The 1652 debate rages on

‘Van Riebeeck is more honest than Dr Mulder’

Heritage practitioner and liberation activist Patric Tariq Mellet outlines his views about the history and legacy of Jan van Riebeeck, in response to a piece written by Dr Pieter Mulder in The Journalist two weeks back.

Dr Pieter Mulder’s response to an article in ‘The Journalist’ about Jan van Riebeeck’s is ahistorical and contains a number of distortions and half-truths.

He starts off by asserting the undisputable contention that people interpret historical facts differently. Indeed. His own opening statements which he regards as ‘fact’ are only half-truths about a complex beginning of what we today call South Africa and its progression in the modern period starting around the end of the 15th century.
He goes on to assert that some people often simply abuse history to mobilise others and implies that the present day emergence of new light on old ideologically impregnated South African history is simply an ANC plot to re-write history for the narrow political purposes. This is insulting to historians and other intellectuals who represent a range of political outlooks but contribute to shedding new light on our history.

Dr Mulder calls for a balanced approach to looking at the past which should avoid a contrived approach which may suit current social, political and economic objectives of those who overcame Apartheid and colonialism.

Contradictorily in the last third of Dr Mulder’s argument he starts by hinting that the manner in which history should be projected is to take his own perspective of current times and development and then place the van Riebeeck story in this context in a partisan and contestational manner.

In the contorted paradigm that he establishes, with various factually deficient examples of a version of the so-called ‘balance’ propagated, Dr Mulder uses old Apartheid era ahistorical chestnuts to argue a case in which the past is simply about a contestation of views based on ‘good and innocent’ versus ‘bad and mean’. In doing so he contradicts his own, and undisputed contention that history is more complex than such a lens of analysis. He is so overly pre-occupied with a defensiveness around culpability in the story of colonial conquest and injustice that everything is boiled down to balance being interpreted as a listing of the merits and demerits of various bit players emerging from cameos of captured time.

He completely loses sight of the bigger picture and indeed cherry-picks elements from the well-researched broader information available on each story mentioned. The broader facts often result in very different conclusions to that propagated by Dr Mulder.

During the Apartheid era through a combination of distortion, false information and censorship in the arena of historical enquiry there was an ‘airbrushing-out’ of all intellectual enquiry and discourse that contradicted Apartheid ideology.

A decade ago, in a process led by Elna Boesak, myself and a broad cross-section of fellow history and heritage practitioners came together in an 8 part series of programmes on Radio Sonder Grense which opened up a challenging dialogue which had for over four decades been shut down by the draconian censorship of the Apartheid era. The project was called ‘Os Geskiedenis Tussen die Krake

It comes across that Dr Mulder would again like to box us into accepting his skewed ideological historical framework to censor South Africans from discussing this history that had fallen between the cracks, simply because it challenges the paradigm or convention of the bygone era.

The issues of our understanding and enquiry about the past indeed are a much bigger and more important one than any politician’s view or the narrow views of any party Justice and reconciliation in South Africa and indeed the building of a nation from diverse peoples cannot be based on a notion of appeasing or reconciling distortions.

In examining the subject of Jan van Riebeeck, the paradigm of how we look at this man and his contribution needs to change and we need to be more honest in the approach taken. Indeed those who place the man on a pedestal elevating him to playing a much larger role in our past than is factual, are often rather ignorant of the bigger picture that make up this man’s life.

Jan van Riebeeck spent more years of his life in Vietnam and Japan, and then later in Batavia, than what he spent at the Cape of Good Hope. He had a chequered working life as a servant of the VOC and the time spent as one of a series of corrupt officials at the Tonkin factory is totally written out of the popular South African script as is his earliest commercial interest in the Cape.

His unofficial policy at the Fort de Goede Hoop of promoting the impregnation of slave and indigene women by European officials which he called ‘fruitification’ is written out of the script.

He had a tense and manipulative relationship with Krotoa (Eva van Meerhof) who was a servant in his employ (according to his own journal) rather than the distorted view of her being ‘one of his family’. This led him to declare that she was ‘drawing the longbow’ (misleading) when providing him with interpretation. This is also edited out of the colonial script. Indeed Van Riebeeck’s journal, when carefully studied, is remarkably revealing and a lot more honest than the ideologues that later projected the man as their iconic founder of South Africa.

The contestation which played itself out at the Cape of Good Hope settlement between Jan van Riebeeck representing the VOC and the Khoena represented by various role-players is certainly very different from the projections made by Dr Mulder and other Apartheid history ideologues. Firstly Jan van Riebeeck was not the first European to either engage with or settle at the Cape of Good Hope. Amongst other attempts the British attempt to settle the Cape with Newgate prisoners in 1614 which is well documented, debunks this myth. The fact that before Jan van Riebeeck there had been over 160 years of busy shipping from Europe to East Asia using the Cape of Good Hope as a stop-over is airbrushed out of our history to project 1652 as a magical date of ‘foundation’ of European interests in the Cape. It is simply factually untrue.

For almost 40 years prior to the Dutch settlement being established Europeans developed a proxy refreshment station utilising indigenes to formally supply fresh water and meat to passing ships as well as a postal service first under Chief Xhore and then under Chief Autshumato. This is well researched and documented. Both had been taken abroad for training – Chief Xhore to London in 1613 and Chief Autshumato to Batavia in 1630. These two Khoena chiefs broke the pattern of nomadic living, established a settled group of Khoena Maroons in Table Bay known as the Goringhaicona and they were highly entrepreneurial. Effectively they were the founders of the proto settlement that became Cape Town.

Jan van Riebeeck was received by the Khoena and lived cheek by jowl with them on the banks of the Camissa river during that first 1652 winter while the fort was being built. 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 was 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 that Dr Mulder describes using criminal terminology.

Dr Mulder buys into the Apartheid and colonial mythology by continuing to insultingly propagate that this man was simply a criminal vagabond and beach-bum, Herrie die Strandlooper. The man had been to Batavia, was assisted to initially set up on Robben Island to service ships with 30 of his followers and then eventually assisted to re-establish his mission at the Camissa river mouth on the mainland. Jan van Riebeeck spotted this opportunity, displaced and replaced Autshumato’s business in the very same spot with a fort. He also undercut Autshumato’s prices and seized control over his supply chain using divide and rule tactics.

Van Riebeeck on being disgraced and removed from office in Vietnam for corruption had seen this opportunity in 1651 when passing through the Cape of Good Hope back to the Dutch States General. Already in Japan in the previous year he is recorded to have been toying with the idea of exporting animal hides to Japan from the Cape. Van Riebeeck was a shrewd wheeler-dealer merchant who was caught out doing insider dealing for personal gain. To redeem himself with the company he convinced the VOC that this logistical supply scenario was controlled by no European power and presented an opportunity. No wonder there was continuous conflict between Autshumato and Van Riebeeck. Ultimately 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. Van Riebeeck is more honest than Dr Mulder.

Dr Mulder forgets that so desperate were the Apartheid ideologues in going to great lengths to build up the notion of Jan Van Riebeeck as the romantic ‘Founder of Civilized South Africa’ that they propagated plagiarised false images of him and his wife that indeed were the images of two other Dutch people – Mr Vermuyden and Ms Kettingh. Statues, paintings, stamps, coinage and banknotes were created to project Van Riebeeck in this glamourized 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. This is an example of the dishonesty and distortion that we cannot and should not take into our future as is argued by Dr Mulder.

Dr Mulder and his ilk do little to build conciliation and lay the solid foundations for uniting South Africans across the race divide, by perpetuating the historical myths. There is no doubt that there is value to all human interactions and migrations throughout the globe over time and the Van Riebeeck story contextual to this has its values when we employ hindsight. But such value as can be assessed has to be separated from the ideological overlay and falsification of factual events. For instance without Jan van Riebeeck’s collaboration with Krotoa in compiling his journal we may not have had the invaluable recording of indigenes, their way of life and indeed their resistance story. This is very important today and invaluable.

However when dealing with nation-building Dr Mulder would do better to highlight the stories of those Europeans and those of European descent who made much more valuable contributions but were ideologically airbrushed out of history by the censorship of his Apartheid predecessors. There is much in our long South African history about the sterling contributions of non-conformist whites who did not have an adversarial relationship to the people of the continent. They embraced Africa and its people rather than waged war and dispossessed them.

The hidden history offers much more to the prospects of conciliation and nation building than the distorted approach taken by Dr Mulder. Both Dr Mulder and the ANC that he criticizes should seize the opportunity provided by new discoveries in the arena of history, rather than denigrate new analysis, so as to build on ‘the ties that bind us’ in taking forward the quest to develop a united South African nation, rather than have a narrow approach for short term gains.

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