“Miserable Hovels”

Almost hidden in a corner of the tiny Reception area of the Drostdy Hotel in Graaff-Reinet is a framed text. Upon closer inspection, it turns out to be an extract from a book written in the late 18th century.

Extract from John Barrow’s descriptions of Graaff-Reinet and environs. Note the ‘s’ in the print that resembles an ‘f’ – typical of old print text.

It has an impressive title:

An Account of Travels into the Interior of Southern Africa, in the Years 1797 and 1798: including Cursory Observations on the Geology and Geography of the Southern Part of that Continent; the Natural History of such Objects as occurred in the Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral Kingdoms; and Sketches of the Physical and Moral Characters of the Various Tribes of Inhabitants surrounding the Settlement of the Cape of Good Hope.

To which is annexed, a Description of the Present State, Population, and the Produce of that Extensive Colony; with a Map Constructed Entirely from Actual Observations made in the Course of the Travels.

By John Barrow,

late Secretary to the Earl of Macartney, and Auditor-General of Public Accounts, at the Cape of Good Hope.

At the time of Barrow’s travels in these parts, the country looked much different to what we see and experience today. Of course, his views would have been shaped by a grand lifestyle of privilege and wealth in England.  His descriptions of Graaff-Reinet and its surrounds are anything but complimentary.

Of the village itself, he writes:

It consists of an assemblage of mud huts placed at some distance of each other, forming a kind of street. At the upper end stands the house of the landrost, built also of mud, and a few miserable hovels that were intended as offices for the transaction of public business: most of these have tumbled in; and the rest are in a ruinous condition and not habitable.

“A kind of street” going up towards the Drostdy, erstwhile seat and residence of the Landdrost, described by John Barrow as being lined with “miserable hovels”.

Bear in mind that today the award-winning Drostdy Hotel is a much sought-after tourist property that in recent years hosted the likes of the late former President Nelson Mandela.

Facade of the historic Drostdy Hotel built in 1804 in Graaff-Reinet.

According to a brief history on the Heritage Portal, the building that now comprises the main part of the hotel was built around 1804 (shortly after Barrow’s visit there). Renowned architect Louis Michel Thibault was responsible for its design. It served as the office and residence of the local landdrost – a kind of magistrate for the rural districts at the time – before becoming private property. From around 1870 it was converted to a hotel.

The lounge area in the historic Drostdy Hotel.

A century later, in late 1970, the building was acquired and extensively renovated by Dr Anton Rupert’s Oude Meester Group, in association with Historical Homes of South Africa.

In the courtyard of the Drostdy Hotel’s historic main building, with the restaurant on the right and an impressive cheetah sculpture by Dylan Lewis on the left.

The quaint town of today is home to historic architecture, art galleries, museums and fine-dining restaurants – a far cry from the caustic John Barrow’s description:

The village is chiefly inhabited by mechanics, and such as hold some petty employment under the landrost. Its appearance is more miserable than that of the poorest village in England. The necessaries of life are with difficulty procured in it; for, though there be plenty of land, few are found industrious enough to cultivate it. No milk, no butter, no cheese, no vegetables of any kind, are to be had upon any terms. There is no butcher, no chandler, no grocer, no baker. Every one must provide for himself as well as he can.

Graaff-Reinet attracts visitors from all around the world, many of whom visit the nearby Camdeboo National Park. A great feature of this park is the Valley of Desolation with imposing rock formations towering above the expansive valley floor stretching to the horizon, a landscape formed by volcanic and erosion forces in the Jurassic Period about 150 million years ago. This view is best taken in at sunset.  

The Valley of Desolation, a prime feature of the Camdeboo National Park outside the town of Graaff-Reinet.

Postscript:  My first names derive from an ancestor, five generations back, who was baptised in Graaff-Reinet in 1798 – the same year John Barrow visited the town.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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