The quest to understand how great bacon is made takes me around the world and through epic adventures. I tell the story by changing the setting from the 2000s to the late 1800s when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.
The cast I use to mould the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.
Cape Town, April 1886
One of my earliest and most cherished memories is falling asleep in Oupa Eben and Ouma Susan’s house on Stillehoogte. I am sitting writing, I smell the sheep in the kraal next to the house as if I was there yesterday. Elmar and I slept in one room. It was Oom Uysie’s room before he moved out. My mom and dad slept in the spare bedroom. Andre slept with my Grandparents in their room on a bed at the foot end of my grandparents’ bed.
In the morning we were woken by farm sounds and smells. Mietta was cleaning the house. Ouma was preparing breakfast on a coal stove. Oupa just came in from the felt to get his morning coffee. Oom Uysie, my mom’s younger brother who managed the farm with his dad and our grandfather also stopped by for coffee and a chat.
Whenever he arrived there was no more sleeping. He would make sure that we were out of bed by the time he left by stealing our blankets of spraying us with cold water. It was good humor which one does not appreciate when you are 7, but when you are a bit older, one misses it. Thinking back, I understand how much it meant for him and Oupa!
After Oupa Eben passed away it was not the same on Stillehoogte. At church on Sunday, whenever they sing a hymn, my mom would cry. One morning Ouma Susan was very sad at the breakfast table. She told my mom about a dream she had. She was standing in the church foyer, looking at the photos of the elders and deacons. Oupa Eben was a church elder when he passed away. In the photos where Oupa Eben stood was a large black spot. Even n the photos his life was blotted out! My mom was not a very emotional person but she was washing the dishes and I could see the tears running down her cheek. We all miss Oupe Eben very much.
Oupa Eben and Oom Uysie put up four pig pens next to the stables. If I remember correctly they farmed with large Whites. One day Oupa Eben got home with the most adorable little pigs that one could imagine. He said they do not have to be housed in a pen. These were very special pigs. They are roaming farm pigs who take care of themselves feeding on the scraps from the farming activities.
Oupa Eben asked if I know why they are called Kolbroek? Of course, I did not. Oupa knew that I loved a good story. I would pester him to tell me a story. With his words still fresh in my mind I would take any of the many footpaths on Stillehoogte and, hiking for hours, I would re-tell the story to an imaginary audience. I am not sure why I loved it so much, but I did! It was the greatest enjoyment imaginable! I knew that he was actually asking if he can tell me the story of the Kolbroek.
Domestication and the Formation of Breeds
“The story of the Kolbroek begins many years ago in the middle of the 1700s in the south of England. Pigs were fed on the mast of the forest which is the fruit of trees and shrubs such as acorns and nuts. Europeans are very fond of fattening the pigs on what was called “hard mast.” The hard acorns and nuts from oak, hickory, and beech trees are the hard mas. The forests were either part of common lands or royal forests. The practice of annually fattening the pigs in the forests for around 60 days was called pannage.”
“Pigs in England were big, long-legged with menacing facial expressions. Animals who are not penned up face preditors. When they run they must run fast. For this reason they are extremely skittish. The slightest indication of danger and they have to move quickly! Their bite must be ferocious as must be their build and facial expression. They are dark in appearance with stripes that resembles their ancestors, the wild boar.”
“On the other hand, pigs in China did not have these pressures. Instead, they had a very comfortable life for thousands of years. They were kept in small and comfortable housing close to the farmer’s house. Being penned up protect them from predators and where European pigs went to the forest for two months, weather depending, once a year where they had to eat hard actors and nuts, Chinese pigs were fed scraps from the farming activities. An animal who does not have to run and be on the constant lookout for predators grow smaller, fatter, shorter legs with less menacing faces. The stripes of their wild European counterparts changed into spots. They picked up weight faster than the European cousins just like people do when they don’t have to walk long distances or do manual labour.” This last bit Oupa added with a grin. He enjoyed comparing pigs with people and used to say that calling some of the people he had to deal with from the Cooperative pigs is an insult to perfectly decent animals.
“It was the English East Indian Company who brought these Chinese pigs to England in the 1700s.” Oupa Eben was a “no-frills and no-fuss” man. He said stuff in a way that one understood it easily. This being the case, one must still remember that Oupa was a very clever man! He knew that any inventions first happen in the mind, not in the physical world. This is called the metaphysical. The interaction between what we can feel and touch and that which is, initially, only in the mind. This we call the metaphysical.
In the late 1600s and early 1700s, a metaphysical shift that took place in the English mind. They started to see “matter” not as the unavoidable experience of nature, but as masters who control the physical. Just as the pigs responded to the pressure from nature by either becoming smaller and fatter as in China or remained big, fast and ferocious as in Europe, the English wool industry was pressured to produce clothing for the local market in bigger quantity than could be done by individual villagers, working in isolation. Thus, the organization of labour changed
The English Empire was taking shape and the demand from the colonies added to the mother-land for clothing added up to a demand that completely outpaced the meager output of any individual person. Imaginative entrepreneurs stepped forward who discovered how to use the forces of nature for their personal end. They invented better and faster ways to spin wool and make clothing. They realised that work itself can be re-organised, even without machine power. Where they combine human power with machine power, output went through the roof! The results were spectacular! The fertile imagination of the English dreamt up new machines that could do what 100 people could not. The buzz words of the time were “bigger,” “better,” and “faster.” They used nature in a way that was never thought possible before. Energy to drive these machines, tapped from steam and water.
As people realised that they can manipulate and harness nature, as the sciences were being invented, we became masters of nature. The most important metaphysical realisation was to re-think how we organise labour but also how we manipulated nature. In the world of farming, this was not a new phenomenon. It has been happening for many thousands of years but a new momentum was added through the industrial revolution.
The earliest discovery was that animals that are penned up, change! The biggest reason was that we were able to manipulate their breeding. Animals become used to us and we found that they were more useful to us. We create animal enclosures where we could separate those with less desirable characters from those with qualities we want. “A good example of this,” said Oupa Eben, “is aggressive animals. We do not like aggressive animals. The menacing bull becomes biltong. The horse that continually breaks out and bites other horses and handlers are served as pastissada.” It takes many generations to change a completely wild animal into an animal that is less threatening to humans; more useful. One that can work and supply milk or become food. The larger farm animals were domesticated first and as the industrial revolution was taking hold of Europe, it was the turn of the village pig.
Oupa Eben lit his pipe, peered out from the farmhouse over his land. It was late afternoon. The farmwork was done and it was the best time to ask him to tell you a story. I sat on the soft grass outside the back door, between the back porch and the brick cooler where all the perishables were kept. It was a simple invention used around the world. Two layers of bricks filled up with charcoal in the middle and regularly soaked with water. This cooled the inside of the square structure with wooden shelving where the butter, eggs, cheese, and milk were stored. Oupa Eben was sitting on a garden chair he brought from the porch to have a better view of his lands. “I guess you want to hear about the Kolbroek,” he said smiling.
He lit his pipe again. “One can imagine that the pigs bought from the English East Indian Company were sold to wealthy aristocrats and landowners. Chinese boars were used by villagers to breed with sows from the village. It meant that in a particular village, the characteristics of the boar was transferred to the entire village pig population. This resulted in regional characteristics and in the 1800s it formed the basis of breeds.” “So,” Oupa Eben told me many times, “on the one hand the old farmers removed animals with less than desirable character traits by either slaughtering the animal or separating them from others and not allowing them to breed, and, on the other hand, by using males with characteristics which the farmer desired to breed with the sows one gets an animal with the right look and temperament. In the case of the Chinese pigs, imported into England, it produced a smaller animal, rounder and fat pig that picked up weight fast but much bigger than the original Chinese pigs on account of the larger size of the English pigs they bred with.”
Oupa Eben stopped with his story when his younger brother walked out of the back door and joined us. He and his wife, Aunt Thelma were visiting. Her maiden name was Berriman. They immigrated from Cornwall. Her father was an immigrant gold miner on the Reef. Her brother was also a miner, mainly at Crown Mines. Tim moved into Thelma’s mother (Hilda’s ) home there just before or just after they were married. Later, they owned their own home in Parkview, Johannesburg. (1)
“I am telling Eben the story of the Kolbroek pigs,” Oupa said when Oom Timo sat down next to Oupa on a chair which he brought from the porch. I was very small and did not know that as Oupa knew everything about raising cattle, sheep, and pigs, Oom Timo knew about ships. Oom Timo gestured Oupa to continue which Oupa did.
Once Upon a Time in Kent
“In Kent, an English East Indian ship preparing to sail to the East via the Cape of Good Hope. The Colebrook was one of these impressive ships. It weighed 739 tons and was 137 feet long, 35 feet wide and had 3 decks. She was built by the most famous shipbuilders of the time, Perryard and launched in 1770. The Captain was Arthur Morris and she was on her third voyage.”
“On 6 January 1778, she loaded lead bars called lead ingots or lead pigs and provisions at Blackwall in the East India Docks on the Thames. On 3 February, she sailed to Gravesend. Here she loaded shot, copper, stores, gunpowder, wine, guns, corn, military recruits and, very importantly, livestock. The livestock included pigs which were procured from the local pig market. The pigs were a cross between Chinese and English pigs and since they were all the result of mating with the local landowners’ boar, they had similar characteristics.”
“On 8 March 1778, she set sail from the Downs with 212 passengers, crew and soldiers on board in the company of three other vessels, the warship Asia, the other East Indiaman, the Gatton, and the Royal Admiral. She stopped at Madeira to load 43 pipes of wine. On 26 May, she sailed from Madeira for Bombay and China passing the Cape of Good Hope.”
Oupa was sitting at the edge of his chair, telling the story. I remember him leaning back when he got to this part and said to Oom Timo, “You know the story well and you know all the right shipping terms. You take it from here!” Oom Timo put his hand on my head who was still sitting on the grass. “The Colebrook took three months to reach the Cape!”
“She did so on Tuesday, 24 August 1778. It was winter and she was not allowed to enter Table Bay. She had to sail around Cape Point and dock in Simon’s Bay in False Bay. She rounded Cape Point and turned East for Simon’s Bay. At 11h30 she struck Anvil Rock, lurking just beneath the waves. Anvil rock was not indicated on the Dutch Maps that Arthur Morris used.”
“The Colebrooke almost immediately freed herself from the rock. Water poured into the hull. The crew put on the pumps within minutes but there were already three feet of water in the hold indicating serious damage. After a hurried conference between Captain Arthur Morris and his officers, they realised that they will not be able to nurse the ship to Simon’s Bay. The water pouring into the Colebrook made her unresponsive and difficult to steer.”
“Instead, they decided to take her all the way across False Bay and find a suitable spot to beach on the eastern side of the bay. This would not require any difficult maneuvering. Still, the plan was not without risk. The far side of the bay was, as far as they were aware, largely uninhabited. The coast is very rocky with steep mountains coming right down to the water. They did not know if they will find a suitable stretch of beach.”
“The Gatton and Asia despatched boats with 8 people in each to assist the Colebrook’s crew with the pumping of water. These men raced to her aid while her company ensign was flying upside down, a signal of distress. The men dropped a weighted sail off the bows when the hole in the hull became inaccessible due to the flooding. It was hauled under the hull where it was secured over the hole, slowing the ingress of water down. They attempted to push the guns overboard to lighten her load, but these were already submerged and the plan was abandoned.”
“Her companion ships followed her across the bay. Captain Morris sent the second and third officer up the mast to look for a sandy beach to run the ship onto. The water from False Bay continued to claim the Colebrook. As she was approaching the beach there were already 14 feet of water in her hold. Her bow was so low that she was sipping water through the hawse holes. These were small cylindrical holes cut through the bows of a ship on each side of the stem. It was used to pass cables through to be drawn into, or let out of the vessel. The situation was desperate!”
“Water started bubbling through her front hatches, signaling that her sinking was imminent. At 4pm on the afternoon of 24 August, she 200m off the beach at Kogel Bay, she grounded. Her topsails were let go which had the effect of swinging her stern around to bring her bow into the wind and swell. The mizzen mast was cut away to stabilise her after which the boats were launched.”
“The first boat was a pinnace. It had sails and several oars. Fifteen men were aboard. The surf at Kogel Bay is treacherous at best of times with a very strong rip current. On that particular day, the wind was very strong making the situation even more precarious. The boat capsized in the surf. When the ensuing madness dissipated a smashed boat and seven bodies were on the beach at Kogel Bay. Survivors were hypothermic from the ice-cold False Bay water, in a desperate state on the beach. All other attempts to get people onto the beach was abandoned. The second boat was swept into the open sea and only recovered the next day. The rest of the crew, soldiers, and passengers were transferred to the other ships.”
Kogel Bay, 2019. Minette, Luan, Tristan, Eben. Photos by Eben
The Pigs of Kogel Bay
Oupa Eben interrupted Oom Timo. “What we told you so far is conventional wisdom, written up in history books from the testimony of the men who were there. What follows is from testimony Oom Timo heard first hand from the great-grandchildren of people who were on the beach that day.” I blurted out. “But, the beach was desolate. Nobody around!” “So we thought,” Oom Timo said and gestured Oupa to take over the storytelling again.
“There were two additional sets of characters on the beach that day which, for completely different reasons, people were reluctant to talk about. Hangklip became, by that time, a refuge for runaway slaves. One of the places they made their home was Dappa se Gat which is situated right on Kogel Bay!
Looking out onto Kogel Bay from Dappa se Gat
It is an enormous cave, unaccessible during high tide but deep enough to house a community of people. They would be able to get far into the cave, out of reach of the water. It is quite possible that they were witnessing the entire debacle from the safety of their cave-home. I wonder if they thought it may have been a party sent to recapture them in which case the safest thing to do would have been to abandon the cave and hide in the thick bush between the mountain and the beach. “If they did this, as I suspect,” Oupa continue, “they would have seen that something managed to swim from the Colebrook to the beach.
“That “something” was a sounder of swine. This was not something unusual. The English Navy and the English East Indian Company both had it as a standard procedure that the pigs must be let out of their pens if it seems imminent that a ship will sink so that they can swim ashore to provide food for the shipwreck survivors. This is presumably what happened to the pigs from Kent.”
“When they got to the beach, the slaves took them. The slaves had a long history with pigs. Pig-keeping was not very popular at the Cape. The Dutch farmers who farmed pigs let them roam free in the valleys and gorges and when they wanted to slaughter one, they had to capture one. The job of looking after them was mostly reserved for slaves. At the Slaves Lodge in Cape Town where the Dutch East Indian Company’s slaves were kept, they were allowed to keep pigs to provide extra income for the lodge.”
“Not only did the slaves have a long history with pigs and pig husbandry, but they knew that they had to keep domesticated animals to survive. There are accounts of this time where they kept cattle inside Dappa se Gat. There are in the Cape Hanglip area several such caves where the slaves kept livestock. It is not known if the pigs were kept at Dadda de Gat or somewhere else. What is known is that a local magistrate complained to the Governor about the slaves and local farmers who looted the remains of the Colebrook.”
“A farmer would not have dared to take the pigs in due to heavy penalties that were exacted for anyone found with looted goods in his or her possession. The fact that the pigs were kept by the slaves and farmed is the reason why they survived as a more or less uniform type of pig which later became known as a breed.”
“The sinking of the Colebrook captured peoples imagination. For a short while, the Kogel Bay was even called Colebrook Bay. This was changed back to Kogel Bay. The pigs were called Kolbroek pigs, a perversion of the ship’s name. This was never changed as a colloquial name for the pigs which was not easy to change and it stuck.” “And that,” Oupa Eben concluded, “is how an English pig, crossed with a Chinese ended up at the Cape of Good Hope!”
Oupa Eben and Oom Timo started talking about politics. I lost interest and left to join my brothers and cousins who started walking to the stables to help milk the cows.
I miss Oupa Eben. I wish I asked oom Timo to tell me some of his stories. It is why I write to you kids. I want you to know my story. I have been riding transport from Cape Town to Johannesburg for some time now. Whenever I get to Johannesburg I stay at the same hotel. I hear the merrymaking at the bar and have no desire to join them. I much rather write to you! Even if you are still very young, one day you will read this and understand what I am talking about.
Oupa bought a few Kolbroek pigs from a trader in Cape Town and since that day, we slaughtered and cured a Kolbroek every year. It is not a bacon pig as the large White and the Berkshire. These pigs have straight backs and long loins for bacon. The Kolbroek is a lard pig, ideal for making hams, lard and, as you will see, not bad at all for bacon. Apart from this, they have the most delicious meat. One can taste the difference. While I enjoyed the most delicious hams on earth, at least I also knew where the Kolbroek came from!
So it happened that bacon and farming with pigs has been in my blood from a very early age. This is the month in which I turned 17 and still, I could not comprehend how these matters would consume the rest of my life. It started with my dad’s secret bacon recipe and the Kolbork pigs that Oupa Eben brought home one autumn afternoon in April!
(c) eben van tonder
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The account of the Colebrook is mainly from the account by John Gribble and Gabriel Athiros from Tales of Shipwrecks at the Cape of Storms. (Tales-of-Shipwrecks-at-the-Cape-of-Storms-Colebrook)
The theory about the slaves taking the pigs in is my own. Read In Search of the Origins of the Kolbroek and Kolbroek – Chinese, New Zealand, and English Connections
Information about Oom Timo was given to me by Leon Kok. His mail to me reads:
“There is quite a bit about Tim, not least his SAAF war years in Somaliland, Abyssinia and the Western Desert generally. For example, he was among several young Air Force chaps from the Union that destroyed 101 enemy planes, countless lorries and other transport within three months in the most trying conditions. He also accompanied Prime Minister (General) Jan Smuts on a reconnaissance flight in the Desert on one occasion. He escaped being taken a prisoner by Rommel and was involved in what came to be known as ‘The Graveyard of Italian Hopes’. His maverick return from the Desert to SA in late 1945 almost constitutes a book in itself.
Tim and I spent tens of hours over about 30 years chatting about his memories of the war. Yes, he was an air mechanic and indeed a lot more. He would like to have been a pilot but was deemed too short.
Tim didn’t serve in Korea. He became an auto-electrician in Johannesburg shortly after disembarking from the UDF and had his own auto-electrical business in Bethlehem OFS for several years. He then sold out and moved to Durban and joined an auto-electrical business there. He rode a motorbike until well into his seventies, which included a fairly serious accident. He survived it and carried on with business as usual.
Thelma’s maiden name was BERRIMAN and her folk, I suspect, immigrated from either Cornwall or England. Her father was an immigrant gold miner on the Reef. Her brother was also a miner, mainly at Crown Mines. Tim moved into Thelma’s mother (Hilda’s ) home there just before or just after they were married in the late 1940s. Later, they owned their own home in Parkview, Johannesburg. Hilda, when widowed, moved in with them until her death in Durban in approximately the 1980s. Tim and Thelma never had children.
Not sure whether you ever saw the TV Series ‘The Villagers’, produced in the 1970s by Gray Hofmeyr (he and I were at school together). That typified the Berriman home.”
“Oupa en Ouma het 4 kinders gehad,
- Johan (Leon se pa) gebore 02 Mei 1908. Hy was die enigste een van die kinders wat op Universiteit was – Wits, as ek reg onthou
- Gustaf. Gebore 12 Mei 1910 en oorlede 10 Julie 1910
- Oupa Eben. Gebore 18 Junie 1911
- Miempie (Bosman. Ma van Mariet en Ronnie en Jantjie) Gebore 23 November 1913
Timo is soos al die ander kinders op heilbron gebore waar my oupa jan ‘n sendeling was. Sy vrou was Engels en het NOOIT geleer om Afrikaans te praat nie. Sy het beweer Timo het eendag vir haar gelag toe sy probeer Afrikaans praat het en het toe nooit weer probeer nie
So ver my kennis strek was Timo ‘n vlug-ingeneur in die oorlog en het eers in Noor-Afrika en Later in Italië geveg.
Ek dink nie hy was ooit in Korea nie. Ek dink Leon sal vir jou meer inligting kan gee. Die foto wat ek aanheg kom uit een van jou ma se albums.
Mag die feestyd vir julle wonderlik wees. Vir die eerste keer sedert Joretha-hulle in Engeland is, gaan ons op Kersdag ALMAL om een Kersmaal aansit. Marinus bring vir cathy saam en ons het opdrag gekry dat ons op Kersdag GEEN Afrikaans mag praat nie, want ons moet Cathy laat tuis voel.
Ek wens so ek kan julle klomp neefs en Niggies met al julle aanhangsels bymekaar kry om een tafel.”
Four small pigs are Kunekune, courtesy of the Empire Kunekune Pig Association of New York (https://www.ekpa.org/) They are a close family of the Kolbroek.
Anvil Rock and Kogel Bay Map: John Gribble & Gabriel Athiros.