Hans Dons de Lange

Hans Dons de Lange
Johannes de Lange , better known as Hans Dons de Lange (1799–1861) was a Voortrekker scout who accompanied Gerrit Maritz on the Great Trek . He also acted as a scout for Piet Retief and Andries Pretorius . He was appointed the official Resident of the Boers by the Zulu king, Panda , after the victory over Dingaan. He later settled at Ladysmith where he enjoyed great prestige. In 1860 he was charged with the murder of a black man and although the Crown’s main witness denied his own version, which he also provided during the pre-trial investigation, Hans Dons was still sentenced to death. He was hanged in 1861 in sad circumstances.

Biographical information

Johannes (also known as Hans, or better known as Hans Dons) was born on 8 December 1799 on the farm Noutoe (currently: Table Farm - there is now a guest house on the farm) in the Zuurveld of the Grahamstown district. He was the eldest son of Adriaan de Lange and Gezina Nel. He spent his youth on the eastern border of the Cape Colony where his father served as field cornet from 1809 to 1813. Around 1815 the loan farm Wilgerfontein on the banks of the Great Fish River was granted to his father, who in 1821 granted his right to the farm sold to his son-in-law (the later Voortrek:wker leader Lucas Johannes Meyer).

De Lange married Catharina Cornelia Lombard on 26 January 1817 (born 16 September 1798; died 19 October 1874). They had three sons and three daughters. The KwaZulu-Natal Archive keeps a portrait of the couple. Although De Lange joined his father in the field cornetship on the farms Klein Leeuwfontein and Brakfontein in the East Riet River area during the establishment of the Somerset district in 1825, these two farms were only registered in their name after their departure, respectively on 31 January 1836 and 1 August 1837.

De Lange was tall and stocky with a reddish complexion and a wild, fluffy beard - hence his nickname. Although his attitude generally commanded respect, it is also known that he was quite rude in his later life.

Relatives and neighbors

De Lange’s many hunting trips and his consequent exploration of the interior were strongly influenced by his relatives and neighbors on the East Riet River, as was his eventual decision to join him on the Great Trek .join. Among them were the influential commander of Albania (Cornelis Meyer, married to De Lange’s niece), as well as his brothers Lucas Johannes and Willem Petrus. There was also Cornelis Meyer’s son-in-law (Abraham Greyling) who was a stepson of Piet Retief, as well as Cornelis Meyer’s own son (Lucas Petrus) who was married to Deborah Jacoba Retief (Piet Retief’s daughter). Another stepson of Piet Retief was Piet Greyling. Piet Retief was well acquainted with the interior, and thanks to family and friendship ties enjoyed great prestige with De Lange and his influence directly contributed to De Lange’s later decision to exchange the Colony for the interior. He was also accompanied by his two brothers-in-law, the brothers Willem Abraham and Paul Dirk Bester. Furthermore, the later Voortrekker leaders were Louis Tregardt(Trichardt) and Louis Jacobus Nel his neighbors during his time on the East Riet River.

Hunting and exploration trips inland

It is not clear whether De Lange’s travels to the interior were primarily aimed at exploration, but the suspicion is that as an avid hunter he happened to become a master expert on geography and itineraries. This knowledge gave De Lange a thorough advantage in his later life in his role as Voortrekker leader and scout in the peasant commandos. Furthermore, his liaison with the local tribal chiefs in the interior would benefit him, both because he was already known to some during the trekkers’ wanderings, as well as because De Lange gained valuable knowledge of the cultures and therefore could more readily engage with the locals.

Even before the Great Trek, De Lange undertook at least three hunting trips inland. The first recorded was around March 1830 while a second group also went out to trade with the local community and hunt elephants. The interrelationships within the two groups suggest that the two groups either traveled together or were at least aware of each other: Both groups entered the area a few days apart north of present-day Mafikeng. The one group aimed at Thlaping (Maruping near Kuruman ) but arrived somewhat northeast of it. From JC Steyn’s research it appears that De Lange and his company traveled further northeast of Mafikeng and visited the Ndebele king Mzilikazi (Silkaats) in the Magaliesberg . From there, De Lange’s company traveled west-northwest to the Hurutshe area (a short distance north of present-day Great Marico ) and even as far as the Ngakwetse area (about 40 km north of present-day Gaborone in Botswana ) to to continue hunting. Although not everyone agrees with JC Steyn’s account of De Lange’s alleged visits to the local chiefs, it is a foregone conclusion that De Lange’s company were the first settlers to explore the area north of present-day Mafikeng and hunt there by 1830.

Whether the two groups were initially aware of each other or not, it is known that they joined north of Setlagole and embarked on their return journey together, thus returning home to East Riet River by October 1830.

Probably in 1832 De Lange undertook a further journey with WP Meyer to Natal (currently: KwaZulu-Natal Province), this time apparently aimed at exploration rather than hunting. In any case, during this expedition they also aimed to collect samples of the antelope species, bird species and insects from that area for the German naturologist Ludwig Krebs who lived near De Lange in the Baviaanskloof border area.

De Lange’s narratives of his 1830 hunting and exploration trips inland contributed to the formation of the idea of a trek inland and thus made an important contribution to the idea of the Great Trek. In fact, information disseminated by the members of these expeditions among the communities of Somerset, Albania and Uitenhage directly contributed to a list of signatures of persons who would be interested in a new life in the “uninhabited” northern area.

Reasons for de Lange’s move to the interior

The farmers on the eastern border were fed up with the dangerous way of life due to the frequent attacks and stock thefts by the Xhosas from across the river. Furthermore, the need for cheap farmland was also a consideration (remember that the concept of “uninhabited” area meant that a first settler could acquire the land virtually free of charge). The Xhosa workers also already had a better understanding of the value of cash and no longer wanted to work for the local farmers for mere means of subsistence. The decisive factor for the colonists, however, was the compulsory release of all slaves, and this was the last straw that convinced them to leave the British-controlled Cape Colony and establish a Boer Republic where they could govern themselves and enact their own laws.

De Lange, his father, and three of his brothers emigrated to Gcalekaland (now Kentani and Willowvalale in the Eastern Cape Province) in the first half of 1834. The fact that their previous two farms were only registered in their names later raises the suspicion that the De Langes provided the possibility to return to their old farms should things not work out, but this is not very clear. However, the prospect of an enormous piece of land that Hintsa would lease to them, the availability of water, rental labor, and (of course) game for hunting purposes was a major attraction. Further considerations were the relatively isolated location, the prospect of hunting without disturbance, and (as De Lange’s interest at the time was) the opportunity to explore the interior further.

De Lange and his son Adriaan joined Piet Uys’s reconnaissance commission to Natal in September 1834 in Gcalekaland. The Uys Commission benefited greatly from De Lange and WP Meyer’s already established knowledge of domestic travel routes. The Sixth Frontier War (1834–1835) broke out during the Commission’s visit to Natal and De Lange’s family had to flee in his absence from Gcalekaland to the safety of the area under the Tarka cornetship. After his return in March 1835, De Lange in all probability, like his brothers, participated in the Tarka commando patrols on the northeastern border area.

After the war, De Lange settled on the farm Hans Donsieskraal (now Hazelmere in the Sterkstroom district) on the banks of the Klaas Smits River at the foot of the Salpeterberg, close to the Stormberg and the Penhoek Pass . The farm was located in the vicinity of the Tarka where the later Voortrekker leaders JC Potgieter (also known as Koos Grootvoet) and Jan du Plessis came from. Louis Tregardt and Andries Hendrik Potgieter’s trekking companies also stopped in this area at the Bamboesberg and Tarka River in preparation for their trek north. One of the popular routes to the Trans-Orange ran through this farm.

De Lange joins the Voortrekkers

Around the middle of 1837, De Lange and his family left their farm on the Klaas Smits River and joined the voortrekkers that were already north of there. It is highly probable that he moved north through the Penhoek Pass, past the place where Jamestown stands today and through the Somerset Drift at Buffelsvlei (currently Aliwal North ). The earliest confirmed mention of De Lange’s name north of the Orange River is in reverend Erasmus Smit’s diary entry on October 4, 1837, when he wrote that De Lange’s trek stayed over at Retief’s army. Apparently it was near the Oliviershoek Pass in the Drakensberg .

De Lange often played an important role in Natal. He was a member of Retief’s team during his first visit to Dingaan and presumably also fought in the commando at Italeni in 1838 - this group later gained the nickname “Vlugkommando” due to the defeat they suffered with the loss of ten valuable men, including Piet Uys and Uys’ son, Dirkie. De Lange was also one of the six delegates who had to negotiate on behalf of the Voortrekkers about the possible incorporation of Natal. He played a leading role during the three-day Zulu attack on Veglaer from 13 to 15 August 1838. As master scout, he was most likely a member of the planners of the “Wenkommando”, and it was he who on 15 December 1838 reported to Commander-in-Chief AWJ Pretorius that the Zulu main force was on arrival and was already about 12 miles (20 km) from the camp. The next day, De Lange took part in the victory in the Battle of Blood River. He was also considered one of the heroes of the battle at the White Umfolozi River in which about 1000 Zulus and 11 Voortrekkers were killed on 27 December 1838. On New Year’s Day 1839 and the day after, De Lange was in command of about 140 men during which they took away about 4000 cattle and 1000 sheep from the Zulus. In October of the same year, he served under Judge Frans Roos as a member of the commission to investigate Mpande’s authority and the sincerity of his friendship with the Trekkers, during which Mpande was appointed the ruling prince of the emigrating Zulus.

Shortly afterwards, De Lange was released from his command due to a complaint that he had illegally taken cattle from the Zulus. However, the Trekkers’ confidence in him as leader is evident from the representations of three field cornets (and others) that De Lange was placed in command of the cattle commando. Although the Volksraad granted the request, De Lange chose not to join this commando.

Rebellion against British authority

in 1847 De Lange played a leading role in the Klip River farmers’ rebellion against British rule in Natal. In this he is especially remembered for his negotiations with Mpande and the so-called contract of sale which he and Andries Spies concluded with Mpande on 7 January 1847, whereby the Klip River area was “sold” to the Boers for 1000 Rijksdaalders.

Trial, sentence and execution

On 1 December 1860, not far from De Lange’s farm Valsfontein (near present -day Newcastle), a Zulu man died from a gunshot wound. De Lange is charged with murder, although no motive could be determined during the trial. The Crown’s main witness also denied during the trial his own version that he provided during the pre-trial investigation. Despite the poor quality of the evidence against him, the jury still found De Lange guilty of murder. The defense argued in mitigation that it was not premeditated murder and that De Lange should therefore be released, but the death sentence was still imposed on him.

Because no one in the area wanted to sell a rope to the executioner, he (the executioner) had a rope woven from grass. With the first suspension, the rope broke. The executioner, however, did not mind and just hung Hans Dons again.

There are still those today who believe that De Lange was either punished too severely or was completely innocent. There are also all sorts of apocryphal and totally untrue stories that are still circulating today: One of these is that the authorities sent a black constable to arrest De Lange and that De Lange regarded it as an insult, after which he shot the constable and fatally wounded him. This version is clearly devoid of all truth and was probably born by a flight of imagination. Many other anecdotes for which no historical grounds exist are also often added to the versions.

Hans Dons De Lange died on the gallows on 26 March 1861 at Ladysmith and his remains were buried at Watersmeet in the Ladysmith district where a memorial stone was erected for him.


De Lange was regarded during his life and later by his contemporaries from the Great Trek and in Natal as a zealous explorer, ardent hunter, brave soldier, and a military strategist of stature: this is evident from their memoirs as well as the manner in which he was recognized by leaders such as Retief and Pretorius. They saw him as one of the best Voortrekker leaders who could instill the greatest confidence in times of need, someone who in no way stood back to seize the weapon himself in defense of an army.

Source: Wikipedia: Hans Dons de Lange