Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Wagners of the Farm Zwartebosch

The farm, Rondebosch, formerly called Zwartebosch, is located north of the Kromme River mouth. Professor Charles Wait of NMMU has kindly supplied me with the family records relating to this farm and the Wagner family who have owned it until recently.

Main picture: Aerial photograph of Rondebosch

History of Rondebosch

The farm Rondebosch, formerly known as Zwarte Bosch, is located about 7km north of Humansdorp.  On 19th January 1819, it was proclaimed a perpetual quitrent farm, which replaced the old loan farms system, under a 1813 law of the Governor, Sir John Cradock. 

The first owner of the farm was a bachelor, John Henricus Scheepers. During 1819, Christiaan Friedrich Wagner was sent to the eastern border as part of the great military force that Lord Charles Somerset deployed in order to defeat Slambie and the prophet Makanda during the 5th Frontier War.

Above: Map of Zwartebosch, now Rondebosch

At the end of 1819, his service period expired. The British government offered to relocate the soldiers to anywhere in the world, but Wagner and his friend, George Hippert (born during 1790 in Ruppin, Brandenburg, Germany), decided to remain in South Africa and started walking from the eastern border to Cape Town.

When they traversed over the ridges beyond the Kabeljouws River, as the main road then meandered, they spotted the farm Zwarte Bosch with its many trees, lying in a bowl half surrounded by mountains, they decided to stay there with Scheepers. Scheepers bred Afrikaner cattle and lived in a three-room “hartbeeshuisie”. The kitchen was on the west side as evidenced by the charcoal which had accumulated there, the living room in the middle and the bedroom on the east side. Wagner and Hippert decided to stay there and started a tannery and “tuiemakery”.

A hundred years later, the holes where the black sheets were tanned in one hole and the red ones in another, can still be seen on the lower old site near the river. They also made saddles, harnesses and bridles and sold to “togryers” who often stayed over on their way between the Cape and the eastern border. They did so well financially that Hippert, who already had citizenship, purchased the 3,000 acre quitrent farm Zwarte Bosch, number 347, on 11th April 1823, from Scheepers for 9,000 guilders. The farm is located in the former district of Uitenhage.

Map of Humansdorp area

According to legend, Wagner and Hippert purchased the farm together and later Wagner bought Hippert out, but according to the various purchase contracts, this is not true. Actually Scheepers continued residing on the farm and also died there, and at his request, he was buried high on a hill “so that he could forever see his Afrikaner cattle in the meadow beyond the river”! Apparently, it was quite an “affair” to dig the grave in the stony “koppie” and also to transport his body there.

Hartbeeshuisie: This is a very primitive house usually built from clay and wood with some type of thatched roof. It would not have had any flooring except that cow dung was thinned in water and spread over the floor. Once dry it formed a reasonable cover for a week or two until it was redone. The closest descriptive name is a shepherd’s hut/house.

Togryers: These were the ox-wagons which carried loads from Cape Town to the eastern border. Perhaps one could translate “togryers” as transport wagons. The reason why these wagons deviated from the coastal route at about the present Humansdorp and went via the present Hankey is because of the difficulty of crossing the Gamtoos River mouth. The route was from the present Humansdorp via Rondebosch and Hankey, up along the Klein River, then the present Loerie to the present Thornhill, first named Galgenbosch, later Modderkantien ( “Mud Bar”), then crossing the Van Stadens river some kilometres downstream from to-day’s bridge and then past today’s Woodridge College.

If one stands at the Sarah Baartman grave on the hill outside Hankey and looks in the direction of Humansdorp, one can see the vast plane of mainly farming land below along the Gamtoos River. There was a 400 morgen area known as Gamtoos River Wagon Drift. It was used as an outspan for those ox-wagons.

History of the Wagner clan: 

On 2nd July 1827, the almost 41-year-old Christiaan Friedrich Wagner was married to the 19-year-old Sainte Catharina Vermaak who was born on the 8th April 1808. She was the daughter of Jacobus Stephanus Vermaak and Agatha Catharina Potgieter of Tsitsikamma. The furniture was home-made beds, cabinets, tables and chairs with mats of riempies.

WAGNER C.F. 1786- & A.C. VERMAAK 1808-

Father and sons mostly wore shirts of coarse material, long wide “bush trousers” and short jackets worn with veldskoens and wide-brimmed hats while the mother and daughters wore long “sisrokke” and kappies and all the clothes were homemade. Their 1834 Dutch Bible, which is in German script, is still in the possession of the family. On 16 March 1839, Wagner received his citizenship from Sir George Napier and three days later he purchased the farm of Hippert.

To the southwest, the farm is bordered by ± 2000 morgen of irrigated meadows owned by Thomas Ignatius Ferreira (a brother of Hippert’s wife). To the northwest it is bordered by the Zeekoerivier mountains, in the north by 3,000 morgen of mountainous pastures of Deep River owned by Gerrit Thomas Vermaak (an uncle of Agatha) and northeast by land for which Daniel Marais has applied and south-east by 4,000 morgen that even now is still government land.

Christiaan and Agatha had eight children – two sons and six daughters. She died on 27th May 1866 while Christiaan went to stay with grandpa Freek and granny Nelie ironically in the same house that he built forty years before right until his death on 13th September 1867.

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