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Daniel Ferdinand

The Riviersonderend ("River-without-End"). Photo by Peter Dreyer.

At sixteen Daniel Ferdinand Immelman, my grandmother Muriel’s great×3-grandfather, accompanied the Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg, one of Linnaeus’s most distinguished pupils, on his first journey into the Cape interior—to the Gamtoos River, lasting from September 1772 to January 1773. Daniel later corresponded with Thunberg, sending him animal skins, which he had bought with money the Swede supplied.

In 1775, Daniel was easily persuaded by another Swedish naturalist, Anders Sparrman, to undertake a trip into the interior again. His father, Justus Immelman, a veteran soldier who was lieutenant in the Cape garrison, gave his consent readily enough, but his mother, Sara (née van Steenwyk) and his lovely (Sparrman was smitten!) sister, Anna Christina, were harder to convince.

The family were finally all persuaded by the argument that a long journey on horseback in company of a doctor like Sparrman was just what Daniel needed to strengthen his weak lungs.

Daniel likely had tuberculosis—he is later described as spitting blood—for which exercise on horseback was the therapy then recommended. In his case, it would seem to have worked, because he lived to father at least thirteen children, one of them my great×5-grandfather, also named Daniel Ferdinand, who was baptized in January 1781.

Justus Immelman died on July 28, 1775, and his father’s last illness led Daniel Ferdinand to delay his departure. He joined Sparrman at the hot springs at Bad agter de Berg (Bath Behind the Mountain), later called Caledon (where I was to be born in 1939).

The expedition’s baggage included a small cask of brandy in which to preserve specimens, and near the Riviersonderend (River-without-End), Sparrman sent their Khoekhoe wagon driver on alone, while he and Daniel stopped at a farm, were they were given a feast of broiled Cape Bishop Birds (Coliuspasser capensis).

Following after the wagon, Sparrman writes, “we met with a drunken European, who was not ashamed to offer himself to be my servant, after having acknowledged that, in company with my Hottentot, he had been getting drunk with the contents of my brandy-cask.” When Sparrman and Immelman caught up with the wagon and made camp, they found that the driver had “filled several bottles, in order to treat himself and a couple of rascals of his own kidney, a bastard and a slave, who had come thither.” Sparrman took away the brandy, “but they had already drank themselves to such a pitch of frenzy and boldness, as to give me to understand, that . . . they thought of nothing but revenge and murder.” It was decided to wait until they had cooled down in the morning; Sparrman meanwhile spent the whole night guarding his brandy, catching cold for his pains.

The next day, he and Immelman found a “serpent” and threw it alive into the brandy cask in front of the “pot-companions.” Daniel “told them, they might drink as much as they pleased, and added . . . he should hope soon to have the pleasure of seeing them burst with poison.” The drinkers replied “that they envied the venomous creature the pleasure of being drowned in so delicious an element.”

Sparrman and Immelman looked so odd that a pair of farmers from “Agter Bruntjes-hoogte” (near present-day Somerset East) gazed at them in amazement. Sparrman writes: “They found me with . . . my hair braided into a twist, my side-curls hanging down strait and fluttering in the air . . . [and] coat . . . variegated with blood, dabs of gunpowder, and spots of dirt and grease.” Beneath his breeches, which were turned up at the knees to keep cool, his stockings dangled over “Hottentot shoes.” Sparrman continues:

Mr. Immelman, who, in fact, was a handsome young fellow, with large dark-eyebrows, at this time wore a beard . . . which was now beginning to curl in a very conspicuous manner. . . . he figured on horseback in a long night-gown, with a white night-cap. . . . As to our beards, we had both of us in a merry mood, formed a resolution not to touch a hair of them either with razors or scissors, till we should either get into company again with the Christian lasses, or should have an opportunity of dissecting a hippopotamus. Added to this, we wished to try how a long beard would become our juvenile years [Sparrman was then 27; Immelman, 19]. “It is a present made to us by nature,” said we to each other, “let us keep it by way of experiment. Our beards, perhaps, prevent our catching cold, and getting defluxions [runny noses] and the tooth-ache in cold nights; at least it is probable, that in this climate they defend the face from the scorching rays of the sun; and who can tell what respect and consideration it may acquire us from the beardless tribes we are likely to meet with in the course of our expedition.” This resolution of ours, which we pertinaciously adhered to, gave rise . . . to many ludicrous conversations. . . . Being an African by birth, he [Immelman] was not afraid of being sun-burned; on which account, likewise, in order to keep his hair out of his eyes, he generally rode in his night-cap.

Like everyone else, they shot all and everything they cared to: lions, rhinos, and hippos were being exterminated at a great rate, both by the whites and by the indigenes, some of them now also bearing guns. Still, in the dark, they heard “a concerto of lions” roaring all night. “I must do my Hottentots justice to say, that they did not shew the least fear; though they conceived the old and commonly-received notion to be absolutely true, that both lions and tigers [i.e., leopards] would attack a slave or a Hottentot, before they will a colonist or a white man [note the distinction]. Consequently, Mr. Immelman and I had no such great reason to be in fear for our own persons, unless more than one lion should come to attack us.” While Sparrman was dissecting the corpse of a rhinoceros that had been shot by some Khoekhoe, Immelman narrowly escaped a charge by another. The pair of them went back to try to get a look at it, and “being but fifteen paces off, I heard a rustling noise. . . . Immediately upon this appeared a rhinoceros, with its horn projecting over one of the bushes. I now thought it high time for us to turn back . . . and we rode away as softly as possible. . . . This adventure made us afterwards suspect, that every bush harbored a rhinoceros.”

The Swede (like his compatriot Thunberg, in fact, who noted with what seems to me obvious distress, “Wild beasts are destroyed without mercy, consideration, or oeconomy [sic], in so much that some are killed for amusement . . . “) had a distinctly more modern view of animals than contemporary South Africans did, but he was still a man of the primordial kind. Pursuing a wounded Cape buffalo into a wood where it had taken refuge, they found it

advancing again in order to attack us, when Mr. Immelman . . . shot him in the lungs. Notwithstanding this, he had still strength enough to make a circuit of a hundred and fifty paces, before we heard him fall: during his fall, and before he died, he bellowed in a most stupendous manner; and this death song of his inspired every one of us with joy, on account of the victory we had gained: and so thoroughly steeled is frequently the human heart against the sufferings of brute creation, that we hastened forwards, in order to enjoy the pleasure of seeing the buffalo struggle with the pangs of death. I . . . think it impossible for anguish, accompanied by a savage fierceness, to be painted in stronger colours than they were in the countenance of this buffalo. I was within ten steps of him when he perceived me, and, bellowing, raised himself suddenly again on his legs. . . . I fired off my gun . . .

The colonists looked upon it “almost as horrible an action to eat the flesh of an elephant as that of a man,” Sparrman notes. Anyone who did would have been looked upon with contempt, for the elephant was seen as “a very intelligent animal, which, when it is wounded and finds that it cannot escape from its enemies, in a manner weeps; so that the tears run down its cheeks.”

After many further adventures, Daniel and Sparrman eventually reached the Great Fish River. They returned from there in April 1776.

Later that year, turned twenty, Daniel married nineteen-year-old Catharina Maasdorp, and he presently became an official of the ruling Dutch East India Company. He and Catharina lived in the Koue Bokkeveld, where their farm was called Houd-den-beck ("Shut Up").

Catharina died in her late twenties, around 1786, and Daniel Ferdinand in his mid-forties, around 1800.

Sparrman, famed after his return to Europe as a naturalist and abolitionist, lived to be seventy-two, dying in 1820. An English translation of the Swedish novelist Per Wästberg's biographical novel about him, in which Daniel Ferdinand appears, was published in 2010 under the title The Journey of Anders Sparrman.

See, too, Anders Sparrman, A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, towards the Antarctic Polar Circle, round the world and to the Country of the Hottentots and the Caffres, from the Year 1772–1776, edited by V. S. Forbes (2 vols., Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1975).


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