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German Settlers to the Eastern Cape

The first ship arrives
-- and a crisis

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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It was a sunny day when the Caesar Godeffroy anchored in the roadstead at East London. The passengers disembarked and were taken by surf-boat to a jetty on the western shore of the river, then crossed by pontoon to a tented village at Panmure.

All would have been eagerly expectant about their new life and hoped-for prosperity as landowners in British Kaffraria. They had been told that the climate would be much the same as that of Germany and so would have been surprised, therefore, by the warmth of the southern African winter.

There was also a disconcerting air of abandonment about Panmure itself. The military settlement was a motley array of mud huts and half-built houses, and certainly not an impressive welcome for the expectant immigrant families.

We have no eye-witness accounts of what happened next. What we do know is that Sir George Grey had instructed that, although provisions needed to be ready, they were not to be distributed free of charge. Instead, contract prices would be demanded.

After all, he wrote, the immigrants were coming out as settlers and must be expected to provide their own rations. Only in extreme cases would the British Kaffrarian government undertake provisioning but the settlers would have to pay for these at a later date.

Yet few of the immigrants had brought any money. They were mostly very poor people. What savings they had laid by would already have been spent in getting to Hamburg and paying the bill for a few nights accommodation there.

They had been told that transport to their settlements would be immediate and free. They would naturally have assumed, therefore, that this applied to meals as well. Instead, they discovered that they were expected to pay for provisions out of their own pockets.

This would have come as a shock but many would have chosen not to buy rations but to sit it out and wait for their relocation to their settlements. Within three days, starvation was setting in -- and it would take more than three weeks before they would even leave Panmure.

It was a tragedy beyond imagination -- and yet it should not have happened. Since his decision about the rations, the Governor had in fact changed his mind and had decided that the immigrants must be supplied with free rations for at least their first ten days.

He then changed his mind again and instructed that they be given half rations for a period of twenty days. By that time, the families should already have reached their new stations where it was hoped that the military settlers themselves would take them in and care for them.

The letters containing these new instructions should have reached King William's Town before the Caesar Godeffroy arrived. The reality, however, is that the first letter was only penned in Cape Town a full three days after the settlers had already disembarked.

The second communication -- advising that the immigrants be placed on half rations for twenty days -- was written a full sixteen days after they had already reached British Kaffraria. Whereas they should have been helped from the outset, the reality was that all were starving.

Their plight was brought to the Chief Commissioner of British Kaffraria in mid-August and only then did he begin to investigate the situation. He also drew the Special Magistrates' attention to the crisis and ordered that rations were to be advanced -- but only for three months and under strict conditions.

Indeed, the object was to provide only the family heads with one full meal a day. The wives and children had to get by with just half a meal each. Even this small handout, however, was conditional to their signing a contract that they would repay the cost of the rations within one year.

What appears to have tipped the Chief Commissioner's resolution was the embarrassing rumour that the immigration scheme itself had been hopelessly premature -- a rumour that brought the Governor's personal name into disrepute.

Yet more ships were due soon, and so the crisis had therefore only just begun.

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