A vandal defaced the Jan van Riebeeck statue in Adderley Street. File photo: David Ritchie

Is it acceptable for our “story” to be told only through the lives of Europeans, asks Murray Williams.

 About 116 years ago, on May 18, 1899, a statue of the first European to settle at the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, was unveiled, the website sahistory.org reports.

“The statue stands on Heerengracht Street… sculpted in bronze by John Tweed and donated to the city by Cecil John Rhodes, a politician and financier of the late 19th century.”

National Geographic reports: “This is said to be the spot where Van Riebeeck first stepped ashore.”

So what do we think of these statues?

There are clearly different ways of looking at them. Do they try to tell us how we must see our history? That our South African history only started in 1652, at the start of colonisation? Or do they represent “moments in history”? Like the statue of Bartholomew Dias, the Portuguese explorer who was the first European to reach the Cape of Good Hope in 1487.

This guy did indeed arrive here. So would one be happy that his statue reflects a marker in history which began this place’s status as a replenishment station for fleets of tens of thousands of ocean-going vessels since? Yes/No?

The statue of Maria van Riebeeck, wife of Jan, is potentially more problematic. So what is she presented as – a sort of “Mother of the Nation”? So the women who lived here before she stepped daintily ashore didn’t count for enough?

These last two statues were donated by the Portuguese and Dutch governments respectively in 1952 for Cape Town's tercentenary celebrations. Old Bart and Maria are clearly figures of which their European handlers were proud.

But this begs the question: Is it acceptable for our “story” to be told only through the lives of Europeans – the people we have statues of – and by Europeans, the people who paid for these statues?

This is all about “telling our own story”, and links precisely to a point raised in this column a fortnight ago, the name “Hottentots Holland” mountains.

It’s just as offensive as European settlers in North America calling the Native Americans “Red Indians”.

Offensive, first, because it’s the name given by one group to another, not what a group chose to call themselves. Who gave them that right? And, second, offensive because it’s a name for a group of people framed by elsewhere – in this case because Christopher Columbus mistakenly believed he’d reached India.

Native Americans don’t need to have their identity framed by some lost Italian sailor’s navigational error – thanks very much. Likewise, “Hottentots” is offensive because it’s the name one group gave another. Who gave them that right?

And “Holland” is offensive because these mountains have nothing to do with the Netherlands whatsoever. Thanks very much.

It’s precisely these two reasons why the term “Red Indian” has disappeared.

We clearly aren’t there yet, in the Cape – not able to tell our own story. * Murray Williams’ column Shooting From The Lip appears in the Cape Argus .

Cape Argus