The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 18 No 3 - December 2018

The South African War 1899-1902
In Pursuit of a Boer settlement in Madagascar

By Lincoln Caves


Historical writings on the South African War of 1899 to 1902 continue to uncover significant tell-tales related to this event. A perusal of academic writings on the war informs that a total of 264 Master-degrees and 296 Doctorate-degrees were completed since 1908. Studies on the life and work of a particular military or political figure associated with the war include eleven theses (Wessels, 2010, pp19-22). This contribution falls within the latter category. It briefly explores the efforts of Boer hardliners ('Bittereinders') who denounced British rule and, in turn, assessed Madagascar as an alternative settlement option. The presence of the exiled President Paul Kruger in France also served as primary catalyst and backdrop for leaders such as General S G ('Manie') Maritz to embark on a journey to explore the feasibility of such a venture (Kruger, 1902, p817).

Few, if any, available writings have assessed what happened to the initial companions of General Maritz and/or those who followed him after his arrival and later departure from Madagascar in any comprehensive manner. This historical contribution, based on archival records, not only provides context to the number of aspirant settlers that arrived, but also outlines how many of them eventually decided to make this Indian ocean island their new home. It also asserts the view that the arriving settlers served to benefit the then French-ruled island as economic contributors due to their appraised skills as farmers (Colonial Forthnight, 1902).

Background and context

In their book, Paris, Pretoria and the African continent: The International Relations of States and Societies in Transition, Alden and Daloz (1996, pp129-130) reflect on the efforts to establish a Boer settlement on the island. They inform that the Reitz brothers' (Deneys and Arend Reitz) intended arrival reached the French authorities with information that the brothers were leading a 10 000-strong Boer emigration to Madagascar. However, the period of 1901 to 1903 saw the arrival of a far lesser number of Boer immigrants that included General Maritz.

The signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging on 11 May 1902, which formally ended the South African War and asserted British rule, served as primary motivation for some of the 'Bittereinders' to exit South Africa. Having left South Africa for the safety of Europe, the exiled and aged President Paul Kruger found himself in Paris, France in 1902 (Kruger, 1902, p817). It is during this period that he received General Maritz to finalise deliberations on Madagascar as a possible option for settlement. But how did the idea of Madagascar come about? Though not providing concrete answers to the issue, some inferences are initially drawn from the research of Pelletier (1972). In his study, the scholar outlines the contributions by some French nationals as having been central in mobilising support for the Boer cause. Some of the French-based organisations established during the periods of 1901 and 1902, were the French Committee of South African Republics (Comité Francaise des Republiques Sud-Africaines) and the Boer Independence Committee (Comité pour I'Independance des Boers). Both these organisations mobilised financial and moral support, even at the time that the Boer generals visited Europe in 1902. The Official Journal of Madagascar and Dependencies (Journal Officiel de Madagascar et dépendances) serves as an added source of information that highlights the monitoring of unfolding events of the war by the French authorities (Pelletier, 1972, pp19-30).

The most concrete indicators of the intended migration are found in some of the deliberations and views expressed by the visiting Boer delegation to Europe during 1902. On 16 August 1902 the Boer delegation, which included General de la Rey, arrived in Europe in an attempt to negotiate further with Lord Kitchener for a better deal for the Boer republics. During visits to various European capital cities, General de la Rey informed journalists in Amsterdam that their mission's only purpose was to secure much-needed help (De la Rey, 1902).

In Berlin he stated that some of his countrymen abandoned their planned resettlement to German-controlled South West Africa (now Namibia) due to unfavourable reports. As a result of this development, the intended emigrants decided to depart for Madagascar instead, where F W Reitz and many other families would follow (Official Journal of Madagascar and Dependencies, 1902, p1214).

Negotiations to settle in Madagascar

Since F W Reitz, as the South African Republic's Secretary of State, played a prominent role in realising the initial journey, he selected his two sons, Deneys and Arend, to embark on the exploratory journey. In addition, F W Reitz also planned his departure from Europe on 21 September 1902 to coincide with the planned mission to Madagascar (Official Journal of Madagascar and Dependencies, 1902, p1214).

An article in the Journal le Temps of 27 November 1902, as translated, announced the departure of General Maritz for Madagascar as follows: 'We announced that the Boer General, Maritz, was to go to Madagascar to obtain land concession for an imminent emigration of his compatriots. A dispatch from Marseille tells us that the General, accompanied by Commandant van Brummelen, left Marseille last night on the ship, Djemnah, for Madagascar. Predating five days he was the host of President Kruger whom he left in excellent health.'

'According to the President, he is very satisfied with the emigration of his compatriots to Madagascar. He hopes the General is successful in his mission of obtaining large concessions of land from the Governor-General [General Gallieni] for the purpose of their exploitation. He will invite the Boers to go to the big African island.'

'General Maritz carries a signed letter from President Kruger for General Gallieni. On President Kruger's [future] plans, the General [Maritz] said that, whatever happens, the president will never return to the Transvaal. He suffers too much to see his country under English rule. The mission of the General will last six months and he thinks that 2 000 Transvalers will be in Madagascar in one year's time' (Journal Ie Temps, 1902, p1).

Negotiations with the French authorities and interest groups on the migration of Boer settlers were also spearheaded by Marc-Fidele Eugster. Based on his land concession of 40 000 hectares, Eugster was able to secure the first group of settlers to relocate to Madagascar. The available land was located in Diego-Suarez's Sambirano region. The aim was for the Boer settlers to develop the area for cattle breeding and agricultural expansion. Each family that arrived was to receive 100 hectares, along with advances in livestock, food, money and local labour. The project was envisaged to accommodate a total of 38 families in the first group to arrive. The first seventeen families' anticipated arrival was scheduled for the period of 1902. Eugster considered the Boer settlers as robust colonists. He referenced their physical and moral disposition, along with practical knowledge of farming and breeding. Eugster was of the view that the settlers would give a value-adding impetus to Madagascar's development. Eugster's concession was registered under La Societe Anonyme Francaise de Sambirano, which the French Minister of Colonies, Millies-LaCroix, approved on 27 March 1901 (The Colonial Forthnight, 1903, p1).

The Eugster venture unfortunately did not succeed, as briefly elaborated on further. In 1908 he applied for the concession to be dissolved. This was done through a formal proclamation dated 11 January 1909. Eugster died in 1919 (The Majunga Lighthouse, 1924, p1). Most of the land in Sambirano was owned by private companies. The region is currently known as the cacao-producing region of the island republic (Sharp, 1994, pp27 -31 ).

The commencement of Boer settlers' migration

While September 1902 was the targeted date for the exploratory journey to commence, smaller groups of Sowth Africans already arrived over the period of 1901 to 1903. Records from the then South African Consulate in Antananarivo, as complemented with additional sources of information enabled the consolidation of the arrivals as follows:
The first recorded group to have arrived directly from South Africa dates back to 1901 with the arrival of the Van Zyl family (father, wife and two children). Van Zyl worked on the land provided as concession through the La Société Anonyme Francaise de Sambirano-initiative under Eugster. Though no specific date is known, he then left to join the French colony's highways department as supervisor. He also worked as transporter for General Maritz during the latter's stay in Madagascar in 1903. Van Zyl thereafter joined the Compagnie Parisienne as transporter at a monthly wage of 400 francs (De Villedeuill, 1944, p1). The second group, also directly from South Africa, included the Du Plooy and Bly families. Du Plooy of Middelburg (Transvaal) and K Bly from Pretoria, arrived in December 1901, accompanied by Private Wolf.

Others to have followed in the period of 1902 included Colonel Trichard. He arrived in July 1902, accompanied by his family of seven individuals. He was allocated a portion of land in Lake Itasy. The brothers, Deneys and Arend Reitz, arrived on 14 October 1902 in Diego-Suarez. For some time, they also ventured into the transport business, assisted by a transport owner known as Courteis (De Villedeuill, 1944, p3).

Dutch-born national, van Haaften and his wife arrived between the periods of 8 to 14 December 1902 in Antananarivo. He was a former French language teacher in the Transvaal and upon his arrival aimed to assist the Boer settlers with English language training in Antananarivo. N J Leyer, who was an architect, land surveyor and former employee of the Nederlandsche Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorweg Maatschappij (NZASM), arrived with his wife, five children and a gentleman known as Van der Weg in 1902. One of his children died after the family suffered from diptheria. Leyer secured a concession of 111 hectares of land in Anteretere. Van der Weg eventually left the family and created a sugar production business (Official Journal of Madagascar and Dependencies, 1902, p8557).

General Maritz and Commandant van Brummelen arrived in Diego-Suarez in December 1902. On 1 January 1903, General Maritz, accompanied by van Brummelen, the Reitz brothers, van Haaften and Corporal Wolf, went on exploration trip from Antananarivo to Miarinarivo (a single trip equals 90 kilometres), and then to Antsirabe (a single trip equals 180 kilometres). They concluded their expedition on 25 January 1903. It is possible that finding suitable land was a challenge for General Maritz and van Brummelen; both started a transport business after the expedition. Van Brummelen transported goods along the road to Mahatsara. The venture did not live up to their expectations. As a result, they both sold their ox-wagons and oxen (De Villedeuill, 1944, pp1-2).

Others to have arrived from Europe in 1902 and 1903 included Gerrit Jan van Heemstede Obelt, Van Oosthuizen, van Hulsteyn, van Oostveen, Verveen, G van der Boon, H Daamen, and J Stroeve. As in the case of General Maritz's arrival, van Heemstede Obelt, who along with his family (wife and three children) and a young man known as A Poetskeke, also arrived in December 1902. Van Heemstede Obelt obtained a concession of 521 hectares through the Eugster concessionary deal in Ambato, located in the province of Nosse-Be (De Villedeuill, 1944, p2). Medical practitioner, Dr H Manceau, declared him in good health upon his arrival in Diego-Suarez in December 1902 (Manceau, 1902, p1).

Van Oosthuizen arrived in February 1903, where he also tried his hand in the transportation business. He bought himself a few oxen and a wagon and secured a contract with A M M Pochard and M M Wilson. As with General Maritz, the Reitz brothers and van Brummelen, he also used the route from Antananarivo to Mahatsara. However, an accident on the way to Mahatsara ended van Oosthuizen's transport business. He then attempted to establish a cattle export trading business from Madagascar with his father. This never materialised. (De Villedeuill, 1944, p2).

The short-lived transport business of the mentioned former Boer fighters could be credited to the expanded transport business of Pochard and Wilson (similar to the photo below). The latter two individuals introduced the routes after a 1902 notification to the public that they had organised return trips involving a rickshaw and light car service for the transport of passengers and baggage, from Mahatsara to Antananarivo (Official Journal of Madagascar and Dependencies, 1898, p2785). An additional family arriving was that of H van Hulsteyn, accompanied by his wife and three daughters. They arrived in January 1903. He was a former hotelkeeper in Soesterberg, Holland. Accompanying the arriving van Hulsteyn family was A Verveen. He was a rubber cultivation specialist, who was accompanied by his wife. He would later venture into a lemon and soda manufacturing business (De Villedeuill, 1944, p3).

A Boer transportation service in Madagascar
(Photo: Madagascar National Transport Archive)

The challenges of settling and the subsequent exit from Madagascar

Dreams of a new home did not materialise for most of the arrivals. Disagreements with Eugster along with unsuccessful business ventures resulted in some exiting Madagascar within a year of their initial arrival. As a result, a pattern of gradual exit occurred during 1903. Both du Plooy and Bly returned to South Africa with du Plooy eventually resettling in Holland. He thereafter attempted to secure a 50 000 hectares' piece of land, as well as negotiating efforts to import cattle into Madagascar. However, this planned venture never materialised. In June 1903, accompanied by de Kersauson, General Maritz returned to France with the aim of securing funds for the relocation of settlers. He never returned to Madagascar. Van Brummelen, in turn, found his way back to Holland (De Villedeuill, 1944, p3).

Lack of funds in establishing an agricultural business in Antananarivo resulted in the Reitz brothers returning to South Africa in June 1903. The youngest of the two brothers left for Cape Town and the eldest for Pretoria. Van Oostveen and his wife returned to Holland in June 1903. In the case of van Haaften, the hope of establishing a school for the settlers never materialised due to the small number of his kinsmen on the island. He and his wife returned to South Africa in May 1903 (De Villedeuill, 1944, pp1-3).

Van Heemstede Obelt settles permanently in Madagascar

Although some South Africans remained behind after 1903, the only available and detailed archival records found to support this, showed that van Heemstede Obelt remained as one of the few confirmed settlers in Madagascar. A brief reflection on his life informs us that he was born on 24 April 1866 in Holland and became a naturalised South African in 1891 (SA Central Judicial Commission, 1904, p2).

He served as a claims inspector in the mining industry prior to the outbreak of the war. Van Heemstede Obelt continued this profession while fighting on the side of the Transvaal Boer republic. His contributions to the war led to his arrest in 1901 after the British military authorities received sworn statements from fourteen British nationals against him. All of them accused him of having been responsible for their arrest by Boer commandos based on false charges provided by him (Bolton, 1901, p3). Some of the affidavits that served to disprove these charges, included statements from his previous neighbours, that he stole from various stores owned by the arrested men. The stolen goods were then transported to his own house, where his wife was running a store (Marais, 1901, p5). In his defence, van Heemstede Obelt told the British military authorities that he had never informed on any British citizen as he had joined the Boer commando in Pietersburg only after November 1900. This statement contradicted that of his assistant, Pieter Daniel Neethling. On 29 November 1901 Neethling stated, under oath, that van Heemstede Obelt had identified certain British subjects as collaborators for the Boer commandos to arrest. Neethling was also a prisoner of war at the Pietersburg 'burgher camp' when he had made this statement (Neethling, 1901, p8).

On 30 July 1901 van Heemstede Obelt, incarcerated as a prisoner of war in Pretoria, claimed a total of '300-1 0-6' in compensation for losses during the War (van Heemstede Obelt, 1901, pp1-4). He argued in his defence that he had surrendered voluntarily to the British authorities on 3 April 1901, and requested to be released in order to return to his family in Haenertsburg, Soutpansberg. His claim, which was reviewed in 1904, was never settled as he was deported to Europe on 9 December 1901 at the age of 41 (van Heemstede Obelt, 1901, p1; Bolton, 1904, p1).

Challenges faced by van Heemstede Obelt in putting down roots

Five years after his arrival in Madagascar, van Heemstede Obelt applied and was granted an annual pension of '66-1-10'. However, he applied for a full pay-out and received an amount of '676-2-2', which was approved by Prime Minister Botha on 24 December 1910 (Botha, 1910, p1; Porter, 1913, p5). Having experienced the devastation of the cyclone of 1912, van Heemstede Obelt requested the British consulate in Madagascar to repatriate him to South Africa. He stated that he had suffered great financial and personal losses. He elaborated in his writing that the cyclone had made landfall on 24 November 1912 and destroyed the newly-constructed family home.

He also registered that his plantation of vanilla had been completely washed away. Compounding his situation even further was that his rice production was totally destroyed. With his wife sick with fever and his son injured during the storm, van Heemstede Obelt informed the consulate that the rainy season had made their case almost hopeless (van Heemstede Obelt, 1912, pp6-8). On 27 December 1912, the consulate informed him that he should make immediate contact with the British consular agent in Diego-Suarez for temporary relief assistance. Also, should he need to be repatriated to the Transvaal, he was to inform the Governor-General of South Africa by telegraph of his intention to return. The expenses for such a return trip would be reclaimed from him upon his arrival (Porter, 1913, p2).

There is no record indicating that van Heemstede Obelt ever left the island. On the contrary, in 1920, while in Madagascar, he submitted a supporting affidavit on behalf of a South African, George Schleicher, who applied for recognition as a British national. Van Heemstede Obelt's affirmation was supported by Senator G G Munnik and attorney E L Hazlerics (1920, p3). Furthermore, in 1944, the British consulate visited him at his residence in Antsirabe and gave feedback to the South African foreign ministry that the then 76 year-old was still in good health (De Villedeuill, 1944).


The Boer settlers' initial arrival in Madagascar can still be considered the single largest contingent of South Africans to have migrated to the island, albeit for a short period. Why did van Heemstede Obelt remain there? It can be deduced that this might have been related to his expulsion from South Africa. Also, his return to the country would perhaps have been impossible as it was still under British rule. In the case of the van Haaften couple, indications are that they did not immediately return to South Africa. This inference is drawn from the following: While appraised archival records do not provide his initials or name upon his arrival in Madagascar, the closest correlation to the same individual was one Albertus van Haaften. In his application for South African naturalisation in 1905, van Haaften stated his profession as a government teacher residing in Leeuwkraal in the district of Standerton. He indicated his foreign travels and residences as Ceylon from 1900 to 1902, and Natal from July 1903 to 1 October 1904 (van Haaften, 1905, p3). The probability that he might be the same van Haaften that had resided in Madagascar is made the more likely by the fact that he recorded a one-year-old girl, Luberta Judith, on his application for naturalisation, along with his profession. Also, at the time of his departure, as recorded by the Madagascar immigration authorities and submitted to the British consulate in Antananarivo, only a 'Mr and Mrs van Haaften' had left the island in 1903 (van Haaften, 1905, p3).

It is probable that the topography, language and adverse weather patterns discouraged the settlers from remaining or promoting a larger migration to the island. Cyclones continue to have a devastating impact on the agricultural sector. Madagascar has never seemed to have attracted any large number of South Africans for permanent residency. The number of South Africans in Madagascar in February 2018 was formally recorded as numbering 340 individuals from across the diverse racial profile of the country. The 'large' number is representative of a migrant workforce located on the island on a contractual basis in the mining and technical sectors. A few are involved in outreach projects involving various church denominations (Randimbison, 2018).


The limited writings on the South African War's link to Madagascar necessitated the author to appraise available data from national archives. Efforts to obtain archived material or records in Madagascar were limited. However, the University of Antananarivo library's assistance enabled the writer to retrieve complementary information from the online website of the French national library. The writer also extends his gratitude to the personnel of the South African National Archives in Pretoria.


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