Teaching

Cultural Contact in Southern Africa

Ryba Epstein
thumbnail of the text
The use of the !gõïn!gõïn page
Title pages of travel narrative image thumbnail

Overview

The Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz first saw the Cape of Good Hope—the southernmost point in Africa—in 1488. No attempt was made by a European nation to establish a permanent settlement there, however, until 1652, when the Dutch East India Company (VOC) set up a refreshment station. The Cape was approximately midway between Europe and India, which made it an ideal stopping point where trading ships could pick up fresh food and water.

The Cape was not empty when the Europeans arrived. There was a large population of Africans from the racial group now known as the Khoisan. “Khoisan” is a term that describes two related ethnic groups—the Khoikhoi and the San. In the past, the Khoikhoi were called “Hottentots,” while the San were called “Bushmen.” The two groups were difficult to identify separately—they shared a variety of beliefs and practices, and spoke similar languages. This essay focuses on the Khoikhoi, thought to be the more populous of the two groups. The Khoikhoi were semi-nomadic pastoralists. They herded cattle and sheep, stayed in one area until their herds had eaten the good grass, and then they moved on. They usually moved in a cyclical pattern that followed the seasons, and stayed within the same region.

The Europeans depended on the Khoikhoi for knowledge of the natural resources of the Cape and for trade. This trade drew the two groups into close, but not always cordial, contact. In the 1660s and 1670s, the Khoikhoi staged two wars against Dutch rule. They continuously raided their cattle in order to hinder permanent European settlement.

The various Khoikhoi tribes were not all in agreement, however, and finally a tense peace was negotiated so that trade could continue. European farms continued to spread, slaves were brought to do farm labor and construction work, and though the Khoikhoi tribes were legally considered independent nations, many individual Khoikhoi became farm laborers or worked in Cape Town.

Women’s experiences in this mix of people are under-studied. This essay comments on each racial group and summarizes the main issues affecting the lives of women. Although the lives of women from each of the groups were quite different, there was a great deal of interaction and interdependence.

Essay

Khoikhoi

At the base of Khoikhoi social organization was the nuclear family—husband, wife, and unmarried children. Each family had its own hut, made of a rounded frame of sticks, and covered with straw mats—like a beehive tent. A group of 10 to 20 of these huts and families made up a kraal (the village or clan unit), headed by a senior man (often called the Rich Man or Captain). A group like this included roughly 100 members. A group of related clans made up a tribe, which recognized a particular Rich Man as head of the whole tribe. Individual land ownership was not recognized, but particular clans had the right to use resources (pastures, water, and game hunting) in an area, and clans unrelated to the tribe had to ask permission to use these areas.

The Khoikhoi measured their wealth in livestock—cattle, sheep, and goats. Men and boys were responsible for guarding the herds; they also hunted and made implements like poison arrows or utensils like clay pots. Typically, women did domestic chores closer to the kraal, although they also hunted for edible plants in the surrounding countryside. Although they did not kill animals, women were involved in making decisions about the family’s herd and took responsibility for butchering livestock and distributing the meat. Women seem to have had strict control over the household—even regulating such things as when a man was allowed to have a drink of milk, which was part of the staple diet.

There is debate over how equal men and women were in this society. The excerpts on Krotoa (also known as Eva) on one level show a woman playing a leading role in important trade negotiations. On another level, Eva’s life shows how ambiguous and prone to negative conclusions European attitudes were toward the Khoikhoi, even though they depended on both Khoikhoi and slaves for various necessities of life.

Europeans

In 1655, Jan van Riebeeck, the first Dutch Commander at the Cape, recommended colonizing the whole area around Table Bay. In February 1657, nine employees of the Dutch East India Company were released from their contracts as sailors to become farmers—known as freeburghers. They received land, tools, rations, and livestock in return for which they sold produce and meat at fixed prices to the VOC. By 1700, the total freeburgher population of men, women, and children had grown to about 1,350, and settlers were pushing out further and further into the land around Cape Town. The European settler population was quite diverse, including Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Swiss, and French people.

European women at the Cape either lived on homesteads and farmed, or lived in the towns (Cape Town and Stellenbosch) and participated in trades such as inn-keeping and brewing. Elite colonial women, like Johanna Maria van Riebeeck, were well educated and did not work for economic gain, but managed households and made advantageous marriages within the political hierarchy. For most of the first 100 years of Dutch colonial rule at the Cape, the ratio of men to women was around two to one. Thus, there was great pressure on women to marry, and some married as young as age 13. Husbands were usually at least five years older than their wives at the first marriage, and were likely to die first. Women often remarried two or three times over the course of their lives. Through inheritance, even women of relatively low status were able to build up wealth, and therefore became better able to direct the course of their lives. A quite stable economy, healthy climate, and the early age of first marriage meant that women bore an average of five children over the course of their married lives.

The official religion at the Cape was the Dutch Reformed faith (Calvinism). Catholicism was forbidden, but other Protestant faiths, especially Lutheranism, were tolerated. Visitors to the Cape remarked that more women attended church than men, but some also said that women regarded this as a social occasion where they could assert their status, rather than a devotional time. In fact, it is difficult to know what role women played in religious issues, such as the controversy over whether to baptize the children of slaves.

Slaves

VOC policy forbade the enslavement of indigenous people. However, slavery was a part of the Dutch colonial enterprise, and the first shipload of slaves arrived at the Cape in 1658. These slaves were from West Africa, but all subsequent slaves came from Asia or East Africa. Thus, the slave population of the Cape colony was ethnically heterogeneous, and those who did not work in Cape Town served on relatively isolated farms. The slave population at the Cape increased from fewer than 200 in 1658 to more than 6,000 in 1762. In the early 1700s, the Cape economy became largely dependent on slave labor, and owning slaves became a status symbol. Slaves and their masters lived in close proximity, however; often in the same house.

There was an even greater imbalance in sex ratios for slaves than for Europeans, with men outnumbering women by about four to one. This had a variety of consequences for the slave population, including allowing relatively few slaves to have any kind of family life. It was formerly argued, in order to suggest the benign nature of slavery at the Cape, that women slaves played important roles in settler families as wet nurses and nannies. This put them in a privileged position in the household, lightened their workload, caused them to identify with their masters, but also had the consequence of lowering their fertility since they were always caring for European children. There is as much evidence that slave women actually did much of the hard labor in the fields as that they were widely used as nannies. In the sources that follow, there is very little that suggests that slave women enjoyed any privileges.

Conclusion

In 17th- and 18th-century South Africa, Khoikhoi, slave, and European women lived in close proximity and interacted regularly for economic and social purposes. This interaction produced a mixed culture that must have made the Cape a fascinating place to live. Nevertheless, the European settlers shared a hierarchical mentality that they were able to enforce on colonial society as a whole: Europeans were at the top, followed distantly by the Khoikhoi and the slaves.

Primary Sources

Image of a fort
Annotation:

Krotoa, called Eva by the Dutch, is the first Khoikhoi woman to appear in the European records of the early settlement at the Cape as an individual personality and active participant in cultural and economic exchange. Eva joined Commander Jan van Riebeeck’s household at the Dutch fort at around age 12. She was closely related to Oedasoa, chief of the Cochoqua Khoikhoi, but it is unclear whether her family sent her to the Dutch to work and learn the language, or whether she made this decision on her own. She learned to speak fluent Dutch and Portuguese and acted as an interpreter for the Dutch for most of her life. She converted to Christianity and in 1664 married a Danish surgeon, Pieter van Meerhoff, who was rising in the service of the Dutch East India Company. Together they had three children. After his death on an expedition to Madagascar, Eva became an alcoholic and was eventually sent to the prison colony on Robben Island for disorderly conduct. She died in 1674 and was given a Christian burial.

The following selections are from the official diary kept by the Dutch Commander Jan van Riebeeck and his council at the Cape. Since these men were representatives of a major trading company, most entries have something to do with commercial interests. Eva emerges as a savvy business partner to the Dutch, but also as a person truly suspended between two cultures. Note her use of clothing, religion, and language as she negotiates between the Dutch and the Khoikhoi worlds.

Teaching Strategies

The written records for the Cape of Good Hope in this period are all by Europeans, primarily men, and therefore it is difficult to find unmediated views of the cultures of the Khoikhoi and the slaves. In all discussions with students, this problem of perspective should be kept in mind. Note, however, that the European perspective was not monolithic. There were a variety of types of sources, and people always have many and conflicting motivations.

These sources show how closely the different groups at the Cape interacted with one another, and how much their lives depended on one another. These relationships were not always adversarial or coerced. Nevertheless, definite prejudices are expressed in several of these sources, and in class discussions, students should explore the ways in which racial hierarchies came into being at the Cape in this formative period of European settlement.

Because the Khoikhoi were the first peoples of the Cape, and had a well-established traditional way of life before the coming of the Europeans and their slaves, a few of the sources focus on the Khoikhoi alone. The account of the dance, the rock art, and the image of the digging stick allow students to glimpse a way of life and a worldview that is and was markedly different from that of Europeans.

Finally, these sources are ambiguous and allow for many different interpretations. As you dig into these sources with your students, do not feel that there is only one “correct” way for the discussion to go.

Always go from the surface to the depths: in other words, first ask students to describe very literally the contents of the source; then start looking for meaning. As you start considering meaning, think about the context of the source—the audience for which it was written, painted, or made. Think about the uses of the source. Consider role-playing exercises to understand those sources that talk about relationships among people.

Discussion Questions:

  • In what ways was Eva/Krotoa a woman suspended between cultures?
  • Peter Kolb objects to European children being brought up by Khoikhoi or slave nannies on the basis of religion, but what else can we learn about interaction among the various cultures at the Cape from his writings?
  • What can we understand from these sources about political and personal relationships among Europeans, Khoikhoi, and slaves at the Cape?
  • What was life like for the Khoikhoi after the foundation of the European colony at the Cape?

Lesson Plan

Women at the Crossroads: Khoi and Europeans at the Cape of Good Hope
Time Estimate

Two and a half 50-minute class periods, and one additional period for writing the DBQ.

Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. identify point of view in a variety of sources.
  2. analyze and understand the difference between different types of written documents, such as journals and diaries, letters, or legal documents.
  3. group sources as part of the analysis of those sources.
  4. identify the roles of women in the development of the Cape Colony.
  5. identify other useful points of view or types of sources not represented in the sampling.
Materials
  • If you do not have computer access so that students can review the following online, print and copy for the class:
  • Making Sense of Letters and Diaries
    Unpacking Travel Narratives

  • Print out and make copies for the class of the following worksheets:
  • Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images
    Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts
    Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Objects

  • Print out and make copies for the class of Cultural Contact in Southern Africa Introduction
  • Print and copy the following documents (Note: students may wish to examine other documents within the group as well, but the following are the core that they will need for this exercise):
  • Source 1: Journal, Jan van Riebeeck
    Source 2: Letters, Johanna Maria van Riebeeck
    Source 5: Object, Digging Stick
    Source 6: Drawings, Khoikhoi
    Source 7: Travel Narrative, Peter Kolb 1
    Source 9: Will, Laurens Verbrugge and Beletje Frederikszoon
    Source 10: Law, Alcohol Sale

  • Internet access for further research, if possible.
  • Materials for students to report group findings such as transparencies, flip chart paper, poster board, etc., and markers.
Strategies

DAY ONE:

  1. Allow a half day or assign as homework: Pass out to students Making Sense of Letters and Diaries and Unpacking Travel Narratives and ask them to read these before class the next day. If you have computer access, have students read them online.

    Pass out copies of Cultural Contact in Southern Africa Introduction and Source 1: Diary, Jan van Riebeeck. Students should have completed reading these before the next day.

  2. DAY TWO

  3. Hook: Ask students to imagine that they have moved to a country on a different continent, either to go to college or for a new job.
  4. -What might they expect to be different in their new location?
    -What might be the same?
    -How would they keep in touch with family or friends?
    -How would they organize their impressions of this new place and its inhabitants?
    -How would they react to a different language, dress, customs, and religion?
    -Would they begin to adopt some of the new foods, dress, etc. they encounter?

  5. Teacher-led Discussion: The goal is to model how the students should examine sources to try to determine point of view, one of the critical concepts for students to understand when using primary sources—and one of the most challenging for most students. Use Source 1: Journal, Jan van Riebeeck, as the focus. Sample questions to ask the class might include:
  6. -What is the type of document? What is the difference between a journal and a diary? Which source is more private? Who else might read a journal kept by the commander of the fort?
    -What is van Riebeeck’s relation to Krotoa?
    -What is her chief role or function in the fort?
    -In the 21 June 1658 entry, what is Doman’s reaction to the request to help locate the runaway slaves? What is van Riebeeck’s reaction to Doman? What specific words highlight their specific viewpoints?
    -Does van Riebeeck appear to trust Krotoa? How can you tell from this entry?
    -Where do Krotoa’s loyalties lie? Does she trust Doman? What might influence her opinion of him? What might cause disagreement between them, even though both are Khoikhoi?
    -Examine the entry of 23 September 1658. Also look at Source 5: Object, Digging Stick and Source 6: Drawings, Khoikhoi. Why do you think Krotoa takes the copper, iron, and beads back with her to her tribe? What about the bread, brandy, and tobacco?
    -Van Riebeeck at first calls the items Krotoa takes with her a “reward” for her services. Later he calls the items “presents.” Are these free gifts, payment for services, or an attempt to open trade channels with the Khoikhoi? What specific words support each possibility?
    -In the last entry, what reasons does van Riebeeck give for Krotoa’s return?
    -Do you think van Riebeeck trusts Doman? Does he trust Krotoa? Do Doman and Krotoa trust or respect each other? What evidence can you give from the passages to justify your interpretation? What might account for the different perspectives among these three people?
    -How might van Riebeeck’s position as commander, his religion, his Dutch identity, his gender, or his connection to the Dutch East India Company influence or affect his attitudes or his interpretation of the incidents listed in this source? Would Krotoa or Doman have viewed these events the way van Riebeeck does?
    -Can we really be certain that we know Krotoa’s thoughts when what we have is an account from the Dutch commander?
    -What might Krotoa have written about herself?

    DAYS TWO AND THREE

  7. Small Group Discussion: Divide the class into groups of four. Pass out copies of the remaining sources. Each group should complete the appropriate worksheet (Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images, Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts, and Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Objects) for each of the sources.

    Students should complete the following four tasks by the middle of the second day. While the group works together to analyze each task, each of the four students will assume primary responsibility for recording the group’s findings for one of the tasks.

  8. Task 1: Groups are to generate a list of as many things as they can that relate to the identity of the author of the source: gender, age, occupation, social class, ethnicity, religion, purpose for writing, etc. The group is to discuss how the identity of the author influences his/her point of view or affects how one might interpret the validity of the source.

    Task 2: Students should group the sources into categories based on the source’s perception of the social or economic role of women. Next, students should suggest how the identity of the source’s author affects his/her point of view concerning the role of women in the Cape Colony. Different groups may well create different categories.

    Task 3: Students should examine the sources for bias—either overt through use of pejorative terms, or more subtle assumptions of cultural or gender superiority.

    Task 4: Students should group the sources by looking for similarities or differences in perception. For example, Johanna Maria van Riebeeck and the German astronomer, Peter Kolb share similar views on dirt, slovenly behavior, bad Dutch, etc. What assumptions lie behind their views?

    Rearrange the class into groups based on each of the four tasks. In other words, all the students who recorded the information for Task 1 are now to meet to compare their findings, all Task 2s will discuss their findings, etc. Each of the four task groups should list their combined findings on poster paper, a flip chart, transparencies, or the chalkboard.

    A representative from each of the four task groups will present to the class a summary of their task group’s findings and post their results.

    DAY THREE – SECOND HALF

  9. Teacher-led Discussion: Debrief and conclude:

    -What conclusions can be made about the social and economic roles of women in colonial life?
    -How do the roles of indigenous women complement the roles of colonial women?
    -In what ways do these roles compare to those of women colonists or indigenous women in North America?
    -What biases or points of view emerge from the documents concerning women? Concerning indigenous women in particular? How do these differ?
    -In what ways are these biases similar to those of European colonists in North America?

    Differentiation

    Kinesthetic Learners: These students may want to create a skit covering the return of Eva/Krotoa to her village for a visit—but wearing her European clothes. (See Jan van Riebeeck’s entries of 23 September 1658 and 26 January 1661). What problems might she have in the journey back to her village? Would her European clothes be suitable or comfortable in a Khoikhoi village? What might her family and friends say? Would they be envious of Eva’s clothes or ridicule them?

    These students may also wish to create a dialogue between Krotoa and Dolman, explaining how each interprets their relation with the Dutch and the Khoikhoi.

    Advanced Students:
    These students might want to do further research and compare Eva’s role as a translator and woman between two peoples to either Doña Marina (with Cortés in Mexico) or Sacagawea (with Lewis and Clark). Another topic for further research is to examine the role of wet nurses or servant girls in Europe in the 17th century. How similar or different is the practice in Europe to that in the colony? A source that may help students is Olwen Hufton’s The Prospect Before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe 1500-1800. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

    Advanced students might also analyze how the limited availability of contemporary sources for the Khoisan might affect historical interpretation.

Document Based Question

Document Based Question (Suggested writing time: 40 minutes)

Directions: The following question is based on the documents included in this module. This question is designed to test your ability to work with and understand historical documents. Write an essay that:

  • Has a relevant thesis and supports that thesis with evidence from the documents.
  • Uses all or all but one of the documents.
  • Analyzes the documents by grouping them in as many appropriate ways as possible. Does not simply summarize the documents individually.
  • Takes into account both the sources of the documents and the authors' points of view.

You may refer to relevant historical information not mentioned in the documents.

Question: Using the sources provided, analyze attitudes toward women’s roles in building the Cape Colony.

Be sure to analyze point of view in at least three documents or images.

What additional sources, types of documents, or information would you need to have a more complete view of this topic?

Bibliography

Elphick, Richard and Hermann Giliomee, eds. The Shaping of South African Society, 1652-1840. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1979.
A collection of essays by some of the foremost historians of colonial South Africa. Authors examine all of the racial groups at the Cape, and essays include topics such as the economy, politics, culture, and the rise of European domination.
Elphick, Richard. Khoikhoi and the Founding of White South Africa. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1985.
Still considered the best book-length study of the history of the Khoikhoi. Elphick considers Khoikhoi and San society and culture before the arrival of the Europeans, and then uses a variety of sources to work out a very fine history of contact and interaction between the Khoikhoi and the colonists up to ca. 1713.
Merians, Linda. Envisioning the Worst: Representations of “Hottentots” in Early-Modern England. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2001.
As a literary scholar, Merians deals with European texts about the Khoikhoi from the 15th through the 18th centuries, explaining how a mostly negative view of these people was developed and sustained over time.
Ross, Robert. Beyond the Pale: Essays on the History of Colonial South Africa. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1993.
Ross is a legal historian, and his book of essays is mainly concerned with the development of legal structures and ideologies that permitted and perpetuated European domination over other racial groups at the Cape from the beginning of Dutch rule, through the early 19th century.
Shell, Robert C.-H. Children of Bondage: A Social History of the Slave Society at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-1838. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994.

Though Shell’s book has been criticized for being too analytical and therefore not clear enough about the individual experience of slavery, it is, nonetheless, the most complete recent work on slavery at the Cape.

Credits

About the Author

Anne Good received her PhD from the University of Minnesota and currently teaches History at Reinhardt University (Waleska, Georgia). She has written papers and lectured on topics surrounding cross-cultural contact in the early modern world and the history of southern Africa. Her publications include, "The Construction of an Authoritative Text: Peter Kolb's Description of the Khoikhoi at the Cape of Good Hope in the Eighteenth Century" and "Dressing and Undressing in the History of Discovery."

About the Lesson Plan Author

Ryba Epstein teaches World History, Advanced Placement World History, Advanced Placement European History, Humanities, and Advanced Placement English Literature at Rich East High School in Park Forest, Illinois. She is a consultant and table leader for AP World History and has also read for AP European History. Her MA and PhD are from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and she received her AB from UCLA. Her dissertation was on African oral epic poetry.

How to Cite This Source
Ryba Epstein Cultural Contact in Southern Africa in World History Commons,