The Bowker Children


11.  Col. James Henry  Bowker (1814-1899)



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Extract from 'The Bowker of Tharfield' by Ivan Mitford-Barberton:
The following memorandum of Col. James Henry Bowker was written at the request of the Malvern and Escombe local Administrative Board.  The had come across Col. Bowker's tomb in the bush and had written to the Historical Monuments Commission requesting that the grave be declared a national monument.
However, this could not be done as the Commission do not recognize graves as national monuments.
Miss Kellie Campbell prepared the memorandum for the Malvern and Escombe Administrative Board, and as it is very complete and well written we are reproducing it here.
Col. James Henry Bowker, J.P., F.L.S., F.R.G.S., F.S.S., was the ninth some of Miles and Anna Maria Bowker who came out to South Africa as 1820 Settlers in the good ship Weymouth.
Colonel Bowker was born in 1822, at Oliveburn, Eastern Province, and died at his home Malvern, Natal, on October 29th, 1900.
Each of Miles Bowker's nine sons had distinguished records as soldiers, agriculturists, diplomats, scholars and politicians-but chiefly as soldiers.  Miles Bowker, the father, was the first breeder of woolled sheep in the Eastern Province and some of the women members of his party brought their spinning jennies from England and the yarn was woven into blankets by one of the settlers.  Later the wool was sold in Grahamstown and made into felt hats.
Colonel Bowker, then a lad of 13, was at Tharfield during the Kaffir War of 1855 when they received an urgent warning that they must take refuge immediately at Bathurst Church.  Oxen were hurriedly inspanned.  The sons gathered the family silver and other valuables and tied them in an old tablecloth and buried them in the grounds of Tharfield.  Although several attempts were made later to locate the spot, the treasure has never been found.  The laarger at Bathurst was fiercely attacked and numerous attempts were made to fire the thatch on the church roof.  Miles Bowker and his sons fought courageously with other Settlers.  After the Native attacks were eventually beaten off the party took refuge in Grahamstown.
In 1846, J. Henry Bowker was at Thornkloof Farm where the Bowker laager was attacked by 300 Natives.  Henry Bowker fought in the War of the Axe 1846-7 and later in 1851-2 in the suppression of the Kat River Settlement Rebellion, where he took part in the  capture of Fort Armstrong, for which he earned a medal and clasp.
In 1855 he was appointed Inspector of the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police, which later developed into the famous Cape Mounted Rifles, C.M.R.  he succeeded Sir Walter Currie as Commandant in 1870.
In 1858, Col. Bowker served in the expedition against Kreli when he was driven across the Bashee.  He was associated with Sir Walter Currie in the settlement of the Fingoes in the Transkei territory and in the settlement of many boundary disputes.  Bowker commanded the expedition for the annexation of Tembuland and was the founder of Umtata-the headquarters of the Government Magistracy and later the Bunga-the Native Parliament.
Colonel Bowker served also in the expedition to Basutoland in 1868 and was appointed High Commissioner, or rather Agent for that territory when it was taken over by Sir Philip Wodehouse in the state of collapse and disorganisation which it had been brought to by the war with the Orange Free State.  Colonel Bowker also commanded the expedition when the Diamond Fields were annexed to the Cape Colony.  And in 1872 he planned the expedition which led to the suppression of the Langalebela Rebellion and the capture of that Chief.  As Commandant of the C.M.R. Col. Bowker submitted a valuable scheme of Colonial defence before the Colonial Defence Commission which struck at the root of the old Burgher law and he suggested a Colonial Defence Force.  As a Police Commandant he steadily avoided the introduction of military innovations.  Before the Defence Commission he denounce in no measure terms the political and intriguing missionaries who were doing their best to prevent the annexation of territories for the better government of Natives and in scathing terms he also did not spare the unscrupulous politicians.  He was appointed again Governor's Agent in 1877 and his work in Bastuoland was noteworthy.  With his strong personality and his keep sense of justice he was able  with only a few C.M.R to keep law and order in Basutoland.  In a quick decisive action he succeeded in crushing the rebellious force of Morosi without striking a blow.  In 1878 he retired with the honorary rank of colonel and settled in Malvern on a subdivision of the farm Roosefontein where he bought a small estate surrounded by old bush lands and inexhaustible paradise for botanists and naturalists.
To us in Natal Col. Bowker was more widely known as a collector of butterflies and a nature lover.  He had charge of the Natural History department of the Natal section of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in 1885.  Specimens of his butterflies are scattered in different museums in S. Kensington, Cape Town and Durban, etc.  He was part author of South Africa Butterflies with Trimen and collaborated and shared with his famous sister Mrs Mary Elizabeth Barber a keen interest in botanical publications and discovered of new species of insects.  Mrs Barber was a constant visitor to her brother's house and her death at Pietermaritzburg a year before his own was a great shock to him.  He was also a great bird lover and his friend Mr Harold Millar remembers well seeing him always walking in the street or to the Club with a butterfly net wound round his hat, the stick part of it being used as a walking stick.  A very charming account of Col. Bowker's love of wild animals is give by Miss E. Robarts whose father knew him well.  Col. Bowker had a turkey buzzard caught and tamed as a young chicken.  This bird was devoted to him and was intensely jealous of anybody who came near the Colonel.  He slept near him and used to follow him all over the place.  When the Colonel was lying desperately ill in bed the bird walked distractedly up and down and tried to pull the sheets with his beak in his efforst to make the Colonel get our of bed.  Finally the bird darted out of the room and returned triumphantly with an enormous frog and placed it near him.  When he found Colonel Bowker was not interested the bird came back with a lizard in his beak, and danced up and down at the side of his bed.  However, the lizard proved disappointing.  After as absence of a few hours the bird came back wild with excitement with a wriggling grass snake in his beak and was most distressed to see the native take it away.  Col. Bowker, relating the episode afterwards to Mr. Roberts said he had never been so touched in his life with the fidelity, thought and intelligence of the bird.
Colonel Bowker's tact and outstanding bravery was special trait in his character.  In fierce skirmish with some rebellious natives he outstripped his men by many yards and single handed he engaged four natives, shooting with his revolver in a hand he engaged four natives, shooting with his revolver in a hand t hand fight until his men succeeded in coming to his aid.  Col. Bowker died in October 1900 and was buried on his estate, as he expressly wished, under a big pine tree in his garden.  The ground was consecrated by Archdeacon Hammick.  A few years later his oldest friends and executors, David Kon and Ken Hathorn (Judge of the Supreme Court) put up a simple memorial to his memory.  His last will was never found and the estate was equally divided between his numerous nephews and nieces.
Colonel Bowker was widely loved and respected both by Europeans and Natives and his name was give to the railways station hear his home, which was later changed to Escombe as confusion arose from there being another Bowker Station in the Cape Colony.
Authorities consulter: Theal's Basutoland Records.  Sir Godfrey Lanton, The Basuto.  Theal's S. Africa.  Barber of the Peak, I. Mitford-Barberton.  Cory's S. Africa.  Arnot and Orpen, Land Question, Griqualand West.  Natal Mercury and Natal Advertiser files, Archives, etc.  Private letter from F. Bowker.

There passed away on Saturday at his residence, Malvern, at the ripe age of 74, Col. James Henry Bowker, J.P., an interesting personality and one who for many years had taken an active interest in public affairs in the Cape and Natal.  The gallant gentleman had been in indifferent health for some time and for the past eighteen months he had scarcely stirred beyond his estate at Malvern Hill-dying of heart weakness, surrounded by sorrowing relatives and friends.
The late Col. Bowker was a son of Mr Miles Bowker, head of a family who came out to the Cape in the Weymouth, a scholar and a good botanist.  His first residence was Oliveburn, near the coast, where James Henry Bowker was born in August 1822, being the youngest of a family of eleven.  Their names are all well known in the frontier district of the Cape Colony.  They all followed in their father's footsteps as farmers and agriculturalists, and took and active share in the numerous Kaffir engagements, giving their service to their country.  James Henry Bowker, the ninth son, served in the war of 1846-7, and in that of 1851-2, was at the suppression of the Kat River Rebellion and the capture of Fort Armstrong in 1846-7, for which he earned a medal and clasp.  In 1855 he was appointed inspector of the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police; he served in the Transkei expedition of 1858, and remained in that territory until the withdrawal in 1865.  He was associated with Sir Walter Currie, the commandant of police, in locating the Fingoes in the Transkei; he served in the expedition to Basutoland in 1868, and was appointed High Commissioner's agent for that territory.  He was engaged also in settling the boundaries and the formation of the different districts.  In 1870 he succeeded to the command of the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police, and commanded the expedition to the Diamond Fields for their annexation to the Cape Colony.  At the termination of this successful expedition he was appointed one of the three commissioners, and was for a time Chief Commissioner of the Diamond Fields.  He commanded the expedition for the annexation of Tembuland, carried it out, and also selected the site for the present tow of Umtata.  He was later appointed Governor's Agent in Basutoland,  and retired in1878 with the honorary rank of Colonel.  He was appointed one of the commissioners for Natal at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition and was on two separate occasions thanked by the Secretary of State for services rendered.  He was a J.P. for Durban County.
His connection with natal Began with his retirement on a pension from the Cape Service.  He came here 12 or 13 years ago, and took up his residence at Dilkoosh, Northdene.  He subsequently removed to the Malvern Hotel and afterwards purchased the Malvern Hill Estate, where  he built a charming residence, and stocked it with the collection of a lifetime.  In the Cape Colony he is known as a soldier; here his name is more closely associated with that of a student.  As a naturalist he was held in high repute, and perhaps in the pursuit of nature he has contributed more to current knowledge than any other man in the country, particularly in regard to butterflies of which he made an especial study, and was instrumental in discovering more than 40 new specimens formerly unknown to science.  He was a Fellow of the Linnean Society, Fellow of the Zoological Society, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and F.S.S. Gold Medallist.
While Commandant of the F.A.M. Police, the late Colonel submitted a scheme of Colonial Defence to the Government, which struck at the root of the long-cherished idea of Burgher Law.  He maintained that to anyone who had had experience of the wars in 1846, and 1851, it was obvious that some other plan than a Burgher Law was absolutely necessary.  While every effort was then being made by the Government to encourage volunteering, he argued that they could not expect  volunteers, as they stood, to leave their occupations in the towns or villages to take the field for any length of time, and he suggested a permanent addition to the armed police force, and that while on a war footing a deferred war tax on all owners or occupiers of fixed property should be raised by the Civil Commissioners of the districts not under martial law.  On this subject he gave evidence before the Colonial Defence Commission in September 1876 and defended the Border Mounted Police against the charges of deterioration that had been made against them.   He had very strong ideas on the training of young men.  He considered that in every Government aided school the pupils should be put through a course of drill instruction and that riding and shooting should be followed up in after life.  As Police Commandant, he steadily avoided the introductions of military innovations, but he sought to make the force useful and popular.  When asked in an official capacity to give his opinion on any suggestion by the Defence Dept., he did not scruple to stat plainly his vies.  he denounced in no measure language political and intriguing missionaries, who in the Cape were doing their best to prevent the annexation of territory and referred in scathing terms to unscrupulous politicians and scare-bitten officials.  His task at the head of the police was no bed of roses.  Collectively the farmers looked upon the natives as their bitterest enemies, while the natives again hated the white man; with the result that troubles were frequent, and the Colonists, getting tired of paying the heavy cost of the necessary punitive expeditions, were ready to fix the blame anywhere, and were not about saying the police were anxious to create wars and foster panics  in the hopes of getting distinction.  However Commandant Bowker managed well to hold the balance of good opinion, and to gain the respect of all classes.
After his retirement and settlement in Natal, the Cape government on one occasion communicated with him with a view to his proceeding to Basutoland as successor of Colonel Griffith the Governor's agent.  Of singularly calm and reliable judgement, Colonel Bowker had an intimate knowledge of the native character, combined with a reputation for well-regulated firmness.  He had charge of Basutoland when it was taken over by Sir Philip Wodehouse in the state of collapse and disorganisation to which it had been brought by the war with the Free State.  he became very much respected at that time, which respect was not found to be diminished when he returned in 1877, and then managed to get over some very troublesome business which threatened to bring about a rupture with Morosi.  He went down to the old chief's mountain with an army of loyals at his back, and succeeded in crushing the incipient rebellion with striking a single blow.
But it was as a naturalist and an observer of men and things that Colonel Bowker was known more intimately in natal.  There are few spots where the pursuit of the naturalist can be carried on with greater variety or pleasure than at and in the neighbourhood of Durban.  The surrounding woods afford an inexhaustible field for the collector, and it is his own fault if he fails to meet with objects of interest.  Every glade swarms with butterflies, while a step can hardly be taken without disturbing a gorgeous moth, which could put even Solomon in all his glory to the blush.  He had charge of the Natural History department of the Natal section of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition of 1886, and gathered together collections of butterflies and birds of unique interest.  The Durban Museum has many specimens which, but for his observation, would not lie within its walls, and even the South Kingston Museum is indebted to him for a collection of butterflies.  His residence has for many years been the Mecca of the naturalist and the hunter and he had one of the most valuable collection of horns in the country.  In his garden there was also everything of interest, very few specimens of plant life being absent.
The removal of such an eminently interesting character from our midst cannot but have its effect on the life of the colony and his death will be mourned by a large circle of friends and admirers.
The funeral, which took place yesterday afternoon was attended by a goodly number of neighbours and friends.  The Ven. Archdeacon Hammick conducted the service and consecrated the ground, the coffin being borne to the graveside by the deceased's four servants who had been his personal attendants for the past 13 years.

(The Natal Mercury,
Monday, 29th October 1900.)


An ardent naturalist, especially in the department of bonany
and Entomology.
At one time (1868-1871) H.E. The High Commissioners' Agent in
And thereafter for many years Commandant of the Frontier Armed

and Mounted Police.
Cape Colony.
Born in Lower Albany, Cape Colony, 1822.
Died Malvern, Natal. October 22nd 1900.

Erected by his Executors, 1904.

Escombe Railway Station, Natal, South Africa

First named after Col. James Henry Bowker, it was called Bowker Station, but due to confusing with another station in the Cape Colony the name was changed to Escombe Station.


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Copyright Margaret C Manning 2007

 Last updated 16 September 2007
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