A Mongrel Family – Migrants and Refugees

An obvious feature of our family is that we are all mongrels, by ancestry a blend of four different European countries (Ireland, Germany, England and the Netherlands), with each strand ensconced in South Africa for varying degrees of time. The primary German connection goes back only two generations (measured from myself), the English and Irish link just a couple more, but the Dutch connection goes back many generations (by some lines, right back to the early days of the Cape Colony).

Obviously, these were all migrants. However, as I’ve explored the history, I’ve realized that it goes further than that. “Migrants” come in many forms. Some (eg some of the Irish) may have come as a form of political refugees, from English persecution. Some (other Irish and English) were economic migrants. Some may have simply wanted to escape their families – and at least some were involuntary migrants, forcibly brought to the Cape as slaves.

So, we were “mongrels” not only by arriving from four European countries, but also once in South Africa, by intermarriage, between those of “White” European descent and the slave population, and among themselves, by those of European descent. We should remember that the early days of the Cape settlement, it was very much a slave economy, and the Dutch arrivals were overwhelmingly young males, soldiers and farm labourers. There were very few women, so inevitably, some of the men married or cohabited with the slaves or native women. We can also see from the genealogy that within the “White” family lines, there was intermarriage between language groups. Sarah Williamson Sussens had an English middle name, because her grandmother was English. The Cape “Dutch” were also not exclusively from the Netherlands: some were from France, arriving with the Huguenots or even earlier, and some from Germany (which I was never aware of in school history).

It’s not only the racial/linguistic mixing that continued after arriving in the country, but also further constant patterns of migration. In this, they repeated the story of White settlement across the country. The Dutch originally set up a settlement at Cape Town, then gradually fanned out to Stellenbosch and Paarl, then further afield to Graaf-Reinet and the rest of the Eastern Cape. After the British took control and outlawed slavery, the Boers famously moved North in the Great Trek. Tracing the towns recorded where our antecedents were born, married and died, we can see how their movements exactly mirrored those of the Afrikaans population as a whole.

Similarly, we see a parallel pattern with our Irish/English forebears, who originally settled in Port Elizabeth, before slowly moving into other Eastern Cape towns, and later to Johannesburg or the Eastern Transvaal for the gold rush .

(More detail to follow)


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