Once upon a time this was an almost holy week in white South Africa, for lo, ’twas on April 6, in the Year of our Dutch Lords 1652, that a certain convicted embezzler with a Spaniel-ear hairdo called Jan arrived at the Cape and claimed it for Holland (Two English sailors had previously offered it to Queen Elizabeth I, but she had said, “Meh”).
If you went to school in the Old South Africa you probably think you know the story. Well, as Buzzfeed would say, THESE DUTCH PEOPLE ARRIVED IN AFRICA AND WHAT HAPPENED NEXT WILL BLOW YOUR MIND!
We all know that on the 6th of April, 1652, Van Riebeeck arrived in Table Bay. He was on board the Dromedaris, named after a camel because it was infested with fleas. Alongside where the Reijger, named after the Dutch word for spitting out a loogie, and the Goede Hoop, named after an exciting new invention in Holland, the Hula hoop.
However, we have found new evidence that this small squadron of three ships was much, much larger when it left Rotterdam. According to witnesses, the original fleet comprised 23 ships. It was under the command of Twitchy Niels Den Vroetelaar, the first European to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. As they sailed out of the harbour in Rotterdam, Den Vroetelaar was heard to say, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Oh look, a seagull! Are we there yet? Hey, look, a seagull!” His navigator tried to explain that the voyage would take months, but after three hours, Den Vroetelaar had had enough, and ordered the fleet to drop anchor, rowed ashore, and walked home.
But Van Riebeeck was determined to kickstart his flagging career by continuing to the Cape, and the rest is history. After arriving on the 6th of April, he read his first order: to build a sturdy fort in a safe location. Van Riebeeck’s carpenters went to work at once, and by dusk of April 7, he had his fort, a two-meter by two-meter platform in a tree, with a sign reading ‘Jan’s Secret Fort, No Girls Aloud’. When his second-in-command explained to him that the VOC wanted an actual fort, Van Riebeeck reluctantly climbed down out of his treehouse and realized that life at the Cape was going to be much less fun than he had hoped.
The second shock in store for Van Riebeeck was how much work the new settlement would be. As Head Embezzler in Vietnam he had done very little manual labour: the only time he had ever broken a sweat was one very warm summer evening in Tonkin, when he had found himself wedged between the Pingpong sisters, who smeared him in chutney and stuffed jalapeno peppers in his nostrils.
Historical documents reveal that Van Riebeeck wrote to the VOC soon after arriving, requesting that the company send him slaves to perform a number of tasks at the Cape. A breakdown of these tasks reveal that they included “everything”. However, we must not think that Van Riebeeck was a lazy man. On the contrary, he was very willing to perform certain activities, such as breathing, chewing (as long as the food was placed in his mouth), urinating (as long as someone else aimed) and sleeping (as long as someone else made the bed).
The VOC replied with bad news: they would not be sending him any slaves from their eastern colonies any time soon, and he was expressly forbidden from enslaving the local population. Van Riebeeck would have to tough it out for the first few years. He suffered terribly, scratching his hands on silver cutlery and getting ferocious sunburn on the backs of his knees when he fell asleep on the front lawn.
Having built a second fort (in a cave on the slopes of Table Mountain, with a hand-painted sign on a rock reading ‘Jan’s Even More Secret Fort, No Girls Allowed Because Girls Are Gross’) Van Riebeeck set to work planting the garden that would supply the VOC’s ships. However, he immediately hit a stumbling block.
The staple diet of Holland in 1652 was herrings, cheese and self-righteousness, and none of these three foodstuffs could be grown in a garden. For several months Van Riebeeck persevered, planting thousands of herrings and cheeses in the fertile soil of the Company Gardens, but all he ever harvested was a foul-smelling sludge. At last the settlers had to concede that they would have to start planting other sorts of food, and so in 1654 Van Riebeeck oversaw the planting of 400 chickens, 25 eisbeins, and 250 bottles of beer. Again, not a single one sprouted. In 1655, just as it seemed the settlement would starve, the VOC sent a message asking, “How’s it going with planting the vegetables?” The Dutch at the Cape celebrated the genius of Head Office, dropping to their knees and giving thanks that Senior Management had once again come to rescue of Middle Management. They dug up the endless rows of chicken carcasses and beer bottles, planted vegetables, and the refreshment station was in business.
Meanwhile, the local Khoikhoi did not know what to do about the Dutch. The issue was raised at the 1653 Cape Homeowners’ Association meeting, where residents complained the the Dutch squatters on the beach were threatening property values across the Cape metropole. The Dutch, they complained, were noisy (always firing cannons at anything that scared them, which was everything), dirty (they only bathed once a year), and resolutely refused to learn to speak Khoikhoi. Some suggested that they should build a row of expensive huts next to the Company Gardens, which would gentrify the area, force up council taxes and thereby drive the Dutch out of the area. Others wrote angry letters to the Cape Times, saying that while some of their best friends were Dutch, they could no longer be expected to live next door to people who were of a different class and world view.
Realizing that he would have to communicate with the Khoikhoi people or risk being evicted, Van Riebeeck sought the help of a local chief, Ausumao of the Goringhaikonas, whom he called ‘Herry die Strandloper’. Some historians suggest that this shows us that Van Riebeeck was eager to exploit the local tribes. However, we believe that it shows us something much more important: that Van Riebeeck was either brain-damaged or stone deaf. It is possible that months of starvation had shrivelled parts of his brain, which caused him to hear “Ausumao of the Goringhaikonas” as “Herry die Strandloper”. It is also possible that he could not hear Ausumao’s name because he was effectively deaf: given that the Dutch at the Cape wore their hair in thick ringlets and only bathed every Christmas Eve, it is likely that Van Riebeeck’s ears were clogged with a soundproof compound of cheese, chicken fat, herring scales, local insects, dust and brambles.