History is often like detective work – you never know what you will find, but if you scratch just a little beneath the surface skeletons are bound to come flying out. If there is one key thing you have to have when researching the past, it’s patience. Days can go by with you trawling through endless lists and volumes of the hard-to-read handwriting of a person who penned something 300 years ago, in a form of Dutch that is no longer spoken and that certainly wasn’t standardized. When you come across a story that relates to the people you are looking for it is like finding the leprechaun’s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You have to stifle the urge to scream out with joy in those quiet rooms filled with ancient volumes and sometimes even more ancient fellow researchers working diligently alongside you.
It is probably because of this that I will always remember the day when past met present for me in the archives. One of the owners of the farm I had been researching was Jurgen Hendrik Engela, who had married into the farm so to speak. 300 years ago it was custom in Cape Dutch law that should a woman marry, all the property she owned (including slaves) would automatically become that of her husband. Hailing from Pruisies Minden in Germany, J.H. Engela settled at the Cape in 1738, as a soldier. He became a freeburgher in 1746, coincidently in the same year that he married the wealthy widow of property, Anna van Staden. Engela’s wealth must have increased considerably from that of a man surviving on a company soldiers’ wage to that of one owning a farm that came with 18 slave men, 3 slave women, 900 sheep and 9,000 wine stocks (according to the census records of 1751). In fact this period in the ownership of Delta (then known as Zandvliet) really characterized what life at the early Cape was all about: remarriage and short life expectancy. Engela was indeed Anna’s second husband. Her first, Johannes van Niekerk, had died in 1744. He had himself been married previously to Engela du Plooy, who had died in 1738, possibly from childbirth complications, as her household inventory was drawn up just one month after the birth of her second daughter and last of five children.
After the death of Anna in 1753, Jurgen continued to prosper, as the census records of 1767 indicates that he owned 500 sheep, 30 horses, 70 heads of cattle, 30 leaguers of wine and 25,000 wine stocks. Not that all was easy going for him, though; in 1751, Abraham van Bengalen (aged 50), a slave belonging to Engela, was one of a group of 12 fugitives captured by a commando. Abraham was accused of desertion, stealing two sheep from his master’s flock (his contribution to feeding his fellow deserters) and - far more seriously - of partnering with a gang that was guilty of subterfuge, conspiracy, and the premeditated murder of other slaves. Abraham was found guilty by association and hanged. In 1771, Jurgen Hendrik Engela transferred Delta to Jan (or Jean) de Villiers, in what was to begin half a century of De Villiers ownership of the property.
Sometimes when in the throws of researching it is hard to get these people out of your head, which is probably why I had to re-read the sign-in register at the archives one morning before I would believe what I was seeing. Just before I had arrived there, somebody named H. Engela had signed in, and he was now apparently sitting at table 22. On introduction it turned out that I had all along been working in the same room as a direct descendant of Jurgen Hendrik Engela, who had owned Delta over two and a half centuries ago. And let me tell you, if there is someone who knows about patience in researching the written record it is this gentleman, Happy Engela. For the past thirty years Happy has painstakingly recorded documents relating to 86,000 individuals in addition to recording some 23,000 graves and numerous transcriptions of registers for the Overberg region. Happy has now retired from his retirement project, and who could blame him for wanting a little rest. The Genealogical Society have since produced a CD titled “Overberg Families”, which makes his work available to the public. And guess what?: it includes the rump of the early South African genealogy of the Solms family, the current owners of Delta.
It felt like a strange act of cosmic fate when Happy returned to Solms-Delta in 2005, to walk the ground that his ancestor had once lived on. And since so many of the owners of Delta were the stamvaders of other Afrikaans families, Happy is not the only one who has experienced this meeting of past and present at Delta. The Cape really is a beautiful place, where we can walk in the footsteps of our ancestors, be they people who lived here a million of years ago or just a couple of centuries.
Tracey Randle, historian at Solms-Delta