Caramba! We’re actually Portuguese in name!

Have been confined to bed for a good bit of this past week with an unpleasant  viral complication from a previous bout of flu. However the respite did give me an opportunity to dig into the growing pile of books on my bedside table. Of particular interest a book published in 1974 on “The Naming of Johannesburg” by Niel Hirschson. 

Hirschson provides a plausible proposition debunking the generally accepted origin of “Johannesburg” ie that Johannesburg was named after Johann Friedrich Rissik and Christiaan Johannes Joubert. He does so in great detail interweaving the Jameson Raid, the Delagoa Railway, the relationships between the Boers and Britain and Portugal and some philosophical thoughts on issues such as ‘victory and defeat’. 

Hirschson points out that three basic documents in the form of letters appear to offer a conclusive explanation of the original naming of Johannesburg as above. Two were written by government officials in 1896 (but only discovered in 1971) – one from T.J.Krogh, assistant to the State Secretary, and the other from Rissik himself, then surveyor General of the Transvaal. The third was written in 1926 in a private capacity by Gideon von Wielligh, who was the Surveyor-General before Rissik, at the time Johannesburg was founded.
“Since all three agree that Johannesburg was named after Johann Rissik and Christiaan Johannes Joubert, the matter seems at first, settled. However, this is a superficial and deceptive impression, for two curious though unobtrusive features in these documents put the naming in quite a different light. First, they were written shortly after the Jameson Raid, more than nine years after the founding of Johannesburg and, second, they all omit to mention the date on which the actual naming took place.” 

There are of course a number of other theories regarding the naming which Hirschson labels as  all equally incorrect. That the city was named after President Kruger – “Legend has it …..”that after the two-man Rissik-Joubert commission had presented its report, Kruger said: “ And what shall we call this place?” To which Rissik is said to have answered “We thought of naming it after you, Mr. President. Since your name is Johannes, we suggest Johannesburg.” ….according to the legend, Kruger answered as follows: “ Well, as we are all Johanneses, we’ll name it as you say.”

James and Ethell Gray , “Payable Gold” concluded that Johannesburg was named after Veldkornet Johannes Petrus Meyer whose “….duties were carried out so efficiently over such an extensive area which called for many long days to be spent in the saddle that it is possible only to come to one conclusion, that the naming of Johannesburg after Johannes Meyer was a recognition of his willing, able and ungrudging service.” 

Anna H. Smith “Street names in Johannesburg” comments “Why the name Randjeslaagte was not retained for the village is unknown….no document of 1886 has yet been found concerning the establishment of Johannesburg in which the reasons for the name are given…. that time was under the impression that Johannesburg had been named after Johannes Meyer.”   
So what does Hirschson’s extensive research reveal? - (the book is in excess of a hundred pages!)  Impossible to convey all the nuances and interwoven plots and intrigues, but here are some fascinating gems:

No official proclamation of the source of the name ‘Johannesburg’ has ever been made.
Johann Rissik, a Dutch immigrant and Christiaan Johannes Joubert, a Boer, were appointed on 3 August 1886 by the Executive Council of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) to inspect the farms in the Witwatersrand area “to arrange with farm owners for prospecting, and to find an acceptable area for establishing a town” 

Johann Rissik was in fact a relatively young (29) and junior official, a First Clerk under Surveyor General Gideon von Wielligh whilst Joubert was the Vice President of the ZAR. However, as von Wieligh was away at the time, Rissik was temporarily in charge of the Surveyor General’s office. He had only recently, received a licence to practice as a surveyor. They reported back to President Kruger on the 12th August with a “comprehensive and detailed document” in which the name Johannesburg never appeared! 

The two-man commission had recommended that some nine farms be proclaimed as “public diggings” and the official announcement to this effect appeared in the Staats-Courant of 8 September but, again, the name Johannesburg did not appear. The triangular area, to later be known as Johannesburg, was then still called Randjeslaagte. This is the name used throughout the commission’s report and some subsequent maps of the time.

The first time the name appeared in official correspondence was in a letter dated 3 October 1886 by the Mining Commissioner, Carl von Brandis to the State Secretary, W.E.Bok, asking for confirmation of the name Johannesburg, given to him by the Surveyor-General. He received the confirmation but with absolutely no explanation regarding its source. Hirschon points out that it is clear that the name did not come about by popular use or the through normal channels – “it seems hardly accidental that the origin of the name is so obscure, for it was introduced in an obscure fashion.” 

 In 1887, a Charles Cowen recorded in a booklet that Johannesburg had received its name “from Mr.John Rissik”  no mention was made of Joubert who was a far more illustrious figure than Rissik – Vice President of the ZAR, a Boer and later to be Minister of Mines!
Some five years after the founding of the city, in 1891, The Press Weekly Edition, a local newspaper, reported that “it may be news to some  that the city is named after Rissik and Joubert.” Clearly, unlike the establishment of most cities there was confusion regarding the source of the naming of ours and this was the first recorded time that Joubert’s name was linked to that of Rissik.  

The earlier confusion, Hirschson suggests, was deliberate.
Hirschson points out that it would be very unlikely for a town to be named after such a person as Rissik, a young Dutch immigrant, not a Boer,  – town and city naming was usually drawn from heroic explorers and pioneers, soldiers and traders and almost always by their surname. When a first name was used it usually was that of a woman’s or from the ranks of Royalty - anyway Rissik was a Johann and not a Johannes! Paul Kruger had a great interest in the naming of places and would not have treated the naming of the new mining town lightly.

In a letter to a British newspaper, a Sir Ralph Williams, the British Representative in the Transvaal, wrote “ I….asked the question on my arrival (1887) and was informed on the best authority that it was so named after Mr Johann Rissik…..Kruger, more perhaps in humour than anything else….declared that the town should bear the name of its surveyor” Kruger is described as an astute politician with a puckish sense of humour and a love for confusing and surprising friends and Hirschson suggests that his comment, described as “more perhaps in humour than anything else” was made deliberately as a ‘leak’ serving a calculated purpose, to put the British off the scent of the real source of the name.   
Hirschson’s thesis is that the confusion on the source of the naming between 1886 and 1891 was deliberately created by Kruger for shrewd political reasons that will become clearer from the following.

 Joburg’s ascendancy coincided with Portuguese plans to gain a transcontinental territory from their western colony of Angola to Delagoa Bay (now Maputo) on the east. This suited Kruger as he needed support from other Imperial powers in Africa such as Germany and Portugal to counterbalance growing British influence. Portugal, in fact, had a number of ‘colonizing’ forces moving west to east and east to west – a Portuguese held border to the north of his Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek would have been vastly preferable to British held territories of which Rhodesia became one.

Thus. Paul Kruger enjoyed a close relationship with Portugal. So close in fact that in 1884, two years before the presumed naming of Johannesburg, he travelled to Lisbon and was invested with the Portuguese Grand Cross of the Order of the Immaculate Conception (the King Johannes Knightly Order of the Immaculate Conception) – a high and rare order indeed. It was first proclaimed a military order in 1818 and was intimately associated with the Johannine kings of Portugal. King João (Johannes) VI actually established the order in gratitude for the monarchy’s return from exile at the beginning of the 19th century. 

In 1895 one of Kruger’s stated “fondest wishes” was realised -  the creation of the Pretoria-DelagoaBay rail link – a link he himself used to leave the continent for Europe during the Anglo-Boer War to gain support for the beleagured Boers. The Portuguese had again honoured him by naming one of the Pretoria/Delagoa locomotives after him.  

Kruger was no lover of the British and was heavily constrained by the London Convention of 1884 and particularly Article 4 – “The South African Republic will conclude no treaty or engagement with any State or nation other than the Orange Free State, nor with any native tribe to the eastward or westward of the Republic, until the same has been approved by Her Majesty the Queen”. Hirschson points out that whilst the clause places no restriction on northern movement Kruger did not want to take advantage of this as, had he moved north, he would have been in conflict with Portugal which in turn would have weakened his relationship with Britain even further.

In the meantime there was great opposition from Britain to Portugal’s desire to create their transcontinental territory and in 1890 Britain forced Portugal to abandon this approach. The resultant Portuguese-British treaty was signed in 1891 and it was shortly thereafter that the Press Weekly Edition announced that Johannesburg was named after the two members of a government ad-hoc commission.    

Hirschson’s theory is clear – Kruger badly wished to return the honour of his Portuguese 1884 knighthood through the use of the names of a number of Portuguese kings, Johannes. He was restrained from doing so in 1886 due to his treaty with Britain which would have seen such a move as siding with Portugal during a period when they were at loggerheads with the Portuguese over their colonial expansion plans. 

When Portugal lost that argument, the basis of the naming of Johannesburg on Rissik and Joubert was immediately ‘leaked’ although it was five years after the naming of the city, it would certainly not have been wise to even suggest that the city might have had a different naming source.  R.H.Wilde in “Joseph Chamberlain & The South African Republic 1895-1899 had written “…if the Republic (ZAR) could be caught in a violation of the convention, a concrete British grievance could be advertised and strong countermeasures taken. Kruger could have thus be made to feel British displeasure.”

In fact, Hirschson records, in 1896, in 1896, “in 1896, following the Jameson Raid and in the course of Chamberlain’s stepped up activities against the Boer Republic, and the attempt to accuse the ZAR of contravening the London Convention by establishing unapproved foreign relations two curious inquiries, perhaps British inspired, were received by the ZAR as to the origin of the name Johannesburg, for the British probably suspected its Portuguese origin. 

Theses letters answered respectively by T.J.Krogh and indirectly by Johannn Rissik, within months of each other, attempted to allay suspicion, declaring with a finality that could not be questioned at this stage, that Johannesburg was named after Rissil and Joubert. Reasonably enough, they omitted to mention any dates in order to avoid possible complications…..“its true derivation, the expression of a long-standing Boer orientation towards the Portuguese, was never publicly revealed”.

A last little twist provided by Hirschson relates to the abbreviation Jo’burg.
One of the many coins in circulation in the Cape Colony at the beginning if the 19th century, and which would have naturally made its way northwards, was a gold coin named the ‘Johannes’ which honoured certain Portuguese monarchs of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was first introduced by John V (1706-1750) and achieved primary importance as a colonial currency.  It was seen as a protection against inflation and as a “compact and easily portable supply of reliable wealth”. 

At the time of King John VI, who bestowed the Order of Immaculate Conception on Paul Kruger, the King’s portrait appeared on the Johannes coin. Its nickname was a a Jo’ and led to what Hirschson describes as “that almost derisive nickname, popularised by aliens (the British) ” – Jo’burg!     

Hirschson concludes “British popular suspicions, however, were perhaps not entirely allayed, and the nickname Jo’burg, derived from the gold Johannes or Jo’, came into common use among aliens at first.

In short, Johannesburg’s naming has three phases. First the honouring of Portugal, then the ascription in a leak to Rissik, and finally the naming after Rissik and Joubert without reference to dates.”

So there we have it, or do we? Adeus (that’s Portuguese for ciao!), neil
Walking/Bus Tours by the Parktown & Westcliff Heritage Trust:- costs below are members/non-members. Bookings at Computicket 011-340 8000 or  any queries phone 011-482 3349  mornings only

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