Charlotte Smith’s story

More family history stuff. Dad recently helped my uncle move most of his worldly goods up from Texas to Toronto. While packing something like 20 years’ worth of stuff, they found this document from their cousin, Vivian Dawson.

Uncle Vivian was the son of my grandfather’s sister, Queenie. He several years older than Dad and Uncle Clive and worked as a teacher and head teacher at schools in South Africa and Australia. He and his family moved to Australia in the 1960s and have been living there ever since.

This is his account of his grandparents (my great grandparents), Wong Fi Yen and Charlotte Smith. It differs a little from my grandmother’s oral history, but I’ve no reason to believe that it isn’t true.

I’ve left out the preamble where Vivian talks about his home in Emmanuel Street, Port Elizabeth, and we’ll start with Charlotte.


Charlotte S Smith (1880 – 1964)

I will begin with my maternal grandmother, Charlotte Sylvia Smith (nee Schaarneck), whom everybody knew as Lottie or Mrs Smith. She was born on 4th June 1880 in the small frontier town of Herschel, that nestles in the foothills of the Witteberge – an offshoot of the mighty Drakensberg chain of mountains. This distant corner of the Cape Colony was flanked to the north by the great ramparts of Lesotho and further south, over the high mountains, by Pondoland and Tembukieland. At this time there was a great deal of trouble between the Boers and the Basutos and friquent skirmishes made life rather precarious for these frontier people. The Union of South Africa was still a dream in the minds of some far-sighted politicians and would only be formed thirty years later and the Great Trek of the Boers northwards was not yet fifty years in the past.

Ma Lottie loved to spin yarns of the olden days when there were not so many new-fangled gadgets to get used to. She refused, for most of her life, to use the electric stove that my aunt Phyllis had bought, preferring her old black ‘Welcome Dover’. She loved in the evenings after the day’s work was done, to sit by the wood fire that seemed to burn perpetually in the stove, and tell us about her life on her father’s farm.

Sometimes we would have a quince or a pear or a sweet potato roasting in among the ashes and the dying embers. Often, in the cold winter months, she would ut a brick or two in the oven to later be wrapped ina flannel cloth and put into bed with us to keep our feet warm.

She used to tell us how, when she was a baby, during the troubled times of the frontier wars with the Basuto, tribal warriers were attacking and she had been forgotten outside while everybody was rushing to get into the safety of the farmstead. Fortunately a young cousin, who was a soldier in the British army, dashed out to bring her to safety. She also loved to tell the story of how another cousin who fought in the Boer commando, while fleeing on horsebakc, had been chased by Scottish sociers who ran so fast that they caught up with his mate who was on a slightly slower mount. Later this same cousin had been captured by the British and transported to Ceylon as a POW. There, while drun he had had all his hair, beard and moustache shaved off by his mates – on only one half of his head!

She remembered that when she was a young girl her family had one day been honoured by a visit from the chief of the Gaikas and his retinue. Her father had slaughtered a fat ox for the occasion and they had the biggest feast on the farm that she could remember.

I was reminded of her story when I also had the honour of being invited to be part of the festivities when Matanzima, a royal chief of the Xhosas, came to visit Humansdorp, where we lived at that time. The chief was dressed in full ceremonial regalia; feathers and beads and finely plated headband of leopard skin, long cape of leopard skin draped over his shoulder and a loin cloth made of soft skin and tails of lions and leopards. Around his wrists were copper bangles and he wore a necklace of lions’ teeth.

He had with him a motley band of courtiers dressed in similar style, but without the leopard skins that were reserved as symbols of royalty to be worn only by chiefs. All his companions were armed with assegais, other assorted weaponry and shields of oxhide.

His praise singer went ahead of him, dancing and prancing around, beating the earth with his shield and with his knobkerrie as he shouted out the praises of the chief and the praises of his ancestors, narrating all their mighty deeds and telling of the greatness of their lineage.

The rest of the entourage were singing and dancing and laughing and hoyous at this coming of their chief. Maybe, I thought, this is how the king of the Gaikas came to my great-grandfather’s farm on the day my grandmother spoke of so proudly. That it had been a great day for her was obvious from the misty look in her eyes when she told this story.

She also told us the strange tale about one of her father’s servants who had the ability to turn herself into a cat and come to the homestead at nightt o steal from the larder. Her identity as the thief was only discovered after they had lain in wait for the cat and half-killed it when it was caught in the act of raiding their stores. However the cat had managed to slip away from them in the darkness and escaped capture.

The next morning they learned that the servant in question was near death’s door as a result of having been severely lacerated and injured in a way that she could not account for. It was then that the missing items were found in her house and she was revealed as the thief with occult powers. This story, as well as the many other strange tales she told us about tokolosies and ghosts, were absolutely true: and would my grandmother ever lie to us? I do believe that she was convinced of the veracity of this weird story.

She was born into a farming family of Boer and French Huguenot ancestry. She grew up in harsh times and worked hard on the farm, not even flinching from the job of heaving heavy sacks of grain onto farm wagons. She seemed not to have been over-fond of her stepmother, but I never heard her say a bad thing about this lady.

I met two of her sisters. One sister lived in Cape Town and her name was Hettie Marais. She was a lovely woman and looked the spitting image of my grandmother. Marcia [Vivian’s wife] and I visited her fairly regularly during the nine years we lived in Stellenbosch. Her son, John, had at one time played soccer for the Western Province side and later became the principal of Paterson High School in Port Elizabeth before he left for England. I saw him last in Zambia, where he had been teaching for a number of years before going back to England. At that time he had let his family go on ahead of him because he had heard we would be coming to Zambia and presumably he wanted to see us again. We spent some days in his company before he left and in that time we met some close friends of his from South Africa who ran a cattle ranch. He loved roaming around their property, enjoying the solitude of the place. Some years later we heard that this whole family had been massacred by a machine gun-wielding African who had felt thwared because they had raised objections to him marrying their daughter.

Uncle John was a strange man – introverted, deep thinking, intellectual and kind in a gruff, off-handed sort of way. He and I had a rather good sort of relationship. He later taught in Spain, where he died and was buried.

I met my Ma’s other sister, Stenie, when she once visited us at Port Elizabeth. She had come from Johannesburg, where she lived with her daughter. I remember as a small, very pale lady who always wore a Boer cap when she went outdoors. She was a very sweet, dainty lady and, unlike her two sisters, had a very beautiful complexion and was the possessor of a delicate beauty which glowed in spite of her advanced at at the time. I met her only that once.

Ma Lotte, accompanied by my brother, Sidney, went on a visit to her brother Johnny up in Herschel but Inever had the opportunity of seeing this member of our family. My brother told me that he looked very much like our grandmother and that the people in Herschel had been very happy to see Ma Lottie again. Unfortunately her brother could not see her because he had gone blind by this time.

When I was still very young my grandmother took me with her on a holiday to visit a niece of hers who was married to a railway worker, a ganger. They lived in Vondeling, a small town in the Karroo. I remember this visit clearly even though it was only for a short month that I lived among those Boer families with my Ma. To this day I remember with nostalgia the magical sounds, smells and sights of the desolate Karroo scrubland where we children played among the grazing goats with their coats of many colours.

I know very little about Ma Lottie’s life after she had left the farm. I heard from various member of the family that she had come to Port Elizabeth where she had married an Englishman surnamed Smith. They used to live in Sydenham and it appears that this man ill-treated her very badly. He was a heavy drinker and a wife basher and she had a very miserable life with him. She bore him two babies, both boys, who both died in their invancy. I think she told me their names were Louis and Matthew. When she could no longer stand her husband’s drinking, abuse and violent ill-treatment of her, she left him. Although I heard that he had died when I was already adult, I had no acquaintance whatsoever with him. She ended up with the grandfather that I knew and loved and in whose home I grew up. They had three children; my uncle Albert, my mother (Queenie) and my aunt Phyllis.

For me, Ma Lottie was the lovliest and most loving person that ever lived and I hold her memory sacred to this day. She was a very giving person and was always caring for some poor person who was in want. She was a very good listener and was the confidant of many a enighbour. I remember one African woman, Mrs Mpethlo who always used to come over to talk to her. I could never make out what they were talking about because my Ma spoke in Xhosa, which she was well-versed in. Only when I was grown up did I wonder why Ma always spoke to Mrs Mpethlo at the door never inviting her in. As I grew older I realised that she had merely been observing the proprieties of the day.

Ma Lottie died of a heart attack at the age of 84. On the tombstone that I had erected on her grave are inscribed the words: “Here lies love personified”.


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