Joseph Millerd Orpen

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About Joseph Millerd Orpen


J.P.; Government Land Surveyor, of "Avoca" Barkly East; member of the O.F.S. Volksraad for Harrismith; Landrost of Winburg and Harrismith; M.L.A. for Queenstown, Aliwal North and Wodehouse; Chief Magistrate and British Resident in Pondoland; Governor's Agent in Basutoland; Surveyor General and Minister for Agriculture for Southern Rhodesia.

Joseph Millerd Orpen was born in Dublin on 5 November 1828 and died in East London on 17 December 1923 aged 95. He was the last to survive of his siblings. When 17 years of age he sailed from Liverpool on 2nd Sept 1846 with three of his brothers landing in the Cape on 15 December 1846.He arrived in Port Elizabeth on the 26th January 1847 (146 days from Liverpool)! He trekked by ox-wagon to join his two brothers then farming near Colesberg and after a few years in those primitive days decided to follow his eldest brother and become a Land Surveyor. He qualified in December 1850 having studied without a tutor and shortly thereafter became a JP. He and his brother were delegated by the British government to survey the Harrismith District of what was then the Orange River Crown Colony. Shortly thereafter (in 1853) he was elected by the inhabitants of Harrismith to object to the abandonment of the Sovereignty by the British Government and became a burgher of the then Orange Free State. It is of interest to note that he and his brother Frank were never paid for the survey work done in the Southern parts of Sovereignty and in spite of appeals to the House of Lords and the Privy Council in later years, he failed even though he had been instructed by the Governor of the day, Sir Harry Smith, to conduct the Survey. He was elected to the Free State Volksraad, the Constituent Assembly and Parliament of the newly established Orange Free State as the member for Harrismith and was largely responsible for drawing up its Constitution. (He drew much of it from the US Constitution with modifications to suit local conditions.) During that time he was charged with the management of relations with the native people and served as a member of what was the Freestate’s Supreme Court. He later became a Landrost (Magistrate) for Winburg and Harrismith and founded the town of Kroonstad (so named not after the Crown but after a horse that had drowned in a ravine (a donga) in the district.) He commanded its military force on commando on occasion, and claims to have been the first man to have shed blood in defence of the Free State. In 1862 he was sent on a mission to the Basuto Chief Moshesh which ultimately led to the annexation of Basutoland by the British Government. In the early 1860’s he moved to the Aliwal North district to lay out the farms in the NE Cape.

During the course of this work he carried out the survey all of the farms in the New England district, including Snowdon and of Avoca and that part of the original Avoca to-day known as Millard. These farms as well as many in the district, also surveyed and named by him, were auctioned off in about 1865. He put in a bid for the then Avoca (4920 morgen and for Snowdon 3900 morgen) at the “upset price” of £90.00. The upset price was the amount equal to the cost of the survey fees. There being no higher bid, his was accepted and he became the first individual owner and the second of Snowdon on 16th May 1866. After the auction he was asked the question “Maar wat gaan Mnr Orpen maak met daardie Babiaaneveld”? not realising that in Grandfather’s words” it was some of the choicest grazing land in the country and a place of great natural beauty". He and his wife Elise lived there for some years and Claude Emile Orpen was born at the site of the original dwelling (now known as Abram’s). He built the old house Deus haec otia fecit (God made this house) next to the current stone house in about 1878.

In 1872 he was elected to the Cape Legislative Assembly as the member for Queenstown and Wodehouse, positions he held for many years. At about this time he initiated the policy of annexing the territories between the Cape Colony and Natal, (including the country surrounding Maclear, Elliot and Tsolo. To this end he was appointed British Resident and Chief Magistrate (with limitless powers) as well as the Governor’s agent, involving the raising and commanding of an army to defeat Chief Langalibalele (who escaped to Basutoland.) Shortly thereafter he reverted to his professional career and as an MP, until in 1897 he went to Rhodesia as Surveyor General and Minister of Lands and Agriculture. He spent the next 6 years there and retired in 1903 on pension aged 75.

During his many facetted career he developed a great interest in the Bushmen (San) and of other indigenous peoples and wrote extensively about them. In his book Reminiscences of life in South Africa there is much comment on how he was obliged to act to prevent the kidnapping and hunting of Bushmen women and children by farmers. Also, of conversations he held with individuals in an attempt to understand their culture better. He was of the opinion that the Hottentots or Khoi originated in Egypt, and that they migrated south and west thousands of years ago and met up with the Bushmen, intermarrying with them. The San origially inhabited much of Africa (the pygmies of W Africa are of the San type), and all were hunter gatherers as opposed to pastoralists. He published eight stories of conversations about their art that he had with a young Bushman Quing whose tribe had recently been exterminated in the Maluti Mountains. Their languages although similar sounding, have quite different grammar, that of the Khoi being more akin to an early Egyptian language.

Bearing in mind that he arrived in South Africa with little secondary and no tertiary education JMO achieved much in his life. He is believed to have had enormous self confidence. He has also been described as the “father” of the Cape Parliament and of the South African Civil Service.

His book 'Reminiscences of Life in South Africa' was published in 1908 and subsequently republished.


Joseph established the Freestate Town of Kroonstad.


Joseph Millard Orpen was born in Ireland in 1828. At the age of 20 he emigrated to the Cape Colony, where he took up sheep farming. It is believed that later he moved to the Orange Free State where he became a surveyor and politician.

Mr. Orpen copied rock art in the Orange Free State and in the Eastern Cape Colony, at the suggestion of George William Stow, a self taught geologist, who became an influential writer of the Southern Africa's indigenous peoples. Charles Sirr Orpen, one of Joseph Orpen's brothers, was a close friend of Mr. Stow, whom used notes by C.S Orpen in his book Native Races of South Africa.

Joseph Orpen, single handed tracked and found one of the last San of the Drakensberg, Qing. Both travelled and visited rock art sites in the region and during their discussions while sitting around a fire, Qing, provided insights on its meaning, which were the core for the San thought and art. Mr.Open recorded these diligently, and thanks to him, researchers today are able to understand the meaning of the art in the Region.

Even though Orpen was of an imperial turn of mind, he was known to have the interests of the indigenous people at heart. In July 1874, Orpen published in the Cape Monthly Magazine "A Glimpse into the Mythology of the Maluti Bushmen". from




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Joseph Millerd Orpen's Timeline

November 5, 1828
City of Cork, Ireland
January 14, 1860
Age 31
Barkly East, Drakensberg District, Eastern Cape, South Africa
March 5, 1861
Age 32
Barkly East, Drakensberg District, Eastern Cape, South Africa
May 1, 1863
Age 34
Grahamstown, Western District, Eastern Cape, South Africa
December 24, 1864
Age 36
Beersheba Mission Station,, South Africa
December 13, 1867
Age 39
Barkly East, Drakensberg District, Eastern Cape, South Africa
January 7, 1871
Age 42
Barkly East, Drakensberg District, Eastern Cape, South Africa
November 22, 1874
Age 46
Grahamstown, Western District, Eastern Cape, South Africa
February 24, 1877
Age 48
Barkly East, Drakensberg District, Eastern Cape, South Africa