The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man
In 1987, a group of restorers from the National Museum began the task of assessing and restoring an old ‘Kakebeenwa’ (Jawbone-wagon). This particular ox-wagon, known as the ‘Dirkie Uys Wagon’, was among those wagons specifically selected in 1938 for their age and authenticity to re-enact the 100th Anniversary of the Great Trek of 1838.
(above) A painting of Cape Dutch farmers trekking by Artist I. R. Skelton.
As the wagon was carefully taken apart, wheel from axel-arm, axel-tree from wagon-bed – a manufacturer’s name was discovered, struck into the ironwork of the wagon’s axel-bed.
It read… “John Bradley & Co/ Makers/ Kdderminster”.
Reading this unexpected name of a British foundry from Kidderminster in England stopped me in my tracks. This particular wagon was a cross-insemination of sorts between an English Foundry and the Cape Wagon-makers; between British iron and Cape wood. The ‘Dirkie Uys’ wagon had belonged to the Stofberg Family and came from the farm ‘Olifantskop’, near Philadelphia in the Malmesbury District of the Western Cape, and most likely was made in the workshops of ‘Wamakersvallei’ between Paarl and Wellington. This was the area of the Cape initially called ‘Val du Charron’ (Valley of the Wainwrights) by the French Huguenot settlers to the area. Here Wagon-makers congregated their workshops and Blacksmith their smithies.
This quickened in me a desire to re-explore my childhood fascination of cattle, wagons, carts and carriages. Evidently – there was a bigger, wider and richer story to be found.
(below) The ‘Dirkie Uys’ Wagon is believed to be over 180 years old and is presently on display at the First Raadsaal Museum in Bloemfontein.
So much has been said, written and illustrated on the ‘ossewa’ (ox-wagon) from purely political and nationalistic positions. Everyone will be aware of how politicians insidiously appropriate neutral or cultural objects as symbols to advance a narrow and exclusionary ideology. Indeed, this has happened to the Cape-wagon to such a degree, that many have sought to distance themselves from the subject. I write this not to negate the wagon as an attractive and emotive cultural symbol, but rather, to free the ‘wagon’ from an ideological obscurity, thus revealing its full, varied and fascinating history.
(below) The arms of the Union of South Africa, depicting in its 4 quadrants the 4 provinces – Britannia for the Cape; 2 Wildebeests for Natal; the orange tree for the Orange Free State and the wagon for the Transvaal.
You will note the use in this document of ‘Cape-Dutch’ wagon and travelling terms. During the 1st and 2nd annexations of the Cape by the British in 1796 and again in 1806 – their soldiers, administrators, surveyors, roadbuilders, explorers, missionaries, merchants and settlers all adopted these Cape-Dutch (Afrikaans) terms, making them their own.
The last Wagon-makers in the Eastern Cape (Robert Ballentines & Co) used a mixture of Cape-Dutch and English terms to describe the individual components of their wagons. Many of them direct translations from Cape-Dutch into English, others in a hybrid-form caught between Dutch and English. Still others in Dutch and some in Afrikaans, Dutch’s daughter language.
It was at this stage that the English language was enriched with descriptive words like trek, scoff (from schoff), kraal, spoor and outspan (from uitspan). see.
Of interest – even the English word ‘wagon/waggon’ originates from the Middle Dutch word ‘waghen’. Its cognate is the Old English word ‘waegn’ wain (wagon) – from where we get the word ‘wainwright’ (wagon-builder).
The ‘cross-pollination’ of words in the Southern African domain – overlays an undeniable other – ‘the sharing of ideas, landscapes and even of genes’… this is the veritable South African story.
Just who were the Wagon-makers and how did they construct their remarkable wagons; but importantly – how did these unique wagons come about?
For an old technology, one would be mistaken in thinking that the Cape Wagon’s structure is easily understood. The construction is complex and composed of a surprising number of parts. Unlike our forebears who would have been well-acquainted with all aspects of wagons, we in the 21st century are not, and it has taken me the writer of this posting considerable research and application. I trust my endeavour will afford the interested reader some enlightenment.
By introduction to the Cape-wagon – allow me a poetry-enthusiast the indulgence to quote from a book published in 1850 by the Traveller – Edward Delavel Hungerford Elers Napier. In his book “Excursions in Southern Africa‘, he captured something of the romance of travelling and living in a wagon. Napier at first found the slow pace of the ox-wagon most frustrating, but he came around, perhaps reluctantly, to wax lyrical of its charms. He wrote the following amusing but informative poem…
THE TREKBOER AND HIS WAGGON
Let Englishmen boast of the speed of their steam,
And despise the dull life that we drag on;
Give me my long roer, my horse, and my team,
And a well-seasoned tight bullock waggon.
Through Afric’s wild deserts expanding to view,
I’m then ever ready to fag on;
Who’s more independent, the Trekboer or you,
As he slowly moves on with his waggon.
The race to the swift isn’t always secure,
Nor the fight to the strong, who may brag on;
The ‘Tortoise and Hare’ though a fable, I’m sure,
Has a moral that points to my waggon.
Full two miles an hour, do not call this dull life,
‘Tis a pace I’m contented to lag on:
For I bear independence, my children, and wife,
In my castle, my home: in my waggon.
Should the weather be hot, to forms I’m unbound-
I may wander with scarcely a rag on:
In light marching order I’m oft to be found,
Al fresco, at ease in my waggon.
If venison is wanted, no licence I ask,
Quick. Presto! You’ll find me my nag on;
At eve I return, ‘tis no difficult task,
With a springbok, or gnu, to my waggon.
If butter I lack, I have milk at my beck,
My churn is a goodly-sized flagon;
‘Tis worked without labour whenever I trek,
Being tied to the wheel of my waggon.
(above) A beautiful and evocative print taken from a painting by the Artist Samuel Daniell, 1805, illustrating something of the romance of a Trekboer’s life recorded in the idyll above by Napier.
From the Cape archives, it is apparent that when the first European settlers arrived in 1651 at the Cape, they failed to bring any wagons with them. It is evident from VOC (Vereenigde Ost-Indische Compangnie/ United East India Company) Commander – Johan Anthoniszoon van Riebeeck’s journal, that this was a troubling oversight.
(below) Johan Anthoniszoon van Riebeeck
The problem of transporting large volumes of sand, stone and timber to construct protective forts, re-victualling stores, dwellings and the Company’s garden was well beyond the scope of men’s backs and hands.
(above) A Dutch map showing the layout to the Fort de Goede Hoop.
Orders were soon issued to his company back in Amsterdam, Holland, to promptly ship wagons to the Cape. The Netherlands has a flat landscape, and is virtually devoid of any rugged terrain, and so the newly-arrived agricultural wagons (Ladder wagons) were lightly-built and wholly unsuitable to traverse or survive the undulating, road-less, bridgeless, mountainous and rock-strewn landscape of the Cape. It was more a case of Cabo das Tormentas (Cape of Storms) than Cabo da Boa Esperansa (Cape of Good Hope).
(above) A European agricultural ‘ladder-wagon’/ ‘leiterwagen’.
(below) An image of a medieval travelling wagon taken from an illuminated manuscript.
(below) An engraving of a Dutch Travelling Wagon, early 1600’s.
The Company’s carpenters (who were drawn from all walks of life and disciplines from ship to barn) were roped-in to repair the imported wagons and to build new ones in a form and structure suitable to the Cape conditions. The scarcity of timber was very limiting to development, so within a short time of arriving, Commander Jan van Riebeeck had tasked his men to cut a rough track to the Newlands Forest at Paradys. This slip-track along which mules pulled logs to the shoreline, became known later as the ‘Old Wagon Road’ – South Africa’s first road.
It was only in 1659 – 8 years after the arrival of the VOC, that the first Wagonmaker, Jaspar de Berge arrived at the Cape. His expertise undoubted, he would have been quickly brought up to currency by the previous instructive pioneering years. Any notion he might have had of building rigid and slight-bodied wagons modelled on European ones, would have been quickly dashed. His predecessors and antecedents were drawn from the Dutch Navy – in this assertion there is no doubt. One has only to look at the wagon-terms used at the Cape to discover their nautical origin. Among them the term ‘buik’ – which although denoting the interior and bed of a wagon, is in fact a Dutch nautical term for the cargo hold of a ship.
(below) A 5 pound note with an image of the ship Dromedaris on its face. This was the bark that Commander Johan van Riebeeck arrived with his wife and men.
There was another transport problem – the kind that today equates to a motor car without an engine. Besides several mules, there were no draught horses at the Cape to pull these imported double-shafted wagons. What there were, were the oxen of the local people, who the Dutch disparagingly called Hottentots (hereafter named Khoikhoi).
(below) A watercolour painting by the Scottish Artist and Explorer – Charles Bell, of a Khoikhoi settlement, 1835.
We know from the Commander’s journal that within a short time of arriving, he was sending expeditions into the hinterland to explore and to barter sheep and especially cattle from the Khoikhoi.
(below) An interpretive print developed from a sketch by Artist and Traveller Samuel Daniell of a Khoikhoi camp. Note the large red pack-ox.
(below) A lithograph taken from a sketch by Francis Falton of a Khoikhoi pastoralist riding an ox. Damaraland.
In 1661 the Commander sent an expedition accompanied by ox-drawn wagons on a journey to the north to make contact with the Namaqua of Saldanha Bay. A second reason was to ascertain if ox-wagons could be used to access the interior.
(below) An early map of Western Cape.
(below) A wagon fording a river.
FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION
Designers, and not forgetting Horse Breeders, often bandy about a well-known maxim – “Form follows Function”. I write this for few things are as instructive on the final outcome of an object’s form – as is putting that object through the trials of use, and even abuse.
Travelling north – Van Riebeeck’s wagon expedition would have found their way impeded by the the Swartrivier, the Dieprivier and Soutrivier. After fording these water courses and vleis (marshes) they would have traversed the bone-shaking scrubby plains near the Blaauwberg and crossed the deep sand drifts of the Koeberg that could sink a wagon to its axle in short-shift.
(below) A panoramic view of Table Bay from Rietvlei, overlooking Diep River and the Swart River in the distance.
(below) A photographic view from Blaauwberg looking towards Cape Town. Photo’ courtesy Patricia Marais and Tessa Louw.
Transport at the Cape Peninsula and inland expeditions required sturdy and strongly-built wagons that could survive the jarring of rocky terrains. Undulating landscapes also dictated that they be built in such a way that they could flex without tearing themselves apart. Furthermore, the crossing of dongas and deep rivers would necessitate that wagons be dissembled, their separate parts carried across an obstacle, and then reassembled with ease.
One cannot assert the maxim that ‘Form follows Function’ more clearly, than to quote in length from the writings of that pre-eminent Explorer, Author and Artist (John) Thomas Baines. He wrote of the frightful mountain passes at the Cape and the demands placed on wagon and ox… “After an early breakfast, we mounted our horses, and almost immediately commenced the ascent which leads to the pass called Hottentot-Holland Kloof. At the first part of it, the road is not very steep, but as soon as the traveller enters the hollow way of the Roode Hoogte (the Red Heights) the difficulty of the ascent begins. This is a lower hill forming the foot of the mountain, and composed of a hard, barren, reddish, clayey, ferruginous earth, into which the road, towards its summit, is cut down to the depth of, perhaps, twenty feet. After this he has to climb the rocky mountain itself, and will not, without some surprise, behold loaded waggons ascending and descending so steep and frightful a road; nor will he, without compassionate feeling for the oxen, witness the toil and labour, carried to the very utmost of their strength: sometimes encouraged by good words, at other times terrified into exertion by the blows of the shambok, the loud crack of the whip, the smart of its lash, or the whoop and noisy clamour of the Boer and Hottentots. All this cannot be avoided: and it is alone the perilous nature of such passes, which reduces the Boer to the necessity of acting with harshness towards these useful animals: in general, the farmer knows too well the value of his oxen, wantonly to ill-treat them. The danger in which both oxen and waggon are placed while passing the mountains, renders the utmost care and vigilance indispensable. For should they become restive, and deviate from the proper road, or obstinately refuse to draw, the waggon would be thrown down the precipice, dragging them, and perhaps the driver also, along with it to inevitable destruction”.
(below) A watercolour painting of the Hottentot-Holland Mountain Pass and Roode Hoogte at its base, by the Scottish-Dutchman Robert Jacob Gordon, 1779.
(below) A wagon descending the Stormberg Pass.
THE SHAFT/ THILL (DISSELBOOM)
This brings us to the single-shaft of the Cape wagon, the ‘disselboom’ from whose ending, the oxen had to draw. There is a South African saying that is used when life is running smoothly and to plan – it goes like this… ‘everything is running klopdisselboom’. There is something in this idiom that alludes to the fact that the single-shaft is the perfect solution to a singular challenge, and it is this – that the disselboom is the most effective way to yoke a team of oxen to a wagon so that they can pull efficiently.
The origin of the Cape Dutch term ‘disselboom’ is of interest. The word is a combination word. The term ‘boom’ comes from the Dutch nautical term for a stout beam/spar attached to the foot of a sail and lower mast of a ship. This word has also entered English from the same source as a nautical term. The word ‘dissel’ comes from the mouths of the Dutch ship carpenters at the Cape – who used a specific wood-shaping adze called a ‘dissel’. You could then say a disselboom is an ‘adzed-shaped-beam’.
(below) In the image below, the ‘boom’ is the horizontal beam attached to the mast and lower sail.
(below) Drawing of a Shipwright’s adze (dissel).
One aspect of the slow, strong and ponderous ox (unlike that of the horse) is its swaying gate. Thus placing two shambling ‘agterosse’ (rear-oxen) between the rigidly-fixed shafts of a double-shafted wagon, will dislodge the shafts, especially over rough and undulating terrain.
(below) A photograph of a span of red Afrikaner oxen. Courtesy –
It is worth mentioning that single-shafted wagons were not a Cape invention. The Romans built ox-drawn vehicles called ‘Carpentum’ wagons with single shafts.
(below) A re-created Roman ‘Carpentum’ wagon.
As did 15th Century German and Dutch wagon builders. However, the Cape landscape necessitated that a single shaft was the only suitable method.
(below) A 16th Century drawing of a Dutch single-shafted wagon.
A similar evolution occurred in America, with the Conestoga Wagon which was introduced circa 1717 by German Mennonite settlers.
(below) An American Conestoga Wagon.
(below) A photograph of the restored Dejberg Wagon from Denmark, 1st Century BC, with its single shaft.
(below) A photograph of the oldest known wagon, Armenia, 2000 BCE.
The rough terrain of Southern Africa and the long distances travelled, placed especial stress on wagons. The failure of the shaft (disselboom) or its iron swivel pin where it attaches to the wagon’s futchell (voortang), or the breaking of the iron ring or staple at the end of the shaft (termed a ‘drayel’ in English) could be catastrophic on a mountain pass, with the wagon parting company from the oxen. Early travellers at the Cape wrote of this risk and its frequency and mention that the passes were littered with smashed wagons.
(below) A painting of wagons ascending the precipitous Paardekop Pass, Cape.
The Rev. John Campbell wrote of just such an accident in his book ‘Voyages to and from the Cape of Good Hope’. He wrote… “We had not proceeded far, when the iron pin broke, which fixed the hook at the end of the dissel boom, or shaft, of my wagon, to which the whole yoke of oxen are fixed, and by it drag the wagon; of course when it gave way, the twelve oxen that dragged the wagon were immediately separated from it, and ran off in a mass. It was well this happened where it did, while we were on level ground, instead of a deep declivity; for then the wagon must have been overturned, and much damaged”.
(below) The Scottish Missionary and Traveller – Rev. John Campbell.
It was imperative that the wagon-shaft be manufactured from a very strong wood, usually Stinkwood (Prunus africana) or Ironwood (Olea capensis). In early days at the Cape, Stinkwood was the most favoured wood for all wagon components, however as this wood was favoured by Cabinetmakers too, these trees were cut-out rapidly, to be replaced by ironwood.
Should a separation occur – wagon makers added a safety feature by connecting the front carriage-assembly (voorstel) to the shaft (disselboom) by two strong iron bars termed ‘pole-stays’ in English. Late 19th Century Cape Wagon-makers used two safety chains should the shaft-pin sheer.
By 1659, it is clear from historic sources that ox-drawn wagons were been used to convey most goods, materials, farm produce, as well as people in and around Cape Town.
(below) An ox-wagon with Khoikhoi driver rounding Rondebosch, Cape Peninsular. Note how the driver can reach the front-oxen with his whip’s ending (voorslag).
(below) A painting by Charles Bell of a Cape wine-wagon been pulled by a span of 14 oxen.
(below) An engraving taken from a drawing by Thomas Baines of a wagon adapted to transport wine barrels. This was done by removing the perches and adding a beam to connect the front and rear assemblies together.
(below) A painting by Charles Bell of a Cape-wagon with passengers being pulled by a team of 12 horses as apposed to a span of oxen.
(below) A print taken from a painting by English Artist Samuel Daniell, of a Cape Farmer, farmstead and a ox-wagon in the background. 1805.
(below) A print taken from a painting by Samuel Daniell of an ox-wagon in Cape Town, 1805.
In June 1659 that year the Commander Riebeeck sent a deputation in a wagon drawn by ‘6’ oxen to negotiate with the KhoiKhoi. This is indicative that a span of 6 oxen was necessary to draw a wagon in the district of the Cape Peninsula. However, if settlers were going to access the greater interior by wagon, then teams of 12 to 16 oxen were going to be necessary. The reason being that the interior was literally cut-off by the precipitous Drakenstein and Hottentots Holland Mountains.
(below) A painting by Burchell of Cape Wagon without its tilt being drawn by a span of 8 oxen, 1811.
(below) A Namaqua (Khoikhoi) ox. painting by Robert Jacob Gordon, 1778.
Van Riebeeck had sent several expeditions to discover a route inland. It was noted that herds of elephants would cross the mountains to visit their ancestral grazing grounds on the Cape Flats. They did this by following age-old mountain paths. It was these paths that became rough tracks and later wagon routes. However, they were so steep, that it was necessary to yoke 16 oxen to a fully-loaded wagon, and on some passes to yoke 2 teams together.
(below) A drawing of the Silver Mountain, Great Drakenstein Range.
THE DRAUGHT-ROPE (TREKTOUW)
Every additional pair of oxen added to the span necessitated the lengthening of the ‘trektouw’ (draught-rope). This rope was attached to the end of the ‘disselboom’ (shaft) to a sturdy iron ring or staple. Iron chains were at a considerable premium, and manufactured ropes had a tendency to rot, and so the officials of the Company and the liberated ‘Free Burghers’ used rawhide ropes. As the saying goes… ‘necessity is the mother of invention”…
Cured rawhide strips were plaited to a determined length, with iron yoking-rings interspersed along its length at set distances. The oxen’s yokes were attached to these rings.
(above) Drawing of the ‘drayel’ (iron staple or ring) at the end of the shaft (disselboom), the draught-rope (trektouw), the yoking-ring, and the goose-head hook.
The rawhide ‘trektouw’ was used for two hundred years before gradually making way for the iron chain. The large, heavily-laden transport wagons of the 1870’s onwards necessitated the change-over.
(below) A painting by the English Artist and Explorer – Thomas Baines, showing the early British settlement of Bloemfontein (Transorania) 1851. In the foreground a man is preparing rawhide by a process known as brei-ing.
Early visitors to the Cape of Good Hope from the mid-1700’s wrote of the wide prevalence and the everyday use of wagons. It’s not known with precision when the Cape-wagon took its final form. Although one can realistically theorise that it didn’t take too many decades after the first landing in 1651 for local conditions, timber types, terrain and lifestyles to dictate wagon form and function. When the form established itself, it was to have great longevity. Especially the under-carriage structure, lasting up and until the 1950’s when the very last Wagon-makers were practising their trade.
In 1771, Carl Peter Thunberg, the Swedish Explorer, Author and Naturalist visited the Cape. In his book ‘Travels at the Cape of Good Hope’ he wrote of the popularity of the Cape-wagon… “Every one that travels in this country, performs his journey pretty nearly in the following way. A large waggon, worth from one hundred and twenty to two hundred dollars, and covered with a large tilt of sail-cloth, is commonly drawn by five or six yoke of oxen, which are driven by a man with a long whip, but led through the rivulets and by the farms”.
(below) Carl Peter Thunberg. Swedish Explorer and Naturalist.
THE YOKE (JUK)
Another unique introduction to the Cape was a distinct yoke (juk) that was used to tether oxen to the draught-rope ‘trektouw’. Oxen had been yoked by different methods back in Europe. One inefficient method was to strap the yoke to their horns so that the oxen pulled from their heads. Long term yoking in this method placed stress to the necks of oxen leading to injury.
(below) An illustration of the Swedish Explorer Anderson fording a river. Note how the engraver incorrectly assumed that Cape oxen were yoked to a wagon by their horns.
Later improvements, especially on the farms of Britain, France, Holland and Germany saw the more-humane bow-shaped yoke that rested more comfortably on the necks of the oxen.
(below) A drawing by Evert van Muyden of an ox with a bow-yoke on the left.
The Free Burghers at the Cape did not use bow-shaped yokes, instead, preferring to use a stout straight wooden yoke ‘juk’ that rested just to the fore of a paired oxen’s humps . The yoke was 6 feet in length and about 3 inches in thickness. The preferred wood was Cape Chestnut (Calodendrun capense) – because… although strong, it has tensile strength. An unshaped yoke allowed a yoke to be used on different oxen. It also allowed the yoke a certain measure of play along the top of the paired oxen’s necks, something that was beneficial when traversing rugged terrain.
(above and below) An engraving that inaccurately records the yoke system employed at the Cape. The engraver records the yoke and skeie accurately but shows the yoke attached to the horns of the oxen. The photograph below from the 20th Century clearly shows the correct placement of the yoke, resting on the neck of the oxen and before their humps.
(below) A similar image to the one above. The Cape jukskei (yoke and skei) lasted until the very end of ox-wagon transport in South Africa.
Piercing the yoke (juk) at set distances were 2 pairs of tapering rectangular mortices through which pins, called ‘skeis’ (flattened and wedge-shaped wooden yoke-pins) were passed. Their unique form allowed them to wedge securely in their respective yoke holes.
Each pair of oxen had two skeis positioned one on either side of their muscular necks, running down their withers against which they placed their pulling strength. It was therefore important that the distance between each paired skei flared wider to allow for the broadening width of the ox’s shoulder. The skei’s edges were neatly smoothed so as not to chafe the oxen. Each paired skei was connected together below the ox’s neck via a short rawhide rope that was looped and fixed from two notches cut into the skei. This arrangement allowed the oxen to exert force against the yoke as well as against the skeis. Skeis were made generally of Assegai wood (Curtisia dentate).
(below) A painting by Charles Michell of yoked-oxen. In this image the yoke, skeie and the under-throat riem hooked over the notch of the skei is easily seen.
An iron goose-hook was fixed to the underside of the yoke. The trek rope’s individual iron rings would be attached to this hook.
(below) An informative drawing by the Artist and Explorer – Thomas Baines of his wagon’s front assembly (voorstel), shaft (disselboom), and trek-gear made up draught-rope (trektouw), yokes (juk) and yoke-pins (skeis).
(below) A drawing by Thomas Baines of his outspanned wagon. Note how the yokes are neatly-assembled at the end of the shaft, with the draught rope looped-around them. In this image you can see how Baines has secured his rifles via hooks on the inside of his wagon’s tilt (kaptent).
The rear-oxen’s yoke was fastened by a short length of rawhide or chain to an iron ring or iron staple near the end of the 10 foot disselboom. This arrangement allowed the rear-oxen to turn the front undercarriage wheels and to pull against the shaft and not the trek rope like the rest of the spanned oxen. The two rear-oxen had an additional and important function to act as braking. On a descent, if the wagon started to roll quicker than the oxen were walking, the relative forward movement of the shaft (disselboom) would take up the short slack of the rear-oxen’s yoke rope and push it forwards against the oxen’s horns, signalling to the rear-oxen to bare-backwards and thus slow down the wagon. This is the reason why oxen had to maintain a fine set of bracing horns. Should one of these rear-oxen die, a replacement ox from the rest of the span had to have horns. This is the reason why no trek oxen were ever shorn of their prongs. It was imperative that the strongest, stoutest and most experienced oxen be in-spanned into this position.
(below) A painting of a wagon descending a pass, Plettenberg Bay District. This image illustrates the braking-strain that the rear-oxen were subjected to.
(below) A drawing of the rear-oxen taking the strain of their wagon as it is pulled up the bank of a drift.
If this braking failed, and a wagoneer was unable to apply a shoe-brake to the wheels, then a runaway wagon would run-over and crush the oxen or pull them to their deaths on a pass.
In 1820 the Scottish Missionary Rev. John Campbell wrote in his book ‘Voyages to and from the Cape of Good Hope’ of an event involving his wagon when trekking up a precipitous hill… he wrote… “All went well ‘til after re-crossing the Kareeka River, when we were ascending a steep hill, by some means, the strong leather rope to which ten oxen were yoked, slipped off the strong hook at the end of my wagon pole; consequently, the whole weight of the wagon came upon the two oxen which were yoked to it. These, being unable to support the weight, gave way, when of course, the wagon rolled backwards, down the hill. During the struggle of the two oxen, while the weight of the wagon was dragging them downwards, the pole to which they were fastened broke, or snapped in two, so that we were on the eve of being hurled with violence to the bottom of the declivity” but the wagon soon turned off the road, at a very rough part, into long grass, which so impeded its progress that the Hottentots stopped it, when all of us got out unhurt”.
(below) A watercolour painting by the English Artist, Surveyor and Traveller – Charles Michell of oxen pulling a wagon up the old Cradock Pass., Outeniqua Mountains, 1840. This iconic image was used a 100 years later to illustrate the 1838 Great Trek. In this image, Michell records a Cape-wagon without rising wainscoting.
THE SKIDPAN/BRAKE-SHOE (REMSKOEN)
It is important to state that these early Cape-wagons did not have the screw-applied braking of later transport wagons. What they did have were ‘skidpans’ remskoene (brake-shoes). Attached to the front of the wagon just aft of the front carriage were two lengths of iron chain having at their ends a wooden shoe about 45 by 60 centimetres in dimension and shaped something like an open Dutch clog. The chain was only as long as to allow the shoe to slip under the rear wheel so that the wheel’s rim fitted snugly into a groove in the shoe. In a sense the brake shoes acted as miniature sleds, thus slowing the speed of the wagon. An additional length of chain connected to the remskoen chain was threaded through the spokes of the wheel and hooked together. This was a fail-safe should the remskoen accidentally dislodge.
(below) A wooden skidpan (remskoen).
(below) Drawing of an iron skidpan (remskoen) made by a Blacksmith by welding discarded rims together.
(below) An engraving of a wagon train descending a mountain pass at the Cape, 1857. This would have necessitated the use of the brakeshoe (remskoen).
Eventually, the wooden brake-shoe was superseded by iron shoes made of sections of discarded wheel rims. During normal trekking, the remskoen would be hooked up and out of the way, under the carriage. Another method was to simply strap a log to the rear wheels. On very steep inclines the records maintain that travellers would strap a large branched tree below the rear wheels of the wagon, and then remove the rear-wheels. The tree acting as friction-brakes beneath the wagon.
Again – we note that the word ‘rem’ (from the word ‘bandrem’) is a Dutch nautical term for a braking-system that employs the use of a strap that is levered against a rotating wheel so as to slow it down.
THE PERCH (LANGWAGEN/LANGWA)
Wagon-makers used a wooden beam, called in English the ‘perch’, to connect the rear-assembly to the front-assembly so as to prevent them parting company should a perch-bolt shear. This wooden beam is termed a ‘langwagen’ in Dutch, later shortened to ‘langwa’ in Afrikaans.
Although fixed firmly to the rear wings (agtertang) of the rear-assembly, the perch is connected to the futchel (voortang) of the front assembly. At this point the futchel (voortang) projects 2 feet to the rear of the front-assembly. The perch fits between the two jaws of the futchel and is connected by an iron swivelling-bolt. This arrangement allows the bogie (front-assembly) to be turned. Should the wagon traverse uneven ground, and the rear wheels be in uneven alignment to that of the front – the accommodating bore through the futchel and perch allows the bolt to move diagonally without it being wrenched free or broken.
(below) A diagram of a side-view of the undercarriage, showing the wood and iron ‘Perch’. Note how the ‘bed-boards’ (buikplanke) are angled slightly downwards to the fore of the wagon). Also, that the perches are angled downwards to connect to the futchel (voortang) because of the greater depth needed of the front assembly that must accommodate the front wheels.
(below) A three-quarter view of the undercarriage of a Cape Wagon by the South African Historian – James Walton. 1952.
An alternative and earlier system had the perch attached to the perch-bolt itself. A spacious recess in the rear of the axle-tree allowed the perch to slot into this space where it was connected to the perch-bolt by a bored hole in its end. With this system – the futchel (voortang) pierces through mortices in the axle-tree to breach the rear, ending in a wooden frame called the ‘sway-bar’ in English. The sway-bar has an iron plate attached to its upper side where it brushes the perch. Its purpose is to strengthen the front-assembly gear especially when pivoting on the perch-bolt.
(below) A drawing by James Walton of the wood and iron perch where it attaches to the futchel and front-assembly.
THE IRON PERCH (YSTERLANGWAGEN/YSTERLANGWA)
The Cape Wagon-makers went a step further – installing, in addition to the wooden perch (houtlangwagen/ houtlangwa), an iron-perch, termed the (ysterlangwagen/ ysterlangwa). This was located above the wooden perch and was securely bolted to the rear ‘wings’ (agtertang) and attached to the top of the futchel (voortang) via the same iron bolt that the perch swivels on.
THE WAGON-BODY (WABUIK)
The previously mentioned ‘wabuik’ (wagon-body) consists of the ‘buikplanke’ (bed-boards) and the ‘sylere’ (wainscoting). The bed-boards were built from Outeniqua Yellowwood (Podocarpus falcatus) and were approximately 4 centimetres thick.
(below) A diagram of the wagon-body and the front assembly (bogie).
(below) An amusing drawing by Thomas Baines of his fellow explorer James Chapman and the antics happening in the camp. In this image you can see the wagon bed-boards, as well as the breadth of the wagon-body.
The whole rests on the fore and rear transoms (schammels/skamels) and is fixed in loose assembly by the perch-bolt on the front transom, as well as two wooden cleats attached to the underside of the wagon-bed. These cleats lie either side of the rear-transom (and with the aid of the perch-bolt) prevents the wagon-body from sliding-off the undercarriage on steep ascents and declines.
The wagon used by the Artist and Explorer Thomas Baines had a wagon-bed that extended 2 feet beyond the wagon sides. One of his drawings record that he stowed a large water barrel in this position.
(below) A drawing by Thomas Baines of his wagon.
THE WAINSCOTING (SYLERE)
The Cape Dutch term ‘sylere’ can be translated easily as ‘laddersides’. This word is a throwback to the agricultural wagons of Europe. These wagons were commonly called ‘ladder wagons/leer wagons’ in Dutch and ‘leiterwagens’ in German. European farmers could increase the carrying capacity of their wagons by placing ladders either side the bed of their vehicles.
(below) A German ‘leiterwagen’ in a disassembled state.
(below) A painting by Robert Jacob Gordon of the farm belonging to Jan Bruins at Noordhoek, 1777. You will note that besides Cape-wagons, ladder-wagons were still in use on Cape farms.
It was a simple step to use a ladder’s structure to construct permanent sides to a wagon. The Cape wagon-makers used this ladder structure to give their wainscoting (sylere) rigidity and strength. It also allowed the side planks to be of modest thickness and therefore contributing to the lightness of the wagon. These side-planks were generally made from Yellowwood.
The wagon sides are mounted to the bed, sloping outwards and not in a vertical fashion. This increased the internal space.
The wainscoting (sylere) have on average 9 to 11 vertical rungs (leerskeie). We encountered the word ‘skei’ earlier when discussing the yoke. The ‘skeis’ on the yoke kept the paired oxen separated and hence the Dutch word ‘skei’ (separate). However, how the word ‘skei’ came to be associated with the rungs on the wainscoting is uncertain. The rungs (leerskeie) were made of Assegai wood (Curtisia dentate).
(below) A photograph of a Cape-wagon showing the wainscoting (sylere). Phote. courtesy of Hannes Steyn.
The top-rave to the wainscoting is termed the ‘boleerboom’ – (translated as the ‘upper ladder beam’) and is between 330 and 433 centimetres long; while the bottom-rave (onderleerboom) is 315 to 409 centimetres long. Both rails were made of Black Ironwood for its strength and hardwearing qualities. The top-rave ended at the rear of the wagon in a projecting and tapering point. Over this point and its neighbour on the opposing side of the wagon, a pierced plank called the ‘karet’ or ‘korrethout’ is placed. The karet (often decorated with scrollwork) acted to stabilise the two sides of the wagon, especially from lateral jarring.
At the front of the wagon, two or sometimes three of the leerskeie (rungs) pierce the boleerboom (upper rave) and project several centimetres upwards. These finials were fashioned ornamentally and were known as ‘leermannetjies’ (translated directly as ‘little ladder men’ probably because they look like the abstracted head and shoulders of a man). Besides their ornamental appearance they act as handy points to hang or hook items too while trekking and outspanning.
At this point we must note the unusual shape of the Cape Wagon with its jawbone (kakebeen) shaped wainscoting (sylere). There is certainly no equivalent in European, Australian or American models. This unusual form appears to have no particular purpose. One may muse – that the Wagon-builders, after making so many concessions to the strength and flexibility of their wagons, kept this form solely for aesthetic appeal. One can theorise that the heightened siding towards the rear, rising from an average height of 60 centimetres to a height of 84 to 90 centimetres – gave added protection to any occupant. Also, that one could stack larger chests towards the rear, without them slumping sideways and damaging the tilt (tent). However, one must concede that should higher sidings be desirable, then the sides could simply have been raised overall or perhaps stepped-up. There is no denying – the shape has a certain flair and aesthetic appeal. A wagon thus built for the first time, would have attracted envious looks and so the fashion was established for the next 100 years.
(below) A drawing of Burchell’s wagon clearly illustrating the jawbone shape.
In 1778, VOC Governor – Baron Van Plettenberg accompanied an expedition to the far reaches of the settlement near the Keerombergen (Turn-around-mountains). Accompanying him was the Scottish-Dutchman Robert Jacob Gordon, whose father held high rank in the service of the Prince of Orange. Gordon (at first a Captain in the House of Orange’s Scots Brigade, before joining the Dutch East India Company, where he rose to the rank of Colonel) was sent to the Cape by the ‘Heere 17’ (Lords 17) of the VOC for his considerable talents and to command the Cape Garrison. On reaching the Zeekoei River near Colesberg, they outspanned their 7 wagons, as well as the imposing coach that the Governor had travelled in. Drawing their ox-wagons into a neat circle, they set-up tents, and ambled out to slaughter the bounteous local game, including a hippopotamus, killed with a single shot to the head by the Baron van Plettenberg. Our multi-talented Scot, blessed with keen observation, painted the encampment, and what we learn from this image, and many others he painted and sketched, is that none of the wagons assembled have sides that rise to the rear in the jawbone-shape.
(below) A painting by Robert Jacob Gordon of the encampment on the Zeekoei River.
(below) Painting by Robert Jacob Gordon of his encampment. 1779. Note the tilts of his wagons were emblazoned with what appears to be his or the Governor’s coat-of-arms.
(below) A painting by Robert Jacob Gordon. 1779. Groene Kloof, Mamre district.
(below) The Explorer Robert Jacob Gordon.
What is known is that the jawbone-form was well-established towards the turn of the century. The oldest wagon in South Africa is the one built at the Moravian mission station at Genadendal.
In 1816, the English Moravian clergyman, Christian Ignatius Latrobe who visited the mission, used the station’s wagon (built at the mission by Khoi Wagon-makers and Blacksmiths) on a journey, and mentions the Genadendal Wagon in his book ‘Journal of a visit to South Africa’. This wagon has survived in fine condition at the mission and is therefore in excess of 200 years old.
(below) The Genadendal wagon.
The evidence from engravings, drawings and paintings throughout the 1800’s is that not all Cape Wagons were manufactured in the jawbone style. Many were made with level wagon sides. One must take care in assessing prints and engravings that were executed in Europe. These would be created from the sketches of returning explorers – and the engravers and printers took ‘creative-licence’. However – if one examines the drawings and paintings of travellers like the Cape Government Surveyors Charles Michell and Charles Bell – one can determine that by the 1830’s – the majority were.
(below) A watercolour painting by Charles Bell, of his outspanned wagons. 1834.
(below) A painting by Charles Mitchell of his Cape-wagon, 1834. This is a remarkable image in that the tilt of this wagon is of some sophistication, even sporting a hood above the wakis (wagon chest). This wagon has 3 boxes attached to its sides.
(below) A painting by the Hunter and Traveller Frank Oates of his wagons outspanned on the banks of the Somokwe River. This image of of interest, for Oates records not only a level sided Cape-wagon but also a jawbone one.
The South African Author – Graham Greene wrote of the longevity of the Cape-wagon in the following… “Wagons do not wear out. Not so long ago I heard of a Great Trek wagon which was still in use in Natal after well over a century of work. It was a full length tent wagon owned by Mr. B. Scheepers of Besters, and it formed part of Piet Retief’s company from the Eastern Province. The front fork, upper and under parts of the chassis, the wooden fork connecting the long wagon with the axle and the wheels (except a few spokes) were original Knysna stinkwood parts. Every year Mr. Scheepers gave this treasured wagon a coat of paint. It had never been to a Blacksmith’s shop”.
(below) The Genadendal wagon photograped alongside a motorcar in the 1920’s.
THE UNDERCARRIAGE (ONDERSTEL)
The undercarriage (onderstel) of the wagon consists of the front-assembly or bogie (voorstel) and the rear-assembly (agterstel).
The front-assembly consists of the transom (schammel), the front axle-tree (voorasboom), the bolster ‘draaiboom’ and the futchel (voortang).
(below) A diagram of the front-assembly (voorstel) and the ‘front axle-tree’ (voorasboom).
It was imperative that the front and rear assembly be made from the strongest of woods. We know from accounts and analysis, that the entire under carriage was generally made of Black Ironwood (Ysterhout in Afrikaans) (Olea capensis) because of its incredible durability and abrasion resistance. It is so dense that it sinks in water. The Guinness Book of World Records states that it is the heaviest wood. It is also one of the world’s hardest woods. Axle-trees were sometimes made of Assegai wood too.
(below) A diagram of the ‘rear-assembly’ (agterstel) and ‘rear axle-tree’ (agterasboom).
(below) A drawing by James Walton of the rear undercarriage/ rear-assembly and the rear axle-tree.
The perch-bolt (skamelbout) connects the front-assembly (voorstel) to the wagon-bed. This bolt lies in a vertical position within a bored hole that runs through the wagon bed, through the transom (schammel/skamel) and down into the front axle-tree. It is this bolt that allows the bogie (front assembly) to be pivoted. The bolt is not fixed firmly or riveted in its cavity, but instead, can rise or change its vertical angle by degrees. This feature is necessary when the wagon is traversing uneven ground and one front wheel rises to a higher position than its partner.
THE AXLE-TREE (ASBOOM) and AXLE-ARM (AS)
The axle-tree (asboom) is composed of 2 sections that are bolted and strapped firmly together to form a stout rectangular and horizontal beam. They are the two lower sections of the axle-bed and the upper section termed the bolster (draaibord).
The upper side of the bolster is fitted with an iron ‘bolster-plate’ to reduce friction and wear to itself and the transom that rests upon it.
The axle-tree is tapered at both ends into ‘cone-shaped’ axle-arms.
Of interest – the axle-arms are positioned in such a way as to be angled ever so slightly forwards. This is termed ‘negative toe-in’ and results in the wheels of the wagon running more true, keeping a steadier and straighter path, especially in thick sand, muddy conditions or over rough terrain where the forward path of the front-wheels can be knocked off-line. A wheel thus aligned will wear its tyres faster on the outer rim. Setting the ‘camber’ of the wheel will minimise this wear, but more about that when I write about the wagon wheels themselves.
The cone-shaped axle-arm is inserted into and through the open-ended cone-shaped borehole of the wheel’s nave (naaf) so that its ending protrudes. The cone-shaped axle-arm’s centre-line is angled downwards, and this, with the camber of the wheel, has the effect of pushing the nave of the wheel up the arm of the axle and thus giving greater wheel security.
The end of the axle-arm that protrudes through the nave, is pierced with a wedge-shaped mortice through which an iron linchpin is tapped to secure the wheel to the axle-tree. This stops the wheel from falling off the axle-tree.
In the early 1800’s Wagon-makers added iron plates to the bottoms of the axle-arms so as to minimise wear. These plates are termed ‘clouts’ in English. In the later decades of the 1800’s the wooden axle-arms were replaced in full with solid iron axles-arms termed ‘scheens’/ ‘skeens’. In Dutch and Afrikaans. These scheens were forged in the round and driven into the lower section of the wooden axle-tree, now termed the axle-bed.
(below) An iron axle-arm.
(below) An informative drawing by the Artist Thomas Baines of his wagon. it shows a front-view of the wagon with especial interest to the ‘front-assembly’ and ‘front axle-tree’.
Cape Blacksmiths would be employed to fashion these iron components, working in close association with the Wainwrights. In later years, after the British arrived, some of these iron components were manufactured in England and shipped to South Africa, as we find on the surviving ‘Dirkie Uys’ wagon.
(below) An engraving depicting a Blacksmith and his anvil.
As stated earlier – the three sections of the axle-tree are bound together with iron bands called ‘stropbande’ and two strong iron bolts that run vertically through the axle-tree.
The futchel (voortang) is also firmly secured to the front axle-tree by two curved iron ‘pole-stays (tangarms). The Dutch word ‘tang’ refers to something that clamps or connects two things firmly together. The pole-stay’s purpose is to re-inforce the connection between the shaft and the futchel when the bogie is turned. Interestingly, the Explorer William Burchell notes in his writings that this arm should preferably be forged without this curve. Although he does not state the reason, simple engineering principles inform that it’s curved design weakens its strength. It is evident that later wagons had tangarms forged without this curve
The futchel (voortang) – which is firmly grafted-to and through the bogie, has the shaft (disselboom) attached to its foremost point via a bolt held between two vertically-aligned wooden jaws. This allows the shaft to be raised or lowered. If the shaft is swung laterally by the yoked rear-oxen, then the futchel and the whole bogie swings as a whole. The wagon’s bogie is attached to the transom (schammel) via a pivoting ‘perch-bolt’, also termed a ‘kingpin’.
(below) A drawing by the Historian James Walton of the front-assembly, showing the transom, axle-tree, futchell and shaft.
On some models of Cape-wagon (like the one used by the Artist and Explorer Thomas Baines, an iron bar is bolted to the top of the futchell (voortang), with side wings extending around the front wheels and down to connect at the nave. One often sees this arrangement on European wagons. It purpose was to strengthen the front-assembly, especially when the bogie swivels. It has a secondary purpose – as a step-up to the footboard. Baines’ model had two steps attached to this bar. President Paul Kruger’s wagon simply has an iron step attached to a wooden spar traversing the futchell, but without the side wings like the Baine’s wagon.
(below) Thomas Baines.
The ‘Dirkie Uys wagon’ has a square-shaped wooden plank attached to the top of the futchell as a step-up.
These are safety-features that allow an individual to mount or alight a wagon, even a moving one, without falling between the front-oxen and the wagon. Regardless of the slow-pace of oxen – there can be little-doubt that many hundreds of individuals perished or were badly injured in this way, with the unlucky or clumsy, being crushed by the turning wagon wheels.
The wagon-body rests on the transom (schammel) spelled ‘skamel’ in Afrikaans, but is not fixed to it. The word ‘schammel’ is a Dutch nautical word. A schammel is a heavy beam found in a shipyard on which a ship could be supported while being built. On either end of the transom is an upright ‘standard’ (rong) that holds the wagon sides in their outward sloping angle, and furthermore, prevents the wagon-body from slipping laterally off the transom. The front standards were between 45 and 68 centimetres long. They were often carved for aesthetic effect.
The rear assembly (agterstel) is constructed of two sections, the transom (schammel), the rear axle-tree (agterasboom) and the ‘wings’ (agtertang). Again, the transom’s ends have two standards or bolsters (ronge) that are approximately 67 centimetres long, and act (as do the front standards) to contain and support the angled -outwards wagon-sides.
This loose assembly allows for a degree of play between the individual components when the wagon is traversing rough terrain, and thus preventing the wagon tearing itself apart. It furthermore allows the wagon to be taken apart should this be necessary.
None other than English Explorer, Naturalist, Author and Artist – William John Burchell writes succinctly of this… “…together: a construction admirably well adapted for rough and uneven roads, by admitting each part to play freely, so as completely to avoid that straining and cracking to which solid built waggons are subjected, when travelling over irregular ground”.
(below) William John Burchell’s drawing of the front of his wagon with the ‘trek-gear’.
So too the Artist, and wildly travelled Explorer (John) Thomas Baines, who wrote the following… “… the ponderous Cape waggon will be at once appreciated, as all its parts are so strongly put together that the strain of twelve or twenty oxen cannot draw them asunder, and yet so loosely that they will give and bend to every inequality of the road.” Baines, who travelled many thousands of miles across the face of Southern Africa, then proceeds to heap praise on this vehicle… “The Cape waggon is found to hold its position against all rivals as the vehicle best adapted to the wants of a travelling or exploring party, and the exigencies of the transport service and general carrying trade…”.
(below) A hirsute self-portrait of William John Burchell, suitably attired for exploring the wilds of Africa.
It is realistic and true to state that a wagon is only as good as its four wheels.
We also know from sources that the manufacturing-cost of the Cape-wagon’s wheels equalled that of the rest of the wagon. The precision and expertise that went into making them dictates this cost.
Such was the quality and strength of the Cape-made wheels, that British military officials noted this and sought them out to attach to artillery pieces. In 1835 Captain J. E. Alexander wrote the following… “The parts of the British wheels are open and rickety in hot weather, whereas the Dutch (Cape-Dutch) wheels are very strong”. “Dutch wheels are made of three or four kinds of wood… the nave yellowwood; for the spokes assegai; for the felloe – red els or white pear. There are many more spokes than in our wheels, in all fourteen for a large and ten for a small. The tyre is put on in one piece and hot, so as to draw and bind the whole of the wheel firmly together.”.
(below) An informative engraving of a Wainwright’s/Wheelwright’s workshop. Many of the wheel building techniques discussed in this posting are illustrated in this image.
The South African terrain was of such roughness, that it was essential that wheels meet certain requirements. This knowledge was the result of hundreds of years of experience. The Cape Wagon-makers and Wheelwrights knew of the individual qualities of the South African woods and used them appropriately.
The Kakebeenwa was always fitted with dished-wheels, known in Cape-Dutch as ‘kommetjewiele’ (saucer-wheels). The term ‘dished’ is used to denote the wheel’s degree of concavity. At first assessment – the purpose for this shape is not immediately obvious, and furthermore – they appear to be engineered for weakness. One would be correct in thinking that spokes angled to the ground, are subject to greater load-stress than would perpendicular spokes. The same architectural principle necessitates that columns are set perpendicular to the foundation and the the pediment of a building.
Much of the following is of a complicating nature, however, I do believe, that with the assistance of diagrams, one can understand the necessity for this form.
It is true that some wagons have wheels set perpendicular to the road-surface. It is also possible for dished-wheels to be set so that the lower-spokes are perpendicular to the road surface. How this is achieved is of some engineering interest. The clue lies with the axle-arms – if these are angled downwards, the effect is to allow the leading spokes of the turning wheel to move from their angled upper positions to lower perfectly vertical positions (or near enough). The greater the ‘dish’ – the greater the downward angle of the axle-arm.
(below) A sketch of a ‘dished-wagon-wheel’ set so that its ‘face’spokes’ (the spokes that face downwards) are perpendicular to the road-surface. This is achieved by the axle-arm being set to an angled position to the horizontal.
At this point I must hasten to state – the Cape-wagon, although it has dished-wheels and downward-angled axle-arms…. they are not set that the ‘face-spokes’ face perpendicular to the road-surface, but rather are angled outwards from the wheel’s nave. Here lies a mystery, and one whose reasons are of engineering interest. Cape-built wheels can get away with this unseemly angle because of the compressive and flexible-strength of the wood from which they are built. Therefore -the greater the ‘dish’ – the greater the strength of the material.
However, there are two more reasons why Cape-wagons are fitted with dished-wheels – they surprisingly afford greater strength and travelling stability.
One must keep in mind, that wagons, and especially loaded wagons, have several stresses placed upon it. Besides ever-present pull of gravity, there is the forward and backward lurching of the wagon – created by rough roads, the sudden pulling and then easing-up of the draught oxen, as well as from the stresses occasioned by braking on steep declines. In addition – rough, slippery and angled roads create lateral stresses that can jar the wagon body and crack axle-arms. The to-and-fro of the wagon can damage its wheels enough to break spokes or loosen felloes. Furthermore, the rocking from left to right can catastrophically over-turn a wagon and lead to the death of its occupants.
The load-bearing strength that is lost to angled-spokes is more than made up by the strength they afford a wheel that is being convulsed laterally. The Cape-wagons wheel spokes are set in tight mortises at an angle from the body of the nave and enter the mortises of the felloes at an angle too. The angled-arrangement of the spokes allows these aforementioned lateral stresses to be absorbed, just as a person braces oneself by thrusting a leg outwards when pushed from the side.
(below) A diagram of the dished-wheel of a Cape-wagon, showing the lateral forces acting on the wheel.
The reader will be acquainted with Newton’s 3rd Law that states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I reference this law to provide an additional reason for the angled-spokes of the Cape-wagon’s wheels. When a lateral force is exerted from the wagon’s body and axle-tree to the wheel’s nave (naaf), this force is transferred outwards and downwards through the many spokes to the outer rim made up of felloes. This has the effect of distributing the force more evenly to all the wheel’s components. If the outer wheel does not slip but holds its position via friction to the road-surface, then the opposing diagonal force has the effect of driving the spokes deeper and more firmly into the felloes and the nave. It also has the effect of pushing the nave onto the axle-arm. We employ the same principle when we turn our dished-shaped umbrellas into a buffeting wind. The curved umbrella spokes give greater support and distribute the wind-force around the umbrella.
There is another reason for a wagon having dished-wheels, one that is so obscure as to be best understood by sketching a wagon and its wheels on paper and then tilting the sheet of paper from the horizontal to a diagonal.
You will have read in this document of the undulating and rough terrain that makes up much of the landscape of Southern Africa. When a wagon traverses a laterally uneven road surface and is forced to maintain a diagonal position with one side of the wagon on a much lower plane than that of its opposite – it has the effect of transferring the load-force from the higher side of the wagon to that of the lower. This force bears-down heavily, through the axle-beds to the wheel naves, down the spokes to the rims and the road surface. In this instance – it would be best if the supporting spokes were positioned perpendicularly to the roadway. And this is the preferred alignment that a dished-wheel on a Cape-wagon finds itself. The opposing wheels, relieved of most of their load-force, do not need to have perpendicular spokes and maintain a position relatively similar to when they are covering level ground.
(above and below) Two comparative diagrams of a wagon, one on the level and the other on uneven ground, showing weight distribution and load-shift.
In comparison – a wagon with flat-wheels set perpendicular to the road-surface; or for that matter, a dished-wheel set so that its lower spokes are set perpendicular to the road-surface as on European and American wagons – when travelling on a diagonally-sloping road and subject to maximum load-displacement – would finds its lower-spokes no longer perpendicular, but instead at an alarming angle, enough to topple the wagon.
(below) A diagram illustrating a dished-wheeled wagon with perpendicular-set spokes on a sloping road-surface. Note how the loaded left wheel’s spokes are no longer perpendicular to the ground, but instead are angled as to increase the chance of the wagon toppling.
(below) A diagram of a wagon with flat-wheels traversing a diagonally-sloping road-surface. Now the supporting spokes are at a dangerous angle to the ground, and any lateral jarring would likely topple the vehicle. Flat-wheels would also be placed under extreme structural stress and spokes would likely loosen from their nave and felloe mortises.
(below) A painting by Charles Bell illustrating the lateral-forces and load-displacement that wagons at the Cape were subject to.
(below) A painting by Charles Bell of a wagon and span of oxen crossing a mountain stream, 1842, shown here for comparison to the one above.
In addition to the reasons explained above – when a loaded wagon is turned by swivelling the bogie (front-assembly), the continued forward momentum of the wagon places increased stress on the outer wheel. The innate strength of a dished-wheel will counteract this force
You will remember reading that the wagon’s sides are sloped outwards to create the maximum internal volume. Straight wheels would brush or even crush the sides (sylere) of the wagon. A dished wheel would not. They also provide enough space for the transom (schammel) to be arched outwards from the axle-tree and therefore providing the wagon-body with greater breadth.
The Cape-made wagon wheel (as opposed to those of Europe and America) has more spokes (speke). The rear wheel has 14 and the front wheel 10. Other wheels have 12 and 8 respectively. The additional spokes give the wheel greater load-bearing capacity as well as greater strength. The additional spokes require a closer arrangement around the nave. The spaces between the spokes, termed ‘meshes’ in English, are therefore shorter.
(below) A drawing of a dished wheel showing its individual components.
The nave (also termed the ‘stock’) – because of its load-bearing function, and because of its rotation around the axle-arm, must be constructed with the greatest of care to maintain its strength and longevity. It is vitally-important that the nave does not split or shrink with age or use. It also necessary that its barrel-form is chiselled or turned from wood without any knots. At the Cape – Wild Syringa (Burkea afrikana) is the wood of choice.
The Wheelwright then proceeds to fashion a step-down on the outer end to the nave and bores a conical hole through the length of the nave using a special tool called an ‘auger’ or ‘gimlet’.
(below) A Delft tile illustrating a Wheelwright boring the axle-hole into the nave of a wheel using a special tool.
It is at this point that the skilled-job of chiselling the mortises begins. 14 mortises for each rear nave, and 10 mortises for each front nave.
When the wood work is completed, the iron work commences. On the nave’s step, as well as adjacent to the spokes, tightly-fitting iron hoops are added to give additional strength. These iron hoops are heated to their full expansion in a fire, positioned, and then rapidly cooled to contract or ‘nip’ onto the nave. The English term for this process is ‘stockbonding’.
(below) An expanded illustration of a wagon-wheel showing the individual components. Note the iron-hoops used to ‘stockbond’ the nave.
To protect the inner lining of the conical hole from friction – the Wheelwright drives an iron-sleeve, termed a ‘box’, into the hole. The box is anchored tightly by hammering iron wedges into the wood adjacent to the sleeve causing the wood to expand at points against the box.
Wheel spokes were made of Assegai wood at the Cape for its superb compressive and elastic-strength, as well as its fine grain. An additional quality is its low-shrinkage – a vital quality for tight-fitted spokes.
The Wheelwright would select a ‘billet’ – a length of hewn-split timber. This would be shaped from the rough with an adze. Then, with great skill and accumulated knowledge, and using a ‘spoke-shave’, a ‘jarvis’ and ‘draw-knives’ – he would carefully fashion the blank. From its rectangular-shaped nave-end, the spoke would be gradually fashioned from the rectangular into the round at the felloe-end. The Wheelwright would then chisel a ‘shoulder’ to the spoke’s nave end and a tenon termed a ‘foot’. A tool called a ‘spoke tremmel’ is used to gauge the length of the spoke.
(below) A ‘spoke-shave’ and ‘draw-knives’.
(below) A ‘jarvis’. A tool used for rounded work, like in the manufacture of spokes.
(below) A tremmel. A tool used to accurately gauge the length of a spoke.
At the felloe-end of the spoke, a shoulder termed a ‘nock’ was chiselled, as well as a round tenon termed a ‘tongue’ or a ‘tang’. This process is known as ‘tanging’.
The nave is then anchored while the spokes are driven into the nave’s mortices using a heavy wooden mallet. The nave and spokes are now termed a ‘spider’ or a ‘speech’.
The felloes (pronounced ‘felly’) were made traditionally of Red Pear wood (Socolopia mundii) because of its strength and hardness; of Assegai wood (Curtisia dentate) and from Wagenhout (Protea grandiflora).
Making use of a work frame termed a ’felloe horse’ – the Wheelwright, using a framed ‘donkey saw’ – saws the blanks to the required shape, finishing them-off carefully with a shave.
With 7 felloes making up the rim of a Cape-made wheel, the Wheelwright bores two circular-shaped mortices into the concaved ‘belly’-side of the felloe, piercing the felloe at its convex side, at the precise angle needed to receive the spokes.
At this point the spider is lifted onto a three-legged bench in preparation for ‘ringing’. This is the term attached to the process of hammering the felloes onto the spokes with a heavy wooden mallet.
The gap between each felloe (termed the ‘chin’) needs to be secured. This is achieved by inserting a dowel across the chin.
The spokes are then anchored in their mortices by having a wooden wedge tapped into the top-end of the spoke-tongue.
The outer wheel was protected by an iron tyre (called a band in Cape-Dutch) and is manufactured by a Blacksmith in one piece. The Smith makes use of a tool called the ‘traveller’ to measure the circumference of the wheel in relation to the tyre. When the tyre is to the correct size, it is first heated in a hot fire to its full-expansion, then positioned on the wheel with a pincer-like tool called the ‘tyre-dog’, where it is rapidly cooled with cold water. In contraction, the tyre ‘nips’ onto the wheel, compressing and pulling all its individual components into a tight relationship.
(below) A ‘traveller’. This was a Wheelwright’s tool used to measure the inner and outer circumferences of a nave, wheel or tyre.
(below) Two Wheelwrights placing a hot tyre onto a flat-wagon wheel. Note the use of ‘tyre-dogs’ to manipulate and carry the tyre. Photograph courtesy of the ‘Guild of Model Wheelwrights’.
The diameter of rear wheels is between 143 to 148 centimetres, while the front wheels is between 82 to 108. This height gives the necessary clearance to negotiate rivers, anthills, rocks and ‘middelmannetjies’ (the raised area located between the ever-deepening ruts caused by wagon wheels.
The wheels are finally positioned on the axle-arms, with an iron rim called a ‘collar’ positioned between the nave and the axle-tree. This prevents the wheel from binding onto the axle-arm. Then an iron rim called a ‘collet’ was place over the ending of the axle-arm.
Finally, an iron linchpin called a ‘steekluns’(platteluns/ platluns) is driven through the mortice at the end of the axle-arm anchoring the wheel to the axle-tree. Sometimes a linchpin called the (platteluns/ platluns) was used. This functional pin had a wide arched head so that mud dripping or falling down from the turning wheel would not fall into the mortice and thus be drawn into the nave and thus contribute to wear.
(below) A ‘Platluns’
You will remember, under the paragraph on the axle-tree, that the Cape-wagon has wheels set with ‘toe-in’. That is the wheels are set to turn ever-so-slightly inwards towards each other. The reason being that they run more true, especially when cornering. However, this arrangement alone leads to the iron tyres wearing quicker on their outsides. Just as with automobiles today, toe-in wear is off-set by setting the ‘camber’. The wheels of the Cape-wagon are set angled-outwards and this has the effect of neutralising toe-in wear.
It is true these principles are understood with difficulty. One can take the principle as factual, or, you may do as I did for enlightenment, take a disc and place it on a level surface and then angle the disc to account for toe-in and positive-camber.
Lastly, regarding wheel-size. The front wheels of the Cape-wagon are smaller than the rear. The reason is simply that if a wagon had large wheels on its ‘front-assembly’ – then when the bogie was turned, large-sized wheels would reduce the turning-arc by knocking onto the wagon-body.
(below) Bird’s-eye view of a wagon with its bogie (front-assembly) turned.
Wagon-makers would often finish-off the different components of their wagons with great care. This was termed ‘dressing-up’ and was done by chamfering the edges. A fine example of this work is President Paul Kruger’s ‘staatsbokwa’. Made in Robertson by Wagon-maker C.J.H. Matthee, the wagon won several first prizes at shows before it was railed-up to Pretoria. Buckboards, spokes, leerskye are all dressed-up beautifully. The ironwork is also of note, for the Blacksmith had barley-twisted many of the iron components. Of interest – this wagon was shipped to England after the 2nd Anglo-Boer War by General Kitchener as a war trophy, and returned to South Africa by the City of London Corporation in 1929. It is presently on display at the Kruger House Museum.
(below) A photograph of Pres. Paul Kruger’s ‘staatsbokwa’.
THE WAGON CHEST (WAKIS)
Historically, a wooden chest called a ‘wakist/ wakis’ (wagon chest) was placed to the front of the wagon. Besides this chest’s obvious function as a receptacle to stow-away valuables, it also served as a seat. Some wagons had an additional chest to the rear.
Immediately in front of the ‘wakis’, the wagon’s bed extends about a foot or two beyond the end of the sidings. This acts as a footrest and mounting board.
The British Traveller, Hunter and Author – Andrew A. Anderson writes the following in his book ’25 Years in a Waggon’ … ”A slight description of my travelling-house may give greater insight into African travelling. My waggon measured seventeen feet in length and five feet in width. In front is a waggon-box for holding such things as are required for immediate use, and also for the driver and another to sit on. Six feet of the front I reserve for my own special use; boxes arranged on the bed-plant, full of grocery and other things, upon which, a thick mattress and bed-clothes. On one side boxes are arranged to form tables for writing or drawing. Around the sides of the tent are side-pockets for holding all kinds of useful things”.
(below) A drawing by Thomas Baines of how a Cape Wagon could be loaded with wooden chests, especially ones made to the correct dimensions as the wagon-hold. In his drawing he records the placement of a large water-barrel in the rear of the wagon. Baines found this necessary when travelling across the drier areas of Southern Africa.
Hinged from the rear-assembly and hanging at an angle from short lengths of chain was a unique framed wooden platform called the ‘trap’. One could use it to climb into the rear of the wagon or use it as a handy place to store articles like tripots, kettles and pans. I am almost certain that any items stowed here would have been tied-down, because rough terrain would have tossed them off the trap. The Genadendal wagon has a wedge-shaped chest inserted onto the trap.
THE TILT (KAPTENT)
The trekboers (trek farmers) who lived on the vast plains of the hinterland during the 17th and 18th Centuries would move about the countryside with their large herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. This was a gypsy-like life and the farmers lived in and around their wagons. They would set off each year in their wagons from their ‘legplaats’ (cattle places), to find winter grazing. The wagons, loaded with family and the necessities of life, would serve as their homes and shelters. Having a covering to your wagon was therefore a necessary requirement. One can speculate that had the Trekboers not also had houses, however humble, they might have developed their Cape Wagons into forms resembling the Romani of Britain with their remarkable vardos.
(above and below) Amateurish images of isolated ‘legplaats’ showing the ubiquitous cattle kraal, Cape-wagon and the humble farmstead.
(below) An image of a Trekboer family created by Charles Edwin Fripp.
The Hunter and Explorer Alfred Wilks Drayson writes of the Cape-wagon in his 1860 book ‘Sporting Scenes amongst the Kaffirs’… “The ox-waggon of the Cape is a four-wheeled vehicle with a canvas tilt; it is completely a necessary of the South-African resident: it is his house, his ship, and in many cases his income. Until he builds a house, he lives in the waggon, keeps all he possesses there, and travels from spot to spot independent of inns or other habitations”.
(below) A painting of a Trekboer family.
It is almost certain that from the very earliest days of wagon-building at the Cape in the latter 16 hundreds, that wagons were given covered frames. We know from historical sources that a framework was built from lengths of bamboo or Spanish reeds attached to iron rings on either side the wagon’s sides. These would then be bent to form graceful horse-shoe-shaped arches and lashed together at the crown. These are termed ‘bale-hoops’ in English. Horizontal lathes were then lashed to the arches with strips of rawhide. Over the framework, light reed-mats were sometimes placed to keep the interior cool. On top of this, a canvas tilt was stretched and attached to the sides. The canvas was treated with beeswax to make it waterproof. This covering was called a ‘kaptent’ or simply the ‘tent’ (tilt in English). The rear and front of the wagon was supplied with a roll-down canvas flap called the ‘voorklappe’ (front flap) and the ‘agterklappe’ (back flap). The whole kaptent (tilt) could be removed if necessary.
Of interest, the Dutch word ‘tent’ is a nautical term for a framed and covered structure erected over the hold of a barge or small vessel to create an area to work or live in. A ‘kap’ is a nautical term for the wooden roof or deck that covered the hold of a barge or boat.
(below) A fascinating painting of the interior of William John Burchell’s wagon, looking from the front of the wagon to the rear. One can see the reed mats draped over the bamboo/ reed frame in this image.
(below) A drawing by William John Burchell of his wagon looking from the rear to the front of the wagon. Note how items like weapons, lamps, watches, bottles and bags of drawing materials are hung on the inside of the tilt.
THE CRADLE (KATEL)
Travelers, trekboers and explorers would often sleep inside their wagons. A wooden framed cradle with a (riempie) stretcher, called a ‘katel’ was suspended from the wagon sides and placed towards the rear of the wagon where it served as a bed. The word ‘katel’ is a Tamil (Malayalam language) loanword (‘kattil’) that originated from Kerala, India with the VOC.
The clergyman Christian Ignatius Latrobe wrote in his 1816 book that his wagon was a comfortable retreat in hot weather. It also offered protection at night from hungry lions and menacing hyenas.
(below) A ‘humourous’ painting by Charles Bell of an encounter with a lion. Note the individual making a leap into the comparative safety of the wagon.
(below) An illustration from a book by Explorer Francois le Vaillant of a raving hyena devouring a sheep.
(below) It is evident that exploring had its risks. Again in this image, it came searching for you while outspanned.
THE TARBUCKET (TEERPUTS)
A small water cask was attached with a short length of chain to the wagon body, as was a bucket of Stockholm Tar called the ‘teerputs’. The tar was used as a veterinary antiseptic for wounds and to treat the hoofs of the oxen. It was also used to treat wood from weathering and to waterproof canvas. The Traveller and Explorer William John Burchell wrote that the undercarriage of his wagon was liberally daubed with tar. Its main use though was as lubrication for the axle and wheel hubs. Often the teerputs contained animal fat or a mixture of fat and tar. The word ‘teerputs’ is a Dutch nautical term for a wooden or iron bucket that contained tar to dress ropes and canvas.
Any impression that wagons were left in their wood finish is incorrect. Instead wagons were brightly painted. Traditionally the wheels and undercarriage were painted in red-lead paint to preserve the wood. Paint was mixed with aloe to deter wood boring insects. The wagon body was painted in a dark green and the interior often in blue. Many wagons were decorated in pin-striping, termed ‘lining-out’ in English. The panels between the leerskei were decorated with folk-motifs.
The Cape-wagon – by the quality of all its components and materials, was designed to carry heavy loads. It could be loaded and operated with weights of up to 3000 pounds and transport that load over considerable distances, without damage; and do this over and over for many decades. It was possible to load the wagon with greater amounts, and this was routinely done, however – the wagon had to be operated on good roads and with large spans of oxen. A wagon – too heavily laden would sink up to its axles in soft sand and mud.
Wagons in the Kakebeenwa shape were manufactured in one size or another in South Africa well into the late 1800’s when they slowly made way for the bigger and longer transport-wagons.
(below) A transport-wagon.
These wagons were fitted with screw block-brakes making them safer to operate. They were been built so strong that they could carry up to 5 tons, they opened-up Southern Africa to industry and government ……….. but the transport wagon is another story all in itself, another posting for another day.
As to the Cape-wagon – it has made an inexorable trek through South African history. From that unpromising Cape settlement, it has climbed the majestic passes of the Outeniqua, to creak-across the barren plains of the Camdeboo. From the sandy beaches of Algoa Bay to Port Natal. Sometimes drawn together into laagers of war, other-times in communal-peace at nagmaal. The kakebeenwa has been elevated by nationalism, ‘remskoened’ by politics and berated by revolutionaries. It has rolled its wheels from the mouths of Afrikaaner, Briton, Khoikhoi and Zulu, and drawn a path of ink across the pages of dictionaries, journals and histories.
And now – after 365 years – its tracks lead quietly to dusty monument and dignified museum… and yet sometimes, the wagon traverses the silent thoughts of men and journeys through the dreams of boys.
Graham Leslie McCallum – July 2016
(above) Painting by Thomas Bowler a wagon in the streets of cape Town.
(above) An engraving based on a painting by Charles Michell of a span of oxen pulling a oaded wagon up the Outeniqua Mountains, near Cradock, 1840.
(above) A wagon crossing the endless South African veldt.
(above) British 1820 Settlers arriving at Algoa Bay, Eastern Cape.
(above) A Cape-wagon fording a river near Durban, by the artist Thomas Baines.
(above) Image by Charles Michell of the wagon laager at Quagga’s Vlakte, during the Frontier Wars, 1835.
(above) A photograph of numerous wagons outspanned for Nagmaal (Holy Communion) before the Groot Kerk in Pretoria.
(above) A painting by I. R. Skelton of the interaction between the 1820 Settlers and their Boer wagon conveyors.
(above) A painting by Charles Bell of his Khokhoi travelling companions outspanned alongside a Cape-wagon, c1846.
(above) A lithograph of Capt. Allen Gardiner crossing the Tugela River into Zululand, watched from the bank by two Zulu men, c 1830.
(above) The wagon monument by Coert Steynberg at the site of the Battle of Blood River, Natal.
(below) Purported to be the 2nd oldest wagon in South Africa, preserved at the Pietermaritzburg Voortrekker Museum.