Attempted murder

Attempted murder — but who was the intended victim?

The German missionary Carl Hugo Hahn wrote the following entry in his diary on 11 July 1859:

Der früher erwähnte Willem Meintjies hat einen Mordversuch auf Fr.[?] Stewardson gemacht. Man benachrichtigte mich davon von der Mine aus, und Jonker, den ich davon in kenntnis setzte, versprach auf Bestimmteste, ihn einfangen zu lassen.

I’m not a German fundi, so I tried Google translate and Bing, without much success; their efforts did not make much sense. One said a suicide attempt, the other an assassinatuion attempt. So my attempted translation is as follows:

“The previously mentioned Willem Meintjies made a murder attempt on Fr. Stewardson. They informed me of this from the mine, and Jonker, when I informed him of this, promised that he would definitely arrest him” (Hahn Diary, 11 Jul 1859).

I would be grateful if anyone who knows German better than I do could comment on and possibly improve the translation.

But the biggest problem is not so much the translation as the interpretation, and for that some of the background and backstory is needed.

C.H. Hahn was a missionary of the Rhenish Mission Society in Germany who was based at Otjimbingue on the north bank of the Swakop River in what is now Namibia. But back then there was no Namibia, just a lot of principalities that often squabbled among themselves.

That would not have seemed strange to C.H. Hahn, since the Germany he came from was also not a united nation, but a lot of small kingdoms and principalities. But it was the very next year that Otto von Bismarck began his project of uniting Germany under Prussian rule. He succeeded 10 years later, and moved on to what became Namibia, and began to unite it under German rule. But in 1859 none of that had happened.

Jonker was Jonker Afrikaner, the ruler of one of the principalities, with its capital in Windhoek, about 150 kilometres from Otjimbingue. Willem Meintjies was one of his underlings, an assistant.

The “mine” was Matchless Mine a copper mine in the Khomas Hochland, south of the Swakop River (The Swakop was dry most of the year, and only flowed after it rained, but there was water under the dry bed, so it was a wagon route to the coast — the trek oxen could graze on its banks, and drink water if one dug in the sand.

Frank Stewardson had a contract to transport ore from the mine, and goods to the mine, and he and his family lived at or near the mine. His name was Francis, and his wife was Frances Morris, the sister of James Morris of Wynberg in the Cape, who had been a trader in Damaraland some ten years previously.

Namibian countryside. This picture was actually taken at Brandberg, north-west of Otjimbingue, and about 110 years later, but it shows the kind of country they trekked through with their ox waggons.

Namibian countryside. This picture was actually taken at Brandberg, north-west of Otjimbingue, and about 110 years later, but it shows the kind of country they trekked through with their ox waggons.

The editor of the diaries, Brigitte Lau of the Windhoek Archives, put a question mark next to the “Fr.” in front of “Stewardson” in the diary, probably because it could have been short for “Frau”, which would have meant that it was Mrs Stewardson who had been victim of the murder attempt. It could also be short for Mr Stewardson’s first name, Francis or Frank. But that would not be why Brigitte Lau put a questi0n mark there, because she thought Frank Stewardson’s first name was Ian, and listed him as such  in the index to the diaries.

That was because a bloke called Colin Bell wrote a book called South West pioneer : a memorial tribute to James Frank Bassingthwaighte, first permanent white settler in South West Africa. While Bell acknowledged that his book was a fictionalised account — he was writing a historical novel, not actual history — he did not say which bits were fact and which were fiction. He did not know the first names of Mr and Mrs Stewardson, so he made them up — Ian and Norah. I don’t blame him for that — it took us 30 years to find what their first names were — but he could have said so.

But this sort if thing is so typical of family history research. You find a tantalising hint of an incident, but many of the vital details are missing. You have to read between the lines to try to see what happened, and even then there are more questions than answers.

  • Who was the intended victim, Frank or Frances Stewardson?
  • What was the motive? Had they quarrelled, or was he trying to rob them?
  • What happened to Willem Meintjies? Was he arrested? Was he tried? Where and by whom?

And, for that matter, what happened to Frank and Frances Stewardson? We don’t know where or when they died. We know something about their four daughters, and who they marriedf, but their three sons are just as much a mystery.

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