Lewe van Wenzel Christoffel Coetzer (1761 – 1842) in die Tarka

 ‘n Uittreksel uit Narratives and Adventures of Travellers in Africa.

NOTA: Hoofstuk 6 is oorspronklik geskryf deur óf William John Burchell (1781-1863) óf Thomas Pringle (1789-1834). In alle waarskynlikheid het Burchell vir Wenzel in 1813 ontmoet toe Wenzel 52 jaar oud was, of het Pringle die 59-jarige Wenzel in 1820 ontmoet.



In the family of a farmer of the middle class, whose dwelling did not indicate much of either affluence or comfort, but those members appeared contented and happy, he (the author of Chapter 6) spent a short time. The following particulars are taken from his observations.

Between the capital (Cape Town) and the cultivated districts, lie the extensive sandy plains, commonly called the Cape Downs, which were and are traversed by numberless roads and wheel tracks in every direction. The soil is composed of loose white sand on a substratum of clay, supporting only a few stunted shrubs and rushes. A few solitary huts are scattered here and there.

From the general barrenness of the country, the travellers often stop but a single day at Cape Town. After having come the distance of perhaps twenty days’ journey, they cross the barren heath already described, and frequently outspan, as they call it, or un-yoke, at Salt River, to be ready to enter the town at daybreak the next morning. Thus they are often able to sell their produce, and to make the purchases they require during the day, and immediately set out on their return home.

Another boor rejoiced in a more extensive domain. The visitor descended from the ridge of a mountain, by a steep and stony path, tracked out by the hartbeests, elands, and other large game, and followed the rugged course of a solitary brook, or rather torrent, for the greater part of its bed was now dry, until, after a ride of about three hours, he reached the farm of Elandsdrift, in the valley of the Tarka, and the residence of Winsel Koetzer.

On riding up to the place, consisting of three or four thatched houses and a few reed-cabins, inhabited by the Hottentot servants, he was encountered by a host of some twenty or thirty dogs, which had been lying about in the shade of the huts, and now started up around him, open-mouthed, with a prodigious barking and clamour, as is generally the case at every farm-house on the approach of strangers. In daylight these growling guardians usually confine themselves to a more noisy demonstration; but at night it is often a matter of no small peril to approach a farm-house, for many of these animals are both fierce and powerful, and will not hesitate to attack a stranger, if in their eyes, he has the ill-hick to appear in any way suspicious.

The noise of the dogs brought out Arend Koetzer, one of the farmer’s sons, from the principal dwelling-house, a fine, frank young fellow. Seeing the visitor thus beset, he came instantly to his help against the canine rabble, whom he discomfited with great vigour, by hurling at them a few of the half-gnawed bones and a bullocks’ horns which were lying in scores about the place. An introduction now took place to the young boor’s mother and sisters – a quiet looking matron, and two bashful girls, who appeared from one of the outhouses.

“Wil Mynheer af-zadel?” (“Will the gentleman unsaddle?”) was the first inquiry. The visitor readily agreed, intending, indeed, though it was still early in the afternoon, to spend the night at this farm. On entering the house, he found that the old boor had not yet risen from his afternoon nap, or siesta – a habit which is generally prevalent throughout the colony. He was not long, however, in making his appearance; and, after shaking hands with a sort of gruff heartiness, he took down a bottle of brandy from a shelf, and urged his visitor to drink a zoopje (dram) with him, declaring it was good brandiwyn (brandy), distilled by himself from his own peaches. The spirit, which was colourless, had something of the flavour of bad whisky, but the visitor preferring a cup of “tea-water”, it was in the meantime prepared and poured out for him by the respectable and active-looking dame.

This “tea-water” (properly enough so termed), was made by a decoction, rather than an infusion, of the Chinese leaf, and which, being diluted with a certain proportion of boiling water, without any admixture of milk and sugar, was offered to every visitor who might chance to arrive during the heat of the day. A small tin box with sugar-candy is sometimes handed round with the “tea-water,” from which each person takes a little bit to keep in his mouth, and thus to sweeten, in frugal fashion, the bitter beverage as he swallows it. During this refreshment, the visitor carried on a tolerably fluent conversation, in broken Dutch, with his host and his huis-vrouw (housewife), and he gratified them not a little by communicating the most recent information he possessed of the state of European politics, respecting which old Koetzer was very inquisitive.

The domicile of this family would not, probably, have suggested any ideas of peculiar comfort to an Englishman. It was a house somewhat of the size and appearance of an old-fashioned Scotch barn. The walls were thick, and substantially built of strong adhesive clay ; a material which, being well prepared or tempered, in the manner of mortar for brick-making, and raised in successive layers, soon acquires, in this dry climate, a great degree of hardness, and is considered scarcely inferior in durability to brick. These walls, which were about eight or nine feet high, and tolerably smooth and straight, had been plastered over within and without with a composition of sand and cow-dung, and this being well white-washed with a sort of pipe-clay, or with wood-ashes diluted with milk, the whole had a very clean and light appearance. The roof was neatly thatched with a species of hard rushes, which are considered much more durable and less apt to catch fire than straw. There was no ceiling under this roof; but the rafters over-head were hung with a motley assemblage of several sorts of implements and provisions, such as hunting apparatus, biltong (that is, dried flesh of various kinds of game), sjamboks (large whips of rhinoceros and hippopotamus hide), leopard and lion-skins, ostrich eggs and feathers, strings of onions, rolls of tobacco, bamboo for whip-handles, calabashes, and a variety of similar articles. A large pile of fine homemade soap graced the top of a partition wall.

The house was divided into three apartments: the one in which they were now seated in the voorhuis (lounge) opened immediately from the open air, and is the apartment in which the family always sit, eat, and receive visitors. A private room or slaapkamer (bedroom) is formed at either end of this hall, by partitions of the same height and construction as the outer walls running across, and having doors opening out of the sitting-room. The floor, which, though made only of clay, appeared uncommonly smooth and hard, was formed of ant-heaps, which, being pounded into dust, and then watered and well stamped, assume a consistency of great hardness and tenacity. The floor was carefully washed over every morning with water mixed with fresh cow-dung, in order to keep it cool and free from vermin—especially fleas, which are apt to become an intolerable pest in this country.

This house was lighted by four square windows in front, one in each of the bed-rooms, and two in the voorkamer, and by the door, which appeared only to be shut during the night. The door consisted merely of some reeds, rudely fastened on a wicker frame, and fixed to the door-posts by thongs of bullock’s hide. The windows also were without glass, and were closed in the night, each with the untanned skin of the quagga, or wild ass.

The furniture amounted to little more than a dozen of chairs and stools, bottoms formed of thongs, and a couple of tables, one large and roughly constructed of common plank from the geelhout (yellow wood) tree, the other small, and more highly finished, of ornamental wood. At the smaller table was the station of the old dame, who had before her a brass tea-urn, and the other apparatus, whence she dispensed the beverage already mentioned. Opposite her sat the baas (as the Hottentot attendants called their master), with the flask of brandiwyn at his elbow, and his long clumsy Dutch tobacco-pipe in his mouth. At the further end of the apartment, a couple of wooden pails bound with bright polished hoops of brass, were suspended from crooked antelope’s horns built into the wall; these pails were filled with spring-water, and had bowls of calabash affixed to them, in order that whoever was athirst might drink with facility. Sour milk, however, is the favourite beverage in this country ; and when that is to be had, no one drinks water. In another corner stood a huge churn, into which the milk is poured every night and morning until it is filled, when it is churned by two Hottentot women.

In the same end of the hall, part of the carcasses of a sheep was suspended from a beam; two sheep, and sometimes more being slaughtered for daily consumption; the Hottentot herdsmen and their families, as well as the farmer’s own household, being chiefly fed on mutton, at least during summer, when beef could not be salted. The carcasses were hung up in this place, it appeared, chiefly to prevent waste, by being constantly under the eye of the mistress, who, in this country, instead of the ancient Saxon title of “giver of bread” (levedy, whence our English term of lady) might be appropriately called the “giver of mutton.” Mutton, and not bread, is here the staff of life ; and they think it no more odd to have a sheep hanging in the voorhuis, than a farmer’s wife in England would to have the large household loaf placed for ready distribution on her hall-table.  At this very period, in fact, a pound of wheaten bread in this quarter of the colony was six times the value of a pound of animal food.

In regard to dress, there was nothing very peculiar to remark. That of the females, though in some respects more slovenly, resembled a good deal the costume of the lower classes in England fifty or sixty years ago. The men wore long loose trousers of sheep or goat-skin, tanned by the servants, and made in the family a check shirt, a jacket of course frieze or cotton, according to the weather, and a broad-brimmed white hat completed the dress. Shoes and stockings appeared not to be essential to either sex, and were seldom worn, except when they went to church, or to vrolygheids (merrymakings). Sandals, however, of a certain kind, called “country shoes,” are in common use, the fashion of which appears originally to have been borrowed from the Hottentots. They are made of raw bullock’s hide, with an upper leather of dressed sheep or goat-skin, much in the same way as the old brogues of the Scottish highlanders. They do not last long, but they are light and easy in dry weather: every man can make his own sandals, and the leather costs little or nothing.

The visitor, having previously heard that the industrious dame, the Juffrouw (Miss) Koetzer, sometimes manufactured leather dresses for sale, bespoke a travelling jacket of dressed springbuck skin, the latter to be faced with leopard-fur, the price of which, altogether, was thirteen rix-dollars, or about one pound sterling. He purchased also the skin of a leopard, which one of the young Koetzers had lately shot, for about a pound of gunpowder.

Old Koetzer and his family, like the old Dutch colonists generally, were extremely inquisitive, asking a great variety of questions, some of them on very trifling matters. Englishmen are apt to feel annoyed at this practice, but without any sufficient cause. Though it betokens a lack of refinement, it is not at all allied to rudeness or impertinence ; it is simply the result of untutored curiosity in the manners of people living in a wild and thinly inhabited country, to whom the sight of a stranger is a rare event, and by whom news of any description is welcomed with avidity. Instead, therefore, of haughtily or sullenly repelling their advances to mutual confidence, the visitor answered all their questions with good humour, including those that respected his own age, the number, names, and ages of his family and relations, the object and extent of his present journey, and such like. In return, he plied them with similar interrogations, to all of which they not only replied with the utmost openness, but seemed highly delighted with his frankness. In this manner he soon learned that his host had eight or ten brothers, all stout frontier graziers like himself, and all with numerous families. His own family consisted of six sons and as many daughters, several of whom were married and settled in the neighbourhood. Two of his sons, with their wives and families, were now living at this place in cottages adjoining to the house. The old dame stated that she was herself by birth a Jourdan, and was descended from one of the French Huguenot families who settled in the colony after the revocation of the Edict of Kantz. Her father, she said, could speak French ; but she herself knew no language but Dutch. Her manner and address, however, retained something of French urbanity and politeness, which the Belgian bluntness of her husband rendered the more obvious.

Having exhausted the usual topics of country chat, the visitor suggested a walk round the premises, and sallied forth, accompanied by the boor and his son Arend. They first went to the orchard, which was of considerable extent, and contained a variety of fruit trees, all in a thriving state. The peach-trees, which were now in blossom, were the most numerous ; but there were also abundance of apricot, almond, walnut, apple, pear, and plum trees, and whole hedges of figs and pomegranates. The outward fence, when there was any, consisted of a hedge of quinces. There was also a fine grove of lemon and a few orange trees. The latter required to be sheltered during the winter, until they had attained considerable size, the frost being apt to blight them in this upland valley. All the other fruits were raised with ease : peach-trees would bear fruit the third year after the seeds had been put in the ground. From the want of care and skill, however, in grafting, few of the fruits in this part of the colony were of superior sorts, or of delicate flavour. The peaches especially, were but indifferent; but as they were chiefly grown for making brandiwyn, or to be used in a dry state, excellence of flavour was but little regarded. Two mulberry trees, which were planted in front of the house, were large and flourishing, and produced an abundance of fruit. This was not the wild or white mulberry raised in Europe for feeding silk-worms; but the latter sort thrives also very well in different parts of the colony.

The garden, if it deserved the name, was very deficient in neatness, but contained a variety of useful vegetables: a large plot of beet-root, some beds of very fine cabbages, and plenty of mint, sage, and garlic, catching the eye. Onions were raised in great abundance, and of a quality equal to those of Spain. Pumpkins and melons were cultivated in considerable quantities. The sweet potato is raised here; but the common ones, though growing well, appeared not to be in much request in this, part of the colony. Until the arrival of English settlers, indeed, the value of this useful root was not generally appreciated by the inhabitants, and the quality of the few they raised was very inferior. Since that period, however, the cultivation of potatoes has greatly extended itself in the eastern districts, and their quality has been so much improved by the seed brought out by the settlers, that they now are scarcely, if at all, inferior to those of England; and the prejudices with which the native population, particularly the Hottentots, regarded them, rapidly declined.

Adjoining to the garden and orchard was a small, but well-kept vineyard, from which a large produce of very fine grapes is obtained, which, as well as the peaches, are chiefly distilled into brandy for home consumption. The whole of the orchard, vineyard, and garden-ground, together with about twenty acres of corn-land adjoining, was irrigated by the waters of a small mountain-rill, collected and led down in front of the house by an artificial canal. Without irrigation little can be done in this part of the colony; and though the river Tarka passes only a short distance from the back of the orchard, the channel is here too deep to admit of its water being led out upon the banks. The limited extent, therefore, of from twenty to thirty acres was the whole that could be cultivated on this farm, comprising at least 6,000 acres, exclusive of the waste and unappropriated tracts adjoining. But this is quite sufficient for the wants of a large family ; the real wealth of the farm, so far as respects marketable commodities, lies in the stocks of herds which are raised on its extensive pastures.

This old Winsel himself hinted to his visitor—as, shutting up a gap in the garden hedge with a branch of thorny mimosa, they issued out towards the kraals or cattle-folds — the boot exclaiming in a tone of jocund gratulation, while he pointed to a distant cloud of dust moving up the valley – “Maar daar koomt myn vee!” (But there comes my cattle!)

The appearance of the boor folding his herds and flocks is patriarchal and picturesque, and may well recall the words of the ancient poet:

“On came the comely sheep,
From feed returning to their pens and folds,
And those the kine in multitudes succeed;
One on the other rising to the eye.
As watery clouds which in the heavens are seen
Driven by the south or Thracian Boreas;
And numberless along the sky they glide;
Nor cease; so many doth the powerful blast
Speed forward; and so many, fleece on fleece
Successive rise reflecting varied light.
So still the herds of kine successive drive
A long extended line; and filled the plain
And all the pathways with the coming troop.”

As the boor and his visitor were now conversing, the clouds of dust which had been observed approaching from three different quarters came nearer, and it was manifest that they were raised by two numerous flocks of sheep and one large herd of cattle. First came the wethers, which are reared for the market, and are often driven even down to Cape Town, seven hundred miles distant. These being placed in their proper fold, the flock of ewes, ewe goats, and lambs, was next driven in, and carefully penned in another; those having young ones of tender age being kept separate. And finally, the cattle herd came rushing on pell-mell, and spontaneously assumed their station upon the summit of their guarded mound; the milk cows only being separated, in order to be tied up to stakes within a small enclosure nearer the houses, where they were milked by the Hottentot herdsmen, after their calves, which were kept at home, had been permitted to suck for a certain period. Not one of these cows, it was said, would allow herself to be milked until her calf was first put to her; if the calf dies, of course there is an end of her milk for that season. This appears to be the effect of habit, and might be remedied by proper management. About thirty cows were milked; but the quantity obtained from them was very small, not so much as would be got from six or eight English cows.

The boor and his wife, with all their sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren, who were about the place, were assiduously occupied, while the herds and flocks were folding, in examining them as they passed in, and in walking through among them afterwards, to see that all was right. The people thus employed declared that though they do not very frequently count them, yet they know at once whether any individual ox is missing, or if any accident has happened among the flocks, from beasts of prey or otherwise. This faculty, though the result, doubtless, of peculiar habits of attention, is certainly very remarkable; for the herd of cattle at this place amounted altogether to nearly 700 head, and the sheep and goats (which were mingled together) to upwards of 5,000. This is considered a very respectable, but by no means extraordinary, stock for a Tarka grazier.

Every individual of an African boor’s family, including even the child at the breast, has an interest in the welfare of the flocks and herds. It is their custom, as soon as a child is born, to set apart for it a certain number of the young live stock, which increase as the child grows up; and which, having a particular mark regularly affixed to them, form, when the owner comes at adult age, a stock sufficient to be considered a respectable dowry for a prosperous farmer’s daughter, or to enable a young man, though he may not possess a single dollar of cash, to begin the world respectably as a Vee Boor (Livestock Farmer).

On approaching the cattle kraals, the visitor was struck by the great height of the principal fold, which was elevated fifteen or twenty feet above the level of the adjoining plain, and his surprise was certainly not diminished when he found that the mound, on the top of which the kraal was constructed, consisted of a mass of solid dung, accumulated by the cattle of the farm being folded for a succession of years on the same spot. The sheep-folds, though not quite so elevated, and under the lee, as it were, of the bullocks’ kraal, were also fixed on the top of similar accumulations. The several folds (for those of the sheep and goats consisted of three divisions) were all fenced in with branches of the thorny mimosa, which formed a sort of rampart around the margin of the mounds of dung, and were carefully placed with their prickly sides outwards, on purpose to render the enclosures more secure from the nocturnal assaults of the hyenas, tigers, and jackals. Against all these ravenous animals the oxen are, indeed, able to defend themselves; but the hyenas, tigers, and leopards are very destructive to calves, sheep, and goats, when they can break in upon them, which they will sometimes do in spite of the watch-dogs kept for their protection; the cunning jackal is not less destructive to the lambs and kids.


  1. Coetzer, M. 31 Oktober 2015. ‘n Relaas, gedateer 1813, oor ‘n Coetzer-gesin wat in die distrik Tarka gewoon het. https://martiecoetser.weebly.com/coetzer-and-coetser-families-sa/n-relaas-gedateer-1813-oor-n-coetzer-gesin-wat-in-die-distrik-tarka-gewoon-het
  2. Williams, C. 1859. Narratives and Adventures of Travellers in Africa. Porter & Coates, Philadelphia: UK. https://archive.org/details/narrativesadvent00char