Mar 3, 2011

Unofficial historical facts about the Cape – South Africa (Part 1)

All the facts I am about to present here were sourced from chapter 2 of a very interesting book entitled The unofficial history of the Cape, written by Jose Burman. The chapter bears the title: “The English at the Cape before Van Riebeeck”. Burman has written many books on South Africa, but unfortunately very few of them are available in print today. The unofficial history of the Cape was Burman’s 37th book. I found my copy in the local library - ISBN – 0-7981-2968-9

The following was sourced from the rear cover of the book:

Jose Burman, who has written more books on the history of the Cape Colony than he can count on the fingers of both hands, regards history as far more than a dry, uninspiring accumulation of facts and figures. And the telling of history should reflect this, because it is the story of real men and women and the way they lived, worked, fought and played.

History, says Burman, is full of little quirks and ironies, and one can have much fun by allowing the magic little word “if” free play with the course of history.

In The unofficial history of the Cape, Burman’s 37th book, he does just that – with a mischievous glint in the eye. This is not the history of the official history books, but the tale of the past is brought to life through the men and women who lived it and were shaped by it . . . from the shipwreck of the “jolly old Phoenician” lying buried on the Cape Flats to the French privateer which, ran ashore practically on farmer Willem Hurter’s doorstep.

Cape Town   Johannesburg

as sourced from chapter 2 from the book…
The unofficial history of the Cape, by Jose Burman
First Edition published in 1992 by Human & Rousseau (Pty) Ltd

 (Take Note: The full text from this chapter was scanned in and proofread. Where words appear to be misspelled, you can rest assured that, that was how it was spelled back in those days!)

It was pure chance that led the English to Table Bay ... A lucky chance for South Africans, since the English were the first settlers, and without this discovery there might have been no settlement by Van Riebeeck, no Republic of South Africa.

The Portuguese had discovered Table Bay in 1503, when Antonio de Saldanha struggled up Table Mountain to check his position. He named the bay the Aguada de Saldanha (watering place of Saldanha), and for awhile it became the stopping place of all Portuguese fleets. But in 1510 the Portuguese abandoned the Cape forever as a port of call, after the massacre of Francisco d’Almeida and 65 of his men by the Khoikhoi. Only the Portuguese knew where the bay was, and as they never used it the locality was lost. The very name Aguada de Saldanha fell into disuse.

For a century after Dias had rounded the Cape the Portuguese continued to hold the monopoly of trade with the Far East. They might have continued to hold it for much longer but for the pig-headedness of Philip II of Spain. In 1580 Spain annexed Portugal after that country’s monarch, King Sebastian, had been killed in a disastrous war against the Moors. The imports from the Far East thus fell into Philip’s hands and one of his first actions was to deny them to the Protestant countries.

The result should have been obvious — England and Holland began searching for the route to the East in order to commence trading for their own account. The English were the first in the field. In 1591 three “tall ships” sailed from Plymouth. By Portuguese standards the English ships were not tall, but they made up in seaworthiness and manoeuvrability for any lack of size. The vessels were the Penelope, Merchant Royal, and Edward Bonaventure, under the command of George Raymond.

Raymond had no intention of searching for the Aguada de Saldanha - he intended watering at Mossel Bay. But bad weather prevented him from rounding the Cape of Good Hope. For three days he beat backward and forward but the contrary wind did not change. Raymond’s position was becoming critical, for many men were ill with scurvy and each day saw more succumb. In this quandary he cast around for a suitable alternative harbour, and cruising slowly northward came to Table Bay. Edmund Barker, one of the ship’s officers, called it “a goodly baie with an island lying to seaward of it, into which we did beare and found it very commodious for our ships to ride in”.

It was on 1 August 1591 that the squadron anchored, and Raymond lost little time in sending a boat ashore, hoping to contact the inhabit ants, whom they could see on the beach. But though Raymond may have known nothing of the Khoikhoi, the tribal memory of the latter rendered them very suspicious of strangers who came over the sea. The welcoming deputation failed to arrive, and Raymond was left to his own resources in the matter of food. Nor could he establish contact with the local inhabitants.

By some ruse the English eventually captured a Khoikhoi. They tried to force him to lead a party to cattle, but be “played dumb” very successfully. So Raymond released him with some small presents to compensate for the fright he had suffered. Where force and cunning had failed, kindness succeeded, and their former captive returned with sheep and cattle. Soon trading relations had been established and the Khoikhoi bartered twenty-four oxen and the same number of sheep. The rate of exchange was two knives for an ox.

A hunting party was organised and James Lancaster, master of the Edward Bonaventure, showed the awed locals the power of firearms by shooting a buck the size of a young colt. As the sick were slow in recovering, Raymond split the fleet and sent back to England the Merchant Royal, manned by fifty invalids. The remaining two ships left the Cape on 8 September. The admiral was lost with the Penelope during a storm, but Lancaster sailed the Edward Bonaventure on an epic voyage, losing her in the West Indies, where she was captured by the Spanish. He returned home in a French ship, bringing England reliable news of the way to the East - and of the advantages of the Aguada de Saldanha.

The first Dutch fleet sailed for the Indies in 1595 under Cornelis de Houtman, but did not touch at the Cape at all, watering at Mossel Bay. It was not until De Houtman’s next expedition, in 1598, that the Dutch first visited Table Bay, and then only because De Houtman’s pilot was an Englishman, John Davys.

Consisting of only two ships, the Leeuw and Leeuwin, De Houtman’s squadron anchored in Table Bay on 11 November 1598. The Khoikhoi cautiously came down to the shore and a considerable number of cattle were traded. But this good relationship was a rather fragile flower, and some action by the Dutch seamen destroyed it. The Khoikhoi disappeared, returning three days later in large numbers, ostensibly to trade. But in the middle of the barter, the Khoikhoi attacked the Dutchmen and killed thirteen of them.

Davys was disgusted with the behaviour of the Dutch:
“The Flemmings fled before them like Mice before Cats, throwing away their weapons most basely. And our Baase (De Houtman) to save himself stayed aboard and sent us corselets, two-handed swords, pikes, muskets and targets, so that we were armed and laden with weapons, but there was neither courage nor discretion. For we stayed by our tents being belegred with Cannibals and Cowes .. . Hereupon Master Tomkins and my selfe undertook to other these Fellows . . . some consented to us, but the most part unwilling, and divers ranne to the Pottage Pot, for they swore it was dinner time. This night we went all aboard, only leaving our great Mastive Dogge behind us, who by no means would come to us. For I think he was ashamed of our Companie.”

The story continues here


as sourced from chapter 2 from the book: The unofficial history of the Cape, by Jose Burman
Copyright 1992 by Jose Burman
First Edition in 1992 by Human & Rousseau (Pty) Ltd
State House, 3-9 Rose Street, Cape Town
Cover illustration by Tony Grogan

ISBN: 0-7981-2968-9