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Ghanzi In History (PART 4) – Hendrick Van Zyl

The previous week we noted an 1869 incident, visually captured in a Thomas Baines water-colour, as well as documents, of over two dozen young slaves being herded from the then Batawana capital Toteng to the Transvaal by the Boer traders Viljoen, Swartz and Van Zyl; further noting that the latter figure would subsequently became for a period Kgosi Letsholathebe’s agent in Ghanzi.

There are many contradictory accounts of Hendrick Van Zyl character and career. One contemporary described him as “an intelligent and wealthy Boer who, accompanied by his wife and family of stalwart sons and a little daughter, with many natives servants, moved gradually to the edge of the desert.”

It is not clear whether it was the pull of ivory and ostrich feather profits or the push of political scandal that caused Van Zyl to emigrate permanently from the old South African Republic (Transvaal), where he had been an MP. His wealth and status had been built up over years through the export game products, as well as slaves, from north-western Botswana. After first spending several months on the Limpopo, he arrived back at Toteng in November 1874.

“Raubase” Van Zyl was thereafter allowed to settle in Ghanzi with unlimited hunting rights on the condition that he turn over half of the ivory and other game products to Kgosi Letsholathebe, while helping the Batawana to keep the Nama out of the area.

Using local Khoisan, mostly Naro or //Ai-khoe, servants to assist him in his hunting and herding activities, Van Zyl initially did well as a de facto Motawana headman. By 1876 he was able to export to the Cape, via Walvis Bay, goods “which were said to amount to several thousand pounds in value.” Some of the money was used towards the erection of a relatively lavish house, which boasted stainglass windows.

After Letsholathebe’s death, Van Zyl began to assert his independence. Besides failing to pay tribute, he and his accomplices hunted extensively in areas north of Ghanzi, in one incident slaughtering 103 elephants in one day.

The new Kgosi, Moremi II, then ordered Van Zyl to come to him. When he failed to appear a mophato was sent to fetch him. Finding Van Zyl entertaining a Nama band with peach brandy, the Batawana successfully attacked. Van Zyl fled into Namibia where he was killed, possibly by aggrieved Nama.

Before his death, Hendrick Van Zyl had entertained visions of establishing a Boer republic in the Kgalagadi under his leadership. To this end he attempted to have his agreement with the by then late Letsholathebe recognised by the British as a land concession. A document to this effect, dated January 4, 1878 and supposedly confirmed by Kgosi Moremi, was produced before W.C.

Palgrave, the British Commissioner at Walvis Bay.

In it Van Zyl claimed ownership of the Ghanzi entire ridge, along with “general powers of administration within the limits of the grant”. The concession’s authenticity was immediately repudiated by the Batawana.  But, it lived on as part of the colonial scramble for the Kgalagadi.

Van Zyl had advertised the region as an open territory of “lush pastures” teeming with wildlife. His glowing accounts helped encourage three separate parties of “Dorseland” (“Thirstland”) trekkers to set out for Ghanzi, via Shoshong, Boteti, and Lake Ngami, in 1876-77.

Upon their arrival at Ghanzi, the lead party under Gert Alberts was disappointed by both the dryness of the landscape and Van Zyl’s insistence that they pay for the use of his wells. Then, as now, the key to Ghanzi’s wealth lay in its underground water. Albert’s party soon moved on to Rietfontein, in what is now the North Cape Province near the border with Namibia.

The second trek, led by Louwrens du Plessis, was plagued by disaster. Numbering some 480 people, its appearance along the Limpopo had caused the Bangwato Kgosi Khama III to ask Her Majesty’s special agent, Alex Baillie about the possibility of obtaining British “protection”.

In the end, the very size of the group proved to be its undoing. Allowed by Khama to proceed to Ngamiland, by the time it reached the dry banks of the Boteti, its people as well as livestock were dying of thirst. About half of the party had perished before they linked up with Alberts and the third group, under J.F. Botha, in the greater Ghanzi-Rietfontien region.

Threatened by both the Batawana and Nama as unwelcome trespassers, the surviving trekkers ultimately migrated north-west to Etosha pan, which was then in the land of the Hai-//omn “Bushmen”, surrounded by the  territories of more powerful Nama, Ovaherero, Ovahimba, and Ovambo. There, they were discovered in a miserable state by the Swedish hunter-trader Axle Eriksson, who publicised their plight in a report sent to the Cape Colony.

A relief expedition aboard two schooners, the Swallow  and Christiana , was dispatched to Walvis Bay, from where tons of supplies were off-loaded and taken inland by ox-wagon. This humanitarian gesture coincided with then ongoing attempts by Palgrave and the Cape governor to establish a British Protectorate, which would incorporate the Boer settlements.

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