The Founding of Somerset East
From the earliest days of European exploration of Southern Africa, the area which is now the town of Somerset East, formerlly known as Agter Bruintjies Hoogte, impressed with its beauty, the fertility of its soil and the wealth of animal, bird and plant life. Many years ago, the Boschberg Mountain was referred to as the most beautiful mountain in Southern Africa and many would still agree with this.
Anders Sparrman, Swedish botanist, recorded this in his entry dated 30th December 1775 - "The first place where we took up our lodging was at an old elephant hunter's, of the name of Prinsloo, who was the first that had migrated here and, at the bottom of a high mountain, had pitched upon the finest situation for a farm in the whole district and, I had almost said, in all Africa."
Robert Jacob Gordon, exploring for the Prince of Orange, wrote on 3rd December 1777 - "This farm of Prinsloo's has one of the most beautiful locations as to terrain that I have seen in these parts. The forests have very tall trees, principally yellow- stink- and assegai wood."
Few records remain of the countr's first European explorers, but it appears that in about 1689 a Khoikhoi chief named Hintsati lived at Nojoli, the first name by which the area was known. In 1702 a band of men from Stellenbosch, accompanied by their Khoikhoi guides and servants were at a place known as Naude's Hoek. The Naude's River rises on the Boschberg and runs through Glen Avon and Prinsloo.
Several early explorers have left written records of their visits to this area; Swedish doctor and botanist Anders Sparrman in 1775, and Robert Gordon in 1777 and 1779. Sparrman stayed with elephant hunter Willem Prinsloo, the first recorded settler in Agter Bruintjies Hoogte - he settled here in 1771/2. Prinsloo's house was near the Bosch River some 4 km above its junction with the Little Fish River, probably on or near the site of the old stone house wrongly believed to have been Lord Charles Somerset's hunting Lodge - now 7 & 9 Paulet Street. This house is thought to have been one of the original farmhouses and to have probably been built by Robert Hart.
In December 1777, while on his second journey, Robert Jacob Gordon, a Dutch military man, reached "the farm of a certain Prinsloo. It is right at the foot of the Boschberg," and he passed by Prinsloo again on his third journey in October 1778. On 5th December 1777, Gordon met with the AmaXhosa, and their Chief Coba, in this area. Travelling over the Camdebo, over Bruintjies Hoogte and on to the Boschberg, then heading for the Great Fish River, Gordon frequently encountered trekboere and refers to these encounters in his immaculate and detailed journals.
Francois le Vaillant, a French ornithologist arrived at the Cape in 1781, and was in this area by the end of the year collecting speciments, mainly of birds. He discovered and named the Red-chested cuckoo, the Piet-my-vrou, near where Somerset East now stands, and wrote a lively account of his travels in French which was published in 7 languages, including an English translation which was published in 1790. Some of his specimens and stories were discredited, but his contribution to ornithology was immense, and many of his specimens still exist in European museums. He travelled with a baboon, Kees, used as his food taster, a cock which took the place of an alarm clock, and his dressing case contained enough clothing for him to change three times a day.
Naturalist Robert Burchell, who left the Cape in 1810 to make a journey of 4,000 miles, reached Agter Bruintjies Hoogte, and spent many months collecting and catelogueing the great wealth of plant life he found on the Boschberg. Like Sparrman, he believed the story that there were unicorns to be found on the mountain.
In 1814, on instructions from Governor of the Cape, Lord Charles Somerset, botanist Dr Joseph Mackrill travelled through the Cape Colony assessing the potential to produce goods to supply the military guarding the frontier; and for export. On reaching the Boschberg, he was so impresses with its potential he returned to the Cape to proclaim "at least a thousand acres; was covered with excellent sweet pasture, there was not an inch of useless ground; the water supply was good and there were approximately 6,000 tobacco plants." Three months later, Prinsloo's original farm was purchased by the government from Tregart and Bester for 270 pounds, and on January 1st 1815 a party led by Dr Mackrill moved in. The government subsidized the building of houses, soldiers' accommodation and a water mill. On Mackrill's suggestion to Somerset that "the land merits your Excellency's Noble and ancient name" (Lord charles, second son of the 5th duke of Beaufort, was descended from the Plantagenet kings of England); the settlement was named Somerset Farm.
Largely due to the work of the original owners, the first consignment of tobacco was soon on its way to the Cape, raising hopes for the success of the venture. Dr Mackrill was soon disheartened by bad relations between soldiers sent to work on the farm and the local labour, and suggested Captain Robert Hart to take his place. Tobacco was seen to be an uneconomical crop, and Hart, using improved methods and strict supervision, was soon able to send a steady supply of food, fodder and horses to the army posts on the Frontier, and to the Cape.
The 1820 Settlers and the local boers felt that this success came at the cost of their own prosperity; as the government subsidized farm undercut their prices and threatened their livelihood. Lord Charles decided to close the farm; Robert Hart received a letter in January 1825 giving him a month to dismiss all staff, and stating that government funding would cease - "it being the intention of his Excellency the Governor to establish a Drosdty on the farm site and to found a new district."
This "New Drosdty in Bruintjies Hoogte" was proclaimed in the Cape Town Gazette of 12th March 1825, and the farm was divided into 94 erven and sold by public auction. Robert Hart moved to the land he had been granted on the Naude's River, and named it Glen Avon. Buildings, including his original cottage and burial vault, are still there, and the land is still farmed by his direct descendants. The town which grew up under the Boschberg was known as Somerset until about 1857, when East was added to differentiate between it, and Somerset West.