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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Mrs. R. visits Capetown, 1799

Camp Cove, Capetown, John Wilson Carmichael

[1799] We were now fast approaching the southern extremity of Africa; and had the satisfaction, on the morning of the 7th of December, to see the Table Mountain, the Sugar-loaf, and the Lion’s rump. This place is so well known to seamen, and so remarkable, that in case of an erroneous reckoning, it cannot be mistaken for other land.

The ship anchored in Table Bay about noon. We were much concerned to see several wrecks lying on the shore, and most sorry to learn, that about three weeks previous, there had been a most tremendous gale of wind from the north-west quarter, in which the Sceptre of 64 guns had been driven on shore; when the captain, his son, and a number of the crew perished; there were also a Danish man of war, an American, and two other ships lost at the same time. This melancholy disaster, with the death of Admiral Christian, had filled all the British here with since regret.

I must confess, I was surprised and pleased with the view of Cape Town from the ship; with the white-washed houses, and green painted windows, it had a clean and handsome appearance.
On the vessel anchoring, the commodore’s boat came on board, with an order from General Dundas for the captain to proceed immediately on shore, with all the letters and papers he might have for the settlement. It appeared that they had had no intelligence direct from England for upwards of four months; in consequence of which, we were a most acceptable arrival, having the latest news from India by way of St. Helena, as well as from Europe.

On shore, my husband saw his old commander Capt. [Michael] H[ogan], who among many other enquiries asked, “How many of those Irish rebels he had with him, and how they had behaved on the voyage?” Capt. R. replied, “that they had behaved so well, they had put it out of his power or that of his officers to lay a finger upon one of them : and that he was in hopes of landing them at their place of destination, without introducing the machinery of punishment.” This answer appeared to surprise him not a little, and no doubt brought reflections to his mind respecting incidents during a former voyage, when they sailed together.

We were received as inmates in the family of Mr. Blackenburgh, a Dutch gentleman, known to my husband formerly, where we were comfortably situated. His sister-in-law, Miss Rouseau, spoke English : and thus her pleasing manners made it most agreeable for me to be again in female society. During our stay here, little parties were made, with arrangements for visiting the neighbourhood, and among other places, the famous vineyards of great and little Constantia. In going to the latter place, we passed many country-seats belonging to the Dutch and English gentry, and made a circuit round a bush, where the Lieut.-governor sometimes resided. Here we saw, in traversing the country, the red and white grapes, hanging in rich clusters from fine spreading vines, fastened to a kind of lattice-work projecting from the wall.

When we arrived at the great Constantia, the proprietor, Mr. C. was from home. However we were more fortunate at Constantia the less; and were hospitably received by the host, his wife, and family. One of the sons spoke pretty good English, and appeared happy to communicate any information in answer to enquiries. We walked through the grounds, gardens, and vineyards; the trees in the orchards were loaded with the finest fruits, such as oranges, apples, pears, quinces, peaches, nectarines, almonds, &c. in abundance. 

I was rather disappointed at first viewing the vineyards: I had expected we should have walked under the lattice-work supporting the grapes in all directions round us; but instead of this, when the vineyards were pointed out to me, I really thought it was a nursery ground, dwarf standards stunted by training, detached and planted in regular rows, appeared at first only like small gooseberry bushes.  On inspection, however, we found the stem very thick, and some of the little branches so loaded with fruit that they weighted it down, and the clusters of grapes rested upon the ground. Probably, in this want of care, lies the proximate cause why the Cape wines have an earthy taste. We were shewn the wine-press, and were informed that the stalks and all were thrown in, when the juice was to be compressed. One of our party took a branch of the vine, desiring our host’s son only to taste the stalk, as we all did, and found it had a most unpleasant flavour. It was observed to him, that if the stalks were left out, the wine would be much better; he replied, that it would take too much time, and that it had always been their custom so to do.

I could not help contrasting this middle of December with that of last year, when I was with my much-esteemed parents, where we had nothing but frost and snow; and here it was the middle of summer, where all nature smiled. I could hardly think I was in the same world. We had a plentiful table set out for us, particularly in fruits. On our return to the house, my husband ordered some casks of their best wine, both red and white, to be sent to him. A small sum was given to some of the slaves; but it would have been considered an affront to have offered money to any of the family. 

As we were going through the grounds, we  were frequently cautioned not to leave the paths, as amongst the grass many dangerous snakes were known to be hid. A slave had lately been bit by one which caused his death; we saw none, but did not fail to attend to the advice. There were frequently seen amongst the vines, small land tortoises, apparently domesticated; for they did not shun any person when approaching them; we also saw a number of little fresh-water turtle in a brook; the largest did not exceed in size a small frog. Several tortoises were sent on board and lived amongst the sheep in the long boat. I kept a little turtle of the above description alive for many months, in a tumbler of fresh water; it lived upon flies, which it would take out of the hand. It was a kind of thermometer, always lively and playing about in fair weather, and as constantly keeping at the bottom of the tumbler in dull rainy weather, only coming to the surface to respire once in 10 or 15 minutes.

On one of the party expressing surprise at several of the peach and other fruit-trees being damaged, and the fruit taken before it was ripe, we were informed that just before the gardens had been beset by a formidable set of plunderers from the mountains.  We immediately concluded that these must have been some runaway slaves, or what are called Bushmen, but, so such thing, the incursion was made baboons, great numbers of which inhabit the adjacent hills, and often come down and destroy ten times more than they eat, and are so strong and ferocious, that their largest dogs dare not attack them. We saw a specimen that had been shot and stuffed. It had a most frightful appearance; it was a female, and had a young one clinging to it when taken: the latter was preserved alive and sent to town. As the gardeners dreaded the depredations of the baboons, so we were told, did the farmers the wolves; for if a horse, or cow, were by accident left out at night, they were sure to be destroyed before morning; and it was unsafe to send their slaves out at night on that account. After hearing many wonderful, and I suspect exaggerated stories of the wolves and other wild animals, I returned to Cape Town, much pleased with our excursion.

In consequence of the late disaster amongst the shipping, there was no gaiety here at this time. Mr. H. mentioned above, my husband’s former commander, acted as agent for the ship. We dined twice with him and Mrs. H.

As we were the only English residing at Mr. B.’s we had a further display of some of the African Dutch manners. As for B. himself, he was a perfect bruin, and considered his poor wife in no better light than a piece of household furniture; she was a good meek soul, and fond of her children; however, I could have but little converse with her, as she did not speak English; her sister, Miss Rousseau, occasionally interpreted between us. Generally after dinner some of their Dutch friends would drop in, when the pipes went to work; at these times I was glad to retreat. Mr. B. had a place in a public office, which kept him from home all day, and at breakfast he never appeared: — they kept a plentiful table, after the Dutch manner, with abundance of fine fruits and vegetables; the former, which wanted no dressing, I enjoyed.  I cannot say much for the cooking; the fish and vegetables were generally swimming in oil, from the fat of sheep’s tails; everything fried, appeared the same; the bread was light, but very sandy, which often-times gritted between the teeth.

The time drew nigh for our departure; and when the day of embarkation was fixed, I was much surprised by my friend, Miss R., telling me the evening before, in a positive tone, that we should not part so soon.  I told her, that nothing but some unforeseen accident could detain us: — she took me to a back window, desiring me to look at the Table Mountain, which I did, and saw the white clouds curling over the brow of the hill, and extending to the right and left; she said, it was very common to see the table-cloth spread upon the Table hill; but when the Old Boy put his nightcap on the Devil’s Berg before supper, it was a sure sign of a south-east gale coming on (this latter is a peaked hill, on the north side, and only separated from the other by a small ravine). The case was as these quaint local sayings described; and for three days no communication could be had with the ship: the wind was so high, that it made the sand fly in all directions, which may partly account for the bread being sandy, as these gales of wind are frequent in the summer season. 

On the 24th December we embarked, in the afternoon.  Our ship appeared like a Noah’s ark, as my husband had sent on board eight horses, ten cows, three score sheep, with pigs and poultry in abundance; and as there was plenty of room on board, no inconvenience was felt. Next morning, being Christmas day, 1799, we left Table Bay, committing ourselves to the protecting care of that Providence who had hitherto preserved us.

[* Sandiness in the flour is frequently caused by bad millstones. Editor of the Asiatic Journal]  

1 comment:

Pierre Merton said...

Very interesting. She's a keen observer. What ship? 'Around the bush' would mean 'Rondebosch', I suppose, the place called 'Round Bush' - with the governor's residence at the house called Rustenburg.