Cultural Contact in Southern Africa: Letters, Johanna Maria van Riebeeck
Johanna Maria van Riebeeck (1679-1759) was from an elite family in the Dutch colonial network. She was the granddaughter of Jan van Riebeeck, first Dutch Commander at the Cape, who went on to hold important posts in the Dutch government in Batavia (Indonesia), and the daughter of Abraham van Riebeeck, Governor-General of Batavia. She made three advantageous marriages, and died a very wealthy widow. In 1710, she voyaged to Holland with her second husband, Joan van Hoorn, retiring Governor-General of the Indies, and his 11-year old daughter Pieternelletje. Until then, Johanna Maria had never left the Far East, and therefore we may also see her as a woman caught between cultures. In these letters, which she wrote during a stop at the Cape on her journey to Holland, we get a sense of Johanna Maria as a prim and rather dissatisfied person. Not all of her letters have this tone, however. Unlike most visitors to the Cape, she did not enjoy the experience; she even found the world-famous botanical gardens to be rather overgrown. Note her use of the adjective “hottentottish,” and consider her assessment of acceptable living circumstances and behavior for women in the Dutch colonies. [Note: The two letters are similar because correspondence often did not reach its destination.]
From Letter 5: Johanna Maria to her Parents, 13 January 1710:
I can’t withstand the cold very well yet, and am rather uncomfortable because of it, and plagued with sinkings and a stiff neck, which I hope will get better with time.
When you see this place from the sea, it is prettier and more pleasant than when you arrive on land. It is very miserable; you don’t see grass or clover, and the streets everywhere by the castle and in the town are full of holes, as though wild pigs had rooted through them—when you decide to ride into the city or to the Company’s gardens, you are always worried about falling! And the gardens are so fine that your heart closes right up. When you come into the garden, nothing looks finer than the laurel trees, which grow quite tall here, however, the paths are very narrow. The fruit trees are full of fruit, but little is ripe yet, and there are nice vegetables too, but not planted in nice order, and the ground is very rough, so that Ms. Moutmaker likened it well to a volgeesie—which the people from the Cape don’t enjoy hearing. In this place there is nothing nice to see along the seashore, and the castle is quite ugly and the governor’s house is like a labyrinth, so that you can easily get confused, and the other houses within the castle walls look like prisons. Outside are the Hottentots, who are very ugly and stinking people, and the Dutch people also keep very untidy households. You see many people with strange faces, and the way of life is strange here. The governor is a man who enjoys company, and it looks like he enjoys having women around all the time—so there is a really courtly bunch here, but even so, everything is hottentottish.
I must admit that based on appearances, I have never seen a worse place. But as far as food is concerned, it is better here than in Batavia, and so is the climate.
From Letter 8: Johanna Maria to her Parents, 30 January 1710:
I have also received a letter here from my son Jan [Jan was actually Johanna Maria’s stepson, in his late teens or early twenties, attending university in Holland], and he writes me that his grandmother has been quite sick all year, and lying in bed, and hoped to see me soon in the fatherland [Holland]. But he doesn’t say anything about his studies. I hope that I will find things better than what he was written to us. We have decided to let him live in our house at first, which will certainly be by far the best for him, so that he can be weaned from his friends in Utrecht. And if he really doesn’t have the desire to study, we’ll find something else for him, and I hope that I will yet see happiness in him. . . .
Now to tell something about this place. . . . After we came to anchor, a number of shots were fired for us from the castle, which our ship answered. Shortly afterwards the Governor Van Assenberg arrived on board, with his second in command, the Fiscal and a few others, Missus D’Abling and two captains’ wives. An hour later, we departed together toward land, and got a shower along the way, from which we became nicely wet, and it was a really cold day. In that weather we reached the pier, which looks very bad and has no steps, just planks nailed to poles, about two feet apart, going steeply up, so that we had to allow ourselves to be pulled up, and we were close to the sea which was not still at all.
A little farther off stood a dirty-looking coach with six horses (like everything here it was quite hottentottish) with which we drove to the interior of the castle, and stopped in front of the house of the governor. We entered the house, which is a very ugly building, and dirty and greasy, as though it belonged to Pater Smeerlant of Ceylon [a joke character]. The castle looks miserably unkempt, with a number of buildings of an ugly style within its walls. The city is quite large for this place, but the roads everywhere are very slovenly, full of holes high and low, so that when you ride out, you feel as though you will surely fall—the roads to Boejong Gede [presumably near Batavia] are much better and prettier, and lordly in comparison. Outside the city it isn’t any less rugged. It is a pity that the governor here doesn’t take better care of the place, and doesn’t live better himself. This whole place might then change, and also the people, who are now very jealous of one another.
The governor is a man who likes to take his pleasure daily with young misses of bad reputation, and he is very familiar with Mrs. Munckerius’s daughter, who looks like a flirt to me. The governor would certainly have been in my company daily if I had not told him that I do not enjoy the conversation of young people, and would rather keep other company.
Mrs. D’Abling is a very sweet and modest little woman, as well as two or three other women here, but they are not in the governor’s favor, because they don’t want to mix with his other company. For people like them, this is a very dreary place.
From Letter 13: Johanna Maria to her Parents, 15 February 1710:
[I am sending you] another little sack of seeds that I received from a black woman, named Black Maria, who says she is the daughter of a woman or maid who was earlier in the house of my blessed [late] Grandfather, and who begged me to send the sack to you, Father. It appears that these people still cherish a great affection for our family: besides this woman, I’ve met two or three others, as well as a very old, blind Hottentot woman, named Cornelia, and two Hottentot men, one called Dobbeltje [a type of coin] and the other Vogelstruys [Ostrich], who were able to tell me much about that time.
Briewe van Johanna Maria van Riebeeck en ander Riebeeckiana. Edited by D.B. Bosman and translated by Anne Good. Amsterdam, 1952.