Table Bay in a Gale

George Thompson, who arrived in the Cape about 1818, was a successful merchant in Cape Town. He married a Dutch woman and travelled widely in southern Africa in the early years of the 19th century. His book, Travels and Adventures in Southern Africa, was first published in 1827 while he spent a year in England. He returned to the Cape and stayed here until he was 63 years old, all in all spending about forty years of his life in South Africa.

The historian Theal asserted that, “This book is one of the best that has ever been written upon South Africa” and that the author’s “powers of observation were keen, his mind free from prejudice, and his style of writing was clear”.

Wild Dogs of South Africa
Spring Bok and Koodoo

In the preface of his book Thompson wrote “My education and pursuits have been mercantile, not literary or scientific. I have been a traveller partly from motives of business, partly from the impulse of curiosity. I entertained no idea of becoming an author, until the accumulation of materials, and the recently awakened demand in the Cape Colony for fresh information in regard to its condition and resources, induced me to revise my Notes and Journals, and to select for the press the portions now submitted, with some hesitation, to the Public.”

Thompson initially came to the Cape, probably to open a branch for a London merchant firm. Later he became a partner in the firm and remained associated with it during the forty years he spent at the Cape. His role in the cultural life of Cape Town is indicated by his membership of various voluntary organisations. This included, amongst others, a council member of the South African Literary and Scientific Institution, the Cape of Good Hope Agricultural Society and director of the South African Public Library.  He was also very supportive of the establishment of a botanic garden for Cape Town. On the bussiness front he was a director the Cape of Good Hope Bank and of the Cape of Good Hope Mining Company, which held leases in the copper fields of Namaqualand.

Newlands, the country seat of the Governor
Commercial Exchange, Cape Town

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Travels and Adventures in Southern Africa, covering the period January 1821 to August 1824, was originally published in 1827 and was reprinted by the Van Riebeeck Society in two volumes.

This volume (VRS I-49) covers the period July and August 1824 when Thompson set out on a northbound journey via the Roggeveld and the Hantam to the Orange River. He interviewed many San and Khoi tribes, as well as the mixed race Griquas and Korannas, and describes their customs and ways of life. He concludes the volume with observations on the conditions of the Dutch and English inhabitants, on future colonisation and on agricultural and commercial potential of the country.

Missionary Village at Kamiesberg in Namaqualand

In the first volume, (VRS I-48), commencing in January 1821, Thompson sets out on a six week journey to the eastern Cape to investigate the possibilities of expanding trade with the British settlers of 1820. He travelled by sea to Port Elizabeth, visited Uitenhage, Grahamstown, Bathurst, and other settlements and returned to Cape Town overland. This is followed by a trip to Swellendam, George and a visit to the Cango Caves.


…attempted to make them understand by signs that I was in want of provisions, and would gladly purchase some; but they only replied by shaking their heads, and pointing to the “girdles of famine” tied round their bellies; and I afterwards learned that they had been subsisting for many days entirely on gum.

In this situation we sat together for upwards of two hours, until at length Witteboy made his appearance, leading the old horse that we had left some miles behind the preceding night, but without any game. He irnmediately entered into conversation with the Korannas, but could learn from them only the details of their own miserable situation. On account of the long continued drought, the wild game had almost entirely deserted this quarter of the country; the bulbs, also, had disappeared; and they were reduced to famine. Jacob soon after returning with the horses, we saddled up about nine o’clock, and left these poor Korannas and the “Camels Mouth,” filing away in a melancholy train down the dry channel of the river. We took this path through a heavy sand, to save our horses’ feet from the sharp fints which covered the banks.

After about an hour’s ride, we came to a spot marked with the recent foot-prints of the natives; and, looking around us, we saw two human beings seated at a little distance under a mimosa. On approaching them, a picture of misery presented itself, such as my eyes had never before witnessed. Two Koranna women were sitting on the ground entirely naked; their eyes were fixed upon the earth, and when we addressed them, one of them muttered some words in reply, but looked not upon us. Their bodies were wasted by famine to mere skin and bone. One of them was apparently far advanced in years. The other was rather a young woman, but a cripple. An infant lay in her naked lap, wasted like herself to a skeleton, which every now and then applied its little mouth alternately to the shrivelled breasts of its dying mother. Before them stood a wooden vessel, containing merely a few spoonfuls of muddy water. By degrees the Hottentots obtained for me an explanation of this melancholy scene. These three unfortunate beings had been thus left to perish by their relatives when famine pressed sore upon the horde, because they were helpless, and unable to provide for themselves. A pot of water had been left with them; and on this, and a little gum, they had been for a number of days eking out a miserable existence. It seemed wonderful that they had so long escaped falling a prey to the wild beasts; but it was evident that one or two days more of famine would be sufficient to release them from all their earthly sufferings.

My heart was moved with commiseration for these deserted and dying creatures, but I possessed no means of relieving them. We had looked forward with confidence to the relief of our own pressing wants on reaching the Koranna hordes upon the Gariep; but if the others were in a similar condition with those we had seen, our prospect was, indeed, a very gloomy one.


Vernon S. Forbes, Professor of Geography, Rhodes University