SA family history on the Web
Sharon Marshall28 June 2004
Not that long ago, Internet genealogy and family history research were separate entities, as US companies flooded the market with special offers ranging from census information on Ellis Island émigrés to links to royal icons and famous celebrities.
But "vanity genealogy" has come a long way since then, and now there are few amateur ancestor seekers who don't use the virtual mode.
Stuck in an exchange warp and blessed with in-bred ubuntu, South Africans are particularly conscious of keeping the flow of information as cheap, accurate and accessible as possible.
If those are your priorities, the newsgroups at RootsWeb.com are virtual manna. Go to the site, select "mailing lists", then select "South Africa" under "countries". Make your choice from the lists for Cape Town, British Immigrants or South Africa as a whole.
If these don't satisfy your need, a quick Google for South African genealogy yields a number of other options, among which is the busy Afrikaans SAGenealogie group (which also has a separate website and photo album).
There's also a new group for those in search of their St Helena roots.
In addition, plenty of newsgroup listers have published their own family tree websites, often linking them to others, given the intermarried nature of early settlers.
Many agree that the best starting block for South African research is Ancestry24.com, developed by Cape Town commercial family history researcher Heather MacAlister, who also runs the Cape Town Rootsweb newsgroup.
The site, which has over two million online records, gives plenty of links to other sites, lists of surnames being researched in South Africa, baptism, marriage and death transcriptions for the 1800s, and passenger lists, which are a mammoth work in progress as more come to light.
The lists for the five ships in Dutch colonist Jan van Riebeeck's fleet, which arrived at the Cape in 1652, have still not been found, and some controversy remains as to who the first free burghers were. The same applies to ship lists for many slaves, who were known only by the names given them by their European owners.
It is mysteries like this which make some researchers turn their genetic legacy into a life quest.
Andre van Rensburg
Says one such professional quester, Andre van Rensburg, a white Afrikaner proud of his genes, which range from Khoi translater Krotoa to Eastern slaves and "thoroughbred" Huguenots and Dutchmen: "What makes South African genealogy so exciting is that you never know what you will find. Family research turns your world view upside down; it is far more exciting than any fiction, and not for the faint-hearted."
The publisher of a number of websites and advertising manager of Genealogy without Frontiers, the recently launched online version of the Genealogical Society of South Africa, Van Rensburg has also conducted in-depth research on subjects as diverse as the slave stammoeder Armosyn van de Kaap, the hazardous expedition of the first slave ship to Benin, and controversial events surrounding the Dutch East India Company's anti-establishment Jacob Cloete and the interment of Muslim exile Shaykh Yusuf.
"The Internet has made available information and resources to people which previously would have taken months", Van Rensburg says. "I am based in Australia, but am able to obtain primary documents electronically. On my Stamouers website, you can access the research by Prof Robert C-H Shell's slave transactions from the early Cape."
Stamouers.com is a virtual family bible for those with Dutch, German or slave ancestors – and also a work in progress, with Van Rensburg only too happy to add researched, proven details to the site.
Another person with his finger on the pulse of slavery is Mogamat Kamedien, who runs Slavery @ the Cape, a site which is expanding at a rapid rate as new data is added from University of Western Cape researchers and writer/historians like Nigel Worden.
Besides individual case studies, lists of slaves and their countries of origin at the Slave Lodge and on estates like Groot Constantia are given.
Kamedien also runs RootsWeb.com's SA History newsgroup, which is geared towards historical backgrounds.
For beginners, the list manager of RootsWeb's South African British Immigrants (ZA-IB) newsgroup and the Afrikaans Buitenposten, well-known genealogist Delia Robertson, has developed a primer for beginners at e-Family, which she co-edits with Ron Smit and Gerda Pieterse. A medley of South African sources - anything from official death notices to current estates and newspaper notices - can be found here.
- For a glossary of terms peculiar to genealogy mailing lists, see the box on the right.
For many, RootsWeb's South African British Immigrants (ZA-IB) newsgroup is a virtual second home. Those who know the ropes are only too happy to guide new users in the right direction or volunteer free look-ups (genie lingo for anything that can be looked up - from newspapers to archive death notices).
Ellen Stanton, Conrod Mercer
One such person is Ellen Stanton, who, based in the US, was drawn into transcribing details from Church of Latter Day Saints microfiche when she started looking for her own ancestors here. Not a week passes without at least one new list of BMDs (baptism, marriage and death transcriptions) from her, Nolene Lossau or Sha Redfern, who took up the challenge with transcriptions from other areas.
Says ever-helpful Port Elizabeth lister Becky Horne: "Without Ellen, many people would never have even begun their family trees. She is a rare gem. The real beauty, though, lies in the fact that all the transcripts are downloadable from Heather's site or the newsgroup archives. To me, this list is about making friends as well."
The other RootsWeb South African (ZA) newsgroup is run by Conrod Mercer, based in Krugersdorp. A site of much lively debate, it attracts interest groups from all sectors who thrive on historical issues. This, and most other mailing lists, have searchable archives.
The 1820 settler guru
Mercer also owns South African Genealogy, which gives a myriad links to helpful South African sites - among them Paul Tanner-Tremaine's 1820settlers.com, which has an ever-expanding list of visitors on its message board.
A member of both Mercer's and Robertson's newsgroups, Tanner-Tremaine is the 1820 settler guru and is constantly updating his database of over 30 000 names. His site also has a membership area which includes a newsletter, and the interactive dynamic family tree (DFT) on his original site, Paul TT's Genealogy Home Page, demonstrates just how intermarried the whole shebang of 4 000 settlers were.
Newsflash: watch Google for a new website, One Tree, covering the Eastern Cape and Transkei. It will form part of a broader site, e-Genealogy.
Though still in its infancy, RootsWeb also has a site dedicated to ethnic origins on its free pages. Genealogical Gleanings has links to lineages of Zulu, Xhosa, Pondo, Swazi and Thembu royal families.
Sorely in need of a mailing list to consolidate information for more lowly researchers, intermarriage in this area is also vaguely explored on Andre van Rensburg's Van Rensburg Genealogy.
Though not as active on the web as on paper, exploration of Jewish roots in South Africa has a starting point at Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy: Websites and Anne Lemkuhl's Lemkuhl Family Home Page and German South African Resource Page provide great leads for German ancestors.
National Archives, FamilySearch
The fulcrum around which all of this spins is the government's National Archives of South Africa. Continually updated and maintained by a meagre complement of staff, the site is a work in progress, and nowhere near all archives resources have been listed.
Entries are listed under the sections TAB (Transvaal), VAB (Free State), NAB (Kwa Zulu Natal), KAB (Cape) and SAB (South Africa), together with various other sub-headings which include cemetery listings, photographs and official manuscripts dating back to the 1600s.
Navigating around the site and mastering the search engine takes a bit of getting used to, but once you've got the hang of it, you'll be there for days. Don't despair if the site is down: it simply means that maintenance or updating is taking place. If you're unsure of where a person died, use the SAB section and try a variety of spelling permutations.
Complementing the archives site, FamilySearch, the website for the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS), invites contributors to send in family trees, and though they need to be checked for accuracy, a copious amount of leads for both local and international family trees can be gleaned here. In addition to BMD (baptism, marriage and death) information, the LDS also has a variety of books on microfiche, obtainable from centres in your area - gratis.
A major accessory for Internet genie junkies are CD-Roms which list anything from voters' rolls and cemeteries to whole books. They're especially useful if you're researching more than one family or area, but often lose their value once you've found what you want.
This is where pooling of information on newsgroups saves money and promotes goedspa. "A useful tip", says one lister, "is to check who produced the CD. The pool of reputable researchers is very small, and I know most names at a glance. I am also far more inclined to buy a CD if its sale contributes to the benefit of family history research in this country, as this is an area which receives low priority in national budget allowances."
This sentiment is echoed by many who feel more effort should be made to sponsor an interest which serves as both a lesson in humility and an important empowerment tool.