One sided or Balanced History? Reaction to article: Jan van Riebeeck.

2015-02-28
Dr Pieter Mulder

You cannot change historical facts.

It is a historical fact that Jan van Riebeeck arrived in Table Bay on 6 April 1652.

It is a historical fact that Jan van Riebeeck found Autshumao, whom he called Harry, the Strandloper (Beach Walker) and his people in Table Bay.

Why do we so often disagree about history then?

Because people interpret historical facts differently.

Also because some people often abuse history to mobilise others. With this they try and achieve their own goals in the present time. Then we choose historical facts that suit us and leave other uncomfortable facts out. With this we create historical myths which are partially true -- but do not portray history fully in a balanced way. The myths of history that we create in this way says more about the times in which the myths were established than the period that history covers.

Dan Brown writes in his book The Da Vinci Code (p. 343):

“History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books – books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said: ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon?’ By its very nature, history is always a very one-sided account.”

At present South African history is again being analysed from new angles and re-written, especially by the ANC which sees itself as the victors after 1994. What I find to be a pity is that exactly the same mistakes of the past are being made now. In the new version of history the Afrikaner and whites are always just bad and Black, Brown, Khoisan and the other people are always just good and innocent. People and history are never that simple.

President Mandela said during the 10th year anniversary of his inauguration (10 May 2004) that a guiding principle for him “has been that there are good men and women to be found in all groups and from all sectors of society, and that in an open and free society those South Africans will come together to jointly and co-operatively realise the common good”.

This is also my problem with the article “Eight years of Jan van Riebeeck.”

According to the article Autshumao and his followers are only good and innocent. Jan van Riebeeck and his followers are only bad and mean. The history of that period is much more complex than that, with good and bad people on both sides.

Seen from the point of view of the KhoiSan, the writer is correct that Van Riebeeck had permanently disrupted and changed the lives of the KhoiSan. Many of them were later killed in punitive expeditions and the great Smallpox epidemics of 1713, 1755 and 1767 completely wiped out some tribes. The KhoiSan were forced into the interior, just like many years before, they had been forced south out of he current KwaZulu-Natal area by the Nguni tribes. Only their rock paintings remained in the Drakensberg Mountains.

But what do the facts look like from the Dutch perspective? Facts which the writer omits.

According to the writer, the local KhoiSan residents always acted cordially toward Europeans at all times. The diaries of the early sea farers differ from this.

In 1510, Francisco d’ Almeida, a Portuguese viceroy, was killed in Table Bay following a skirmish with local residents. The Portuguese sea farers thereafter received instructions to try and avoid landing at the South African coast. This helps to explain why South Africa was never a Portuguese colony like Angola and Mozambique.

The Dutch sea farers wrote about the friendliness or hostility of local residents at the Cape which they found to be “unpredictable”. The Dutch merchant Cornelis Specx and 14 of his crew were murdered in 1638 in Table Bay when they ventured too far away from their ship.

With the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 he had specific instructions form the Lords Seventeen (Heeren Sewentien). He had to build a fort for safety but also received strict instructions to live in peace with the local population. The aim was not to disrupt their lives or to wipe them out, but to build good relations with them in order to trade with them.

For that they needed an interpreter for communication. Autshumao, (Harry the Beach Walker), his niece Krotoa (Eva) and Doman acted as interpreters. Krotoa (Eve) became part of Van Riebeeck’s family and lived with them. She converted to Christianity, was baptized and married a Dutch man, Pieter van Meerhof. From their marriage three children were born who became part of the Dutch community. This shows how the original division was not based upon race, but on religion. Race would only become an important divisive factor in the 18th century.

Van Riebeeck writes how he struggled to execute his orders because the different KhoiSan groups were internally divided and distrusted each other. They also did not always want to trade and barter with cattle. Some of the groups or tribes with whom he struggled, included the Goringhaiconas (the Beach Walkers of Autshumao) and the Goringhaiquas (the Cape Men under Kokosoa). He does however write positively about the Saldanha who were more eager to trade.

For more than a year after 1652, it went well. Then on 19 October 1653, Autshumao and his followers stole nearly all the cattle from the Company. They also murdered the herdsman, David Janz.

Van Riebeeck wrote how shocked he was that “die tolk Herrij, die doorgaens van onse taeffel als een groot vrunt alle dagen is gespijst met Hollandse cleederen gecleet, so iets kon doen.” (How the interpreter Harry, who often as a friend had dined with us at our table wearing Dutch clothing, could do something like this.)

Later they found out how Doman, the other interpreter, had encouraged the Goringhaiquas (the Cape Men) to go and steal more cattle during rainy weather as Van Riebeeck and his people could not use their flint lock guns because the fuses would be wet.

In July 1659 the herdsman Sijmon in’t Velt, was knifed to death and a further 68 cattle and 67 sheep are driven off. For this a decision was taken to build a fence, which the article refers to. Conflict amongst the Dutch and the local population followed until April 1660. After talks between the groups, peace agreements were signed with the leaders of the different groups and the reconciliation policy was resumed.

The final balanced history of that time will still have to be written. It will lie somewhere between the KhoiSan and Dutch perspectives. It will explain how two different cultural approaches had clashed at the Cape. The Dutch who came from Europe where individual and private property rights to land was the custom as opposed to the KhoiSan who believed the land belonged to everyone for their use. The KhoiSan who kept cattle just for their own use as opposed to the Dutch who traded to make a profit and to be ready to provide huge Dutch navies with meat.

When this is written about from today’s perspective, the question has to be asked whether South Africa would be a better place if Jan van Riebeeck had never come to the Cape. This is, after all, today’s debate. Would the highways have been broader, hospitals bigger and the TV better without Jan van Riebeeck and his descendant’s’ contribution?

Currently, South Africa is an economic giant in Africa. Nearly half of all tarred roads in Africa are found in South Africa as well as the biggest hospitals in the Southern hemisphere with more cell phones in South Africa than there are adults. The descendants of Autshumao today also make use of these hospitals, roads, television and cellular phones.

What is the danger of history myths which is used for present day mobilisation? One example:

In Rwanda, the Hutu leaders created history myths to show that the country’s troubles were created by the Tutsi’s and not caused by the leadership. When the problems did not go away, the ordinary Hutus started calling the Tutsi’s “cockroaches” and decided one day to get rid of the “cockroaches”. Up to a million Tutsi’s were murdered in 100 days.

At the beginning of this year, President Zuma spoke about South Africa’s history.

Where does South Africa’s problems come from? The honourable President says: “a man called Jan van Riebeek arrived here and that was the start of the trouble in this country.” I can show that the President is wrong in that he keeps quiet about the Black-on-Black wars or the Black and KhoiSan clashes before 1652. The question is however, what exactly did he say in plain language? He says that when the white man arrived here, the trouble started.

With the commemoration of the ANC’s 103rd birthday this year at the Cape Town stadium, the praise singer and worship leader, Ockert Lewies, referred to Mr. Zuma’s remarks about Van Riebeeck. In his praise song he told the 40 000 people in the stadium that he first had to drive out Van Riebeecks evil spirit to cleanse the stadium before the President could speak. By the way, Van Riebeeck died and was buried in Batavia.

What do ordinary ANC supporters understand from the President’s and his praise singer’s remarks? They understand that the white man is responsible for the problems in the country. If you therefore get rid of the white man, all the problems will go away. Drive out the “cockroaches” then the problems will be gone. That is why myths are dangerous.

An old African saying states that as long as the lion cannot talk and appoint their own story-tellers, the hunters will always come off the best in the stories about hunting. Let us work for a balanced South African historiography by the lions and the hunters because we realise the dangers of one-sided historiographies and myths.