Convict Stations & Labour in the Cape Colony

The exploitation of convict labour at the Cape during the Colonial era is closely connected with the work of John Montagu, Colonial Secretary for the Cape 1843-53. Montagu began his career as a colonial administrator in 1834, when he was appointed Colonial Secretary to Van Diemen’s Land, later known as Tasmania which, at that time, was one of the largest penal colonies operated by the British. There he gained a reputation as a brutal administrator and, after a disagreement with the Governor, Sir John Franklin, accepted the post of Colonial Secretary for the Cape, which he held from 25 April 1843 until just before his death in 1853. He was a staunch Anglican, and it is obvious that many of his policies towards convicts were firmly grounded in the puritan belief that correction ought to be brought about through a mixture of a protestant work ethic and religious proselytizing.

On 18 December 1843 Montagu was ordered by Governor Napier to visit Robben Island, for the purpose of “inquiring into the working of the convict system at that penal station”. As a result he put forward a plan which would consolidate the various mental institutions and lazaretti of the Colony upon the island, and would remove the major part of its convicts to work camps upon the mainland. Following the experience he had gained in Tasmania, it was Montagu’s intention that no convict should be detained upon the island “whose crime, conduct and character do not require a more severe degree of discipline and punishment than that which is observed at the convict road station”. Consequently he proposed to remove convicts from their places of incarceration, whose upkeep was a drain upon the fiscus, and place them into work camps where they were expected to engage their labour, for free, on road building and other maintenance projects of a public nature.

From the outset of his arrival at the Cape, Montagu had propounded that the establishment of an efficient road infrastructure for the Colony would open up communication and trade with the interior, and was thus an important precondition to its economic development. To achieve this, he needed a source of cheap labour and, given the depleted state of the Cape treasury at that time, convicts were seen as a logical solution to his problem. In 1844 Montagu’s plan was accepted, and the removal of the chronically sick, lepers, lunatics and paupers to Robben Island was completed by November 1845.

In this work, Montagu had the benefit of the support of two skilled road designers and land surveyors: Col Charles Michell and Andrew Geddes Bain. Michell was born in England in 1793, commanded a brigade during the Napoleonic wars, fought at the Battle of Waterloo, and subsequently became Professor in the science of fortification at the Royal Military Academy, at Woolwich. In 1828 he was appointed the Colony’s first Surveyor-General, Civil Engineer, and Superintendent of Public Works. He was a brilliant architect, who is credited with the design of many important buildings at the Cape, and played a leading role in the planning and construction of a number of its roads. He retired in 1848 when he returned to England on pension. Bain was an equally multi-talented personality. Initially he trained as a saddler, took part in numerous trading expeditions into the southern African interior, wrote popular verse, and in 1836 was attached to the Royal Engineers. A natural, if untrained engineer, he constructed a number of military roads and passes on the eastern frontier, before undertaking a pioneer study of southern Africa’s geology and making several important fossil discoveries (SESA 1972).

By 1857 there were about 720 convict camps scattered about the Colony. These were housed in temporary barracks, capable of being easily dismantled and moved to new locations as the need arose. After working hours, convicts were given basic schooling, with a heavy emphasis upon religious education. However the larger of these camps also housed non-convict labourers, as well as their supervisors, and it is apparent that a number of additional facilities were included for their benefit, such as the use of a postal establishment. Certainly the road engineer in charge would have required access to a system of communication in order to make regular progress reports to his Head Office in Cape Town, as would the Master of Stores, whose requisitions for additional supplies would often need urgent attention. Thus, for want of other, more definitive records, the presence of a post office, or some other basic means of postal collection and delivery, becomes an important indicator of the presence of a convict station in a district.

Of the 720-odd convict stations believed to have been in existence during the 1850s, only twenty-two of these are conclusively known to have incorporated a postal facility as part of their establishments. This means that the other seven hundred camps were either too small to warrant a post office in their own right, or did not have an administrator of sufficient seniority to be entrusted with the running of a post office, or were located in the vicinity of an existing postal establishment. Although the majority of these camps probably fell into this latter category, it must be assumed that at least some must have been located in areas which had no direct access to a postal service.

The Cape Post Office did not undertake the setting up of new country offices very lightly, for quite apart from the added expenditure incurred in their equipment, staffing and the establishment of new mail routes, Colonial Office rules made such an exercise subject to prolonged and detailed procedures. At a time when the total number of post offices in the Colony barely exceeded 350, postal administrators would hardly have welcomed the addition of another 700 establishments. It seems likely, therefore, that most convict stations would have been served by a basic collect-and-deliver service such as that provided by Field-Cornets, whose duties to remote and often semi-literate farming communities already included the delivery of a small number of letters and the promulgation of colonial laws. This would account for the proliferation, during this time, of Field-Cornet Posts, which previously had been thought to be purely administrative in nature, but which can now be assumed to have served as an extension of the colonial postal infrastructure.

The position of postmaster on a convict station usually fell to the Master of Stores, who was issued with “an obliterating stamp” to process postal matter. At least two such instruments have been documented to date: Wagonmaker’s Valley, which used the octagon numeral 15, and Howison’s Poort, which used a barred triangle obliterator. Being dumb, these could easily be transferred from location to location without necessitating a change of name or the expense of providing their postmasters with an engraved office date stamp. A similar policy of “wanderstempels” was also employed subsequently by the Cape GPO for temporary post offices in Basutoland and on the Kimberley diamond fields, and may have been the result of previous experience gained in the establishment of a Field-Cornet’s post.

One clue to the presence of additional convict station post offices may lie with the existence of a number of postal establishments during the period between 1849 and 1874, which were listed as agencies, but which were quite obviously run by Field-Cornets. These establishments were listed in the Civil Establishment Blue Books from 1849 through to 1874, after which all reference to them vanished from Post Office lists. Many of them were short-lived; had a penchant to disappear from the Blue Books, and then mysteriously reappear for a year or two only to vanish into oblivion; or to change their names at short notice, often two or three times within the short period of five years. This is not the behavior expected of a Field-Cornet’s Post, which was usually of a much more permanent nature, but it would be consistent with an establishment given to impermanence, and removal at short notice, such as a road crew. Not all of these convict stations would have been large enough to warrant the appointment of a dedicated postmaster, nor, for that matter, would they have supported a thriving postal business, given the levels of literacy existing at that time. It is feasible therefore, that the collection and delivery of mails to temporary road camps would have been charged to a local official, whose duties already included the provision of a rudimentary postal service to isolated farmsteads.

Given all of the above, it now appears probable that the series of seemingly irrational movements of postmasters, the unpredictable appearances and disappearances of post offices and their staff, and the endless changes of names, locations and divisions which blight the Colonial listings, were not the result of indifferent documentation, bureaucratic incompetence or the impermanence of staff. Rather, it can now be argued that many of these were temporary post offices which were attached to the nearest existing Field-Cornetcy, on a short-term basis, to service the needs of convict labor camps moving slowly through their districts. The formation and location of such camps would not have been subject to Post Office planning, but would rather have been ordered by the needs and functional work requirements of the Public Works Department, leaving the GPO to passively document such information as the PWD saw fit to pass on to them. Nonetheless, it now seems probable that the existence of a convict labour camp in any particular district can be documented through the Colonial Post Office records of that time.

The Case of Henry Fancourt White, Cape Roads Engineer

The village of Blanco was established on the farm Modder River during construction of the Montagu Pass in 1844-1847. Initially it was a work camp that included an assembly of workshops, stores and housing for convict workers and their supervisors. Almost from the onset it appears to have been known as Blanco, a pun based on the name of Henry Fancourt White, the engineer in charge of the project. White was an Australian who was brought out to the Cape by the Colonial Secretary, John Montagu, for the purpose of building the pass, and he continued to work in the Cape after the completion of the project. When he retired in 1860 he purchased the camp and laid it out as a formal township, which made provision for a school, a hotel and other public facilities. Although he intended to name it White's Villa, the name of Blanco appears to have stuck.

In 1844 work was begun on the construction of a new road through the Zuurberg Pass, and in 1847 the convict station, which had previously been established during construction of the Montagu Pass, was transferred to the Zuurberg. The Zuurberg Range lies on the boundary between the divisions of Alexandria and Somerset East, and straddles across the main wagon route from Port Elizabeth to Cradock The road, which travels through the Pass, was generally considered by early visitors to be an "almost impassable mountain", and made it difficult for farming communities in the South African interior to maintain regular contact with the coast.

The road crew included the project engineer, Henry Fancourt White, as well as his entire support staff. Construction took 250 convicts two years to complete, at a cost of ₤20,000. Their first camp was located at the northern end of the pass, possibly near a wagon halt initially known as Grobbelaar’s, and subsequently renamed Ann’s Villa.

In 1851, following the outbreak of the 1850-53 frontier war, the convict camp was removed to the safety of Port Elizabeth where, under White’s direction, it was engaged in the construction of a number of projects. These included a road linking the commercial strip of Main Street to the residential Central area, subsequently named White’s Road, a road to Uitenhage, and a bridge over the Baakens River. By 1853 the threat of war had receded, and the convict station returned to the Zuurberg. Work on the road continued for some years thereafter, and when White retired to Blanco in 1860 the camp was moved to a site on the Boontjes River, some two kilometers south of the pass, where a free wagon outspan was located. The project was probably completed early in 1865, when the camp was removed to a new project.

The work of Fancourt White very clearly illustrates the historical continuities and transitions which took place when a road crew, together with its postal establishment, was moved either from one project to the next, or, when engaged upon the same project, from one site to the next. The composition of the road gang remained essentially the same, but the name of its postal establishment in the Post Office records was changed according to its location. The study also illustrates the silences which occurred in the historical record when, for whatever reason, a road crew moved into an urban area, or into the sphere of an established postal establishment, and its post office was temporarily closed. This is important, for although most historians will happily record the achievements involved in the spanning of a river, or the scaling of a mountain range, the drudgery of common-day road building is scarcely ever mentioned. It seems probable that further research into the postal system, most particularly its field-cornet’s posts, will greater clarity to this hitherto unrecorded aspect of colonial life.

Other Convict Stations

The following postal establishments have been linked to convict road gangs or convict stations. The data listed below includes the magisterial division, as well as the dates of opening and closing of the post offices concerned:

Bain’s Kloof Worcester 1847-1852
Berg River Convict Station Paarl 1853-1854
Bird Island Port Elizabeth 1872-1873
Blanco George 1851 to Union
Boontjes River Convict Station Alexandria 1860-c1866
Breede River Convict Station Worcester 1852-1854
Buffels River Convict Station Namaqualand 1867-1870
Doornnek, Boontjes River Alexandria 1867-1876
Garcia’s Pass Riversdale 1880-1882
Gydouw Pass Tulbagh 1866-1867
Howison’s Poort Albany 1856-1859
Katberg Stockenstrom 1862-1878
Lichtenburg Convict Station  Paarl 1854-1856
Michell’s Pass Convict Station Worcester 1854-1855
Mostert’s Hoek Stellenbosch 1846-1847
Nieuw Kloof Tulbagh 1858-1868
Paarde Poort Uitenhage 1860-1878
Pakhuis Clanwilliam 1862-1871
Piquineer’s Kloof Malmesbury 1857-1858
Wagonmaker’s Valley Worcester 1846-1847
Winterhoek Convict Station Tulbagh 1860-1861
Zuurberg Convict Station Somerset East 1849-1859

Mountain Passes in the Cape

The following mountain passes can be found in the Cape Colony. Arguably, the construction of each one might have involved the use of convict labour, and hence might have been connected to three or more convict camps.

  • Aagedisberg Pass, located between Stanford and Riverzonderend
  • Achterwitzenbergen Pass, located north of Ceres
  • Annenopus Pass, located between Steinkopf and Port Nolloth
  • Bain’s Kloof, located between Ceres and Wellington
  • Barkly Pass, located between Elliot and Barkly East
  • Bergnaarspad Pass, located between Witsand and Bermolli
  • Blinkwater Pass, located between Balderja and Lower Blinkwater
  • Bloemfontein Pass, located between Cradock and Witmoss
  • Bloukrans Pass, located between Calvinia and Die Bos
  • Bloukrans Pass, located between Plettenberg Bay and Coldstream
  • Boesman’s Hoek Pass, located between Sterkstroom and Molteno
  • Boesman’s Kloof, located south of McGregor
  • Boma Pass, located between Middledrift and Keiskammahoek
  • Bongolo Nek, located between Queenstown and Qoqodale
  • Bosluis Kloof, located between Seweweekspoort and Gamkapoort Dam
  • Botha’s Post Pass, located south of Fort Beaufort
  • Botter Kloof, located between Soetwater and Moedverloor
  • Braambo’s Pass, located north of Adelaide
  • Buffelsberg Pass, located between Citrusdal and Prince Alfred Hamlet
  • Buffelshoek Nek, located between Pearston and Swaershoek
  • Burger’s Pass, located between Montagu and Matroosberg
  • Bush Nek, located north of Adelaide
  • Cogman’s Kloof, located between Montagu and Ashton
  • Dassieshoek Pass, located north of Robertson
  • Dejager’s Pass, located between Beaufort West and Sneeuwkraal
  • Devil’s Bellows Nek, located between Balfour and Whittlesea
  • Dewaal’s Kloof, located between Balderja and Whittlesea
  • Die Berg Pass, located between Niekerkshoop and Prieska
  • Diep Kloof, located between Burgersdorp and Witkop
  • Dontsa Pass, located between Keiskammahoek and Stutterheim
  • Dutoit’ Kloof, located between Paarl and Worcester
  • Ecca Pass, located between Grahamstown and Fort Beaufort
  • Franschhoek Pass located south of Franschhoek
  • Garcia’s Pass, located between Riversdale and Muiskraal
  • Garden of Eden Pass, located between Knysna and Uniondale
  • Gifberg Pass, located south of Vanrhynsdorp
  • Greyling’s Pass, located between Roussouw and Clifford
  • Grootrivier Pass, located between Keurboomsrivier and Nature’s Valley
  • Grootrivierhoogte Pass, located between Ceres and Cedarberg
  • Grootvlei Pass, located between Kamieskroon and Wallekraal
  • Gydo Pass, located north of Prince Alfred Hamlet
  • Hell’s Poort, located between Grahamstown and Carlisle Bridge
  • Helshoogte Pass, located between Stellenbosch and Pniel
  • Hexrivier Pass, located between Touws River and De Doorns
  • Hoekseberg Pass, located between Clanwilliam and Wupperthal
  • Hogsback Pass, located between Alice and Hogsback
  • Homtini Pass, located between Rheenendal and Barrigton
  • Hottentot’s Kloof, located between Ceres and Hottentot’s Kloof
  • Houwhoek Pass, located between Grabouw and Botrivier
  • Howieson’s Poort, located south of Grahamstown
  • Huisrivier Pass, located between Ladismith and Calitzdorp
  • Janspoorthoogte, located between Burghersdorp and Venterstad
  • Joubert’s Pass, located between Lady Grey and Barkly East
  • Kamiesberg Pass, located between Kamieskroon and Gamroep
  • Kapokkraal Hoogte, located between Burghersdorp and Witkop
  • Katbakkies Pass, located north of Ceres
  • Killian’s Pass, located between Kamieskroon and Walle Kraal
  • Killian’s Pass, located between Dordrecht and Roussouw
  • Kingo Hills Pass, located between Grahamstown and Douglass Heights
  • Knapdaar Hoogte, located between Burghersdorp and Bethulie
  • Komsberg Pass, located south-east of Sutherland
  • Koudeberg Pass, located between Wupperthal and Clanwilliam
  • Koueveld Pass, located between Seweweekspoort and Laingsburg
  • Kredouw’s Pass, located between Prince Albert and Klaarstroom
  • Lootsberg Pass, located between Bethesda Road and Rooihoogte
  • Lundean’s Nek, located between Sterkspruit and Belmore
  • McKay’s Nek, located between Queenstown and Lady Frere
  • Meiring’s Poort, located between De Rust and Klaarstroom
  • Mitchell’s Pass, located south of Ceres
  • Middelburg Pass, located between Citrusdal and Prince Alfred Hamlet
  • Molteno Pass, located between Beaufort West and Rosedene
  • Montagu Pass, located between George and Herold
  • Naudesberg Pass, located between Graaff-Reinet and Bethesda Road
  • Naude’s Nek, located between Rhodes and Elands Heights
  • New Katberg Pass, located between Balfour and Queenstown
  • Nico Malan Pass, located between Seymour and Whittlesea
  • Niekerk’s Pass, located between Somerset East and Bracefield
  • Nieuwoudt’s Pass, located between Clanwilliam and Cedarberg
  • Nonesi’s Nek, located between Queenstown and Driver’s Drift
  • Otto Du Plessis Pass, located between Clifford and Elliot
  • Ouberg Pass, located between Montagu and Kareevlakte
  • Oudeberg Pass, located between Murraysburg and Graaff-Reinet
  • Ou Kaapseweg Pass, located between Cape Town and Kommetjie
  • Oukloof Pass, located between Fraserburg and Beaufort West
  • Outeniqua Pass, located between George and Oudtshoorn
  • Padkloof Pass, located south of Whitsand
  • PakhuisPass, located between Clanwilliam and Pakhuis
  • Peerboom’s Kloof, located north-east of Ceres
  • Penhoek Pass, located between Queenstown and Jamestown
  • Phantom Pass, located between Knysna and Rheenendal
  • Pitseng Pass, located between Lower Pitseng and Elands Height
  • Pluto’s Vale Pass, located between Grahamstown and Breakfast Vlei
  • Potjesberg Pass, located between Speelmanskraal and Uniondale
  • Pot River Pass, located between Maclear and Elands Height
  • Prince Alfred’s Pass, located between Knysna and Avontuur
  • Ravel’s Kloof, located north of Jansenville
  • Remshoogte, located between Victoria West and Murraysburg
  • Robinson Pass, located between Oudtshoorn and Ruitersbos
  • Rooiberg Pass, located between Vanwyksvlei and Calitzdorp
  • Rooihoogte, located between Montagu and Matroosberg
  • Rooinek, located between Laingsburg and Ladismith
  • Rossouwsberg Pass, located between Dordrecht and Clanville
  • Rossouw’s Poort, located between Waterford and Pearston
  • Schoeman’s Poort, located between Schoemans Hoek and Cango Caves
  • Seweweekspoort, located between Calitzdorp and Seweweekspoort
  • Shaw’s Mountain Pass, located between Caledon and Hermanus
  • Sir Lowry’s Pass, located between Somerset West and Grabouw
  • Spektakelberg Pass, located between Springbok and Kleinsee
  • Strykhoogte, located between Robertson and McGregor
  • Struder’s Pass, located between Garies and Platbakkies
  • Suurberg Pass, located between Suurberg and Bracefield
  • Swaarmoed Pass, located east of Ceres
  • Swaershoek Pass, located between Cradock and Swaershoek
  • Swartberg Pass, located between Prince Albert and the Cango Caves
  • The Bles Pass, located between Lower Blinkwater and Balderja
  • Theekloof, located between Fraserburg and Leeuwgamka
  • Theronsberg Pass, located between ween Ceres and Hottentotskloof
  • Tradouw’s Pass, located between Barrydale and Zuurbraak
  • Uitkyk Pass, formerly known as the Cedarberg Pass, located between Clanwilliam and Cedarberg
  • Uniondale Poort, located between Avondale and Uniondale
  • Vaalkrantz Pass, located between Steynsburg and Venterstad
  • Van Der Stel’s Pass, located between Botrivier and Vyeboom
  • Vanrhyn’s Pass, located between Nieuwoudtville and Vanrhtnsdorp
  • Ventersberg Pass, located between Dordrecht and Clanville
  • Verlate Kloof, located between Sutherland and Matjiesfontein
  • Verwaters Nek, located between Olifantshoek and Debeben