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Hart Family of South Africa

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This project has been created to document all of the known information on Robert Ruben Hart II and his descendants.

Robert Ruben Hart, Lieutenant, was born 1 Jan 1777 in Strathaven, Avondale, Lanarkshire, Scotland. He died 14 Sep 1867 in Glen Avon Farm, Somerset East, Cape Colony, South Africa and was buried in 'Glen Avon' Farm, Somerset East, Cape Colony, South Africa. Robert married Hannah Tamplin on 10 Apr 1804 in Somerset East, Cape Of Good Hope.

Robert served in the military 98th/91st Argyllshire Highlanders 1795 in India with Wellington's forces. He served in the military Commissioned Liasion Officer 1806 in South Africa. He served in the military Adjutant Cape Regiment 1807 - 1817 in Grahamstown, South Africa. He was Merino Sheep Farmer 1825 in 'Glen Avon' Farm.

From the Series 'They Were South Africans' a broadcast on the English Transmission by the well-known South African Journalist and Historian, John Bond. The following article was published in the SABC magazine on the 19th July, 1954.

"The name of Robert Hart must be unknown to almost everyone who is listening to me tonight. That is strange, because Hart, as far as I can discover, was the first English-speaking South African. He was a founder of that new race whose arrival in South Africa tipped the scale the right way when it wavered in the balance between civilisation and barbarism.

Robert Hart would have asserted to that. He came to South Africa in its darkest period when the Dutch East India Company's rule was breaking down completely. His whole life, from the day he landed in 1795, was devoted one way or another to shoring up the shaky structure of Cape civilisation as tribal Africa surged against it.

That very crises in the rise of our country was a result of the Afrikaans colonists' success, with precious little assistance from their rulers, in crossing the desert zone which had insulated the Cape from the Bantu for almost 140 years after Van Riebeeck.

Naturally they clashed when they met and it so happened that the Boers were the losers. They were driven out of the Zuurveld where Albany and Alexandria now stand in the Eastern Province. Just six years after that retreat, Robert Hart landed in Simon's Bay with the British Expeditionary Force. You can picture him as a tall, raw lad of 17 wearing the green and black-striped kilt of the newly founded Argyllshire Highlanders.

Robert had run away from his home near Glasgow to join the colours a year before, when all Britain was arming to fight the French Revolutionary armies.

On the 4th September, 1795, his troopship sailed into False Bay with 13 others to relieve the tiny British force which had captured Muizenberg. Within a week of the Argyllshire Highlanders were marching into Cape Town in the name of King George III and his Serene Highness the Prince of Orange whom the French had expelled from the Netherlands.

I do not know if any of Hart's numerous descendants all over South Africa retain the diaries or letters he wrote during the following seven years. The family tradition is that he fought in all the campaigns that were going and if he was a member of the light Grenadier company of his regiment that is exactly what he would have done.

If so, he must have been present at the troubles in Graaff-Reinet, which was then the outside edge of civilisation in Southern Africa, and he must have fought right through the third Kaffir War. The third Kaffir War means nothing to our generation. But in the terrible years from 1799 to 1802 it looked as though Cape Town itself might be in danger. The Amaxhosa impis plunged westward almost to Swellendam, killing and pillaging everywhere.

Those years of hard and hungry campaigning in dense bush where you never knew when to expect a shower of assegais, were Hart's apprenticeship to his new country. Fighting side by side with the frontier Boers, he came to appreciate their courage and kindness and learned their language. He found a way, too, to understand the feckless, cheerful Hottentots who often fought alongside the British Redcoats.

He became accustomed to the huge herds of elephants that roamed the forests of the Eastern Cape and to the lions and the swarming game in the more open country. He probably helped to erect the first permanent building in the Eastern Province, Fort Frederick, nucleus of the future Port Elizabeth.

In about 1802 Hart left for India. Peace was dawning in Europe and the officers of his regiment had a hard struggle to find volunteers for the East. Every man was dying to get home again. But Hart volunteered. It was typical of the man.

He called at the Cape again on his way back from India. We next find him, a full-fledged warrant-officer, taking a decisive step in London in 1804. He married a girl from Jersey, Hannah Tamplin. War marriages are supposed to be unstable, but stability was in Hart's bones and in other spheres it was to be the supreme gift, perhaps of his race to South Africa. I suspect Hanna found Robert's stories of the wild Cape frontier as fascinating and strange as Desdemona found Othelo's recital of his narrow escapes in Africa.

Africa was often in his thoughts. The famous Sir John Moore was training the Argyllshire Highlanders and other regiments to go into action against Napoleon when a British fleet slipped south in 1805 to recapture the Cape. Almost immediately afterwards the occupying force sent word to England to fetch out Sergeant-Major Hart.

I think Hart had always hoped, and in fact schemed to go back. The lad who had run away from home to join the army found something in the free, adventurous life of South Africa that he preferred to all others. By 1807 Robert was back in Cape Town as a junior commissioned officer of the Cape Regiment, with its British officers and Hottentot rank and file. He and Hannah had the chance now to meet nearly all the founders of the oldest English-speaking families - Tennants, Duckitts, Rexes, Andersons, Murrays, Galdwelis and others who landed before 1803.

Four years later Lieutenant Hart set out with his regiment on the most decisive campaign perhaps, in South African history - the recapture of the Zuurveld. Their orders were to make the Great Fish River once again the effective boundary of the Cape Colony, instead of Algoa Bay. They did it.

The Amaxhosa tribes which had defied ejection for 20 years were driven back across the Great Fish River. Whatever else one may say about the campaign, it turned the tide. It provided the English-speaking South African with his cradleland in Albany and Bathurst and gave the future Voortrekkers their secure civilised base with its port, garrison, wagonmakers and traders.

To consolidate this victory Colonel John Graham founded a military headquarter near the Fish River which has ever since borne his name. Hart was one of the very first landowners in Grahamstown and there he grew vegetables in his spare time for the Cape Regiment.

That was in 1812. Five years later the Harts trekked away with a posse of children on their wagons to a new life on the Somerset Farm. This frontier establishment 60 miles north-west of Grahamstown had been designed by Lord Charles Somerset for an agricultural research station, but its first manager found the task beyond him and recommended Hart, the farming major of the Grahamstown garrison to succeed him.

From 1817 to 1825 Hart reigned over the Somerset Farm. He made it a model for the whole Cape frontier. He brought 600 acres under cultivation - a vast area in those days. He demonstrated the first up-to-date farm machinery ever seen in that wild region, only a dozen miles from Kaffirland.

On the Government's behalf he supplied rations to the entire frontier garrison from the sea to Cradock, buying large additional stocks of wheat and slaughter animals from the frontier Boers. He thus gave them the first orderly, convenient marketing they had ever enjoyed. Since money was meaningless on the frontier he secured shipments twice a year through Algoa Bay of the goods the Boers wanted most. Travellers remarked with amazement that on this bustling farm the very Hottentots seemed to acquire the energy of tireless Robert Hart.

The first big test for the Somerset Farm came in 1819, when the Amaxhosa tribes stormed down on Grahamstown itself in a desperate attempt to recapture the Zuurveld. A still bigger test was to come a year later when Hart had to start supplying the 1820 settlers with rations as well as the troops. Without Somerset Farm many of the settlers might have perished of hunger in their first disastrous years of blight and flood. The organising skill, energy and integrity of Robert Hart saved his countrymen.

Do you remember Thomas Pringle, the first South African poet, who led the only party of Scots among the 1820 settlers? They had to pass the Somerset Farm on the way to their holdings in the wild Adelaid mountains. Hart gave them a royal welcome. Pringle tells us that when the rugged pioneer heard the Scottish voices of the womenfolk he all but broke down, in spite of his iron nerve and rigid look. There swept over him then the long-buried recollection of his Scottish mother from whom he had run away so long before.

Hart in person led the Pringles to their destination. He gave them their first fruit trees. He guided Thomas Pringle through the mosshung elephant haunted forests of the frontier which still live in Pringle's poems. Eventually he appointed young John Pringle, Thomas's brother, as his assistant manager, and presently welcomed him as a son-in-law. For Robert and Hannah Hart's six daughters were in great demand among lonely young Englishmen and Scotsmen on the frontier.

Once the 1820 Settlers had made the Zuurveld the most intensively settled part of white South Africa instead of the wildest, the Somerset Farm had fulfilled its function. In January 1825 Hart heard the great Government farm he had built up proclaimed a new town with the name of Somerset East which has ever since honoured him as its founder.

It is not easy to start life all over. After 30 years in the service. Fortunately Hart had been granted land a few miles away in 1822. With the help of a small pension he was now able to farm for himself. He named his land 'Glen Robert Hart (1776-1867) came from Strathavon in Lanarkshire, and as a young man joined the 78th Highland Regiment. The newly formed National Convention of the French Republic had just declared war on Great Britain and Holland, and was preparing to take possession of the Cape. So the British decided to take it first and immediately despatched Admiral Elphinstone with a fleet, which anchored in Simon's Bay in 1795. Robert Hart's regiment under General Craig was sent out with the troops that were to occupy the Cape. At this time the Cape was torn asunder by political intrigues and revolt against the bankrupt and despotic Dutch East India Company, and Graaf-Reinet and Swellendam had declared themselves Republics, but agreed to come under British rule. In 1799 the Third Frontier War broke out and Chief Ndhlambi invaded the Zuurveld and Lieut Hart served with his regiment in the fighting on the frontier, which ended up in a patched peace leaving the Xhosa in possession of the ground that they ahd occupied. In 1802, by the Treaty of Amiens peace was ratified between great Britain and the french Republic, and the Cape of Good Hope was given back to the Batavian Republic. British troops were withdrawn, and Robert Hart left with his Regiment for India. From here he returned to Scotland and married Hannah Tamplin. When the English retook the Cape in 1806, Robert Hart was again in the army of occupation under General Baird. In the following year Hart's regiment retook the Zuurveld, and pushed the Xhosa back over the Great Fish River, thus reclaiming the Albany and Bathurst areas where the bulk of the Settlers were located in 1820. Grahamstown was founded in 1811, and Lt. Hart with his wife and family were stationed there until 1817, when he was put in charge of Somerset Farm which supplied wheat and fodder to the Military in the Eastern Province. When Somerset farm in 1825 became the town of Somerset East, Robert Hart, for his long and faithfull service to the Government, was given the farm Glen Avon, which he extended by purchasing additional land. Robert was Heemraad for the area, and he was responsible for the building of the Dutch Reformed Church in Somerset East. Some years later he contributed £1300 to the building of the Presbyterian Church.

Death date of 14 September 1867 is listed in "British Families in South Africa" by C Pama pub by Human & Rosseau 1992 on Page 87. Also on that page are: Robert Hart I born Scotland married to Mary Fleming parents of Robert Hart II born 1777 in Stathavon, Lanark, Scotland.

More about Glen Avon from Country life, March 2000;

When Robert Hart stepped off a boat at the Cape of Good Hope in 1795, he did not look like an important future figure. At the time he was 18 years old, a private in the Argyllshire Highlanders and penniless. Yet this young Scottish lad was destined to play a major role in taming the old Cape colony's wild eastern flank. After surviving the dangers of being a soldier on the turbulent eastern frontier, he took a short break in England before returning in 1807 to SA as a commissioned officer in Colonel Graham's newly formed Cape Regiment. By now he was also married to Hannah Tamplin, and the couple settled at the military base that later became Garhamstown. After a while, Robert took over Somerset farm, established in the Zuurveld by the government to supply the army. While there the Harts welcomed the Scottish party of 1820 settlers who ventured inland to the Baviaans River valley. Those were tough times for the Scots, but luckily they had a helpful friend in Robert. In 1825 Somerset Farm was shut down and the land set aside for the new town of Somerset East. Left with a small state pension, Robert Hart moved with his family to land he'd acquired a short distance away in a fertile valley below the Bosberg, a beautiful place he named Glen Avon.

Through hard work and great insight he soon made his farm a landmark in the region. He bred top merino sheep, a breed introduced to SA by Colonel Graham, and so contributed greatly to what became an important industry. His orchards produced a fantastic bounty of fruits, especially citrus, and his flood-irrigated fields delivered huge harvests of grain that soon justified a private mill.

The machinery for this was shipped out from Scotland and then transported by ox wagon from Algoa Bay over the Zuurberg Pass. The mill could produce two tons of meal a day and soon Robert was grinding all the wheat grown between Pearston, Ann's Villa and Zwagershoek.

....the amazing legacy of Robert Hart, who died in 1867 at the ripe old age of 90, is remarkable because everything has been so well looked after by his direct descendants. Their dedication preserved the old mill and the two homesteads...Although idle since 1991, Glen Avon's historic mill could be made to run again if it rained enough...

Newspaper cuttings from the Eastern Cape.

EP Herald, Oct 1967

The charming homestead on Glen Avon which was built by Robert HART round about 1825 and which is now occupied by his direct descendant, Mr. R.C. BROWN, his wife and family. The house was built of stone and roofed with imported Welsh slate. It has been restored under the supervision of a well-known Port Elizabeth architect and furnished with antiques appropriate to the period. A wing has been added to the house but is perfectly in keeping with the original structure. The veranda railings are those put up by Robert HART. They are of iron and are set in lead.

The old mill at Glen Avon, Somerset East, must be one of the very few mills of its type left in South Africa. It is still in working order and is used for grinding wheat and stock food. The wheat incidentally, which is grown on Glen Avon is used for baking the family bread. The mill machinery, which was made in Leeds, England in 1861 and the grinding stone, which came from Scotland and is of Aberdeen granite, were transported to Glen Avon from Algoa Bay and over the Zuurberg Mountains by ox wagon some time in the 1800's. The wheel is 20 feet in diameter.

The grave of Robert HART is on the estate and a Presbyterian church, erected in 1850, which is now used as a coloured school. The estate is about three miles out of Somerset East.

Avon', no doubt from the river Avon which runs through his native Lanarkshire in Scotland. The farm remains in the possession of his descendants to this day.

The last phase of Hart's long life - he lived to be 90 - was immensely constructive. He had hundreds of friends amongst the Boers, not least Piet Retief, for whom he stood surety in Grahamstown. He probably knew all the leaders of the coming Great Trek. One of his first actions on gaining his freedom was to join with his Afrikaans neighbours in establishing a Dutch Reformed Church as a centre of civilisation and Christianity on the frontier. He held his post as a foundation elder of the Somerset East Church until he was 70 and fought a bonny battle for the Kirk and its independence.

Another of his earliest actions as a free citizen was to found the Agricultural Show of Somerset East - a prodigious novelty on the Cape frontier in 1826. Nominally his friend Landdrost Mackay was president but it is almost certain that Hart was the driving force in this move for better farming.

In his later years the austere, God-fearing old man became a legend on the frontier which he had done as much as any single individual to establish and civilise. One of his descendants, the late Sir James Rose Innes, Chief Justice of the Union, recalled the old man's intense practicalness. When neighbours borrowed his coffin which had been kept ready in the loft according to farming custom, they found Hart had not left it idle. It was packed with dried peaches.

He and his son had much trouble to face on 'Glen Avon' as the Colonial wars surged again and again around them. Just after the 1835 war he had 200 cattle stolen and spirited into Kaffirland. Despite his Scottish persistence, even Hart could recover only 23. In the War of the Ax, ten years later, he suffered considerable loss through helping the Government to the best of his powers with cash and grain when everyone else held back.

When the last, worst war of all broke out in 1850, farmers of both language groups in Somerset East felt they could stick it no longer. They met, elected Hart, who was then in his seventies, to the chair, and passed a resolution warning the Government that they would have to trek west to some safer region. Not long afterwards that westward trek began. But Hart himself, our first English-speaking South-African, was made of sterner stuff. Others could trek if they wished.

The old man, a great pioneer, a great farmer and a great gentleman remained to the end of his days in the district which he himself had put upon the map of civilised South Africa.


"When the austere, God-fearing laird of 'Glen Avon' passed away in 1867 his tale was not yet done.

(Robert Hart).

The Eastern Province is peopled with his descendants.

Sir Gordon SPRIGG, who was four times Prime Minister of the Cape Colony married one of the grand-daughters of Robert and Hannah Hart and paid a memorable tribute to the patriarch.

Sir James ROSE INNES, twice a Minister in the Old Cape Parliament and Eventually Chief Justice of the Union was a great-grandson of HART.

And in 1937 a great great great grandson, Count Helmuth James VON MOLTKE came from Germany to visit his mother's native land and his grandparents Sir James and Lady ROSE INNES...."

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