Little Germany in South Africa

2009-07-31 00:00

EARLIER this year, Eckhard von Fintel was presented with an Award of Excellence from the Genealogical Society of South Africa in recognition of his contribution to the Pietermaritzburg branch of the Genealogical Society, as well as his generous assistance to researchers in the field. At the same time, the Natal Inland Family History Society, based in Pietermaritzburg, also presented him with an Award of Excellence for similar reasons.

Von Fintel’s main area of research is the early German settlers in Natal and their descendants. “There is a small community of Germans in KwaZulu-Natal and they are all interested in who’s related to whom,” says von Fintel. “These communities originally settled in groups mainly built around farming. Their whole life revolved around the local church.”

Von Fintel himself comes from a small farming community centred on the small village of Commondale, near Piet Retief. He spent his childhood there before attending German-based private high schools, first at New Hanover and then at Hermannsburg. After schooling at Hermannsburg School, he went to Durban to work for Volkskas. Then he worked for H. F. C. Küsel and Sons in Harburg in the New Hanover district for a number of years before he came to Pietermaritzburg to join Trust Bank, which he left to take up a post with the municipality. He retired in 2004 as a principal accountant after 30 years of public service.

From his teenage days, Von Fintel was closely involved with the church and when he came to Pietermaritzburg was elected a church elder of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pine Street (which later relocated to Hayfields). He edited the church newsletter for many years, which also benefited from his historical research. More recently, he was also involved (mainly doing historical research) in the restoration of the mill at Reichenau Mission outside Underberg.

Well known for his talks, many articles and pamphlets, Von Fintel has recently published two family histories — of the Küsel and Filter families — both around 500 pages long, they are copiously illustrated and scrupulously researched. “The books had teams working on them,” he says. “I collated their information and put it into book form. Working like that you could do it in a relatively short time.” A longer “work in progress” is his study Fort Napier — The Internment Camp for Germans during World War 1.

Working in an office surrounded by a well-stocked reference library. Von Fintel’s computer database contains 65 000 names and 10 000 images. How did it all begin? “My main point of entry came after my mother died in 1980,” he recalls. “We had to find something to keep my father busy. So we told him to put together a family tree. He battled along at it and I offered to help — and I’m still helping, seven years after he died in 2002.” His book on the Von Fintel family was published in 1994.

The first Von Fintel came to Natal in 1869. “Hans Peter von Fintel came from Lower Saxony, from a little village called Horst, close to a village called Fintel, where the family originally came from.”

In Germany, the village Fintel family can be traced back to the 10th century. “There is written proof of its existence back in 1105 in Lower Saxony,” says Von Fintel. “The evidence for them in the Southern Tyrol in northern Italy is first mentioned in about 990.”

The two groups appear to be linked. “The story goes that two brothers moved south from Courland in Latvia and settled in Lower Saxony,” says Von Fintel. “However, one of them didn’t like the area and moved eastwards and was never heard of again. Now the Southern Tyrol Fintels trace their origins back to a Fintel that came over the Alps with the Roman soldiers. It’s assumed that was the brother.”

Fast forward to 1869 and another tale of two Von Fintel brothers, Hans Peter and Johann Peter. They and their wives both emigrated from Lower Saxony and it was because of Hans that they headed for Natal. “He didn’t come as part of an immigration scheme but for his health,” says Von Fintel. “He had a lung problem and his doctor recommended he move to a warmer climate. They had a close connection with the Hermannsburg Missionary Society and came out on the missionary society’s ship, Candace.”

Hans von Fintel worked on his wife’s cousins’ farm in the New Hanover area. However, Johann returned to Germany — his wife didn’t like it here — although their connection with Natal was not entirely severed. A son would later return as a missionary.

Asked if there is a distinctively South African version of the German language, Von Fintel laughs: “Springbok German. It’s mainly found around Paulpietersburg and Piet Retief where there is a strong Afrikaans influence. Then there is Natal German found in the KZN midlands.”

How long the Germans themselves will remain a distinct group in South Africa is a moot point. As Von Fintel says, the farm-based communities in KwaZulu-Natal are beginning to break up. “Younger people move to the cities, marry into other cultural groups and are no longer interested in farming.”

Whatever the future holds for the South African German communities, the record of their past is safe in the hands of Von Fintel.

IF you would like to find out more about how to trace your family history you can contact John Deare, chairperson of the Family History Society and PMB branch of GSSA  at 033 344 2170 or Eckhard von Fintel at 033 347 3507.

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