The ‘Peranakan Chinese’ in our Heritage – the Case of a mystery Chinese lady exiled to the Cape from Batavia circa 1740

 Both history and South African social acceptance have traditionally treated persons of Chinese heritage rather harshly. Though Chinese people have been part of our history and heritage in South Africa longer than any other non-indigenous national group their contributions have been left out of our discourse. The Chinese in us has been airbrushed out and the Chinese amongst us are treated as perpetual strangers. And now new waves of Chinese immigrants join our nation and suspicion remains the order of the day. Many South African names are indeed anglicized Chinese names – Jardine, Fortune, Whiteley, Hoption, Chapson, Yenson and Kolling to name just a few. Under Apartheid, unlike in the case of the Japanese who were afforded the peculiar status of ‘honorary white’, persons of Chinese heritage were classified as ‘Coloured’ and suffered many indignities.
The ground-breaking story of the Chinese contribution in South African history was meticulously put together by that wonderful duo, Melanie Yap and Dianne Leong Man, two decades ago and still makes fascinating reading, though we may know even more now than then. (Colour, Confusion & Concessions – the history of the Chinese in South Africa)

The story of Thisgingnio van Ceribon, the mystery Peranakan (Creole) Chinese woman exiled to the Cape from Batavia (Jakarta) is another of the hidden history stories that popped out for me from another source*. Our history in the Cape was highly influenced by unfolding events particularly in Dutch Batavia but also by events in India, Sri Lanka, Bengal, the Indonesian Archipelago in general and further afield in Japan, China, Vietnam and Thailand. South African history and our people have never really explored how much our destinies were intertwined with colonialism on the one hand and the cultures on the other hand within those territories. Much of the Chinese influences in South Africa over the 17th and 18th centuries came via the Peranakan or Creole Chinese of Batavia. It is important for us to get our heads around our joint histories with this part of the world for two reasons today. The first is that today’s pattern of migration to South Africa is more or less identical to the forced migrations during the period of slavery. Africa, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China and Indonesia still provide a steady stream of migrants to South Africa. The second reason is that China, India and South Africa are three of the five countries in the BRICS block. The heritage ties that bind us are strong and deep.

Scholars conventionally tend to think within a particular paradigm when looking at ethnic origins of slaves and others identified with ‘toponyms’ at the Cape. They would base their assumption on the toponym of the slave as registered in company records. So if the name was Titus van Java, it would be assumed that the slave named Titus would ethnically be a native of Java, or that Jacob van Mosambiek would be a Mozambican. The fact is that Java, Batavia, Maputo, Galle in Sri Lanka, and other places were important slaver stations which absorbed slaves from many different places of origin. lt is actually may be less likely that slaves carrying these toponyms were natives from these named places. More than half of the population of Batavia were in fact creolised Chinese known as the Peranakan. lt is most probable that most of the early Chinese at the Cape were not brought to the Cape, directly from China, but were ethnic Chinese-Creoles from various places in the Indonesian Archipelago. In the case of our story this certainly seems to be the case, but in the Cape it was her
Chinese identity which distinguished Thisgingnio van Ceribon from others.

On 9 April 1747 the VOC ship Standvastigheid arrivecl in Table Bay with a number of captives on board. It had come from Batavia. Few of the captives had survived the treacherous journey, but amongst the survivors there was a Chinese lady who stood out amongst the captives. She was an exile and prisoner and no record remains as to what her crime had been. She was registered as Thisgingnio van Ceribon, which is on the north coast of Java.

Thisgingnio was sent to the Slave Lodge as a convict for ten years. She was not a slave. In 1757 Thisgingnio was released from the confines of the Slave Lodge to lead a free life until her death in 1763. Her release from the Slave Lodge was by a rather unusual decree of the Governor, which suggests that there was more importance to this lady than meets the eye. An air of mystery surrounds this Chinese lady who settled into the small group of Chinese exiles at the Cape.

Thisgingnio made a new life for herself with a fellow Chinese exile from Batavia, by the name of Ongkonko. It was a short period of brightness in her life, because three years later he died. Thisgingnio was dealt a heavy blow by Ongkonkos death. After this tragedy Thisgingnio seems to have died inside. She pined for Ongkonko and literally drank herself to death over the next three years. She died in 1763 when she never awoke from an alcohol binge one night and was found slumped over her drink by her lodger, the Yemini, Said Atwi.

Thisgingnio was known to have kept the company of notables at the Cape. Her lodger
had been the advisor to the royal court of the Sushunan, the ruler ot Java., before being seized and exiled by the Dutch, who considered him a trouble maker.

Thisgingnio and Ongkonko had been running a flourishing restaurant business and Onkonko had left a sizeable will, including houses, cash, the business and movable property. Only his sister in Batavia and Thisgingnio were beneficiaries of his will.

Ongkonko was well connected in Batavia where his brother-in-law was a Chinese Captain in the service of the VOC. Ongkonko had been sentenced for treason in Batavia and sent into exile at the Cape, but he kept contact with his sister, Insaaf, in Batavia.

Ongkonlro had also arrived in the Cape in 1747 on the ship Nieuwstadt. Another Chinese man, Poasinko, who had been the executor of Ongkonkds will, assumed responsibility for burying Thisgingnio when she died. Because of Onkonko’s connections it may well have been he who had used his connections to ensure that Thisgingnio was released from the Slave Lodge. Documents are silent on who this mysterious lady really was and she left no clue to her story.

Her estate sale shows that there were over 70 buyers present when her estate was wound up. It was a sign of her standing in the Cape. The inventory of her estate runs into many pages. Much of what she had, was bequeathed to her by Ongkonko. Amongst those present at the sale were a group of Chinese buyers and creditors. These were Poasinko, Locko, Dominko, Quansink and Ontingo, They clearly wished to keep some memory of the outstanding couple in their community as they are recorded as buying a number of items.

Our knowledge of the early Chinese is sparse but we do know that there were Chinese slaves, convicts, exiles and free-black burghers. Thisgingnio had no children, but we know that others did. These Chinese are amongst the many threads that make up our heritage in the Cape.

Thisgingnio van Ceribon`s story provides more questions than answers but does provide a little crack shedding some light on another element of our ancestry in the Cape.

What event occurred in the mid 1740s back in Java and Batavia that led to a number of Chinese who seem to have bonds that connected them, being sent to the Cape as exiles?

Why was one of these singled out for a lengthy imprisonment? Who was the mysterious Chinese Lady Thisgingnio from Ceribon? Could she have been a major figure in the huge rebellion of Chinese in Batavia after the Dutch carried out a massacre of genocide proportions?

What do we know of the Chinese in Batavia around 1740? Chinese Indonesians or ‘Tionghoa Indonesia’ trace their origins to the southern parts of China, such as Fujian Guangdong and Hainan. The first migrations date back to the 15th century voyages ol the Muslim Chinese Admiral Zheng who had travelled around the world. These Chinese became creolised or ‘huan-na’ through intermarriage and became known as Peranakan Chinese. More than half of the population of Batavia (Jakarta) were Chinese in the 1740s.

The Dutch in Batavia became agitated at the rising power of the Chinese in Batavia and Java and resented the increased migration of Chinese Coolies or farm labourers brought in by wealthy Chinese traders and farmers. In 1740 the \/’OC began to forcibly transfer unwanted Chinese Coolies to Galle in Sri Lanka. Rumours arose that the Dutch would throw the Chinese overboard to drown as soon as they were over the horizon. A Chinese Coolie revolt broke out in and around Batavia. The Dutch responded by turning their attention on the settled and more wealthy Chinese within the city walls of Batavia. A decreed residential search by the Dutch soon got out of hand and turned into a massacre of 5000 Chinese in their homes, hospitals and prisons.

A Dutch preacher fanned the flames from the pulpit, by declaring that the killing of Chinese was ‘God`s Will’. The colonial government also were said to have posted a bounty for decapitated Chinese heads. After the order was proclaimed Chinese were now required to live within ghettos throughout Dutch controlled Indonesia.

It is between 1740 – 1750 that the Chinese exiles and prisoners of our story arrive in the Cape. They are likely to have been from the more wealthy class of Chinese traders who were revolting over the new restrictions placed on them, By the latter 1740s the VOC was investigating the causes of the Massacre and a truce on hostilities was enforced. Chinese resisters unwilling to ‘calm down’ were exiled instead of being killed as had happened in 1740. We may not know too much about Thisgingnio, but we do know that she was a prisoner, that she was from the trading class and that she is likely to have been part of the resistance to Dutch rule, genocide and bullying. In looking at Thisgingnio, the sad lady who died of a broken heart after her beloved Ongkonko passed away we can only get glimpses of her reality, but she does point us in the right direction to look at the circumstances that resulted in our ancestors of Chinese heritage knowing no other home than the Cape.

Wave after wave of people fleeing from or driven out from catastrophic events brought about by the Tsunami of Colonialism arrived in the Cape to become part of our ancestral heritage. The Manillas from the Phillipines were another such group displaced by revolutionary war. They first settled in Kalk Bay….but that’s another story.

* The reference to the other source in the second paragraph of this exploration of Chinese in our heritage is James Armstrong who presented the story of Thesgingnio at the UCT Conference in 2006 on Social Identity and Material Culture in the VOC World, where Nigel Wordon encouraged the presenters and indeed broader roleplayers in social enquiry to break out of the narrow confines in which social scientists are often trapped, exhorting us to work from our own shifting materiality and look at the variety of ways of considering who we are and where we come from.


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