The Trials and Tribulations of the English South Africans

Tragic Untruth

But, no matter where they were placed, their condition was all the same, set down in a harsh, inhospitable country, encircled by wild animals and even wilder men.  As to the lyrical descriptions of the fertility of the land, the next three years were to show how tragically untrue that was.  Albany was a particularly sad case.  Seemingly, no one had troubled to establish that this district was not wheat country.  Indeed, it is curious how little real information or knowledge was possessed by those who had talked so volubly about the marvels of the Eastern Cape.

Many among the settlers came to the colony believing that on 100 acres of their own they could employ labour and live in comfort.  They were rudely awakened when they found the only labour they could rely on was that of their own two hands.  Somerset had stipulated that the settlers were not to be permitted to own slaves or hire Black or Hottentot labour.  The greater number of the immigrants were utterly unfit for heavy agricultural labour.

The historian, Cory, relates how they made the most preposterous blunders.  They built wattle-and-daub houses in such flimsy fashion that they blew away in high winds.  They sowed seeds that were swept away when the rivers came down in flood.  They planted fruit trees where no trees of any sort would grow.

The experienced, veld-wise Boer farmers must have gazed incredulous at what their new rooinek [red-necked] neighbours were trying to do.  Cory relates how one settler planted his carrot seed in trenches two feet deep.  Another sowed his land with mealies [maize], without first removing the pips from the cobs.  Yet another transplanted his young onions with their roots in the air.


The settlers had left acute depression behind them.  Now they faced much greater depression.  Their first wheat crop failed, attacked by mildew and completely ruined.  The second harvest time came.  To the utter despair of the colonists, it too was attacked by rust and nothing was saved.  The third crop likewise.

By 1823 only 1800 of the original settlers remained on the land, and all were in a sorry plight.  Sometimes it must have seemed to them that the very hand of God was turned against them.  Early in October 1823 the Eastern districts were devastated by floods such as had never before been seen in the area.

Cottages, furniture, gardens, orchards, cornfields, animals, all were swept away.  Many of the pioneers escaped only with the clothes they stood up in.  Many families were now reduced to the last stages of distress.  The poet, Thomas Pringle, one of the most famous of the settlers, visited Albany in 1824 and found his fellow pioneers in pitiful shape, “almost destitute of decent clothing.”<!–nextpage–>


Another visitor told of meeting “what had once been… a fine, hearty young woman, now miserably emaciated.  She was leading one child, another was following, another on her arm.  All were without shoes or stockings.  The woman’s dress, if such it could be called, consisted of the remnants of an old tent wrapped around her.  The children were clad in like manner and the canvas appeared so rotten that it could scarcely hang on them.”

Periodically, too, the settlers underwent their baptism of fire.  In 1834 the Fourth Kaffir War [now known as the Fourth Frontier War], without warning, brought horror, murder and devastation upon the border farmers on the Eastern Frontier over a huge area.  The 1820 Settlers were included in the deluge of savagery, with hundreds of families once again reduced to destitution and despair.  But the tide of adversity was already slowly turning.

By now the settlers knew what could be cultivated; and they also knew that cattle breeding was their most profitable option.  Visiting the area, Somerset – who had limited the sites to 100 acres to force the settlers to be agriculturists, not herders, enlarged the plots of those remaining, allocating to them the ground abandoned by others.  Moreover, starving Blacks had recently invaded the area and these were now permitted to become apprenticed to the farmers.

Prosperity began in 1830 when it was discovered that Albany was excellent for sheep farming.  An observer wrote: “Many of the emigrants of 1820… had no other capital to commence with than health, strength and industry, yet despite every drawback… and there were many at the outset…” had now achieved success and were moving to prosperity.  Slowly the settlers turned their savage, ruthless wilderness into a panorama of lovely, picturesque homesteads and bequeathed to their descendants a heritage of which any people could be proud.