Tombstones are part of our heritage


By Elize Perrin

Every town and city has a story to tell. When those who experienced the events have dimmed their footprints on earth, tombstones help to complete the picture for those left behind.

A visit to Victoria West’s cemeteries and a few graves in the area leads you on the trail of the town’s rich history.

Big water in the Great Karoo

In a corner of the old cemetery, which was already in use in 1847, a fenced grave is proof of the sad events that took place in the town during February 1871.

“In memory of those who perished on the night of 27-28 February 1871 here at Victoria West…” is part of the inscription on the tombstone.

Almost twelve years after Victoria-West was given town status, a cloudburst on the farm Patrysfontein, almost ten kilometers outside the town, led to flooding. Thunder, lightning and heavy rain continued throughout the night. The town was surrounded by two hills and the water flowed into town from Loxton’s side, through the gate. By dawn, 34 houses had already been destroyed and 62 bodies had been counted.

One of the deceased, Renee Dodds, was soon to be married. According to survival, she was buried in her bridal tabbert.

The epitaph of Christina Francina van Wyk, born 1836, also confirms the tragic events of the night. Not only her name, but also four of her children’s names form part of the epitaph. They all drowned that fateful night on Patrysfontein.

The stagecoach driver at the time was considered a hero. Johannes Buyskes was able to help with his horses to take people to safety. Out of gratitude for his bravery, the women of the area cut off their locks, decorated them with gold and braided a chain for him. It was handed to him as a souvenir. After his death it was taken into custody by some of his descendants.

Many of the flood victims were laid to rest together in the aforementioned mass grave.

Dreaded diseases

Diphtheria, smallpox and later also the 1918 flu, were the cause of many new graves over the years.

With the outbreak of diphtheria in 1881, the Loots family lost five children to death and it also claimed five of the Human family’s children.

Although many years later, diphtheria also ended Roxani Bassil’s life in 1952 at the age of two. Roxani was the daughter of Andrew Bassil, a Greek immigrant who at the time was the owner of the Apollo theater in the town. His daughter’s death hit Andrew hard. As a final tribute, a marble tombstone, with a sleeping little girl and her life-size doll depicted on it, was ordered from Italy.

Shortly after diphtheria smallpox broke out in the community. On 5 July 1882, the first case of smallpox was detected on the farm Noblesfontein. Soon after, a mason in the informal settlement was also diagnosed with smallpox. In an effort to end the disease, houses and clothes were disinfected and special laundry arrangements were made. The cases got so bad that Dr. Smit, who served the town and community at that time, submitted his resignation. He could not manage his practice and the smallpox patients. Doctor Davies succeeded him.

With the number of smallpox patients increasing, the need for a hospital became greater. Initially, two tents were set up, while a hospital was hastily built in August 1882. Although it had already been decided earlier to administer vaccinations, this had not yet materialized at the end of the year. In an attempt to destroy the disease, drastic measures were taken by burning houses and clothes.

And just like the rest of the world, the Spanish flu also found the Karoo.

The town council and mayor of the town were also flattened by the flu and a lawyer, Mr. Cloete, had to stand in and take over some of their activities. However, the flu also took Cloete’s life.

The pastor of the local congregation, Rev. Daneel, also became seriously ill. At the time, a Carl van der Merwe was assigned to observe the funerals.

Both doctors in the town were also brought down by the dreaded flu. Doctor CJ Hugo was fetched from a farm to come and look after the sick. However, he himself also died.

According to survival, one hundred people died.

Jewish community

A part was camped in the old cemetery in Rivierstraat. The Jews who came to settle in the town in the nineteenth century rest here. According to survival, these were German Jews. Among them was a dr. August Hanau, Isidore Hanau and Moritz Hoffa. The said three founded a trading firm, Hanau and Hoffa. They were mainly involved in the marketing of mutton, wool and hides.

In 1929, the Jewish Council bought the old library, which also served as a cinema, on Victoria West and converted it into a synagogue. Although the town no longer has a Jewish community, the Jewish church still looks after the graves of their forefathers by arranging for their regular cleaning.

The crack of shots

Across the Karoo plains, the sound of shots between Boer and British also echoed. Commandant Judge Hendrik Johannes Hugo was part of the commandos led by General Malan, who were mainly active in the Beaufort West, Victoria West and Fraserburg areas. Patrols regularly arrived at the Wagenaarskraal farm, about sixty kilometers south of Victoria West, and spent the night. The farm has been in the MacRobert family’s possession since 1870 and thanks to George Findlay MacRobert’s diary, much information about the skirmishes in the area has been preserved

In February 1902, the English were overwhelmed by the Boers in a skirmish between Beaufort West and Fraserburg. The Boerekommando arrived at Wagenaaarskraal on 17 February 1902. Early the next morning they went to Oorlogsfontein, a farm about 5 km away. While the soldiers were eating breakfast, a scout announced that the English forces were busy occupying the ridges on the west side of the farm. Commander Hugo got his men together and rushed off the ridge. On top of the ridge, Hugo and a British captain crashed into each other and fired pistols at each other. Hugo was wounded in the neck. Due to the danger that he might bleed to death, he was taken to the farmhouse on Oorlogsfontein. Here he was well cared for by the owner and his wife and showed good recovery. However, the English forces in the area learned that a Boer commando was on the way and took commandant Hugo prisoner. The latter’s wound opened again and he presumably died at Bokpoort, between Victoria West and Loxton. He was buried nearby. In 1904 his body was exhumed and reburied in Smithfield, his birthplace. A monument in memory of Commandant Hugo was erected in 1904 at Oorlogsfontein.

On the farm Pampoenpoort, south-west of Victoria West, there is another proof of the bloody battles. The fourth North Stafford Regiment moved past Pampoenpoort on 21 February 1902. A peasant shooter, who was hiding in the ridges, wounded Second Lieutenant JM Sharpe from a very long distance. Some claim that it could even be a mile. Sharpe was treated for two days in the field hospital nearby before he died on February 23, 1902. He was buried at the place where he was wounded. Some of his family members came to visit his final resting place a number of years ago.

A final roar

Surrounded by packed stones, lies the grave of Michael Johannes Hough on the farm Sandgat. “Born on the 20th of November 1813. Died on the 14th of December 1876 at the age of 63 years and 15 days.”

Hough was attacked by a lion and torn from his horse. The lion was shot dead by its Bushman back rider, as it was referred to at the time. Hough’s leg was seriously injured and although he was advised to visit a doctor, he ignored the advice. Gangrene developed in the leg and caused his death. His grave was frequently visited by his descendants.

The back rider’s grave was washed away with the floods in 1974. He was in a sitting position with stones packed around him. The skeleton, of which only a foot and hand bone was missing, was taken to the museum in Cape Town for safekeeping, as it was feared that the grave could wash open again.