200 years of adapting

2020 marks the 200th anniversary of the 1820 settlers into South Africa – an event which is generally passing under the radar for various reasons, not least that of lockdown. But there are small groups who are marking the occasion and as with other generally unremembered events, there are invariably one or two undertaking research to keep the memory ticking over.

As a member of the South African Military History Society, I have until this year only been able to attend meetings in country when I’ve gone home. Now, thanks to some pioneers in the same area the 1820 settlers settled, I was able to join different meetings across the country from my base in England. The first talk I joined was on the 1820 settlers by direct descendant, McGill Alexander (scroll down to number 4 on the list). It was this encounter which brought the bi-centennial to consciousness. Despite having a direct link with the events 200 years ago, it hadn’t flagged up in the same way the end of WW1 in Africa did in 2018, the anniversary of Chris Hani’s assassination and other similar events.

Although there isn’t a documented history of this part of the family moving to SA, there are accounts within the family which others have painstakingly brought together in genealogical form (my generation seems to be the first with a significant literary trait, impacting severely on those trying to find out about the past). So, why did my family and others decide to move from England to a little known territory where they would have to make their own way? Timothy Jones seems to provide a fairly balanced and detailed view of why people felt driven to leave the safety of what they knew, while Richard Marshall considers the social and cultural development of Grahamstown, the main centre of the settlers.

Back in the 1980s, South Africa had its first reality TV show called The Volunteers where a group of people tried to settle as the first settlers did – they weren’t as successful as the 1820 group. I remember diligently watching this programme, fascinated by all they had to learn and deal with. Perhaps it was this experience which influenced my preference for experiential learning.

Two hundred years after one part of my family arrived in South Africa, I am sitting in England where my main base has been for 24 years (following an unplanned chance move), yet my ties to my home in (South) Africa are stronger than ever. Africa is in the blood – all 200 years of it on this side, and potentially even further back on the other (where no work has yet been done to trace the lineage).