Smouse is a term that was often used to describe an itinerant Jewish peddler in
South Africa. It seemed to me to be used almost as a badge of pride for some
early settlers who started their livelihood in South Africa providing goods for
the farmers and shopkeepers in the country areas.
The Jewish digital archive for Graaff Reinet says:
The Mosenthals set up trading stores, promoted the mohair industry and supported
the Jewish peddlers ("smouse"). A monument to these "smouse" was erected in
Graaff-Reinet in 1989.
South African Jewish Museum Cape Town, website says: 'Known as smouse (or
peddlers) they fanned out across the country into the small rural communities.
They travelled in wagons with goods for sale and many settled in these tiny towns
and villages that once had thriving Jewish communities (although this is no
longer the case).
I also have included a paragraph below >from THE JEWISH PEDDLERS OF NAMAQUALAND
mentioning smouse and how they were welcomed by the Dutch farmers.
However, I was concerned to hear >from one of our Kimberley ex-pats, that being
called a 'smouse' was not a complementary word - and that many Jewish traders did
not appreciate this term. He said: People use the word smuk or smow in Yiddish
but these are derogatory words. There was nothing complimentary by calling a
Jewish trader a smouse. He said, 'The Afrikaners used this term because they
also believed that the Jews exploited them by over charging for their goods. My
parents who spoke only Yiddish at home told me never to use this word as it was
insulting. The Afrikaners many of whom were anti-Semitic during the war years
enjoyed using this derogatory word to label many of the Jewish businesses.'
I just wonder if anyone has any views on the term 'Smouse' and how it was used,
and whether it was mainly a derogatory or neutral term.
I look forward to hearing >from you.
Geraldine Auerbach MBE
T: 020 8907 1905 M: 07971 818 262
THE JEWISH PEDDLERS OF NAMAQUALAND
Peddlers appeared in South Africa in the late nineteenth century, and
the name smous or bondeldraers (men carrying bundles) were given to
them by the Dutch. These itinerant travellers arrived on foot >from the
Cape carrying items for trading on their backs. They made their way
from farm to farm selling jewellery, sewing necessities such asneedles, buttons, thread, thimbles, pins and an assortment of
material, as well as herbs, medicines and beauty products. They were
welcomed on the farms, given food and accommodation and sometimes had
their washing done for them. Travelling over the rough terrain of
Namaqualand was dangerous, especially while descending the steep Kammiesberg.
This community of Jewish traders in Namaqualand came >from the shtetls
of Eastern Europe and at its peak in the 1930s there were about 200
peddlers, and the numbers subsequently declined until the peddlers
became a part of the formal economy of the region. Fleeing repression,
the peddlers started off supplying necessities -- and later luxuries --
to isolated farmers. Many years later they became proprietors of
country hotels, spotting the need to provide hospitality to travellers
in these inhospitable parts. Having been attracted to the region by
the development of copper mining in the 1850s and the discovery of
diamonds in the 1920s, these Jews became the area's middlemen --
traders, shopkeepers and hoteliers -- rather than being involved in the mining
In the city of Graaf-Reinet, there was a plaque on the main street
honoring the "smouse," the itinerant merchant who peddled wares >from town to town.
The smouse would travel with a cart filled with supplies that often
served as a lifeline for these tiny outposts in the wilderness. Yet
every city I stop in now, a whole litany of places like Grahamstown,
Ladybrand, Kroonstad, Colesburg, Ficksburg and Bethlehem (yes, same
name), there are communities that have dried up, and synagogues that
are now closed. Some synagogues have been bought out by private
business like the one in Colesburg that is now an ABSA bank office.
Some crossed the countryside as smouse (itinerant peddlers), where
devout Boer farmers who regarded them as the "people of the book"
received them warmly. These entrepreneurs were significant agents of
the commercial revolution that transformed the South African
countryside in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They acted
as intermediates between the dorps and the producers, both black and
white. Jewish storekeepers and smouse bought wool, maize and skins
from Boer landowners and black sharecroppers and then sent them tourban markets and wholesalers. In turn the Jewish country stores met
the growing needs of these emergent rural consumers.