National heritages

As the early trekboers moved farther and farther beyond Cape Town and the reach of the Dutch East India Company, the distinction between their lifestyle and those who remained in the slowly growing town at the foot of Table Mountain became ever more marked. By the second half of the 18th century a gentry of some considerable wealth had established itself in and around Cape Town, with farmers owning more than 16 slaves constituting some 20% of the free burgher population and occupying the bulk of the rich farmland in the Boland area.

They built grand mansions which they furnished with the splendid stinkwood-and-yellowwood armoires and display cabinets that are today's most prized collectors' items.

The combination of the land pressure this produced and an insatiable desire to escape the regulatory controls of the Dutch East India Company drove poorer elements of the free burgher community first to the fringes of the settlement area, then beyond, ever deeper into the interior — to lead lives of extreme isolation cut off for more than a century from the main currents of the Western civilisation from which they had sprung.

There, in the words of historian C. W. De Kiewiet, "in the long quietude of the eighteenth century the Boer race was formed."

De Kiewiet paints a vivid picture of the lifestyle which moulded the character of these pioneers which is reflected, too, in the simple, sturdy, utilitarian furniture they made — so sturdy that much of it endures to this day to charm and speak to us of our national heritage.

"Their life gave them a tenacity of purpose," De Kiewiet writes, "a power of silent endurance and the keenest self-respect. But this isolation sank into their character, causing their imagination to lie fallow and their intellects to become inert. Their tenacity could degenerate into obstinacy, their power of endurance into resistance to innovation, and their self-respect into suspicion of the foreigner and contempt for their inferiors." In my last column I wrote about the sturdy spindle and Tulbagh chairs the trekboers made as they drifted beyond the Hottentots Holland and Hex River Mountains to settle around Worcester and Robertson, Swellendam and Graaff Reinet.

But even more remote were others who trekked north rather than east, up the west coast and into the Sandveld, beyond Darling and Pieketberg to the Olifants River between Lambert's Bay and the Cedarberg. As the name denotes, this is arid, semi-desert country with few timber trees and the deep sand of the region made it difficult to transport heavy logs there.

The result is that Sandveld furniture is made from unusual woods, from stunted trees and shrubs, which was the only timber available and which give Sandveld items a fascinating uniqueness.

The most common timber was lemoenhout, or the wood of the orange tree, which flourished under irrigation from the Olifants River. It has a deep golden colour, darker than yel-lowwood and comes in relatively thin strips so that lemoenhout furniture has a somewhat spindly appearance but a charming simplicity — evocative of the people who made that harsh but starkly beautiful region their home.

Other Sandveld furniture was made from the wild olive and mulberry, the syringa, the kareeboom, or bastard willow, that grew next to the river, and proteas from the mountains. Pro-teawood was used mainly for making dowels, where they appear as hard, black circles holding the joints together.
The most common Sandveld items still to be found are lemoenhout chairs made in the Tulbagh style with riempie seats. I have a delightful little lemoenhoul bankie (pictured) which is one of the most cherished items in my personal collection. Old household items of all sorts made from these unusual woods, from butter pats to vats, are also still in use in the region.