Thursday, May 3, 2012

When did South Africa's history begin?

Jan van Riebeeck
When I grew up, I was taught that South African history started with the arrival of Johan Anthonisz "Jan" van Riebeeck in early April 1652.  His charge by the Dutch East India Company (DEIC – or as the Dutch called it, Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie - VOC) was to set up a way-station to supply passing company ships with fresh produce and water.  What we learnt about pre-Van Riebeeck southern Africa could have been written (in tiny letters) on a postage stamp.  Namely:

Van Riebeeck arrives in Table Bay
In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the Cape, which opened up the possibility of trade with the east without going overland.
In 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape to open up the trade route.
In 1503, Antonio de Saldanha named the area around what is now known as Cape Town as “Agoada do Saldanha” – The watering place of Saldanha.  (People do like to name places after themselves.)
Jan van Riebeeck
(You can read why South Africa never became a Portuguese colony at;postID=5491224666417113269)
In 1620, Englishman, Humphrey Fitzherbert claimed the area around Cape Town for King James.  King James wasn’t interested.
Before the Europeans came, there was an indigenous population of Khoikhoi people, sometimes called Hottentots, living in the area around Table Mountain.
Van Riebeeck immediately set about to build a fortification to protect the Dutch from the Khoikhoi, as well as planting vegetables and fruit and acquiring meat through barter or hunting.  It is also no coincidence that a few months after he arrived, England and Holland had gone to war, and the DEIC wanted to protect its investment.
Van Riebeeck and men meet Khoikhoi
He also planted a Wild Almond hedge around the settlement, some of which is still growing in the National Botanical Gardens at Kirstenbosch.  I have to say that it would be very difficult to crawl through it.  Overall, he was a good Commander of the Cape for the DEIC, which is not surprising that he was on his best behaviour, since he was probably lucky to get the post as he had been caught trading for his own account when he headed the DEIC trading post in Tonkin, Vietnam.
After naming several small villages after himself, Riebeeck’s Kasteel and Riebeeck Wes, he left the Cape in 1662 after two five-year contracts, and eventually died in what is now Jakarta in 1667.
Shaka kaSenzangakhona
What really interests me about Van Riebeeck is that his arrival is, or was, regarded as when history started in South Africa.  And the only reason for that is that he was a bureaucrat.  He kept records and diaries, so we know what happened and when.  There are no written or even oral records of the Khoikhoi’s history, so their history is disregarded.  Reminds me of Columbus ‘discovering’ America.
We only know about the earlier visits to the Cape by Europeans because they too were bureaucrats, keeping sailing logs and diaries and records.
None of the indigenous peoples of southern Africa have similar written records and, for the most part, oral records are sketchy at best.  We know about the great Zulu or Mtethwa chiefs, such as Dingiswayo or Shaka or Ceteswayo, because of European records, not indigenous ones.
Khoi man
And we know nothing of the histories or stories of the Khoikhoi or KhoiSan peoples.  And we probably will never find out, other than through speculations of anthropologists.
All I hope is that today’s South African children are taught a more indigenous perspective of their country’s history, although I am not entirely sure how it could be done.
Stan - Thursday


  1. Vietnam? Capetown? Jakarta? Riebeeck sounds like a 17th Century equivalent of an astronaut, "going where no man had gone before." What an adventuresome soul he must have been.

  2. The earliest agents of South Africa's diversity – in any event the earliest we can name – were the San and Khoekhoe people groups (overall referred to independently as the Bushmen and Hottentots or Khoikhoi;all things considered called the Khoisan).Both were occupant in the southern tip of the landmass for a large number of years before its recorded history started with the landing of European seafarers.and before that,present day individuals had existed here for more than 100 000 years undoubtedly,the nation is an archaeological fortune chest.
    ~Ruth Wells.

  3. The beginning of a South African nightmare.