by Mike Oettle
ONE of the most striking family coats of arms borne in South Africa is the one connected with the Van der Merwe family.
But unfortunately the chain of proof is so confused that this family, and their cousins in the Netherlands (who call themselves Van de Merwe), can go no further back than the grandfather of the very first South African Van der Merwe.
This grandfather, Willem van de Merwe, is now acknowleged as the ancestor of all the living Van der Merwes and of all the Van de Merwes.
(Van der Meer is an entirely different surname, but one South African Van der Merwe who settled in the United States found that the Americans had so much trouble with his correct surname that in the end he had to call himself Van der Meer or Vandermeer.)
Records disappear for a variety of reasons, and as time goes by it becomes difficult or even imposible to say what the correct state of affairs is, but the Van der Merwes/Van de Merwes are convinced that they are descended from a knight called Daniel van der Merwede.
Daniel’s arms were recorded in 1293 by the renowned medićval herald Gelre as:
Gules, a fess argent between 15 bezants.
The field is red, the fess or horizontal bar is silver or white, and “bezant” means a gold or yellow roundel, so named because it reminded people of a type of gold coin minted in Constantinople, named for the village on the site of which the city was built, Byzantium.
Red, gold and silver almost always make an attractive combination.
The 15 roundels are meant to look like a pile, or triangle pointing down, but the artist who prepared this drawing hasn’t been very successful in bringing out the triangular appearance.
A branch of the Van der Merwede family, named Van Klootwyk, turned the colours around and bore:
Or, a fess gules between 15 torteaux.
“Or” is the heraldic word meaning gold or yellow, “gules” is red, and a “torteau” is a red roundel.
Unfortunately one can only use red on the golden background, because silver on gold is undesirable in heraldry.
Nonetheless these arms are also quite striking.
But although there is a Van Klootwyk family in South Africa which displays these arms, there is again no proof that they are in fact descended from the medićval Van Klootwyks.
As a result the State Herald would unfortunately have to refuse to register these arms if a Van der Merwe or a Van Klootwyk makes an application.
Perhaps a different coat of arms would be registered.
And, you might be asking, where do the Van der Merwes come from?
Well, the Merwede is a branch of the Rhine, near the Land of Altena and connected with the Oude Maas River. The Merwede runs through Oud-Beyerland, and Dordrecht lies at the end of the Beneden-Merwede.
And Willem Schalkszoon van der Merwe, the founder of the South African family, was born in Oud-Beyerland.
He was an arquebusier in the service of the Dutch East India Company and landed in Table Bay off the Dordrecht. He became a free burgher in 1661. In 1677 he and Pieter van der Westhuizen became the first to farm Kronendal, in the Hout Bay valley.
Willem’s wife was Elsje Cloete, daughter of the very first permanent settler at the Cape, Jakob Klute (Cloete), of Cologne.
They can be found in my family tree – perhaps in yours, too.
 A descendant of Daniel van der Merwede’s family, an American named George van der Merwede, has a his arms displayed on the website of the American Heraldry Society here. He has researched the family history of the Van der Merwedes, but his website is currently offline.
 By the time the Dutch settlement at the Cape was founded, the arquebus was a completely outdated weapon (it was an early type of firearm). The rank of arquebusier appears to have survived, probably comparable with the rank of bombardier, used currently in the artillery as equivalent to corporal but derived from an antiquated type of cannon.
Old regiments also retain the names “musketeer” or “fusilier”, both of which indicate old firearm types, and in Britain’s Household Brigade you also find the Grenadier Guards, who originally had the task of throwing grenades or hand bombs.
Comments, queries: Mike Oettle