History of South Africa podcast and a wrap of Episodes 12 – 15

This is episode 12 and we’re at the point where Jan van Riebeeck and 88 men and women had setup the refreshment station to provide fruit, vegetables and meat to passing VOC fleets. 

As we heard last episode, the fort would take a year to complete. The Dutch had arrived in the Cape at precisely the wrong time, it was Autumn and the Mediterranean climate meant the coming winter would be cold and wet. 

Worse, the Khoekhoe had left their settlements on the Cape Flats heading up the east coast to areas which were more sheltered for the winter and van Riebeeck’s men suffered as meat was not available. They were reduced to eating penguins, seals and birds of different kinds to stay alive. 

So by eight months and despite Jan van Riebeeck’s determination being tested, earth works had been built, gardens were laid out and seeds had been sown – and he’d even managed to harvest the first vegetables. 

This was rather deceptive, because when the first large Dutch fleet passed by in March 1653, the ships themselves were obliged to contribute several tons of rice, together with salted meat and biscuit to the hungry garrison. And yet, some fresh meat was made available for the fleet along with fresh vegetables. 

That by itself was quite an achievement. The Khoekhoe had largely left the Cape flats for winter so locating cattle to buy had been a big problem. Soon things improved as the Khoekhoe returned by December 1652 and were happy to trade their animals for tobacco and copper. 

“the Saldanha’s seek to show us all the friendship they can..” wrote van Riebeeck on December 8th.  But the Khoekhoe moved on a few days later and the Dutch fort commander seemed to forget his orders as he began to consider other ways of obtaining cattle. 

The least complicated, mused van Riebeeck, was merely to seize cattle from the unsuspecting Khoekhoe who always arrived to trade unarmed. Then he’d pack them off to India in irons as slaves he wrote. But this was completely counter to the VOC policy and he regretfully noted that he would take no such action – at least not until further instructions.

This obscured the fact that the biggest trouble makers in the first year were the Dutch mercenary sailors and soldiers he’d hired for this adventure. An apparently deranged soldier by the name of Martinus de Hase stole the carpenters tools and food. 

Winter Rainfall

When he was tracked down he pleaded to be shot. Dutch soldiers who were acting as herdsmen were also regarded as pretty useless, allowing the cattle to roam further afield where they were stolen by the Khoekhoe. These soldiers were punished with a hundred blows of the butt-end of a musket. 

Because the Dutch were under orders not to learn the Khoekhoe language things did not remain peaceful between the inhabitants of the VOC fort in Table Bay and the local community. Since the Khoekhoe moved with the seasons and burned grass to ensure fresh new growth, van Riebeeck began to suspect they were holding back, waiting for the English ships. Not speaking a word of Khoe or San did not help. 

The Dutch ignore Khoekhoe languages at their peril

These English appeared to pay more for the goods traded than the Dutch which was a matter of concern. None of the newcomers could grasp Khoekhoe and were forbidden to learn as I said, since Dutch was supposed to be the only language used on the station. 

They were worried about the soldiers and sailors going native – to use the somewhat insulting phrase bandied about by colonials. Absolute reliance was placed on a few of the Khoekhoe who learned Dutch and English. 

When the Dutch first began to show an interest in the Cape, they had met two men, Claes Das and Doman who acted as interpreters, as well as the little girl who was called Krotoa.

She was given the Western name of Eva and later called “tolkinne” which is Dutch for female interpretor. 

Tolkinne was accompanied by her uncle Herrij the Beachcomber who spoke some broken English. Herrij or Harry was the leader of a small band of Strandlopers numbering two dozen perhaps. Harry sailed on board a British ship to the East and learned English during the voyage. 

The English nicknamed him “kingh Herrij”.

By April 14th 1653 Jan Van Riebeeck drafted the first report and he was in a dilemma. After his comments three years previously about how wonderfully verdant the Cape was and how he was the best man for the job of setting up a refreshment station, he was now obliged to retract and to offer delicately phrased excuses for failing to have setup a fully functioning operation. 

Fynbos at its best ©Des Latham

He grumbled in his report that the first outward bound large fleet heading from Amsterdam to Batavia had not stopped at the Cape as promised. Worse, the Khoekhoe had rejected much of the tobacco they’d stored for use in bartering as of inferior quality. The Khoekhoe were connoissoirs of tobacco – and were now driving a hard bargain in exchange for their important cattle. 

Van Riebeeck ended his first report with a passionate plea to be allowed to leave the fairest Cape which he no longer regarded as one of Good Hope. 

“I will now move to conclude, mostly humbly, respectfully and earnestly pray, that your honours will think of removing me hence to India and to some better and higher employment ….”

We need to take a step back and look at what was happening across Southern Africa in 1652. I explained last episode how the amaXhosa in the vicinity of the Mbashe River between today’s Port St Johns and East London, had begun to expand southwards. 

The amaXhosa believed themselves to be the common descendents of a legendary hero called Xhosa who lived many centuries before the coming of the Europeans. As I explained in previous podcasts, their language had become infused with the clicks of the Khoekhoe and San over hundreds of years of contact. The amaXhosa were related to the farmers who pushed into the coastal lowlands starting around 200 AD.

The land where they lived was called the amaXhoseni, the place of the Xhosa people. It’s an extensive summer rainfall region stretching along the southern seaboard of the African continent between the Mbashe River and the Sunday’s River. It features the looming amathole and Winterberg mountain ranges, covered by a thick forest and bush to the north and to the south the lush coastal vegetation grows right up to the sweeping white sand beaches of the Indian Ocean. 

Rivers and streams flow erratically down to the ocean from the mountains and hilly uplands, and the amaXhosa preferred to settle in the river valleys that had the best soil and pasturage.

A modern rendition of amaXhosa women reclining in a field: Facebook

The first accounts of the amaXhosa that were written down came from European sailors shipwrecked along the dangerous coast. The amaXhosa had settled in the area by the 1500s at least, living in scattered homesteads dotting the picturesque countryside. By the 1500s the amaXhosa homesteads took on the standard form that would persist up to the modern era. 

Each homestead accommodated the members of the a family along with their dependents, all living under the command of a married man. The status an authority was derived from a man’s genealogy with the oldest man the leader. His wealth came from inherited herds of cattle. 

The amaXhosa left their head bare except for minor chiefs, military officers and men who’d distinguished themselves in battle who wore the feathers of a blue crane as a badge of honour.

Women would also wear buckskin caps, while both sexes would adorn themselves in ornaments of various kinds. Necklaces were made of reed, wood, shell and roots as well as beads of unbaked clay. Others wore metal or east-coast glass beads traded from the Arabs and then the Europeans far away in Mozambique. These goods would journey along trading networks to the smallest settlements along the coast. The amaXhosa would also wear iron, copper and brass bangles. 

Men preferred necklaces of animal claws and teeth, or ivory armbands – ivory in particular was one of the most highly prized gifts from a chief and indicated a person of high standing. 

December 1652

By December 1652 the group of Khoe van Riebeeck called “The Saldanhas” had migrated back to their grazing lands along the base of Table Mountain – where Kirstenbosch, Constantia and the Steenberg is today. He wrote that 

“…the country is covered with cattle and sheep as grass…”

These Saldanhas or Chochoquas were obviously different people compared to the Strandlopers as the Dutch called the small clan living along the Cape Town beach. 

“there is nothing degenerate in the proud Saldanhas…” he wrote “they have all the traditional courtesy of the cattle-keeper…” 

By now the Khoe had traded all the copper they wanted from the Dutch and refused to sell any more cattle. So van Riebeeck sent out a party of men to try and find people further afield. By Christmas eve 1652 they could only locate two encampments of Khoe – the rest had already left. These few dozen men and women were looking after seven hundred head of cattle and around 1500 sheep but they also refused to trade. It was suddenly apparent to the Dutch that the Khoe preferred to trade their animals with the English and this was not satisfactory. 

On the 28th December two groups of the Khoe began fighting close to the Dutch stockade with four killed by the Chochoqua – who then promptly took off with all the cattle but leaving the VOC’s unmolested. 

Locusts swarm!

By February 1653 the garden was producing more vegetables and fruit and the men were happier – but then disaster. On Sunday 9th February a swarm of locusts was seen five miles behind Table Mountain and described as 

“as if snow-flakes were falling so that the earth and sky was hardly distinguishable..”

The swarm struck the all-important garden on the 15th February. This area of the Cape is not known for locust swarms, but van Riebeeck was just unlucky. The garden was damaged by the locusts but it could have been worse. 

For the next two months trading continued to be sporadic until late April 1653 when another group of Khoe passed by, this time thought to be the Kochoqua, not to be confused with the Chochoqua. The Kochoqua lived in the highlands above Saldanha and had heard about the Dutch and traded 28 cattle. A week later another small group passed by trading 18 cattle for copper plates. 

By December 1655 more than 20 000 head of cattle could be seen grazing between Salt River and Table Mountain – and not one could be traded by van Riebeeck. You can imagine the growing resentment and anger as this garrison observed the riches of the Cape and yet were not permitted to share in its bounty.

By now Harry had led the Dutch on a song and dance for more than two years and he continued to offer trade solutions – only to disappear with any copper he was given. 

The fort had two other male translators by now, along with the young Khoekhoe teen girl called Eva who was helping describe what was really going on. 

One or the Khoekhoe translators, Claes Das found out that Harry was behind much of the trouble that van Riebeeck faced. Still the year ended with some improvements. The Dutch had taken to storing their sheep on Robben island and there were now 600 along with 370 cattle on that symbolic low-lying rocky outcrop.  

As you can see, the desperately chaotic relationship between the newly arrived Europeans and the Africans was growing more and more complex, more and more confrontational. This was hardly going to improve after something that happened in May 1656. 

First settlers stake out their land in 1657

The first settlers are about to make their way out of the Dutch fort at the Cape after being allocated land to plant their gardens. This action which Jan Van Riebeeck took in 1657 was to have reverberations which are still being felt across the southern African region – and beyond. 

It must be remembered that the VOC did not envisage colonization as an end to itself. It merely wished to substitute limited private farming for state production in order to reduce expenditure. 

So far we’ve heard how the VOC company commander at the Cape of Good Hope had managed to grow his vegetables and fruit, but was not able to secure enough head of cattle from the Khoekhoe despite his constant trading and badgering. 

The Khoe for their part had realized that the Dutch were not going to go away and had begun to show signs of more aggression – particularly in 1655 and 1656 with groups of Khoe setting up their shelters close to the VOC fort. 

By January 1657 van Riebeeck was visited by Harry the Strandloper who had become a significant player in the Cape, along with a local Khoe chief they called The Fat Captain. His name was Gogosoa  and he was paramount chief of the Gorachouqua and Goringhaicona. More about him in a while. 

He represented a group of Khoe living where Salt River is today – and both were unhappy about what they heard when they received information that the Dutch were going to allow freeburghers to own land. 

IT was now that the settlement numbers began to grow from just over one hundred in 1657 to more than 700 by 1695. The number of free burghers who had been granted release from the Company service increased steadily too. The number of Khoekhoe living on the Peninsular and the Flats fluctuated with their migrations – but generally there were a few thousand to be found particularly in summer. 

Then in October 1658 something of a miracle occured regarding the Dutch translations. Suddenly the company journal began describing the Khoe in far more accurate ways. 

Khoe tribal names were rendered more plausible to European ears and become more circumnavigable to Dutch tongues. It took the Dutch 6 years to piece together the alien sound of multiple clicks and probably prompted by the dawning of the era of colonialism.

Doman’s rebellion

By January 1659, Doman one of the Khoe translators we heard about last week had become disillusioned about Dutch aims in the Cape. He’d seen the VOC in action after a trip to the Far East, to the Dutch capital Batavia and was impressed by their organizational capacity and power. But now, back home, he was aware that the KHoe people were no longer able to fully control their futures. And he was angry with Jan van Riebeeck for taking three Khoe chiefs hostage as the Dutch tried to force the Khoe to bring their escape slaves back. 

And worse, the Europeans had begun to show signs of settling in for the long haul – after all the first tranche of free burghers had just been given their 28 hectare plots around modern day Rondebosch and between the Liesbeeck and Salt Rivers which was prime Khoe grazing land. Now it was out of bounds to people who had seen generations use the same land. 

The irony is Doman had been planning a major uprising for the previous few months but had decided to bide his time until the next winter. 

AT the same time, Van Riebeeck decided to send a heavily armed group of his men overland to find the centre of gold production in Southern Africa – Monomotapa. 

This of course was mad – he had no idea that Monomotapa was close to two thousand kilometers away in Zimbabwe. But the reports from the Portuguese and Arabs spoke of this immense city of gold so that was highly motivational. 

Then in May 1659 the freemen approached van Riebeeck once more about the constant theft of their implements and cattle – and now they had had enough. They petitioned the VOC council once more appealing for action to be taken against the Khoe who had been pilfering livestock. 

They also were prone to removing the metal parts of the wooden ploughs and any tools they found attached. 

In Mid-May 16 head of cattle were stolen from the freeburghers just to add insult to injury, this time the Khoe who took them also killed the young boy minding the animals. 

It was Doman’s doing. 

He had convinced some of the younger men to join his action against the Dutch and a tussle developed between the two peoples’. 

Doman told his force to avoid killing the whites and to focus on taking their food which would in effect drive them away. He knew by avoiding murdering the freeburghers, it would make it far more difficult for van Riebeeck to convince the VOC that he should take direct military action. 

Eventually in early January 1660, word spreads that both the Dutch and the Khoe were tired and both sides clearly wanted to end this spate of killings. There were a series of false starts to these discussions but eventually in June 1660 van Riebeeck discovered that some of the freeburghers had been actively trading both with the Khoe they were supposedly fighting – as well as passing French ships. 

The freemen had found a way to bypass the VOC using methods as devious as loading meat under wagon loads of wood. They were cutting out the middle man and van Riebeeck was that man. 

Peace restored in 1660

Duly in mid-1660, peace was restored. The Khoikhoin of the Peninsular returned to their homes and the Dutch did not take revenge. The reason was as van Riebeeck wrote, the KHoe’s complaint that they may have stolen a few head of cattle, but they’d actually lost their all important land. 

“The Dutch were taking every day… land which had belonged to them from all ages and on which they were accustomed to depasture their cattle…” said one of the Khoe leaders during the negotiations. 

They also asked in a pointed comment whether they “were to come to Holland, would they be permitted to act in the same way?”

This would be the crux of coming conflict between black and white in South Africa. The colonial farmers just did not understand the value of land held by the indigenous people. They thought because it was passed over by pastoralists, blacks did not value the land and also because it was being allowed to lay fallow for long periods as the Khoe migrated back and forth – it looked empty and unused. 

It was the opposite. 

The land was the mother, and for the Khoe,  the Dutch were raping their mother. 

We will return to this theme and the myth making around who owned what land in the future. It’s a constant debate in South Africa – with the apartheid government and other political leadership reinforcing the idea that because the Khoe didn’t have written documents showing who owned what land – it could be taken away. This is a long story repeated across the world – and still being repeated. 

The standoff in this first Khoe-Dutch war was a defeat for the Khoe. They had failed in their primary objective of driving the Dutch out of the Cape. 

Doman was exiled on Robben Island setting the tone for the next four hundred years of its use as an easily accessible rocky outcrop that was almost impossible to escape. 

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