Origins of Colonial Settlement
In 1845, Andries Hendrik Potgieter led the Voortrekkers to establish the first White settlement in the Eastern Transvaal at Ohrigstad. A second group led by JJ Burger followed, but the two groups failed to agree on the way forward. The town was not a successful settlement as the trekkers were divided by competing leaderships. Adding to their woes, they were badly affected by malaria, and their herds by stock diseases.
Potgieter moved north to found the town of Schoemansdal, while the other group moved south to found Lydenburg, which became a centre for the Boers. The entire Eastern Transvaal was included in the area that the Boers declared the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (ZAR), an entity that never quite achieved the statehood it aspired to, as it was hobbled by weak administrative and governing capacity.
The Boers’ desire for a state led to attempts to reach agreements with the surrounding peoples. They tried to reach an agreement with Sekwati, the Pedi monarch, but the document setting out the agreement was lost, and the Pedi refused to believe that Sekwati would sell the land. Agreements with Mswati were problematic because he wanted the Boers to give the Swazis protection from the Zulus, and therefore signed away areas that he did not have claim or control over.
Nevertheless, the Boers managed to command huge tracts of land, some of it not ruled over by any chiefs, some of it the domain of small and weak chiefdoms that fell under the sway of the Boers. The Boers dispensed the plots of land to White newcomers, and accorded citizenship to them, a privilege they withheld from the Black people of the area.
The Boers began to issue title deeds for land that fell outside of the areas they claimed legitimacy for, and ignored the claims of the tribes that lived in these areas. They also began to encroach on the territory of independent African kingdoms. Not all the Boers were farmers, since it took much capital and resources to make farming profitable. Together with Africans in the area, many took to hunting for game, and trading in ivory and animal hides with the Portuguese. These goods were much in demand in Europe, and they could be transported to Mozambique and exported from there.
But even trade had its limits, as did natural resources, and elephant numbers soon diminished. Many Boers with property, wanting to avoid taxes and other commitments, sold their land cheaply to traders, becoming tenants on land they had previously owned. Land soon became expensive, as demand was high. The Boers who did have land, having become used to the labour of servants in the Cape, found labourers hard to find in the early years. African communities were too self-sufficient to be forced into labour, and provided labour only in exchange for goods such as guns and cattle.
The Boers began to resort to child labour, using African children captured in raids onvillages. Soon a trade in children developed, especially with the Swazi, who wanted to develop a relationship with the Boers.
The BaPedi, Ndzundza, Kopa and land wars in the region
With the discovery of diamonds and a flourishing wool trade in Port Elizabeth, many young African men began to travel to these areas as miners or migrant workers. The Boers resented this and tried to introduce curbs on migrancy in order to secure a pool of labour for themselves. But the Boers could not match the wages paid to the migrants, and thus labour remained scarce.
The migrants often bought firearms, and the Pedi, Swazi and Ndzundza procured small arsenals in this way. Boleu, chief of the Kopa, amassed a stock of firearms that enabled his people to resist Boer aggression. Boleu had established Thaba Ntsho (Black Mountain), a fortified capital built on a hill near today’s Grobblersdal. But the Boers raided his settlement and flogged him, forcing him into submission.
The Ndzundza also built up a considerable fortress, with 10 000 people under the reign of Chief Mabhogo in Erholweni, near what is today known as Rossenekal. The Boers, with Pedi support, launched an attack on Erholweni in 1863, but the Pedi, sustaining most of the casualties, deserted them after an unsuccessful assault. The Boers then asked the Swazi to help mount an assault in 1864. Together they attacked the Kopa, defeated them, and captured 2500 women and children. Boleu was killed. They then attacked the Ndzundza but failed to defeat them.
Some of the Boers who lived near the Ndzundza had to submit to Mabhogo’s conditions to be able to live in the area peacefully, and gave him cattle in exchange for his agreement not to harass them. But the Ndzundza were later defeated by the Boers in 1883, and many ended up working on Boer farms.
The ZAR installed a regent to rule the Pedi in 1892, causing rifts within Pedi society. The Pedi were divided in two, those who accepted the regent and those that rejected him in support of Sekhukhune II, son of Sekhukhune.
In 1877, the British annexed the Transvaal, but political wrangling forced them to restore the Republic to the Boers.
The Gold Rush in the Transvaal
Sterkspruit and Tati, discovered by Karl Gottlieb Mauch in about 1867.
Edward Button finds gold in 1869 or 1870 on the banks of the Lepalula River, and then at the foot of a mountain range near Gravelotte in the Northern Transvaal. Button in 1871 finds gold on the farm Eersteling in Marabastad, south of Polokwane in the Northern Transvaal. Alluvial gold was found on the farm Geelhoutboom and in Graskop, east of Lydenburg in 1873. In May 1873 the River area in Ohrigstad was declared a public digging. C Evans and H Eelders finds gold in Steenkampsberg in August 1873 Alec Patterson and William Trafford each separately find gold in Pilgrim’s Creek in August and September 1873 respectively. Gold discovered in MacMac in 1873. Thomas MacLachlan found gold in the De Kaap area, announcing his find in January 1874. B Chomse finds gold on the farm Berlin near Kaapsche Hoop in 1882. James Murray discovers alluvial gold at the confluence of the Noordkaap River and Jamestown Creek, to become known as Jamestown. August Robert (French Bob) finds gold on Moodies Estate in Barberton. The Barber family also discovered gold in the area and officially informed the authorities in June 1884 of their find on state-owned land. August Robert (French Bob) finds gold in Mbayiyane (Three Sisters) on the eastern side of the De Kaap valley in 1885/6. David Low finds gold in a stream at the foot of the Mbayiyane mountains, to become known as Low’s Creek. Edwin Bray finds the Golden Quarry in 1885, to become a part of the Sheba Reef Gold Mining Company, whose shares of £1 were sold for £120.
The Discovery of Gold
Gold was found in various locations in the Transvaal in the 1870s and 1880s, but it was the discovery of gold in Pilgrim’s Rest, some 80km north of Nelspruit, in 1873, that brought hordes of prospectors to the region, which fell under the rule of the Transvaal Republic (or ZAR). This influx led toadditional searches by prospectors for other sites where gold might be found, and the region as a whole was affected by their activities.
Although the gold in the alluvial deposits soon diminished, the discovery of gold in other locations led to the development of towns and, in the case of Johannesburg, a huge city. After the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley, the Mining Law of 1871 opened the way for gold mining in the Transvaal. The search and discovery process served to bring Whites other than Afrikaners to the Transvaal, and while some deposits were exhausted, others continued to yield the yellow metal, as in the case of the Moodies Estate in Barberton, 80km south of Nelspruit.
The increased settlement and activity in the area meant that regional economies developed, and the necessity to create infrastructure to facilitate economic activity, especially transport links such as road and rail, became more and more urgent. Late in 1873, the Portuguese forged a route to the foot of the Lebombo Mountains, and in January 1875, Alois Hugo Nellmapius was given a concession to construct a road from the goldfields to the foot of the Lebombo Mountains.
The Coming of the Railways
The question of access to the Mozambican port, Delagoa Bay, was one of the strategic conditions that needed to be secured by the earliest Boers in the Transvaal. Various attempts were made before the rail link was finally realised.
As early as 1866, Alexander McCorkindale presented a proposal to the government for the construction of a railway to Lourenço Marques. But McCorkindale died while surveying the proposed port in Lourenço Marques (Maputo). A concession was then granted to George Piggot Moodie but was cancelled when he failed to act within the given period.
A government-appointed commission presented its report in November 1874, and President Burgers put the resolution to the Volksraad, who passed it by 16 November. Burgers then went to Europe and secured an agreement with the Portuguese government in December 1875, and raised money from the Dutch. The Lebombo Railway Company was brought into the deal, and Burgers signed a contract with the Belgian Cockerell Company to construct the railway line.
But when Shepstone annexed the Transvaal in April 1877, the plan ground to a halt.
When the ZAR government returned to power in 1881, President Kruger appointed a Railway Commission to decide the manner of constructing the railway, but it was not until much later that the railway became a reality.
The Beginnings of Nelspruit
The decision to run the Eastern Railway through the area that eventually became known as Nelspruit, gave birth to a village that would be declared a city a century later.
The little village was named after the Nel brothers, who met the railway’s surveyors in the area of the creek (spruit) in April/May 1884. The surveyors mapped out a route to the interior of the Transvaal, from Komatiport, to Pretoriuskop, crossing the Crocodile River into Nelspruit, from there going on to Pretoria via Machadodorp. It was the Nel brothers who convinced the surveyors that their plan to run the line to the foot of the Drakensberg was not a good idea, since the tsetse fly was abundant in that region.
The surveyors’ recommendations were investigated by a commission, which reported their findings to the government on 23 August 1884. Their report was published in the Government Gazette on 28 August, by so doing officially naming the station as Nelspruit, and conferring recognition on the village.
In 1889, a survey of the area around Nelspruit Station set out 120 stands for future development. In around 1887, a telegraph line was established between Komatipoort and Nelspruit. The railhead from Lourenço Marques reached Komatipoort on 1 July 1891, Hectorspruit on 1 October, Malelane on 28 December, Kaapmuiden in March 1892, Krokodilpoort in April 1892, and Nelspruit on 20 June 1892. By 1 January 1895 the railway reached Pretoria, and the line was officially opened on 27 June 1895.
Price of fares from Pretoria to Lourenco Marques
First Class: 4 pounds, 5 shillings and 6 pence (R8.55 by 1980 rates)
Return trip: 6 pounds 16 shillings (R13.60)
Second Class: 3 pounds and 8 shillings (R6.80 by 1980 rates)
Return trip: 5 pounds and 8 shillings (R10.80)
The railway allowed people from Pretoria to reach Lourenço Marques after a journey lasting about 26 hours. It featured two levels of passage: first and second class.
Some infrastructural activity then began in the area. At first, Nelspruit residents got their water from outlying areas via train. But on 20 January 1898 permission was granted for water to be pumped from the Gladdespruit.
During the construction of the railway, White workers relied on the Hall familyfor food and accommodation. The Halls put them up for three weeks, but this became unsustainable as more and more workers arrived in the area. The Halls decided to put up a hotel in Mataffin and in November 1891 the hotel opened its doors. Hall moved the hotel to central Nelspruit after June 1892, when the railway was completed, and the hotel became the first building erected in the town – it was named the Fig Tree Hotel, and was leased out to general dealers E Bayer and Company.
The South African War
The influx of non-Afrikaners to the Transvaal, and the gold rush, posed a problem for the Boer Republic. President Kruger refused to grant “uitlanders”political rights, since he calculated that their political clout would destabilise the hegemony of the Afrikaners.
The South African War was declared on 11 October 1899. The first phase of the war saw the Boers lay siege to several towns in the Transvaal, but the British stormed the towns and defeated the Boers.
At first there were few signs of the war in Nelspruit. But when Steinacker and his scouts blew up the bridge near the Malelane station, killing the Swiss engine driver and his stoker, trains were no longer allowed to travel at night and had to stable at Nelspruit. A German company, Messrs Wilcken & Ackermann, forwarding agents based in Lourenço Marques, transported goods to the Rand for the Boer government by train.
Hall, who ran the hotel after his lease to Max Liebnitz expired, revealed that the Germans were paid in gold, which was stored in his hotel while in transit through Nelspruit. On one occasion the gold weighed far too much for the structure to contain, and the safe crashed through the first floor to the ground below.
Black involvement in the War
The African groups in the region had grievances against the Boers as well as the British. The Boers exercised harsh control over the subjugated chiefdoms, extracting taxes and labour on pain of flogging.
The British exploited their grievances, using the local tribes as chess pieces in their conflicts with the Boers. They gave the tribes the impression that they would help free them of Boer domination and restore their land. The British also paid higher wages to Africans than the Boers ever had, and the latter resented this, since it deprived them of labour and created an alliance between the British and African groupings in the area.
Sekhukhune II saw the war as an opportunity to unite the divided Pedi, and attacked Pedi chiefs not loyal to him. But after the British occupied Lydenburg in September 1900, British commander Redvers Buller forced the Pedi to cease their civil war, and turn their hostility against the Boers. The Pedi raided Boer farms, ejecting them and settling on the farms. They were also tasked by the British to round up Boers in the Lydenburg and Middleburg area and deliver them to the British, after which the Boer captives were sent to concentration camps, one of the largest being in Barberton, south of Nelspruit.
The Pedi also patrolled the area to prevent Boers from using routes to transport supplies to Boers in other areas. Micha Dinkwanyane blocked the Waterval Valley near Lydenburg, the only route the Boers could use to get grain to their commandoes in the Highveld. Even the Ndzundza, under Matsitsi, who had been living alongside the Boers, turned on them after the British began supplying them with guns.
To cripple the Boers and starve them into submission, Lord Kitchener implemented his scorched earth policy, which saw the British destroy many Boer farms – crops and houses were set alight, and livestock was confiscated. The inhabitants of these farms were interned in concentration camps, of which there were 38 by June 1902, incarcerating about 56000 Boer and African women, children and the elderly. Death and disease were rife under the conditions of the camps, and 20 000 Africans and 27 000 Boers died by the end of the war, the majority of them children under the age of 16.
The British used the African interns for labour, and always situated the camps near railway lines so they could transport the prisoners to where labour was needed.
President Paul Kruger, sensing defeat, fled Pretoria for Machadadorp, then Waterval Onder. He moved to Nelspruit on 29 May 1900, where he received a message saying Lord Roberts had annexed the Transvaal. Kruger declared the annexation illegitimate on 3 September 1900, the same day Nelspruit was proclaimed the administrative capital of the Transvaal Republic.
Kruger left Nelspruit a week later and travelled to Mozambique, to board a ship to Europe. He eventually settled in Clarens, Switzerland, where he died on 14 July 1904.
A few days after Kruger left Nelspruit, the British army, under General Stevenson, occupied Nelspruit.
After the war, which ended on 31 May 1902, Lord Alfred Milner installed a British administration to rule the Transvaal. Africans who had lost livestock or agricultural produce were given a certain amount of compensation, but it was inadequate. The African chiefdoms had expected to be given more, having helped the British to conquer the Boers. They expected to be restored to their lands but this did not happen.
The British convened the Schoonoord Conference, to explain British policy, on 6 September 1902, a meeting that was attended by 44 chiefs and 39 headmen from the Transvaal. Sekhukhune II declared to the commission that the Pedi had fought the war under the impression that their land would be returned after driving the Boers off the territory, but the British refused to concede land to the chiefs.
Africans were also told that all firearms had to be handed in, in line with the Arms and Ammunition Ordinance No 17 of 1902 and by the end of the year, Boers and Africans together surrendered up to 11000 firearms. Those wanting to own firearms had to apply for licences, but these were subsequently given only to Whites. Thus the chiefdoms were no longer able to resist their complete and effective colonisation.
The Pedi also objected to a policy in which Boers were given permission to retrieve cattle they claimed had been stolen from them, and the Pedi sent a petition to the authorities. The Pedi refused to cooperate, and the matter remained unresolved.The Pedi withheld their labour from the Boers, who needed manpower to get their farms working again, and for a short time there was a general feeling that the Africans no longer had to take instructions from the conquered Boers.
The conclusion of the war saw Nelspruit come under British administration, and the British drew up a survey of the town. Servaas de Kock undertook the project and completed the survey in January 1904. The document was registered in May 1904 and Nelspruit was proclaimed on 27 January 1905, leaving thw ay free for land to be parcelled out to buyers.
Nelspruit after the Union of South Africa, 1910
Nelspruit functioned as an engine and watering station and a decision was made to construct another railway line to Graskop in the northwest, and construction began in April 1911. More than 500 White workers were used to build the railway, and problems of sanitation became urgent, so a Health Committee was established on 2 September 1912 to oversee the sanitation of workers.
The line to Sabie was completed in November 1913, and reached Graskop on 18 May 1914. A road to Schoemanskloof was completed in 1928, a direct route to Kaapschehoop having been completed in 1924.
The interests of the British in South Africa continued after union was proclaimed. In 1925, the British Royal Family visited the region, stopping at Barberton. Peter Wilhelm, the chair of the Nelspruit Town Council, met the Prince of Wales.
By now modern conveniences were beginning to be introduced to the town. The movies came to Nelspruit when screenings were organised at the Fig Tree Hotel. The first movie with sound, Rio Rita, was screened on 20 January 1931. Motor cars were increasingly evident in the town, and a classification system was adopted for the registration of local motor vehicles.
Nelspruit was declared a magisterial district in 1931, until then having been part of the Barberton district. A licensing committee was established in November 1931, and licences to sell alcohol were dispensed.
In 1933, a hydroelectric dam brought electricity to the town, making possible the use of the emerging technologies like fridges, stoves and heaters.The Nelspruit District Publicity Association was established in 1934, adopting the motto “Nelspruit, The Hub of the Lowveld”, reflecting the town’s self-consciousn positioning as a central nodal point for the region.
In line with this focus on development, facilities for the White locals wre instaled. A swimming pool was completed in 1940, and a library became operational after WWII began in 1939. After the war, there was continued growth and a housing scheme for 127 homes was established in 1947. That same year, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II visited the town, and received a gift of furniture made from local wood.
Land, farming & conservation
By the second decade of the 20th century, Nelspruit, although still a little village, was nevertheless the centre of a thriving farming and fruit-growing district, with a Farmers’ Association comprising 125 members, who represented only a portion of the area’s farmers.
Citrus growers in particular had much success, setting up farms along the Crocodile River from Nelspruit to White River, 20km to the north. The first citrus fruit from the area was exhibited at a horticultural show in London in 1905, and by 1916, 65 000 cases of citrus were being exported every year.The industry expanded even more rapidly in the 1920s, and in some years as many as 2-million trees were planted.
After the 1920s, problems of scale made exports more difficult, especially as refrigeration was in its early stages of development. The Fruit Grower’s Exchange was created to handle some of these problems, as was the establishment of the South African Cooperative Citrus Exchange. These were able to pool resources that made the terms of export more conducive to citrus growers, such as arranging for shorter travel times and refrigeration.
America Professor HJ Webber visited Nelspruit in 1924/5. A director at the Citrus Experiment Station in Riverside, California, he advised on the establishment of a research institute in 1925. Three hundred acres were set aside for the station, which began operating in 1926.
In 1927, lawyer Ivan Solomon became the sole owner of Crocodile Estates, which consolidated 601 plots, each 5 acres in size and previously owned by mainly British investors. After lean times during and after the Great Depression, the estate became a significant exporter of citrus by 1939, with the British government buying the entire produce of the estate for the six years of the war. South Africa then established the Citrus Board to effect the transaction.
The agricultural industry also created jobs for African people in the area, who were not allowed to develop into entrepreneurs – as determined by early 20th century segregation policies.
This increasing economic activity was recognised by the financial institutions, and Barclays Bank opened its first branch in Nelspruit in 1916. Three years later, in 1919, Standard Bank opened a sub-branch of the Barberton branch, reflecting the then greater concentration of business in Barberton. But in 1922, the Nelspruit branch was upgraded to full branch status.
Sugar plantations and the growth of a sugar industry also became a permanent form of agricultural production, with plantations stretching from the outskirts of Nelspruit to Malelane, some 60km to the east.
Timber production also developed, and in the 1960s, Sappi entered the area and developed huge plantations for the production of paper products. The company, formed in 1936 and based in Springsin the East Rand, began buying timber from the region before it established a paper mill in 1963.
The Kruger National Park
With the influx of the Boers into the Eastern Transvaal, alterations to the ecosystem of the region soon became apparent.Demand for animal hides drove economic activity in the area, and hunting was a source of livelihood for many. Large numbers of animals were killed by big game hunters,and by the local African population.
A literature based on vicarious pleasures arose, the exploits of hunters chronicled for consumption in the metropolitan centres of Europe and the United States. But the abundance of elephants and other species soon diminished, and by the middle of the 19th century regulations were mooted to control hunting and preserve the animal populations.
The law for the improved regulation of the hunting of elephants and other wildlife in the South African Republic sought to “stop the hunting in summer, to reduce the number of animals killed, and prevent Africans and foreign visitors from hunting”, according to Delius and Hay. This law reserved hunting only for local White hunters.
By the 1870s, the ZAR changed the laws to allow for game keepers to maintain a presence on the ground. The demand for gamekeepers increased as more and more of the local White population recognised the need for conservation.
Despite opposition from poor Whites who depended on hunting for their livelihoods, the government began consulting landdrosts in the region with the aim of formulating new hunting laws.The landdrosts generally reported that until hunting was outlawed, people would continue hunting and would not find other ways to make a living, and that wildlife populations were dangerously close to being exterminated.
Richard Kelsey Loveday (1854-1910), the son of a family that settled in Natal and a surveyor, became an outspoken advocate of conservation, and campaigned for wildlife conservation. A member of the Barberton Volksraad, he argued for stricter laws.
A rinderpest epidemic that killed many cattle was blamed by many on the presence of wild animals, which were slaughtered by the thousands. Hunting was again allowed to allow destitute farmers access to a source of food, further diminishing the numbers of wildlife species.
By 1898, President Paul Kruger signed a proclamation to establish the park eventually named after him. Initially called the Sabi Game Reserve, it was situated between the Sabi and Crocodile rivers, on the border with Mozambique, and teemed with mosquitoes. The fact that the malaria-infested area was unfit for human habitation provided added motivation for the park’s establishment.
Little was done to develop the park during the South African War, but after it was concluded the British administration appointed Captain HF Francis as a game inspector, but he was killed in a Boer raid in August 1901, shortly after being appointed. WM Walker was then appointed to replace him, but he was fired in January 1902.
British cavalry officer James Stevenson-Hamilton was then appointed, and he planned to let the number of antelope increase to a point until hunting could be allowed again – for a large fee. But his views changed when he surveyed the number of animals in the park: it contained no elephants, black rhino, hartebeest, eland, or ostriches. There were five giraffes, 15 hippos, eight buffalo, 12 sable antelope, 40 blue wildebeest, 100 waterbuck and 35 kudu, among others.
Stevenson-Hamilton enlarged the reserve, enabling the animals to roam more freely and multiply more rapidly. He then expelled up to 3000 Africans living in the reserve. He ran the administration like a military unit, keeping meticulous records in the process.By 1909 there were 25 elephants, eight rhinos, about 55 buffalo, a number of eland, hippos and large herds of roan antelope, hartebeest and kudu. Predatory animals like lion, tigers and crocodiles were shot.
Influenced by the development of National Parks in the US, he acceded to a new concept of conservation, totally outlawing hunting. By 1929, the reserve was extended and renamed the Kruger National Park. After this a commission reported in 1918 that the park would allow animals to flourish in a natural habitat, create tourism revenue, allow for the botanical sciences to develop, and become a symbol of nationhood for White South Africans.
Stevenson-Hamilton wrote a book on his new concept of conservation, Animal Life in Africa, published in 1912. He stopped the killing of predators, arguing for a balance of nature, revealing a move towards a more modern understanding of ecosystems and biodiversity.
By the time Stevenson-Hamilton retired after WWII, apartheid policies had ensured the removal of Africans to areas reserved for them. The administration after Stevenson-Hamilton began to take a more interventionist role in the management of the park, creating boreholesand managing fires with a burning policy.
A commission of inquiry in the 1940s made new recommendations, and the Transvaal Provincial government established a Fauna and Flora branch, which established new reserves around the Loskop Dam, near the Blyde River Canyon and Blyde Dam. The branch centralised control over natural resources, liaised with farmers, regulated hunting, destroyed vermin, conducted research, established resorts and maintained publicity.
By 1960, there were too many elephants in the park, which could only accommodate about 6000. The population explosion created problems, as the elephants began to destroy the natural environment. After 1994, a moratorium on culling was put into place, as the elephant population approached 15000, with radical environmental effects. Tourists complained that the park was no longer as beautiful as it had been.
The department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, after public consultations, then introduced a new policy in 2008, allowing for culling when necessary.
Other towns in the then Eastern Transvaal
Barberton was established in 1884, with the discovery of the Sheba reef being the height of gold exploration. Most of the gold ran out and Barberton later became a centre for agricultural production.
Lydenburg was founded by the Voortrekkers in 1847, to become an independent republic before it was incorporated into the Transvaal. Gold was discovered in the region in 1870s. It became a platinum centre in the 1924-5 period.
Machadadorp was named after General JJ Machado, surveyor of Mozambique, who helped to build the main railway line from Petoria? to Lourenco Marques. The town became the seat of government during the South African Wwar, from May 30 to August 27 1900 after the evacuation of Pretoria, and was the scene of much fighting. It has warm springs.
Piet Retief was founded in 1885 and named after the Voortrekker leader. The town became the seat of the Transvaal Republic government during the SA war in 1901. Situated close to the border of Swaziland.
Pilgrim’s Rest was established as a gold diggers’ camp in 1873.