Beyond the Orange: trading families in Namibia

Beyond the Orange: Pioneers in a Land of Thirst and PerilBeyond the Orange: Pioneers in a Land of Thirst and Peril by Marius Diemont

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In May 1844 Frank Bassingthwaighte, a blacksmith turned sailor, was at St Helena Island when Thomas Lawton a trader from Walvis Bay came aboard his ship, and recruited him to work for him and and his partners, so he transferred to the Susan and went back to Walvis Bay with Lawton, whose partners, Ben Dixon and James Morris (erroneously referred to as Thomas Morris in the book), had a contract to supply meat to the British garrison on St Helena.

This book is the story of Frank Bassingthwaightte and his eldest son James, several of whose descendants still live in Namibia today.

Frank Bassingthwaighte married the boss’s daughter — Rebecca Dixon — which did little to advance his career, since they lost the contract a few years later, and the partnership broke up. The Dixon family moved to the Northern Cape, where they had a farm, and the Bassingthwaightes also lived there for part of the time, and young James stayed with his grandparents until he was 9 years old, and then went back to Namibia to join his parents, and found himself kept busy working as a herdboy, wagon driver and various other jobs.

The Bassignthwaightes were sometimkes farmers, sometimes traders, and sometimes hunters, but their hard work did not make them rich, and they had long thirsty treks through the semi-desert country of the Northern Cape and Namibia with little to show for it except dead oxen and horses that had died of thirst.

Towards the end of his life Frank was infirm and could not do much, but he still travelled around with his son, apparently loving the wandering nomadic life.

James Bassingthwaighte married Philipina Von Schlicht — according to her father she was marrying beneath her — and they had several children. She died young, and James brought up his family as a single parent. The Germans took over Namibia, and the Bassingthwaightes lost the family farm at Neuheusis because they lived in such remote areas that they did not hear of the regulation requiring them to register it until it was too late.

In the First World War the South Africans invaded and took over from the Germans, and threatened to intern James Bassingthwaighte as an enemy alien. They asked his nationality and he replied, “I am the son of an Englishman, born in this country. During my life I have lived under the rule of Hottentots, Hereros and Germans. I don’t know what I am, but perhaps you bcan tell me.”

It’s an interesting story of hard lives, well told.

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That’s the end of the review on Good Reads, but there are a few things to be added. The James Morris referred to above was the brother of my wife Val’s great great great grandmother Frances Morris, who married Frank Stewardson (also mentioned in the book as having been mauled by a lion). The book was recommended to me by another descendant of the Stewardson/Morris family, Jean Mary Gray, when I mentioned to her that we were hoping to visit the Northern Caspe later in the year to see some of the places these ancestors passed through in their travels. It turned out that the publisher, Gabriel Athiros, is a mutual Facebook friend, and he very kindly sent us a copy of the book free of charge.

I noted that there are a couple of inaccuracies in the names in the book, but that is not surprising. It took us more than thirty years of family history research before we found out the first names of Francis and Frances Stewardson, and we are still trying to sort out the Morris family. We do know that the partner of Ben Dixon and Thomas Lawton was James Morris, not Thomas, though his father was Thomas, and he had a brother and two nephews named Thomas. One of the nephews may have taken over the business after the partnership dissolved.

So few are free

So few are freeSo few are free by Lawrence George Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lawrence G. Green‘s books follow a similar pattern, and there is a certain amount of repetition. He tells the same story in more than one book, sometimes with more or less detail.

This one deals with the west coast of southern Africa, from the Cape to the Kunene, with anecdotes of out of the way places, and characters who played a minot role in history. As a journalist he collected notes on all sorts of topics, and every now and then he would work them up to a story with a connecting theme, and in this one the connecting theme is the places on the “Diamond Road” and the Skeleton Coast.

As I’ve already noted about his Thunder on the Blaauwberg not all of his tales are accurate. He is a raconteur, not a historian.

We have several of his books on our shelves, and the story of how this one came to be on our shelves is almost like one of his stories. It has been in our bookshelf ever since I can remember, and has the inscription, “To Frank Hayes, the most genuine of pals, from Tromp van Diggelen.”

Frank Hayes was my father, and Tromp van Diggelen was my godfather, and it is just the kind of book he would give as a gift to a friend, because he loves such stories, and lived them himself. Like Lawrence George Green Tromp van Diggelen loved to go on journeys to out-of-the-way places, drawn by tales of lost cities and buried treasure. In his youth he was a wrestler, and later he was a physical fitness instructor, and my father, originally one of his pupils, became one of his friends.

I’ve been pulling the books off the shelves and rereading them for reasons related to family history. A researcher is trying to find out more about the life of Abraham Morris (1866-1922) the guerrilla fighter against the Germans in Namibia in 1906, and leader of the Bondelswarts Rebellion in 1922, in which he was killed.

Abraham Morris’s mother was Annie Schyer of the Bondelswarts, and the story is that his father was a white trader named Morris. My wife Val’s ancestry is part of the Morris family, who were traders in Namibia, so there is a possibility that Abraham Morris was related to us — but how? There were two James Morrises, cousins, each with a brother William, who could possibly have been his father. So we search books like this looking for tiny clues that could place one or other of the Morrises in the right place at the right time to be Abraham’s father.

This book mentions Abraham Morris only briefly, Thunder in the Blaaurberg gives more detail. But it has plenty of fascinting stories about various places and events.

One of the places of particular interest was the Leliefontein Methodist Mission Station, near Garies in the Northern Cape. It was a place where traders between Namibia and the Cape often called in the 19th century, and many people passed through there.

Other stories that interested me were those of the 1934 floods in Namibia, when the highest rainfall was recorded. It was the highest recorded up till then, and has never been exceeded since. When I lived in Windhoek 40 years ago there were still people around who remembered the floods of 40 years before, and there were signs in improbable places showing the levels that water in the rivers had reached then. Green tells several stories of the floods from people who actually experienced them. He also tells of odd characters and eccentrics, like the one who built a castle in the desert, and those who tried to climb lonely mountains, and, rather more sadly, those who kill baby seals for their fur.

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Chasing Namibian families

Next week we hope to travel to Namibia to see friends and family, and do some historical research — family, church and general history. We’ll try to update our blogs with our progress if we have internet access: this one for family news and family history; Notes from underground for general observations, photos and chit-chat; and Khanya for general history, church history and more serious observations. It used to be possible to keep in touch with all of them by following Tumblr, but Tumblr doesn’t seem to work as a blog aggregator any more.

It’s more than 20 years since we last visited Namibia, and more than 40 years since I lived there, so we expect to see many changes. We plan to go first to Windhoek, where we hope to stay with Val’s cousins Enid and Justin Ellis. Enid is a cousin on the Pearson/Ellwood side of the family.

We also hope to see Mburumba Kerina, a more distant cousin on the Green side of the family. “Kerina” is the Herero form of  “Green” and Mburumba Kerina is descended from Val’s great great grandfather Fred Green through his second wife, Sarah Kaipukire (Val is descended from his third wife, Kate Stewardson). We also hope to find out something about Fred Green’s first wife, who was a Dixon, and died about 1860. We don’t even know her name. There’s more on this in the earlier article Gunning for the Dixons. On the Stewardson side of the family, there are several descendants in Namibia, mainly of the Lindholm, Dennewill and Jeske families. We don’t have any current addresses for them, but we may be able to make contact with some of them while we are there.

HiskiaUOne of the friends we hope to see is Hiskia Uanivi. When I lived in Windhoek he was a student at the Paulinum, the Lutheran theological seminary then based at Otjimbingue. In early 1971 my friend and colleage Dave de Beer and I went on a holiday trip to see friends and family in South Africa (rather like the trip we are planning now, but in reverse).

Hiskia had never been to South Africa, and the Paulinum was closed for the Christmas holidays, so he came with us, travelling via Keetmanshoop, Vanzylsrust, Hotazel and Kuruman to Johannesburg (about a 22-hour drive). There we were joined by my cousins Jenny and John Aitchison, and we travelled to Nqutu in Zululand, staying at the Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital (then an Anglican church hospital), and then via KwaMagwaza and Mphumulo to Pietermaritzburg, where John and Jenny Aitchison lived. We left Hiskia at the Mapumulo Lutheran Seminary for a couple of days, as he was curious to see how it compared with the Paulinum, and one of the old Paulinum teachers, Dr Theo Sundermeier, was then teaching there.

We spent a couple of days with the Mnguni family in the foothills of the Drakensberg, helping them to erect a chicken run that would gather manure for fertilising the crops, and then went on to Umtata, Alice, Grahamstown and Cape Town, and from there back to Namibia. At that time there were Anglican theological colleges in Umtata, Alice and Grahamstown, and we visited them, so Hiskia was able to make more comparisons.

With the Mnguni family at Stepmore, near Himeville. Hiskia Univi on the left, Mr & Mrs Mnguni on the right, Chris Shabalala in the middle, flanked by Dave de Been and Steve Hayes, Jenny Aitchison in front, and other members and neighbours of the Mnguni household. 16 Feb 1971

With the Mnguni family at Stepmore, near Himeville. Hiskia Uanivi on the left, Mr & Mrs Mnguni on the right, Chris Shabalala in the middle, flanked by Dave de Beer and Steve Hayes, Jenny Aitchison in front, and other members and neighbours of the Mnguni household. 16 Feb 1971

Now we are planning, for the first time, to travel to Namibia via Botswana on the Trans-Kalahari route. Back then it was not possible, as one needed passports to cross Botswana, and the South African government, which then ruled Namibia, would not give passports to people it regarded as politically unreliable. We also hope to visit the Etosha Pan Game Reserve, and Ovamboland, and return via the Okavango and following the course of the Taokhe River to Lake Ngami, which in Fred Green’s day was navigable by boat, though getting a boat there by ox wagon must have been quite a feat.

So, if the opportunity arises, we hope to blog about our trip as we go. You’ll find the first instalment of our travelogue here.

The Dixon family of Namaqualand (book review)

Die Dixons van NamakwalandDie Dixons van Namakwaland by Ledivia van Vuuren

A couple of weeks ago I wrote in a blog post Gunning for the Dixons about some of the problems of locating the Dixon family in what is now Namibia.

We were interested because some members of my wife’s family had married into a Dixon family (as described in the blog post in the link above) and they also appeared to be business partners of the Dixon family, but most of the records we had found were confusing and it was possible that there was more than one Dixon family. We made contact with the author of this book, but weren’t able to get hold of a copy because of a postal strike. Now at last we have a copy, and things become a little bit clearer.

It seems that there were definitely two Dixon families, and Edward C. Tabler confused them in his book Pioneers of South West Africa and Ngamiland and conflated them into one.

This book deals with only one of the families, and makes no mention at all of the other, but that at least helps us to say that people who can be identified as members of this family are very unlikely to be members of the other.

Both Dixon families were probably Irish in origin, however.

The two Dixon families are:

1. Benjamin Dixon and Lodivia Manifold (the subjects of this book)
2. Peter Daniel Dixon and Whilhelmina Hendriks

I will refer to them as the “Ben Dixon” and “Peter Dixon” families.

Ben Dixon became a business partner of James Morris, and their two families set out for Namibia in 1843, travelling overland by ox waggon. They were Wesleyan Methodists and travelled part of the way with some Wesleyan missionaries, and stayed at mission stations on the way. They crossed the Orange (Gariep) river on Christmas day 1843, and reached Walvis Bay in about June 1844. This is all described in detail in the book, seen through the eyes of the Dixons’ eldest daughter Jane, who was 13 years old when they left, and had her 14th birthday on the journey.

The Dixon and Morris families built two houses and a store on the Kuiseb River, at a place they named Sandfontein, about three miles from the present town of Walvis Bay, and began trading for cattle, which they exported to St Helena to provide meat for the British garrison there. In September 1844 Mary Morris gave birth to a daughter at Sandfontein (she was named Sarah Ann Kuisip, because she was born on the Kuiseb River, though that is not mentioned in the book).

They kept a couple of lion cubs as pets, and various sailors from ships in Walvis Bay harbour wanted to buy them, and when they would not sell, tried to steal them. Walvis Bay harbour was amazingly busy in those days, mainly with ships collecting guano from the offshore islands, and sometimes there were 10 or 12 of them in the bay at the same time, come to re-stock with stores before going back to collect more guano.

For a while the business prospered, and then things went bad. Fewer guano ships arrived, and many of the people inland who traded cattle for goods did not pay for the goods, and so Ben Dixon and James Morris had so go on debt collecting tours. The debtors, however, sometimes decided that they easiest way to pay their debts was simply to steal the cattle from someone else, or even from those to whom they were owed. One group bought a waggon for a number of cattle, and then took the cattle back to haul the waggon home. Complaints to the British government about this led to the St Helena contract being cancelled.

James Morris took a large herd of cattle overland to Cape Town, to try to sell them there, and returned by sea with his sister Fanny and her husband Frank Stewardson, and their two children. Fanny and Frank Stewardson were my wife Val’s great-great-great grandparents, so snippets like that were of special interest to us.

So one thing that we learned from the book was that while that Ben Dixon and the Morris and Stewardson families were in a business partnership together, they did not intermarry.

Eventually Ben Dixon returned to the Cape Colony, but instead of going back to Cape Town he settled in Little Namaqualand, on a farm near the town of Garies. Their eldest daughter Jane married William Latham, and remained in what is now Namibia until her husband’s death, then went to stay with her parents. The second daughter, Rebecca, married Frank Bassingthwaighte, and their family remained in Namibia, and some of their descendants are still there today. The younger members farmed in the Northern Cape, and so the Ben Dixon family is mainly associated with Namaqualand, as the book’s title suggests.

The Peter Dixon family seems to be entirely different, though also perhaps originally from Ireland.

Peter Daniel Dixon was the son of McCombe Donald Dixon and Maria Sprewt. He was born in the Cape Colony about 1821, and married Wilhelmina Hendriks, by whom he had at least 7 children. He was trading in Walvis Bay in the early 1860s, and his daughter married Fred Green, the elephant hunter, but died in about 1860, and they seem to have had no children. Fred Green then married Sarah Kaipukire, and after a separation or divorce, married Catherine Stewardson, the daughter of Frank and Fanny Stewardson mentioned above. So Fred Green was married into the Peter Dixon family, but was also friendly with the Ben Dixon family.

Peter Dixon married a second time to Annie Cloete, probably in Damaraland, but if they had any children, we know nothing of them. We are hoping to visit Namibia in May, and to do some research in the archives here, and reading this book was in part a preparation for that. When visiting archives a long way away, with limited time, it is useful to know what you are looking for, and also to know what you are not looking for. It can save a lot of time not going down false trails.

But though it appears that we are not related to the Ben Dixon family either by descent or marriage, the book was nevertheless a fascinating and informative read, and gives a good insight into life 150 years ago.

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Gunning for the Dixons

For many years we have been puzzled by some Dixon family connections in Namibia.

We are interested in the Morris and Stewardson families, and we know that a Morris family (related to us) went to Damaraland (now part of Namibia) in 1843/44 with a Dixon family, and each family built a house at Sandfontein on the Kuiseb River, near Walvis Bay.

Mary Elizabeth Morris gave birth to a daughter there, whose name was Sarah Annie Kuisip Morris — named after the river where she was born. All this we know from estate files and divorce papers in the Cape Archives and various printed books.

Sarah Annie Kuisip Morris’s aunt Frances Morris arrived soon afterwards, with her husband Frank Stewardson, and they had three sons and four daughters. We have no idea what happened to the sons, but the daughters married Oscar Lindholm, Axel Eriksson, John Gunning and Frederick Green. Fred Green was Val’s great great grandfather.

Frederick Green’s first wife was a Dixon — Kate Stewardson was his third wife. But we don’t know his Dixon wife’s first name.

And two Gunning girls —  Charlotte Annie Gunning and Catherine Elizabeth Gunning — married Dixons. But we don’t know the first names of those Dixons.

This is where things begin to get complicated, because it appears that there were at least two, and possibly three or four different Dixon families in Damaraland in the period 1840-1880.

They were:

1. The Ben Dixon family
2. The Peter Dixon family
and possibly
3. The Sidney Dixon family (Sidney may be an alias for Ben)
4. Another Peter Dixon family

A book has recently been published on the Ben Dixon family. We are havingdifficulty in getting a copy because of the post office strike, but have been in touch with one of the authors.

We have collected a fair amount of information on the Peter Dixon family, mainly in the Cape Archives, and the author of the Ben Dixon book has told us that none of the names in the two families match — they really do seem to be two entirely different families, with no links at all.

We’re hoping to go on a research trip to Namibia later in the year, and tie up some of these loose ends, but in the mean time we’re trying to .sort out what we know of the Dixon families, so that if we do discover which Dixons married the Gunning girls, we’ll know which Dixon family they belonged to — it would be funny if one married into one family, and the
other into the other family.

Of the Peter Dixon family we know that he married twice, first to Wilhelmina Hendrikse, and second to Annie Cloete. The children of his first marriage are listed on his death notice in the Cape Archives, but those of the second marriage weren’t known — presumably they stayed in Damaraland and never went to the Cape.

It is through his son Daniel Esma Dixon (there are lots of Daniel Esma Dixons in this family) that we know that Fred Green married a Dixon — in testimony in a court case in Windhoek in 1911 he said that he had arrived in Walvis Bay from Cape Town in 1861 with his brother in law Fred Green, at the age of 14. His sister had died the year before, and Fred Green was cohabiting with a Herero woman (she later gave evidence in the same court case, and her name was Sarah Kaipukire) Daniel Esma Dixon then went to his father in Walvis Bay, and returned to the Cape for a while. He later farmed at Ubib, near Karibib. We seems to be the most probable father of the Dixons who married the Gunning girls, but we’ll probably have to wait till we get to Windhoek to find out.

I’m just wondering if anyone else has connections with Dixon families in Namibia.

Morris family of Cape Town, Namaland and Damaraland

The Morris family has been one of our long-standing family puzzles.

From Edward C. Tabler’s book Pioneers of South West Africa and Ngamiland (Cape Town, Balkema, 1973) we learned that Val’s great great grandmother Kate Stewardson’s mother was a daughter of one of the Morrises — Thomas Morris the elder and Thomas Morris the younger, the latter being a nephew of the former.

Further research showed that “Thomas Morris the Elder” was actually James Morris, and that it was his sister Frances Morris who married Frank Stewardson, though we haven’t found a record of their marriage. There is more about the Stewardson family here. According to research done in the Namibian Archives, James Morris was born in Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire, England on 8 August 1817.

There is a document in the Cape Town Archives  giving a partial history of the Morris, Huskisson and Titterton families of Cape Town (Cape Archives, Accession A610), drawn up by a William Charles Titterton in about 1951. He was a grandson of James Morris.

Thanks to FamilySearch, we were able to to discover the baptisms of the Morrises in the parishes of Nether Seal and Over Seal, near Ashby de la Zouch. Their parents were Thomas and Sarah Morris.

Children of Thomas Morris & Sarah at (Nether) Seal

  • Thomas baptised 25 May 1806
  • William baptised 23 Oct 1808
  • Sarah baptised 14 Feb 1813
  • Elizabeth baptised 7 Sep 1815
  • James baptised 8 Aug 1817
  • Frances baptised 27 Aug 1820
  • Catherine baptised 1 Dec 1822

Thanks to some very helpful people at the Rootschat site we were able to learn that the Thomas and Sarah Morris lived at Donisthorpe, on the border of Leicestershire and Derbyshire, where Thomas was a baker and later a butcher, and that he was born there about 1781. At that time there was no church in Donisthorpe, which explains why the children were baptised at Nether/Over Seal. Donisthorpe got its own church in 1838, though it apparently closed recently, so it is back to square one.

It also appears from the 1851 census of Donisthorpe that Thomas Morris the eldest married a second time to Susanna, who was born in the Cape of Good Hope, so he himself must have been in the Western Cape at some time.

These discoveries made over the last few months, enable us to construct a very provisional Morris family history.

Thomas Morris was a butcher, and at least four of his children emigrated to the Cape Colony in the 1820s or 1830s, where his eldest son Thomas was also a butcher. Perhaps the whole family emigrated, or perhaps the father just visited them there. Though they were baptised in the Anglican Church at Nether/Over Seal, in the Cape the family were Methodists.

Thomas Morris had a contract to supply meat to the British government and his younger brother James went to Namaland and Damaraland (now part of Namibia) apparently with the object of procuring a regular supply of cattle for the market. The Hereros (then called “Damaras” by outsiders) were great cattle herders. So James Morris and his wife Mary Elizabeth Huskisson went with another family, the Dixons, overland through the Northern Cape and Namaland, visiting Methodist missionaries on the way. The Morrises had two sons with them. Eventually they reached Walvis Bay in mid-1844, and they wanted to return to Cape Town by sea.

As Tabler (1973:78) puts it

Morris and Dixon reached Walvis Bay in mid-1844, and Morris and his family sailed for Cape Town in Lawton’s vessel so that Mrs Morris could be confined there, but contrary winds drove the ship back. Morris joined Dixon at Sandfontein where they built a store and each man built a house. Mrs Morris gave birth to a daughter there.

And the Methodist baptism register in Cape Town shows the daughter, Sarah Ann, as being born on 6 September 1844, and being baptised on 6 December 1847.

James Morris apparently continued to live in Damaraland until the end of the 1840s, when, according to Tabler, he handed over the business to his nephew Thomas, who was dead by August 1863, and was buried in the Kuiseb River canyon. The problem here is knowing where this Thomas fits into the family. We know that James Morris’s elder brother Thomas had a son Thomas, but he appears to have been alive in 1864, because when his father went insolvent then, he was occupting most of the property. The other brother, William Morris, may have had a son Thomas, but we have found no record of his marriage or children. There are records of a William Morris (perhaps more than one) in the Western Cape in the middle of the 19th century, but the problem is knowing which records pertain to which William, and which of them, if any, was a member of this family.

Frances Morris, the sister of Thoms, William and James, also went to Damaraland in the later 1840s with her husband Frank Stewardson, and their daughter Kate (Val’s great great grandmother) was born at Rooibank, near Walvis Bay about 1848. According to the Lutheran missionary C.H. Hahn, James Morris, the Wesleyan trader, lived in fierce enmity (arger Feindschaft) with his brother-in-law Frank Stewardson, which might explain the lack of any mention of Frances in the Titterton history.

We’re trying to sort out these relationships as we hope to go to Namibia later in the year and do some fossicking in the archives in the hope of finding more, and tying up some loose ends. One of the more interesting loose ends is Abraham Morris (1872-1922), the leader of the 1922 Bondelswarts Rebellion. According to the Dictionary of South African Biography (Vol III, p 634) he was the son of an English trader and a Bondelswarts mother and was educated in the Cape Colony, so he could quite possibly be related — but how?

Research at the LDS Family History Centre

Val is on leave and last Friday we went to Johannesburg and did some research in the LDS Family History Centre in Parktown.  One of the things I always enjoy when going to the LDS Family Centre is the walk through the garden between the car park and the reading room. It is a pleasant place with ponds and lots of shady trees, and is especially enjoyable on hot summer days.

Garden at the LDS Family History Centre

Val was checking Methodist records from the Cape Colony, looking for the Stewardson and Morris families of Damaraland (now part of Namibia), who were said to have had Cape connections, and to have been Methodist missionaries.

I (Steve) was looking at microfilms of the parish registers of Lancaster, Lancashire, England, where the Cottam and Bagot families came from. I managed to find a fair number of entries relating to the siblings of my great-great-great grandmother, Maragaret Bagot, who married Richard Cottam in Lancaster in 1835, and I’ve been reconstructing the families from the parish records.

We also met Gwyneth Thomas there, who is indirectly linked to the Stewardson family through the Gunning family of Walvis Bay — John William Gunning married Charlotte Caroline Stewardson (sister of Val’s great great grandmother Kate Stewardson who married Fred Green) exactly 135 years ago today — they were married at Omaruru on 13 April 1875. Gwyneth Thomas is descended from John William Gunning’s younger sister Sarah Petronella Gunning (1845-1930) who married Thomas William Thomas in Cape Town.

We’ve been trying to exchange GEDCOM files with Gwyneth, but though hers reached us OK, ours seems to get mangled in the transmission, and ends up unreadable.

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