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History of the German Settlers in and around Buffalo City

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

German Settler Monument on the East London beachfront.

It is well known that large numbers of German settlers travelled to Buffalo City during the mid-1800s. What is perhaps less well known is the fact that there were, in fact, three distinct and quite different groups who landed in or travelled to what was then known as British Kaffraria.

The German Crimean Legion

Britain declared war on Russia in 1854 following Russian incrusions into the Crimean - an area that had been held by the Ottoman empire until then. A German mercenary army was put together, but by the time it had arrived in Britain, the war was already over.

The mercenaries were offered an opportunity of settling in South Africa, which about 2500 of them accepted.

The soldiers were settled in Kaffraria, a new colony on the eastern fringes of the Cape colony that had seen very little development until then. In Kaffraria the legionaires established villages - unfortunately the military and strategic considerations outweighed the economic ones, with the villages ending up in remote and waterless locations.

On top of this very few of the soldiers were married (some had picked themselves wives in England, while Irish girls were 'imported' for others). The soldiers therfore did not make good settlers and the settlement of the area was not successful. Most mercenaries left for other areas of South Africa or were reemployed by the British when soldiers were required to quash the Sepoy rebellion in India a few years later.

The main contribution of the German Crimean Legion was therefore the establishment of villages, to which they gave German names. Furthermore, they also assisted in establishing German congregations and schools, in which most teachers were retired soldiers.

The Colonists of 1858

Most 1858 settlers came from Pomerania, the 'Uckermark' and the 'Wendland', where most had been poor peasants and not accustomed to running their own farms.

Typical German settler house

They were settled among the mercenaries of the Crimean Legion, mostly in remote areas.

The farms allocated to them were consistently of very poor quality so that it was impossible to survive by farming alone.

To survive, the German settlers were therefore forced to work for English farmers in the more fertile regions or to find jobs in the main centres.

In the long run, these colonists were the only Germans to remain in Kaffraria as they simply lacked the resources to start over again in another area. They remained poor and were generally despised by the more successful British settlers.

The Colonists of 1877

Another group of settlers was brought to the Cape in 1877. Only a small portion of this group ended up settling in the Eastern Cape - most settlers, including the Philippi Germans, prefered to settle in or around Cape Town.

This new goup was allocated land closer to East London (in Oberkwelaha, Brackfontein and Lilyfontein). They seem to have been more highly educated and experienced farmers than the first group.

Many quickly realised that the land allocated to them - though better than the first group had received - was inadequate. They subsequently left their farms and settled in the local towns or other areas of South Africa.

Denominational Problems

In contrast to all other German settlements in South Africa, the Kaffraria Germans were not a uniformly Lutheran group. The German Baptist church seems to have had a fair amount of support even before the Germans settled in Kaffraria.

Very soon tensions developed between the Lutherans and the Baptists.

The Lutheran Church of Hannover did supply pastors for the Germans in the Eastern Cape, but there were never enough of them to go around. For the Baptists this was not such an issue, as laymen could much more easily take over when there was a lack of clergy.

On top of this, they received support from the local English Baptist community. This denominational split reduced the chances of a separate German community surviving for long.

Language Problems

For a minority to keep its separate language it needs an adequate number of schools. But there also needs to be the desire and the means of keeping up a separate identity and language.

Both these factors seem to have been lacking in Kaffraria from very early on: The will to keep German going as a separate language seems to have been lacking among the Kaffraria Germans. Many of the colonists spoke Low German dialects as their home language. Rather than battling with High German, they tended to adopt English as their second language to facilitate communication in the local market towns. Also, the close contact between German and English Baptists helped this development along.

The schools had been founded and run by mercenaries, but once they had left Kaffraria, there was no-one except for the pastors and their off-spring with a sufficient level of education to keep the schools running.

Furthermore, the Germans tended to be quite poor, and could hardly afford to keep the schools going. The final blow for the German schools came during the time of the World Wars. In a predominantly English area, the Germans avoided using their language in public.

All German schools were taken over by the state in 1910 and German was no longer taught. Only two German schools remained: one in East London and one in King Williams Town.

The German school in King Williams Town was closed during the First World War and the one in East London during the Second. A German primary school was opened again at a later stage in East London but has since closed again.

Source: German South Africa Resource Page

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