Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Bergtheil Settlers

A group of German settlers came to Natal in March 1848 on the ship Beta, under a private scheme arranged by Jonas Bergtheil. This was the first organized initiative to bring settlers to Natal, pre-dating the much-publicised and well-documented Byrne scheme.

Bergtheil himself was born in Bavaria in 1819 and had travelled at the youthful age of 15 to the Cape, where members of his family were then living. In 1843, he arrived in Natal during an unsettled period in the area's history. The conflict of 1842 between the Boers and British was in the recent past, many Voortrekkers had left for pastures new, the population was depleted and there was no guarantee that Britain would establish control of Natal. Matters hung in the balance until 1845, when Natal was declared a Colony and its future became more assured. Bergtheil bought a large acreage of land (Wandsbeck) from Edmund Morewood, and decided to put this under cotton. A man of vision, Bergtheil, as director of the Natal Cotton Company, saw Natal's potential as an area for immigrant settlement. He visited England with some sample bales of cotton, and received a high price for them in Manchester, but failed in his attempts to interest Scottish and English immigrants to come to Natal.

He then turned to his own country of birth, Germany, where at that time not much was known about Natal except that it was a remote and savage place peopled by indigenous tribes and wild animals. Bergtheil, in what would now be called a marketing exercise, tried to disperse such notions, and even took a Zulu with him to Germany as evidence that the dangers of living in Natal were widely exaggerated.

Eventually, his persistence paid off and he was able to put together a group of settlers who would travel on the Beta, under Captain Georg Poppe, leaving Bremen on 19 November 1847 (some sources give 21 November as embarkation date) and arriving at Port Natal on 23 March 1848. All the expenses were borne out of Bergtheil's private funds, which is indicative of his faith in the venture. So confident was he that he didn't travel out personally with the settlers and this was a mistake because he wasn't on hand to make sure initial arrangements in Natal went smoothly.

The settlers' contract provided 210 acres for each of them, ten acres for growing vegetables and the rest to be put under cotton. Seed and other necessities were supplied free, though the settlers had to buy farming implements and oxen. They were at the start accommodated in tents or huts, and had to make their own bricks in order to build more permanent homesteads - e.g. the Konigkramer family home constructed in 1871 stands to this day, in Barn Place, Westville. Bergtheil changed the name of the area previously known as Wandsbeck to Westville in honour of Martin West, first Lieutenant-Governor of Natal.

The first year was a struggle for the settlers: the harvest was poor, and imported seed had been damaged in transit, but gradually, with hard work, conditions improved. After about 10 years most had prospered and had been able to take ownership of their lands.

Jonas Bergtheil became a prominent figure in the business life of the Colony, and was elected to the first Legislative Assembly in 1857. In 1866 he and his family left Natal. Bergtheil died in 1901 and lies buried in the Bayswater cemetery, London. The many successful and well-known descendants of his German settlers who still reside in Natal are a living memorial to the man who was the forerunner in organized immigration to this province.


Fenix said...

I was looking for some information on german immigrants who left South Africa and went to Mozambique. But this text clears my knowledge about how (some of them) came to SA.
Nice text, thanks!

Mole said...

Thanks for your comment and I'm glad the blogpost was helpful.

Kairen Brooke-Anderson said...

I want to find my great grandmother's family

Mole said...

There are legions of Schwegmanns listed in Walter Volker's volume The Cotton Germans of Natal published by the author.
The couples who were among the original Bergtheil group were
Hermann Diedrich and wife Katharine;
Christian Rudolf and wife Anna Maria Elise PIENEMANN. Many many descendants.

Kairen Brooke-Anderson said...

Thank you. That is very helpful

I will see if I can order the book from the library and in the meantime have emailed the author.

As my great grandmother was born in 1868, one of the three must have been her father.

I am almost certain she was with the Bergtheil colony as she was married in Westville.

Mole said...

Regina Margarete Dorothea Morgan b Schwegmann b 01.12.1867 New Germany Natal, daughter of Carl Heinrich Schwegmann b Neuenkirchen Germany 1835 and Margaretha Maria Regina Lange b 02.10.1834 d 18 Feb 1909. The latter's second husband was Carl Schwegmann, they married 1857 and had 8 children. Her first husband was Henry Wm Woodhead whom she married in 1853 (3 daughters; he died 1857). In 1879 she married 3rd husband Johann Neesmann (no issue). I have photos of Regina Lange and C H Schwegmann if you want me to send them by email. Your g grandmother Regina M D S married Charles Morgan o9.06.1886. Mole