Jan Van Riebeeck landed in South Africa in 1652. He arrived to take over the place on behalf of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Of course, European ships had stopped off at the Cape of Good Hope for many years en route to the Spice Islands in the east but this was the first official European settlement of the Cape.
Cape Town, as it’s known today, is a painfully beautiful city. The giant slab of Table Mountain looms over the city. The rich and uniquely populated Cape Floral Region is a World Heritage Site. There are spectacular views, great white sharks in the Atlantic, whales in the Indian and wild baboons who will steal your lunch at the southern-most point of the African continent.
I have been reading Jan Van Riebeeck’s diaries (or a 19th century English translation of them) for a while now and strangely, he hasn’t once mentioned the beauty of the Cape. He is all business, and a great part of this business seems to have been the subjugation of the locals. The Dutch called them Hottentots, but today the original inhabitants of the Cape are known as the Khoe-San. When the Dutch arrived the Khoe and the San were not a nation by any stretch of the imagination. They were a group of tribes or clans who functioned independently of one another and were constantly at war over lands and grazing. (See my older post about the Khoisan and the Dutch here)
It is difficult to imagine the sort of hardships the Dutch faced as they tried to set up a colony with absolutely no infrastructure. No buildings, no roads, no cattle, no crops; just a very beautiful view of the sea and a big mountain – I start to hyperventilate at the thought. The Khoe had lived in the area for many thousands of years and had the cattle that the Dutch needed. Because of this, relations were initially “friendly”. Hostilities grew however and the Dutch and Khoe slid, tragically, towards war.
It was something that I had never heard of before that the Dutch, after killing the Khoe in raids, cut off their lips as trophies (!). I’m not sure what they did with the lips once they began the march back to Cape Town. What do you do with lips liberated from faces? Were they strung round necks – putrefying pendants – or were they kept in a sack? Did you hang onto them after they started to smell and ooze? What on earth would possess a person to do such a vile thing? These weren’t psychopaths. They were employees of a trading company; more farmer Joe than Hannibal Lecter. But I suppose I shouldn’t be in the least surprised at our ability to disassociate and perform acts of stomach-churning cruelty.
In a grizzly tally, over the course of time, we have collected skulls for display, teeth for necklaces, shrunken heads for ritual, ears, toes and hands. And it is not only in the sweaty equatorial jungles of the world that human trophies are taken, and it is not only in a time before memory that this happened. There’s a photo on Wikipedia of a smiling American sailor in WWII jiggling the jaw of his trophy – a Japanese soldier’s skull. Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army cuts off lips today, over 300 years after the Dutch landed in Cape Town. The shrunken head of a Jewish man was found in Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
While it would be so easy to distance ourselves from this depravity in our world of connectedness, I think we are still at heart tribal creatures. I’m sitting here at my computer and I am absolutely convinced that I would never not see a person as some mother’s son or daughter. I would never cut off somebody’s lips and wear them as pearls. I am a mother of two. I am a bookseller. I am kind. I have pets and a garden. I haven’t fought with my husband for years. I like shoes. I sing loudly when I’m alone in my car. But I’m willing to bet that there was a woman just like me in Rwanda in 1994 at the time of the genocide who thought exactly as I do until she took a panga to her neighbour of 20 years.
I will be full of cheer and frippery next week. For today though, I will mull over our darker natures and hope to always see the ways in which we are the same rather than those in which we are different.