Every man needs a little madness, so he can cut the rope and be free, was the philosophy of that unforgettable film character, Zorba the Greek. In the 1860s, James Alexander Thwaits, Beaufort West’s eccentric and greatly acclaimed land surveyor, appeared to have the same approach to life. Tall, slim and imposing, this bearded Scot, with steel blue eyes, laid out the town and served on the Council from 1858 to 1867.
A wealthy, forceful man, James had a great passion for lawsuits. James often indulged this passion in the courts and was quite undaunted by the loss of a lawsuit. “Strategy and pursuit afford a thrill equal to victory,” he once said. James was a brilliant mathematician, with “an eye like no other for direction and distance,” it was said. He aspired to Parliament and was elected, but his career was short lived. A heckler at his first public meeting so annoyed James that he leaped from the platform and landed a mighty blow on his tormentor’s chin. This wild swing flattened the heckler, but it also dealt a knock-out blow to James’s political career.
James Thwaits was the source of much amusement throughout the the Karoo. He was once unable to find a house large enough to accommodate his family of 15. No trouble to James, he simply purchased a hotel and turned it into a private residence. He was at times absent-minded, which his family attributed to the fact that “he lived in a maze of figures.” James stunned Beaufort Westers one Sunday morning when he strode into church smartly swinging his walking stick, resplendent in an old nightgown and bedroom slippers, a top hat perched rakishly on his imposing head and with Bible and psalm book in an elegantly gloved hand.
The lovely Miss Bantjes eventually stole the heart of James Alexander Thwaits, and they were married in Beaufort West’s Dutch Reformed Church. She was a direct descendant of Jan Gerrit Bantjes, of Winschoten, a Hollander who came to South Africa as a junior officer with the Dutch East India Company, but who deserted in 1755 to become a Cape burgher. His heartbroken father never forgave him. He had hoped that Jan, an only child, would one day return to run the family business. In his anger the exceedingly wealthy old man made an astonishing will. He cut Jan out and left his fortune to any of his descendants who might be alive 100 years after his death. In 1894, a century after old man Bantjes’s death, a notice appeared in South African newspapers calling on any Bantjes who felt he had a rightful claim to the inheritance to identify himself. By that time the fortune was said to have grown to £10 000 000.
The news caused a considerable stir, and James was convinced the children of his first wife would qualify, so he cut them out of his will. He died shortly afterwards, leaving them destitute. By the 1930s South African members of the Bantjes family were still trying to claim the family millions.