A Chapter of Changes: Chapter 23

29 08 2008

Dad’s memoirs suddenly look backwards: having arrived at 1963 we are taken back to 1952!


In this year my brother Chris went as a cadet to the SATS General Botha on which our father had been a cadet in 1924 and 1925. By now the old ship, the former HMS Thames, had been scuttled and the training ship was a “stone frigate” in Gordon’s Bay, a small bay off the larger False Bay, on the South Eastern side of the Cape Peninsular.

The rather fanciful depiction of the arrival of Van Riebeeck at the Cape in 1652, painted by Charles Bell in 1850. The original is housed in the South African Library.

The rather fanciful depiction of the arrival of Van Riebeeck at the Cape in 1652, painted by Charles Bell in 1850. The original is housed in the South African Library.

The year 1952 holds two memories for me: firstly it was the year of the 300th anniversary of the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape in April 1652, where he was to set up a small outpost to provide provisions and fresh water for the ships of the Dutch East India Company on their way to and from India and the Far East.

Maurice Boucher, former professor of history at the University of South Africa, wrote of the arrival of the Europenas at the Cape, with considerable understatement, I think: “The arrival of Europeans on what was to be a permanent basis had a profound effect upon indigenous social structures, the political and economic development of the region and upon group relations in an increasingly complex racial situation.” (from An Illustrated History of South Africa, edited by Trewhella Cameron and SB Spies, Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1986)

The Cadets of the General Botha were going to sail a replica of Van Riebeeck’s ship, the Drommedaris,  into Table Bay and I was desperate to see the festivities that were planned. I was bitterly disappointed when my parents could not afford to let me go to Cape Town to see what was happening.

The house at Dennegeur. The house was designed by by Aunt Lucy's husband Alex Kirstein and built of local stone by Italian prisoners of war during World War II

The house at Dennegeur. The house was designed by my Aunt Lucy's husband Alex Kirstein and built of local stone by Italian prisoners of war during World War II.

The second was that because they were going overseas I had to go to stay with my Aunt Lucy and her family on their farm Dennegeur in the then Western Transvaal (now part of the North West Province) near the town of Klerksdorp. This meant that I had to continue my schooling at the local farm school near Dennegeur and that was a huge shock to me as the school was very different from what I had been used to under the Cape Department of Education.

Buck on Dennegeur

Buck on Dennegeur

I spent six months at Dennegeur and loved a lot of the farm life. There were buck on the farm, lots of birds and other small animals. One of the things that I remember the most was the plaintive call of the crowned plovers which abounded on the farm. It was a sound that came to represent my loneliness for me and still when I hear it it brings back those feelings of being alone and missing my parents so much.

How I got to the farm I don’t recall except that it must have been by car. My mother drove mostly as Dad did not like driving. I guess the trip took two days and we would have stopped over in Bloemfontein and stayed at the old Polly’s Hotel.

Chris came to join me at Dennegeur at the end of the academic year of the General Botha and after a few days together we caught a train to Cape Town where we would meet our parents on their return from the UK.

Things I remember about this train trip is that it was the first time I realised that Chris smoked and secondly that Chris made me wash my face just before we arrived in Cape Town and that I just wiped the obvious parts around my eyes, nose and mouth and the rest of my face and neck was black with coal dust. I also remember seeing for the first time close up the points of the star of Cape Town Castle, and being very impressed with that. The train line still runs very close to them.

We stayed with Queenie and Cherrie over Christmas and then took the long drive home to Blythswood. I don’t remember whether or not Chris came back with us, but I rather think not. He still had another year to do at the General Botha and would most likely have stayed on in Cape Town so as to get back to the ship in time for the start of the next year of his two years there.


For me this year was important as it was my first year at Stellenbosch University where I had enrolled in the forestry course. I found university quite wonderful and I had a ball there, so much so that I did not make it academically. By the end of the year I was in any case disenchanted with the idea of becoming a forrester and so changed course to do a BA in 1964.

I got home to Buntingville in late November 1963 and I well remember my mother coming into my bedroom early one morning and telling me that the US president, John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated the day before. I was shattered as I had thought that JFK was a wonderful person who was going to lead the world to peace. My opinion of JFK has fluctuated over the years but my initial enthusiasm for him is being somewhat vindicated by a book that I have recently come across. It is written by a writer I have long admired, ever since discovering his great book Resistance and Contemplation (Delta, 1972) in about 1980, James W. Douglass. This book, published in 2008, is called JFK and the Unspeakable (Orbis, 2008). It is an amazing book about Kennedy’s “turn toward peace, and the price this exacted.” But that is the subject for another article.

For me Kennedy’s murder was a tragic event and I was very upset by it. I think that the memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis of the year before, when I had been in the Naval Gymnasium at Saldanha Bay, was still very close and clear to me and I remember how intensely I had felt the threat of nuclear war at the time. So the assassination seemed to me to heighten the sense of peril facing the world at the time.



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