At sunrise on Tuesday, 9 February, 1869, came a ‘berg wind’, the hottest in living memory.
This ‘intensely hot hurricane’ raged through an area from Riversdale to Uitenhage, including the Humansdorp district and even as far as Port Elizabeth.
Fires broke out across a distance of over 450 kilometres and ‘it seemed that the world went up in flames’.
Reports from the different places say that all the fires started early on the Tuesday morning which, suggests that it was not a single fire spreading from west to east in forests, fynbos and farms, but must have been many separate fires.
There were also fires which spread from over the mountains towards the coast, all driven by the ‘berg wind’ which blows from the north or north-west.
The devastation was enormous. At least 41 lives were tragically lost in the Tsitsikamma and Humansdorp areas.
The pets and the farmers’ livestock – poultry, pigs, goats, sheep, cattle, oxen, mules and horses; the bush buck and other game and birds of all sizes, all were horribly burnt to death or overcome by the smoke.
Homes, from mansions to labourers’ cottages and kraals with huts were destroyed, along with crops, tobacco, fruit trees, cut sheaves and stacks of fodder. There was little or nothing left for those who survived and many were ruined.
Clarkson was a Moravian Mission below the mountains in the indigenous forested area of the Tsitsikamma, about 60km from Humansdorp.
There, 14 lives were lost, there was a great loss of livestock and 27 houses were destroyed on that terrible day. There was a graphic account: “Resinous odours filled the hot, dry suffocating dust-laden air and a terrible hurricane, that carried with it smoke, fire sparks etc., hurled forth its deadly power.
High overhead flew great sheets of flame, snatched up by the wind and flung from bush to bush while a fiery shower fell, constantly drifting down through the lower foliage.
The sun was a red as fire and many thought the final day of God’s just retribution had arrived.
Fire approached the Fingo location below the farm Driefontein of FC Rademeyer and Son, and the Fingo Church at Witte Klein Bush near Clarkson was entirely destroyed.
Rademeyer and many Fingoes worked hard to extinguish the fire, but it then took two directions – one side destroyed his homestead and the other went towards the Kromme River. It was then about 4pm.
Mr Kemp and his son and his voorleier, a young boy, all died. Mrs Gertenbach and her servant were burnt to death in their Zuurbrom homestead.”
In the Humansdorp area “the sun rose intensely hot, the air was languid, and no shadow of trees could break the heat and glare of the sun’s rays.” Altogether 26 lives were lost and twenty homesteads with livestock and crops were destroyed in the Humansdorp, Gamtoos and Van Stadens area.
There are vivid descriptions of terrified families fleeing from the approaching inferno, in wagons and on foot, through choking smoke and heat. Some tried to save their livestock by immersing them in rivers and dams.
The fire crossed the Gamtoos River and extended practically all the way to Uitenhage, where there was considerable damage and the loss of five lives, and a number of children were seriously burnt.
A transport rider on the Port Elizabeth Bay flats saved his life and others with him “by setting fire to the grass round about him, so that when the rolling sea of fire came up to him, he had his wagons safe on the spot already burnt.”
Cause of the great fire
There were a number of theories as to the cause of the catastrophic fire of 1869, but the weather played a major part. A very wet season during mid-1868 promoted a vigorous growth of grass, shrubs and fynbos.
This was followed by drought and high temperatures during the summer. Veld burning had been going on for some time and it had been noted that the custom was widespread and fires were visible for miles at night.
In Uitenhage, there was a case of children playing with matches which caused a lot of damage. The temperatures rose and the scorching, hot wind blew at ‘hurricane’ force, creating tinder dry conditions – a tinder box waiting for a spark.
All was in place for the perfect fire – the Great Fire of 1869.
Source: George Herald
Photo: Dirk Erasmus