The complete photo shows Andries Hendrik Potgieter next to what is described as his (last) wife, Susanna Maria Duvenage (widow Van Emmenes), apparently taken in Delagoa Bay around 1851.

The mystery of the photo of the commandant-general

Date: 02 February 2019 By: Anton van Zyl

Is it real, or have we been misled for many years? This was the question when the authenticity of a photo of Voortrekker leader, Andries Hendrik Potgieter, came under scrutiny.

The debate about the photo started in December last year. The FAK, an organisation promoting Afrikaner culture, posted a daily snippet on their Facebook page, commemorating the birth of Potgieter 226 years earlier. The short note was accompanied by a commonly used photo of Hendrik Potgieter. Later that day, one of the readers posted a remark questioning whether this was really a photo of the commandant-general.

The comment quickly drew a response from another reader, pointing out that it was quite possible for such a photo to exist, seeing that the first reference to a photographic studio in South Africa was already made in a newspaper advert in the Eastern Province Herald in October 1846. Potgieter died in December 1852, some six years later.

To find an answer to the question is, however, not that simple. One must consider various factors, such as the type of photographic processes available before 1852, the movements of Potgieter (was he close to a photographic studio?) and the movement of traders during the time. It becomes a detective story, where one must search for clues to prove or disprove a theory.

Who was Hendrik Potgieter?

In the small cemetery near the Schoemansdal museum, some 16 kilometres west of Louis Trichardt, a memorial stone was erected for the Voortrekker leader. This is where Potgieter died on 16 December 1852, three days before his 60th birthday. (He had apparently looked much older and his sons had remarked afterwards that they had thought their father to be in his 70s.)

Potgieter can be described as the founder of the town, Zoutpansbergdorp, which later became Schoemansdal. He settled here with his extended family early in 1849. He had missed the initial trek to the far north, because he first had to deal with internal struggles in the then Boer Republic, which he had helped establish. Jan Valentyn Botha acted as temporary leader and led the 48 families to the area just south of the mountain, where they arrived on 2 May 1848. Potgieter and the rest of the families joined them a few months later.

Potgieter is probably the best known of the early Voortrekkers in the far north of the country but was also highly controversial. He was born in the Graaff Reinett district in the Cape Colony on 19 December 1792. In his early years he was involved in two of the frontier wars in the Eastern Cape. He was very outspoken about his contempt for British rule and in 1835 he led a group of Voortrekkers to seek their fortunes away from the Cape Colony, settling further to the north.

The Voortrekkers moved from the Colesberg area to what would later become known as the Free State. Here he developed cordial relationships with local Black leaders who were hiding from Mzilikazi. One of these leaders, Makwena, exchanged land between the Vet and Vaal River for 49 heads of cattle and the promise of protection from Potgieter.

Potgieter was not afraid of exploring new areas and travelled widely. In 1836, he decided to look for the Louis Tregard trek, and in May that year he visited them near the Soutpansberg. Tregard’s vision of finding a trading route to the east coast probably resonated with Potgieter and he partly explored the Portuguese routes in the direction of what is today known as Inhambane.

(Just as a side note – When Potgieter visited the Soutpansberg in the period between May and June 1836, he travelled with JGS Bronkhorst and nine others. They travelled on horseback with two light carriages and some oxen. They completed the journey in 21 shifts. The total distance was some 450 miles, or almost 725 kilometres. They travelled on average just over 23 kilometres per day.)

Fast-tracking to 1846

For the purpose of this article, we will have to skip a decade, ignoring several wars that Potgieter was involved in and also not going into the details of the conflict between him and other Voortrekker leaders such as Piet Retief and Andries Pretorius. Potgieter and his companions went further north, to what was later to become the Transvaal, while Retief and Piet Uys trekked to the then Natal. We will also skip the 1838 incident where Voortrekker groups were attacked in Natal and Potgieter was asked to come to their aid. Potgieter and his men were led into an ambush and had to flee. In certain circles, Potgieter was blamed for this failure and some even referred to him and his men as the Vlugkommando (fleeing commando). This did not do much to improve relationships between Potgieter and some of the other Voortrekker leaders, and he moved to the north where, at the end of 1838, he established a town, later known as Potchefstroom.

When the British took control of Natal in the 1840s, Potgieter was determined to live above the 25th parallel south, away from English rule. He decided to establish the new Boer Republic of Transvaal in April 1844, with him as leader. The year before that he visited the then Delagoa Bay to foster good relationships with the Portuguese and establish trading routes.

In an effort to have a strategic location closer to the coastal route, Potgieter helped establish the town of Andries Ohrigstad in 1845 near the western Drakensberg and made this the capital. Throughout this period, however, he was plagued by internal power struggles and had to deal with resentment from certain groups of people not impressed with his style of leadership.

Another look at the photo

At this point we need to return to the main subject of the article – the photo.

The Internet may very well be a maze where one can quickly become lost among the billions of sites, but it has many “road maps” and tools that are useful when trying to search for facts. The photo of AH Potgieter is used by many websites focusing on history, including Wikipedia, and even Maroela Media. A very useful trick is to do a reverse-image search to see who else has used the photo and to check whether this does not provide a higher-resolution picture with additional information.

This worked quite well, and a few other sites provided additional information and a more complete photo, showing a man and a woman sitting next to each other. One had a description saying that the woman next to Potgieter was his second wife, the widow Van Emmenes.

On the Wikitree site, further information can be found relating to the photo. Here the statement is made that the woman in the photo is probably not Elizabeth Helena Botha (who died in 1841). The date that the photo was taken is estimated as 1851 and the origin of the photo is mentioned to be the Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein. The photo was apparently taken in Delagoa Bay.

Pinpointing which of Potgieter’s wives is the one in the photo is no simple matter. One source indicates that he was married four times and had 17 children (two of whom died at birth). The genealogical sites, however, differ as far as the names of the wives are concerned.

In such cases, reverting to the biography of Potgieter, written by his great-grandson, Carel Potgieter, and NH Theunissen, which was published in 1938, is useful. They reckoned that he was married five times; first in 1821, but the name of the woman is not known. She died with the birth of their second son.

In 1824, he married Helena Elizabeth Botha, a widow. She died on 7 March 1841, only a few hours after the birth of their sixth child (some sources say the 13th child, but this is debatable). Later that same year, he married the widow Bronkhorst. She died either at the end of 1842 or at the beginning of 1843, after the birth of their daughter. (The sources contradict each other here.)

In mid-1843, Potgieter married for the fourth time. On this occasion he pledged his devotion to the widow Catherina Elizabeth Jacobs (born Erasmus). Their first child was born on 5 January 1844. According to Potgieter’s biography, she died around 1849, but another source states that she died on 25 May 1852. A few months later, on 7 July 1852, he married the widow Susanna Maria Duvenage in Zoutpansberg Dorp (Schoemansdal). Some sources, including the biography, state that she was the widow of Gert Lourens van Emmenes and the marriage took place in 1850.

If the year 1846 is used as a starting point for photography in South Africa, the woman in the photo can be either Catherina Elizabeth Jacobs or Susanna Maria Duvenage. If the photo was taken in Delagoa Bay, Duvenage (Van Emmenes) may be excluded, because at that stage Potgieter was already very ill and would not have been able to travel that far.

The photo itself is also worth a closer look. At first glance it appears to be what is referred to as a carte de visite, a format that became very popular in the mid- to late 1860s. The only problem is that this format was not available when the commandant died in December 1852.

In next week’s edition we shall try and unravel more clues, hoping that this will bring us closer to an answer. We shall look at the history of photography in South Africa and specifically the processes used by the photographers of the day. We also need to find out whether Potgieter visited areas where photographers would have been active during the time. Lastly, we need to look at the possibility that a roaming photographer visited the Soutpansberg in the early 1850s.



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Anton van Zyl

Anton van Zyl has been with the Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror since 1990. He graduated from the Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) and obtained a BA Communications degree. He is a founder member of the Association of Independent Publishers.


More photos... 

The photo that is commonly used on sites such as Wikipedia as that of commandant-general Hendrik Potgieter.

The memorial stone at Schoemansdal Museum.