Xplorio Overberg

DISCOVERY OF SIGNIFICANT 1817 PAINTING – written by Jimmy Herbert

Memorials are a focus for mourning, remembrance and often also a symbol of wealth or prominence in a community.

Marcus Bay, lying east of the coastal town Waenhuiskranz (also called Arniston), has such a monument of her own, sited in the memory of the Overberg’s largest maritime tragedy (loss of over 350 souls). Slightly more than 12 months after this heartrending loss of the Transport ship Arniston (1815), Colonel Geils and his family (his wife and two daughters) came out to South Africa. The purpose was to have a memorial built above the mass graves of their four sons/brothers entered with the affluent Lord and Lady Molesworth. Once completed, the impressive, 4m-high white monument stood out between the massive Marcus Bay dunes for all to see in the years to come.

As with most things man-made, without upkeep and maintenance, its exposed position to the elements, strong winds, sandblasting and vandals took its toll. Within ten decades, not only was the epigraph becoming illegible, but the impressive white upright structure was also starting to crumble and collapse. With the demise of the Overberg’s oldest European monument, its exact architectural design and location also gradually languished from memory.

By the time that the townsfolk eventually decided to build a new monument to keep this Overberg history event alive, only the darker granite tablet and engraved words replicated the original. This townsfolk initiative resulted in a smaller and less elaborate white sharp-pointed roof structure, erected on the coast in the middle of town where it could be better protected and looked after – regular repairs and painting. The new monument, constructed directly in front of the hotel, set this position as the new norm. People still knew that there was a monument at Waenhuiskranz, but its original position, perched on the dunes 4km further east, faded in the memory of all.

What few knew, as this fact too had grown fainter in the memory of locals over time, was that on December 1817, Vice-Admiral Sir Jahleel Brenton started his journey from the Cape eastward.

Fortunately for our Overberg history, Sir Brenton kept and later published detailed memoirs of the trip.

On arrival opposite the wreck site, Sir Brenton immediately commented, “It was indeed an awful scene, although much of the horror had been removed by the burial of the dead”. Every object they saw told its side of the gruesome story. Pieces of planks and timber indicated the tombs of unfortunate sufferers. Close to 350 people had been buried with now only upright positioned planted wood above their remains. Sir Brenton went on to describe this solemn heart breaking site as “… It may be easier to conceive than to describe the feelings excited in our minds at the awful scene, which here presents itself…” Interestingly, no mention was made of the lovely water colour paintings that Sir Brenton made of his perception of the monument and environment at the time.

In 1968, a mister Frank R. Bradlow visited Mrs K. Brooks of Newlands. There he was informed that an antiquarian bookseller in London offered Mrs Brooks five 1817 pictures of Cape scenes by Admiral Sir Jahleel Brenton for purchase. Two years later, on a trip to London, Frank Bradlow followed up on this on behalf of Mrs Brooks. He examined the paintings painted about fifteen months after the monument was completed. Two had the same subject, Memorial for the children of Colonel Geils near Arniston. Without the discovery of these paintings, more than a century and a half later, it would have been impossible to make the Overberg’s two present-day excellent replicas of the original – one standing on display in the Shipwreck Museum and the 2nd by Mr Haarburger on the original dune site.

From the memoirs and two relevant paintings of Sir Jahleel Brenton,

it is clear that he succeeded whole-heartedly in splendidly reproducing all he saw and experienced at this solemn looking place. Both his written description and his artistic painting achieved conveying the same remarkable impression and emotions experienced in 1817. Armed with a good photograph of this newly acquired art piece, Bradlow set off from the Cape on a trip southeast-ward to the quaint fishing village of Waenhuiskranz. On arrival and eager to compare Jahleel’s artwork with reality, he hurried down to the swimming beach and the monument with the words “wrecked on this shore”. Most people visiting this monument are led to believe, by the absence of any wording stating the contrary, that it is the original. Lo and behold, on looking up at the structure, as Sir Jahleel Brenton would have done when painting the scene, nothing seemed to fit. Bradlow moved around, comparing all the possible points of view. Still, no success for an ideal comparison presented itself.  Through follow-up correspondence with the Divisional Council, he was hugely disappointed to learn that this monument that he knew so well was not the one portrayed in Brenton’s picture. According to the Council, part of the original brickwork was still to be found two miles further east. The next challenge was to find the original site. Oral history came to the rescue. Local fishermen saved the day by eagerly guiding Bradlow, four kilometres further east to the ruins of the initial construction. On top of a rock slate dune, the ruins were still clearly to be seen. Once he positioned himself down at the water edge, in front and slightly west of the monument, most of the two scenes correlated – the photograph with reality.

The unknown discovered painting of 1817 was indeed authentic, and of considerable significance to Overberg history.