South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

Old Letters

Now and again workmen digging in the streets of Cape Town come upon a great stone, with an inscription rudely carved upon it—the name of a ship, English or Dutch, the Ter Veer  or the Black Lion, the Anne Royal  or the Trade's Increase, and the name of her captain, Spilbergen or Middleton, Kerridge or Downton, with a date somewhere in the first half of the seventeenth century, and the legend beneath, "Here-under look for letters." The Cape Town people are proud of these old stones; they have kept some in the museum, and built one into the wall of their post-office—an appropriate place for it, since, in the old days, long before there was any Adderley Street, or indeed any town or house at all round Table Bay, these stones were the sailors' post-offices.

We have seen already how Dom Stephen d'Ataide held Mozambique for the king of Spain against all the attacks of the Dutch. But the Dutch sailed the Indian seas nevertheless, and with them the English; and together they gave Spain in the East Indies "a wound almost incurable." Just as in the old days the Portuguese carried the war against the Saracens round Africa, and took the Moors where they were least expecting them, so now the Protestants carried the war of the Low Countries into the Indian Seas. There was fighting everywhere; in coral lagoons and palm-fringed harbours, and in the crowded bazaars of the East. Such a hubbub had never been heard in Asia, and the Great Mogul threatened to turn all the Christians neck and crop out of India if they could not keep the peace. Wherever they met they fought, and there was very little quarter. Thus the great Spilbergen, after sinking a Spaniard overnight, saw sixty or so of the Spanish sailors still struggling in the sea when dawn broke. He saved a few, but could not keep his sailors from killing others, and left the rest to "the mercy of the waves." Admiral Matelieff attacked a great Spanish fleet in the very harbour of Malacca, and those he did not sink or burn he drove ashore. And the English ships fought too. Sometimes they joined with the Dutch "to doe the Portingalls all the spoyle that may bee, and to destroy their carracks and galleons," and sometimes they fought alone, as when Captain Downton tackled a Portuguese fleet and killed many of "the gallants of Portugal," or as when Martin Pring captured a cargo of "elephaunts' teeth." They were great fighters, those old sailor men who called in at Table Bay before Cape Town was born or thought of; and when there were no Portuguese left to fight they fought one another.

To understand the story of Table Bay and Cape Town we must keep these quarrels well in mind. There were three great regions of Asiatic trade in those days. Up in the north there were ports like Aden and Mocha and Jasque where the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf took in the silks and spices of Asia to be sent on camel-back to Samarcand and Alexandria. Here the Grand Seignor and the Shah of Persia kept the peace. Then there were the Indian coasts, and chiefly Malabar and the port of Surat, where the Great Mogul held sway through his governors. And then there was Ceylon, and farther east there were the Spice Islands, where there was no great king to keep order, and so here the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English fought at their own sweet will for the cloves and nutmegs of the Moluccas. The Portuguese were there first, of course; but after the Dutch had driven out the Portuguese they claimed the right of the spice trade as a Dutch monopoly; they bound the natives down to sell to them only; they fixed the price of spices lower than it had ever been before, and the natives came to hate the Dutch rather more than they had hated the Spaniards. When the English came they were forbidden to trade, and as the English thought they had as good a right to the spice trade as the Dutch, there were a good many broken heads in consequence.

Now in this great struggle the Dutch had much the best of it. It was not that they were better fighters or better sailors than the English; the men who served under Drake and Hawkins and Middleton had no need to doff their bonnets even to the Sea Beggars. There were other reasons. In those days it was not private merchants who traded, but whole nations. Thus the Indian trade of Spain belonged to the king; his merchant ships were his men-of-war, and his merchants were his admirals and generals. The Dutch took their lesson from the Spaniards. True, the Dutch East India Company was not exactly the same thing as the Dutch Government, but it was almost like a separate government. Every province and great town in Holland was represented, according to its importance, on the Council of Seventeen, so that the "Seventeen" was a national council, and this council had so much power in Holland that the Government generally did what it wished. England, on the other hand, did not throw her whole mind into the East India trade. She was greatly taken up with the new colonies in America, and the London East India Company was much smaller than the Dutch, and much more of the nature of a private enterprise. Moreover, for a long while, every East Indian voyage from London was a separate venture—the promoters of one might have no interest in the next—and so they thought only of loading their ships, while the Dutch were thinking of building an empire. And another reason why the English were weak in the East Indies at this time was that King James was anxious to curry favour with the Spaniards, a very poor sort of policy for the king of England. It was for this reason that he cut off Raleigh's head, and for this reason he never allowed his soldiers and sailors to fight the Spaniards in the East as openly and whole-heartedly as the Dutch fought them. He could not prevent it altogether, of course, for in those days when men sailed away in ships no one knew what they did, and the sailors made peace or war pretty much as they liked. Dutch and English were fighting hard in the East Indies when the two nations were good enough friends at home.

Now in those days there was no house or pleasant garden in Table Bay, yet it was a place that all the sailors loved; it was the halfway house on the way to India. The Portuguese had their resting-place at Mozambique, where there was a hospital and a supply of fresh food and lemons and Alicant wine against the scurvy; but there was nothing but hard blows there for English and Dutch sailors. Yet in those days, when voyages were long and ships were small, and water and provisions were bad and scarce, it was necessary to find some place for a run on shore, a change from shipboard diet, and a supply of fresh meat and fresh water for the rest of the voyage. Sometimes Madagascar was chosen, but it was too far from England; and when the commander of one voyage tried to go past Table Bay the sailors protested "that if the Generall putt alonge and touched not att the Cape, that they w** goe to their cabins and dye, for they knewe that they weare butt dead men." And so indeed they might after a voyage perhaps of six months through the storms of the "roaring forties" and the calms of the tropics. What they suffered on their little ships we can but faintly imagine. An old sailor, Thomas Stevens, tells us of the "heates" and "lacke of wind" of the "Burning Zone" on the coast of Guinea, so that "sometimes the ship standeth still for the space of many days." "The coaste," he adds, "is not cleare, but thicke and cloudy full of thunder and lightning and the rain so unwholesome that if the water stand awhile all is full of worms." And scurvy is a foul disease which rots the flesh, and makes the mouth like an open sore. So we may imagine how glad the sailors were to see the long seaweeds—the alkaner or brembastin, and the birds—the rush-tails and fork-tails, and velvet-sleeves and Cape pigeons, which told them that this sweet and temperate land was near, and then—

When a boy

From the tall Am'rall's scuttle shews the shipps

Land to the prow,

to see the great mountain with its white plume of cloud, and the silver woods beneath it and the Island of Seals, in the lee of which there was good anchorage; and at last when they got ashore to run on the green sward and drink of the clear waters of the brook that tumbled down the hillside to the sea.

Every old sailor who writes about it has a good word to say of the "Cape de Buona Esperance." "A very healthy and temperate land," says Spilbergen, "very fit and useful to be cultivated and inhabited and produce all kinds of fruits; and although it appears to be somewhat mountainous and hilly, there are also very fine and wide valleys covered with verdure and sweet-smelling herbs, as well as many green woods and bushes, where herds of stags and deer are seen grazing, all very pleasant and delightful to behold." And like Herbert he praises "that pleasant brook of crystal water" on whose banks the sailors used to rig up tents of sailcloth in which to place their sick comrades until the sweet air and the sweet water should revive them. So much was this the custom that one of the captains advises his company thriftily to save the old sails for this purpose, as new sails were apt to be spoilt by the wind of the place.

Drake did not land at the Cape, though the Golden Hind  passed within sight of it, and he called it a noble headland; but Middleton—"our men being weak and sick in all our ships we thought good to seek some place to refresh them"—landed in the "goodly bay," and speaks of the "black salvages very brutish," with whom he bartered at the rate of "an ox for two knives, a steer for a knife and a sheep for a knife." This was only four years after the Armada; but later on, when Dutch and English sailors grew bolder in their Indian ventures, there would be a throng of ships in the bay at certain seasons, and here the sailors of the two nations would lay aside their quarrels and discuss joint action against the Spaniards, "whereby they might expect both wealth and honour, the two main pillars of earthly happiness." It was at Saldanha Bay that the great Sir Thomas Roe set up a pillar, and meeting the Dutch admiral agreed to a truce. Outgoing ships would leave their letters under the stones of which I have already spoken, to be taken home by the returning fleet. There was an agreement between the Dutch and the English to carry each others' letters out and home, and even the terrible Coen, who hated the English as much as the English hated him, passed on some letters—after he had read them. You may see the letters still in the archives of the Colonial Office, yellow and faded epistles in a sailor's crabbed hand, and dated from "the watering-place of Saldanha," as Table Bay used to be called.

But if you read these faded letters, you will find much indeed about the diabolical schemes of Coen and the cruelty of his "bloody agents," and much about pirates and Portuguese and Eastern ports and merchandise, but very little about Africa. For the Cape in those days was but a port of call—a place for ships to fold their wings and rest after a long flight; there was little thought then of a time when cities would flourish along the coast, and the "wide valleys," of which Spilbergen speaks, should be green with vineyards and white with blossoming orchards. Yet there were some Englishmen who saw the worth of the place long before van Riebeck built his fort and tilled his garden. English captains were constantly urging their company to settle the place; English sailors built the first fort there, and two English captains annexed the bay—and indeed all Africa—in the name of King James twenty years before van Riebeck set his foot upon it.

John Jourdain was a factor in the service of the East India Company; in his youth he may have seen the Armada sailing up the Channel, and he grew to be a brave man whose life, as told in his Journal  and the letters of the Company, would make a fine tale of adventure. Four years after Queen Elizabeth died he was in at the Cape with the Union  and the Trades Increase. 'And coming on land we found about twenty people or more (of the country) in little simple cottages made with boughs, better to keep them from the sun than from the rain, which this country does afford in plenty. To these people we made signs for cattle and sheep . . . showing them iron hoops, which is the best money which they do esteem. And viewing over the stones where the ships that are bound outward or homeward did used to set their names, we found the names of Captain Shilling, Captain Hawkens, Captain Middleton and diverse others. The people brought store of cattle and sheep daily, which wee bought vizt. a cow for a piece of an old iron hoop of a yard long, and a sheep for half so much. And many times, having sold them to us, if we looked not the better to them, they would steal them again from us and bring them againto sell; which we were fain with patience to buy again of them, without giving any foul language for fear lest they would bring us no more. As likewise, if they stole anything if it were of small value, we would not meddle with them but suffer them to carry it away which they took very kindly, insomuch that they brought such plenty down, more than we were able to tell what to do withall." And for the further entertainment of these simple people the commander sent boats to Penguin Island—now called Robben Island—to fetch "seals alias seawolves," "to give them content and partly to renew our store of oil." There were so many seals on this island in those days that "within less than a day a man might load a good shipwith them." Having brought back the boats laden with seals and cut away the fat for oil, the rest was thrown a good distance from the tents "because of noisiness." "Upon which fish," Jourdain goes on to tell us, "the Saldanians fed very heartily on, after it had lain in a heap 15 days, that no Christian could abide to come within a mile of it. Notwithstanding the loathsomeness of the smell, these people would eat of it as if it had been better meat, and would not take of that which lay upon the top, which were the sweetest but would search under for those which were most rotten, and lay it on the coals without any ceremonies of washing and being a little scorched of the fire would eat it with a good stomache, in so much that my opinion is that if without danger they would come to eat man's flesh, they would not make any scruple of it, for I think the world does not yield a more heathenish people and more beastly."

Besides the seals, there were penguins on the island, "so naturally simple that you may drive them as you would do a flock of sheep," and these also were much relished by the Saldanians to whom they were given, while the sailors grew fat on the fish, 8500 mullets being caught at two draughts in the mouth of the river (the Salt River), into which Jourdain supposes they had been driven by the whales which were playing about in the bay. The ships had to wait while a pinnace which had been brought from home was being set up, and a fort of earth was built with a cannon at each corner in case the Saldanians should think of mischief. Jourdain had thus plenty of time to explore the place. "For recreation myself with other merchants would take our walk to the top of the Hill called the Table, which before we returned found it to be a wearisome journey." He also explored Zeekoe Vlei, and on his way saw "many ostriches and the footings of elephants, much fish and fowl, etc.," though he does not mention the hippopotamuses, which subsequently gave the lake its name.

Jourdain was a man with a head on his shoulders, and his opinion of "this place of Saldania" is well worth quoting, since everything he said of it came true, though those who did the work and reaped the profit were not his countrymen, as he hoped, but the Dutch who fought and killed him years afterwards in the roads of Patani. "I hold it," he said, "to be very healthful commodious for all that trade the East Indies. As also if it were managed, I am of opinion it would bear anything that should be sown or planted in it, as for all kind of grain, wheat, barley, etc., besides all kind of fruit, as oranges, lemons, limes and grapes, etc. Being planted and sown in due time, and kept as it ought to be, if this country were inhabited by a civil nation, having a castle or fortfor defence against the outrage of those heathenish people and to withstand any foreign force, in short time it might be brought to some civility, and within five yeares able of itself to furnish all ships refreshing." And Jourdain thought that besides the refreshing of ships "other hopes might be expected."

"These people being brought to civility may likewise in time be brought to know God and understand our language and we theirs, and by them learn of other trades which may be within the country. This being in the midst of two rich countries, as Guinee and Mozambique, and no doubt that here are store of elephant's teeth within the land for that we saw the footing of many."

The English Company actually did make some feeble effort to settle the place. In one letter we hear of "nine condemned men landed at Saldanha" to shift for themselves, the first white settlers at the Cape; but they did not remain long. After a stay on Robben Island, upon which they were stranded owing to the loss of their boat, Crosse, the leader of the band, endeavoured to reach a ship on a "gingada of timber," but was drowned in the attempt (March 1615). The rest appear to have been rescued. We have a curious document signed by three criminals similarly marooned, thanking King James, who rather than that we should taste the sharp stroke of death, hath graciously vouchsafed to let us be transported hither into this foreign land, where by our own good endeavours, God blessing us, we hope to live and to do His Majesty and our country good and acceptable service." Their valour did not last long, however, for we hear that before the departure of the ships, they "humbly beseeched that they might be hanged" rather than left to perish in that savage land. The commander replied grimly that he had no commission to hang them, and left them like the pirates on Treasure Island; but another ship had mercy on them and took them on board. And so ended the first and most futile of English attempts to colonise South Africa.

The Company made an equally vain attempt to bring the gentle natives to "some civility." To this end a certain Hottentot called Coree was kidnapped and brought home to the house of Sir Thomas Smith, the chairman of the Company. The English people in the time of "our James" had a fondness for such curiosities. "When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian." Coree may have met Pocahontas, who married Thomas Rolfe and was presented at court as an Indian princess—though the relentless historian of these latter days has found out that she was kidnapped with the bribe of a copper tea-kettle,—or that other aristocratic foreigner, John Davis, "son of the King of Sestros in Guinee," so called after the buccaneer who brought him over and with whom he was two years "at the stocks." The captivating Coree lived for six months with Sir Thomas, "where he had good diet, good clothes, good lodging, with all other fitting accommodations," and had besides "to his good entertainment made for him a chain of bright brass, an armour, breast back and headpiece with a buckler, all of bright brass, his beloved metal. In spite of all this he was not happy." Never any seemed to be more weary of ill-usage than he was of courtesies. "And when he had learnt a little of our language," he would daily lie upon the ground, and cry very often thus in broken English: "Coree home go, Souldania go, home go." Captain Downton, who took him back, reports ruefully to Sir Thomas that he bolted as soon as he got on shore, and had not been seen since, and that the Hottentots wanted brass in exchange for their cattle, "neither esteeming copper nor iron, and desiring so high a price that the sailors were fain to live on fish." The captain feared that the "ungrateful dog" was the cause of their "worser entertainment," remarking that "it would have been better for us and those who come after if he had never seen England." And the year after another sailor remarked that "Cory the Saldanian is returned to his old bias of guts about his neck" (the natives wore dried entrails as ornaments); "he hath done some good and some harm there." Whether the balance was for good or harm is not quite clear. Another captain reported that Coree had educated his people, who were now "neither so fearful nor so thievish and sold cattle at very reasonable rates, while most of them can say, 'Sir Thomas Smith, English ships' which they often with great glory repeat." But Edward Blithman avers that owing to Coree the people would sell nothing "except for brass kettles which must be very bright"; and Jourdain, on his return voyage, shrewdly suspected that Coree and his Hottentots designed to lead him into an ambuscade. Their growth in civilitiy in fact, did not please him. They were no longer afraid of a gun, "whereas in former times one piece would have made a multitude of them to fly, and whereas they were accustomed to eat raw stinking meat, they are now content to eat the best and boil it themselves in pots which they carry with them for the purpose." So far from a yard of old hoop iron contenting them, they turned up their nose at copper, and would not even take shining brass since they had discovered that all that glitters is not gold. "And that dog Coree," in Jourdain's opinion, "is the cause of all this rogerye." The results of civilisation are apt to differ from what is expected, and in this case the Dutch expressed their disapproval of Sir Thomas's policy by hanging Coree and two of his companions on a neighbouring tree. Poor Coree—after all, he seems to have done his best to educate his people in two of the chief elements of our civilised life, currency and cookery—and his story is in the nature of a parable; he was the first victim in the fierce strife between the missionary spirit and the instincts of the settler.

Thirteen years after Jourdain had come under the spell of Table Mountain, two English captains, Robert Shilling and Humphrey Fitzherbert, both men of power in the English East India Company, were in Table Bay. Shilling had three ships, the Hart, the Roebucke, and the Eagle; and Fitzherbert commanded the Exchange, the Bear, and the Unitae. The bay was thronged with ships. Nine Dutch vessels left for Bantam the day Fitzherbert arrived, but a Dutch ship, the Schiedam of Delft, came in, and another English ship, the Lion, homeward bound. Now Shilling and Fitzherbert were both fighters and true-blue Englishmen. Shilling was an old Royal Navy man who had risen from before the mast to a seat in the Admiralty of those days. It is not too much to suppose that he had fought under Drake as a lad and had been the companion of Raleigh, and we hear of him chasing pirates in the Red Sea and sitting with the Governor of Mocha "on faire Turkie carpets and Persian felts" and discussing questions of trade with that potentate, from whom he succeeded in extracting the "Grand Seignor's phirmand" to trade, signed with the Governor's "own chop." Humphrey Fitzherbert was a gentleman of birth and breeding—and I make no doubt he had talked with Shakespeare and Ben Jonson in the Mermaid Tavern. Perhaps it was he who told the author of The Tempest  about the island "of subtle, tender, and delicate temperance." For he writes like the poet himself of Amboyna which "sitteth as Queene between the Isles of Banda and the Moluccas" and of Poolaway as a "contrived orchard with varieties"—"the Paradise of all the rest," "not a tree on that island but the nutmeg," and so forth. Fervently he pleads with the Company not to surrender the island of Poolooroon to the Dutch: "It would be a disgrace to our nation, both here and at home, to forego a thing so slightly, that was so long kept by Mr. Courthope so obstinately."

Now when these two empire-builders found themselves in Table Bay with seven English ships and only one Dutchman, they were not the men to let slip so golden an opportunity. The Dutch had taken English ships and killed and tortured English sailors and driven them out of the Spice Islands. Here was a chance to get their own back, and by seizing Table Bay to make the English masters of the road to India. Fitzherbert seems to have been the inspiring soul, but he found a ready ally in Shilling. They had already put the fear of death into the Dutchman by overhauling him on a suspicion of piracy, and "Mounsiere" Gracewinkle and "Mounsiere" Block, factors of the Schiedam, Captain and Master John Cornelius Kunst and Francis Duist, a Dutch merchant, were all witnesses of the annexation. The "solemn publication of His Majesty's title to Soldania" was made on King James his Mount, the Lion's Rump or Signal Hill, as it is now called, a smooth round hill where flags now signal the approach of a Union Castle liner. And not only was Table Bay annexed but the whole territory to "the boundary of the nearest Christian kingdom," for Shilling and Fitzherbert were not the sort of men to do things by halves. We may imagine the scene, the great crowd of English and Dutch officers and men, with plumed hats and long swords and bright breastplates, on the top of that windswept hill, with the high-pooped ships riding gaily in the bay beneath, and the sailcloth tents of the sick by the stream, all under a glorious African sky. The flag went up with a cheer for King James, both from English and Dutch, and salutes from the ships no doubt and an answering cheer from the sick in their tents. It was the first move in the great struggle which was fought out on that little piece of land for the next three hundred years. Was it ominous of a good ending that on this first occasion English and Dutch joined in the cheer together and for the English flag?

And now let us follow these three Englishmen on their way to the East, just to see what they did and what ends they came to, since they are our first South African worthies. Jourdain was wrecked on the Malabar coast and made his way to the court of the Great Mogul, where he met William Hawkins, who had been for a while that monarch's favourite, but was now somewhat in disfavour for appearing drunk in the royal presence. From there he made his way to Surat to meet the next English voyage; but found the Portuguese keeping guard between the English and the harbour. He got through them, however, disguised in "Mogol clothes," and it was Jourdain who showed Middleton Swallyhole, the famous English harbour, which ships of our nation used in defiance of the Portuguese. Then Jourdain went to the Spice Islands and fought the redoubtable Coen for a share of the spice trade. Then back to England and out to the East again, this time as the Company's chief agent. But Coen, that Dutch Clive of the seventeenth century, is too strong for him; and Jourdain, with two weak ships, the Sampson and the Hound, is brought to bay in the roads of Patani. With three strong Dutchmen against him he might have made a running fight of it with honour; but he said "it should never be reported that he would run away from a Fleming." After a fight of two hours and a half, in which this civilian behaved with as much resolution as ever did any commander," he was forced to surrender. Jourdain relied on the white flag, and stood out to parley with the Dutch captain, when "the Flemings espying him, most treacherously and cruelly shot at him with a musket, and shot him into the body near the heart of which wound he died within half an hour after." As for Fitzherbert, we next hear of him as Vice-Admiral of a Fleet which joined with Jacob Dedell, the Dutch admiral, to fight the Portuguese, and he is mentioned as pulling down a Dutch flag set up in the Isle of Nero. But in those days sailors in the Indies were addicted "to the inordinate drinking of a wine called tadie, distilled from the palmetto trees." The bad example seems to have been set in high quarters, for we hear that the King of Johore and the King of Acheen did often "drink drunk together." To this amiable weakness Fitzherbert fell a victim and died of a surfeit. More glorious was the end of Shilling, as you may read in Purchas or better still in that rare pamphlet entitled: "The True Relation of that Worthy Seafight which two of the East India ships had with four Portugals of great force and burthen in the Persian Gulph with the lamentable death of Captain Andrew Shilling."

After Shilling left the Cape with his two ships he sailed to the Persian Gulf, and there captured a Portuguese ship with forty-two fine Arabian horses on board. They then came on four great Portuguese ships, and Shilling advised that this ship should be fired and sent among the enemy. "When some interposed as pitying the loss of so many brave horses, he as bravely replied, How doe they then in the wars, when they are compelled to kill their prisoners in cold blood, and therefore think neither of scruple or nicety but let us follow the business we take in hand"; and he went on board the prize himself with two barrels of powder and some tar and "other combustible provisions," intending with her to lay the Portugal Admiral thwart the halse to burn together. Shilling was a determined fellow. "I leave it to you all as a principle," was another of his sayings, "never to slack your hand if you find the enemy staggering, never to give over till you have made a faire composition or dispatched the business." "Fight courageously," he cried, "that the Portugals may confess they have met with Englishmen." Unfortunately, his ruse failed and the poor horses died for nothing in the burning ship; but Shilling laid his ships along-side the enemy and "raked them, through and throughbefore and after, with all our broadsides." They fought nine hours the first day; but night enabled the Portuguese to get away. They met again, however, and Shilling anchored his ships a cable length and a half from where the Portuguese were moored, and fired at them until the enemy cut their cables and were towed away on the tide all "mangled and torn." "If the shot had not failed us," says the narrative, "they had scarce any of them troubled Englishmen more." In the midst of the conflict "our Captain Andrew Shilling received a mortal wound, yet was valiant and spake cheerful, with thankfulness to God the last minute of his life."

Such are the stories that you may find in the old faded letters placed under the stones on the shores of Table Bay. They take us far enough, some of them, from the Cape and the subject of this book, yet they are properly a part of our theme; for the romance of the Cape is that it was the tavern of the Indian seas, and its story cannot be disentangled from the great conflict which was fought out for so many centuries between nations for the wealth of Asia.