Once favoured by fortune hunters

It was in the heady days of The Great Diamond rush in the year of 1877 that Britstown came into being. Fortune hunters paused here in their frenzied dash to the fabulous diamond fields, and a settlement mushroomed to provide fresh horses, fodder, refreshment and accommodation. Soon even a concertina virtuoso made music for happy dancers lubricated by the local brew. First the Fuller and Gibson coaches and then others stopped here. But by the time Britstown gained municipal status in January, 1889, a railway line already snaked across the Karoo plains to carry would-be diamond diggers through to Kimberley.


The small haven of Britstown along the diamond route across the plains was named after a man who loved the Karoo, Hans Brits. He once accompanied Dr David Livingstone, famous son-in-law of the great missionary Robert Moffat, on a journey to the north. Livingstone originally came to South Africa to help the Moffats at their mission in Kuruman, and it was on a journey to the north that he met Brits. They took a liking to each other, and Brits decided to travel with him. But, Livingstone did not get on with the Moffats, so he soon announced his intentions of travelling deeper into Africa, a decision that led to him becoming probably the continent's most famous explorer. Brits decided against a life of exploration, and returned to the Karoo.


Hans Brits then settled on a farm he named Gemsbokfontein, which is where Britstown now stands. Soon after the discovery of diamonds at Hopetown and Kimberley, Brits realised that he and his neighbours could earn good money serving the growing traffic along the Diamond Way. So Brits arranged for a town to be laid out on a portion of his farm. As a tribute to him it was named Britstown. The thinking was to establish a point between Victoria West and Kimberley that could provide travellers on the Diamond Way with accommodation and refreshment as well as fresh horses and fodder.


Then, in 1877, a group of men, headed by T P Theron, purchased a section of Hans Brits's farm to establish a community centre with a church. This accomplished, they handed over the management of the fledgling settlement to church wardens. Traffic through the town increased when gold was discovered in "The Ridge of White Waters" in the old Transvaal Republic. Many of the fabled mining magnates, such as Cecil John Rhodes, passed through Britstown. In time, the town became a major junction on the route to the then South West Africa (Namibia).


The first inhabitants of this area were the /Xam (Bushmen). These tiny, self-sufficient people depended entirely on the land for their needs. The plains teemed with game, so they neither sowed nor kept livestock. Indigenous plants provided a variety of edible bulbs and bark for further nutritional and medicinal requirements.


With their stamina, tenacity and endurance the little /Xam moved widely through the Karoo. At places where they sought shelter and rest from their wanderings, the /Xam left an artistic wealth of rock engravings. These petroglyphs tell us what this world was like when it was theirs. The Karoo is renowned for its wealth of Stone Age remains spanning at least half a million years of human history. Rock art makes up a distinctly visible element of this legacy, and predominantly dates from the last 10 000 years. South Africa's heritage of Stone Age Art, among the richest in the world, is found in the form of engravings (petroglyphs) and paintings. Both forms are found in the Great Karoo. Engravings predominate, but finger paintings, often no more than ochre daubs, are often found in caves, shelters and overhangs.


Those interested in this art form can visit several interesting sites in the Britstown area. The nearest is 10 km from town on the farm Brakwater. Other sites are on the farms Keurfontein, Maritzdam and Omdraaivlei. All are considered national heritage sites and permission is required to visit. The petroglyths on Brakwater are difficult to reach but will be of special interest to students and researchers. All engravings are on one koppie, but visitors should be prepared for a 2km hike across the veld, followed by a climb up a koppie. The drawings are of eland, ostriches and elephant. Visitors who want to make a Karoo outing of this visit can make arrangements through any of the accommodation establishments. Jeep tours to the different sites can also be arranged.


The site at Maritzdam Holiday Farm is spread across about three hectares, and farm manager Jaco Britz (Tel No 0536713, ask for 4111 or 4113) says it is reasonably easy to reach. Among the petroglyphs here are engravings of elephant, giraffe, reptiles, a variety of buck and a series of stick-like people. Martizdam is 60km from Britstown on the Prieska road. A further 5 km away is Omdraaivlei, which belongs to Edwin Jackson (Tel No 0594 - 61334). Locally Mr Jackson is considered an expert on this art form, and will gladly show visitors sites on his farm.


Finger paintings occur in a small overhang west of the Keurfontein farm house. These are simple finger painted designs similar to those most commonly found in the Northern Cape. Most are plain rows of smears or dots, usually in red or orange ochre and sometimes in white or black. Mostly, this art form appears to date from the last 500 years.


The Keurfontein archaeological sites have been described in several books. Among these is a work by M C Burkitt (1928), a detailed study by A J H Goodwin (1936) and articles by Dr Gerhard and Dora Focke (1970s). The sites are also documented at Kimberley's McGregor Museum. This site features on tourist maps, and over the years has been visited by many archaeologists. The farm is owned by J P P Vos, a direct descendant of the Vos family after whom Vosburg is named. Mr Vos (Tel No 0594 - 1911) says there are many areas for rock art enthusiasts to visit. These include middle and later Stone Age sites where flaked stone artifacts, pottery, ostrich eggshell fragments and a variety of surface scratchings can be studied. There are also a number of rock engraving sites, a rock painting site and several rock gongs, or what the locals call "Bushman pianos."


The imagery in the engravings at Keurfontein is based on animals. Mostly large mammals, such as eland, other antelope, rhino and elephant are depicted. But there are also engravings of people, objects and geometric figures. Different techniques were used. The oldest engravings in this area, hairline or fineline with incised outline and detail, date back 2 000 to 8 000 years. Then there are the pecked engravings. In these the rock crust has been chipped away to create the image and are generally considered younger than the "finelines". Then there are the scraped engravings. In most of these the rock surface has been scraped away to create the image, which sometimes appears polished. Among these drawings are some scraped, speck-like images thought to have been created by Xhosas who moved to the Karoo in the late 1700s.


Rock gongs, like those on Keurfontein, are normally flattish dolerite rocks that are balanced naturally on three or more points. Usually found at the tops of koppies, they emit a ringing sound when struck. Most have ancient strike marks on them, but many have been discovered without marks. These gongs are almost always associated with rock engraving sites in the Karoo, but no ethnographic explanations exist for their use. It has been suggested that "Bushman pianos" were used in rituals. Multiple strike marks on some gongs suggest that several people used them simultaneously.


The last of the gentlemen's wars, the Anglo-Boer War, did not leave Britstown untouched. Shortly before the Battle of Paardeberg, Lord Roberts ordered General Settle, commander of the Orange River Station, to form three small columns and to check the course of the Rebellion. A three-pronged advance was planned. The 450-strong Western Column, under Colonel Charles Parsons, was to march on Carnarvon and Kenhardt from Victoria West. Colonel Adye was to concentrate the centre column, about 550 men, at Britstown, while General Settle, with 600 men, was to take the right flank and move due west from the Orange River Station. His objective was to clear the river, hold the drifts and cut off the advance of a Boer commando led by Commandant Liebenberg.


But the action did not proceed as planned. On March 6, 1900, Colonel Adye and his men moved out of Britstown. About 20 miles from the village, as they neared a semi-circle of hills on the farm Houtwater, they were engaged by Commandant Liebenberg and his rebels. Despite his weaker force, Adye attacked, but without securing his flanks. Liebenberg was thus able to surround the British and force them into a hasty retreat. They were driven right back to Britstown with a loss of 21 men. Dr A E Ramsbottom and an ambulance were captured in the engagement.


Once Roberts heard that Adye had been repulsed, he took vigorous measures to suppress a rebellion. He immediately sent Kitchener to take command and sent reinforcements of about 3 000 men from Cape Town. Kitchener's plan was similar to Settle's. He aimed to prevent Boer forces under commandants Liebenberg and Steenkamp from crossing the river, so he moved a column from Britstown to Omdraaivlei. But the Boer leaders moved quickly and evaded capture by charging for Prieska and crossing the Orange River there.


Towards the end of December, 1900, Britstown was one of 14 districts in the Cape Colony to be placed under martial law. A Boer force under Hertzog, who had occupied Philipstown, tried to march on Britstown on December 16, 1900, but was forced to abandon the plan as Settle's columns were stationed nearby.

Troops again arrived in Britstown in February, 1901. On the 16th, Kitchener ordered Major-General Bruce Hamilton, from De Aar, and Bethune, from Richmond Road, to converge on Britstown. Henniker and Knox were also in the area pursuing forces led by commandants Kritzinger and Herzog. Commandant Brand and his men were also in Britstown. They had been sent there by Hertzog to collect provisions while he himself rode north to meet De Wet. Hamilton's forces arrived a few hours after Brand had left. He pursued the Boers to Houtwater, but lost contact with and Brand gained a clear lead.


This dam forms part of a major irrigation scheme that was started in 1895 as a private venture by an organisation known as the Smartt Syndicate. This syndicate built two dams, planted lucerne and wheat and set up breeding and feeding programmes for sheep, karakul, goats and Clydesdale horses. Unfortunately, the syndicate was liquidated in October, 1954. Assets of this considerable enterprise were dispersed among its members. In March, 1961, there was a massive flood in this area of the Ongers River and the Smartt Syndicate Irrigation Dam was destroyed. A new dam was then built by the Government in 1964 to ensure the continued viability of the irrigation schemes.


The local museum is housed in the original old church next to the municipal offices. This lovely little building, with its small but beautiful arched windows, is a superb example of dressed stone work with raised pointing. At some stage in its history it may have been thatched, or designed for thatching, but now has a corrugated roof.

Compiled by Wally Kriek for The Britstown Publicity Association

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