Cape Town - Chiselled features, flowing locks and a manicured moustache. It’s a face that has been immortalised in South African history books, not to mention the paper currency introduced after the country became a republic in 1961.
But, as it turns out, the portrait, a symbol of national pride during the apartheid era, is not of Jan van Riebeeck, but most likely of a Dutch local who never even set foot in the country.
It’s not a new discovery, just not a well-known one. In fact, the owner of Rob’s Coins in Church Street – who sells the old notes illustrated with his portrait – said he was taught at school that the image was of South Africa’s first settler.
“I really don’t know who it is now,” he said as he slipped the paper money back into a plastic folder.
Jonkheer van Kretschmar, a genealogist, concluded in 1984 that the painting from which the image was borrowed was not of Van Riebeeck, the man who arrived with three ships in Table Bay in 1652.
He stated that the portrait, which was painted by Dirck Craey and is now in the possession of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, was probably of another Dutchman named Bartholomeus Vermuyden.
On www.geheugenvannederland.nl, a webpage which lists a detailed catalogue of the works displayed at the museum, the painting is labelled as “A Portrait of a Man, presumably Bartholomeus Vermuyden”.
Similarly, a painting believed to be of Van Riebeeck’s wife is also a case of mistaken identity.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
A few scenarios have been posited in abstracts and articles online, but the most likely answer seems to be that it was a rushed job during the acquisition process.
In what is believed to be an actual portrait of the Dutch settler, also on display at the Rijksmuseum, Van Riebeeck’s appearance is markedly different from the face on South Africa’s old currency.
Van Kretschmar’s rewriting of history may be less flattering, but it is at least more accurate.
And given that we’re now not at all sure what Van Riebeeck looked like, who was the model for his statue on the Foreshore, which was donated to the city by the Dutch Jan van Riebeeck Society in 1952, 300 years after Van Riebeeck first set foot at the Cape to start a refreshment station for the Dutch East India Company?