White Chief of the Shangaan, elephant-hunter and trader
João Albasini was born in Lisbon, Portugal on 1 June 1813. Beside the fact that his father was a sea captain, little is known about young Albasini’s youth. In 1831, when João was 18, his father left him in charge of a trading post at Delagoa Bay (In present day Mozambique). It was here that the Tsonga people nurtured his hunting skills. After learning on buck he soon became a skilled elephant hunter and traded ivory with interior peoples.
Albasini was 20 when the exiled Zulu chief Shoshangane and soldiers attacked Delagoa Bay, massacring many White people and abducting him. He escaped six months later and returned to Delagoa Bay. Here the Magwaba admired his courage and leadership qualities, called him ‘Jowawa', and reputedly later made him their chief. In 1838 he met Carel Trichardt with whom he formed a hunting partnership.
After seven years in Delagoa Bay Albasini had built rapport and trust with the Shangaan people inhabiting the area. In 1845, Chief Magashula gave him land on the Sabie River in which is now the Kruger National Park. Here Albasini and his followers built a settlement known as Makashula Kraal, he was the first White person to settle in the lowveld.
The ruins of his brick-built house are not far from where the Hippo Pools are located, near Pretoriuskop in the Kruger National Park. In 1845 he became the first Portuguese person to trade with the voortrekkers led by Andries Ohrigstad and in 1847, the first to open a shop.
In 1849, when this settlement was abandoned because of fever, he moved with his considerable following to Lydenburg. He married Gertina van Rensburg and the family moved with their followers in 1853 to the Spelonken at Zoutpansbergdorp, presently known as Schoemansdal in the Soutpansberg district. Here he set up a trading post. He later joined the settlers at Ohrigstad. It was here that he built a model farm, Goedewensch (good wish), built a fort on this land and officially became the Chief of the Magwaba. The word magwaba means uncivilised, uncultured and foolish, and is a derogatory word for Shangaan people. Through the links he had established in South Africa, the Portuguese government in 1858 appointed him Vice–Consul for the Transvaal Republic. His period as Chief and Vice–Consul was eventful. He built a store, supervised the local inhabitants and maintained trade between the Republic and Portugal. He established a postal service between the Delagoa Bay Portuguese and the Boer Republic. In 1859 the Transvaal Republic government appointed Albasini as Native Superintendent in Zoutpansberg charged with the collection of a poll tax. This he did with the help a force of some 2 000 Pedi. When Modjadji, the Rain Queen of the Lobedu, defied him, Albasini set off with a commando against her people and brought back cattle as booty and about 400 children as slaves.
On the death in 1864 of the Venda paramount chief, Ramabulana, the Transvaal authorities supported Albasini's protégé, Davhana, the disinherited son of Ramabula. However, the Venda thought that Davhana had poisoned his father and rallied in support behind another prince. This man, Machado, harassed the people of Schoemansdal to such an extent that most pioneers had evacuated by 1867. Twenty families opted to remain. Machado burned down the settlement, but Albasini and his company of pioneers stuck it out in the fort on his farm and were able to assist the trekkers when they returned to take up tracts of land the following year. On 10 July 1888 he died there and was buried opposite what is now the entrance to Albasini Dam.
In 2002 the Kruger National Park officially opened the Phabeni gates to facilitate tourist access to Albasini’s 1846-1848 settlement in the southern region of the Park. The Shangaan people remember João Albasini annually.
• Potgieter, D.J.(ed)(1970)
• Davenport, T.R.H., (1991)