The Orange River – Named by an Explorer of Note - News - Gondwana Collection

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The Orange River – Named by an Explorer of Note

Avatar of inke inke - 18. August 2017 - Discover Namibia

Thanks to the pontoon ferry at Sendelingsdrift travellers do not get their feet wet when crossing the Orange River these days. Photo: Nicolette Jacobie

The Great River, Gariep, Orange... The various names by which the longest river in southern Africa (2160 km) is known embody its impression on the eye of the beholder and also testify to South Africa’s eventful history. From its source in the Drakensberg Mountains in Lesotho it first flows through South Africa as a live-sustaining green ribbon and then becomes the border between Namibia and South Africa until it reaches the Atlantic Ocean.

The probably first European who crossed the Orange River in 1760, Jakobus Coetsé Jansz, reverently called it the Great River (Grootrivier). In the Nama language it was known as Gariep. Towards the end of the 18th century it was named Orange River by Dutch explorer Robert Jacob Gordon. Here is his story... 

Gordon had Scottish blood running through his veins, but he was born in the Netherlands and devoted to the Royal House of Orange. He became a cadet in the Dutch army at an early age and in 1759, when he was 17 years old, started to study in the humanities at the University of Harderwijk. It soon became clear that Gordon was highly intelligent and interested in a wide variety of subjects. Like his father he was in the Scots Brigade in the service of the Netherlands, but he found life at the garrison boring. He was a man of great physical and intellectual energy and had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.  

In 1773 he travelled to the Cape Colony, then under Dutch rule, for the first time. From the tip of Africa he moved north to explore the interior. Among others he caught springbok which he sent to the Netherlands as a gift for William V, Prince of Orange, who kept a menagerie. Reportedly Gordon learnt the Nama language during his first visit. After his return home he found it difficult to settle down. He was fascinated by the Cape and he wanted to explore Africa. Gordon applied for a post with the Dutch East India Company at the Cape. He was 34 years old when he arrived in Cape Town in June 1777 and became a captain at the garrison. 

Robert Gordon was a well-educated man. He had studied in the humanities but was also a naturalist, cartographer, meteorologist, musician and a gifted artist. Apart from Dutch, English and French he spoke Gaelic and Nama. Later he learnt Zulu as well. Gordon was a pleasant travel companion, sociable and entertaining. 

It wasn’t long before Gordon gave in to his urge to explore. In October 1777 he set out to the north again. One of his aims was, without doubt, to explore the upper reaches of the Great River (Gariep) since its lower reaches had already been crossed by a European. Thus Gordon and his travel companions followed a more easterly course and on 23 December 1777 came to a broad river south of Bethulie. They moved further upstream along the southern bank of the river until they reached a tributary from the north, later named the Caledon River. The river was in flood, however, and therefore they were unable to cross it. 

This was one of the occasions on which Gordon proved his loyalty to the House of Orange, which was of considerable importance for his career even though it ultimately cost his honour and his life. He named the main river, from the confluence of the two rivers, Orange - in honour of the royal Dutch House of Orange. He chose the name ‘Prince William the 5th’ for the upper reaches of the Great River and named the tributary (later the Caledon) ‘Princess Wilhelmine’, after the prince’s spouse. Initially he kept his choice of names to himself, however, because he was not certain that he had indeed found the upper reaches of the Gariep, the Great River. He decided that he would make sure on his next expedition. Apart from exploring the upper reaches of the Great River, Gordon and his travel companions made another discovery: at Sneeuberg Mountain they found the first San paintings. 

Between his two expeditions Gordon accompanied the Cape’s governor, Joachim van Plettenberg, on a journey to the northeast of the colony. In October 1778 van Plettenberg set up a boundary post at the Zeekoe River to mark the northern border of the Cape. He probably was not aware that just 45 km further north he would reach the Gariep, which formed a natural border. Gordon knew it, but for the time being he kept this knowledge to himself. Apparently he expected that the governor would name the Gariep after himself, in which case this honour would be lost for the House of Orange. It is likely that Gordon’s assumption was right because Van Plettenberg promptly named the Zeekoe River after himself. The name did not remain in use for long, however.  

In 1779 Gordon set out on his next expedition. This time he wanted to find the Gariep’s mouth at the Atlantic coast. In Kamiesberg in the northern reaches of the Cape he met Swedish explorer Hendrik Jacob Wikar who was on his way back to Cape Town after following the Gariep on two journeys. Wikar had travelled upstream from Goodhouse until about 80 km west of Prieska. The two men exchanged valuable information. Then Gordon continued on his way west, to the Atlantic coast and from there further to the north. On the beach in the vicinity of what is Port Nolloth today he discovered fossilized sea shells and thus was the first one to find fossils in South Africa. But he missed out on another, far more sensational discovery: diamonds, hidden between sand and rocks, escaped his keen eye. Had he discovered diamonds then, they would have brought tremendous wealth to William V, Prince of Orange, whom he so revered.

Gordon’s expedition reached the Gariep mouth on 17 August 1779. In the evening they launched a boat, hoisted the Dutch flag and drank a toast to the Netherlands, the Prince of Orange and the Dutch East India Company. Then Gordon formally named the river the Orange River. After his meeting with Wikar he felt quite certain that this was the same river which he had explored further east in December 1777. But his hopes that this river would be navigable were dashed. The river mouth was not accessible from the sea, not even with a small boat. 

Gordon’s expedition returned to Kamiesberg and split. Part of the group headed home, while Gordon himself followed Wikar’s footsteps upstream. He wanted to ascertain that he had really found the ‘right’ river mouth. On this journey Gordon drew a remarkably accurate map of the area. 

Robert Jacob Gordon was appointed commander of the Cape garrison in 1780. He undertook several other journeys to the north, all of which were of great value. In 1795 Britain started another attempt (this time successful) to take possession of the Cape colony. Prince William V had in the meantime been removed as the last Stadholder of the Netherlands and fled to Britain. The admiral of the attacking British fleet delivered a letter in which the prince asked the administration of the Cape to surrender the fort and the Dutch ports to the British troops. Gordon felt torn between his loyalties. He was unable to put together any effective resistance against the occupying British forces; his men accused him of treason. Gordon committed suicide. Thus ended the life of a remarkable personality in the history of South Africa.

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