The family legend
Sarah Williamson Sussens, maiden name Bantjes, was the distant descendant of a long line of the Bantjes family. In the family, there is a long standing legend of a lost family fortune (the “Bantje Millions”) waiting to be reclaimed, if and when the missing will can be found and all the descendants can be located and authenticated. I was told by Sarah (my grandmother) that the fortune originated in a family cheese factory, but one son chose not to join the family business, and instead emigrated to the Cape of Good Hope to seek his fortune independently. After his father’s death, the will could not be settled until the son could be located and returned to Holland – but by the time that was done, the will had been lost. By the time that had been found, the number of descendants had increased, leading to further delays – and so on.
I was told that at intervals over the years, one or other family member would contact the others with a request for help funding a visit to Holland to unravel the puzzle, to the great advantage of all of us. (This in the days when international travel from S Africa was vastly more expensive than it is today). Other family members treated these requests with suspicion, seeing them as no more than an excuse for an expenses paid European holiday. Whether any of these trips ever came off, I have no idea. What I do know is that none seem to have been successful. I’ve never had a share of any family fortune, nor do I expect to in the future. The original fortune will by now have been heavily diluted by many generations of large families – assuming that there is any remaining after centuries of legal arguments that, as with the ,wards of Chancery in Dickens’ Bleak House will have rewarded the lawyers like Jarndyce and Jarndyce, not the intended beneficiaries.
In fact, it seems that the source of the fortune involved far more than a supposed cheese factory, but was based rather on an extensive international web of landowning, shipbuilding. finance – and piracy (known more politely as “privateering”)
The story begins n the late 1500s, when the Bantjes owned properties at Kampen, Amsterdam with farmlands on the Belgium border and were involved in trade with far-off Batavia in the East Indies Later this trade expanded to include the Cape of Good Hope with ships operating to and from Batavia , then on to Persia (for sugar/spices/hardwoods), India (silks), Japan (hardwoods/sugar) and Ceylon (Galle, Silks), and also privateering interests at Nassau (West Indies) and Guyana plantations near Fort Nassau, Berbice, South America.
By 1700, the family wealth was great They shipped grain from Poland to London, Portsmouth, Le Havre and Nantes. They also operated a ferry service of Cog boats on the lower Rhine with inns and taverns. In addition, they functioned as a Credit Bank lending out numerous loans, including to the Guyana plantations. The Bantjes ships, farmlands and properties would later become the basis of what would be known as “The Bantjes Millions”.
We do not know how the fortune was dissipated over the generations, but clearly it had been. However, much later there was another whiff of wealth.
In 1881, the first significant discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand was made by a descendant of the Bantjes, Jan Gerrit Bantjes (1843 – 1914), at Kromdraai, 21 miles north west of the centre of Johannesburg. It was this find that first attracted to the Witwatersrand a number of prospectors and mining men. Later, accompanied by his brother H. Bantjes, he made another strike in the vicinity of Roodepoort, In March 1886, George and his brother collected 50 ton of conglomerate rock from this mine – which yielded just 18oz of gold, which was not considered economically significant. However, he continued prospecting. In July 1886, Jan Gerritze met the financier F.W. Alexander, and interested him in the potential of the reef he had discovered. Alexander in turn interested Cecil Rhodes and other money men, and the finance needed to develop the mine was secured.
In August 1886, work began on the Bantjes mine on the farm Vogelstruisfontein, carried out by Bantjes himself. What became known as the Bantjes Consolidated Mines closed operations before the First World War, but
. In the Western Johannesburg suburb of Discovery, many streets are named after prominent men in the early years of the gold mines. One of these is Bantjes Avenue.
There is also a claim that it was Jan (or Johannes) Bantjes after whom the city of Johannesburg was named. On the other hand, there is a conflicting family story that the city was named after a different Jan Gerrit Bantjes ((1817 -1887)), his father, who had been a teacher of Paul Kruger. According that story, the city was named by Paul Kruger himself, to acknowledge his respect and affection for his former teacher. It is said that the friendship between the two is marked by the situation of Bantjes Avenue, which leads directly off Kruger Avenue.
It should be noted however, that while the information on Bantjes discovery of gold is well documented, the Wikipedia account of the naming of Johannesburg after either Bantjes is not supported by references or sources of any kind. Rather, this is flatly contradicted by the information in well documented standard histories, so should be treated with extreme caution. What can be verified, is the existence of Bantjes Ave, as shown in the image below extracted from Google Maps.