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German Settlers to the Eastern Cape

The Ohlsen

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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The village of Ohlsen was situated in the Amathole Mountains and within walking distance of Stutterheim, capital of the 3rd Regiment. It was named in honour of slain Captain Heinrich Ohlsen who was supposed to have commanded the village.

Lieutenant Charles von Tempsky initially took charge but, within a month, the neighbouring settlement of Kolding was abandoned because of its poor location with no arable land. Captain Johan Schneider thereupon took command of Ohlsen, an act which naturally caused deep resentment.

Autumn had already set in before the village was surveyed. The rainy season was over and it was impossible to start cultivating even for vegetables. The soldiers nevertheless had many things to do, especially collecting wattles from the Amathole forests so as to begin constructing their temporary huts.

Yet the soldiers were not accustomed to hard manual labour and, with no-one to drive them, it was easy to procrastinate. Money was also a problem. Although they had been placed on full pay instead of the contractual half-pay, everything from transport to seeds was expensive.

Early in June, defections began. The numbers of such desertions depended upon the quality of leadership from the Commanding Officers. Bodiam, for instance, had a 25% defection rate in the four month period from May to August 1857. Ohlsen was not exempt.

Sentences were severe: a year's imprisonment and the letter D for Deserter branded on the left shoulder. It is possible that Baron von Stutterheim took the defections as a personal slight because sentences were heaviest when he was in charge, while dropping dramatically after he had resigned.

There appeared to be little enthusiasm amongst the soldiers to construct anything beyond the temporary huts. The problem was the Baron's fundamental philosophy that they were settlers who had once been soldiers and so, apart from the weekly parade, they were to be left to their own devices.

Few of the men therefore exerted themselves. All building operations ceased by noon each day. Often no work took place at all as the men disappeared into the forests on Mondays to cut wattles for their houses or simply to hunt. They returned only on Saturday to comply with regulations.

It was the lack of women, however, which gnawed at them continually. Sergeant Gustav Steinbart even wrote to his brother in Germany, asking whether there was any girl of his acquaintance who would not mind leaving her home to become the wife of a stranger living in a foreign country.

If so, he said, "then propose to her on my behalf" and, if she should accept, he would do all in his power to compensate her for any sacrifices she might have to make. What was quite clear, he wrote, was that the ultimate success of the venture depended upon acquiring a marital partner.

Indeed, Steinbart had written in an earlier letter that, if the teenaged Xhosa girls -- "with their voluptuous shapes and beautiful figures" -- had been "lighter skinned", most of the soldiers would already have been tempted to chose one for a wife.

Most of the settlers, he said, had become "mentally weary" of thinking of all the eligible girls in Germany and England. Since it was now too late to have one of them, "they would like to take the opportunity of picking one of the flowers from the local garden for a life's partner".

If they could not acquire wives, then the majority of them would become demoralised and brutish -- and the German colony would cease to exist in just a few years. The desire to go "away, away", he said, "to a country where we may find marriage partners, would grow to epidemic proportions".

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