Many people imagine that Afrikaners are the ‘pure’ descendants of Dutch or Huguenot settlers of the 17th and 18th century. According to the historian Hermann Giliomee, 'a sense of being Afrikaners rather than being Dutch or French or German had crystallised by the end of the 18th century'. But relationships across language (and, less frequently, ethnic) lines were not uncommon. Die groot Afrikaanse familienaamboek says that most descendants of John Higgo, a Cornishman who went to South Africa in the mid 19th century, are Afrikaans speaking. But one them is my father, Robert Higgo, an English-speaker from Cape Town.

William Higgo (Harry Stopes’s great-great-great-grandfather) and family

William Higgo (Harry Stopes’s great-great-great-grandfather) and family

One of his great-grandfathers was Dutch. Jan Van Minnen went to university in Utretcht and in the 1880s worked as a secretary for Paul Kruger, the president of the Transvaal Republic. He married an Afrikaans woman, Anna Smit, and after the Anglo-Boer War worked in the parliament in Cape Town as a translator. The rest of my father’s ancestors came from Britain. Donald MacDonald, another great-grandfather, was born in Argyllshire in 1851. One of his brothers went to London, another to Chicago, a third to Buenos Aires. Donald went to Cape Town, where he worked on the city tramways. The chief engineer was Arthur Keen, born in Bethnal Green in 1863. His son, who worked for Texaco, married Donald's daughter; their daughter is my grandmother.

John Higgo, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, was in his fifties when he left Cornwall with four daughters and six sons. The family arrived in Cape Town on 13 February 1850, on the Glentanner. Six days later an advert was posted by the immigration agent Joseph Rivers in the Cape Government Gazette, listing John and four of his children as ‘immigrants... desirous of engagements’ as labourers or domestic servants. John found work as a gardener, and for a while the family lived in Barrack Street, near the castle, but by 1852 they were in Swellendam, 115 miles inland. In 1854, at a meeting for the election of lay delegates at the Swellendam Anglican church, four of the thirteen men present were Higgos. John died in Swellendam in 1860.

In Swellendam earlier this year, I went to find John’s grave. I spent almost an hour among the Groenwald, Smit, Steyn and Giliomee families before I realised that the Anglican graveyard was in a separate plot nearby. The grass was knee-length, and seeding. John’s epitaph said he was ‘beloved by his relatives and respected by all who knew him’. The inscription was carved by his son Edwin, a stonemason like most of his brothers.

They bought land on the edge of Cape Town, halfway up the mountain, opening a granite quarry in a place now called Higgovale. It provided stone for the railway station, several banks, the town hall, and miles of kerb stones. My grandfather was born in Higgovale, like his father and grandfather.

One of John Higgo’s sons, Alfred, a wagonmaker, stayed in Swellendam. He died in 1936. He and his wife are buried with their daughter's family, Afrikaans-speakers to judge by the gravestones. Their name was Hendriksz. Elsewhere in Swellendam there's the grave of a woman born just after the Anglo-Boer war, with a name – Sannie Higgo, née Koch – as Anglo-Boer as it gets. My father had distant cousins in Paarl who self-identified as Afrikaners.

Arthur Higgo in his airforce uniform during the Second World War

Arthur Higgo in his airforce uniform during the Second World War

My grandfather Arthur Higgo spent most of the 1950s and 1960s as a commercial traveller, visiting shops in small towns, representing Cape Town department stores and, for a while, a manufacturer of women’s clothing from Durban. He spent a lot of time on the road, travelling all over the Cape. His mother tongue was English, but he was comfortable in Afrikaans. The owner of a bed and breakfast in Montagu in 1998 recognised my father’s name – she remembered my grandfather. Once, my grandfather told me, he met a dominee, a pastor in an Afrikaans Calvinist church, who claimed to be a relation of his. Another time – though my father doesn’t believe this story – he was on a train and the ticket collector, seeing his papers, said: ‘Hoe het jy my naam gekry?’ (How did you get my name?) And he replied: ‘How did you get mine?’