Knowledge Sankofa: The Complexity of Racial Identities in Southern Africa

This story of Dutch intrusion into Southern Africa was shared via email by a Tseliso Moahloli with the title: The Plagiarized image of Camissa (//gam I Ssa): I quote:

“Today I was browsing through some old books at a good second-hand bookstore near where I live and found a very interesting statistic in a maritime history book concerning the fact that over the full span of the1600s over 1770 Dutch ships alone had called at the Cape. It hit me like a thunderbolt as to how much we were fed a load of bull-dust as history during Apartheid times, and I will explain why.

Now I have always been interested in maritime affairs. I went on a working trip to sea for a couple of weeks as an engine-room boy when I was 14 and a number of my family were seamen all their lives. It was one way of getting away from Apartheid South Africa for many men of colour and a means of seeing the world.

For 18 months of my time in the immigration services I was put in charge of a transformation programme involving SA harbours and was responsible for pushing for the re-building of a cruise-liner terminal and inter-agency security command centre in Duncan Dock as  a pilot for each of our harbours.

At the time it was opposed by all and sundry and most vociferously by the DA. The way they talk now all of those opponents want to claim responsibility for what they now see as a great addition to Cape Town’s offerings. So what has all this maritime stuff got to do with the warping of history you might justifiably ask?

I came home and did some quick research by consulting a work – “The Dutch East India Company’s Shipping 1602 – 1795 in a comparative perspective by FS Gaastra and JR Bruijn from Leiden University. This work considers all the variables at play for each decade of two centuries and provides the statistics for six European powers merchant fleets during the 1600s and 1700s between Europe and South and Southeast Asia. It shows us that just over the period 1590 untill 1700 there were 2632 ships that had to call at the Cape and before van Riebeeck arrived in 1652 the figure of ships that called at the Cape was 1071. This represented a rise from around 8 ships a year in the last decade of the 1500s to around 30 in a year with layovers of 2 days to 8 days by the time Van Riebeeck arrived.

The Dutch dominated the numbers but England followed with France Portugal, Denmark also regularly coming to the Cape. Interestingly in the period 1610 to 1620 English ships increased to ten times the number of the previous decade. This strongly indicates why they considered colonisation at this point in time and then later opted to support local development of  indigene support infrastructure.

Indicators of the progression of the English approach is to study their actions of taking Chief Xhore of the Goringhaiqua to London for training and orientation in 1613, the failure of their Newgate convict settlement at the Cape in 1614 – 17, the taking of Chief Autshumao to Jakarta (Batavia) in 1631, the subsequent establishment of an indigene refreshment station on Robben Island in 1632, and the subsequent move of this project to the Camissa River on the Table Bay Mainland by 1638.

This English sponsored relationship with Autshumao and his 60-strong Goringhaicona  permanently settled alongside the
river and beach continued over 20 years before the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck and represents the true foundation of the town which would become the City of Cape Town. Autshumao was dealing with 2 to 3 ships per month at this stage and their stayovers would be anything between two days and more than a week.

Effectively it was an almost daily presence of European visitors. This represents a very different picture to one of Jan van Riebeeck arriving to greet a desolate Cape and just a bunch of beach scavenging ignorant indigenous people awestruck at seeing Europeans.

But let’s look at some of the dynamics of the Dutch and other European shipping of this magnitude. Let’s also look at the probable impact on the Khoena and then lets also keep in mind the improbability of the cock ‘n bull history that has been handed down to us over the years, with the collaboration of our academic institutions.

When one looks at the comparative maritime records of that time one gets a good picture of the competitiveness of the European/English powers, the dominance of the Dutch, the size and shape of their vessels and changes over time to this technology due to the cargoes carried. One also has to look at what was driving the increase in shipping to South and Southeast Asia and the dynamics of that region.

What were these ships carrying to that part of the world and why so frequently? One also sees a dramatic and striking attrition rate of ships by examining the return journeys. The attrition rate through wrecks and wear and tear on vessels shows in that only around 50% of these vessels returned to Europe. It spurred on the development of shipbuilding technology.

It was also a driver for the need for sophisticated stop-over points starting with refreshment posts  and graduating to ship repair facilities. The records also show an almost studious  omission in our history books to mention that the main outward bound role of the shipping was to take company officials and huge loads of soldiers to supply the wars in South and South East Asia.

There the Dutch were fighting the English and Portuguese and Muslim Sultanates and to fortify their factories and huge bases in India, Sri Lanka and at Batavia. Factories stretched across the long Indian and Bengal Coast and from Arakan (Rhakine) in Myanmar, to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, through to Formosa, and Japan and then throughout Indonesia. This was a scenario thirsty for armed forces. The United Dutch  East India Company had all the powers of state ceded to them by the Dutch States General. Now here’s the thing – these troops needed time ashore at strategic stops. The voyages were long and soldiers and officials got sick and died but also grew grumpy and fights broke out.

By 1615 already there was a great need for soldiers and officials to be able to go ashore at the Cape of Good Hope. The English took the lead in trying to find a solution. The English East India Company came up with an elaborate plan to establish a small trading colony using freed convicts from Newgate prison.

They also knew that it would need to cooperate with the indigene population and took Chief Xhore to London, Pocohontas style, so that he could be orientated to their requirements. The whole thing fell apart in three years. But they then followed plan B – by using the services of Xhore who served the French, Portuguese and Danes as well. He ably fascilitated trade and the other needs of the Europeans.

He was more reluctant to serve the Dutch and at one time refused to served them because of their abuse of his people. For this he lost his life at Dutch hands around 1626. The English had so come to rely on Xhore that they found the need to establish a new point person.

This is how in around 1630/31 Autshumao was taken for orientation to Jakarta, returned to the Cape and assisted  Autshumao on two occasions to establish himself formally as a trader facilitator for passing shipping. There are many signs that he did this ably, was a proficient linguist, was shrewd and astute and also knew the value of playing off English and their enemies the Dutch. The main large formations of Khoena knew to keep their main herds of cattle far inland away from the Europeans so Autshumao was not simply an opportunist go-between trader but served a very useful defensive role.

Now what is the impact of the big numbers of ships, the frequency of these ships visiting the Cape, the different nationalities involved, the need for repairs stop overs, the need for soldiers and officials to go ashore in large numbers, the problems on the ships, the need for supplies and so on. The first thing that it should tell one is that Table Bay at the Cape was already a Port before 1652.

Secondly it was already a trading and layover station. From my own experience in harbours this kind of sea traffic creates stowaways and stay-behinds. Shore-leave by men leads to sexual encounters and relations becoming a norm of port. Ship repairs would have needed the gathering of repair materials and therefore negotiation of terrain, cutting and gathering timber and this would have led to job creation and further trade. This huge amount of sea-transport and human traffic must have had a huge impact on the local population living at the Camissa settlement.

All of the historical materials that I have read together with the size of the shipping stop-overs at the Cape and the vast numbers on board those ships and the poor state of those vessels when put alongside the information that we know of the social history of the Khoena between 1590 and 1652 suggest that we have all been taken for a ride by historians of the colonial and Apartheid eras. Vigarous or robust engagement had already become a norm by 1652 and did not start on that date and neither was Cape Town founded at this time. Pause now for a minute.

In 1647 a shipwreck occurred at Table Bay. The Dutch ship Nieuwe Haarlem on its way back to Holland was wrecked at Woodstock beach. The survivors under Captain Leendert Janszen built a small wood and sand fort called Sandenburg at Salt River and remained at the Cape for a year until 1648. Leendert Janzen, Matthew Proot and Jodocus Hondius III used their time to gather intelligence on the terrain, the indigenes and the other visiting vessels as well as mapping Table Bay. They joined the fleet (of 12 ships that stopped over for a number of days) of Admiral GW de Jong to return to Holland and  encountered Jan van Riebeeck on board the ship.

Van Riebeeck had been fired from his job in Hanoi (Tonkin) in Vietnam because he was cheating the VOC by insider trading. This was his voyage of disgrace. On board this return voyage these five men prepared a proposal to the VOC. Van Riebeeck to redeem himself with the VOC offered to lead a settlement expedition to establish Dutch control at the Cape. The Dutch needed to maintain their dominance in the east and hence the control of the strategically positioned Cape was seen as vital and that there needed to be a more technologically advance port to achieve the much needed ship repair and servincing required.

Janszen and de Jong’s views of the indigenes was a lot more favourable and respectful that that of Jan van Riebeeck and his later approach. Their approach mirrored that of the English of establishing cooperative relations. Van Riebeeck was bent on conquest and dislodging any form of intermediary trading by indigenes. He wanted a simple direct trading relationship simply as a stepping stone for company control over resources. As such the Camissa community’s entrepreneurial approach of a proto-trading class of local people of colour was out of the question for van Riebeeck.

The report to the VOC would have presented the statistics of how many vessels were stopping over, how many people going ashore, the trade that was being done and that no European power had established themselves at the Port where trading was only organised by the indigenes under an English trained and sympathetic Autshumao and a relatively small settled group of indigene ‘Watermans’ next to the Camissa which they called the Soetwater Stroom. Van Riebeeck saw this scenario as a push-over and thus the die was cast. The VOC and de Jong had their ideas but van Riebeeck had his own. The skelm of Vietnam imfamy was not about to change his old habits.

History has been most unfair to Autshumao and the Goringhaicona trading mission at Camissa and has never properly analysed what happened in the 50 years prior to van Riebeeck’s arrival or the 20 year old human trading settlement at Camissa and the impacts of the large scale visitations of ships, sailors, officials and troops who were adequately catered for by locals. The social history of this port village with its sizable yet relatively small population which had changed their mode of living, economic and social habits as happened in every other port across the African coastline. This criminal negligence in academia which continues to this day has to be challenged.

Indigenes are treated as anthropological and archaeological subjects in the paradigm of stone-age and iron age peoples, rather than as subjects of social history enquiry by our museums and educational institutions. This has both robbed us of the ability to properly assess our past but has also fed into a primitivistic paradigm in terms of how many who seek to revive the memory of and understanding of our forebears think about and represent our forebears today in an equally skewed manner. European historical evaluation which is highly skewed sets the edges of discourse today and all sorts of European overlays from Fuedal Monarchies to modern Nation concepts are placed on our past and then informs our present.

The early foundational human endeavour of a Khoena settled trading community which embraced visitors and whom no doubt some visitors embraced and remained and assimilated into, but certainly which would have had offspring as occurs in all ports requires much,  much more research and evaluation attention. This Camissa footprint  (//Gam I Ssa) where the Castle and District Six stands today on the Cape Peninsula known to the Khoena as //Hui Gaeb! can give us all a whole new take on our past.

We certainly cannot ignore this overwhelming evidence that 1652 was not a magical date of Khoena and European interaction….. nor can we ignore the vast numbers of vessels and people from abroad who came here and interacted with locals…. Nor can we ignore that key notable indigene figures had travelled abroad and returned and engaged with new technology and trading and new ways of living and were not merely beach scavengers. With all of this information at our fingertips we cannot accept uncritically the European writings that have marginalised and robbed us of a fair view of our forebears.

Many of the basic assumptions that we make about the past are called into question. We are the descendants of this Camissa footprint as much as we are of the older Khoena modes of living and of slavery and all the interactions including resistance.

There are much more complexities in our past than many care to acknowledge, but also a wonderful focal point arises for us to move away from racial terminology and exclusive terminology in anchoring our local  identities alongside our national, regional and pan African identities. My inquiry and studies make me proudly Camissa, and proudly African before anything else. I live in a place called South Africa within borders made by imperialism and colonialism.

I am passionate about Southern Africa and Africa and I am driven in this by my local heritage rooted in all that arises out of the Camissa footprint founded on the indigene experience and enhanced by generations of indigenes, enslaved peoples and non-conformist Europeans who embraced rather than rejected or oppressed indigenes and slaves..  The people of Camissa embraced and assisted the enslaved brought to our shores and they embraced Camissa. In my family tree there are 24 slaves, 4 Khoena including one from the Goringhaicona at Camissa as well as an array of European and Afro-Europeans. This is meaningful….not a racial tag of ‘Coloured’.

Indeed it is high time too that we stopped racialising our terminology. Drop Coloured, White, Black. Camissa alongside Zulu, Xhosa, Khoena, San, Sotho, Korana, Tswana, Afro-European, Afro-Asian etc more accurately describes sub-community identities in the South African family of African diversity.”

Patric Tariq Mellet

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