For many years in our youth under the shadow of Apartheid 6th April was a public holiday called Van Riebeeck’s Day or Founder’s Day... BUT who was the real van Riebeeck?
Those who place Jan van Riebeeck on a pedestal elevating him to playing a much larger and benevolent role in our past than is factual, and who project him as a fair and blameless man, are often rather ignorant of the bigger picture that make up this man’s life. Few people can present an actual biography of this man and few people have read his detailed journal and his letters from the Cape. In fact his present day supporters are much less honest about what happened, than Jan van Riebeeck himself.
Jan van Riebeeck spent more years of his life in Vietnam, Japan, and Batavia, than the short time he spent at the Cape of Good Hope. He had a checkered working life as a servant of the VOC and the time spent as one of a series of corrupt officials at the Tonkin factory in Vietnam is totally written out of the popular South African script as is his earliest commercial interest in the Cape.
Van Riebeeck on being disgraced and removed from office in Vietnam for corruption, seized upon an opportunity to redeem himself when passing through the Cape of Good Hope back to the Dutch States General. The fleet that he had been travelling with, picked up Captain Janzsens and his marooned crew from Table Bay and he learned that Janzsens recommended to the VOC that a refreshment station should be established at the Cape.
Whereas Captain Janzsens gave a glowing report on the Indigenous people running the port and the good relations between Europeans and Indigenes which should be the foundation of any Dutch endeavour at the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck had a very different view which saw the Indigenes as stinking, ignorant, lazy, thieves who were not to be trusted. Janzsens was the first choice of the VOC for their mission to establish a Dutch post at the Cape but he turned down the offer and Jan van Riebeeck was then offered the posting.
The first thing to note is that Jan van Riebeeck was not the first European to either engage with or settle at the Cape of Good Hope. Among other attempts, the British attempt to settle the Cape with Newgate prisoners in 1615 is well documented. The fact is that before Jan van Riebeeck there had been over 160 years of shipping from Europe to East Asia and up to 200 000 European travellers had visited Table bay.
Since 1600 the Cape of Good Hope community known as the “Watermans” were kept very busy with port servicing duties as there were around 3 ships per month stopping over for anything between three weeks to many months. Two local Indigenes, Xhore and Autshumato had been to London in 1613 and to Java in 1630 respectively, and returned with skills to service the ships dropping anchor at Table Bay.
A social and economic revolution took place in the half century before 1652 that resulted in some indigenes breaking with tribal life and pastoralism to become smaller groups of farmers and trader/facilitators.
The “Watermans” or people of Camissa, were known to the tribes on and around the Peninsula as the “kin or children who drifted away from the Goringhaiqua” – Goringhaicona. As such it was recognised that this was not another tribe but rather a phenomenon. Autshumato’s trading community were only up to 60 men, women and children who lived mainly off the rewards of their labours involving the shipping. The Camissa River was a strategic spot as water was required for barrelling and loading onto small boats sent by the ship’s anchored in the bay.
Numerous records exist to show that the ships of five nations received support services from the Indigene entrepreneurs at the Camissa River in Table Bay. All of this is airbrushed out of our history to project 1652 as a magical date of ‘foundation’ of European interests in the Cape starting on 6 April 1652. It is simply factually untrue that Jan van Riebeeck was the founder of the port and city of Cape Town.
Jan van Riebeeck took an aggressive approach toward indigenous African people from the beginning. This can be recorded as:
Jan van Riebeeck immediately invaded the space of the Camissa community of facilitators on the banks of the Camissa River and started the construction of his fort right there. His first action was to seize control of the river and the strategic trading spot. On taking occupation of the partially built fort, Van Riebeeck notes the forlorn figure of Autshumato from his window, still encamped next to the river. Autshumato’s entrepreneurial settlement and his place in history were blotted out from that moment. Effectively Jan van Riebeeck and the VOC usurped Autshumato and the Goringhaicona’s role as entrepreneurial providers of services to passing sea traffic and this was the source for the conflict and various acts of resistance.
Was there any kind of statement that van Riebeeck knew that he has taken over something that Autshumato and the Indigenes had started?
Van Riebeeck in his own journal clearly states word for word the articulated objections of the Khoena to the VOC actions violating their territorial rights and his own response that he had won the right to take their land by the laws of conquest. Both van Riebeeck and Autshumato were highly conscious of Autshumao’s proud role as a trading entrepreneur – Van Riebeeck writes… “Herrie in the meanwhile, prided himself on having originated the incipient trade…”.
THE CONTENTS OF A SERIES OF CONTROVERSIAL LETTERS OF JvR
1] Shortly after arriving at the Cape, Van Riebeeck wrote to the VOC imploring them to allow him to round up all the Peninsula Khoena, put them in chains and force them into labour. The VOC refused his request.
2] Again, in 1657, van Riebeeck and Van Goens wrote to the VOC outlining a plan and seeking approval to build five ‘redoubts’ at key kloofs in Hout Bay, so that they may lure and imprison Peninsula Khoena and their cattle there and then keep them so imprisoned to ensure that they may continuously be forced to supply cattle to the company. This would ensure that the Khoena would be cut off from making contact with potential allies in the interior and they would at the same time be prevented from harming the colony. This effectively was an early concept of a concentration camp. This concept was initially considered by the VOC but was rejected only because it would have cost too much and required many soldiers.
3] Then van Riebeeck came up with yet another scheme in which he requested the VOC’s permission to construct a canal from False Bay to Table Bay, so that he could cut off the peninsula as an island and then round up all of the Indigenes and expel them to the land across the canal. This was also rejected.
4] Instead, in 1659, van Riebeeck built a watered down version of his proposal. He erected a wooden fence with a line of defensive towers and wild almond hedges from Salt River to Kirstenbosch.
Van Riebeeck’s ideas however, set the paradigm of European-Indigene relations that has remained to this day.
Forced removals and the “redoubt” concept essentially translated into the 1913 Land Act and the Group Areas Act of 1950 and into Bantustan reservations.
Van Riebeeck started a trajectory of ethnocide, genocide, and ethnic cleansing of Indigenous Africans from their lands and from their sustainable livelihoods as successful livestock farmers. This is Van Riebeeck’s real legacy.
These initial concepts were the beginning of a long line of aberration visited on the indigenes, involving 176-years of ethnic cleansing wars until 1828 against the Cape Khoena tribes and clans, the /Xamka- !Eis (the San who were the only First People of the Cape) and the Gqunukhwebe (Xhosa-Khoena). This then dovetailed with the 100 years of Frontier Wars against the amaXhosa in the Eastern Cape.
The /Xam-ka !Eis "First People" of the Cape had lived there for thousands of years, and the migrant Khoena or Khoi people had lived in the Cape for 600 years before Jan van Riebeeck arrived. The Khoena or Khoi had trade networks across South Africa, from the Western Cape to the Limpopo, from where they originated, and from where they were a foundation people of every other tribe that had emerged since around 300 AD. The Khoena or Khoi were rich in livestock and practiced successful sustainable stock-farming coveted by the Dutch. These proud people, their social structures, culture and social cohesion was decimated by European incursion, aggression and landgrabs. In the case of the /Xam-ka !Eis and the !Ga !ne, the "First People" of the Eastern and Western Cape, although they had from around 650 AD, been displaced by pastoralist and agro-pastoralist Khoena and early //Xhosa, to the Central Cape, the mixed European-Khoena Commandos of the Dutch East India Company unleashed rape, pillage and genocide to physically wipe them out. As Indigene peoples were driven out the VOC issue loan-farm bond agreements to settlers.
This is also the legacy of Jan van Riebeeck who started the first "Loan Farm Bond" system
The real van Jan van Riebeeck, celebrated by some perversely as a “Founder” of South Africa was not a very nice fella at all. There is so many other actions of this man that further expose who he really was, but I will limit myself to the little glimpse on the man that I have here provided.
Propaganda that was fed to us during the colonial and Apartheid era also propagated plagiarized false images of Jan van Riebeeck and his wife that indeed were the images of two other Dutch people who had nothing to do with South Africa– Mr Vermuyden and Ms Kettering.
Statues, paintings, stamps, coinage and banknotes were created to project a false image of Van Riebeeck in this glamorized version of the man. All South Africans refer mentally to the image of Mr Bartholomeus Vermuyden when thinking of Van Riebeeck and this image is still popularly used commercially and in tourism brochures. Even here of Facebook some ignorant people have been posting Mr Vermuyden's image and praising and defending him as though he was Jan van Riebeeck. All leading historians, even the white Afrikaner establishment today recognise that the painting projected as JvR was fake, but many white South africans are so ignorant and brain-washed by the past neo-Nazi Apartheid education system that they remain True-Believers.