An Excursion to the Bergtheil Museum

Last Friday our Grade 4 learners visited the Bergtheil Museum in Westville to learn about the first German settlers in Durban. The story goes as follows:

Natal’s first German community owed its existence to the immigration scheme of an English Jew, Jonas Bergtheil, who arrived in Natal in 1843 and established the Natal Cotton Company three years later. Bergtheil saw the potential of European settlement along the coast and approached the British colonial office for immigrants. When first the British and then the Bavarian governments rejected his plans, he turned to the Kingdom of Hanover for support. Thirty-five peasant families (about 188 people) from the Osnabrück-Bremen district accepted his offer and arrived in Natal on 23 March 1848. They were settled near Port Natal and called their new home Neu-Deutschland (New Germany).

Bergtheil’s cotton scheme failed after the first two crops were ravaged by bollworm. Furthermore, the ginning machinery he had ordered from England never arrived. The settlers soon abandoned cotton in favour of market gardening, and when their five-year contracts with Bergtheil ended many did not renew them. The fledgling community may well have foundered within a generation since the immigrants did not maintain contact with Germany and had no vision of a distinctly German community. The arrival of a Berlin missionary ensured that the language and religion would continue for the time being.

Pastor Carl Wilhelm Posselt (1815–85) agreed to care for the congregation in New Germany, where he consecrated the first chapel of the Berlin Missionary Society in South Africa on 19 November 1848. He conducted mission work among the Zulu farm labourers and in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, and in 1854 established a second station, Christianenberg, for this purpose. He also taught Scripture in the little German school which the settlers had established. In 1852 the congregation was briefly moved to Emmaus because of famine on the coast and declining numbers of settlers. Bergtheil succeeded in stemming the flow of Germans into the interior, and in 1854 Posselt returned to New Germany where he continued as missionary and pastor until his death in 1885.