South Africa - Ian D. Colvin

Van Riebeck—Concluded

When the Dutch came to the Cape the English were their chief rivals, and there were, of course, either as open or secret enemies, the Portuguese and the French. Van Riebeck, like a good Dutchman, detested them all, and was always ready to serve them a scurvy trick if he got the chance, taking care, however, to make friends with them when friendship seemed worth while. The great Italian, Machiavelli, who was not nearly so bad a man as he is usually painted, held that it is quite right, for the good of your country, to tell lies or cheat, or to circumvent your enemy in any manner possible. Van Riebeck was a disciple of Machiavelli. To show how he dealt with foreigners, let us take the case of the French sealer which was discovered at Saldanha Bay shortly after van Riebeck arrived at the Cape. The Frenchmen had collected nearly fifty thousand sealskins, besides blubber, before the Dutch galiot discovered them, and the French captain gleefully told his visitors that he "hoped to retire if he got home." When he heard all this, our good Commander immediately sent men overland to Saldanha Bay with letters which the French captain was asked to be so good as to deliver in Holland. He was also told that if he had touched at the Cape he would have been supplied with sheep, cattle, fowls, geese, ducks, partridges, and all kinds of game, besides salad, cabbages, carrots, turnips, and all kinds of European garden produce, which we were also inclined to send him if we had had a vessel at our disposal." At the same time as these pleasant civilities were to be delivered, "you are to tempt as many of the Frenchmen as possible to desert, and as secretly as you can, that in this way the captain may become so helpless that he may be induced to sell his ship and cargo to the Company." We are glad to hear that this cheerful piece of scoundrelism did not succeed, as the captain grew suspicious, "trusting us as little as we trust him," and the Dutch were only able to get four Frenchmen who had been marooned on an island for insubordination.

That van Riebeck would have played the English the same trick if he dared is shown by entries in the Diary. Thus when an English ship called at the Cape and took water and fish without so much as asking by your leave, there is the following observation:—

The Dutch part of the Englishman's crew very unwilling. About thirty or forty of them would have liked to remain here, and we might easily have hidden them inland, but as our masters do not like to be in trouble with that nation, we did not dare to do so; otherwise there would have been a chance of hampering the Englishman to such an extent that he would not have been able to move his ship, and been obliged to sell the whole concern to the Company for a trifle.

Van Riebeck, indeed, had a healthy fear of the English, and was very civil to them when he got the chance, "to show them the kind heart we have towards them without any hypocrisy." Thus on one occasion he "entertained the English officers at dinner; treated them so well that at night they went on board pretty sweet and jolly and well pleased." And shortly after we have the entry: "English officers again dined with us, and at night they were as jolly as before, dancing, jumping, rolling, and happy when they left." Jack ashore is always the same, you see; and he was not to be outdone in kindness. The captain offered the Dutchmen anything which the ship might have," and when this large offer was refused, sent the commander a hogshead of good English ale, a case of distilled waters, a good English cheese, and six smoked tongues." Van Riebeck, in his turn, "to be under no obligation, but rather to leave it on the other side," sent on board a large quantity of vegetables. Very pleasant, is it not? and yet, I make no doubt, they would have cut each other's throats with all the pleasure in the world.

But the Commander had cause to be careful. They were a desperate lot on the seas in those days. The French at Madagascar, for all their backing by Cardinal Mazarin, were little better than pirates. We hear how these gentry "went to the Red Sea to rob the Moors; there they had chased a vessel supposed to be a Moor, but found it to be English, and having sent their small bark and sloop against it, were beaten off with the loss of sixty men." Then we have an account of how a French vessel from Dieppe, with a Swedish commission, lay in the Dutch harbour of Cape Verde for two months, pretending to be a peaceful merchantman, while two Dutch flutes were taking in their cargoes. The Governor gave a dinner in honour of the departing vessels, and ten of the Frenchmen, "secretly armed with pistols under their clothes," were among the guests.

After dinner, when all stood up to drink a parting glass together, the Frenchmen seized the opportunity, and placing their pistols on the breasts of the Governor and some of his retinue, compelled them to surrender as prisoners, together with all who were in the fort and were unarmed or had no idea of evil. At the same time they made a signal to the men of their ships, who at once attacked the flutes, and after a successful plunder they departed, leaving the Governor in possession of his plundered fort, though no one was killed.

Part of the plunder taken by these buccaneers was three hundred thousand guilders in gold; and we need not be surprised when van Riebeck remarks, "This narrative made us more prudent towards these visitors, though we never trusted them."

Little wonder, too, if the Commander felt alarmed when the French ship Marechal  was wrecked in the Bay, and a hundred and fifty desperate Frenchmen came swimming ashore on casks and planks and other wreckage. The new Governor of Madagascar—for already France claimed possession of that island—a Prussian named Gelton, was on board, as well as a bishop, Monseigneur Estienne. Van Riebeck demanded that all the arms be delivered up, at which very reasonable request the Prussian used most desperate threats. The Commander was firm, however, and soon brought them to terms, and the upshot was that a good many of the Frenchmen were taken into the Dutch service, while the officers were given quarters in the town tavern.

Those were troublous times, and van Riebeck had need to be careful. For example, we find him sending the following message to "the Admiral and Combined Council of the Return Fleet":—"This serves to inform you that the English have garrisoned Saint Helena, and that the Seventeen have sent written orders that the return fleet shall not touch there this year, because it is not certain whether, in consequence of the tottering Government in England, a stronger alliance or war with that country and our State will be the result." Thus we see the three great Powers had taken up their positions—the French at Madagascar, the Dutch at the Cape, the English at Saint Helena—points of vantage in the struggle for the East, and the reversion of the great Portuguese Empire. Each meant to have it, and the struggle was to rage for a hundred and fifty years before England came out victorious. In this great fight the Cape, as we shall see, was not the least important factor.

But in the meantime our Netherlanders were making themselves very snug ashore. For all van Riebeck's troubles and perplexities he had his consolations. His garden, we can see, was a perpetual delight to him. He gloats over his cabbages, his sweet potatoes, his parsnips, and his turnips. The first cauliflower grown at the Cape has a special entry to itself. "Everything at the table reared at the Cape," he says, with the true colonial pride; and again, "The horse-radishes grow well, glory be to God!" The finest heads of lettuce in the world" is another of the entries. And then, later, we can see the joy he takes in his fruit trees grown from seed gathered east and west, his pisangs and pummeloes—his olive trees "doing well"—alas, that they have never since done well at the Cape—his oranges and lemons, medlars, quinces, and currants. "The first cherry grown at the Cape" appears as an entry. But I think the sweetest and most touching entry of all is, "This day the first Dutch rose was plucked at the Cape." I like to fancy that it was a Marie van Hout, that glorious and delicate bloom, pale cream with a flush of pink, and that the Commander himself pinned it over the snowy linen upon his wife's breast. Then we have another entry, almost as delightful: "To-day (Sunday), glory be to God, wine was pressed for the first time from the Cape grapes, and the new must fresh from the tub was tasted; it consisted mostly of Muscadel and other white round grapes, of fine flavour and taste."

Then van Riebeck rejoiced to see his woodcutters bringing down the mighty trees of the forest, and it is plain that lime-making and brick-burning, planning a fort, or building a house were keen delights to him. And he had great joy in his experiments with free settlers and their farms, though here he had many disappointments. He would go and watch the waving fields of corn, and he is in a bitter mood indeed when the south-easter blows the grain out of the head. Then a hedge to keep out the natives, or a canal to fill the moat, or a redoubt to protect the shore becomes an absorbing interest. And when a "tiger" breaks into the kraal and kills all his ducks and geese there is mourning and lamentation. As for the breeding of pigs, it becomes a passion with him, and we have a "resolution," a yard long, instructing the burghers in pig-rearing. Even rabbit-breeding is not too trifling an occupation, and there is a world of anxiety in the entry: "The last buck sent is worth nothing; he allows himself to be bitten by the others, who chase him about; the black buck is good, but he seems to have forgotten the does."

The scarcity of labour was a great trouble, then as now, and the Commander is constantly wishing for a few thousand Chinese to cultivate the soil. Then comes the Hasselt  with a cargo of slaves from Popo, in the Gulf of Guinea—"a fine, strong, and healthy lot," says the Diary. They were very useful, and I do not suppose the Cape could ever have become what it is were it not for slave labour. But they were a great trouble also. In some cases, no doubt at all, they were cruelly treated, and they were a sullen, murderous lot, always plotting to escape or to murder their masters. The blacksmith was kept busy making chains for them; but still they escaped now and again, or wreaked dreadful vengeance upon their owners; and the most atrocious crimes ever committed in South Africa were the result of slavery. The geographical notions of these people seem to have been as crude as van Riebeck's own, and they thought that if they could only escape they could walk back to their homes in Angola. Cheerful people they were: "They further stated that they intended to live on Hottentoo flesh, whom they would kill here and there, as they were accustomed to do in their own country, where the victors ate the conquered."

But the Commander had trouble also with his own people. He was a stern disciplinarian, as I have shown, and he had need to be, for he had a rough lot to deal with. We already know how Jan Blanx and van Leyden were punished; but I did not say that a bo'sun, who was only suspected of sympathising with the deserters, was sentenced, as "a loose and dirty prater," to drop three times from the yard-arm, and receive "100 lashes on his wet posterior before the mast." We hear of others getting "fifty cuts on their dry skin"; but which was the worse form of punishment I leave those of my readers who are schoolboys or schoolmasters to determine. Van Riebeck kept good discipline, that is certain. Every one had to go to church on Sunday, and at meal times it was the duty of the gunner to go round and see that every one said grace. But sometimes a drunken and riotous crew on shore made terrible trouble, slashing about with knives and hangers, and firing their pieces, to the great danger of quiet folk.

Much more serious, however, than such drunken escapades was "the great treason" discovered by the surgeon, Mr. William Robertson, a native of Dundee: "During the examinations before the council it was revealed that four English, four Scots, three Dutch servants, besides two freemen's servants and fifteen slaves, whose intention was first to kill the seamen of the Erasmus  working in the forest; after that the men at the 'Schuur'; and after that, to scale the fort and murder all in it, the smallest child included; after that to proceed to the yacht Erasmus  in the boats of the Company or the freemen, to seize her, and depart in her. But the Almighty be thanked, who had been pleased to prevent this murderous conspiracy."

The nationality of these conspirators, who were duly punished and sent to Batavia, shows what a very mixed lot the servants of the Company were. To say that the colony was composed of Dutchmen is impossible after reading the Diary. Some were Dutch, but a great many were Germans; and there was, besides, a large sprinkling of English, Scots, and Swedes. The Company picked up its men where it could, and the Cape has always been cosmopolitan.

Besides these troubles, great and small, there was usually the excitement of wild beasts to keep the settlement lively. Sometimes it would be a leopard in the fowl-house, sometimes a lion in the cattle kraal. It was no joke to kill a lion in those days, and many a terrible fight at close quarters is recorded in the Diary. Here is one which must stand for all the rest:—

During the forenoon the Commander saw many marks of wild beasts in the garden, and a little later, about fifty yards off, a lion jumped up and proceeded slowly towards Table Mountain. The sergeant, hunters, and others were sent to kill him, and at once they were followed by about 200 Hottentoos, with all their sheep and cattle driven before them. At the foot of Table Mountain the beast was so thoroughly enclosed in a deep kloof that he could only escape through the flock of sheep, which the Hottentoos intended to be a defence. The lion was lying under a bush, and they remained between their sheep and cattle. When the lion showed itself, and, roaring, wished to break through or seize a sheep, they rushed forward with their assegays over the sheep, making a great noise; the lion then retired, looking round very thoughtfully, but as the Hottentoos could not very well reach him, the sergeant (the hunters and others being about ten yards away from the beast) fired but missed; the hunters, however, sent three bullets through its head, so that it fell down dead at once. Then the Hottentoos became valiant, and tried to give the animal a hundred stabs after death, but they were prevented from doing so in order not to spoil the skin, that, properly prepared, might be hung up in the large hall used for a church.

But I must resist the temptation to quote further, though there is much else that is interesting in this Diary of our first true South African colonists. The whole life of the settlement appears to us, not dimly but quite clear, with detail as precise as you may see in an old Dutch picture, where every thread of the lace on ruff and sleeve is painted in. We see van Riebeck at his work, directing, praising, blaming, bullying; the woodcutters in the forest; the brickmakers at the kiln; the ensign and his soldiers, sudden and quick in quarrel; a bos'un and his mates from the return fleet with news of the siege of Goa, or the doings of the French pirates; a brace of English sailors rolling along "sweet and jolly" from the Staats Herberg, where they have had a trifle too much bomboe; there are the Company's two hunters drunk as usual, and boasting of the lion or rhinoceros last shot; a fisherman comes up laden with snoek from the jetty the Commander has just built with such pains and trouble; and there is Frederick Boom, the Company's head gardener, a solid man, already well-to-do, and looking forward to a farm of his own. He is walking along with Louwys Rickart, who is a great pastry-cook, roaster, and cook," and has just been allowed to set up for himself as a baker. And there, sure enough, is Mynheer Mostert, the miller, whose water-mill is click-clacking away farther up the stream. They'll all sit down on the Fiscal's stoep presently and have a glass of wine with him, and smoke a pipe of tobacco, and discuss the latest news from Batavia or Amsterdam. And now along the little street beside the canal comes Vrouw van Riebeck herself, with her little girl trotting beside her, and Abraham, one of the first of the Cape-born, in her arms. He is to be a great man, Abraham, one day,—no less than Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies,—greater than his father, who never became anything higher than secretary of the Council at Batavia. But now, look, there is a fleet of great Indiamen coming into the bay; they make a grand show as they sweep in with a flourish of trumpets and a resounding salute. Yet may be there will be hardly enough men to lower the great sails, and the good Commander makes haste to send them boatload upon boatload of fresh meat and green vegetables, for this is his chief end—the chief end of the town—to be the tavern of the Indian seas. He was a good man, our Commander, for all his fiery temper and manifold deceits, and he did a great work; few men could have done it so well. He founded Cape Colony, its gardens, its houses, its farms, its industries—all had their start in him. As Mr. John Runcie, the poet of South Africa, has sung—

Yet here the tale beginneth, whatever pride may be

In affluent power and traffic from war and victory,—

With the keen-eyed Little Thornback stepping shoreward from the sea.