Smallpox epidemics at the Cape

A portrait of Edward Jenner by James Northcote [Wikimedia Commons]

A portrait of Edward Jenner by James Northcote [Wikimedia Commons]

The Cape experienced its first smallpox epidemic in 1713. Fatalities soared between May and July and contemporaries wrote that people died in such numbers that many bodies had to be buried without coffins and in shallow graves that attracted scavenging hyenas, jackals and feral dogs. In the open country bodies decomposed along wagon tracks and foot paths. There was another outbreak in 1748 and in 1755 a homeward bound ship from Ceylon caused an outbreak that killed more than 2,000 settlers and slaves.

Drakenstein during the 1713 epidemic

Curious as to how smallpox may have affected the people living in the Drakenstein area, I looked through a few MOOC documents relating to deaths in 1713. Although these inventories rarely stipulate the cause of death, they certainly provide some cause for speculation:

  • Dirk Dirksze van Schalkwijk and his wife Maritie Olivier (MOOC 8/2.75 of 11 May 1713), of the farm Slot van de Paarde Berg. They were survived by four under-aged children: Theunis (8), Ockert (7), Gerrit (5) and Gysbert (3). Jacomina born in 1713 presumably died during the epidemic.
  • Dirk Verweij and his wife Geesje Visser ( MOOC 8/3.25 of 11 July 1713) owned a property in Table Bay, a farm on the Liesbeeck River and another in Paardeberg.
  • Gijsbert Verschuijr and his wife Anna Sebina Venters ( MOOC 8/3.11 of 14 July 1713) owned a farm in Paarl and were survived by six under-aged children.
  • Jacomina Schalk (MOOC 8/2.81 of 12 September 1713), wife of Joost Hendrik Frits of Drakenstein.
  • Henning d’Viljon (MOOC 8/2.80 of 19 September 1713) owned two farms in Drakenstein, including Watergat in Simondium He was survived by his wife Margareta Theresia d’Savoije and a son Henning (1). Henning Viljoen’s family in particularly were hard hit by the epidemic. His mother Cornelia Campenaar died, as did his siblings Pieter (36), Anna (35), Johannes (29) and Francina (24), and his brother-in-law Heinrich Venter of Vleeschbank in Agter-Groenberg.
  • Anna Fouches, wife of Pieter Jourdaan of the farm Cabriere in Franschhoek (MOOC 8/2.94 of 23 November 1713), survived by her under-aged children were Anna (15), Joseph (12) and Susanna (10).
  • Jacobus van As ( MOOC 8/2.89 of 30 November 1713) owned the farm Nuwedorp in Groot Drakenstein and Wittenberg in Noorde Paarl. He was survived by his wife Helena Schalk van der Merwe and their children Elsje (11), Willem (10) and Sophia (6).

Jean le Roux’s research into the first owners of Drakenstein farms may also provide more clues to smallpox deaths. The following farmers died in 1713:

  • Gideon Malherbe, the owner of the farms Hexberg and Groenfontein in Wellington’s Bovlei
  • Bastiaan Pyl of the farm Kunnenburg in Simondium
  • Martin Pouisson of Slent in Paardeberg
  • Heinrich Venter of Vleeschbank, Agter-Groenberg
  • Salomon de Gournay of Hartebeeskraal-Amstelhof in Klein Drakenstein
  • Wemmer Pasmann of Winterhoek and La Roque in Klein Drakenstein
  • Abraham Vivier of Schoongezicht in Daljosaphat
  • Marthe le Febre owned the farm Lustigan in Klein Drakenstein until 1713
  • Casper Jansz owned the farm Orleans in Klein Drakenstein until 1713


In the Middle East a rudimentary form of “arm to arm” inoculation had been practiced since the Middle Ages. This “arm to arm” inoculation or variolation usually took place on the 7th, 8th or 9th day of the disease but was not always effective and in some cases caused the death of the recipient.

In the late 18th century this practice was introduced to Europe and in Holland Salomon de Monchy (1716-1794) published De Inenting der Kinderpokjes in 1757. He sent a copy of his book to Ryk Tulbagh, then governor of the Cape, and implored him to use his research to prevent another outbreak at the Cape. Smallpox subsequently became a notifiable disease and infected vessels were all quarantined to prevent the diseases from spreading. Strict rules were also put into place regarding the treatment of the sick, ventilation of infected houses and the treatment of infected clothing and linen.

In England Edward Jenner (1749-1823), a medical doctor, started his own pioneering work in developing an effective vaccination against smallpox based on a common held belief amongst farmers that people who had been exposed to cowpox (a mild form of smallpox) never caught smallpox. His first trial on the 8 year old James Phipps in 1796 proved effective and this paved the way to finding a vaccine against the dreaded smallpox.

At first people were reluctant to subscribe to Jenner’s vaccine, but faced with the alternative, thousands did. By 1807 residents of Cape Town were also asked to present themselves for  inoculation, and just under 6,000 people responded to the public appeal. More wealthy residents were probably inoculated by their private physicians and were not included in the official statistics. These appeals helped and between May 1811 and June 1826 more than 11,500 people were inoculated against smallpox.


Burrows, E H. A history of medicine in South Africa. AA Balkema, Cape Town 1958
Laidler, PW et al. South African medical history 1652-1898. Struik, Cape Town 1971
Le Roux, J et al. Drakenstein se erfgrond. Drakenstein Heemkring, Paarl 2012

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