THE RESEARCH BEHIND THE FOUNDING OF A PROTO-PORT OF CAPE TOWN BEFORE 1652

Part of the story of the researching and writing of my book – “The Lie of 1652” – involves how I went about doing the research (methodology) of particularly the key historical information that challenges the distorted and sometimes false historical claims that frame the “white South Africa foundation construct” that downplays the role of indigenous Africans. I here would like to illustrate my research concerning the claim that it is a false historical narrative that states that only a few European ships stopped at the Cape of Good Hope (Table Bay) between 1600 and 1652.

Richard Elphick in his book “The Khoikhoi and the founding of White South Africa” says that there were only 42 ships that stopped at the Cape of Good Hope between 1617 and 1652. Others would argue that there were even fewer and that “real trade” only started with Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival. It is argued the Van Riebeeck is the founder of the Port of Cape Town and founder of South Africa. THE LIE OF 1652 argues that this is not only false but ideologically driven by a white-supremacist colonial and Apartheid approach to history which ideologised the view of the past which is really much more nuanced.

The cornerstone of my book is the sub-title “A decolonised history of land” and I put forward a figure of 1071 European ships that did the sailing route from Europe to Asia via the Cape. I posit that most of these ships stopped over at the Cape for up to three weeks and sometimes longer and that the ships that stopped over carried over 120 000 people who visited the shores of Table Bay. I point out that the implication of this mass visitation had a considerable impact on the local indigenous Africans and created a new set of economic and social relations associated with port-business. This it is argued has purposefully been edited out of history taught in South Africa under Apartheid nationalist education because it would have contradicted the ideologically constructed history which has Jan van Riebeeck in the role of founder and indigenous Africans only as incidental to that propaganda narrative.

In telling my story of the foundation of the Port of Cape Town I embraced a broad outlook to how a port was defined in the 17th century and referred to the pre-1652 foundational period as “a proto-port” in Table Bay. In doing so I took cognizance of the etymology and evolution of the term ‘port’. I consulted the work of Catia Antunes, Professor of history of global economic networks, at the Institute for History at Leiden University in the Netherlands. In her work, Early Modern Ports, 1500–1750, she explains that the term port comes from the Latin “portus”, which means gate or gateway. Catia Antunes identifies these by their genesis as places where trade activity was located either on the shores of a major river or on the sea. She defines these as gateways for the exchanges of goods, people, and ideas and as bridges between different peoples and cultures. She further defines a port as a settlement of people engaging as interlocuters between vessels and people and suppliers in the hinterland. By implication, a harbour of built infrastructure and facilities are but features of an evolved developed port. It is this definition that I use to explore and argue that what existed before 1652 was an evolving proto-port that was the foundation of the Port City of Cape Town rather than some of the less comprehensive dictionary descriptions of what constitutes a “Port”. Professor Sarah Palmer of the Greenwich Maritime Institute, University of Greenwich in the Journal for Maritime Research in a paper (1999) “Current port trends in an historical perspective” makes a vitally important point on ports in saying “the operation of a port was, and is, never to be wholly comprehended within the confines of the dock wall or the perimeter fence. Ports are not only interfaces between land and water. They are sources of national wealth, pride, and concern. They are, or have been, points of interaction between cultures and peoples. But above all they are places; places have history and the past of a place affects its present. For ports, in short, history matters.”

But central to proving this, was to show that there was not simply a casual calling at Table Bay of a mere 42 ships over the best part of a half-century, but that Table Bay involved the systematic regular use of shipping stop-overs by several nations ships in great numbers over five decades. Also that this involved engagement with local indigenous Africans with large numbers of Europeans and that therefore the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck was not a novel and starling experience for both indigenous Africans nor Europeans.

The first part of this research exploration was brought about by noting a line in a work by Robin Knox-Johnson, “The Cape of Good Hope – A Maritime History”.  Up to this point my mind was aware of Richard Elphick’s statement that only 42 ship’s called at the Cape between 1617 to 1652, but in Knox-Johnson’s work the figure was mentioned of 1 730 Dutch outward-bound ships that had gone to South and Southeast Asia from 1610 – 1700 and he suggested that furthermore there were at least another 10% of this number of English vessels doing the same. So, the first thing that I thought to do was to find out what was the actual numbers of English, Portuguese, French, Danish, Spanish, and other nations ships calling at the Cape? Then the big question was how many of these visits occurred prior to 1652? I was further interested in how many homeward bound ships there might be and what ships were carrying each way? Part of this was also to question how many people were these ships carrying? Furthermore, I wanted to know what the standard protocol was for stop-overs at the Cape and what was the extent of compliance to this protocol. This was motivated by an oft argued rigid position that ships only called at the Cape three times per year in specific months and indeed too that most ships did not call at the Cape at all.

So, I turned to the most notable best maritime history works and databases on shipping associated with Leiden University in the Netherlands. I am a retired most senior officer who was commanding officer for maritime and aviation ports in South Africa and I was familiar with recording, databasing and movement control record-keeping systems for incoming and departing craft, crews and passengers in contemporary South Africa. I turned to the Huygens ING Research Institute into history and culture database of all Dutch East India Company shipping between the Netherlands and Asia 1595-1795 per vessel. I also turned to the maritime experts from Leiden University on shipping movements, as well as experts on one of the biggest areas of trade – the trade in enslaved people. The following works were consulted:

•       Gaastra FS & Bruijn JR; ‘The Dutch East India Company’s shipping, 1602-1795, in a comparative perspective’, in Bruijn, JR (ed.), Ships, sailors and spices. East India companies and their shipping in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, pp. 177-208, NEHA, Amsterdam. (1993)

•       Parthesius R; Dutch ships in tropical waters : the development of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) shipping network in Asia 1595-1660; Amsterdam. (2007).

The work of maritime experts from Leiden University on shipping movements provided much detail on European shipping – the ships, modification of ships, routes, what they carried, passengers carried – Europe to Asia via the Cape and Inter-Asian shipping routes. These studies provide much primary research data in terms of numbers of ships, numbers of crew and numbers of passengers, trade products carried, attrition rates, routes etc. They also were illuminating on the protocols of stopping at the Cape of Good Hope, when these began and deviations from these. These works contradicted the rigid and simply false claims by mainstream South African historians about what transpired before 1652.

Firstly the protocols or standing orders about stop-overs at the Cape were important for me to understand, if I was to counter the claims by those who say that very few ships stopped-over at the Cape and that these stop-overs were restricted to a few months of any one year, and that the standard was not to stop-over at Table Bay.

Gaastra and Bruijn (Chapter 7, pg 188 – 192) state clearly that from 1616 it was prescribed that masters should call at Table Bay on their way to Asia and that the ‘Seynbriefs’ from 1617 onwards state this to be an order. My reading on English East India Company shipping shows that they followed the lead by the Dutch on this protocol. It is noted by Gaastra and Bruijn that the average stay at the Cape was 24 days in the 17th century. Here are some direct quotes from their text on what was the practice:

“The southerly route (preferred by the Dutch) was discovered by Henrik Brouwer (in 1610)… from the Cape to Bantam within two and a half months time, demonstrated the advantage of this route, that since 1617 was obligatory for all the VoC’s ships heading for Sunda Strait.”

“Anchoring at the Cape from mid-May to mid-August was considered too dangerous” but they go on to say that ships did come to the Cape during those times too but dropped anchor in False Bay or alternatively dropped anchor in Saldanha Bay.

They say “the Dutch Company sent most of its ships to Batavia ad that this port could be reached by the prescribed route (as per Seynbriefs) throughout the year. Hence the VoC was less tied to seasons than its competitors”. Gaastra and Bruijn note that there was general adherence to the Xmas Fleet – Dec/Jan, the Easter Fleet April/May and the Fair Fleet Sept/October, but they go on to say …. “This concentration on certain moths did not mean that shipping to Asia was at a standstill at other times of the year. The great and growing number of ships to be dispatched to Asia forced the Chamber on the long run to spread activities in this respect throughout the year.”

So, this this cleared up that the rigid assertions by mainstream colonial distortions about ships only visiting Table Bay three times per year was nonsense.

Now my mind turned to looking first at how many ships of all nationalities went to Asia via Table Bay between 1600 – 1652. Gaastra and Bruijn provide a number of tables for the shipping per national flag for that period per decade right across the 17th century.

This Table shows the number of Dutch ships for outward-bound for 1602 – 1650 it is 655 ships. This table also shows 338 VoC ships traveling homeward bound. There are detailed reasons given as to why there are so many less going home.

This table shows the English East India Company and the French ships between Europe and Asia going via Table Bay/Cape of Good Hope. Which are 286 and 24 respectively and when adjusted by adding the two years to 1652 it is 301 and 25 respectively. When we add this to the outward-bound VoC ships (655) we have 981 ships going to Asia via Table Bay.

This third table shows the figures for the Portuguese and the Danish. There are unfortunately no reliable figures for the Spanish. There are thus another 197 vessels but this is the total up to the year 1700. Given that after 1652 there was more shipping movements, I added just 90 of these to come to a total of 1071 ships going to Asia via Cape of Good Hope.

I subsequently in further checks against the constantly updated Huygens Shipping database when physically counting every VoC ship from 1600 to 1652 came up with 793 records rather than just 655 as per the first table (also noting that the years 1600 – 1602 and 1650 – 1652 were not counted in that table. Thus 138 Dutch more vessels could be added to the 1071, but because I had already concluded my script I remained using the earlier figure erring on the side of caution.

The evidence was thus conclusive in showing that the figures for shipping having stopovers at the Cape were ridiculously low to the point of being false in traditional mainstream colonial literature and even in most of the progressive research literature that had moved beyond the ‘Terra Nillus’ fabrication in colonial history books.

I then took this evidence in the tables and further tested it against the Huygens database of 8195  United Dutch East India Company’s ships between the Netherlands and Asia for the years 1595-1795, segment of 1600 to 1652. This database is a constant work in progress drawn from each listed vessel’s logbooks archived. About 10% of all of the ships information has been verified for the period I was scrutinising. The archive is edited by J.R. Bruijn, F.S. Gaastra and I. Schöffer, with assistance from A.C.J. Vermeulen and E.S. van Eyck van Heslinga. 

For the period 1600 – 1652 there is record for some ships where it clearly states their average stopovers, others where they still do not have that detail transcribed to the database, and a few where the vessel did not stop at the Cape.

So far in the research there is only 34 Dutch ships out of 793 from 1600 – 1652 that have verified logs of no-call at the Cape. There are 261 Dutch ships that have positive verified logs of calling at the Cape of Good Hope. With 37.7% of the archive verified for stop-over or non-stop-over only 4,4% are verified as not stopping over at the Cape of Good Hope. Based on verification thus far if we apply the same ratio on the research still to be done less than 15% of Dutch ships did not call at the Cape. Thus my not adjusting the Dutch figure given in the first table above with a further 138 ships reveal by Huygens balances out the non-stopover figure of up to 15%.

This screenshot of the Huygens database illustrates how the database is organised, with each field being searchable. You will see too that there is a field for arrival and departure at Table Bay in the Cape. This very similar to movement control systems that I worked with in our modern-day ports. Where there is a blank means that there is ongoing verification or log entries still to be found. It does not mean that there is no stop-over. The latter will be illustrated in the third screen-shot.

This screenshot shows a well populated database record but where just a little more detail is still to be found or verified. Eg. For the ship MEDEMBLIK entry 0242.1 the Ship’s Master is yet to be identified, and the actual date for arrival at Table Bay is still missing even though the departure is recorded, but indication from the other sister ships all out of Texel is that they all seem to have arrived two months earlier. That means that they remained at Table Bay for much longer than the average of 24 days. It also contradicts the denialist mainstream historians views of minimum contact between indigenous Africans and Europeans.

The following screenshot shows an example of a database entry where it indicates clearly that there was no stopover at Table Bay/Cape of Good Hope. This shows that there is no ambiguity arising out of using the database as a research tool, and thus no justification for misrepresenting the facts as many of the colonial-Apartheid minded historians do to promote ideologically impregnated versions of history in South Africa. This screenshot shows all three scenarios…. NO INFORMATION YET; A VERIFIED STOPOVER; and A VERIFIED NON-STOPOVER. Then when one goes into the detailed section of the archive one sees the reasons as to why no stop over. The ship had taken two months to get to Brava Island (Cape Verde) where it stopped over for just a week and then went straight on to the west coast of India. Notably this ship never returned to the Netherlands.

Once my research had yielded all of these answers, I wanted to also know how many people they carried, because this would indicate how many travelers may have step ashore at the Cape. The following tables indicate the numbers of people on board of these ships.

For the period 1602 – 1650 for Dutch ships alone there were 114,200 people on board ships outward bound and a further 36 400 homeward bound. If we added those on the 410 ships of other nationalities (just the outward-bound figure) one could add at least another 65 000 people bringing the two figures to 215 600 travelers coming to the Cape of Good Hope. In my book I conservatively stated“ over 120 000 travelers had come to the Cape, taking into consideration that 15% of the ships are likely not to have stopped at the Cape given the evidence outlined in this paper.

In concluding my research on pre 1652 visitation to the Cape of Good Hope by Europeans I was also interested in getting a researcher’s viewpoint who had also used the same research resources that I had used. I thus consulted a work by Robert Parthesius, Leiden University, Archaeology Department, who is a prominent researcher on Dutch shipping –  Parthesius R; Dutch ships in tropical waters : the development of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) shipping network in Asia 1595-1660; Amsterdam. (2007).

Contrary to what some white South African historians who argue that only a few ships actually stopped at the Cape, Parthesius, states clearly that the normal practice was that, “on most voyages between Europe and Asia, ships made a stopover at the Cape of Good Hope” and he gives reason as to why this was the case. “By 1620 the VOC had established the fastest route over the Atlantic Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope and the route to Java over the southern part of the Indian Ocean. If the skipper followed the prescribed course and if no extraordinary setbacks were encountered, a voyage from the Netherlands to Batavia could be made in a minimum time of four to five months.

Some ships made the trip to Java without a stopover, although passing the Cape of Good Hope without taking on refreshments was not without risk. For instance, in January 1627, the Wapen van Delft (ID:273) arrived after a voyage of 8 months with 183 deaths. In May 1646 the ship Nieuw Delft (ID:711) left the Netherlands and passed the Cape without taking on refreshments. It then proceeded to sail along Madagascar and Mozambique, finally arriving in a desolate condition on the west coast of Sumatra. 165 people had died including the merchant, the skipper and other officers. (Pg 92).”

I further wanted to get some idea of non-Europeans going back and forth via the Cape as part of these shipping movements and this consulted the works of prominent historians dealing with the Indian Ocean Slave Trade – namely Markus Vink and Richard B Allen. There are two works of Vink that gives one an excellent picture of the world of the Indian ocean arena and what went on in the 17th and 18th century. The mainstream South African historian presents an inward-looking bubble version of history that defends an ideological laager mentality. One can only really understand what was going on at the Cape of Good Hope when one looks at the context of world events in the broader Indian Ocean arena. The two works are – Vink M: The World’s Oldest Trade – Dutch Slavery and Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean in the Seventeenth Century”. Journal of World History 14, No:2 (2003) and Vink M: From Port-City to World-System: Spatial Constructs of Dutch Indian Ocean Studies 1500- 1800; Itinerario 28, No:2 (2004). From these works I can glean that the Cape of Good Hope’s strategic importance had been realised and used long before 1652.

The English East India Company’s attempt to colonise Table Bay with Newgate Convicts in 1614 and the English annexation of Cape of Good Hope/Table Bay in 1620 which failed to get ratification by the Crown emphasise this understanding of its strategic value. In 1620, Andrew Shillinge and Humphrey Fitzherbert, commander of the tow fleets of English East India Company on their way to Surat and Bantam, landed on Table Bay and claimed possession of the Cape in the name of King James 1. They planned to establish a plantation to supply refreshments to British ships on their way to India. When the British first took possession of the Cape in 1795 the raised this fact of their original annexation in 1620 which though not acted upon by James 1, had not been forgotten.

More importantly the relegation to subscripts in the European stories of two important historical facts, and personalities, Xhore and Autshumao, whose travels with the British (to London and Java) and acting as their agents from 1613 – 1626 and 1630 – 1652 respectively also indicated mischief in the historical record. Both indigenous Africans had encountered many nationalities and the practice of enslavement on their journeys and were wise to the Europeans ways.

In the case of Richard Allen’s work his many detailed tables of shipping movements and the transportation of hundreds of thousands of enslaved persons all over the Indian Ocean arena and beyond to the Americas, St Helena, the Cape of Good Hope and Europe tells us that Indigenous Africans would have been aware of the slavery system before the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck and the introduction of slavery by the Europeans at the Cape. They also would have been aware of diverse other peoples, other than Africans and Europeans. Richard Allen’s book is – Allen R B; European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean 1500 – 1850; Indian Ocean Studies – Ohio University Press; Athens; Ohio (2014). Allen shows that there were up to 65 000 movements of enslaved persons by European ships in the Indian Ocean arena and to Europe and the Americas in the 18th century period. Of course, this is a fraction of the Indian Ocean slave trade by Europeans in the 18th and 19th century, but when looked at in comparison the Europeans transported on the high seas it is a significantly large figure of human movement.

Then there is also the matter of who crewed these European ships. Various sources indicate the manning of European ships included Chinese, Arabs, Southeast Asia, Indians, and Africans alongside Dutch and other European seamen. Gaastra and Bruijn mention that in the first half of the 17th century up to 50% of the crews of VoC ships were foreigners. They mention that this lowered later in time but in the late 18th century that East Indiamen ships requiring over 100 seamen were then made up of 75 – 85 Dutch to 25 Chinese. Thus, it is important to note that ships staying for lengthy periods at Table Bay and having mixed European and non-European crews would have seen engagements with local people not too much different to those witnessed today. As a former head of port movement control in our seaports I have a pretty good idea of what happens in terms of human engagements between visitors and humans in ports.

Finally, while we have already seen proof that ships remained at Table Bay for between three weeks and two months, there are at least two occasions when this was for much longer. In 1644 the Dutch Ship Mauritius Eylandt was shipwreck at Cape Town, leaving 326 marooned at the Cape of Good Hope for 4 months before all could be picked up. At that time three other ships including an English ship also happened to be around and came to the aid of the shipwrecked. This case illustrates two realities. The first is that Table Bay was much busier a proto-port than recognised. It was not just happenstance that four vessels were near each other. Secondly, four months for 326 Europeans to be living at the Cape surely would not have gone unnoticed by indigenous Africans nor would there have been no interactions nor no trade in food. In another shipwreck in 1647, that of the Nieuwe Haerlem, 60 persons remained at the Cape for 9 months. This was a well-documented stay at the Cape where a favourable account had been given by Captain Leendertz Janzsens on their time at the Cape and on their interactions with indigenous Africans. The fleet that picked them up were 12 ships in all. Even by today’s standards this is a large busy visitation.

In conclusion my research methodology not only on this aspect of THE LIE OF 1652 but also on the string of falsities and distortions in the name of ideology that we were brought up with under the Apartheid Education system, and propagated by those who call themselves historians, is here demonstrated by just one issue. If there was this huge amount of traffick and engagement at the Cape of Good Hope, and it had become a proto-port as per the definition given at the beginning of this paper then other role-players were the founders and not Jan van Riebeeck. He certainly is the father of the European colony but his ten-year stay at the Cape, which was not hugely successful when one closely examines the project financially cannot be granted the title “founder” of the port nor “founding-father” of South African. The African indigenous peoples are the ones to be bestowed with those titles. Van Riebeeck spent three years at Malacca after the Cape with no promotion, and then ended up at his own request to be the holder of an even lower post in Batavia as a clerk. A young man with a promising future, fluent in the Vietnamese tongue, as a result of sneaking out at night in Tonkin (Hanoi) to illicitly conduct business for his own pocket in violation of company rules, was dismissed and recalled to Batavia. There he was convicted in court and given a sentence of a fine, and banishment back to the Netherlands. Initially because he was refused another position, he then resigned from the company. Later he made a play for the post of commander at the Cape of Good Hope. His smooth tongue and the promises he made (but failed to deliver on in his ten years at the Cape) secured him the post of Commander, somewhat different to the genteel post of Factor or Director of a going VoC concern.

All of these issues are overlooked by the propagandised version of Jan van Riebeeck by white-nationalist ideologues presenting themselves as historians. Besides researching the shipping at the Cape pre-1652 I also did some in depth research on the embellished figure of Jan van Riebeeck. It is well worth reading this analysis of Jan van Riebeeck in “Malacca Under Jan Van Riebeeck” by W. Ph. Coolhaas and other authors like Hoang Anh Tuan professor of history, chair of urban history, and acting rector of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Vietnam National University, Hanoi). He is the author of “Silk for Silver: Dutch-Vietnamese Relations, 1637-1700” (Brill, 2007), World Trade and Vietnamese Integration, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries (VNU-Hanoi Press, 2016), in which he gives an account of Jan van Riebeeck in Vietnam. Hoang Anh Tuan is also visiting professor at University of Montana (2009) and Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main (2012-2013). He has also taken several academic counselling positions such as member of SEASREP Foundation board of trustees (since 2012), Gerda Henkel Foundation’s country representative (since 2012), Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s Ambassador Scientist (since 2017). As you read THE LIE OF 1652 take some time out to visit the citations/references and introduce yourself to the many works that you can source to make your reading even more exciting and personalised. Every person looking at a source text is bound to discover something new.

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