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The Eastern Cape Frontier, June 1796

— It is a winters day like any other, some 600 miles by oxwagon east of Cape Town. We are on the New Year’s River, a tributary of the Bushman’s River on the outermost limits of Christian civilization [1]. See the map below and click to enlarge. The location is not far from the 21st century town of Alicedale behind the Suurberg, west of Grahamstown.

Frontier 1796JdPThere have already been two wars with the amaXhosa people who have been pushing westward over the Keiskamma River. The powerful amaRharhabe Xhosa leaders, who have allied with the White Afrikaners, have been trying to bring the local chiefs to heel. This effort has not been successful. Relations therefore remain tense. Groups such as the amaTinde, amaMbalu, imiDange and and particularly the amaGqunkhwebe have repeatedly crossed the Fish River border into the Suurveld. Chief Cungwa (“Congo”) of the amaGqunukhwebe is now living pretty much full time west of the Bushman’s River near the 21st century town of Alexandria. Ironically, it is close to where Diaz turned back in 1488. In the distant future, a road sign near Alexandria will still read “Congoskraal“.

Jan du Plessis is dressing two carcasses of animals his son shot the previous day. He is doing this immediately outside his mud brick and thatch roof house. Jan is a captain in the militia and a rather remarkable man for his time and place. While he lives on the far frontier, he is a literate man and his diary will survive into the 21st century. He is 64 years old; the grandson of the immigrant Jean Prieur du Plessis from Poitiers. His younger sons live on the farm and he has one daughter who is not yet married.

AmaCover2Jan’s grandson, also Jan du Plessis, will one day be one of the two leaders of the so-called Double Trek in the Great Trek. They will arrive at Piet Retief’s camp in Natal on the very day of the Bloukrans Massacre. He will eventually fight at the pivotal Battle of Blood River. The present account, as well as that of the younger Jan and his relatives on the Great Trek, may be read in AmaBhulu.

When Jan looks up, he sees a sight that freezes the blood in his veins. Standing dead still some distance away are two Black Tamboekie warriors, assegais (throwing spears) in hand [2]. It is only three years since the last war with the vicious amaXhosa, and here he is now confronted with the Tamboekies. They live even further away to the east than the true Xhosa, and these two are totally out of place. He yells to his sons in the house, and turns to fetch his schietgeweer―his musket―and the powder horn. But then some disheveled white men and even Indians appear among the Tamboekies.

Captain Stout

The leader is an American ship’s captain named Benjamin Stout. They have been aided by these two Tamboekie warriors all the way from the land of the Tamboekies where they were shipwrecked. Jan promptly dispatches his sons with a wagon to collect the rest of the shipwrecked men, who are beyond exhaustion and have been left along the way.

That evening, Stout discusses the state of the country with Jan, who makes it clear that the farmers distant from the Cape are disgusted with the Dutch East India Company [3]. It taxes them, makes rules for them, does not understand their needs, and then leaves them in the lurch in times of danger. They would welcome any decent liberal authority on the local coast and they would be happy indeed to trade with them.

Only in Africa

At this point, Stout asks Jan the one question that has bothered him all day since their arrival:

“What on earth are the two massive carcasses you are dressing outside the house?”

Jan responds without blinking an eye:

“Two rhinoceros my son shot yesterday.”

Getting to Cape Town

Jan arranges for the men to be taken to the distant Cape. He writes a note in Dutch for Stout and his party to show to all the farmers along the way to aid in their passage. The captain  will later immortalize this note in a book:

Good Friends,
Be so good as to help these people forward towards the Cape. They are Americans, who have lost their ship beyond the river Biga. The Caffers have brought these people to me.
Your friend, Jan Du Plessis, the elder.

The River “Biga” is some 15km south of the present coastal town of Hamburg. In the 21st century the name of the river is spelled Bira, but in isiXhosa an “r” is pronounced as the guttural “g” in Dutch. In fact, the shipwreck occurred near the wreck of the Grosvenor, which was at the Mkweni River far to the north, halfway between Port St. Johns and Port Edward on what is today the Pondoland Coast [5]. Since Stout’s day, the Tamboekies, or at least their territories, have moved more inland.

Wreck_of_the_Grosvenor02The survivors are taken by wagon to Cape Town. One, a Swede named Peter Ernst Wahlstrand, elects to stay in the colony. He will become the Graaff-Reinet Court Messenger [4] and will eventually marry Maria Magdalena Olivier, an Afrikaans lady in the author’s ancestral family. In this way, a Swede shipwrecked on an American ship in Africa will become and Afrikaner. Fact is usually stranger than fiction.

An American Colony in South Africa?

On 16 June 1796, the American ship, the Hercules, was wrecked on the Suurveld coast. The Master of this ship was Captain Benjamin Stout. He was well treated by the amaThembu (“Tamboekie”) subgroup of the extended isiXhosa speaking nations, and was impressed by the countryside. He was equally impressed with the White Afrikaner farmers who went out of their way to help his party get back to the Cape. When Stout returned to Europe, he wrote as follows to his relative, President John Adams, suggesting the establishment of an American colony on the Southeast Coast in the land of the amaThembu [6] :

To the Honorable John Adams,
President of the Continental Congress of the United States of America.

Sir,
If this Narrative be transmitted across the Atlantic, and should find its way to your hand, receive it as the voluntary homage of a native of America, who from his earliest life hath been taught to venerate and admire your virtues and your talents. […]   It has never been understood, when the Dutch took possession of the Cape of Storms, as it was originally styled by the Portuguese, that they also claimed a title to the whole of the southern part of Africa; such an undefined and unlimited claim must at once appear not only presumptuous, but preposterous; and on this ground I argue, that the people of any nation have an unquestionable right (provided the natives give their assent) to settle on such parts of the southern continent of Africa, as do not interpose with the lands already in possession of the colonists.

By the early years of the 1800s, American ships were trafficking up and down the southeast coast of the present South Africa. Ever more American sailors were calling for an American presence in South Africa. Britain prized its trade route between Britain, the Cape and the River Platte in South America. Losing America was one thing, but conceding its trade routes to the Americans was another matter altogether.

In the event, President Adams turned down Stout’s suggestion. Thereby died the intriguing thought that, had he accepted, Nelson Mandela, the later South Africa’s first Black president, might very well have been born an American citizen or subject. Nelson Mandela was a Thembu; a Tamboekie!


REFERENCES

  1. Tributary of the Bushman’s River; J.S. Marais, Maynier and the First Boer Republic, (1944), Maskew Miller, p. 59, places Jan here.
  2. AmaThembu, an isiXhosa speaking nation that has historically provided wives for the amaXhosa kings.
  3. Jan was apparently unaware the Cape had changed hands to the British in Sep. 1795; Stout discovered this later
  4. The Missionary Magazine for 1800, Vol. 5, (1800), p. 217; Recounted in Vanderkemp’s missionary travels
  5. Originally published 1797. Republished in UK: Stout, Benjamin, Cape of Good Hope and Its Dependencies: An Accurate and Truly Interesting Description of Those Delightful Regions, (1820), Edwards & Nibb, London; see p. 53
  6. Ibid, see p. 2
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