South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

A Cape Pilgrimage—The Story Of Sheik Joseph

Those who know anything of Malay life in Cape Town are aware that every year these good people go upon a pilgrimage. It is not the great pilgrimage to Mecca, which even the best Mahomedan cannot hope to visit more than once or twice in a lifetime; but a local affair in which all take part, from the toddler hardly big enough to carry washing or wear a fez, to the bent veteran who sticks to the old style of bandana handkerchief round his head, and will tell you, if you ask him, his hazy recollections of the slave days. For three or four days before there is a great bustle in the Malay quarter, a great packing of bundles and tents and provision-making, for though the journey may be made in a day it is usually a matter of three or four. The Malays are a leisurely folk, with pleasant notions of how to enjoy a holiday in the open air, and if this pilgrimage is a pious duty, it is also one of the chief pleasures in life. And so they set out in the month of April, when good Mahomedans all over the world pay respect to the tombs of their holy men. Some go in carts, making a very brave show, I promise you, the men in their red fezzes and long robes, and the women in their gay kerchiefs, amber necklaces, and bright, many-coloured silk and satin dresses. But now most of them go by train, and if you follow them you will find that they get out at Faure Station, on the Cape Town side of Somerset West. From there they may be seen under the hot autumn sun, trudging along the sandy road, a brilliant snake of colour among the brown bush and grass of the Flats, to where, some three miles distant, is the tomb, shining like a white star upon its hill.

It was in springtime that we made the pilgrimage, in October, the springtime of the south. The Flats were a sea of golden wattle, the veldt was blue with bavianas, and yellow with marigolds. The ground was starred with flowers—orchids, gladioli, protea—and, when we came down into the marshy land by the Eerste River, arum lilies glowed among the rank grass. We passed through cow-scented pasture and the corn-lands of Zandvliet, and so towards the sea, guided by the white star of the tomb.

It stands upon a sandstone rock which the Eerste River bends round on its way to the sea, and you can hear the breakers roaring, though unseen behind the sand-dunes. A little wooden bridge crosses the river beside the drift, and below it is a willow from whose branches hang the woven nests of the yellow fink. On the farther side the little hill rises steeply, and under it nestles a row of very ancient and dilapidated cottages. One of them is used as a stable by the pilgrims and another as a mosque, and upon its porch you will see a little notice in English that "women are not allowed inside the church," a warning signed with all the weight and authority of the late Haji Abdul Kalil. The Malays are good Mahomedans, and keep their women-folk in proper subjection. We can fancy them outside the mosque chattering like starlings while the Faithful pray within. Inside, this little chapel is touchingly primitive and simple, with blue sky showing through the thatched roof, and a martin's nest plastered on the ceiling of the little alcove. Between these cottages and the stream is a field of sweet marjoram, no doubt grown for the service of the shrine, and the way up the hill is made easy by a flight of steps built perhaps centuries ago, and ruinous with age. With their white balustrades, and overgrown as they are with grass and wild-flowers, they are very beautiful, and in pilgrimage-time we may suppose them bright with Malays ascending and descending. We mounted them to the top, where they open on a little courtyard roughly paved and encinctured by a low white wall. On the farther side, opposite the top of the stairs, is the tomb itself, a little white building with an archway leading into a porch. Beyond is a door, of the sort common in Cape farm-houses, divided into two across the middle. Of course, we did not dare to open it and peep inside; but I am told by a Mahomedan friend that the inner tomb is of white stucco with four pillars of a pleasant design. It is upholstered in bright-coloured plush, and copies of the Koran lie open upon it. The inside of the room is papered in the best Malay fashion, and over the window is a veil of tinselled green gauze. From the roof several ostrich eggs hang on strings, and altogether it is the gayest and brightest little shrine. The ostrich eggs hanging on their strings made me think of a much more splendid tomb which Akbar, the first and greatest of the Moguls, built for his friend Selim Chisti, a humble ascetic, in the centre of the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri. If any of my readers have made a pilgrimage to that wonderful deserted city, they will remember the tomb built of fretted marble, white and delicate as lace, in the centre of the great silent mosque of red sandstone—surely the finest testimonial to disinterested and spiritual friendship that exists in the world. And, if they look inside, they will recollect that around the inner shrine of mother o' pearl hang ostrich eggs just as they hang in Sheik Joseph's tomb on the Cape Flats. But this digression is only to show that the Malay of Cape Town knows what is proper to the ornamentation of kramats. The shrine; is tended with pious care, kept clean and white by the good Malays—a people of whom it may be said truly that they hold cleanliness as a virtue next to godliness. And if you turn your eyes from the little shrine and look over the broad landscape you will see that the spot is indeed worthy to be the resting-place of a holy man. On one side you look up into the valley of the Laurens, where Somerset West lies under the shadow of the Hottentot's Holland Mountains. Under the Helderberg nestle the rich farms of the Moddergat; there are green stretches of corn-land on the slopes. Table Mountain is blue in the distance, with its white plume of south-easter cloud, and between you and it lie leagues of plain, golden with willows, and near at hand Zandvliet's white barns and wine-cellars among their oaks and vineyards. Round the hill the swifts are darting, their red backs glittering like rubies in the sun. Over the stream the golden finches twitter round their pendent nests. Omar himself, an epicure in mortality, who wished to lie where the roses should fall lightly on his grave, might have envied such a resting-place.

And yet it has its salt of sadness, for it is the grave of an exile. Its story the reader may find for himself in Mr. Leibbrandt's book, Rambles through the Archives, or, if he prefers the original, in the mouldering pages of Valentyn.

Valentyn visited the Cape in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, and he tells us something of William Adriaan van der Stel, who was treated so shamefully by the Bond politicians of that day. He also made a pilgrimage to the tomb of "the celebrated Sheik Joseph"as he calls him, and like the pilgrims of later date, he admired the beautiful flowers and heath, and wished, as he says, that they could be painted to the life in their glorious colours. He admired also the farm of Zandvliet, and spoke with enthusiasm of its rich corn-lands. The farm had recently belonged to the Rev. Petrus Calden, the first minister of the old church on the Heerengracht, of which there remains now only the beautiful tower, and it was in Calden's day that Sheik Joseph was a prisoner. Valentyn in another part of his book tells Sheik Joseph's story. Two hundred years ago the Dutch were still fighting for mastery in the East Indies. They had settled in the Celebes at the beginning of the seventeenth century; but they had to fight many years before they conquered that beautiful island. Even now Dutch rule is shadowy except at the coast, for the country is so wild and rugged, its jungles so dense, and its people so intractable that the Europeans are content to occupy their trading stations and exercise a more or less ineffectual sort of suzerainty over the native chiefs. When our story opens the Dutch had been fighting nearly a century, not only in the Celebes, but all over the East Indies. They had driven out the Portuguese, they had fought the English, they had measured swords with the Macassars. Those were brave and turbulent times, when England and Holland were fighting for the gold and spices of the East. How they intrigued against one another, setting king against king and clan against clan, how they fought and murdered and massacred! In 1683 there were great doings. Robert Paddenburg was conquering the eastern part of the Celebes, and at the same time the Dutch were fighting the King of Bantam in Java. Now, Sheik Joseph, who was a Macassar or Galeran nobleman of high birth and great influence in the East Indies, took the side of the king, who was his near relation, against the king's son, who was the pretender, favoured by the Dutch. Sheik Joseph was defeated, and he was captured when endeavouring to escape, "by the clever and daring stratagem of a Dutch officer, Captain Ruis, who, ingratiating himself into his favour and pretending to be a Mahomedan, and a prisoner in the hands of the Dutch, persuaded him to surrender." The Dutch reduced the kingdom of Bantam to vassalage, and Sheik Joseph, whom they greatly feared, they sent as a prisoner to Ceylon. But he had such power, being looked upon as a saint all over the East Indies, that in 1694 the Dutch were fain to send him to South Africa so that he might be beyond all possibility of escape. Thither he went in the flute Voetboog, with forty-nine followers, wives, and children, and they were all accommodated on the farm of Zandvliet.

The Dutch appear to have used him with the consideration due to his rank and greatness. Calden, who wrote Latin verses, and may therefore be supposed to be a man of education, no doubt treated him like a gentleman, and we may imagine them debating on the merits of their religions. This at least would be no matter for surprise, since we find Valentyn debating points of theology with a Hottentot at this very farm of Zandvliet a few years afterwards, so it is fair to suppose that Calden had something of the missionary zeal, while on his side Sheik Joseph was renowned for his piety. And doubtless also Simon van der Stel, that wise, enlightened, and gracious old man, took no little interest in his visitor, and he treated him handsomely, if we may judge from the long bill of maintenance, "a heavy burdon on our revenue," as it is ruefully represented to the Company by Simon's successor. The Sheik died in 1699, the year that Simon resigned. His death took place on the 23rd of May, and his followers laid him to rest in the land of his exile, and no doubt built the tomb, since it is mentioned by Valentyn, who visited the place not long afterwards. Before his death his kinsman, the King of Goa, had earnestly petitioned for the return of the exile; but the Company would not even allow his bones to be removed, as they feared that they might be converted into objects of worship, and it was only long afterwards that his people were allowed to return. Then leave was at last given: the Government in India wrote that if his body were carried away no notice was to be taken; but this cannot have been done, since the Faithful still worship at his tomb.

Shiek Joseph


From the indications given by Valentyn, as well as the reverential memory which has outlasted two hundred years among his humble kinsmen, the Malays of Cape Town, we may imagine that Sheik Joseph was no ordinary man. He was not only of noble birth, but of unusual piety, a great warrior, a great prince, and also a priest deep in the knowledge of holy things. Let us hope that in his exile his faith consoled him for the outrages of fortune. He could not but have longed for the palms and spices of his native land, which he was doomed never again to see; but it is a kind of compensation that his tomb should still be visited by his own people, and that the incense of the East should shed its fragrance round his memory.

So far I had written before I made the acquaintance of the good Haji Abdul Rahim, and that pious man, Moulvi Abdul Rakip. Abdul Rahim is a philosopher of bland and benevolent countenance, and a pillar of the mosque in Long Street. In him I confided that I knew something of the story of Sheik Joseph and desired to know more. Together we voyaged through the streets of the Malay quarter in search of his learned friend, for, he said, the Moulvi is happy in the possession of a book which will tell you everything. The sun blazed on the little, white, square-built houses which cling in terraces to the side of the hill, and on the sprawling Malay babies that played in the dust. My friend is a man of portly presence—very stately in his white pagari and sash and plum-coloured robe—but he held his umbrella more over me than himself as we climbed the hill. When we got to the house and inquired of a pretty, giggling, Malay girl if he were within, we were shown into the Moulvi's own room, and found him attired in a long violet cloak and a peacock-blue vest frogged with silver lace. The two good men embraced affectionately and kissed the palms of their hands in sign of friendship. Abdul Rakip is a man altogether given up to the contemplation of holy things, and when he found that I also was a searcher after truth, we became friends on the instant. He spoke Hindustani, Arabic, and Dutch fluently; but as I have only a slight acquaintance with the first language and none with the other two, Abdul Rahim acted as interpreter, the two talking together in Arabic.

I was told that the tomb of Sheik Joseph, or Yussuf, as he is called by the Mahomedans, was only one of several holy places to which the Malays make pilgrimage. There were two or three in the beautiful old cemetery on the slopes of Signal Hill, and on Robben Island the grave of a saint who was in his life imprisoned there by the Dutch, but used to sail halfway across to the mainland on a little plank to hold converse with a holy friend who sailed out in a similar fashion from Cape Town. But Sheik Joseph was chief of them all.

"Have you," said they, "no holy men of your own religion?"

I answered that we had some, but most of them died a long while ago.

"We have many," they said, "but most of them are also dead; yet we still remember them and visit their tombs."

And they impressed on me further—what indeed I already knew—that they do not worship the tomb itself, but only pray beside the tomb, regarding its occupant as a friend and intercessor—the spirits of good men having influence with Allah.

But they were more eager to find what I knew than to impart their knowledge to me. And I found that their book was no other than my old friend, Mr. Leibbrandt's Rambles through the Archives, which its possessor valued much, though he was unable to read it. But when I had told them all I knew, and the Moulvi had taken down the main points in Arabic with a quill pen, Abdul Rahim told me this beautiful story.

Doubtless, he said, the learned men of whom you speak are right; but I have heard otherwise. When I was in Mecca, I met a Malay from Batavia, one of our own people. He was a Moulvi and a man of no little piety and knowledge. We fell to talking of the history of our own people, and I told him that we had as our chief shrine the tomb of Sheik Joseph. I asked him if he knew who this our holy man really was in life. And he replied, certainly—that a great sultan in his country, who lived many, many years ago, was without a child, and grieved much because there was no heir to follow him on the throne. And he cast about and found a child of the people, whose mother had but two children, the boy and a girl. The mother was proud of the honour done to her son, and the sultan took him secretly and called him his own. This child was he whom you call Sheik Joseph. And the boy grew to manhood, and was loved, not by the sultan only, but by all the people, who looked upon him as their prince.

Now on a day as he was riding through the city his eyes fell on a maiden, poorly clad, but of beauty so wonderful that he was dazzled by her loveliness. And he made a vow that she and no other should be his wife. Then it was told to him that the girl lived alone with her mother in a poor quarter of the city.

And the prince went to her mother, for, said he, I want your daughter's hand in marriage, and I will make her my queen and set her on my throne by my side.

Then the girl's mother was overwhelmed with sorrow, for she was the very mother of Sheik Joseph, and her daughter and the prince were full brother and sister.

But she feared to tell him, knowing that he and the people thought he was of royal blood.

And so the widow refused to allow the marriage, and would give the young man no reason. But he importuned her night and day, and gave her no peace. And he vowed as he was a prince he would take the girl by force if there were no other way.

Then the mother, sore perplexed, told Sheik Joseph the whole matter; and, said she, the girl whom you love is your own sister.

And he was so struck by grief that he would speak to no man, and from that day he was weary of the world.

And presently he commanded that a ship should be prepared for sea, and he embarked with certain of his followers who would not leave him. They sailed for many days, not knowing whither they were going. They would have died of thirst, but the Sheik touched the salt water with his lips and it became sweet. At long last they came to the Cape, and the Sheik and his followers went out of the ship at False Bay, where the Eerste River flows into the sea. And presently Sheik Joseph died, and his followers buried him on the hill above the river where his tomb now is.

But his heart they took from his breast and placed in the ship. And they set sail again, and returned in the end to the city of the sultan. And there they buried the heart of Sheik Joseph; but his body remains with us.

That, said Abdul Rahim, was the story told to me by the Moulvi from Batavia; but the story of how the tomb was found was told to me by my own grandfather. Long ago on the farm of Zandvliet there was a little herd-boy, one of our own people. And every day his cattle grazed upon the veldt among the sand-hills, as you may see them to this time. But once some of the oxen strayed from the herd and were lost; and the boy looked for them a long while among the sand-hills, but could not find them. Now, his master was cruel, and he was afraid to return, so he lay down upon the grass where he was and fell asleep. And in his sleep appeared to him the figure of a very noble man, who said that his name was Sheik Joseph, and that his tomb was upon the hill near by. And behind the hill, he said, you will find the oxen which you seek. Then the boy awoke; but Sheik Joseph had gone; Yet the lad knew he had not dreamed, because the air was full of fragrant incense. And as Sheik Joseph had said, the oxen were all together behind the hill.

And the lad came to Cape Town and told all our people the miracle of the tomb. And since that day we have made the pilgrimage every year. But in the old times we went there to pray, for our people used to be very pious. Now they are changed, and make it a holiday. And in the old days, as my grandfather told me, a great serpent lay upon the tomb, and if a pilgrim's heart were bad the serpent hissed at him, so that he dared not mount the steps. But now the serpent is no longer there, and any one can go up to the tomb. And some say that in the old days that hill could only be seen by the clean and pious: those who were bad or dirty could not see it. But now it may be seen by anybody.

This was the story told to me in the house of Abdul Rakip by his friend Abdul Rahim, and the reader may choose between it and Valentyn's. For myself I make no difficulty in believing them both.