The Camissa People

Khoe JJThe City of Cape Town is presented by mainstream historians as having been founded by Dutch East India Company Commander Jan van Riebeeck. But there is an alternative story about its foundation……….

Before the African Indigene people first began receiving regular visitors from far off China and Europe, the local indigenous people, the Khoena (or Khoi), would annually spend their summers on the Cape Peninsula, known to them as ‘the place where the clouds gather’ – ‖Hui !Gaeb

When winter came with its bitter cold, wind and rain, the Khoena would gather their cattle and retreat up the West Coast where it was warmer and drier. This annual transhumance pattern was to change dramatically for the first time during the first half of the 17th century.

The most attractive and hospitable part of the Cape Peninsula was the lush areas around Table Mountain and the fresh water streams that flowed into the sea. Table Mountain was known as ‘the mountain of the sea’ – Hoerikwaggo – in the indigenous Khoena (or Khoi) language.


The fresh water streams, or sweet drinking waters, to the Khoena (or Khoi) was //Amma. In the old Khoi language Qua or Ssa denoted people. The term ‘Camissa‘ is a modern creolised version of ‘sweet water of the people’ in reference fpr both the river and the people sett;ed alongside as a trading community..

The term //Amma (Khamma or Khamis) the root term used for rivers and can be found in names which are of the Nama language or the KhoeKhoegowab language. Varients are found in many river names. The river in Table Bay is noted by the Portuguese as ‘Aguada de Saldanha’ (WATER of Saldanha – the original Portuguese name for Table Bay) while the Dutch similarly later named this same river as the Soetwater Rivieren (Sweetwater) and referred to it in documents as Fresh Water, as distinguished from Zouten Rivieren (Salt River).  The Khoena did not have affectionate or honorary names as in the European tradition. Words used were utilitarian.

Governor-General van Goens  in 1682 notes that the inland Khoena (Khoi) refer to the fresh-water river as ‘Camissa’ or ‘Cumissa’ (original name of the Fish River)The indigene name KAMMA, pops up elsewhere, meaning the same thing – fresh water. For example – Tsistsikamma = tse-tsesa + kamma  means ‘clear water’, ‘place of much water’ or ‘place where water begins’. There is Keiskamma, Kagga Khamma and so on.


For a long time there has been an unbalanced approach to recalling the past in which the indigene experience has been but a footnote in an otherwise European dominated narrative. Even the critical view of many European commentators of the time tended to be marginalised. Effectively, the indigenes are presented as incidental to the founding of the port settlement of Cape Town and presented as playing no significant part in its founding. Indeed, not only were the Dutch responsible for dispossessing them of their land and livelihoods, but indigene people also found themselves robbed of their history as the true founders of the modern so-called Mother City of South Africa.

In order to more accurately reflect the historical narrative, a combination of the perspectives and experiences of both sides of the ‘shoreline frontier’, is required. As there is no written indigene record, there is a greater onus to examine overlooked texts; the omissions, contradictions, obvious embellishments, and ideological overlay in the records of the time. We need to listen carefully to the voices raised in opposition among the indigenes at the time, despite being recorded by the beneficiaries of the dispossession.

Much amplification is given to the many traveller texts and to Jan van Riebeeck’s narrative. These are quite disparaging of the indigenes of Table Bay. They refer to the Khoena as temporal inhabitants, dirty, smelly, lazy, good-for-nothing thieves and scavengers, unaware of the broader world beyond their shores. They are likened to beasts.

This unfortunate view is deeply embedded in the minds of scholars and of South Africans in general. However, there are other accounts of seafarers and scribes which tell a different story of an enterprising and helpful indigene people, some of whom had travelled abroad. These tell of trading and port operations in a busy bay that precede the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck by at least fifty-two years and effectively constituted a settled proto-port trading community.

Even the more balanced historical accounts present the Goringhaicona community, as being drifters and outcasts from other clans, a kind of mystery phenomenon without ‘joining the dots’ between increased shipping and its impacts on indigene modes of living and economy. Entrepreneurship is simply brushed off as opportunism, scavenging and begging practices by primitives.

Also deeply embedded in social history enquiry is the notion that the Cape’s mixed ancestral heritage starts in 1652. The circumstances of the fifty-two years prior to van Riebeeck’s arrival, and the dynamics of other port settlements globally, suggest otherwise.

Further consideration of the first fifty-two years of the 17th century is that it offers an alternative version of the foundation of the port, the city of Cape Town and its people. This provides a positive and non-racial ‘heritage anchor’ for those labelled ‘Coloured’ and indeed all who cherish what can be referred to as the ‘Camissa footprint’. With regard to persons of mixed parentage pre-1652, passing scribes, Tavernier and Mundy, make clear references to indigene children who they describe as “white and beautiful” with African and European features, and “… well-favoured as it could not be expected in such a place”.   Van Riebeeck also refers to Oedasoa’s daughter as “a pretty, well-shaped girl, no darker than a fairly white mestizo” .

The accounts show that Europeans consistently spent lengthy stays at Table Bay from as early as 1601 during which time they interacted extensively with the indigenes. Stayovers could be anything from a week to 9 months. Of the 2 632 ships that called at the Cape, involving five nationalities, 1 071 ships dropped anchor in Table Bay between 1600 and 1652.  Some 200 000 Europeans passed through Table Bay in the period between 1600 and 1652.  This would have caused a huge impact. What changed in 1652 was simply the permanence of European abode, development intent, and the dislodging of the early indigene foundations of a settlement and their proto-port economy.

Therefore, contact with and impacts on indigenes at the Cape prior to 1652 must have been much greater than many historical accounts project. Also not examined is the impact on the Cape indigenes of being confronted with slavery on the ships and the correlation of slavery and colour. There has been a quiet assumption that the Khoena only came across the institution of slavery after the permanent European settlement. Recent research provides enough indicators that the Cape indigenes encountered slaves and slave-trading long before 1652. The operations of the VOC and English East India company had slavery at their core and this was instrumental in the shaping of Indian Ocean societies.  Slaves passed from the Indian Ocean westwards and from the Atlantic Ocean eastwards. The Portuguese took slaves to Portugal from West Africa as early as 1435  and Indian slaves in 1510. The British took slaves to St Helena from 1628 and the Dutch were taking African slaves to Southeast Asia from 1623.

The impact of periodic European presence and their ways changed the way of life, cyclical herding and economy of the indigenes. The Indigenes permanent presence at the Cape Peninsula, known locally as //Hui !Gaeb was greatly impacted upon and after VOC settlement was disrupted and then destroyed.  The first emergence of new tribes who settled more permanently on the Cape Peninsula as a result of a split in the Cochouqua, probably in the 15th century, was the  Goringhaiqua.  The second tribe to emerge as a split from the Goringhaiqua were the Gorachouqua, and both these were also called !Gora or early Korana groups who lived and moved about  in various locations of the Peninsula from the Liesbeeck to Fish Hoek to Hout Bay. (The !Gora or Korana were late 18th century revivals of the refugee Peninsuala Khoena (or Khoi) which had made their way to the Kai !Gariep).

Another offshoot, were the Camissa people; those that called themselves the //Ammaqua (or Watermans) – the earliest small trading society which was made up drifters from other tribes who disparagingly called them goringhaicona (those kinfolk who left us or were told to go).

The //Ammaqua or Watermans was made up of drifters and outcasts from the Cochoqua, Goringhaiqua and the Gorachoqua and were only around 60 people (25 adult males, plus women and children).

They established themselves, first on Robben Island with the assistance of the English, as a community of traders led by Java-trained Autshumao whom the French called the Governor of Robben Island. Later, around 1838 Autshumao’s people re-established themselves on the mainland banks of the Camissa River in Table Bay  continuing as a trading community.It is here that their identity was expressed as //Ammaqua or Watermans – the guardians and dispensers of water.

The Watermans, the term Europeansa used for the //Ammaqua, established their settlement alongside the Camissa River mouth. Here the indigenes established the foundation village and port operation that would become the City of Cape Town. This was about 14 years prior to the European settlement in 1652.

New commodities such as skillets, knives, iron, copper, brass, tobacco, clothes, beads and alcohol became available to the Khoena (or Khoi) through their trade with the Europeans and skewed the existing the economic values, including the trade in and ownership of livestock, and this introduced new social problems and opportunities. The Khoena (or Khoi) also were spurred on to develop new technologies such as salt production where they traded salt to the ships as a prize commodity.

Autshumao, (the so-called Herry the Strandlooper)performed his postmaster, trader and port master role ably, was a proficient linguist, was shrewd and astute and, also knew the value of playing off the English and their enemies, the Dutch and French. He had developed good relations with the French who addressed him as Governor and with the English who had given him the name Harry. The Khoena (or Khoi) knew to keep their main herds of thousands of cattle and sheep, and their families, far inland away from the Europeans.

Autshumao was not simply an opportunist go-between trader but served a defensive buffer role for his people. Regardless of the basic nature of the services provided, he offered post and communications, stevedoring, ship’s chandeliers, and trader services.

Jan van Riebeeck was given clear instructions by the VOC. “The skippers were directed to proceed to Table Bay, and to construct close to the Fresh river a wooden building, the materials for which they were to take with them. They were then to select a suitable site for a fort, to contain space for the accommodation of seventy or eighty men, and to this fort when finished they were to give the name Good Hope.”

In the first eight months after van Riebeeck’s arrival, he built a fort right on top of Autshumao’s Camissa village, which had hosted him and his men. Van Riebeeck  notes in the early pages of his journal that after he had moved into the fort he could still see the forlorn Autshumao encamped by the river. Within 35 years of the VOC establishing a permanent presence at Camissa, the Cochouqua, Goringhaiqua, Gorachouqua were pushed out of the territory of the Cape Peninsula and past the so-called Hottentots Holland Mountains and beyond the Berg River. In 1659 while Autshumao was incarcerated on Robben Island during the Dutch-Khoi war,, Jan van Riebeeck put a bounty on the heads of Autshumao’s //Ammaqua (goringhaicona) and they were hunted down and wiped out.

The Khoena (or Khoi), who originated 2500 years ago on the perimeter of the Kalahari through the mixing of Kalahari San and East African herders who trace back in part to the Niolitic people of North Africa who were sheep farmers, had gone through a long and arduous migratory drift over time. By 300AD they had moved down from the Kalahari to the Gariep where they shared habitat with the Gariep San. Then over the next 800 years they moved into the Eastern Cape and gradually over this time gave birth to one tribe after the other. By the 15th century the first of the Cape Peninsula Khoena groups had emerged from the Cochouqua, – the Goringhaiqua.

The Peninsula Khoi were related both to the Nama and to the Chainouqua a mixed Khoi/Xhosa people (predominantly Khoi but families were mixed with Xhosa) Chainouqua had emerged to take habitat in the Southern Cape as a sub tribe of the Inqua who in turn had evolved from the Chobuqua who were a mix of the early Khoena (Khoi) from the Gariep and the earliest Ziwa-Zizho-Kalanga migrants from  Limpopo known as Xhosa. This is long before later Nguni drifts encountered the Xhosa and Thembu.

The Eastern Cape San and Western Cape San retreated to the mountains and the Central Cape districts as they were displaced by migrant Khoena (Khoi) and Xhosa herders and farmers. By the time that the first European travelers started arriving at Table Bay 600 years latyer, the Khoena (Khoi) firmly  had the Western Cape and the Cape Peninsula as their home.

Van Riebeeck’s VOC settlement brought this all to an end and successive VOC and the British colonial incursion by 1828 had ethnically cleansed the Khoena (Khoi)  from most of the Cape forcing them to the Gariep district and turning survivours within the Cape Colony into farm labourers and military conscripts. The Cape San (/Xam and the !Kun) were systematically wiped out in consecutive acts of genocide in the 18th and 19th century. By 1904 there were only 4181 San surviving, and over the next century their numbers continue to be depleted.

(Please note that there is no people and never has been a people called Khoisan. A German zoologist dabbling in anthropology developed an erroneous theory that said the San and Khoi were the same people and came up with the notion of a ‘Khoisan Race’ which he said was part animal and part human. He argued that this Khoisan ‘race’ were contaminating the human race and should be exterminated. Leonard Schultz participated in the early 20th century genocide of the Nama people by the Germans. He carried out experiments on Nama in the concentration camps. He also hacked off 300 heads and sent these back to Berlin for studies. Thus as there has never been Khoisan people, there also never was a Khoisan Kingdom nor a Khoisan King.


According to European history the Europeans had been passing through Table Bay since 1488 and according to the Chinese accounts, the Chinese passed through Table Bay in 1421 for the first time. Chinese cartography provides the only map of the time showing clear features of South Africa such as the Drakensberg mountains.

From the time of the Chinese voyage around the Cape by Admiral Zheng He in 1421, until 1652 when the first Dutch settlement occurred, there had been two centuries of interaction by the indigene Khoena people with foreign visitors dropping anchor in Table Bay. The story of the visitors and migrants of colour to the Cape, however can possibly be first traced back to the Phoenicians (people of Lebanon, Syria and northern Palestine) 2,500 years ago, followed by the Carthegians 140 years later. An ancient Buddhist temple at Borobudur has a bass relief showing a sailing vessel indicating a trip down the east coast of Africa around AD 700 by Indonesians too. Records further show that the Chinese travelled down the African coast in AD 960 and the Arabs may have reached as far as the Cape in AD 1000 and that their cartography fairly accurately identifies South Africa in 1154.

It was the regular visits by the Europeans after 1600 however which first caused an alteration in the nomadic herding habits of some of the Khoena who established the first trading settlement on the banks of the main Camissa river on the shore of Table Bay. It was this act that constituted the foundation of the City of Cape Town and was the root community, or footprint of the Camissa People and their descendants.

These first maroons or drifters from a number of Khoena (or Khoi) clans were disparagingly called the Goringhaicona, or ‘children of the Goringhaiqua’. These Watermans or //Ammaqua were also scatterlings of the Gorachoqua, the Cochoqua and the Chainuqua. It was they who first broke the transhumance or wandering pattern, as well as tight tribal life, by engaging in a trader-servicer economy.

An introduction on the trading links, the communication and the cooperative relations of the Gorachouqua, Goringhiaqua and then the //Ammaqua with the passing Europeans was first provided to a mass readership in some detail by Richard Elphick in his book ‘The KhoiKhoi and the Founding of White South Africa (1975). The initial informal, though brisk, trading relationships that took root between passing ships and the Khoena people in the latter 1500s began to take a more formal form under Chief Xhore of the Goringhaiqua after he was kidnapped to England in 1613 and returned a year later to the Cape.

Chief Xhore (Coree) is the first recorded indigenous African from South Africa to visit England and was the most likely person to have founded the Maroon Khoena settlement at Camissa. Chief Xhore had later led the resistance to the English attempt to settle Newgate convicts at Camissa in 1615, but nonetheless maintained relations as a trader with the Europeans until his death.

After Xhore’s death (at the hands of the Dutch) Elphick notes that trade relations with the Khoena took a nose-dive. But a short while later this gap was filled after Chief Autshumao of the //Ammaqua was taken on a visit to Batavia (Jakarta) in 1631. Mainstream historians omitted this story right up to recent times and presented Chief Autshumao as an ignorant vagabond beach-bum whose first interactions with Europeans was in 1652.

A new and intricate relationship was developed with Autshumao’s //Ammaqua (Watermans) involving a range of services including a postal service to passing ships. This first involved establishing a service station for ships on Robben Island served by more than 30 Khoena  (Khoi) under Autshumao, installed there by the English. Later by 1638 this service-community relocated back to the mainland at the Camissa mouth where they continued to provide services and the community grew to over 60 in time.

Under the entrepreneurial Autshumao an interlocutor bartering service relationship developed which slowly resulted in rebuilding the supply lines for the European travellers for the acquisition of meat and fresh water in exchange for a commission on transactions.  It was from Camissa that foreign ships were supplied with the vital commodity – fresh water, by the //Ammaqua. All the hallmarks were in place to regard this as the first proto-refreshment station at the Cape and thus the foundation of Cape Town.

The settlement of his people around Camissa was an advantageous strategic move on the part of Chief Autshumao as the community controlled the supply of water to seamen, and the control of trade with the same. When there were no ships in the Bay his people lived off fish and other seafood. By all accounts the //Ammaqua were typical ‘survivors’ and highly entrepreneurial. Although a much smaller group of people than the other groups, they were people who had drifted away from the older clans of Khoena (or Khoi) and started a new lifestyle.

They initially dominated relations between the Khoena livestock herders and the Dutch by setting themselves up as the negotiators at a lucrative commission. It was because of this, as can be seen in the Dutch Commander’s journal that Jan van Riebeeck developed a strong antagonism to Autshumao.

It was also these Camissa people who first opened their arms to give refuge to runaway slaves and non-conformist Europeans and thus the character of the Goringhaiqua further developed over the years. Over a 200 year period 75 000 slaves were brought to the Cape where they and their offspring lived their lives as slave workers who built the City of Cape Town and its small towns and farms under Dutch and later British overlordship. The slaves came from other parts of Africa, from Madagascar, India, Indonesia and China. Autshumao had first learnt about slaves when he went to Java and he also learnt about the differences among the Europeans. He used such information to his advantage.

It was one of this Camissa community, Autshumao’s niece Kratoa, who was the first of the Khoena to adopt the Christian faith and formally marry one of the Europeans, a Danish barber-surgeon by the name of Peter Havgaardt who had changed his name to Pieter van Meerhof.

Over time the small port town built around the Camissa Settlement became known as Cabo de Goede Hoop and grew into the City of Cape Town. The Dutch VOC agents were initially allowed to live cheek by jowl for seven months among the Khoena at Camissa while they built a fort just a stones thrown from the river. They later replaced the fort with a castle and diverted the Camissa into a moat around the castle.

Over the years layer upon layer covered the Camissa River and  it became a forgotten part of the city, but it still flows under the city to this day. Like the river, the identity of the Camissa people was layered over in time, as the history and heritage of the indigenous Khoena and the slaves at the Cape was also driven underground. The term ‘Cape Coloured People’ came into official use under British rule in the mid 1800s and the roots of the Camissa People and heritage were written out of the historical script.

But since the liberation of the South African people in 1994 many are reclaiming our heritage and bringing to the surface the stories of the Camissa People and the heritage of indigenes and the enslaved is being proudly celebrated.

BIBLIOGRAPHY John Cope; King of the Hottentots; Howard Timmins; Cape Town (1967) Richard Elphick; KhoiKhoi and the founding of White South Africa; Raven Press; Johannesburg (1985) ML Wilson; The Strandlooper concept and its relevance to the study of the past inhabitants of the Southern African Coastal Region; Annals of the South African Museum – vol 103 – Part 6;(Dec 1993) Donald Moodie; The Record (May 1888); AA Balkema; Cape Town; (1959) HB Thom edt; Journal of Jan van Riebeeck 1652 – 1662; Van Riebeeck Society; AA Balkema, Cape Town / Amsterdam (1958) Karel Schoeman; Seven Khoi lives; – Cape biographies of the seventeenth century; Protea; Pretoria (2009) Alan Mountain; First People of the Cape; David Philip; Cape Town (2003) Nigel Worden, Elizabeth van Heningen, Vivian Bickford-Smith; Cape Town Making of a City; David Philip; Cape Town (1998) Karel Schoeman; Early Slavery at the Cape of Good Hope 1652 – 1717; Protea; Pretoria; (2007)



The term CAMISSA has a very simple explanation which is sound and not easily dismissed.

In December 2013 a letter appeared in the Cape Times from academic Keith Gottschalk who respectfully and genuinely inquired as to where the use of the term CAMISSA originates and expressed some skepticism about it being accurate. I have utmost respect for UWC academic and fellow comrade Keith Gottschalk (We Need Evidence, letter to editor of the Cape Times 2 December 2013). I responded respectfully in taking up his request for information on the association of the name ‘Camissa’ with the City of Cape Town.

Over a decade earlier when I first came across the usage of ‘Camissa’ by Cyril Hromnick, and its increasing commercial usage in Cape Town, I shared Keith Gottschalk’s skepticism and did a research check.

Gottschalk is correct in stating that //Hui !Gais or //Hu !Gaeb is the Khoena term that most would associate with the broader Cape Peninsula where it simply means ‘where clouds gather’.

The term //ammi-i-ssa or  gamis or kamis or kamma which is the root for ‘Camissa’ is the old indigene language of the Khoena, (or Khoi),and is the term for any fresh or sweet-water river as noted by Portuguese cartographer Lazaro Luis in 1563 on his map as – ‘de Camis’ alongside the name ‘Aguada de Saldanha’ for the same river flowing through Cape Town.

The Khoena did not have affectionate or honorary  names as in the European tradition of naming places. Words used were utilitarian and simply descriptive or for verbal route-mapping. Hence the name gami, kamis or kamma (water) pops up at many other places too, meaning the same thing – fresh water. For example – Tsistsikamma = tse-tsesa + kamma referring to the river means ‘clear water’ or ‘place of much water’ or the ‘place where water begins’. (Dictionary of Southern African Place Names – P E Raper, Head, Onomastic Research Centre, HSRC and Tsitistsikamma National Park)

In cross-referencing the cartographic reference of Lazaro Luis I also looked at an entry on 24 April 1682 by Governor-General van Goens captured in Moodie’s Record (1959) page 387 which notes the inland Khoena people referring to a fresh-water river as ‘Camissa’ or ‘Cumissa’.

In Cape Town the main fresh water tributary – kamis or kamma – that ran from the mountain Hoerikwaggo to the sea was given many names by the Europeans and three of these coincided with that of the indigenes – Camis on Luis’ map, Agua de Saldhana (water of Saldhnana – the original Portuguese name for Table Bay) and Soetwater Rivieren (Sweetwater) – freshwater as distinguishing this from Zouten Rivieren.

The first establishment of a refreshment station on the banks of the ‘Camissa’ in Table Bay for passing ships must be attributed to the maroon group of Goringhaicona under Elder-leader Austhumao, having continued this tradition from Elder-leader //Xhore of the Goringhaiqua from 1615 after //Xhore was returned to the Cape, having been kidnapped to England for a year.

The notion of a town or settlement before this time did not exist among the Khoena and thus Cape Town per se would not have existed, nor had any town-specific name existed. The Khoena would make for the distant Peninsula seen from the West Coast – the cloud covered Hoerikwaggo, an area they called //Hu !Gaeb.

By the early 1600s there were two patterns of abode evident among the indigene Khoena. Some followed a circular migratory pattern associated with climatic changes and herd feeding requirements while other established settled villages of a more permanent nature. Impacts brought about through the huge shipping traffic calling at Table Bay also resulted in a permanent trading settlement being established. Maritime records show that 1071 ships stopped at the Cape of Good Hope between 1600 and 1652, carrying troops and officials of the VOC and other European powers to the East. These ships developed fairly sophisticated service arrangements with the Europeans and a number of indigenes travelled abroad and back to undergo training, learning of language and familiarisation with the needs of the Europeans. The most successful of these, the entrepreneurial Autshumao broke with both the nomadic pattern and the pastoral village tradition when he established himself on the banks of the Camissa and around the Table Bay shore.


11 thoughts on “CAMISSA

  1. Thank You for a very interesting alternative history, This also explains why many people on the west coast have Mongolian features which could have occurred with the Chinese visitors. from Cape Boer

  2. Eddie, the Chinese originated in East Africa and were originally dark skinned, the San also trace there bloodlines back to the same origin hence the physical resemblance and that’s about a 100000 years before the Chinese voyages of discovery. The light skinned races are really the new kids on the block with a history that only goes back about 8000 years.

  3. Overwhelmed with gratitude and mesmerized by your depth, detail and clarity I thank you from the soul of my heart.
    All my hopes and prayers for a true reflection of my hometown city in me and my heritage answered, as I suspected

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