South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

Old Cape Colony

Broad streets of pleasant shade

And houses plain and white,

Where the broken sunbeams made

A green and gold brocade

Of shadow and of light;

'Twas how it looked, I know,

Old Cape Town long ago.

And little running streams,

With little bridges spanned,

Whose waters caught the beams

In sudden glooms and gleams,

Flowed down on either hand,

And music made, I know,

In Cape Town long ago.

Between the leafy rows

With hats beneath their arms

And silken coats and hose,

The gay and gallant beaux

Ogled the ladies' charms;

For eyes were bright, I know,

In Cape Town long ago.

And sailors, tawny-faced,

Along the causeway rolled,

With shawls about the waist.

And pistols silver-chased

Stuck into every fold:

For pirates came, I know,

To Cape Town long ago.

And in the Bay outside

The flute and galleon

Swung slowly to the tide,

And from their portholes wide

The bright gun-muzzles shone;

They kept good guard, I know,

In Cape Town long ago.

The fleets of cloudy sail

Swept in upon the breeze;

Their crews with scurvy pale

Leaned shoreward o'er the rail

At sight of grass and trees;

Full glad to see, I trow,

Old Cape Town long ago.

And when the sun went down,

Bright sparks of twinkling light

On water and on town

Like jewels in a crown

Bespangled all the night,

And spread a golden glow

O'er Cape Town long ago

And now let us turn away from these main events of our history to wander for a little in its more pleasant and unfrequented bypaths. What was the life of those old people? How did they spend their time? What were their amusements? Of what fashion were their houses and their dress? What did they talk about?

All these questions may be answered with a good deal of particularity, for besides the old records which are fuller of familiar detail than such papers are generally, a large number of travellers of all nations and all points of view, and, be it said, of all degrees of accuracy, have left us their impressions. If you were to believe the opinion these writers have of one another, you could not repose belief in any of them. Peter Kolbe was among the first, and by all accounts he was a notorious liar, spending his time in drinking and smoking and hastily collecting at the end of his stay the waifs and strays of information he had picked up in the taverns and on the stoeps to satisfy the curiosity of the noble patron who had sent him to the Cape. His remarks on the Hottentots, however, are said to have been the work of a learned Dutch official from whom he borrowed them, and are, no doubt, more valuable. Then there was Père Tachard, van der Stel's delightful Jesuit friend; there was Le Caine, the astronomer, a learned man, but nothing of a writer. There was Thunberg, the Swedish botanist, and his more famous friend and fellow-countryman, Sparrman, whose book has much in it of interest to us. Lichtenstein, the German friend of Janssens, is excellent, though somewhat biased against the English; and Sir John Barrow is also excellent, but biased against the Dutch. His bias sinks into friendliness when compared with the opinion of that sturdy John Bull, Captain Percival, who seems to have gone through the world like Sir Willoughby Patterne, looking over his nose with an air of indignant surprise." Supereminent among them all is, of course, Burchell, that great naturalist and observer; but for entertainment and familiar and sympathetic observation commend me to Lady Anne Barnard, whose husband was Lord Macartney's secretary in the First Occupation, and whose letters to her friend Dundas were edited not very long ago by Mr. W. H. Wilkins. Besides these there are a host of sailors, soldiers, explorers, and sportsmen (whom even to name would be a wearisome business) who have left accounts of South Africa at one time or another.

From all these books, then, let me set before you a picture of the old Cape life as it was in the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. At that time there was no Port Elizabeth, only a military post at Algoa Bay; there was no Grahamstown; there was no Durban, no Bloemfontein, no Pretoria. The whole social life of South Africa was centred in Cape Town, though at the end of our period Stellenbosch had already a respectable antiquity, and that character of dignified somnolence, as of "Sleepy Hollow," that it still possesses. From Cape Town civilisation sloped away by rapid degrees to barbarism; the Dutch farmers round its skirts, and as far away as the Breede Valley, were often considerable signiors who lived in houses as stately and beautiful as those of good families in Europe, but farther away the lonely Boer grew ruder and ruder in his way of living. The colonial mansion became a hut of sun-burnt brick or wattle and daub, in which the whole family often occupied a single room, and the Boers themselves were almost as savage and unkempt as the Kafirs with whom they fought or bartered cattle.

To begin, then, with Cape Town. Under the great shadow of the mountain which never changes, it is now so altered that were it not for the majestic outline of superincumbent rock you would not recognise it in the pictures of Barrow and Burchell and others of its old delineators. Yet to this day, if you leave its main streets and explore towards Signal Hill in the more ancient part of the town, you will find that much remains as it then was. The streets in those days (as they are still) were broad and straight, so broad that the double row of oak-trees could not throw their whole surface into shadow. Along their either sides flowed little streams, canals taken from the river of sweet water which refreshed in days still more remote the sailors who first came to its banks. There being something of a slope in the ground these canals were stopped here and there by sluices, from which the water could be turned into the gardens behind the houses that lined the street. In front of these houses was a sort of verandah or stoep, a broad stone platform, with deep stone benches upon it, and sometimes overshadowed by a pergola on which hung a luxuriant vine or pomegranate or clambering rose, or all three together. In this pleasant arbour sat the Dutch during most of the day, drinking their wine or coffee, which latter was kept hot upon a charcoal brazier, the men smoking their pipes very solemnly, seeming to be wrapt up in the most solemn and thoughtful dignity," and the ladies embroidering upon their tambour frames. The houses themselves were stately and beautiful, a white expanse of wall, relieved by great teak doors, usually of the kind that open in a lower and upper half, with long brass hinges curiously shaped, a fanlight above ornamented with lattice-work, and small-paned windows with ribbed shutters, frequently painted green, folded back against the wall outside, or shut close to keep out the noonday glare. The roof would either be flat and made of a kind of solder or cement, or thatched with a velvety-brown reed which grew near by, and roof and wall would meet in the most gracefully shaped and fancifully curlicued fiddle gables, often ornamented by a piece of statuary from the hands of that pleasant artist, Anthon Anreith. The door led into a great hall which cut the house in two, and was usually itself cut in half by a screen of carved wood and glass. The front half served as a hall from which opened rooms on either side, and the back half was used as the dining-hall. With these two halls there would be usually four other great rooms, and sometimes a second storey, and, if it were a house of consequence, you might pass right through into a courtyard paved with brick, shaded with vine or pomegranate, and with a pleasant fountain playing in the centre.

"The Dutch are remarkably neat in their houses," says Captain Percival. "The floors, staircases, and furniture are kept exceedingly clean and highly polished, the floors of their halls and most of their ground floors are of broad square red tiles, highly polished, glazed, or painted; the walls and ceilings stuccoed or painted, and the wainscotting adorned with looking-glasses and branches. Their sitting-rooms are very neat and clean: the furniture, indeed, is usually clumsy in the extreme, and looks very awkward, though kept in excellent order. Several houses, however, are not inelegantly furnished." The furniture at which Captain Percival turned up his nose was in reality very charming. High Dutch clocks in mahogany cases, ornamented with brass dials, and suns and moons that rose and set, and ships that rocked; stately armoires of cedar-wood, big enough to hold all the thrifty housewife's fine linen and stiff silk dresses and petticoats; "rustbanks" or settees of antique design; capacious chairs, well suited to the generous proportions of their owners, and solid tables which groaned three times a day with their loads of steaming viands. The Dutch ate in a manner that appalled even their sturdy English visitors. At breakfast, besides tea and coffee, there was ordinarily a boiled leg of mutton with perhaps a dish of stewed beef. This first meal was at eight, but it was preceded by a cup of tea or coffee served in the bedroom after the manner of the Indian chota haziri. At dinner and at supper there would be roasted beef, mutton, venison, fowls, all cooked with rather too much grease to suit delicate palates. "A goose swimming in oil," says our captain, "is no uncommon dish; or a piece of veal roasted to rags, and covered with rancid butter turned into oil, with which the meat, when it gets cold, is quite encrusted." The fat, by the way, was procured from the sheep's tail, which, being one solid lump of fat of from twelve to fifteen pounds, was quite a feature in the pastoral landscape. The customary drink was wine, which many travellers condemned as poor and harsh, though Lady Anne puts in a word in its favour: "I never saw the force of prejudice more apparent than in the way Englishmen here turn up their foolish noses at the Cape wines because they are Cape wines." And she goes on to relate how a certain military big-wig, filling his glass by mistake with some Cape steine, said, "Lord bless me, what a fine wine this is!" and when he was told of his error, "in a moment the colonel found fifty faults in it." Certainly the constantia was even then very good, and was soon to gain a great reputation in Europe, which it has since unfortunately lost.

With every meal there was an abundance of all manner of fruits in their season—great piles of peaches, nectarines, grapes and pears, oranges and pomeloes, and musk and water melons, which ought to have made up to the most fastidious for the faults of the cookery. But, as a matter of fact, many of the Dutch housewives were admirable cooks, and to this day make "confeits," syrups, curries, and liqueurs which are not to be surpassed anywhere. There is, moreover, something of the East in their cookery, a rare and spicy flavour in itself suggestive of romance.

The people who lived in those houses were of a piece with their old-world quaintness. They were stately folk with something of a somnolent disposition, especially the men, the women being by all accounts much livelier. They were nearly all merchants or officials, or lawyers by profession, and there was a very clear order of precedence to which they adhered with scrupulous exactitude. The Government being of a paternal description, even the dress of the ladies was regulated by law, and no one was allowed to wear a train or be attended by an umbrella-bearer unless she was of a certain rank in the community. As the slaves did all the manual work of the town, and the business was of the most leisurely description, the men went about but seldom; but sat upon their stoeps dressed in long snuff coloured coats and plum-coloured breeches, with their hats on above their periwigs, smoking and taking snuff, and sipping coffee and strong liquors. Their powers of smoking were clearly abnormal. Thus Percival says in his ill-natured way:—

I have already noticed the fondness of the men for smoking tobacco; their whole soul seems indeed entirely given up to that habit. We all know how much it is the custom in Holland; but here it is carried to a still greater excess. The men rise early in the morning, and make their appearance in a loose robe and night cap before their doors; then walk or sit in the porch for an hour or two with a pipe in their mouths and a slave by their side, holding a glass and a small decanter of gin, from which the master every now and then takes his soupkie or glass. Let an Englishman rise ever so early, he will see mynheer sitting in his stoop or porch, or parading the front of his house in the manner I have described. There are many who get up two or three times in the night to enjoy a pipe; and so much are they accustomed to this luxury that they cannot on any account dispense with it. About eight they dress, first smoking their quantum. . . They then smoke another pipe, and go about their mercantile concerns till about one o'clock, when dinner commences. . . . When they have regaled themselves another hour with their darling pipe, they lie down to their nap, which continues till evening; they then rise and perhaps take a walk or pay formal visits, but are always sure to smoke wherever they go. Coffee and gin succeed, accompanied with their pipe, till about nine, when supper is introduced, and when that is finished, after another hour's fumigating, they retire to bed, gorged with heavy food, and perhaps destined to spend the remainder of the night with all the horrors arising from indigestion. A continual round of this mode of passing their time sums up the existence of the Dutch colonists of Cape Town, exhibiting a most lamentable picture of laziness and indolent stupidity.

All accounts are agreed that the ladies were much livelier than the men. Sir George Keith, who being a sailor was also, it is needless to say, a man of gallantry, describes them as "lively, good-natured, familiar and gay"; and Le Vaillant is so unkind as to suggest that they are too gay, the declension in their morals being set down, with an ill-concealed national pride, to the temporary presence of French troops. He tells us that for the modesty and reserve peculiar to Dutch manners, the ladies had substituted an indifferent copy of French modes, and that feathers were so much in request that Africa could not supply enough, while the theatre set up by the French officers set afoot so many scandals that the husbands looked upon its closing with relief. He also says that "the women in general play on the harpsichord; they likewise love singing, and are distractedly fond of dancing, so that a week seldom passes without their having several balls; the officers belonging to the ships in the Road frequently procure them this amusement. At my arrival the Governor had a custom of giving a public ball once a month, and the people of distinction in the town followed his example."

Lichtenstein, on the other hand, has the highest opinion of the Dutch ladies, and champions them against all traducers. But Lady Anne Barnard, being a woman, is not quite so kind.

Lady Anne, herself a great toast, looked down also on the style of the colonial ladies. Describing one of the Governor's dances she says:—

The ball-room was very long but somewhat narrow; perhaps it seemed narrow because it was lined with rows of Dutch ladies, all tolerably well dressed, much white muslin about and a good deal of colour. I had been told that the Dutch ladies were handsome as to their faces, but I saw no real beauty though they were fresh and wholesome-looking, while as for manner they had none, and graces and charms were sadly lacking, though they had a sort of vulgar smartness, which I suppose passed for wit. They danced without halting at all, a sort of pit-a-pat little step, which they had probably learned from some beauty on her way to Bengal.

As these quotations are all somewhat ill-humoured, let me add the remark of that admirable observer, Burchell, who had a good opportunity of judging the Cape Town ladies: "They were dressed extremely well, and quite in the English fashion; and it would be thought by many that, for personal beauty, they ought not easily to yield the prize, even to our own fair countrywomen."

But I like to think of Cape Town at a somewhat earlier date, before French gallantry and English manners had touched the place, when it was still a colonial Amsterdam, and the Dutch people preserved the solemn graces and stately behaviour of their forebears. The gentlemen sat on their stoeps and smoked with a dignity that nothing could disturb; the ladies would walk forth with equal dignity to pay a call, attended by one slave carrying a brazen footwarmer full of charcoal and by another bearing a large red umbrella. Or, if it were night, they would go in their Sedan chairs from house to house with lanterns flitting here and there, greeting their friends as they met with a "Wel to rusten!" (May you rest well!)—rest being in their estimation the supreme felicity. Starched and rustling ladies, "well-fed, rosy-cheeked men, with powdered hair and dressed in black "—staid and worthy citizens they were.

Then a word should be said of the street scenes—tarry pig-tailed sailors wearing several pairs of breeches, one above another, rolling from the tavern; Malay slaves in their bright robes and turbans, Mozambique slaves in white cotton, Hottentot girls with sun-bonnets veiling their dusky faces. Boers come in from the country with their wagons, loaded with wine and garden produce, sixteen oxen to a wagon and a great cracking of enormous whips. The country Boers of those days were dressed in "blue cloth jackets and trousers and very high flat hats, while the Hottentot slave trotted behind him bearing his master's umbrella and dressed only in a piece of leather round his waist and a sheep-skin round his shoulders."On their way they would pass a fearsome array of gallows trees and instruments of torture. To be impaled on a spike, which ran along the backbone in such a manner that the victim lingered for days, was no uncommon punishment, and to be broken on the wheel, "without the coup-de-grace," is a death sentence frequently mentioned in the records. "We stopped a little," says Sparrman, describing the gallows, "to contemplate the uncertainty of human life. Above half-a-score wheels placed round it, presented us with the most horrid subjects for this purpose. . . . The gallows itself, the largest I ever saw, was indeed of itself a sufficiently wide door to eternity; but was by no means too large for the purpose of a tyrannical government, that in so small a town as the Cape could find seven victims to be hanged in chains."

This indeed is the dark side of the old colonial life; on the one side there were tyranny and occasional panic with the accompaniment of hideously cruel punishments, on the other a brooding resentment and murderous revenge when opportunity offered. Sparrman describes how in a country house the doors were bolted, and the two white men slept "with five loaded pieces hung above our bed."

Travel in the old days, when roads there were few and those of the worst, was a slow and laborious business. But the dangers and hardships were made up in some measure by the hospitality of the country people, who in their lonely situations were usually overjoyed to see a stranger. Sparrman describes a typical Boer standing in the doorway of his house:—

Without seeming to take the least notice, he stood stock-still in the house passage waiting for my coming up, and then did not stir a single step to meet me, but taking me by the hand greeted me with "Good-day! Welcome! How are you? Who are you? A glass of wine? A pipe of tobacco? Will you eat anything?" I answered his questions in the same order as he put them, and at the same time accepted the offer he made at the close of them. His daughter, a clever, well-behaved girl about twelve or fourteen years of age, set on the table a fine breast of lamb, with stewed carrots for sauce, and after dinner offered me tea with so good a grace that I hardly knew which to prefer, my entertainment or my fair attendant. Discretion and goodness of heart might be plainly read in the countenance and demeanour of both father and child.

Lady Anne Barnard gives an equally pleasant account of the country life at the Cape. Her description of Stellenbosch, in particular, might have served Washington Irving for his picture of Sleepy Hollow:—

The perfection of this place consists in its extreme coolness in the midst of the most sultry weather; it is built in long streets, perfectly regular, each street having on each side a row of large oaks, which shadow the tops of the houses, keeping them cool and forming a shady avenue between, through which the sun cannot pierce. Whatever way one walks one finds an avenue, right or left, and each house has a good garden. Stellenbosch, therefore, though there may not be above a hundred families in it, covers a good deal of ground, and is so perfectly clean and well-built that it appears to be inhabited only by people of small fortune. . . . It seems rather an asylum for old age than anything else, and I am told people live longer in it than in any other part of the colony.

I should like to quote a great deal more from these old books, especially from the pages of Burchell and Lichtenstein, whom I find I have neglected. They mirror the old colonial life, leisurely and sedate, when the slaves were building those great stately mansions, white-washed, green-shuttered, and many-gabled, with their huge doors of teak or stinkwood, their broad stoeps and pleasant pergolas, which still may be seen nestling amid their oaks and vineyards and orchards of peach and apricot trees. They show us the fat old vrouw in her starched linen and wealth of petticoats sitting in her great chair with her feet on her warming-pan and her coffee simmering upon the charcoal brazier; the farmer tall and lean with his long roer, galloping after buck on his diminutive pony or smoking upon his stoep and gazing over his rows of mellowing vines. It is a pleasant picture, which indeed may still be seen in the sequestered mountain valleys of the colony, between the scarred and rocky mountain precipices that reach far up to the clear blue cloudless South African sky.