It has been an interesting week

It started at 7.30am on Monday in Berlin. (Berlin, Eastern Cape, South Africa, that is).  I was a little early for my meeting with a research participant, so I wandered around the town and took some pictures. Standing at the intersection of Immigrant and Legion, I tried to think of an appropriate caption for my Instagram post. Something about the settlers? I decided to let the street names and location speak for themselves.

There are a couple of points that I need to make: I am from this area. I was born and grew up in the central part of the Eastern Cape –  the area that used to be known (and still is, to some extent) as “the Border” – the border of the Cape Colony. I moved away for a few years, but I came back. And, before I moved to Makhanda (which is what we call Grahamstown now) – the heart of British settler country – I lived among the descendants of the German settlers. They peopled the rural area where my parents farmed. They sent their daughters to the boarding school that I attended. They holidayed at the little places on the Transkei Wild Coast where my dad liked to fish. I know the descendants of the settlers well.

But I have always been a little removed from them. This is because my great-grandfather, Hugo Kirchmann, came to South Africa in the 1890s. He was an immigrant from Germany, clearly, but he wasn’t a “German settler” in the way that Eastern Capers understand the term.

The German settlers came to South Africa in several waves, including German legionnaires in 1856 and civilian colonists in 1858 and 1877. The legionnaires didn’t last long. They were demobbed mercenaries who had been engaged by the British to fight in the Crimea. They were unsuited to farming. Many re-enlisted and went on to India.

The 1858 settlers were, on the whole, uneducated peasants. They really battled and were desperately poor. They settled around King William’s Town in places named Stutterheim, Breidbach, Berlin and Potsdam. The 1877 group settled closer to East London. They had some education and had the resources to make a better go of life in South Africa.

The 1858 German settlers in the King William’s Town District were a small, insular community. They were rough when they arrived and the fact that cousins married cousins didn’t help.  The 1820 British settlers looked down on them. I am not proud to say that some of that prejudice seeped into my own subconscious; I was always at pains to point out that, while my family was German, it wasn’t “Eastern Cape German”.

Great-grandfather Kirchmann was a photographer from Hamburg. I fancied that he was a bit of an intellectual. He met a Miss Jenner in London. The family legend (which I have been unable to verify) is that she was related to Edward Jenner of smallpox vaccination fame. There was a bit of scandal.  They married in haste and they departed for the colonies. They settled in Kokstad in what is now KwaZulu-Natal.  A thriving photographic studio and many children… fast-forward to my grandfather’s marriage to Iris Myrtle Engstrom.

I interviewed my dad about all of this two days ago. He doesn’t remember his maternal grandparents, but he said that his grandfather was a great seafarer from Scandinavia, Johan Engstrom, who had been Port Captain at Port St Johns when it was a vibrant harbour (My father’s eyes light up, “the river was navigable for about eight miles, then, you know”). This fitted in with my memories of what Nana (my dad’s mother) had told me. My dad couldn’t, however, tell me his maternal grandmother’s name.

The internet is a wonderful thing. It took me less than five minutes to find her.  And here’s the thing… my father’s grandmother was a Wittstock. She was born in Frankfurt (more often spelled “Frankfort”) in the Eastern Cape in 1872. Frankfort. 1872. Can you see where I am going with this? Not only was my great-grandmother of German settler stock, her parents must have been 58-ers.

I have spent hours this weekend trawling the internet. Suddenly the German settlers are very interesting. Well-known Eastern Cape names are on branches of my family tree (Burmeister, Schulz…) I gazed around me at the people in Spargs Supermarket in East London yesterday. Were these my cousins?

I drove through King William’s Town this afternoon, looking at it with new eyes. My settler ancestors had shopped here. I tried to imagine what life was like for Maria Schmidt, my great-great grandmother. She had her first child at 17 and her nineth at 41. They were all born in Frankfort.

I stopped for a coffee at the Engen Garage on the way out of King. I found Frankfort on Google Maps. A tiny, tiny hamlet near a place called “Border Post” on the road to Stutterheim. A thirty-one minute drive away. Both of my German settler ancestors died there. Three days ago I didn’t know that they were mine and I have never been to Frankfort.

I contained myself. I will go another day when I have a better sense of what I am looking for.

Before I end, I need to add this…

Ever heard of Charlene Wittstock? She and I are both descended from Christian Friedrick Wilhelm Wittstock, who was born in Zerrenthin, Germany, in 1807. Charlene Wittstock is also known as Princess Charlene of Monaco. How my Nana would have loved that!

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6 Responses to It has been an interesting week

  1. Clifford Panter says:

    So cool Gail. I’m keen to go with you to check out Frankfort.

  2. Susan Ziehl says:

    Wonderful personal memories and extra within an historical and social context. I grew up in Namaqualand and never liked the idea of having a ‘German’ surname. Knew there was a connection to East London where my father was born. I find the snobbery around different types of German settlers so interesting.

  3. Mark says:

    Hi Lotusdrifter
    Please could you contact me regarding Hugo Kirchmann and Mary Jenner. I’m helping my grandmother piece together some more information on them, shes their granddaughter. I’m sure she would be able to provide some more info for you to

    • Lotusdrifter says:

      Hello Cousin Mark. What a lovely surprise. Please drop me a line on so that we can pick up the conversation from there. I have learnt so much since I wrote that blog post – not least that Hugo and Mary met and married in Barkly East, not London – it is fascinating how facts get twisted as they make their way through the generations! I would be very pleased to hear your grandmother’s memories. Warm regards, Gail Kirchmann

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