Nov 19

The Ossewa: Triumph of cross cultural interaction

ox wagon South Africa by Robin Lamplough For many South Africans, the ox-wagon is the quintessential symbol of European influence and power: the mainstay of the Great Trek and the primary channel of the economic development which flowed from the discovery of precious minerals in the interior.

 Closer examination, however, suggests that this view is incomplete.

It is true, as many white supremacists insist, that southern Africa did not know the wheel, that wonderful Mesopotamian invention which, over the centuries, revolutionized transport and much else.  Even in the 21st century, you will see animal-drawn sleds in places like rural Pondoland, while in central Africa this traditional conveyance has been banned because its tracks contribute significantly to soil erosion.  So the wheeled wagon is, without doubt, an important European contribution to the social and economic life of the region.  The motive power, however, to keep these vehicles on the road is peculiarly African.  The white settlers at the Cape had to learn the use of ox-power from the local inhabitants.  The story makes an interesting account of inter-group learning and co-operation.

The meticulous journal of the first commander of the Dutch settlement at the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, provides interesting background information on the matter.  Much of what follows at this point comes from an account of the origins of the Kirstenbosch Gardens1.  One of Van Riebeeck’s early tasks was to identify a local source of suitable timber for the many construction projects required of him.  Among them he lists fortifications, docks, outbuildings and wagons, suggesting first that he had the trained manpower to build these adjuncts and second that wheeled transport was lacking.  Early in June, 1652, he made a trip behind Table Mountain, to the site of the present Kirstenbosch Gardens, finding just the trees he needed.  But the problem of transporting them led him to conclude that it would be cheaper to import timber from Batavia or Holland.

Nevertheless, five years later, he had appointed a former servant of the Company, Leendert Cornelisen, a sawyer and carpenter, as the official forester and woodcutter, with his base at Paradys (near present Newlands) and the responsibility of supplying all the little settlement’s timber needs.  One of the earliest colonial routes in the area, now known as “the old wagon road” was developed to carry wood from the forest to the fort.

Meanwhile, Van Riebeeck had been compelled to address another pressing problem. His initial attempt to secure a reliable supply of meat and vegetables for passing ships having failed, he released, in 1657, a select group of Company servants and gave them grants of land on the Liesbeeck river, on condition that they kept the port supplied with foodstuffs.  These vryburghers (freeburghers), as they were known, suffered from a shortage of ploughs and an even greater lack of draught animals, so that some were forced to use cows for ploughing.2  There was, however, a ready source of suitable livestock not far away.

One of the reasons for creating a refreshment station at the Cape was that the indigenous Khoi Khoi people, named ‘Hottentots’ by European visitors, kept large herds of cattle, some of which they were willing to trade.  The Khoi, however, depended on their livestock for more than commerce alone.  They gelded young bulls and perforated their soft nasal septa to facilitate later control, then trained them as load-carriers.  These indigenous Sanga3 oxen carried human riders as well as the poles and mat-rolls with which Khoi dwellings were constructed.  They were also trained to respond to whistles and commands from their trainers and could be used, as the Dutch were soon to discover, in battle4.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the European freeburghers rapidly discovered the advantages of owning such beasts.

Meanwhile, a group of Huguenot refugees had made homes in 1689 on the edge of the Cape settlement, north of Paarl.  They called the site Val du Charron, translated to Wamakersvallei, or’ the valley of the wagon-makers’, where the town of Wellington would later appear5.  This development shows clearly that by the end of the 17th century there was a demand in the colony for wagons.  At what point the twin shafts of European origin were abandoned in favour of the single disselboom has so far not been possible to ascertain, but by the 18th century the traditional kakebeenwa, drawn by a team of oxen, was a familiar part of the frontier scene.  Often the sons of farmers, lacking land of their own, became migrant trekboers, travelling to hunt or trade in the interior and using their wagons as mobile homes.  Many Boer farmers, too, employed landless Khoi as cattlemen and drivers.  In this way, the primordial skills of the indigenous population were transferred to the settlers and became part of the white frontier tradition, one that would be carried to the interior by the Trek6.

With the discovery first of diamonds and later of gold, and before the arrival of the railway, men who could handle wagons were in great demand.  The wagons used, however, were considerably bigger than the vehicles of the Trek and capable of carrying a ton of freight.  The occupation of transport riding became a very lucrative business.  The popular memory, influenced no doubt by the classic children’s story Jock of the Bushveld, sees transport riding as a field entered only by white men.  This is far from the truth, as Charles van Onselen has inimitably shown7. In the heyday of the business, there were many successful African and coloured wagoners on the roads of Southern Africa, all providing an essential service to other men whose search for wealth had taken them, in an age of rudimentary communication, into remote and often inaccessible areas.  That these carriers laid the foundation of the economic development of the region would be difficult to deny.

And the skills they deployed, often in total isolation and far from other help, were a complex amalgam of the ancient wisdoms of Africa and of Europe, first brought together at the southern tip of the continent as the tide of colonialism began its relentless progress up what was often called the Dark Continent.  Perhaps in this little excursus there are lessons for us all.


  1. Discovering Indigenous Forests at Kirstenbosch – Sally Argent & Jeanette Loedorff (1997)
  2. South Africa in the Making (1652-1806) – M. Whiting Spilhaus (1966) p. 9
  3. The Indigenous Breeds of Cattle of SA – www.arc.agric.za
  4. Before Van Riebeeck, Callers at the Cape from 1488 to 1652 – R. Raven-Hart (ed) (1967)
  5. en.wikipedia.org/Wellington,_Western_Cape
  6. The Great Trek – Eric A. Walker (5th edition, 1965)
  7. In, for example: The Seed is Mine – Charles van Onselen (1996)

1 comment

  1. Arthur Fregona

    Hi Robin,

    Fascinating article! Thanks so much for an enjoyable glimpse into South Africa’s’ past!

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