“Juwawa” Albasini was the son of an Italian sea captain, who had left him in Lourenco Marques in 1832 at the age of 19 years, with instructions to commence a safari trade and find a market for his father’s goods. “Juwawa” was the Blacks’ interpretation of his Christian name Joao.
When Soshangane sacked Lourenco Marques in October 1833, Juwawa had the opportunity to demonstrate his talents for congenial living and association with the Bantu.
While all the other inhabitants died in a dreadfully painful manner, Juwawa was tolerated, and was indeed received for a while within the ranks of Soshangane’s own band.
In Lourenco Marques both Louis Trichardt and Potgieter had met a number of traders and had suitably impressed them with the commercial possibilities of the coming influx of trekkers to the Transvaal. Albasini’s name was one of those who was consulted.
With the reconstruction of Lourenco Marques , young Juwawa prepared for a resumption of the safari trade. With the advent of trekkers to the Transvaal the entire trading pattern changed; it was Albasini who rapidly became the organizing genius behind the dynamics of the new era. He became king of the precarious safari trade.
With energy and enthusiasm he organized his regular safaris. He established an inland depot in the bush on the banks of the Sabie River (about 25km from the present town of Hazyview), where the tsetse belt ended. There his porters completed their inbound journey and dropped their loads for ox-wagons to be picked up for carrying to the markets of the highveld. Albasini also took up residence at the depot to enable him to control his enterprise effectually from this halfway house: a low, reddish, burnt-brick, thatched shack, surrounded by a circle of huts and endless rolling plains of bush. He supervised the loading of ox-wagons as well as organizing his elephant hunters to scour the bushveld.
He cleared, farmed and irrigated a piece of land from the Sabie River which he had bartered the use of for 22 head of cattle from the chief Makashula. He grew grains and hunted venison to feed his hungry, weary porters.
There he spent his time in complete solitude, listening to the uproarious song of the night-wilds and drowsing the hot daylight hours away, while his porters sat against the walls of the compound huts in the shade waggling their toes and singing in a monotone, the song they still sing in the bushveld today begging for it to get hotter and hotter, so that the white man who made them work might be driven away.
Albasini had the distinction of being the first European to take up residence in the Eastern Bushveld.
He loved the wilderness so much that he dreamed of it becoming a new Portugese colony with the sonorous title of Colonoa da Santa Luz, with his depot in the bush as its capital. However, a later boundary commission ruled that the Bushveld was a Transvaal possession, and he remained with just his shack, and naught save his porters and elephant hunters as company.
For 7 years Albasini lived there. Then the arrows of Cupid found their mark even on this lonely figure; and he married a Voortrekker maiden, Gertina Maria Janse van Rensburg, niece of the ill-fated Johannes Janse van Rensburg.
For her sake he left his home in the bush next to the Sabie River, and removed to Ohrigstad, the terminal for his caravan trade.
Through the years this trade across the Bushveld reached considerable proportions, and was very lucrative, and thousands of kilograms of goods were carried from the Portuguese coastal depots to the markets of the Northern Transvaal, and thousands of kilograms of ivory were carried back on the return journeys. A typical safari consisted of 68 porters carrying food and camping equipment, and 150 Tongas each laden with some 20 kilograms of traded goods and being guarded by 17 heavily armed elephant hunters, all of whom made up the party in a long line of chanting, sweating men.
It took 24 days to do the 400 kilometer journey from the coast, through territory in constant danger from insolent, hostile, militant tribesmen, hungry hyenas and lions, tsetse flies, malaria mosquitoes and excruciating heat.
In 1847, Albasini optimistically reported a new tsetse free route to the coast, to the Volksraad. Although he received a free erf in Ohrigstad, the commission under Janse van Rensburg which investigated the route in July was not overly impressed by it. Still, it was the best route discovered to date, and actually was almost the same as the Nelmapius Route. It was never anything more than a track, but traces of it still pass under the name of the Old Wagon Road.
When Ohrigstad collapsed with the demise and heartbreak caused by malaria, Albasini relocated to the Schoemansdal region.
In 1855 Albasini had removed from the Ohrigstad area and opened up a shop in the new Voortrekker town Schoemansdal, that had become the new Potgieter town of preference. However, Schoemansdal had its own problems.
The Transvaal Government was almost bankrupt and was unable to maintain law and order as well as expanding its boundaries. In the northern Transvaal there were only 600 White inhabitants spread over a wide area occupied by various Black tribes with numbers of 360,000 and over.
Ever since Potgieter had established his “Zoutpansbergdorp” it had been an unruly sort of town. While he was alive he had kept his boisterous followers somewhat subdued, but after his death many of them ran riot. Schoeman had renamed the place Schoemansdal after himself; and under him it became a lawless place, used as a hideout and depot by some of the toughest elements in the Transvaal.
It was a pity that this trouble had developed in that beautiful land. The heights of the Soutpansberg and the broken country of the Spelonken (place of caverns,) were all fine areas for human settlement; and the first Voortrekkers had found them empty of people, save for a few scattered refugees in the bush, and the Venda tribe who lived in island-like seclusion along the very top of the Soutpansberg.
In this remote setting the village of Schoemansdal had grown into a place of some 200 inhabitants, living around a church presided over by the Reverend N. J. van Warmelo, and a few stores run by Portuguese safari traders such as Bras Pereira and Cazemiro Simoes. Jan Vercueil was the local magistrate.
In 1858 Albasini had been appointed Portuguese Vice-Consul in the Soutpansberg, and he was very proud of this position. He displayed an ornamental shield advertising his rank at his fort, and on ceremonial occasions sported a smart blue uniform with epaulettes and a cocked hat. Being the Portuguese consul of the district he made it his business to see that all ivory, and anything else that was valuable, went to Lourenco Marques. Albasini was also said to have also been a slave-trader in the days before that evil trade was abolished
He was also Superintendent of Native Affairs for the Republic and collector of taxes, an appointment which greatly increased his power over the Bantu so that he became an uncrowned king in his particular area.
He established himself in the Spelonken (the region of caves) and carried on a very profitable trade with the tribes. He certainly had great influence among the Bantu and became the acknowledged chief of the Matshangana, south of the Limpopo.
At the height of his activity he was certainly a man to be reckoned with. A considerable crowd of Africans had gathered around his person, for it was his habit to grant asylum to all applicants; and in those troubled days of tribal uproar there were many who fled to him for protection. No fewer than 2,000 warriors obeyed his summons—a piercing whistle—at one time. They regarded him as a proper chief, for he judged their disputes and was the object of songs they sang around their fires at night, while he sat with his family enjoying the cool evening breeze sweeping into his fort from the bush and listening idly to the rhythmic praises—”He has an army of spears”—”He speaks with a whistle”, and a hundred others besides.
Some twenty-five miles east of the town, Albasini engaged a German named Von Marnecke, to build a proper fort with flanking bastions and protective walls stoutly made of burnt brick. This became his depot and safari terminus, where his goods were stored and sorted, and supplied to African pedlars who carried them off to the most isolated kraals to barter for the precious ivory. This was the greatest trade of Schoemansdal.
It was no handicap that he controlled a small army of Shangaan warriors who obeyed his least command. Eventually however, some of his activities roused the suspicions of Republican officials and he was deprived of his official status.
Each year the traders sent out parties of heavily armed African hunters in search of elephants; and these hunters ranged on foot so far through the tsetse-infested bush that the tusks often had to be carried by bearers for hundreds of miles. Immense numbers of elephants were slaughtered, and ivory in prodigious quantities passed through Schoemansdal. Fairs were held each year, when ivory was sold to merchants who journeyed all the way from the Cape, Natal and Mozambique.
The number of elephants slaughtered to supply this market must have run into tens of thousands. In 1864, one merchant alone shipped out 14.50 tons of ivory, the product of more than 350 animals.
This ivory trade brought Schoemansdal both its prosperity and its ruin. The ivory hunters had always had the system of supplying guns to selected Africans, who did most of the actual hunting. These guns were contrivances of mammoth bore and tremendous recoil.
Their makers intended them as either four-pounders (four balls to one pound of lead) or eight-pounders (eight balls to a pound of lead); but with the general scarcity of ammunition they were often loaded with all manner of fearsome objects: legs of “kaffir” pots, small rocks, hard marula pips, or anything else the marksmen could improvise.
Back in 1858, the government had sought to control this activity by restricting elephant hunting to the period from the I5th June to the 15th October each year, limiting each European to three African hunters, and then only allowing these Africans to be armed if their master was to accompany them personally. The trouble was that this law, like many others in the Transvaal, was made to be broken, for there was no authority with which to enforce it.
By breaking the law, however, the Europeans were sowing the seeds of much future trouble. Each year more and more heavy elephant guns had been handed out and never returned; and in this way the Venda tribe became well-armed and were expert marksmen. Quarrels between the Africans and Europeans soon developed. A long series of outrages and scandals took place which disgusted the rest of the Transvaal. Murders, plunderings and atrocities seemed to become the order of the day along the Soutpansberg, and nothing the government could do stopped this sorry state of affairs. A long and vicious rivalry between Albasini and Vercueil complicated the picture, and nearly all the officials indulged in petty wars with African tribes in an entirely illegal manner.
Albasini’s fort known as Die Skans, became the protective mainstay of the district and the famed resort of all passing travellers. In 1855, when the Governor of Inhambane sent an embassy to the Soutpansberg to negotiate treaties of peace and commerce, the footslogging ambassadors, Father Joaquin de Santa Rita Montanha, some speculative Arab merchants and slave traders, and one lonely Russian, stayed with Albasini when they arrived on the 5th July.
In the Soutpansberg Juwawa Albasini remained alone, as a stubbornly entrenched advance post of civilisation. In his fort, twenty-five miles east of the ruins of Schoemansdal, he defied all comers successfully, except poverty, which besieged and then overwhelmed him irresistibly.
The district, once so flourishing, was bankrupt. All trade and ivory hunting had dissolved into ruination. Makhato, the so-called Lion of the North, reigned supreme as the chief of the Venda and Albasini with his fort and his following of African porters and adherents could just contrive to hold his own. After the Boers vacated Schoemansdal the town was taken over by Makhato and totally destroyed. Albasini also came within an ace of being tried on a criminal charge in which the first landdrost of Soutpansberg Vercuil, was involved. He seems to have been saved by the fall of Schoemandsal.
In the Soutpansberg Juwawa remained alone, as a stubbornly entrenched advance post of civilisation. In his fort, twenty-five miles east of the ruins of Schoemansdal, he defied all comers successfully, except poverty, which besieged and then overwhelmed him irresistibly.
The descendants of Coenraad de Buys, also remained by the Soutpansberg, in whose shadow their tough parent had bid them remain forever. They survived by the expedient of marrying girls presented by Makhato, and trading surreptitiously with the Venda for arms and ammunition. An irregular postal service connected him with Lourenco Marques. A Coloured soldier tramped backwards and forwards about once each month through the bush, carrying despatches and mail for his superiors and indulging in a spot of private ivory trading and kidnapping of African children in the course of his travels.
Ivory was also the cause of the ultimate destruction of Schoemansdal by the BaVenda chief Makhato. In the 1860s, Schoemansdal was divided over the distribution of wealth from ivory trading. Previously, the local peoples had acted as bearers, butchers, and guides.
But lately the men of Schoemansdal had become lazy. They’d given guns to the BaVenda, shown them the craft of elephant hunting and then sent then off to track down and kill these gentle giants. However, the Boers still expected to receive the major portion of the hunt spoils. Naturally, the elephant hunters were having none of this so they quit the village, taking the guns and tusks with them. When the return of both was demanded, they refused.
Makhato, the BaVenda chief, then decided to go to war. Schoemansdal was laagered – Paul Kruger, along with 400 men, rode up from Pretoria. Their efforts were destined to fail – the supply lines were too long, the night sky along the southern Zoutspansberg was peppered with the fires of the warring BaVenda and alarm calls were continuous throughout the night. On 15 July 1867, On Kruger’s instructions, the Boers had withdrawn from Schoemansdal in the winter of 1867, falling first to Potgietersrus and then to Marabastad. Kruger gave the community three days to pack up and return south. It was with heavy hearts that they left. Looking back, they could see the smoke rising as the BaVenda razed their homes and their church to the ground.
Potgietersrus, which was surrounded by pans and vleis, was the breeding-place of myriads of mosquitoes – among which were the malaria carriers. The ten or twelve families who arrived there all contracted the fever and many died. Finally wagons were sent to fetch the survivors and they were brought back to Marabastad, which became the most northern settlement of the Republic.
Over the whole area hung the gloom cast by the Soutpansberg disasters. In the north the people lived in laagers, and the farms lay in ruins. Small garrisons protected Pieter Potgietersrus, but the area was in a constant state of jitters. Actual fighting had died away, but the very silence of the hills seemed a menace. Nobody knew what the Africans were planning for the night.
The district, was now bankrupt, and the only one to remain was Juwawa Albasini, still stubbornly entrenched in his fortress some 40 km east of the ruined and deserted town. Makhato continued to wage war against the whites. An English ivory hunter, Haines, who persisted in his enterprise, had his throat cut. Two prospectors, Charles Muller and George Anderson, who were fossicking north of the Zoutspansberg, were attacked. Anderson and two of the servants had their throats cut; Muller escaped by creeping through the grass.
Makhato had won the day, and the endless wars ruined Albasini. On 10 July 1888 he died – a weary and disappointed man.
Juwawa’s great grand children Antoinette Kop, and Sannie van Vuuren lived in Sabie for many years where they eventually retired.
Antoinette used to keep the town’s gardens in “marvelous shape” until she was too old to carry on, while Sannie compiled a series of articles on the history of Sabie, its happenings and community, which was published through the local Ulusaba newspaper. They have both since passed away.
Gleaned from :
Lost Trails of the Transvaal by T.V. Bulpin
At the Fireside by Roger Webster
By “The Waters of the Letaba” by A.P.Cartwright
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