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Caithness Field Club

Andrew Geddes Bain - Road Engineer, Explorer and Geologist
R E MacCallum

Peter Becker's account of the life of Msilikazi (1790-1868), so-called Black Napoleon and founder of the Matabele nation, several times mentions the exploits of a Scots trader Andrew Geddes Bain. The name has a northern ring to it and this led to an enquiry whether he was a native of Caithness. The Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa shows that this was indeed the case; it also shows that he was a man of courage and enterprise, a man of great practical skill, and perhaps even a man of genius.

Born in Thurso, where he was baptised on the 11th June 1797, Bain moved to Edinburgh as a young boy and there learned to be a saddler. In 1816 he emigrated to South Africa and two years later, in Capetown, married Maria Elizabeth von Backstrom. The Bains moved to Graaff-Reinet, Cape Province, in 1822 where Andrew started a saddlery. In 1825, perhaps looking for a fresh supply of hides, he went on a trading expedition to Kuruman, the mission outpost on the edge of the Kalahari and home of Dr. Robert Moffat (father-in-law of David Livingstone). The following year, accompanied by John Burnet Biddulph he reached Dithubaruba in Bechuanaland (now the Republic of Botswana), a distance of more than 500 miles; they wore the first recorded Europeans to penetrate so far north and to re-turn in safety. In 1829 Bain and Biddulph trekked more than 300 miles to the north east to the neighbourhood of present-day Kokstad, but natives fleeing before Dingaan's Zulus forced them to return. In 1834 he revisited Bechuanaland but lost his wagons and a valuable collection of zoological specimens when his camp was attacked by Matabele. He then took part in the Sixth Frontier War, serving as a captain in the Beamfort Levies. In addition to his trading and military activities, Bain was a writer of popular verses and was author of a Life among the Hottentots (1838).

Bain is said to have been a born engineer and, although quite untrained, received a. special meddal (1832) for having 'gratuitously superintended the construction of Van Reinfeld's Pass, Graaf-Reinet'. He was then attached (1836) to the Royal Engineers and constructed a number of military roads, including the Queen's Road from Grahamstown to Fort Beaufort. Appointed Inspector by the Cape Roads Board in 1845 he built a number of roads and passes, receiving front the grateful colonists table silver and a candelabrum worth 250. He returned to the Eastern Province in 1854 where he built many roads, including the Katberg Pass (5,500 ft. ) near Fort Beaufort.

During this busy period Bain began his pioneer study of South African geology, obtaining international recognition in 1844 when he sent to the London Geological Society fossils previously unknown, including DICYNODON BAINII, and a geological description of the country from the Fish River mouth to Colesberg. He received a reward of 200 for his researches (1845) from the British government. In 1851 he sent to Longon Geological Society his Geology of South Africa, illustrated by a large coloured map, and this brought him great praise and world recognition as a geologist. Sir Roderick Murchison and Sir Henry de la Beche recommended his appointment as Cape Geological Surveyor (1852), but no colonial funds were then available for the purpose. In 1854 he visited the copper mines in Namaqualand, on the border of South West Africa, on behalf of the government. He went to England in 1864 on sick leave and died on his return to Capetown.

The Standard Encyclopaedia says that in his youth Bain's forthright, humorous criticisms made him several enemies, but in his maturity his love of adventure, modesty in success, and his robust gaiety and humanity won the affectionate regard of his fellow colonists. His Journals were published, by the Van Riebeeck Society in 1949, and his work was recognised by the erection of a memorial on top of the Ecca Pass on the Queen's Road in September 1964, and a memorial placque on the summit of Bain's Kloof Pass (1960 ft.) between Wellington and Worcester, Cape Province, in September, 1953.

Andrew Geddes Bain had three sons and seven daughters. His son Thomas (1830-1893) served as his assistant in the construction of Michell's Pass and, after passing first in the Government examinations in 1854, he was appointed road inspector.

Becker, P. "Path of Blood", Panther Books 1966

Published in October 1980 Bulletin