Referencing Camissa


The term CAMISSA has a very simple explanation which is sound and not easily dismissed. It should never be used for narrow divisive purposes. I have picked up that two very different sides in a silly little war, involving contesting ‘ownership of the past’, unnecessarily want to take it down a path that can result in ethnic conflict.

I get very concerned with two equally negative and rather arrogant trends that stymie exploration of roots, history and heritage. This concern is based on my belief that such trends promote distortion and destroys the ability for South Africans of different backgrounds and experiences to hear each other, find each other and respect each other.

On the one hand we have a trend of some in our community who believe themselves to be the only true descendants of indigenes, blindly hitting out at white academics and scholars simply because of who they are and brushing aside their work and views as irrelevant. These also adopt an approach of being sole custodians of a new ‘true’ indigenous narrative. By this I do not mean that people should not robustly critique the work of the white dominated historians, but when doing so the critique must be reasoned and presented well and without insult or playing on race.

The other side of my concern is the frequent brushing aside of the views of people of colour by some of the ‘white’ academics with the new swearword thrown at everything as being ‘politically correct’ or  suggesting that any discourse following a different path to theirs must be pseudo-historical (not to say that there is not some very real pseudo-history on both sides). There is also a huge amount of defensiveness and contestation by those ‘whites’ or people of Afro-European heritage who are now discovering their roots among people of colour. Instead of this enabling the building of bridges it simply gets used as a stick of reaction to beat off the views of people of colour today. Those that take this view, like their opponents also seem to believe that they have exclusive ownership and interpretation of the past and unfortunately have drawn a laager around themselves not too different to the white laagers used by their forebears to defend themselves from natives and so-called native contamination in the past. Over a year ago I had a debate in THE JOURNAL with Dr Mulder around this notion of defending the indefensible and rubbishing the alternative views as other by labelling it as ‘politically correct’ so as to dismiss discourse.

When will we ever learn? I would appeal to the bloody-minded on both of these extremes to stop and think about the damage done by these two silos on broader society. Both sides have so much to learn from each other and none of us have sole custodial rights to be beating each other into line. There is so much exciting historical and heritage work appearing today that cannot be boxed into political corners and hold keys that will be useful for unlocking ideological prisons concerning identity. In our South African experience  we are all locked so tightly into ‘race’ and ‘ethnic’ silos and its killing us.

It is with this background that I explain the origin of the term CAMISSA and ask for an open mind. The popularisation of the term is not meant to put anyone’s nose out of joint nor to provide angry militants with yet another war cry. It is a sober suggestion of how we can forge a more dignified and inclusive reference point for people of colour who feel insulted and alienated by the race terminology label – ‘Coloured’ and the ideological protocols foisted on a people by legislative frameworks past and present based on the Coloured lexicon.

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.

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.

Autshumao and his Goringhaicona clan (children of the Goringhaiqua) were maroons from other Khoena groups, established by him after returning from his trip to Batavia. This group was specifically established for a singular purpose of facilitation and trading with the Europeans. This is proven by the fact that after Autshumao had gathered these maroons together he had the English establish them on Robben Island with a very specic servicing brief. By 1637 however at Autshumao’s own request he had the English return them from Robben Island to the mainland to settle alongside the Camissa River and there they carried on with their trading and serving with around 3 ships per month arriving and staying over for periods longer than a week. This was the true foundation of Cape Town before the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck. In the decades prior to van Riebeeck’s arrival and the early years of his settlement Autshumao’s people were also referred to by the Dutch as WATERMANS – Kamis men, because of their association with the river and the sea.

The Camissa was a strategic point for trade and fresh water was a main commodity for passing ships. The provision of fresh water, mined salt, hides and repair wood together with acting as a trader between inland groups and the seafarers, was the real beginning of the port operation. Van Riebeeck who first camped alongside Autshumao for 6 months at the Camissa while the fort was built, noted after moving to the Fort that Autshumao remained camped by the river. The trading relationships of Xhore and Autshumao and their respective trips abroad as well as the formation of the Goringhaicona as the proto Capetonians is in my opinion clearly documented even though sparsely so and is the true foundation of Cape Town as a town settlement around the river Camissa.  The river is now driven underground, much as has this story remained layered over for too long.

The distinction between //Hu !Gaeb and //ammi-i-ssa is not competitive but complimentary. The one denotes the broader peninsula and the other recognizes the break with a previous social and economic patterns of indigenes and the first establishment of a settlement, which like that of many towns and cities around the world, grew up around a fresh water river, now hidden from the public gaze. The older origins of the term amongst the Khoena is moot and may have been a cross-over term between the seafarers and Khoena during the 127 years pre-1615, as ‘Camis’ appears elsewhere on the Portuguese sea routes also denoting fresh-water, but more likely goes back to the Spanish and Arabic word for cloth or shirt.

Chief Autshumao, established what can be called the first Camissa footprint in South Africa, as the settlement where Khoena, Slaves of diverse origins and Europeans first engaged in meaningful relationships and where locally born people sharing these diverse roots first emerged. The term certainly has more meaning than the racial term, ‘Coloured’, foisted on people by the British.

More information on Camissa and the ‘ties that bind us’ in our history and heritage can be found on this blogsite. I appeal to all who either insult people simply because they are considered irrelevant ‘white’ (I prefer to called them Afro-Europeans rather than use race terminology) academics or vice versa derogatorily dismiss the opinions on people of colour as being ‘politically correct’ rather than the product of intellectual inquiry. Come on guys, social inquiry is being negatively impacted upon by this little war.