THE HISTORY OF THE TIES THAT BIND THAI AND SOUTH AFRICAN PEOPLE

People ask the question – “When did the first Thai people come to South Africa?” They are surprised when told that Thai people are first clearly recorded in South Africa over 250 years ago and that there are indications of even earlier South East Asian arrivals.

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Archive records show the presence of a Thai male slave by the name of Achilles of Siam in Cape Town in 1759. Another record for Cape Town shows a Thai female slave by the name of Leonora of Siam in 1790. The Thai first names were changed by slave traders when they found difficulty pronouncing Thai names.

But other indicators suggest that Thai and other South East Asian slaves were amongst the earliest slaves in the Cape during the period 1652 until 1710. Slaves were also taken from Arakan (Rhakine in Myanmar) and Tonkin (Vietnam). A man by the name of Soutanij of Burma is recorded for 1706. Today in the 21st century Thai people often comment on how some Coloured people in Cape Town look like Thai people. Now you know why!

The great Buddhist temple at Borobudur in Indonesia further shows a bass relief of an East Asian ship doing a voyage around the tip of Africa as early as the 8th century, so one cannot rule out the possibility of even earlier linkages.

Cape Town has a very old relationship to Thailand and the two main linkages are ‘SLAVERY’ and the ‘DUTCH UNITED EAST INDIA COMPANY’(VOC) which had a commercial factory in Ayatthuya. Both slavery and the VOC were the dominant forces in Cape Town which was the half-way station for the 65 European ships per year that were doing trade with the Kingdom of Ayatthuya.

Thailand loosely translated means ‘the land of the FREE’ and this has great significance to the descendants of slaves in the Western Cape Province of South Africa where around 65% of the people have slave ancestors including from South East Asia, India, the Indonesian Archipelago, Madagascar and Africa. Over 71 000 slaves were brought to Cape Town from 1652 through to the mid 19th century. The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of slaves imported into Cape Town were all born into slavery.

Although formal slavery was abolished and gradually phased out over 20 years after 1834, South Africa would only, after the resistance struggle against Apartheid, become the ‘Land of the FREE’ after 1994 under our great President Nelson Mandela.

Old Siam and the Kingdom of Ayatthuya was a kingdom where many people were slaves and were not free. This changed under the great progressive and beloved King Chulalongkorn Rama V, the fifth monarch of Siam under the House of Chakri, transformed the face of Siam by abolishing slavery leading to the emergence of Thailand – the land of the FREE.

Slavery was so entrenched in Thailand that by 1867 over one third of the population of Siam, were slaves. Some of these slaves were taken to Cape Town. In 1874 King Rama V enacted a law that began a process taking over 30 years that led to the Slave Abolition Act passed in 1905. Sometime after the death of King Rama V, the broader reforms which he started were continued by the nationalist military officer Luang Phibunsongkhram who in 1939 renamed Siam as Thailand.

The links between Thailand and South Africa go back to 1602 when the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) was formed as the first modern joint stock company monopolizing trade with Asia.

By 1619 the VOC founded the powerful city-state of Batavia (Jakarta) as the center of the company’s interests in Asia, South East Asia and Indonesia with a Governor-General appointed to govern all Dutch interests and settlements from Cape Town to Ayatthuya in Siam and Deshime in Japan, as well as over the entire islands of the Indonesian Archipelago. These were the beginnings of the ties that bind Thailand and Cape Town in South Africa.

The Siamese Kingdom of Ayatthuya remained a strong and free Kingdom which the Dutch were not able to control but they were allowed to set up a factory and trading station by the King of Siam. King Ekathotsarot had sent a delegation to the Dutch State in 1605 and as a result a Dutch VOC factory was established in Ayatthuya and Dutch shipping frequently stopped off there in great numbers.

These ships and the trade with Ayatthuya were regularly serviced by the vital Dutch half-way station at Cape Town under the VOC administration based at Fort de Goede Hoop from 1652.

The Dutch settlement at the Cape desperately required slaves to build Cape Town and work on its farms so India, South East Asia and the Indonesian islands became a major source for over 30 000 slaves sent to Cape Town including skilled artisans. This is the background as to why Thai people and people from Myanmar, Bengal, India and Indonesia came to Cape Town in South Africa.

Along with these people came the mixture of Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, as well as Reusi, Dukun and other Shaminist faith traditions that collectively influenced religious belief in Cape Town, as well as, cooking traditions, use of spices and rice, and other cultural practices.

This is the true story of the deep roots of heritage ties between Thailand and South Africa and how we share blood ties.

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