There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood

By Scott Lipkowitz

Aboard the Drommedaris en route to Table Bay on the southwestern tip of Africa, Dutch Commander Jan Van Riebeeck had ample time to consider the orders handed to him by his employers, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) or Dutch United East India Company. These instructions, drafted and agreed upon by the VOC's Council of 17 some nine months before Riebeeck set sail from The Netherlands on December 24, 1651, tasked him and his men with the establishment of an outpost on the Cape Peninsula. This base, constructed near the slopes of Table Mountain, would provide a port where company ships "may safely touch...and obtain meat vegetables water and other necessities."

The Cape Peninsula, or the Cape of Good Hope as it was named in the late 1400's by Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias, was an important strategic way-station for European trading vessels and warships. As naval and navigational technology improved throughout the 16th and 17th century, so too did the reach of European trading networks; placing a premium on the creation of strategic bases of operation at which vessels could shelter, refit, and resupply. In the 1650's the journey from Holland to the Cape took the better part of four months, and that was only a fraction of the distance Dutch merchant vessels would have to travel before reaching trading ports in India and then making the return journey to Europe. Long voyages at sea meant limited access to fresh water and the produce necessary to stave off disease, most notably scurvy. And if the sailors needed to keep the ships moving were unable to do so because of ill-health, the goods necessary to keep the money moving would fail to reach their final destinations. The Cape, with its Mediterranean climate and freedom from tropical diseases, was a supremely desirable location. 

However, as in all human migrations, the European commercial expansion ran into a significant problem: other humans. The Cape Peninsula was not devoid of indigenous occupants - the San and Khoikhoi had occupied the region for millennia - and the directors of the VOC were well aware of this fact. Immediately following their instructions to Riebeeck for the creation of a shipping station, the Council of 17 presented him with their appraisal of the local population and what he should do about them: "go ashore with a portion of your men, taking with you as much material as you require for a temporary defense against the natives, who are a very rough lot." Riebeeck was inclined to agree, stating in a letter sent to the VOC as an offer of his services, "they [the local population] are not to be trusted, being a brutal gang, living without any conscience." Riebeeck argued for the construction of a stronger, highly defensive fortification commanding the ascent of the  Lion's Head hill (which stood next to Table Mountain), warning his potential VOC employers that he had "heard from many who had been there and were trustworthy, that our people have been killed without any cause." 

This sentiment put Riebeeck in direct opposition to that espoused by two VOC employees, Proot and Jansen, who had spent more than a year residing in the Cape. In their 1649 report to the Council of 17, they urged the creation of an outpost on the Cape, propounding upon its benefits, and seeking to sooth the fears of those who believed the natives to be "brutal and cannibals, from whom no good could be expected." While they could not "deny that [the Khoikhoi] live without laws or police...nor that some boatsmen and soldiers had been killed by them," Proot and Jansen nevertheless believed that "the cause [for such behavior] is generally not stated by our people in order to excuse themselves." In other words, if you knew what we had done to them, you would not find their behavior at all surprising or alarming. Where Riebeeck believed the Dutch to be wholly without sin, Proot and Jansen were unconvinced. 

The Khoikhoi with whom the Dutch initially interacted were pastoralists, driving their cattle herds between seasonal areas of forage. In the decades before Riebeeck's arrival, the Khoikhoi regularly traded with passing European vessels, but such commercial ventures were not always fairly entered into. Cattle were regularly taken without recompense, leading to often violent retaliation. All of this seemed reasonable to Proot and Jansen. "We are quite convinced" they stated, "that the peasants of this country [Holland], in case their cattle are shot down or taken away without payment, would not be a hair better than these natives if they had not to fear the law." Without the specter of big brother, in this case the monarch and his legal apparatus, the people of Holland would also be engaged in an endless revenge cycle against those who wronged them or stole their property. At the core, the Dutch and the Khoikhoi were essentially the same: they both would not be too keen on someone else taking their possessions and their resources without receiving something in return. 

Equality of temperament and of expectation was a theme the Khoikhoi themselves would later invoke in their dealings with the Dutch; but such an appraisal of the common human condition by Proot and Jansen should not be mistaken as an assertion of benevolence or fraternity with the Khoikhoi. For them, the Dutch lower classes were no better than the Cape Peninsula natives, they simply had the power of a higher authority to keep them in check - an authority which Proot and Jansen hoped to impose upon the Khoikhoi. Their designs included the use of Khoikhoi as laborers and servants, and their eventual conversion to the Christian religion. But whereas Riebeeck sought to do this with the stick, Proot and Jansen saw that carrots could be as effective, if not more so, in achieving the company's objective. Understanding that Khoikhoi actions were not without cause the VOC could tackle those causes, Proot and Jansen argued, and thus create quiescence among the local population without the need for garrisoning troops or resorting to costly conflict -  an observation based on pragmatism, not humanism. 

Tactics may have differed, but the end goal remained the same: the creation of a suitable port for the maintenance of the literal bone and sinew which moved the vast machinery that made the VOC's profits. In relation to this need, all else, including the Khoikhoi, were merely obstacles to be overcome, no matter what the cost. It is important to remember that the Dutch were not fixated solely upon the potential for conflict with the Cape population; they were engaged in a world-wide struggle against the other European tribes for control of the vast wealth of the continents. To Reibeeck, Proot, Jansen and the VOC, the Khoikhoi were simply one more opposing tribe whom they must out-compete. In the same breath that he condemned their character, Riebeeck reminded his employers that strong fortifications would also protect the vital station from "the English, French, Danes and especially the Portugese, who are jealous of the enlargement and prosperity of the Company, and let no opportunity pass to hinder it as much as possible." Controlling the Cape Peninsula was about much more than depriving the Khoikhoi of their ancestral homeland. 

A Sea Anchor

On April 5, 1652 the Drommedaris sighted Table Mountain. Shots were fired to signal her sister ships, their echoing cannonade marking the beginning of the tense history of Dutch - African relations. 

Riebeeck wasted no time putting his instructions into action. He and his men constructed a fort, set out the arrangements for a Company garden, erected a hospital, and constructed a shelter for cattle and sheep. Vegetables, milk, fresh water, and medical care was provided for passing Company ships. Meat from Company livestock filled their larders, but it was not enough to satisfy demand. Khoikhoi herds made up for the shortfall, and Reibeeck attempted to take the stance of Proot and Jansen in his dealings with them. Older histories insist on an almost extreme benevolence towards the Khoikhoi, no doubt to set up a fictitious European blamelessness for what would eventually transpire; but, at least in the initial years of the Cape settlement's existence, a perhaps tense peace seemed to exist between the two groups. 

All of that would take a turn for the worse as the settlement's financial burden began to outweigh its benefit. Despite offering a much needed respite for weary merchant crews, the Cape settlement was a monetary sea-anchor on the VOC. Five years into the enterprise, Riebeeck's outpost was yet to achieve self-sufficiency. In an attempt to cut their losses and increase production the VOC acquiesced to Riebeeck's request to expand the limits of the station. According to historian Martin Meredith, writing in The Fortunes of Africa, the VOC, in 1657 released "thirty-nine of its employees from their contracts and [placed] them on thirty-acre landholdings...six miles from the fort." Over the next two years further company employees were settled in the adjoining area as "free-burghers" or boers (farmers), who despite their designation, were subject to company authority. By 1659, what had started as a small enclave beneath the western slopes of Table Mountain had grown into a proto-colony, usurping the ancestral grazing lands of the neighboring Khoikhoi. 

Conflict, as Proot and Jansen had correctly observed, was now inevitable. Pushing back against the continued encroachment, the Khoikhoi retook farmland on the eastern slopes stating, according to a history produced by an English clerk in the 1880's, that their aim was "to 'dishearten the colonists by taking away their cattle, and if that did not produce the effect, then to burn their houses and corn until they were forced to go away.'" Whether or not this was actually expressed as such - and once again this comes from a British colonial official writing for an audience predisposed to viewing the  Khoikhoi as savages worthy of contempt, so take it with a grain of salt- the Khoikhoi nonetheless carried it out. Months of subsequent conflict resulted only in stalemate. Riebeeck decided to meet at the negotiating table.

If We Go To Holland

The ensuing exchange between Riebeeck and the leaders of the Khoikhoi tribes was recorded in the Dutch commander's journal. He, and the rest of Europe, may have believed the indigenous populations of the continents they subdued were mindless brutes and savages, devoid of civilization; but the arguments with which the Khoikhoi confronted him were anything but mindless or uncivilized. The Khoikhoi grasped the gravity of their situation, and presented logical counterarguments to the unjust actions of their would-be neighbors. 

"They dwelt long on our taking every day for our own use more of the land," Riebeeck records, "which had belonged to them from all ages and on which they were accustomed to depasture their cattle." The Khoikhoi pointed out that the settlement of company boers on their land had been done without so much as a consultation. Happy to trade with the Dutch when they remained within the confines of the Cape settlement, the Khoikhoi were now expected to simply abandon the best pasture land. What were they supposed to do when confronted with such blatant disregard? Access to the land had to be restored they asserted, to which Riebeeck retorted "that there was not grass enough for [Khoikhoi] cattle, and for [Dutch] also." While Riebeeck may have assumed such an argument would throw the Khoikhoi leadership for a loop, they would not be so easily assailed. " 'Have we then no cause to prevent you from procuring any cattle?," the Khoikhoi replied, "'For if you get many cattle, you come and occupy our pasture with them, and then say the land is not wide enough for us both. Who then can be required, with the greatest degree of justice, to give way, the natural owner or the foreign invaders?'" Perhaps most pointedly the Khoikhoi desired to know of Riebeeck "whether, if they were to come into Holland, they would be permitted to act in a similar manner [?]"

Such penetrating questions make plain the Khoikhoi's sober and pragmatic assessment of what had caused the conflict and their realization of the simple truth that if the tables were turned, the Dutch would not act any differently. Riebeek's inability or refusal to straightforwardly answer this last remark speaks volumes about its truth. Ultimately he fell back upon a weak defense of Dutch actions, informing the Khoikhoi leaders that "they had now lost the land in war and therefore could only expect to be henceforth entirely deprived of it."  Riebeeck invited them to try and expel the Dutch, commandeer the fort, and return things to the way they were, "if they had the courage." If such an attempt were made however, the Khoikhoi "would become, by virtue of the same right [conquest] owners of the Fort...for as long as they could hold it," but if the Khoikhoi "were disposed to try that, we [the Dutch] should consider of what we must do." Riebeeck's might-makes-right answer to their rational appeals for justice only reinforced what the Khoikhoi already understood. While they still fought with bow and arrow, the Dutch had cannon and light firearms; against such a threat their options were severely limited.

Peace between the two parties was reinstated in 1660. The Khoikhoi retained possession of the cattle they had taken from Dutch boers and were absolved of any war time reparations. Yet, despite the Khoikhoi's reasoned and nuanced argumentation, their eventual flattening by the steam-roller of colonial expansion was now all but guaranteed. The Khoikhoi recognized VOC sovereignty over the land settled by the Boers, opening up the door to further conquest "by the sword." Though certainly well aware of the precedent they were setting, without comparable arms and numbers, all the Khoikhoi could do was resist until their strength had been exhausted. 

Carrots and Sticks

Riebeeck's description of his negotiations with the Khoikhoi seems to betray a sense of incredulity at their insistence of their rights to the land which had been the home of their ancestors. Deftly parrying every straw-man argument Riebeeck threw at them, the Khoikhoi attempted to appeal to some higher moral code or sense of justice. However, Riebeeck's own words demonstrate that such appeals, though well grounded, would have never swayed his actions or decisions. Having taken the land from the Khoikhoi, Riebeeck wrote, "it was our intention to retain it." 

In those few words the whole of human land conflict is succinctly summed up. Having tried the carrots of Proot and Jansen, and employing the stick of land appropriation and eventual violence, Riebeeck was determined that his tribe, the Dutch, and more specifically the VOC, would come out on top. Nothing would dissuade him from that goal. If the Khoikhoi are guilty of anything in this exchange, it is perhaps attempting too high-minded an appeal against the base irrationality of profit and commercialism. Furthermore, the record of this meeting unequivocally demonstrates the consistency of the human spirit; the "essential essence of water" as historian Victor Davis Hanson put it. The same forces which over-ran the Khoikhoi are still in operation today, from the Amazon to the badlands of North Dakota. If the ghosts of the Khoikhoi, and the message their words yell out to us from across the centuries tells us anything, it is perhaps this: that when resources are the object of humanity's contention, it may be too much to hope that there will not be blood. 

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Notes:

Meredith, Martin. The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000 -Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor. Public Affairs. 2014. 

"Instructions for the Officers of the Expedition Fitted Out for the Cape of Good Hope to found a Fort and Garden There." Precis of the Archives of the Cape of Good Hope, Volume 5. W.A. Richards & Sons. 1896. https://archive.org/details/precisarchivesc03riebgoog

Jansen and Proot. "A Short Exposition of the Advantages to be Derived by the Company from a Fort and Garden at the Cape of Good Hope." Precis of the Archives of the Cape of Good Hope, Volume 5. W.A. Richards & Sons. 1896. https://archive.org/details/precisarchivesc03riebgoog

van Riebeeck, Jan Anthony. "Report of Van Riebeeck on the Above 'Remonstrance' Addressed to the Directors of the General Company."  Precis of the Archives of the Cape of Good Hope, Volume 5. W.A. Richards & Sons. 1896. https://archive.org/details/precisarchivesc03riebgoog

Noble, John. Official Handbook: History, Productions and Resources of the Cape of Good Hope. Colonial and Indian Exhibition Committee. 1886. https://books.google.com/booksid=mpOqZVuCrlIC&dq=they+alsOfficial%20Handbook:%20History,%20Productions%20and%20Resources%20of%20the%20Cape%20of%20Good%20Hopeo+asked+whether,+if+they+were+to+come+to+holland,+they+would+be+permitted+to+act+in+a+similar+manner&source=gbs_navlinks_s

van Riebeeck, Jan Anthony. Translated by H.B. Thom. Journal of Jan van Riebeeck Volume III 1659 - 1662. A.A. Balkema, publisher. 1958. 

 

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