Hottentoo Harry, Jan Van Riebeeck and Granny Thompson Part Two

This is part two of Hottentoo Harry, Jan Van Riebeeck and Granny Thompson. As per my charming husband’s instruction, I split the article in two. I hope after the abrupt expulsion (compliments of said husband) from the fynbos-covered land around Cape Town, that you can throw yourself back into the south-easter.

Hottentot Harry whose real name was Autshumato learnt some English from trade with passing English captains. They called him ‘King Harry’. He also spoke French and Portuguese. He was a brave chief and a very capable politician. He was Van Riebeeck’s first translator and was at different times both Van Riebeeck’s saviour and his tormentor. He was initially friendly and gave Van Riebeeck access to the local Khoe people, but he was also accused of driving up the prices for the cattle, organising thieving parties, murdering a boy guarding cattle and generally being too wily for a “savage”. In the early years of Dutch settlement, Harry is mentioned in almost every entry of Van Riebeeck’s journals.

Khoisan cooking grasshoppers 1804, Samuel Daniell

Harry approached the Dutch soon after their landing in the Cape. He promised that if the Dutch offered him, his deaf wife (he did have more than one although only one was deaf; the Khoe were polygamous) and the rest of his people protection from other tribes, he would broker trade. Despite much wooing by Van Riebeeck, the locals were not quite co-operative enough and Harry did not make good on his word to deliver enough cattle.

Van Riebeeck’s journals show him becoming more and more frustrated with Harry and life in the Cape. Van Riebeeck was quite ready to leave altogether. It was a hard life. They were trying to set up a home-from-home while struggling with the ‘Hottentots’. They were constantly required to pass on their hard-earned food sources to the Dutch East India Company’s fleet. Sheep were sent to Robben Island where they were left to breed without the possibility of their being stolen by the locals but they were not enough to provision the Cape. Harry was sent to join the sheep for 2 years as a punishment for his involvement in the theft of all the Dutch cattle. Robben Island has been a prison for a long time. Harry also became its first escapee.

The Dutch also needed oxen to plough the fields. They only had a handful of horses and they were over-worked. As well as the problems with theft, there were lions, leopards and poisonous snakes to contend with. And while there was a plentiful supply of game – all manner of birds including the “mountain duck” (I am mightily curious about what bird this is), antelope, kwaggas, fish, penguins, seals and the odd dead whale washed ashore – the Dutch were starving. The Hottentots used the whale oil to coat their skin – to the point of dripping – with what must have been a very smelly moisturizer which displayed to all their status within the group.

The Dutch faced several difficulties: their fleet in New Amsterdam (New York) was fighting the English; there was pressure from the Company to become self-sufficient; there was the constant worry that a visiting foreign ship would try to steal the fledgling Dutch base. Van Riebeeck sounds close to depair on more than a few occasions. He had very few men with him. While they were supposed to be strengthening the fort, they were most often guarding equipment, land and livestock. The Khoe were stealing back their cattle along with any tools they found unattended and the people they had managed to recruit as labour were just not playing the game. The Khoe were useless slaves (go Granny) and quite frankly seemed not to understand the concept of slavery at all. The Khoe would work for a few hours cutting down trees but would then refuse to work the next day, complaining of exhaustion.

Van Riebeeck launched some fairly bizarre plans to deal with his situation. The most bizarre, was his idea to cut through the continent and make an island of The Cape of Good Hope. His other plan was to lure all the Khoe into the fort and ship them off to Jakarta and replace them with slaves from the East Indies. Their indigenous population understood more fully the job description of slave apparently.

Five years in, the tide started to turn against the Khoe. For although the Cape’s population figures in April 1657 were as follows, an influx of slaves from Angola (followed shortly by a shipment from Guinea) was about to arrive. The Dutch were finally growing their livestock holdings to sustainable levels and the farms behind the mountains and out of the wind were producing bountiful crops. There were 100 paid servants of the Dutch East India Company, 10 free burghers (farmers), 6 married women, 12 children, 6 convicts and 10 slaves: 3 men, 7 women. Imagine being 1 of those 12 children. Imagine having only 11 friends in the whole world with whom you were allowed to play.

I try to picture under what circumstances my Granny Thompson’s ancestor would have bumped up against her white beau. I hope so dearly that it was a great love story or at the very least a marriage of comfortable convenience. There weren’t many European girls in the Cape of Good Hope. The Khoe were notoriously bad at living as slaves, so perhaps she did not meet him at the Slave Lodge which was essentially a brothel. Slaves could not marry and had no right to their own children. In order to marry a white man, she would first have to be granted her freedom. This happened often though and many “white” South African families have slave roots- Basson, Beyers, Fleck, Eckstein, Stein, Visser. A full and fascinating history of the Cape slaves can be found at

I hope my great-grandmother (I’ll dispense with the X. You get that this all happened a very long time ago) stood proudly and shouted, “FREEDOM”, just like William Wallace but not in a Scottish accent. Perhaps she fought in the war of 1658. This is a difficult entry to write because I don’t know her name. I know she looked nothing like me but I also know that we are the same.

Perhaps she was young interpretess, Eva (who is more rightly called by her birth name, Kratoa). Eva was ‘Hottentot Harry’s’ niece. She was taken into Van Riebeeck’s household as a girl of 10 or 11 and was married to a Danish surgeon in 1664. Her husband died on a slave-trading mission in 1668. Eva’s life is an utter tragedy which she ended as an alcoholic; a pariah in both Dutch and Khoe society. She died in 1674 at the age of about 32. You can read more about her here. I would like to think she was my ancestor. She quite incidentally shares a name with my daughter and that seems somehow right. I wonder how she would feel, knowing that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl below was her great grand-daughter. You really never do know where your future might drag you, do you?

Artist's impression of Eva and my daughter Ava

Autshumato (Harry) died in 1663, a year before his niece Kratoa (Eva) married her doctor, his dreams of freedom for his people in ruins. It is difficult not to hate the winners here but if Kratoa was my great-grandmother, then the white winner was my grand-father and he deserves equal thanks for my being here today.

If you are interested in slavery at the Cape, please pop into the phenomenal site

P.S. In order not to inflame the recent land-ownership debate 🙂 I would like to state that I have no intention of making a land claim in light of my MtDNA profile. I am quite happy with my tumble-down house in Johannesburg North bought with the fruits of my white education in Apartheid South Africa and with all the manifold benefits of having been born into a family with a light complexion in the 1970s.

3 thoughts on “Hottentoo Harry, Jan Van Riebeeck and Granny Thompson Part Two

  1. Apparently my Austrian ancestor married an emanicpated slave when he got off the boat. My tribe of the Olckers family are referred to as the “Swart Olckers” tribe. I would be keen to see what blood tests reveal.

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