Iris Berger is Professor of History, Africana Studies, and Women’s Studies at the University of Albany, State University of New York. In her book, South Africa in World History, Berger offers the first general survey of South African history to fully integrate social history and women’s history and the first to emphasize connections between the United States and South Africa. In the excerpt below we look at the beginning of European settlements through the experience of one young woman, Krotoa who was later renamed Eva. To read excerpts from other books in this series click here.
In December 1651, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) appointed the merchant Jan Van Riebeeck to establish and command a permanent settlement on the southern tip of Africa. After sailing for nearly four months, he arrived at the Cape of Good Hope on April 6, 1652 with his wife and son, eighty-two men, and seven women. While concerned primarily with the valuable spices from its colonial outpost at Batavia in the East Indies, the Company had to supply sailors with fresh fruits and vegetables midway through the long journey from the Netherlands to keep them from dying of scurvy. In the interests of trade, the new commander was instructed to keep the peace with the area’s indigenous population.
Soon after Van Riebeeck arrived, a twelve-year-old Khoekhoe girl named Krotoa came to live with his family. Initially a servant, once she had learned to speak Dutch fluently she became a valued interpreter between the two cultures. Renamed Eva, she provided Van Riebeeck with valuable inside information about Khoekhoe politics and plans, contributing to the cross-cultural communication that enable the Dutch to acquire livestock in exchange for tobacco, copper, beads and drink.
This period of peaceful exchange lasted only briefly. As conflicts escalated over runaway slaves and Dutch confiscation of cattle and land, Eva found herself in the middle of these disputes. To salvage her position, she tried to encourage alliances and trade between the colonial intruders and local rulers, in one case persuading the Dutch to send violinists and a clown to entertain a potential ally. When Eva married a Danish physician, Pieter van Meerhof, who became a high-ranking solider in the Dutch East India Company, they sought together to expand Dutch trade with outlying areas. But van Meerhof’s death on an expedition to Mauritius in 1667, following Van Riebeeck’s transfer to Malacca in the East Indies five years earlier, intensified Eva’s ambivalent position as an indigenous woman trying to live in European society. Despite her conversion to Christianity and her linguistic fluency, her two protectors, Van Riebeeck and Pieter, were gone. From then on, the Dutch comanders accused Eva of drunkenness, prostitution, and abandoning her three children; on several occasions they imprisoned her on Robben Island, seven and a half miles from Cape Town. Cold and windswept, with a dangerous rocky coastline that caused frequent shipwrecks over the years, the island would later house South Africa’s most famous political prisoners. There Eva died a lonely death in 1674.
The tragic ending of Eva’s life reflects the divisions of the early colonial era – a period of initial cordiality, followed by constantly shifting alliances, all in the context of continually widening discord between the Dutch and local societies. Within another century, stripped of livestock and grazing land and ravaged by disease, Khoekhoe society itself would be destroyed. Symbolic of these divisions, during the 1660’s the Dutch East India Company planted a bitter almond hedge around its settlement in Cape Town. The “enormous intertwined branches” of these trees and “a tendency to grow horizontally as much as vertically” provided an effective boundary between the colonists and the Cape’s indigenous people.
The Dutch were not the first Europeans to round the Cape of Good Hope. Their settlement followed 164 years of sporadic contact between Europeans and various Khoekhoe and San groups near the coast. During the seventeenth century, when the Netherlands replaced Portugal as Europe’s strongest maritime nation, Dutch and British ships sailing to Asia began to use the Cape as a convenient stopping point. Sailors took in cattle and sheep from those Khoekhoe willing to trade with them and offered iron, copper, and tobacco in exchange. Though mutual suspicion was high and violence was frequent, the trade became important to both sides, allowing Europeans to resupply their ships and giving the Khoekhoe a steady supply of iron that made their spears more deadly. Because the primary interest of the trading companies lay in the spice-rich possessions of the India, the Khoe had no reason to question their assumption that Europeans were temporary sojourners on their shores.
When the Dutch arrived, foraging and herding societies were closely linked through trade and intermarriage. Eva’s father came from a group of hunter-gatherers who lived by collecting shellfish; her mother’s family were pastoralists. The Dutch described the herders as swift runners who kept large numbers of oxen and fat-tailed sheep. They dressed in skins and decorated themselves with beads and ornaments of copper, iron, ivory, and brass; some inhabited makeshift housing that could be moved with ease, wheras others lived in villages with houses laid out in a circle. Seventeenth-century Dutch geographic writer Olfert Sapper, who painstakingly compiled contemporary existing knowledge of Africa, reflected the common derogatory judgment of his contemporaries when he described the people now known as Khoekhoe: “All the Kafirs or Hottentots are people bereft of all science and literature, very uncouth, and in intellect more like beasts than men.” Yet Dapper also reported contradictions in these attitudes and stated that many observers had commented favorably on their “liberality and hospitality” and noted that as “dull-witted and coarse as these people are” when asked why they were stealing European cattle “they replied that they were doing so for no other reason than to avenge the suffering and injustive they had experienced at our taking away and sowing their lands.”