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German Settlers to the Eastern Cape

More ships and
the crisis deepens

Keith Tankard
Updated: 14 October 2009
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On 28 August 1858, the 1,000 ton La Rochelle arrived, bringing a further 91 families to British Kaffraria. Their reception was probably better planned because it can be presumed that the instruction for 20 days' half-rations would now have been acted upon.

Nevertheless, petitions for assistance soon began to reach the desks of the Special Magistrates. The first was from Hanover and was a plea for money so that the petitioners could buy seed or potatoes. They promised to pay it back within a year.

They would then, they said, at least have something to live from after the rations were "done for". They were "all together poor" and had brought no money from Germany. Without cash or seeds, they would be "poor people all the time" since there was nobody who could give them work to earn money.

Another combined petition arrived just days later from King William's Town and Braunschweig -- also "poor people" without money, and with no labour to be had in their villages. Furthermore, even the half-rations which they received daily were insufficient to feed their families.

The petition also raised another problem: that the settlers had not yet received their promised land. The best season for planting had already passed and so there could now no longer be a harvest for them to reap. Their poverty could therefore only get worse, "begging despair and famine".

These petitions touched on two very serious issues. First, they had indeed been promised land which was meant to have been allocated just as soon as they reached their destinations but, as yet, nothing was happening. There appeared to be no sign even of the promised surveyors.

Second, without land and the means to produce their own food, the immigrants were dependent upon finding labouring jobs. Without money, they would also not be able to start constructing houses for themselves, or buy soap and clothing to replace their rapidly dwindling supply.

Local newspapers regularly carried reports on the tragedy: like that of a young woman reported walking the streets of King William's Town "in a terrible state of emaciation" solely caused by a lack of food. She was, the newspaper stated, "stout and healthy when she arrived in the country a few weeks ago".

By mid-November 1858 the Chief Commissioner requested the Special Magistrates to report on conditions within their districts, stating the number of those who had obtained employment, of those who were now drawing rations, and what "means and prospects" existed to earn a livelihood.

The magistrates pointed to a crisis of major proportions. From Hanover: although the immigrants were very industrious in cultivating their land, they still had nothing on which to live -- and they had spent what little money they had on the purchase of seed. They were therefore "perfectly destitute".

From Berlin and Potsdam: conditions were "distressing and discouraging" with only one family currently "in service" and able to support itself without drawing rations and not "any means or prospects" for the others for obtaining "sufficient employment" to earn a living.

From Breidbach: of 24 families who had settled in that village, none was capable of supporting itself, nor could any find employment. They had brought no money whatever from Germany, had neither seeds nor tools to cultivate the land, nor had they the means of procuring materials for building their homes.

Despite the unanimous bleak picture of hardship, the Chief Commissioner nevertheless gave the instruction that under no circumstances were the German families to be given any further rations unless they were "really unable to earn the means of subsistence".

The next four ships arrived at East London in quick succession. These were the Wandrahm (6 December 1858), the Wilhelmsburg (13 January 1859), the Peter Godeffroy (19 January) and the Johan Caesar (1 February).

New petitions flooded the Special Magistrates almost immediately. There was no means by which they could earn money, without which they could only break the soil and could afford no seeds to plant. Many earlier settlers had still not received their land -- some after waiting now fully six months.

The petitioners stressed that they had been promised their land would be apportioned almost immediately upon arrival in British Kaffraria. If that had happened, they said, they would not have needed much by way of rations. They now depended on help until their land could be brought under cultivation.

Matthew Jennings of East London pointed to another facet of the crisis. Not only were the settlements being undermined by the lack of money and the authorities' gross incompetence but they had also arrived in the colony when the region was suffering both an economic recession and a crippling drought.

The recession was caused both by an international downturn because of the Civil War in America but also by Henry Labouchere's cutting off funds to British Kaffraria to punish Sir George Grey for his disobedience. This recession would last until diamonds were discovered in Kimberley a full decade later.

Furthermore, Sir George himself was fighting for his job. Labouchere was angry with him but, at the same time, the Whig government in England fell from power. The incoming Tory party had no intention of allowing the Governor to continue to act irresponsibly.

He was also in hot water because he had been negotiating with the two Boer republics to form a greater confederation of southern Africa, something that the Colonial Office did not want because they believed the republics were too poor to pay their own way.

This would, of course, change when gold was discovered in the Transvaal, and Britain was even prepared to go to war to lay its hands on it. But, in the meantime, Sir George became a "persona non grata", which caused his attention to turn away from the problems in British Kaffraria.

When Sir George was withdrawn from the Cape in 1860, the soul of the German immigration scheme was removed. No-one now even remembered what its purpose had been and his successor was too troubled by rebellion within his own Parliament to think much of what was happening in British Kaffraria.

The German immigration was therefore in deep trouble and with no prospect of salvation in sight.

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