The OTHER story of the founding of the City of Cape Town – The Camissa Footprint

The other day I was browsing through some old books at a good second-hand bookstore near where I live and found a very interesting statistic in a maritime history book, “THE CAPE OF GOOD HOPE – A MARITIME HISTORY by Robin Knox-Johnston, concerning the fact that over the full span of the1600s over 1770 Dutch ships alone had called at the Cape. Although I have done much research and writing on alternative Cape history -it again hit me like a thunderbolt as to how much we were fed a load of bull-dust as history during Apartheid times, and I will explain why.

Now I have always been interested in maritime affairs. I went on a working trip to sea for a couple of weeks as an engine-room boy when I was 14 and a number of my family were seamen all their lives. It was one way of getting away from Apartheid South Africa for many men of colour and a means of seeing the world. For 18 months of my five years as a senior officer in the Immigration and Border Control services I was put in charge of a transformation programme involving modernisation and security upgrade of all SA harbours. I was responsible for pushing for the re-building of a cruise-liner terminal and inter-agency security command centre in Duncan Dock as a pilot to be rolled out for each of our 8 harbours. At the time by vision and intervention was opposed by all and sundry and most vociferously by the Democratic Alliance controlled City and Province. The narrow view held of preserving the then current business interests within the waterfront made them myopic to my vision of taking Cape Town harbour forward as a secure and dynamic gateway into South Africa. The manner in which my then opponents talk now has opportunistically changed – they all want to claim responsibility for what they now see as a great addition to Cape Town’s offerings. Such is life and so too is our past often skewed. I love the sea and Cape Town harbour and the maritime trade has a long and fascinating history. So what has all this maritime stuff got to do with the warping of history you might justifiably ask?

I came home after my jaunt at the bookshop and did some quick research by consulting a work – “The Dutch East India Company’s Shipping 1602 – 1795 in a comparative perspective” by FS Gaastra and JR Bruijn from Leiden University. I wanted to verify the statistic that I found and to interrogate it some more.This work considers all the variables at play for each decade of two centuries and provides the statistics for six European powers merchant fleets during the 1600s and 1700s between Europe and South and Southeast Asia. It shows us that just over the period 1590 until 1700 there were 2632 ships that had to call at the Cape and here is the thing, before van Riebeeck arrived in 1652, the figure of ships that called at the Cape was 1071.

This represented a rise from around 8 ships a year in the last decade of the 1500s to around 30 in a year with layovers of 2 days to 8 days by the time Van Riebeeck arrived. So hey, wait a minute. Table Bay was quite a busy port for at least four decades before van Riebeeck arrived. Why then did he and historians looking back at his contribution give us a scenario that said the rather ignorant and good-for-nothing locals were awestruck at van Riebeeck’s arrival and that he set up the first refreshment operations, no thanks to the locals?

The Dutch dominated the numbers of ships doing lay-overs and then England followed with France, Portugal, Denmark also regularly coming to the Cape. Interestingly in the period 1610 to 1620 English ships increased to ten times the number of the previous decade. This strongly indicates why the English considered colonization at this point in time and then later opted to support local development of indigene support infrastructure.

Indicators of the progression of the English approach is to study their actions of first taking Chief Xhore of the Goringhaiqua to London for training and orientation in 1613; the failure of their Newgate convict settlement at the Cape in 1614 – 17; the taking of Chief Autshumao to Jakarta (Batavia) in 1630; the subsequent establishment of an indigene refreshment station on Robben Island in 1632; and the subsequent move of this project to the Camissa River on the Table Bay Mainland by 1638.

This English sponsored relationship with Autshumao and his 60-strong Goringhaicona permanently settled alongside the Camissa (//Gam i Ssa) river and beach continued over 20 years before the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck and represents the true foundation of the town which would become the City of Cape Town.

Autshumao was dealing with 2 to 3 ships per month at this stage and their stay-overs would be anything between two days and more than a week. Effectively it was an almost daily presence of European visitors. This represents a very different picture to one of Jan van Riebeeck arriving to greet a desolate Cape and just a bunch of beach scavenging ignorant indigenous people awestruck at seeing Europeans. In fact, the fleet that brought Jan van Riebeeck back to the Netherlands from Vietnam had stayed over in Table Bay for 18 days.

As I looked through more maritime texts I found fairly glowing accounts of his services and that of other Khoena. Each European power seemed to have had their own trusted man who performed a range of tasks including keeping mail and passing it on to other ships. Ships had even developed a gun-signal protocol for summonsing their hired hands.

But let’s stop and look at some of the dynamics of the Dutch and other European shipping of this magnitude. Let’s also look at the probable impact on the Khoena and then lets also keep in mind the improbability of the cock ‘n bull history that has been handed down to us over the years, with the collaboration of our academic institutions.

When one looks at the comparative maritime records of that time one gets a good picture of the competitiveness of the European/English powers, the dominance of the Dutch, the size and shape of their vessels and changes over time to this technology due to the cargoes carried. One also has to look at what was driving the increase in shipping to South and Southeast Asia and the dynamics of that region. What were these ships carrying to that part of the world and why so frequently? One also sees a dramatic and striking attrition rate of ships by examining the return journeys. The attrition rate through wrecks and wear and tear on vessels shows in that only around 50% of these vessels returned to Europe. It spurred on the development of shipbuilding technology and the need for advanced stop-over stations en route.

The attrition rate was the driver for the need for sophisticated stop-over points starting with refreshment posts and graduating to ship repair facilities. The records also show an almost studious omission in our history books to mention that the main outward bound role of the shipping was to take company officials and huge loads of troops to supply the wars in South and South East Asia with soldiers. There the Dutch were fighting the English and Portuguese and Muslim Sultanates and they needed to fortify their factories and huge bases in India, Sri Lanka and at Batavia. Factories stretched across the long Indian and Bengal Coast and from Arakan (Rhakine) in Myanmar, to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, through to Formosa, and Japan and then throughout Indonesia. This was a scenario thirsty for thousands of armed troops. The United Dutch East India Company had all the powers of state ceded to them by the Dutch States General. Now here’s another thing – these troops needed time ashore at strategic stops. The voyages were long and soldiers and officials got sick and died but also grew grumpy and fights broke out. It was most certain that by 1615 already the troops had to have had time ashore at the Cape of Good Hope.

The English took the lead in trying to find a solution to further developing the port. The English East India Company under Lord Thomas Smythe came up with an elaborate plan to establish a small trading colony using freed convicts from Newgate prison. They also knew that it would need to co-operate with the indigene population and took Chief Xhore of the Goringhaiqua to London, Pocohontas style, so that he could be orientated to their requirements. Chief Xhore was returned to Table Bay and 10 convicts under Captains Peyton and Crosse came out to start up a settlement.

The whole thing fell apart in three years. But then the English followed plan B – by using the services of Xhore as a point man who served the French, Portuguese and Danes as well. He ably facilitated trade and the other needs of the Europeans. He was more reluctant to serve the Dutch and at one time refused to serve them because of they had behaved abusively to his people. For this Xhore lost his life at Dutch hands around 1626. The English had so come to rely on Xhore (whom they called Cary) that they found the need to establish a new point person. This is how in around 1630/31 Autshumao (whom they called Harry) was taken for orientation to Jakarta and returned to the Cape. The English assisted Autshumao on two occasions to first establish himself formally as a trader facilitator for passing shipping, initially on Robben Island and then later at the Camissa River on the mainland – roughly near the end of the Grand Parade where the Golden Acre Centre now stands.

There are many signs that Autshumao performed his trader and port master role ably, was a proficient linguist, was shrewd and astute and, also knew the value of playing off English and their enemies the Dutch. The large formations of Khoena also knew to keep their main herds of thousands of cattle and sheep cattle, and their families far inland away from the Europeans so Autshumao was not simply an opportunist go-between trader but served a very useful defensive buffer role.

Now what is the impact of the big numbers of ships, the frequency of these ships visiting the Cape, the different nationalities involved, the need for repairs stop overs, the need for soldiers and officials to go ashore in large numbers, the problems on the ships, the need for supplies, probable occasional need to leave the sick behind, the required postal and news services and so on?

The first thing that it should tell one is that Table Bay at the Cape was already a Port before 1652. Secondly it was already a trading and layover station.

Then secondly from my own experience of working in harbours and resolving the problems that arise, this kind of sea traffic creates stowaways and stay-behinds; shore-leave by men leads to sexual encounters and relations becoming a norm of port; ship repairs would have needed the gathering of repair materials and therefore negotiation of terrain, cutting and gathering timber and this would have led to job creation and further trade.

This huge amount of sea-transport and human traffic must have had a huge impact on the local population living at the small Camissa settlement. The people in this indigene settlement were a recent phenomenon of maroons from other clans coming together – most probably as result of social impacts brought about through the visiting ships. All of the historical materials that I have read together with the size of the shipping stop-overs at the Cape and the vast numbers on board those ships and the poor state of those vessels when put alongside the information that we know of the social history of the Khoena between 1590 and 1652 suggest that we have all been taken for a ride by historians of the colonial and Apartheid eras. Vigorous or robust engagement had already become a norm by 1652 and did not start on that date and neither was Cape Town founded at this time.

Pause now for a minute.

In 1647 a shipwreck occurred at Table Bay. The Dutch ship Nieuwe Haarlem on its way back to Holland was wrecked at Woodstock beach. The survivors under Captain Leendert Janszen built a small wood and sand fort called Sandenburg at Salt River and built a deep well for underground fresh water. They remained at the Cape for a year until 1648. Leendert Janszen, Matthew Proot and Jodocus Hondius III (a scientist) used their time to gather intelligence on the terrain, the indigenes and the other visiting vessels as well as mapping Table Bay.

A fleet of 12 ships that stopped over for 18 days, under the command of Admiral GW de Jong, took Janzsen and his 62 men back to Holland. On board the same ship carrying Captain Janzsen was a certain disgraced VOC merchant – Jan van Riebeeck, who showed a huge interest in Janzsen’s proposition that the Dutch should establish a permanent base at Table Bay.

Van Riebeeck had been fired from his job in Hanoi (Tonkin) in Vietnam because he was cheating the VOC by insider trading. He was ordered to return to Holland and this was his voyage of disgrace. On board this return voyage Janzsen and his five senior men prepared a proposal – “remonstrantie” to the VOC.

Van Riebeeck to redeem himself with the VOC offered to lead a settlement expedition to establish Dutch control at the Cape. The Dutch needed to maintain their dominance in the east and hence the control of the strategically positioned Cape was seen as vital and that there needed to be a more technologically advanced port operation to achieve the much needed ship repair and servicing required.

Janzsen and de Jong’s views of the indigenes was a lot more favourable and respectful that that of Jan van Riebeeck and his later approach. Their approach mirrored that of the English of establishing cooperative relations. Janzsen spoke glowingly of the Khoena in Table Bay who were of great assistance to him during his long sojourn. He recommended that the VOC accept and respect the trading and servicing role of the indigenes by ensuring that any settlement is based on cooperation rather than conquest. Van Riebeeck however was bent on conquest and dislodging any form of intermediary trading by indigenes. He wanted a simple direct trading relationship as a stepping stone for company control over resources. As such the Camissa community’s entrepreneurial approach of a proto-trading class of local people of colour was out of the question for van Riebeeck. He was also wary of the fact that the local kingpin, Autshumao had a very strong relationship with the English.

The report to the VOC presented the statistics of how many vessels were stopping over, how many people going ashore, the trade that was being done and importantly that no European power had established themselves at the Port where trading was only organised by the indigenes under an English trained and sympathetic Autshumao and a relatively small settled group of indigene ‘Watermans’ next to the Camissa which they called the Soetwater Stroom (also known as Rio Dolce, Rio de Camis and Platteklipstroom). Van Riebeeck saw this scenario as a push-over and thus the die was cast. The VOC and Captain Janzsen had their ideas, but van Riebeeck had his own. The imfamous ‘Skelm of Vietnam’ was not about to change his old habits.

History has been most unfair to Autshumao and the Goringhaicona trading mission at Camissa and has never properly analysed what happened in the 50 years prior to van Riebeeck’s arrival or the 20 year old human trading settlement at Camissa and the impacts of the large scale visitations of ships, sailors, officials and troops who were adequately catered for by locals. The social history of this port village with its sizable yet relatively small population had changed their mode of living, economic and social habits as happened in every other port across the African coastline.

This criminal negligence in academia which continues to this day has to be challenged. Indigenes are treated as anthropological and archaeological subjects in the paradigm of stone-age and iron-age peoples, rather than as subjects of social history enquiry by our museums and educational institutions. This has both robbed us of the ability to properly assess our past but has also fed into a primitivistic paradigm in terms of how many who seek to revive the memory of and understanding of our forebears think about and represent our forebears today in an equally skewed manner. European historical evaluation which is highly skewed sets the edges of discourse today and all sorts of European overlays from feudal monarchies to modern nation concepts are placed on our past and then misinforms our present.

Today we have people who claim to be indigene kings seeking recognition for numerous kingdoms or as a nation or nations. From what I can gather, there were no hereditary chiefs or kings but rather elders recognised by their communities as such because of leadership and achievement. Both Xhore and Autshumao became recognised as chiefs or leaders because of their achievements and their people’s recognition thereof rather than were born to be such. Autshumao’s niece Krotoa is one of my 9th great grandmother’s and if I were to believe some of today’s overlays of royalty on our past then I would be a prince. I harbour no such desire to covet an erroneous royal persona, but I do have a pride in the achievements of both Autshumao and Krotoa.

The early foundational human endeavour of a Khoena settled trading community which embraced visitors and whom no doubt some visitors embraced and remained and assimilated into, certainly which would have had offspring, as occurs in all ports. This element of children born from relations between the sea-travelling Europeans requires much, much more research and evaluation attention. This Camissa (//Gam i Ssa) village where the Grand Parade, Castle and District Six stands today on the Cape Peninsula known to the Khoena as //Hui Gaeb! can give us all a whole new take on our past. It is the Camissa Footprint and all that was born out of this pre1652 and post 1652 that informs our sense of identity.

We certainly cannot ignore this overwhelming evidence that 1652 was not a magical date of Khoena and European interaction….. nor can we ignore the vast numbers of vessels and people from abroad who came here and interacted with locals…. Nor can we ignore that key notable indigene figures had travelled abroad and returned and engaged with new technology and trading and new ways of living and were not merely ignorant beach scavengers. With all of this information at our fingertips we cannot accept uncritically the European writings that have marginalised and robbed us of a fair view of our forebears. Many of the basic assumptions that we make about the past are called into question. We are the descendants of this Camissa footprint as much as we are of the older Khoena modes of living and of slaves brought to this port from elsewhere in Africa, India and Southeast Asia and including all the interactions and resistance proceeding from this site.

We know that across the Peninsula there were up to 40,000 indigene inhabitants, mainly Khoena and over the broader Western Cape up to 50,000 more, both Khoena and San, making up around 16 Khoena clan groupings and at least five San or /Xam groupings of different strengths, and the they were very rich in livestock. Van Riebeeck left a record of less known correspondence, other than his famous diaries. While the latter tended to portray him favourably by his own hand a more wider view of his correspondence and the views of others sheds a different light on the man. It also shows that he laid the foundations for the 160 years of wars that lead to the flight of the Cape Khoena to the northwestern Gariep district and to the mass genocide of the San despite their valiant wars of resistance.

Shortly after arriving at the Cape, Van Riebeeck in 1653 wrote to the VOC imploring them to allow him to round up all the Peninsula Khoena, put them in chains and force them into labour. The VOC refused his request. Then in 1657 he again wrote to the VOC outlining a plan and seeking approval to build 5 ‘redoubts’ in Hout Bay to form concentration camps into which he would lure the Peninsula Khoena and their cattle and then keep them so imprisoned so that they may continuously be forced to supply cattle to the company. This concept initially considered by the VOC but was rejected only because it would have cost too much and required many soldiers. This however was the complete opposite of the approach that Captain Janzsen had promoted. Van Riebeeck’s ideas set the paradigm of European- Indigene relations that has remained to this day. Forced removals and the “redoubt” concept which was group-areas and reservations lasted well after Jan van Riebeeck, right up to the imposition of the Group Areas Act under Apartheid.

There was much that was phony about the “skelm from Vietnam” and perhaps it all came together in the biggest con-trick pulled on all South Africans in the 20th century. The political ideological skewing of history came full circle when an image of van Riebeeck and his wife was popularised. This image of a handsome, wavy-haired and immaculately groomed Dutch gentleman was presented to us as statues, images on coins and banknotes, stamps and in pageants. It was as plastic as the historical yarn that we were fed. In the 1990s we learnt that this was not van Riebeeck at all, nor was the image of van Riebeeck’s wife genuine – that of Maria de la Quellerie. The original paintings are in a museum in the Netherlands and are of a certain Mr Vermuyden and his mistress Ms Kettering. A real painting was found of the aging Jan van Riebeeck who just did not have the looks for a romantic founder. The plagiarised images ae deeply embedded in the minds of South Africans and mirrors the skewed history and heritage that many still hold dear. This stymies our ability to move on as people in the South afria of today.

Likewise the “Skelm from Vietnam” was not quite the pious man either. Historian Mansell Upham tells us that while formally he forbade European company officials for having “carnal conversation” (sexual intercourse) with slaves and indigenes, privately he is on record as telling officials to go forth and “fruitify” them.

There are much more complexities in our past than many care to acknowledge, but also a wonderful focal point arises for us to move away from racial terminology and exclusive terminology in anchoring our local identities alongside our national, regional and pan African identities. My inquiry and studies looking at that first Goringhaicona port community at Camissa, make me proud to call myself Camissa, and proudly African before anything else. My 9th great-grandmother Krotoa, Autshumao’s niece, and another of my 9th great-grandmother’s was a young slave Lijsbeth Arabus. Both worked for the van Riebeeck family. I live in a place called South Africa within borders made by imperialism and colonialism. I am passionate about Southern Africa and Africa and I am proudly African. I am driven in this by my local heritage rooted in all that arises out of the Camissa footprint founded on the indigene experience at the river village and further enhanced by generations of indigenes, enslaved peoples and non-conformist Europeans who had children together.

The people of Camissa embraced and assisted the enslaved brought to our shores and these enslaved peoples embraced Camissa. In my family tree there are 24 slaves, 4 Khoena including Krotoa from the Goringhaicona at Camissa as well as an array of European and Afro-Europeans. Camissa  is meaningful….not the racial tag of ‘Coloured’ that was forced on us as an Apartheid badge of identity and says nothing. Indeed it is high time too that we stopped racialising our terminology. The state and all of us need to drop using terms like – Coloured, White, and Black to refer to our people.  There are three broad heritages that flow through people in South Africa an no rigid walls separating us – African, Afro-European and Afro-Asian. This is heritage and not race. The African family of communities is diverse as much as is the Afro-European and Afro-Asian heritages.

As Africans we as Camissa (not Coloured) take our rightful place alongside Zulu, Xhosa, Khoena, San (/Xam), Sotho, Korana, Tswana, Venda, Pedi, Nama, Griqua, Shangaan, Ndebele, Lembe, Swazi and others. We have many sub-community identities in the South African family of African diversity. Imposed ‘race’ identities are nonsense and divisive.

I have always been amazed that all writings on the early people of the Cape only look at the Khoena (Khoi) people through a lens of primitivism as stone and early iron age people. Very little effort is made to present a social history of these our African forebears or their civilisation.

Over the last 30 years or so, as an amateur historian and heritage activist, I have sought to shed a bit of light on some of the pointers that make up what can be called the history and heritage that falls between the cracks….. most especially in terms of both indigene history and that of Cape Slavery.

From just little bits of information, such as the statistic that I happened upon in the bookshop, over these last 30 years, a very different scenario presented itself to me about the founding of Cape Town as a port. None of the information that I put out there is really new. Very little is primary research. Much of the information lays buried, or even not so buried in the research of others. The information is just being viewed with different eyes and written up with a different perspective and then brought out for view by a non-academic audience.

Also most of our history is about the outside gaze on Africa and the Cape and its indigenous people…. I am presenting a perspective which dares to look at what happens when you start to look from the Cape shore –from the inside looking outward.

For many years now I have pointed out a number of things that should get us thinking differently about this past. We need to factor into our thinking that there was European and other visitation for at least 200 years before 1652 and, also numerous historical accounts show us that Phoenicians, Arabs, Javanese and Chinese were on our shores as visitors from 600BC in a continuum to 1421 when the Chinese rounded the Cape and circumnavigated the world.  Now here is some other exploration just waiting to be done – and what impacts did these have in the shaping of local social history? Some things too may well remain a mystery.

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