South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

Van Riebeck

In my last chapter I tried to show how, as the years rolled on, the other nations followed Portugal into the Indian seas by way of the Cape of Good Hope. They were keen, hard-fighting swashbucklers, those old English and Dutch and French merchants and sailors, and they were bent on having for themselves and their own nations the whole wealth of Asia. But in those days of long voyages and small ships and salt junk it was necessary to have a half-way house on the voyage to the East. The Dons held fast to Mozambique, and try as they might the Dutchmen could not dislodge them. The English chose Saint Helena as the best place to victual and refresh themselves, and our old tars had many a chase after wild pig on that lonely little island. The French laid hold of Madagascar; but the Dutch were the wisest of them all; they raised the flag of the Republic over the old "watering-place of Saldanha," Table Bay as it is now called. If you look at the map of Africa you will see that the Cape of Good Hope is like a little curly tail attached to the south-west corner of the continent. It is a narrow, pear-shaped strip of mountainland, only four or five miles broad at its broadest, narrowing to the rocky promontory of the Cape of Good Hope, and some forty miles long, and it is attached to the mainland by a low, flat spit of sand not much more than a dozen miles broad. On the south side of this spit are the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, breaking in league-long rollers on the sands of Muizenberg; on the north the cold waters of the Atlantic, sweeping up from the South Pole, swirl round into Table Bay. It might have been an island once, this little mountain promontory, for the sand flats are almost flush with the sea, and the Dutchmen, when they came first, thought of cutting a canal from False Bay to Table Bay, and so making an island of it again. A Dutchman finds it very hard to resist making a canal wherever he has the slightest excuse, and in this case he thought by so doing to make of Table Bay a secure little fortress against the savages of the interior, just as Mozambique on its island was secure against the savages of East Africa.

[Illustration] from South Africa by Ian D. Colvin


But I am going a little too fast with my story. I have told you how for years and years before van Riebeck landed the English and Dutch sailors used to visit Table Bay and camp along its stream of pure water, and eat the scurvy grass, the wild mustard and sorrel and leek, that grew upon the banks. But it was not until the middle of the seventeenth century that the great Dutch East India Company at last decided to go a step farther and place a little refreshment station in the Bay. It came about in this wise. A Dutch ship called the Haarlem  was wrecked in the Bay, and the crew were forced to stay on its shores for a space of five months. They built a fort in which they stored the cargo, they bartered cattle from the natives and explored the promontory, just as John Jourdain and his friends had done some forty years before. When at last another Dutch ship, the Princesse Royael, came to take them off, they had so much cattle and sheep in hand that they were able to feed their deliverers with fresh meat, and so, it is said, to save the lives of many, for the ship was full of scurvy.

Two of the Haarlem's  company, Jansen and Proot, men, as we may guess, of very much the same temper as Jourdain and Shilling and Fitzherbert, had been thinking hard during their stay at the Cape, and when they got to Holland they laid their heads together and wrote a memorial to their High Mightinesses the Dutch East India Company. Their letter said very much what Jourdain said in his diary. They showed that by making a fort and a garden in Table Valley, and protecting it with a garrison of 60 or 70 soldiers, the Company would save the lives of hundreds of their men. Everything, they said, would grow there: fruit and vegetables, cabbages and pumpkins, onions and watermelons, oranges and shaddocks, cattle could be had from the natives,—and here they put in a pious word about the conversion of these hopeful savages,—and so the interests of the Company and the kingdom of God would be at the same time extended. It is an able document—every word of it proved to be true—and their High Mightinesses were mightily impressed by its cogency. They submitted the "remonstrance" to a gentleman of their service, Johan van Riebeck, who thus first comes into our history.

But before we come to him let me say a word or two about his employers. The Dutch East India Company was the greatest trading body of the world in those days. It was greater than Venice; it was greater than Genoa; it was greater than the Hanseatic League; it was greater than the King of Spain; it was greater than the City of London. Its capital was subscribed by all the towns and states of Holland, and all the cities and provinces were represented upon the great Council of Seventeen which managed its affairs. The Seventeen had as much power as the Prince of Orange or the Government of the Republic. It declared war; it made peace; it recruited armies; it fitted out navies. It had a vast empire in the East with fortresses and garrisons and tributary princes. It had a system of government so perfect that there was seldom any friction. Governors and captains, lieutenants and ensigns, merchants and fiscals, all had their order of precedence and fitted into the local schemes of administration automatically. Everything was done by councils, by committee; the great Council of Seventeen was over all; but wherever there was a Company's ship or a fort there a council could be constituted, and its members and duties and powers were all laid down in a way that worked with almost mechanical regularity. It was a splendid piece of co-operation of the old guild order: It was in fact a nation organised into a company for the purpose of trade.

Now in the service of this great Company families grew up and flourished, generation after generation. And one of these families was the van Riebecks. Johan's father, Anthony van Riebeck, was a stout old sailor; in his portrait he looks a little like "Old Noll," with his broad white collar, heavy-hilted sword, wide gauntlets, and strong, heavy face. You would take him to be a sea-captain in a big way by his dress, and no doubt he sailed many a good ship of the Company before he was knocked over by the yellow jack in the Brazils and was laid to his last rest in the Church of San Paulo at Olinda de Pernambuco. His wife was a van Gaasbeeck, a fine Dutch lady with as much white linen about her as would make collars for a whole Eton house, and earrings and bracelets of pearls—a sailor's gifts, no doubt, from Ceylon or the Persian Gulf. Their son, Johan, was a merchant and surgeon in the service of the Company. He was a gentleman of position, married to a beautiful lady, Maria de Querelleri, such a lady as Rembrandt would have been proud to paint, daughter of the Minister of Rotterdam. Above the great linen collar, her oval face is very sweet, with its full lips, long nose, soft dark eyes, level eyebrows, and hair brushed back to a coif of pearls. Arid van Riebeck himself was a handsome fellow, if we may judge by his portrait, dark with cavalier locks, a van Dyck moustache, black piercing eyes heavily shadowed, a fair white forehead and a beautiful hand resting upon the cloak over his breast.

Well, to this gentleman their High Mightinesses submitted the "remonstrance" of mynheers Jansen and Proot, and van Riebeck's note upon it is full of interest to us. He himself had been at the Cape for three weeks salving the cargo of the Haarlem, and he strokes the "t's" and dots the "i's" of his two colleagues. We can see from his recommendations that the young official has been a great traveller. He advises the planting of close thorn hedges as a protection against the natives, "a brutal gang in whom he has no faith, as he has seen done in the Caribee Islands." Then if the cocoanut could be made to grow they might make arrack and vinegar, and feed hogs on the wash as they do in Batavia. From personal experience he judges the Cape water to be much better than that of Saint Helena, which is sulphurous. As there are many elands, steenbucks, and other wild animals in South Africa, their skins might be dried and packed closely together as is done in Siam; when he was in Japan there was a good demand for such skins. Then "train-oil" would also yield a profit, "as I have before this been in Greenland and seen how the industry is carried on there." And the dispatch, after a pious but guarded reference to the conversion of the natives, concludes with a promise that "with God's blessing I will not fail in my zeal for the benefit of the Company, and the personal honour of your servant." Thus you may see that van Riebeck, like Hans Breitmann, was a "true cosmopolite," with a "kop bemossed mit egsperience." He was something of a botanist, something of a doctor; he knew as much about scurvy and anti-scorbutics as was to be known in his time; he had an observant, scientific eye that noted everything; he had some knowledge of farming; he had, like all Dutchmen, shrewd notions as to the main chance; and like most men of his time he had also—if we may judge from his observations on the defences of the settlement—a good knowledge of soldiering and the work of the military engineer. Above all, he was a Company's man; their affairs were to him almost a religion; the Seventeen almost a deity. He was, in short, just the man the Company wanted, and the Company, who were very shrewd judges of men, chose him for the work.

And so just about two years after King Charles was beheaded by Cromwell and his Parliament, Johan van Riebeck was given his sailing orders by the Council of the Seventeen. He was to be on his guard against, but neutral to, all nations, except the Portuguese, "whom the Company has declared to be its enemies, and with whom it is at war in the regions falling within the limits granted by charter to the Company"; and he was to beware of Prince Rupert, who was reported to be cruising with eight ships and a Portuguese commission somewhere in the South Atlantic. He was to land at the Cape and take possession and build a fort and barter for cattle and grow produce for the Company's ships; and "you are likewise ordered to correspond with the Company on all matters, and we wish you good fortune and prosperity on your voyage and the fulfilment of your trust, looking forward to the proper time when we shall be informed of your good success." So van Riebeck set out with his little fleet, the Drommedaris, the Reijger, and the Goede Hoop, from Amsterdam on a rainy afternoon in mid-December, and you may imagine that his pretty brave little wife shed tears as she stood on the deck with her girl in her arms and waved farewell to all her dear friends on the quay and prepared to face with her husband that long and perilous voyage. And they had a rough voyage, for the Drommedaris  was badly ballasted, and a gale in the channel laid her on her beam-ends under storm sails, so that every moment looked like her last. But she weathered it; and when they were well south of the Canaries but of reach of Prince Rupert and the Turkish pirates, they lowered nine of her cannon into the hold to steady her, and so made better weather of it, till on 4th April 1652, "about five glasses of the afternoon watch, Table Mountain was sighted by the chief officer, 15 or 16 Dutch miles away." He received "four Spanish reals in specie" for the intelligence, and you may imagine that many healths were drunk and deep prayers of thanksgiving offered, as the three high-pooped ships made for the land, and the great bulk of Table Mountain, with its white plume of cloud, grew on the horizon.

They stole in very circumspectly for fear of enemies; but the coast was clear, and when Skipper Coninck landed with the sloop he found a packet of letters left under a stone addressed to the commander from Jan van Teylingen, the admiral of the return fleet. Van Teylingen had brought horses for van Riebeck from Batavia; but as the commander had not arrived and the fleet could not wait, he had left them with an "English speaking Ottento," no other than the redoubtable Herry of whom we shall hear much later on. On the 8th it was blowing a south-easter; but on the 9th van Riebeck landed to mark out the site of the fort. It was drawing to the end of the dry weather; the ground was cracked and hard; winter, the winter of the southern hemisphere, was coming on. Work was begun with a will; the men of the Drommedaris  were busily discharging the cargo while others set to work to raise tents, catch fish, or throw up embankments.

Van Riebeck found a suitable site for the fort somewhere near what is now the middle of Adderley Street, where the river could be led round it to form a moat with beautiful land for a garden behind it. We see him rubbing his hands over the lovely soil, "as good and fruitful as anywhere in the world," and longing for a few Chinese as gardeners. "Thousands of Chinese," he goes on in a burst of enthusiasm, "would not be able to cultivate a tenth part of the country, which is so rich that neither Formosa nor New Netherland can compare with it." He is enthusiastic, too, about the fishing; the great draughts of "beautiful bream," and other fish "of more delicate flavour than any fish in the Fatherland." The natives appeal to his sense of the picturesque: "fine fellows dressed in prepared oxhide, and stepping like any dandy in the Fatherland who carries his mantle on his shoulder or his arm." So the work of discharging and fort-building went on merrily; and Hendrik Boom, the gardener, an expert in his trade, and a man of merit, began to prepare plots for the sowing of his Dutch seeds.

But soon hardships came upon the little company. No cattle were to be got from the natives; the Drommedaris  was badly loaded, and the supply of wood was deficient. Then the winter came on, and with it colds and dysentery and other diseases, for the men were ill-lodged; the fierce south-easters tore down the frail coverings of tarpaulin; floods washed away the garden soil and inundated the little shelters, and the men, cold, ill-nourished, and overworked, began to die fast. Thus we find, on the 7th June:—

Cut reeds in the downs behind Lion's Rump to thatch our dwellings; hope that this will be a success, as planks and tarpaulins cannot keep the wet from our heads, etc. More cases of sickness, some on the point of death. Yesterday and to-day the under-gardener, his wife, and eldest son, have been laid up, and now almost all are ill, which stops the works almost completely. We hope for a change by the mercy of God.

And on the 10th:—

About fifty men at work—the rest all ill; nourished them with wine and some greens grown from our Dutch seeds. Since our arrival not more than one cow and calf have been obtained—life is growing a misery, one after another falls ill, and many die—poor prospect for the works. We trust in God's mercy.

And so it goes on, day after day, a doleful tale. The plantations are all destroyed by heavy rain; vegetables and everything washed away. "We sit in leaky tents, suffering severe discomfort." There are dysentery and violent fever, and death after death in the little company. They suffer from severe cold; there is snow on the mountain and hail in the valley. The men become insubordinate; some desert; the Commander brings down a heavy hand upon them, for he is not the man to stand any nonsense. But he feels for them all the same, as month after month goes by and no cattle and no ships arrive. Here is the entry for November 11:—

Quieter. Twenty-four in hospital complaining of pains through their joints, which feel as if broken—no wonder—as labour is hard, food is old and so scarce that no one gets what he absolutely requires—no fish when weather is bad—the seine very old and bad —enough to do to repair it. If no supplies in cattle or from ships quickly come, the people will grow too weak to work, as peas, barley, meat, and pork are running out—the fish caught have saved provisions, otherwise we would have nothing now. Pray earnestly for arrival of natives with cattle—see their fires across the bay.

Poor van Riebeck! He had some sore trials and disappointments in those early days. Thus we read, under July 20:—

Sowed some wheat, barley, and peas, and likewise other seeds. It is delightful to see how beautifully the peas, large beans, radishes, beet, spinach, and other garden produce, spring up; also the wheat and turnips sown near the fort, and the cabbages, which at the distance of a musket-shot we have planted in very fat soil between the two fresh rivers. More ground is being pre-pared, and we trust to have abundant supplies of refreshments for the return ships from India.

And, three days afterwards, this heart-breaking entry:—

Gardens flooded with all the crops spoilt—a miserable sight, as we had sown various beds with wheat, peas, cabbages, etc., some of which looked beautiful—very heavy rains indeed—everything inundated—too much water for the rivers—half a foot of water in the store—canals full—a clay wall intended for a kitchen, feet broad and 8 feet high, collapsed—but the walls of the fortifications remain uninjured—did our best to make them strong—damp weather, wind and rain continuing—in the evening south-west wind with hail and rain, destroying whatever had been left of our garden produce.

Indomitable man! Five days after he is busy planting again.

But the rain was doing a blessed work though they might not realise it. Everywhere the grass was coming up, green and fresh and deep, and the land was soon smiling with flowers, such wild-flowers as grow nowhere else in the world. And then there were more fires across the Bay and rumours of natives approaching with vast herds of cattle and sheep, until at last the "Saldanhars," as van Riebeck calls them, came with their flocks, following the grass, a vast multitude not to be counted. Sometimes herds estimated at 20,000 were seen together. For the people of South Africa were then nomads, whose wealth lay in their cattle, and who travelled, like the swallows, with the seasons. It must have been a wonderful sight: "Saw along the hill beside Table Mountain the country covered with cattle and sheep as with grass." At first van Riebeck could only get a few by barter, and he gnashed his teeth. "With 150 men," he says, "ten or twelve thousand cattle could be secured, and without any danger; as many of these savages could be caught without a blow, for transmission as slaves to India, as they always come to us unarmed." A sore temptation, but it "requires more consideration and wiser judgment than ours alone." Still the situation was saved. Bartering went on steadily, and soon a considerable herd was secured. But anxiety was not yet over. We read on March 1:—"To-day the last rations of bread were distributed." But now the ships were at hand, for on March 2, the very day after this last distribution of bread, we read: "Arrival of the ships 't Hoff van Zeelandt  with the Vice-Admiral Junius on board, and the Walwis. And about noon also the Malacca  and Parel, with the Admiral Gerard Demmer, Ordinary Councillor of India and late Governor of Amboina." And there is a ring of the pride of achievement in the next entry:—

Provided the ships with cattle, sheep, cabbages, carrots, milk, etc., and sent the Admiral in the galiot 10 sheep, some cabbages, carrots, and beet. . . Each vessel to have per week three head of cattle and cabbages in proportion, and for the cabins four sheep, besides cabbages, carrots, beet, salad, etc., the Admiral's, however, to have six sheep and the Vice-Admiral's five sheep, etc.

And so the battle was fought and won.