Googling “Jan van Riebeeck”? This is for you

Despite his negative legacy in South Africa, Van Riebeeck gets presented by some as someone locals should admire.

A mural of Jan van Riebeeck in Maboneng in downtown Johannesburg (Adamina, CC BY 2.0).

April 6th used to be a public holiday in Apartheid South Africa. It was supposed to be the day that Jan Van Riebeeck arrived in South Africa in 1652 as the chief colonial administrator of the Dutch East India Company’s new colonial settlement to settle what is now Cape Town. Who of my generation does not know this? It was drilled into all our minds at primary (read: elementary) school. And even if we were not lucky enough to go to school, the mythology certainly did not pass us by. The version of history taught to us started with him. In fact if the old history books were to be believed, this was when the history of our country started.

After bringing major disruption to this part of the world, Van Riebeeck continues to be presented as one whom we should value. His statue occupies centre stage at the foot end of Adderley Street, the main street in the our city.

Who did he find at the Cape? The great leader Autshumato and his people today referred to as the Khoi. According to archeologists, human beings had lived here for more than a 100,000 years and as Khoi and San definitely for thousands of years.

Van Riebeeck spent eight years of his life on these shores and we hold him up as an example to our children who know nothing about Autshamayo, the great Khoi leader.

Autshamayo and his people lived along the southern and western coastal strips, where adequate grazing was to be found. Over time they spread out into the north, intermingled with the amaXhosa, enriching their language with their clicks. Today there are sixteen different clicks in the Xhosa language as a result of the influence of the Khoi and San whose languages were drawn from the sounds of nature.

When Autshamayo encountered the European delegation, he was cordial. He bartered with them and must have assumed that they were passing by as many others had done before. Instead, they had come to build a refreshment station to serve ships belonging to the Dutch East India Company.

Slowly a mutual animosity developed over access to pasteurs. Van Riebeeck and his men were settling down and pushing the KhoiSan away from adequate grazing land. The beauty of the Cape and its wealth of resources had begun to entice the visitors to stay and develop a settlement rather than just a transitory refreshment station.

The first substantial threat came after five years in 1657 when Van Riebeeck released nine men from their contracts and by royal decree granted them title deed to land along the Liesbeeck River. Each were granted 15 morgen of land in what is now known as Bishopscourt very close to the Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba’s residence. Autshamayo did not take this lightly and so began their 150 year resistance to prevent the Europeans from taking their land.

In that same year, 1657, Van Riebeeck’s company imported the first slaves from the Indonesian Islands and India, bringing the skill and labour that built the Cape. From them flowed some of my ancestors. (As notes, “between 1652 and the ending of the slave trade in 1807, about 60,000 slaves were imported into the Colony”) Anyone keen to know more about the 176 years of slavery at the Cape should visit the Iziko Slave Museum at the top end of Adderly Street in the city. Be prepared for your stomach to turn as you witness the cruelty.

In 1659, Van Riebeeck instructed the slaves to build a wooden fence, with watch towers, from the mouth of the Salt River, through Rondebosch to Kirstenbosch, using the deeper parts of the Liesbeeck River as part of the barrier. To finish the barrier quickly, a hedge of indigenous wild almond trees (Brabejum stellatifolium) and thorny shrubs was planted along the section between the river and Kirstenbosch.

It further locked out the natives from their grazing land and access to the Salt River, the Black River and the Liesbeeck River so named by the Dutch East India Comapany.

Van Riebeeck recorded an encounter where they confronted him about land rights and asked him “Who should rather in justice give way, the rightful owner or the foreign intruder?” In response to this demand to withdraw, van Riebeeck said that the territory had been won in battle and now belonged to the VOC. The Khoikhoi then asked for at least the right to collect “veldkos” (bush food), specifically wild almonds (Brabejum stellatifolium) from their traditional lands. Van Riebeeck denied this request as well. He needed the very same wild almond plants to form his barrier hedge to keep them out.

Efforts to protect the hedge began as soon as it was planted. Van Riebeeck issued a Plakaat (a posted law) forbidding everyone “not only from making passage through … the said hedge, but not even to break off from it the smallest twig, no matter what the reason is supposed to be, on pain of being banished in chains for 3 years” Today, there are only two surviving portions of van Riebeeck’s hedge, the Kirstenbosch section and another in Bishops Court.

By the time Van Riebeeck left in 1662, 250 European people lived in what was beginning to look like a developing colony marking clear exclusion of the native people. In just eight years at the Cape, he had sown the seeds of a division that continues to harm us till this day.

In Kirstenbosch, the botanical gardens on the slopes of Table Mountain, where a part of that hedge still grows, this story of exclusion is not mentioned in its official brochure.

It refers to an almond hedge known for its thorns as the remains of the original hedge named Van Riebeeck’s Hedge.

The brochure fails to explain its real purpose as outlined above and its effect of denying natives access to land and water they held to be sacred. From the settler point of view, the barrier was created to prevent them from raiding their livestock, often traded from the Khoisan.

Van Rieebeeck is constantly the subject of revision. His defenders among rightwing whites have even charged Jacob Zuma, the country’s President with hate speech at its Human Rights Commission for stating the obvious: “You must remember that a man called Jan van Riebeeck arrived here on 6 April 1652, and that was the start of the trouble in this country … What followed were numerous struggles and wars and deaths and the seizure of land and the deprivation of the indigenous peoples’ political and economic power … (Van Riebeeck’s arrival) disrupted South Africa’s social cohesion, repressed people and caused wars.”

Jan van Riebeeck was an employee of a marauding company not known for fair trade outside Europe. Not very different from some companies today who parachute into our country, strip us of our resources and then fly back from whence they come. Twenty years after democracy, we need to carefully consider how we want to do business with the world. Perhaps we have little room to choose because of the great unfairness of the world economic system. But let us be aware of those who are doing us harm both from amongst ourselves and from abroad and expose exploitation where ever we see it.

It is unfortunate that the City of Cape Town chooses not to teach us to value Autshumato and others like him who have done us no harm. Instead it gives pride of place to those who have done us great harm and seems determined to help us adjust to a version of history that can only be described as a gross distortion. Failure to interrogate this attitude will only leave most citizens unsupported in making sense of their past and their present experiences.

Further Reading