Coenraad de Buys is a giant of history in South Africa. He was 7 feet tall, wild and powerful, originally a Cape trekboer, who sired 315 mixed-race children by a variety of black Bantu and Khoisan wives.
After being banished from Cape Province as an outlaw and wildman, he and his children made the dangerous trek through the hinterland of South Africa and finally settled down on the banks of the Limpopo River near the town of Louis Trichardt, which is today an Afrikaaner town. Coenraad and his children had crossed almost the entire length of South Africa, to settle down in what is today the only large mixed-race (coloured) settlement outside of Cape Province. The town became known as Buysdorp, and the coloured residents known as "de buys volk' NOTE: Buys is pronounce like "bays".
I visited Buysdorp on one occasion, in 1989. I took a Greyhound bus to the town of Louis Trichard, with the intention of staying the night and then moving on to Buysdorp the following morning. I had made no previous hotel reservations, being assured by friends that there was a hotel across the street from the bus station. Well....there WAS a hotel, one suitable to a half-drunk goldminer. There were enough of them around too.
I wasn't especially charmed by the longterm residents of Louis Trichardt. They had assumed that I was some type of trouble-making journalist when I accidentally slipped into English conversation. Like typical Afrikaaners, they were suspicious of anyone not considered part of the Herrenvolk or Volk. These two terms were used to refer to white people and coloured people, respectively. I ended up spending most of the evening hanging out in the hotel bar, playing pool with a rough and tumble, but jovial fellow named Wynand van der Merwe.
The next morning I hopped the bus again and proceed on the short trip to Buysdorp. The town seemed like an old dowager down on her heels. The streets were quiet, although many of the Cape Dutch style cottages had lovely, tiny front gardens. I knew I was in the right place, lots of tall people, even taller than me, and I am exactly 6 feet tall. There is something about those Dutch genes that make everyone so freaking tall. It can be a little unnerving to people of normal height. I had been given written instructions to go see Ouma on Quartz Street. In Afrikaans the prefix "Ou" means "the old one". So Ouma was Old Mom. After getting somewhat lost, I arrived at Quartz Street and knocked on the door of an old cottage. A lady of about 45 answered the door, I introduced myself, and she explained that she was Theresa, the daughter and that Ouma had died some two months previously. I ended up spending the day with Theresa, and she was very gracious and gave me a walkabout tour of the neighborhood, where I semed to create some excitement because many of the residents thought that I was some long lost de Buys volk fresh off the boat from Canada.
It turned out to be avery pleasant day with Theresa , lots of South African Redbush tea and whistful sighs about the future of South Africa. I left Buysvolk that some evening, bypassing Louis Trichardt and stopping instead in Joburg for the night. The next day I hopped the Trans-Karoo Express train back to my beloved Cape.
For those who are interested in some background on the wild man and his kids, below is a very interesting and informative article. There are accompanying photographs posted at the link too. The last three paragraphs of the article mention land claims. As the law now stands in South Africa, Africans of black heritage can make land claims against white South Africans (although most are struck down in court), but they cannot make land claims against coloured (mixed-race) South Africans. Coenraad's last wife was a beautiful, hard-working black woman of Xhosa heritage who died on the trek.
I hope you all enjoy this true tale of Coenraad de Buys.
Denise van Esche
http://www.getawaytoafrica.co.za/conten ... &fe_page=1
Who was Coenraad de Buys?
Piet Retief, Piet Uys, Gerrit Maritz, Potgieter, Trichardt…. But who was Coenraad de Buys, the forgotten trekker Rian Malan tracked down a hidden legend and Gerrit Rautenbach joined him on a quest to find his descendents in Limpopo Province.
Once upon a time (writes Rian Malan), a botanist wandering in Africa came upon a blonde giant who stood nearly seven feet tall and could kill with his bare hands. He wore animal skins and was regarded by some as the most dangerous man in Africa. But Henry Lichtenstein found him to be 'quiet and mild', and was amused by the awe he aroused. This giant had penetrated deeper than any other white man into the wild heart of Africa. He had killed countless lions and elephants. He had been an outlaw and a cattle raider, an instigator of wars against Africans, but also a warrior in the service of African allies and the lover or husband of two African queens. Lichtenstein was spellbound. This man, he wrote, is cast in the mould of the mythic heroes of ancient Greece; "the living figure of a Hercules."
When I first read these words, I thought, nonsense. A Boer Hercules Seven foot tall Riding the veld in animal skins, urging Africans to drive the British back into the sea C'mon. If such a creature existed, we would surely have learnt about him at school. There would have been novels and films about him, maybe even a statue or two. How come Coenraad de Buys is all but invisible
Let's pick up the story in the 1790s, when De Buys was an outlaw with a price on his head, wanted by the British for his illegal activities along the Great Fish River. Archival documents depict him as a wild creature, half man, half lion, given to helping himself to other men's wives and cattle. Indeed, several historians hold that his cattle raids and provocative entanglements with Xhosa women were the root cause of the Second Frontier War in 1793.
Within a year or two, however, De Buys had crossed the river and allied himself to his former enemies, becoming an important adviser to paramount chief Ngqika and the lover (some say husband) of his mother, Yese. In this period, De Buys also made a foray into present-day KwaZulu-Natal, where he was rumoured to have established a second alliance (also cemented by marriage) with Mzilikazi, founder of the Ndebele nation. These developments caused alarm in distant Cape Town, where De Buys was viewed as a dangerous trouble maker, entirely capable of instigating 'savage Caffres' to attack the colony.
In 1803, Governor Janssens offered De Buys and some other renegades a pardon, and De Buys returned to the Cape Colony, which is where Lichtenstein met him. He was about 45 at the time, and the patriarch of a growing band of half-caste sons and daughters. A century earlier such families were commonplace among Cape trekboers, but racial attitudes were hardening and the Buysvolk, as they were known, were not welcome in the Langkloof - especially after Coenraad testified against a white woman accused of mistreating a slave. By 1813 or thereabouts, De Buys had had enough. He loaded his wagons with gunpowder and trekked off into the unknown again.
In Cape Town, the British viewed this with grave misgivings - especially when it was reported that De Buys had entered various alliances with Griquas, Bushmen, deserters and escaped slaves with a view to expelling missionaries from Transorangia. In 1818, Landdros Andries Stockenstrom posted another reward for his capture, whereupon the wild man and his tribe moved even deeper into Africa, offering their military services to some Sotho chieftains and raiding others. According to author Noel Mostert, De Buys at one point became an African chief in his own right.
The last confirmed report of him came in 1821. By then, he'd run out of ammunition. All his horses had died. He and his sons were reduced to hunting with bows and arrows, but they were still pushing northward, eventually vanishing entirely. Years later, it emerged that they'd made it as far as the Limpopo River, north of where Makhado is today, where De Buys's favourite wife succumbed to fever, a loss that broke the old man's heart. He said goodbye to his volk and vanished into the night, never to be seen again.
More than just a Voortrekker
All humans suppress truths that threaten their myths, and this story is packed with myth-destroying dynamite. Forget the Voortrekkers. Coenraad de Buys was the founder of the first Afrikaans-speaking colony in the far interior. Founder of the Transvaal, in fact. But Afrikaner nationalists couldn't face this, because there was no way of portraying De Buys as the torchbearer of 'white civilization'. So the volk buried him, and nobody else was exactly eager to dig him up. The leaders of anti-imperial resistance are supposed to be black, after all. It was embarrassing and confusing to have a Boer anarchist and his black friends scaring the wits out of Cape governors.
Toward the end of their interview, Lichtenstein asked the giant what he'd learnt during his wanderings among the mysterious tribes of Africa, but De Buys wouldn't say. He just smiled. Two hundred years later, Afrikaners are still struggling to understand their destiny in Africa, and the question remains as haunting as ever. We thought we'd visit De Buys's descendants to see what answers they could provide.
The bus to Buysdorp
Beyond Makhado (writes Gerrit Rautenbach), the landscape turns to bushveld. In the foothills of the Soutpansberg, 55 kilometres from Makhado (formerly Louis Trichardt), you come upon a green valley dotted about with houses half-hidden in the lush vegetation. There are vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and never-you-mind dogs in backyards. In the middle is a quaint old missionary church.
Children appeared on a dirt road. Could we take a photo The prim little girl checked us out, then decided against it. "No," she said, yanking her brother away. "We haven't washed yet."
Welcome to Buysdorp, home of Coenraad de Buys's descendants. When the old man vanished, leaving them lost and leaderless in the wilderness, they settled down and started farming near present-day Schoemansdal. After the Voortrekkers arrived, they moved to their present location, which was ceded to them in perpuity in 1885.
We asked around for someone who might remember the history. A man directed us to Ouma Serina, the town's oldest resident.
Ouma Serina's house lay at the end of a rutted drive. There were chickens in the yard, and a boerbok perched in the branches of a backyard tree. We found the old lady in the kitchen. "Pull your chair closer, dear," she said. "I can't hear so well anymore. I'm turning 102 this year, you know."
"Actually 103," whispered a shy young girl hiding in the passage behind Ouma. She's a stunning creature, this granddaughter, not quite seven feet tall but getting there, with legs that go on forever and cheekbones to break your heart. We said: "Aha! So this is how the genes of Coenraad manifest themselves today, eh" But Ouma Serina's mind was wandering, and she couldn't quite follow. We chatted for a while about koeitjies and kalfies, then took our leave.
Maybe he reached the sea…
Back on the main road, we found an old-style general dealer called Mara Mission Store. Behind the counter stood Gideon Buys, 63. He's a big man around there, owns this shop and the bottle store. When we said why we'd come, Oom Gideon broke into a huge smile.
"You know," he said, "when I was at school, we were forced to learn about Jan van Riebeeck and Simon van der Stel, even Sir Theophilus Shepstone. But when it came to my stamvader, ou Coenraad, there was nothing. Not a word! Why was my history withheld from me?"
But it's obvious, surely.... Coenraad de Buys wasn't the sort of man who the apostles of apartheid wanted anyone to know about. Oom Gideon chuckled.
"Those people are ashamed of their history. I'm not ashamed. I mean, let's be honest. That De Buys was the first ou who fought against injustice, the first ou who tried to break apartheid. In his entire life, he never married a white woman. His wives were all black, coloured, Hottentot, whatever."
Which is not to say that Gideon regards his ancestor as a sinner. In fact, he says, the legends handed down over generations in this village depict Coenraad as a man of the Bible, leading his followers in daily prayers and hymn singing. And what else do the family legends reveal Gideon scratched his head. "When the first missionary arrived here, Coenraad's son, Michael, was still alive. He's the one who said the heart-broken old man just vanished in the night. But there's another possibility," said Gideon.
"Old Coenraad had Delagoa Bay on the brain. He just wanted to go there. There's a story that after his wife died, the old man said he was going to walk down the Limpopo until he found the Portuguese. And that's the last anyone saw of him. Maybe he made it. Maybe he was eaten by a crocodile. I don't know."
Oom Gideon said the Buys clan had struggled under apartheid. "We were treated the same as any blacks. Waited in the same queues. Rode in the same buses and trains." He shrugged. At least one good thing resulted: most Buysdorpers speak fluent North Sotho. They are also free of land claims.
"One day," said Gideon, "an old Venda chief turns up here and tells me: 'This land belongs to us.' I said, who is 'us'? The sons of Coenraad married your great-great-great-grandmother, man! We are the same people." The chief finished his coffee and never went back again.
So this then is the legacy of Coenraad de Buys: his descendants still speak Afrikaans and form a distinct community, but they fit in in a way most white Afrikaners can only dream of. For generations, the Buysvolk's light-brown skin was a liability. Now it's a blessing. We trust the old renegade is enjoying his last laugh.