Where have all the Cape Khoena gone?

What happened to the more than 16 Cape-based Khoena clans  and where have the four large concentrations of San gone? Is it true to say that it is simply a case of the majority of today’s people labelled ‘Coloured’ are the only true descendants of the Khoe and the San? The complex answer to the former is the subject of this article and the answer to the second question is that this formulation is both simplistic and incorrect.

Khoe JJ

Notwithstanding the fact that probably around 35 – 40% of those that the Apartheid regime had classified as ‘Coloured’ are descended from the Khoena and the San in the Western Cape, the historic and scientific demographic of the Western Cape shows that the impact of slavery more than anything else has fashioned identity along with indigene heritage, imported indentured labour and the European/Eurasian tributary.

Indeed in the rural districts of the West Coast region as well as in the Northern Cape the figures may be as high as 70% among those labelled ‘Coloured’ and in the urban and peri-urban sprawl of the Cape Peninsula, and the rural districts of Boland and Overberg as low as 20% of people labelled ‘Coloured’ are of Khoena and San descent.

These assumptions are based on a large DNA study (The Living History Project that have been done on self-identifying individuals where 30% of those labelled ‘Coloured’ had Khoe and San mtdna (and 2% Y-Chromesome dna). The same studies interestingly showed that 17% of those labelled ‘Black’ also had Khoena and San mtdna (6% Y-Chromosome dna) and, those classified as ‘White’ and those classified as ‘Asian’ had 8,5% (0% Y-C dna) and 16% (0% Y-C dna)  Khoe and San mtdna. Notably those labelled ‘Coloured’ had 32% Bantu mtdna (22% Y-C dna); 22% Asian mtdna (16% Y-C dna); 13% Eurasian mtdna (48% Y-C dna); and 2,5% European mtdna (12% Y-C dna).

The question then is whether there is a historical explanation for why science shows us this evidence? Resoundingly, YES there is an explanation if we set aside the traditional propaganda history books and the racist ideas of ‘pure’ and ‘uncontaminated’ peoples as propagated by the Apartheid National Party ideologues. It is unfortunate that some today still tout these false notions as fact.

In the Western Cape we have 7 main historical tributaries into our ‘peopling’ identity today. The indigenes (Khoena, San and Bantu); the slaves (African, Indian and South East Asian); the Free Blacks (freed slaves, mixed Slave/Khoena and free black travelers; Europeans (from a range of countries); Maroons (runaways or drosters from the previous 4 groups); Exiles and Refugees; and Indentures and Migrants. By studying the interaction of these and the historical events involved, we are able through scientific dna studies show the relationship of history and science that underpins understanding of identity in the Cape. Along with this we have fairly advanced genealogical studies that also provide un-challengeable facts that record actual marriages, unions, births, deaths and descent that underpin the scientific evidence and the historical evidence that underpins the unraveling of ‘Coloured’ identity in the Western Cape as well as other identities. Purity of ‘race’ is totally debunked by these inter-related studies.

To understand what happened to the Khoena clans and the San of the Western Cape we have to go on a journey of persecution, war and resistance. It has been the covering over of this tragic story and fabrication of myths that has both insulted the memory of these our forebears and has denied us an proper understanding of this important element of our identity. For some who are the surviving direct descendants of the Khoena and the San it has denied them restitution and the opportunity to rebuild their social and clan identities. For those of us who have a strong affinity based partially on descent and wish to revive a broad sense of identity rooted in both our Khoena and San roots, the lack of clarity on the past is an impediment of how we move forward. And for those of us who simply wish to celebrate our Khoena and San ancestral roots as part of a tapestry of origins, likewise it is an impediment for us in moving forward, not to have all of the pieces of this puzzle.

Historical researcher Nigel Penn in his devoted work towards understanding what he calls the FORGOTTEN FRONTIER has provided us with the most useful and comprehensive  account of the hidden history of the ethnic cleansing of the Khoena and San of the Western Cape.

Four of my favourite characters in history were freedom fighter contemporaries in the closing years of a 160 year series of wars of resistance by the Khoena, San and Slaves to Dutch and subsequent British colonial land grabs and genocide. Khoena Chief David Stuurman, the enslaved Louis of Maritius, the rebellious priest Dr Johannes van der Kemp and the Itola warrior prophet Makana whose mother was Khoe and father was amaXhosa. They all died between 1807 and 1825 and each has an amazing story.

It is not their stories that I will relate here but rather the story of a 160 year conflict in which they were just the closing players. As the 160 years of war came to an end it over lapped with another 100 years war in the eastern Cape where Khoena, Slave Drosters and amaXhosa often also stood together. That war is fairly well covered by historians, albeit with terrible slants, while the 160 year war is not. In understanding this period we can better understand a complex process from which our identity rises like a phoenix. The story addresses the question of WHERE HAVE ALL THE CAPE KHOENA GONE?

Our history books give a distorted impression as to what happened to the Khoena (Khoi) and the San in the Cape Colony and writes out their resistance and survival strategies. Because of these deficiencies, distortions continue to this day. But thanks to ground-breaking research by people like Nigel Penn in his comprehensive work – ‘The Forgotten Frontier – Colonist & Khoisan on the Cape’s Northern Frontier in the 18th Century’ ((2005) we have a much better picture of the facts. I draw heavily on this work for this article

Is the Khoena and San story just a matter of understanding two wars of resistance ending in 1677 and then along came two devastating Smallpox epidemics in 1713 and 1755 and “poof” there were no more Khoena and San from that time onwards? That story ranks as taking joint first-prise as an absurd untruthful account alongside that other myth that Chief Autshumao the trader who had travelled to Jakarta and back and, ran a successful trading post at the Cape for just over 22 years, was just an ignorant thieving beach-bum called Harry the Strandlooper.

What actually happened and the scale of what happened is a really horrible story that cannot be swept under the carpet.

When the United Dutch East India Company (VOC) set up its fort right next Autshumao’s settlement at the Camissa in Table Bay on the Cape Peninsula (//Hui !Gaeb) there were 16 or more Khoena clans in the Western and Central Cape reaching to the lower reaches of the Eastern Cape. Likewise at least 5 large San communities were also living across the same territory. The Khoena and San living within the boundaries of the then mapped Cape up to the Piketberg in the West and to outskirts of Swellendam district in the East was estimated at 50,000 and with further later estimates of 40 – 50,000 more beyond and up to the Gariep River on the North West and the Fish River in the Keiskamma in the East.

What then actually happened to result in the figure for Khoena and so-called Bastard-Hottentots together being given as 14,883 in 1798 in the census of all within the Cape Colony? WHERE HAD ALL THE CAPE KHOENA GONE?

The white population in 1658 was 166 and the slave population was 187 and 146 years later in 1798 the white population had grown to 21,300 while slaves were at 25,754. (In the period 1653 to 1807 63,000 slaves were imported and between 1808 and 1856 another 8000 Prize Salves arrived. Both the European and the Slave populations had grown dramatically but Khoena together with mixed Khoena-Slave were drastically down to under 15,000 from 50,000 and many were now the offspring of mixed relationships between male slaves and captured Khoena and San women after being taken by commandos in raids where their male partners were slaughtered. It is this puzzle that remains hidden in various histories. (Ref:AT Brenner 2006 –Appendix A ‘Slavery and Khoisan Indentured Servitude in 18th Century Dutch Cape Colony)

The starting point of course is the two anti-colonial wars of resistance by the Khoena ending in 1660 and 1677 respectively. While the first war ended in a stalemate the second war had grave consequences when the Cochoqua were defeated and faced economic, political and social disintegration. Loss of life, restrictions on land and confiscation of livestock (1765 cattle and 4930 sheep) was a huge blow. By the time that Chiefs Gonnema and Oedosoa died in 1685 and 1689 respectively, the Cochoqua were pushed back towards Roodezand (Tulbagh) and their fragmentation had accelerated.

In 1686 when other groups of Khoena were also under pressure from the colonists the San and the Grigriqua also clashed with the Cochouqua further weakening them. Other Peninsula Khoena such as the Goringhaiqua, the Gorachouqua and the remnants of the Goringhaicona migrated northwards, staying for a while with the Namaqua and eventually making new formations at the Gariep such as the Korana, Witboois, Griquas and Orlam Afrikaners. By the time of the expansion to Stellenbosch and the Drakenstein, the Khoena Klapmats were moved on while remaining Peninsula Khoena went into servitude alongside slaves on white farms or in the case of the males many were forcibly conscripted into informal commandos which rode out under white command to raid cattle from Khoena groups deep in the interior.

The pressure mounted on the Khoena in the Tulbagh, Ceres, Waveren, Riebeeck Kasteel, Piketberg, Sandveld areas as well as to Cedarberg, Kouebokkeveld and Saldanha. The colonists wanted their cattle and would do anything to rustle cattle from the Khoena. The two Governors van der Stel at first tried their best to stop cattle rustling and murderous attacks on the Khoena and San and introduced harsh punishments and even death sentences to put an end to this state of affairs. The errant colonists did their utmost to opposed particularly Willem Adrian van der Stel, but the VOC in Europe decided that he was being too harsh on the colonists and that they should legally be able to trade with the Khoena. This was a de facto license to go and do as they please. The company officials also now had to compete with the colonists in the bartering and they were no saints either. The besieged Khoena and San faced with ruin had no option but to retaliate and a 7 year period of war broke out from 1701 – 1708. In the wake of the war came further expansion when grazing permits were introduced for colonists to enter the Khoena areas of retreat. By 1714 this was followed by a loan farm system that was introduced. This in fact ran rough shod over the peace treaty with the Khoena signed in 1705.

It was in the aftermath of the war and during the time of the granting of grazing rights to trekboers, that in 1713 a visiting Danish ship that had arrived in Table Bay brought a devastating epidemic of smallpox. By all accounts it killed off settlers, slaves, Free Blacks and Khoena. The growing and increasingly more powerful Free Black community was decimated and never really recovered. The Khoena were hardest hit with reports of hundreds laying at roadsides as far as Saldanha Bay and the Drakenstein and beyond. While this tragic event, repeated again in 1755, does not account for the huge decline of Khoena and San by 1798, it is acknowledged that it was a significant contributing factor, along with cattle theft, war, land appropriation after forced removals and genocide.

Between 1714 and 1717 more surviving Khoena now without leaders and clans became ‘contract’ or ‘indentured’ labourers alongside slaves and were really treat not too differently than slaves.

The Khoena and San who bordered on Waveren, Piketberg and Roodezand (Tulbagh) at this stage still maintained their strength and coherenance and a resistance war again flared up from 1715 -1716. Hundreds of Khoena and San men were killed in battles and raids by commandos. Women and children were then taken off deep into the colony and scattered about farms as ‘indentured’ servants and labourers. Young boys were brought up to serve in militia as conscripts. Nominally the Khoena labourers and servants were not enslaved but formally were free people under contract. As children of slave men by slave women would also become slaves that could be bought and sold, Slave men had relationships with Khoena and San women, who were often widowed by war, knowing that their children would be born free and were likely to grow up around them. Khoena women also knew that the terrible things that inevitably awaited their Khoena and particularly male San male children were less likely to befall them if they were regarded as Baster-Khoena. It was a survival tactic and it did work for them. Khoena, San and slaves co-operated as oppressed people, under the same oppressor at a range of levels and often innovatively. This included fighting alongside each other as resistance fighters. Many slaves ran away to join the Khoena and Orlams resistance groups in the north across the frontier and across the frontier in the east.

From 1717 – 1725 a combination of illness among livestock affecting both the indigene communities and the colonists resulted in a retreat by Khoena inland particularly after the 1716 war. This did not stop the Europeans pursuing the Khoena because they were after livestock due to their own perishing. The stolen livestock of the indigenes who were now also in inhospitable territory further disrupted communities, who in turn fled northwards. Even the VOC could now see that the license given to colonists to trade was having a devastating effect on those whom the VOC too had to trade with. So in 1727 the VOC returned to the practice that they had condemned the van der Stels for implementing and instituted a new ban on colonists from trading with the Khoena. Of course the VOC was also short of meat and found that regardless of the new ban the Khoena stocks could no longer yield for anyone. The state of war however did subside for a while. But by this time the colonial held territory under the VOC had literally been ethnically cleansed of free organised Khoena through the brutality of war and the Khoena on the borders of the Colony were facing impoverishment.

By 1732 colonists now had farms all along the entire Olifants River territory. From 1738 to 1740 a war of resistance again broke out as colonist trekboers moved beyond Piketberg to Namaqualand and from the Westcoast to beyond the Bokkeveld. The defeat of the Khoena and the San and the resultant peace treaty, which everyone knew was not worth anything opened up further expansion into the north east. But now the settlers were on their own as the VOC was too weak to extend its support so far. The trekboers and farmers became a law to themselves and their commandos had free reign. From 1740 through to 1770 settlement continued but the settlers were few in number in relation to the Khoena so far inland and things were relatively peaceful in the latter years and the scene for conflict shifted to the Roggeveld in the 1750s and the nature of the conflict changed. The Khoena and trekboers now cut off from the VOC found common ground and created joint commandos and attacked the San. The records show that these raids against the San were vicious and genocidal in nature. Single attacks resulted in deaths of between 50 to 90 San. But these, bad as they were, were just a precursor to what was to happen next.

In 1774 the VOC decided to formally adopt the commando system as part of its military apparatus and thereby give it further reach. While all of this expansion through killing and raiding had been going on in the west and central regions of the Colony, there had been gradual encroachment and pushing of the Khoena eastwards as well. In the east the Khoena had strong and friendly networks with the amaXhosa and there was strong familial relationships and mixed clans too. The san too were also very strong in the mountainous areas such as the Sneeuberg and the Bruintjieshoogte. The settler expansion was halted at the Fish River, the Sneeuberg and Bruintjieshoogte. The most formidable resistance came from the San and the colonists were not doing very well. With the trouble in the Nieuweveld and Roggeveld intensifying too, the new formal commandos were dispatched by the VOC. This was imperative for the VOC because it had granted almost 200 new farms to settlers stretching from the west to the east so as to consolidate the Cape Colony. The Commandos despatched against the San and the Khoena Resisters were literally extermination machines. They were under white command but were roughly made up of 50% whites and 50% Khoena conscripts brought up on farms and trained while still young. The San were referred to as Vermin and the kill rate increased more than three-fold from 1773 to 1774 to figures like 260 deaths in a single attack.

The San unlike the Khoena did not entertain peace treaties and fought to the bitter end. Commandos killed all adults taking no prisoners but young women and children. These too increased the labour pool alongside the slaves as ‘indetured’ labourers. The Sneeuberg Camdeboo and Swart Ruggens saw the greatest indigene resistance of all time. It became the killing fields of the Cape Colony that went beyond any definition of war. This carnage is what gave birth to the Western Cape and its trauma has been passed on from generation to generation. The resisting Khoena faced the same fate in which civil war elements entered to fray. The same genocide would later be adopted against the southern amaXhosa where all adults were shot and all crops and livestock burnt in a scorched earth approach adopted by the British in the early 1800s.

The Eastern Frontier and the North Eastern mountain people saw a brave and defiant fight to the last man and woman. In the 1780s a resistance history played out in the Cape like nowhere else in South Africa, before or after. Those who say that the Khoena and the San gave up the fight without resistance are just displaying their own ignorance. The history books have remained silence on how the Western Cape was won by the colonists and about the brave resistance. White settlement only occurred as a result of the wanton murder of indigene inhabitants across the Western Cape. The people and clans that occupied this territory did not simply get whipped out by disease, or magically disappear in a peaceful migration elsewhere. They were decimated by force in a colonial holocaust. Though the smallpox epidemics played their part these paled against the slaughter. By 1798 the now mixed Khoena / Khoena-Baster population was 14,883 and no longer had land, cattle or freedom. These survived with the assistance of their enslaved comrades and still fought and resisted in different ways. In the Roggeveld in December 1801 a combined force of Khoena and Slaves involving 70 resisters rose up against their oppressive farmer. In 1808 over 340 slaves and Khoena under the leadership of Louis of Mauritius rose up in the biggest slave rebellion ever. These events, and many of them, is what built a very special resistance relationship between two groups of people who by now share familial ties of ancestry.

The slavery and Khoena interface gradually merged over the next 50 years when after the proclamation of Ordinance 50 giving Khoena freedom of movement and land tenure and, emancipation of slaves from slavery, together the survivors formed new communities alongside every white town. Along the migration routes Khoena and mixed Khoena heritage survived on farms and in small towns.

But many exiles from the Colony also would become new resisters fighting other battles for survival as they fled from the South to the West to the northern Gariep territory also joined by those who fled from the East to join them. Migrants poured into the Gariep territory and after years of struggle formed new communities with a solid Khoena base but also took in resisters from other groups including slave drosters and a few non-conformist Europeans. Just north of the main Namaqua groups along the Gariep river from Pella to Prieska a number of San and Khoena groups lived side by side, sometimes peacefully and sometimes in conflict. They had brought many traditions from different parts of the South with them.

The Gariep communities running from Pella eastwards were the Nanningai San, Naugaap Khoena, various Eis San groups, Kaukoa Khoena, Gyzikou Khoena, Au Nameikoa San, Koow Einas San, Naw Keis San, Hoekeikoa San, Noueikoa San, Moncoboo San, and Khoena groups – Kouringeis Korana (or Gora), Husingais Korana (Gora), Kay Kora Korana (Gora).

They were joined by the Kok and Barends descendants of the Grigriqua and Bergenaar Basters who also entered the Gariep territory, followed by the Witboois who had found refuge with the Namaqua, and the Orlam Afrikaners. The Korana (Gora) largely are said to be from the fragmented maroon Khoena from the South such as the Gorachouqua and Goringhaiqua who also regrouped at the Gariep.

By 1800 the largest groups of Khoena now resided far away from the VOC rule and the Cape colony frontier. At the Gariep the Khoena were to thrive until the next major upheavals came. British rule, missionaries, the Boers from the Great Trek and the discovery of diamonds as well as Mfecane all would impact negatively and violently on these Khoena and San communities which had found temporary sanctuary. Many would migrate west into Nambia, North into the Free State, across the Drakensburg to the East and elsewhere. A few of those from Griqualand East followed their leader De Kneg, AAS le Fleur to the Western Cape and scattered to Mamre, Goodwood, Touws River and Plettenberg Bay. A few gravitated over a long period back to the Western Cape in search of work but had to compete with new indentured labourers from St Helena, Asia and other African countries as from 1856 the Prize Slave indentured labour stream that had continued after slaver was abolished now dried up. Mostly the Khoena exiled to the Gariep remained frozen in small rural communities in the Northern Cape.

Post liberation from Apartheid Khoena and San survivor communities often against great odds in rural communities and a few in cities have struggled to reclaim their past. Some others have created KhoiSan revivalist movements to do the same. Yet others celebrate with pride their Khoena, San and Slave Heritage and the heroic resistance of their forebears as a tapestry part of who they are today. All call has been made for recognition of the historic injustice against San, Khoena and enslaved forebears, land reparation and restitution of the memory of our forebears particularly in the Western Cape which has been stripped of all acknowledgements of the Khoena and San. Others look at us incredulously and say “What on earth are they talking about. They are making up history.” In the face of hostility on the one hand and very confused and inaccurate narratives on the other hand, there is an urgent need to develop a simple popular narrative on this history so that even kids can articulate this free from ridicule.

Our children should be learning about these atrocities and about the amazing resistance in schools. Our public places should have exhibits and names that speak to this heritage. South Africa as a country should acknowledge this stolen past and put a stop to the stunted and covered over histories from whatever quarter they emanate. From the 1510 first victorious military engagement with the then world super-power military force under Portuguese General d’Almeide to the 160 years war and beyond…. through to such modern liberation heroes as Basil February, Ashely Kriel, Anton Fransch, Coleen Williams and Dulcie September…… the sons and daughters of the Khoena, San and enslaved…. we can really be proud…. They rose up above adversity.

To read a more in-depth account please reference – – ‘The Forgotten Frontier – Colonist & Khoisan on the Cape’s Northern Frontier in the 18th Century’ ((2005) by Nigel Penn.


1 thought on “Where have all the Cape Khoena gone?

  1. Thank you, Tariq for this. As someone who has always loved and read historical texts (well, that is until university when I dropped history as a major because I did not believe the narratives), I thoroughly enjoyed this. In all my years of studying history, the narratives on the Western Cape seemed riddled with holes. Thank you for your piece. It makes sense. One of my biggest questions had been on why the indigenous people of the Southern Cape had never resisted. It never made sense that people would just give up their land and offer themselves for servitude. Thank you for clearing that up.

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