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.

To the river’s end

To the River's EndTo the River’s End by Lawrence G. Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read this book when I was at school, some 60 or so years ago. I found it in the school library, and thought it was OK. My main memory of that reading was that it was there that I first learnt about the Augrabies Falls on the Orange River. I had never heard of the Augrabies Falls before, which, according to the book, were higher and had a greater volume of water than the Victoria Falls and the Niagara Falls, which weveryone in the school knew about. But no one else at the school had heard of the Aughrabies Falls either.

I thought that one day I would like to visit the Aughrabies Falls, and about 25 years ago I did. They were impressive. I still haven’t visited the Victoria Falls or the Niagara Falls, and probably never will, but with the possibility that we may pay a second visit to the Aughrabies Falls later this year, I took this book out of the City of Tshwane municipal library and read it again.

The second reading was very different from the first. The first reader was a schoolboy who had never been to any of the places described, and could only imagine what they were like. I had to picture it like the land of Mordor in a work of fiction (which I only read abouot 10 years later, in 1966).

On the second reading I had visited several of the places described in the book, and so the second reading was a reminder of places I have known. The second reading was also after we had embarked on the study of family history, and Lawrence G. Green mentions relatives of mine or my wife’s in this and several others of his books. His anecdotes are not always accurate, but they are nevertheless informative and entertaining.

How does one characterise Lawrence G. Green‘s books? He is a journalist, travel writer, amateur historian, gossip and raconteur. He has a journalist’s nose for the news, and so in his travels he makes notes of stories, not just current news, but old news, news of years ago, stories that are, as he puts it in the title of one of his books, Almost forgotten never told.

I come to this book now with a more critical eye. Not only have I researched the family history (and so know that some of the details of his stories about our relatives are inaccurate), but I’ve also studied general history and historiography, and so am on my guard for evidence of racism or colonialist propaganda, which are evident in many books written by white people about history and travel in southern Africa in the first half o0f the 20th century. There is some, but less than I expected. In describing the wars of the German colonial rulers of Namibia with the Bondelswarts tribe, he notes several instances of the Bondelswarts chivalrous behaviour, trying to avoid civilian casualties, leaving a note of apology on the body of a military medical officer they had shot by mistake, as they had not noticed his medical badgges until it was too late, and saying they would not shoot unarmed doctors. The Germans, representatives of Western “civilization”, on the other hand, were carrying out wars of extermination in that period (1904-1908).

Green begins his story a bit away from the river, at Union’s End, the remote boundary marker where the borders of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa meet, now part of the Transfrontier Kalahari Park. I haven’t been to Union’s End, but I have travelled through the Kalahari Gemsbook National Park from Twee Rivieren to Mata Mata, up the dry and dusty valley of the Auob River, on my first visit to Namibia in 1969.

I did not know, having forgotten from the first reading, that there was a settlement of Basters there, different from those of Rehoboth, who once had a shortlived Republic of Mier.

Of course there is the description of the Aughrabies Falls, though when Green visited in the 1930s he had to swim streams to get to where he could see the falls, whereas when we went there in 1991 there were bridges.

Aughrabies Falls, 8 April 1991

Aughrabies Falls, 8 April 1991

He describes the history of Onseepkans, where we crossed into Namibia in 1991, a year after it became independent, when the border officials were still housed in prefabs and tents. I took the name to indicate that some travellers who had crossed the hot and dry plains of Bushmanland, south of the river (which Green also describes) had taken the opportunity to wash their hair in the river, and washed the soap out too. But apparently the name is derived from a Hottentot word, meaning the drinking place for cattle.

The Orange River at Onseepkans, halfway between South Africa and Namibia. Namibia on the left, South Africa on the right. 8 April 1991

The Orange River at Onseepkans, halfway between South Africa and Namibia. Namibia on the left, South Africa on the right. 8 April 1991

Green tells some of the history of the mission station at Pella, which we have not visited, but may visit later this year, where Roman Catholic missionaries, with no knowledge of building at all, constructed a large cathedral.

Green also describes Goodhouse, where a relative, Abraham Morris, seems to have worked at one time, probably in the early 1920s. Green gives more information about Abraham Morris in another book, So few are free, and you can read more about the Morris family here. If we travel this way again in August, we hope to see more of the places where these families passed on their overland journeys between Damaraland and Cape Town, and also to do some more research on them in the Cape Archives.

So the second read was much more interesting than the first, partly because I have been to some of the places mention in the book, and we hope to see some of those he mentions that we have never seen before.

So I recommend this book to anyone who has travelled in the Northern Cape or southern Namibia, or who is planning to. Others might find it interesting too, as I did when I read it the first time.

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