Letter to the Editor of the Cape Times – Response to the question of providing references for CAMISSA

I have utmost respect for UWC academic and fellow comrade Keith Gottschalk (We Need Evidence, letter to editor of the Cape Times 2 December 2013) and would like to take up his request for information on the association of the name ‘Camissa’ with the City of Cape Town.

A fragment of Camissa - the Castle Moat. Most of Camissa is now underground.

A fragment of Camissa – the Castle Moat. Most of Camissa is now underground.

When I first came across the usage of ‘Camissa’ by Cyril Hromnick I shared Keith Gottschalk’s sceptism and did a research check, noting that many question the historical claims made by Hromnick, who seemed to be the person who popularised the term which then spread commercially.

Gottschalk is correct in stating that //Hui !Gais or //Hu !Gaeb is the Khoena term that most would associate with the broader Cape Peninsula where it simply means ‘where clouds gather’.

The term //ammi-i-ssa or ‘Camissa’ is the old indigene Khoena, or Khoi, term for any fresh or sweet-water river as noted by Portuguese cartographer Lazaro Luis in 1563 on his map as – ‘de Camis’ alongside the name ‘Aguada de Saldanha’. This is cross-referenced with an entry on 24 April 1682 by Governor-General van Goens captured in Moodie’s Record (1959) page 387 which notes the inland Khoena people referring to a fresh-water river as ‘Camissa’ or ‘Cumissa’. In Cape Town the main water tributary that ran from the mountain Hoerikwaggo to the sea was ‘Camissa’ later referred to, in keeping with the indigene term, as ‘Soetwater’ distinguishing it from the ‘Zout Rivieren’. The naming of the river by the Khoena was not a name in the European tradition of branding places and rivers, but rather a factual reference to fresh water.

The first establishment of a refreshment station on the banks of the ‘Camissa’ in Table Bay for passing ships must be attributed to the maroon group of Goringhaicona under Chief Austhumao, having continued this tradition from Chief Xhore of the Goringhaiqua from 1615 after Xhore was returned to the Cape, having been kidnapped to England for a year. The notion of a town or settlement before this time did not exist amongst the Khoena and thus Cape Town per se would not have existed, nor had any town-specific name existed. In their transhumance annual visitation the Khoena would make for the distant Peninsula seen from the West Coast – the cloud covered Hoerikwaggo, an area they called //Hu !Gaeb.

The entrepreneurial Autshumao broke with this pattern when he established himself on the banks of the Camissa and around the Table Bay shore with the Goringhaicona, maroons from other Khoena groups, particularly after returning from his trip to Batavia and his short period based on Robben Island.

The Camissa was a strategic point for trade and fresh water was a main commodity for passing ships. The provision of fresh water together with acting as a trader between inland groups and the seafarers, and later for Commander van Riebeeck was the real beginning of the City of Cape Town. Van Riebeeck who first camped alongside Autshumao for 6 months at the Camissa while the fort was built, noted after moving to the Fort that Autshumao remained camped by the river. The trading relationships of Xhore and Autshumao and their respective trips abroad as well as the formation of the Goringhaicona as the proto Capetonians is well documented and is the true foundation of Cape Town as a town settlement around the river Camissa.  The river is now driven underground, much as has this story remained layered over for too long.

The distinction between //Hu !Gaeb and //ammi-i-ssa is not competitive but complimentary. The one denotes the broader peninsula and the other recognizes the break with a transhumance pattern and the first establishment of a settlement, which like that of many towns and cities around the world, grew up around a fresh water river, now hidden from the public gaze. The older origins of the term amongst the Khoena is moot and may have been a cross-over term between the seafarers and Khoena during the 127 years pre-1615, as ‘Camis’ appears elsewhere on the Portuguese sea routes also denoting fresh-water .

Chief Autshumao, established what can be called the first Camissa footprint in South Africa, as the settlement where Khoena, Slaves of diverse origins and Europeans first engaged in meaningful relationships and where locally born people sharing these diverse roots first emerged. The term certainly has more meaning than the racial term, ‘Coloured’, foisted on people by the British. More information on Camissa and the ‘ties that bind us’ in our history and heritage can be found on this blogsite.


1 thought on “Letter to the Editor of the Cape Times – Response to the question of providing references for CAMISSA

  1. Hello, I am also descended from Lijsbeth Saunders van der Kaap (1659) during her relationship with someone by the name of Johann Herbst. I would be delighted if you can give me any information about her.

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