Farmer's Weekly (South Africa)

Eastern Cape milkwood trees that became national monuments

Linked to historic events down the ages, a number of protected milkwoods in South Africa have become national monuments. Mike Burgess explores the intriguing story behind each of these beautiful trees.


The white milkwood ( Sideroxylo­n inerme) is a hardy, handsome, evergreen tree endemic to the coastal areas of Southern Africa. A slowgrowin­g species with very hard wood, it is well known for its longevitiy.

In 1993, a white milkwood was declared a national monument simply due to its extraordin­ary age and size. Growing on the farm Rhenosterf­ontein near Bredasdorp in the southern Cape, it is over 1 000 years old and has a trunk more than 3m thick and a 20m-wide canopy. These statistics alone make it an invaluable artefact of the region’s natural history.

There are, however, three other milkwoods in South Africa whose longevity placed them near historical human events with which they are still associated.


In 1488, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to sail around the southernmo­st tip of Africa. He thereby opened up a future sea route to India, which was reached about 10 years later by Vasco da Gama. The Dias Museum Complex in Mossel Bay is home to a milkwood more than 500 years old once used by Portuguese sailors as a place to leave messages for each other.

The practice began in 1500 when Portuguese sea captain Pedro de Ataide landed at Mossel Bay to find fresh water after his return from India, and left a message in a boot (or old pot, depending on who you ask) under a milkwood tree. The message, describing problems he had experience­d in India, was found the following year by João da Nova, who ordered that a Christian hermitage be built near the tree.

Today, the tree is a national monument, and doubles as South Africa’s oldest post office; letters can be posted in a shoe-shaped postbox close to where Da Nova’s hermitage once stood.


Although the Cape was returned to the Netherland­s by the British in early 1803, Britain’s conflict with Napoleonic France very soon led to the re-emergence of Cape Town, then under control of the Dutch Batavian Republic, as a place of strategic importance.

On 6 January 1806, the British launched a seaborne invasion of the Cape, with troops landing at today’s Melkbosstr­and (Milkwood beach).

By 8 January, the British had routed the Dutch near Blaauwberg Hill.

Lieutenant Colonel Von Prophalov, responsibl­e for the Batavian defence of Cape Town, was given 36 hours to surrender by the British officer in command, Major General Sir David Baird.

By 10 January, the British accepted the Dutch surrender in a thatched cottage (demolished in the 1930s) near a milkwood tree that still stands in Cape Town’s Woodstock area.


The Mfengu people arrived in the Eastern Cape’s former Transkei after fleeing the violent expansion of the Zulu nation further north-east during the 1820s, in the time of King Shaka.

Many Mfengu (a name derived from the Xhosa phrase siyamfengu­sa which means ‘We are wanderers seeking service’) were welcomed by Gcaleka Xhosa Chief Hintsa, who doubled as the paramount of all Xhosa.

When British forces, under the command of Sir Benjamin D’Urban, invaded Hintsa’s Gcalekalan­d during the sixth Frontier War in the mid-1830s, two cataclysmi­c events occurred. First, Hintsa was killed by the British; second, about 15 000 Mfengu (many keenly associated with the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society near today’s Butterwort­h) followed the British forces back across the Great Kei River towards the Cape Colony.

The British settled them beyond the Keiskamma River near today’s Peddie, where they affirmed their loyalty to the British Empire and Christiani­ty under a milkwood tree on former Xhosa territory. The Mfengu thereafter went on to offer valuable military support to British forces until the Xhosa’s eventual defeat in the 1870s.

However, soon after the ninth and final Frontier War (1877 to 1878), the Cape administra­tion included the loyal Mfengu in their drive to disarm Africans under their jurisdicti­on.

The betrayal deeply shocked the Mfengu, but despite strenuous protests, they were never rearmed and had to settle for annual celebratio­ns of their ‘special relationsh­ip’ with the British at Peddie’s milkwood tree.

• Sources: Bosman, F. 2006. ‘Sideroxylo­n inerme’. SA National Biodiversi­ty Institute. Retrieved from­ninerme; ‘Sideroxylo­n inerme’. Platbos Conservati­on Trust. Retrieved from html; Couzens, T. 2013. South African Battles. Jonathan Ball; Milton, J. 1983.

The Edges of War. Juta.

 ?? MIKE BURGESS ?? The milkwood tree near Peddie in the Eastern Cape where the Mfengu swore allegiance to the British Empire in 1835. This tree is one of four milkwoods in South Africa that are national monuments.
MIKE BURGESS The milkwood tree near Peddie in the Eastern Cape where the Mfengu swore allegiance to the British Empire in 1835. This tree is one of four milkwoods in South Africa that are national monuments.

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