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Yvonne Fontyn
3 minute read
17 Aug 2017
5:35 am

A letter to Jan van Riebeeck

Yvonne Fontyn

I’m not sure he would have the time to read my letter; from his diaries he was a furious worker.

A jan van Riebeek statue. Picture" Alberton Record.

I’m doing some narrative studies, looking at the different “voices” that have made up South Africa’s past.

We started with /Xam stories, compiled by German linguists Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd in the early 1900s, looked at an ancient Greek mariner’s log book, and last week pored over the diaries of Jan van Riebeeck.

There are volumes of them, all ridiculously detailed: so many rows of beans planted; a ship arrived with “drunk, babbling fools” aboard, who had to be arrested.

Van Riebeeck himself was a desperate man: he was at great pains to tell the VOC exactly what he was doing at the Cape, always trying to impress them because setting up the victualling station was a way of getting back into their good books: he’d been sacked previously from his job as a merchant for private trading and badly wanted to resume his career in the East Indies.

So, if I were to write a letter to Van Riebeeck, what would I say?

First, I need to get his image right in my mind – it’s not the one we had on our banknotes. Historian Frank Welsh says the picture is of “an obscure infantry officer”, no doubt with more presence than the real Johan van Riebeeck, who was far more ordinary looking and with less glamorous hair.

And, anyway, would he listen to me, a voice far in the distant future, and a woman? Though I know he held his wife, Maria de la Quellerie, in high esteem, considering her “the most perfect of women”.

I’m not sure either that he would have the time to read my letter; from his diaries he was a furious worker. From the start, Van Riebeeck’s dealings with the local inhabitants were amiable: he had orders to treat them with respect to ease trade relations.

Obtaining cattle was his main preoccupation – trying to get the people he called the Saldanhas to part with their beloved animals, and complaining when they occasionally moved down from the West Coast to give him a couple of the sickly or disabled ones.

His approach to people who had been enslaved was completely different: they were simply commodities.

So I would have to explain to him that the pernicious trade in slaves was later abolished because activists fought to have their humanity acknowledged. And giving these people, mostly from East Asia, a plug of tobacco and a tot of alcohol as incentive and reward unleashed a whirlwind of harm.

From these times began the extremely destructive beliefs of many white people in South Africa – beliefs that would be further entrenched through Dutch and British colonialisation, and meticulously documented and enforced in the laws of grand apartheid.

I would also tell him that giving his Dutch herdsmen 100 blows with the butt-end of a musket for losing cattle was not an acceptable punishment.

Violence has become entrenched in our culture, but at least corporal punishment has been abolished. I would have to commend him on his vegetable gardens and for establishing Cape Town as a viable port en route to and from the East.

There is a lot more I could tell Van Riebeeck. Like everyone, I think he was just trying to please the boss.

Yvonne Fontyn.

Yvonne Fontyn.