughts and plagues of locusts. These destroyed crops in the Sneeuberg, Renosterberg, Graaff-Reinet and Bruintjieshoogte [west of Somerset East]. “Within only a few hours the fairest prospects were laid to waste by those destructive insects that darkened the air in swarms and obscured the rays of the sun. They baffle every effort to turn their course. Swarms speedily extinguish large fires.  Water has no effect and few die under the feet of sheep sent to trample them.”  As if that was not enough, “a local distemper then broke out.”  This pervaded across the Colony, said Somerville, sweeping before it many thousands of horses. Those that recovered or escaped this pestilence were ill fitted for ploughing because of debility and lack of food. The effect on young horses was most severe.

© Rose’s Roundup, January 2012 (No 216)


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