Cape of Migrants: The Story of Buffelsfontein Farm

Cape of Migrants: The Story of Buffelsfontein Farm

Cape of Migrants

The Story of Buffelsfontein Farm

Land of strandlopers and lime

The jagged rocks and cliffs of Cape Point may look dangerous and inhospitable to modern visitors who feel the waves battering the cliffs and smell the spray of the salt in the air, but for our Early Stone Age ancestors that lived on the southern tip of the African continent 600,000 years ago, it was a paradise.

The cliffs offered shelter in the form of caves and overhangs. The strong currents washed up useful flotsam on the beach. And the tides delivered a regular supply of the ancient people’s staple protein – shellfish.

Archaeologists have identified several points in Cape Point where early humans lived. The two biggest sites are in the Bonteberg Shelter (in the north-west corner of the Reserve) and the cliff face overlooking Black Rocks (on the east coast). Archaeological digs there have yielded a range of artifatcs, from simple Early Stone Age flints and shells to more advanced tools and shards of clay pottery.

The early beachcombing people would not randomly discard the shells of the seafood that they had eaten. They created great piles of shells in or nearby their habitats, called middens.

Thousands of years later these middens would become some of the most valuable resources in Cape Point. Sea shells tell the story of prehistoric food supplies, but they also explain how and why the first European settlers lived and worked in this stormy tip of the Cape Peninsula.

This is the story of a substance with which some of the earliest buildings in South Africa were constructed. It is the story of some of the earliest territorial feuds that were fought.

This is the story of lime.

In 1743, dangerous winter storms prompted the Dutch East India company to relocate their anchorage from Table Bay (below Table Mountain) to Simon’s Bay (in the crook of False Bay) between May and October. A need arose for nearby farms to provide supplies to the harbour, so land was divided and leased to Dutch emigrants.

By the early 1800s, Cape Point was divided into about half a dozen main farms, and five smaller erfs. Buffelsfontein was the largest tract of land, straddling the entire southernmost part of the promontory.

Above Buffelsfontein was Olifantsbosch in the north-west, and then roughly clockwise from there were the Blaauwberg Vlei, Klipfontein, Paulsberg and Klaasjagers farms.

Here we use the term farm loosely. With the exception of the banks of the Klaasjagers River that constitute the northern boundary of Cape Point, the land of the Cape of Good Hope is not at all suited to farming. Cattle did not thrive on the fynbos bushes of the peninsula and large scale crops did not take to the shallow, sandy soil. One historian tell us that the labourers on these early farms “described themselves as gardeners” rather than farmhands.

But there was one resource that was both extremely valuable in those days and particularly abundant in Cape Point: sea shells.

Burning piles of sea shells for a long time (seven days) turns them into a type of calcium powder which, when mixed with water, creates a whitewash or a paste. The white paste was used to coat the exterior of buildings or as a mortar (cement). This powder is called lime.

In 1806 the British decided to make Simonstown the primary dock for their fleet in the Cape. Lime became a commodity that determined the pace with which the entire Cape colony could grow.

The farmers of Cape Point may noy have been able to supply sufficient livestock or vegetables for Simonstown. But they had lime. A lot of it.

The Story of Buffelsfontein Farm

Not all the farms in Cape Point had an equal or ready supply of shells to burn for lime. And not all had access to beaches. By far the largest and most productive farm was Buffelsfontein.

This farm took up about half of what is today the Cape Point Reserve. It’s boundaries were set by half an hour’s walk from the Buffelsfontein spring (where the Information Centre is today) in every direction. This area encompassed some of the best dams, the relatively secure boat landing beach at Buffels Bay on the east coast, and most of the shell-rich beaches on the western coast.

The first structure on Buffelsfontein was actually a kraal (cattle enclosure) called Diemersforntein near the Buffels Spring. This tract of land passed among several tenants – some of them quite adept at extracting value from the land, others plunging it into bankruptcy.

In 1814, the British government decided to allow “perpetual quitrent” (full ownership) of the farms in the Cape Peninsula. Until then, their occupants were only leasing the farms from the state. The purpose behind bestowing ownership was to stimulate production – owners of the land would be incentivized to make improvements and invest in their land.

So the first owner of Buffelsfontein became John Osmond. He was granted the land on condition that he allow access to a site identified for a lighthouse.

Osmond did not stay to administer the rules or the farm. He let Buffelsfontein to the Kalis family, placing a supervisor and his son in charge of operations. In 1841 the farm was bought by a wealthy property developer called Wicht, who needed a good supply of lime to maintain his many Cape Town properties. Under Wicht’s stewardship the farm fell into disrepair.

By the time Buffelsfontein was sold to a man named John Turner McKellar, the homestead was virtually uninhabitable and the land was badly damaged.

John McKellar, territorial lime burner

John McKellar was a Scotsman from the Isle of Gigha in Argyll. He was 38 years old when he bought Buffelsfontein in 1855. It took him two years to repair the homestead and prepare the land for farming.

McKellar was the first owner of Buffelsfontein to live on the farm permanently. He married a local girl by the name of Caroline Love, and introduced ostriches to Cape Point – these are the ancestors of the ostriches you see there today. There was also a fishery and a whale station at Buffels Bay, which he took over the running of.

Before McKellar took over the farm, the rest of the land owners in Cape Point did not pay much heed to property boundaries and access rights. Over generations, they had become a closely-knit community, they intermarried, and would routinely cross each other’s farms to access whichever part of Cape Point they wanted to get to.

But the most lucrative areas of Cape Point – the places where the best shell deposits and fishing could be found – were only accessible via Buffelsfontein.

And, unlike his predecessors, John McKellar – the newcomer, the foreigner, the ambitious entrepreneur – was going to exercise his rights.

McKellar was fiercely protective over his land. He hired a local man who lived on the outskirts of his farm to prevent neighbours and itinerant foragers from trespassing on his property. He published a notice in Simonstown’s newspaper warning visitors to seek permission before accessing his land.

There was one family in particular who did not take kindly to being told where and how they could collect shells for lime and fish on the peninsula. The Kalis family, who worked on the farm for John Osmond, were now tenant labourers on a farm in Smitswinkelbay. They would frequently cross McKellar’s land in search of shells and fishing.

In 1871, McKellar spotted five members of the Kalis family on an expedition over his land. He saddled his horse, loaded his rifle and rode out to meet them. There was a stand-off on the windy bluff below Judas Peak.

McKellar told them to stop and turn back. Gert Kalis refused. He had been fishing these waters since he was ten years old and insisted he had more right to to do so than some wealthy foreigner with a strange accent.

A fight broke out. McKellar, greatly outnumbered, took such a beating that he barely managed to get home and to a hospital. The doctor in Simonstown informed him that he was lucky to be alive.

McKellar sued. He won 5 pounds in compensation for the physical damage (the charges were dropped because Joseph Kalis, a labourer, was too poor to pay the amount).

The incicdent did not cool McKellar’s attitude. In 1882, the fiery Scot intercepted another party on his land. This time, no fists were flung but McKellar demanded a written apology – and got it.

The Lime Industry

Almost all of the families in Cape Point collected shells to either sell or burn for lime, but none were more industrious than John McKellar.

McKellar had two sources of lime: the shells from the beaches and calcrete (a type of calcium rich rock, also known as travertine). Calcrete is not as good a source of lime as pure limestone, but it is much better than sea shells.

In order to burn the calcrete, McKellar built a proper kiln (rather than a lime funnel, which was used to burn shells). According to the historian Professor O Pryce-Lewis, “with a kiln and limestone (sic) at his disposal [McKellar] was able to produce 195 tons [of lime] per annum … more than all the other limeburners in his vicinity put together.”

McKellar had yet another advantage over his peers in Cape Point. He bought a schooner, the Jane, which he used to transport lime to Simonstown and Cape Town, and bring in the coal that he needed to burn the shells and calcrete in his kilns.

It was, ironically, this, his greatest advantage, the schooner, that was also to be his undoing. When he was 57 years old, the schooner sank, and John McKellar was unable to continue lime production. This was enough to render him bankrupt.

John McKellar moved to the suburb of Maitland in Cape Town, where he took a job cutting wood for the Cape Town municipality. He died a poor man in Somerset Hospital in 1891, survived by his wife and two daughters.

Buffelsfontein was bought by George Smith, who started a company called Cape Point Lime and Cement Works, and owned the farm until it was declared a part of the greater Table Mountain National Park in 1939.

You’ve read the stories, now head to Cape Point where you can:

  • See the sites of the Stone Age beach nomads at Bordjiesrif and Black Rocks.
  • View the limestone kilns at Buffels Bay and Booi se Skerm. The kiln was restored in 1990.
  • Visit the original Buffelsvlei Farmhouse – where the information centre is now. Some of the original rafters were made from the wreck of a ship that John Osmond had salvaged.
  • See some of the original foundations of the farmhouse and Olifantsbosch.
  • Appreciate the amount of sea shells that are washed up on the beaches, and examine the travertine in the cliffs above Buffels Bay.
  • See the ostriches at Cape Point reserve. These are the direct descendants of the ostriches that JohnMcKellar reared on the farm 150 years ago!
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