The Bingham family: Marjorie Bingham is far left, with brothers, uncles and cousins in the back; sisters, aunts and nieces in the middle; and nephews in the front. They share a diverse inheritance spanning southern Africa, West Africa, St Helena Island, Britain, India and Indonesia.
The Bingham family: Marjorie Bingham is far left, with brothers, uncles and cousins in the back; sisters, aunts and nieces in the middle; and nephews in the front. They share a diverse inheritance spanning southern Africa, West Africa, St Helena Island, Britain, India and Indonesia.

Cape coloureds: It is a complex cultural heritage

By Henry Trotter Time of article published Nov 5, 2019

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American author Henry Trotter, who now lives in Cape Town, is continuing his fascination with the Mother City, with a book titled: Cape Town: A Place Between.

The book provides an unflinching, intimate portrait of Cape Town, revealing its history, culture, politics and prospects in a relatively short and accessible format.

Trotter, who earlier this year wrote a piece on the photographs of 1960s Dockside nightclub bouncer Billy Monk, is married to a woman from Kensington, Cape Town, and in this excerpt from his book he writes about coloured identity:

“Cape people, half-castes, God’s step-children, Bastards, Hottentots, Eurafricans, half-breeds, racial hybrids, middle minority, buffer group, mixed-bloods, marginal men, in-betweeners, brown Afrikaners, middle children, twilight people, blacks, so-called coloureds, people of mixed race, Camissa, kleurlings, bruinmense, Boesmans, gam; just a few names given through history to the people now called, and who call themselves, coloureds.

This sprawling (and mostly offensive) nomenclature reveals South Africans’ uncertainty concerning how to understand people whose genetic and cultural diversity resists narrow racial categorisation.

In fact, in apartheid law, coloureds were literally deemed those who were not “obviously” African, European or Indian.

They were a reservoir category, a collection of people who did not conform to the purist racial fantasies of white men.

Indeed, the genetic range of this community is staggering.

Recently, my wife (Marjorie Bingham from Kensington) and I took DNA tests to learn more about where our ancestors came from.

My results confirmed my deepest fears - that all my forbears were European immigrants who settled exclusively in the southern states of the US, thereby making me 100% Redneck. (Yee-haw!)

But my wife’s results were almost comically kaleidoscopic, exemplifying the complicated genetic and cultural heritage of Cape coloureds.

Marjorie Bingham with her diverse roots, Henry Trotter (author) with his European lineage, and their daughter, Sonoya, with her complex heritage.

According to her test - which should be taken with a pinch of salt, given the speculative nature of some of the methodology - 43% of Marj’s ancestors are African. Namely Khoisan, Bantu and West African.

The high proportion of Khoisan was expected, given the history of the region. The presence of southern African Bantu (like Xhosa or Tswana) was also unsurprising, given their long history of interacting with the Khoisan.

The smaller West African contribution was curious, but helped substantiate family stories that some ancestors came from St Helena island, a British possession that historically hosted numerous Atlantic nationalities, including West Africans.

Next, 34% of Marj’s ancestors are European, mostly of English and Welsh heritage, with some Scandinavian in there too. With a surname like Bingham, the British connection was assumed, now confirmed.

The Scandinavian contribution (7%) is likely explained by the fact that British people carry a lot of Scandinavian genetic markers themselves, due to the long history of Viking incursion and settlement in Britain.

Marjorie’s parents, Peter and Kathleen Bingham, are deceased, but their distant ancestry had always been a mystery. From Peter there is an English connection, from Kathleen a Welsh one, but it was only through Marjorie’s DNA test with that the family was able to confirm connections to multiple parts of Africa and Asia as well.

But more curiously, there was no mention of “Northern European” in her results, meaning there were no apparent Dutch or Afrikaner markers in the mix.

Lastly, 18% of Marj’s ancestry are Asian. The majority (10%) are of Indonesian extract and slightly less (7%) Indian. Given the direct connections between Indonesia and the Cape via the Dutch, this made sense.

While Cape Muslims more often identify with their Indonesian heritage, this result shows that coloureds of all faiths may bear traces of those distant islands as well.

The smaller Indian presence may have to do with interactions with local Indians, but we think it goes back to St Helena, where numerous Indians spent time during the colonial era, and some of whose descendants migrated to Cape Town.

So, there it is. One person’s ancestral traces from the Cape coloured community.

Henry Trotter's newest book.

An impressive array of genetic influences, for sure, but not even close to the magnitude of diversity that comprises the broader coloured population.

You might be thinking: “Wow, these people can claim such a varied inheritance. Khoisan, Bantu, Asian, European, you name it. They can pick and choose which legacies they want to emphasise in their lives, right?”


Because the coloured identity is essentially premised on them not being African, Indian or European, this has made it almost impossible for coloureds to claim or emphasise these backgrounds.

Local African, Indian and white populations would be puzzled by their claims while other coloureds would think them delusional for trying to disaggregate their complex lineage.

In fact, this dizzying diversity has made it more practical for most coloureds to just think that their ethnogenesis begins with “other” racial groups “mixing” in the Cape during colonialism, thereby creating a new people.

This understanding helps connect coloureds together, as the specifics of their mixed backgrounds matter less than the simple fact of their mixedness.

But it also flattens their rich genealogical heritages down to a dull racist formula: if not “pure” African, Indian, or European, then coloured.

Bizarre. But what can you do?

Well, some activists have tried to rally coloureds around a Khoisan identity, as indigeneity can provide powerful moral and political claims in certain contexts.

The Khoisan, in some ways, can be considered the “original” South Africans, so that should make coloureds feel proud of their heritage, and demand greater recognition for their own rights as “Africans.”

But few coloureds have taken up the cause. For many, there remains a taint around their Khoisan roots because whites so denigrated these indigenes in the past that coloureds felt ashamed to recognise them as ancestors.

In fact, especially in years past, coloureds tried to de-emphasise any connection to them by straightening their hair, marrying light-skinned partners, bleaching their skin and doing anything they could to approximate white standards.

These were the actions of a vulnerable community trying to survive white supremacy. Weird stuff was bound to happen. (Heck, it still does.)

Other activists have tried to elevate the importance of coloureds’ slave heritage, encouraging them to take pride in their ancestors who managed to survive their wretched situation and still bequeath to them a vital legacy.

African-Americans have done this in the US, and it has elevated the sense of pride they have in their history.

But in Cape Town, the remoteness of that period, and the fact that the horrors of apartheid have basically usurped the moral power of slavery-based political and identity claims, has made it a hard sell for Cape coloureds.

But there are reminders of that slave history everywhere, especially in the surnames of coloureds themselves.

Many families have last names like January, February, April, August and September, derived from the month that one of their slave ancestors arrived by ship.

Some were given names from Greek and Roman mythology like Adonis, Apollis or Cupido. (I’m not sure why.)

But most common are surnames taken from the Biblical first name of an ancestor’s slave owner - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Paul - combined with the Afrikaans possessive (“s” or “se”) after it.

Hence: Abrahamse, Isaacs, Jacobs, Paulse.

These surnames resulted from the question: “Whose slave are you?”

“I’m Abraham’s.” Abrahamse.

And just like that, a history of violence and possession was inscribed into the names of future generations (though most who bear these names are unaware of this history).

Henry Trotter, the author

Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to South Africa’s peculiar racial rules.

During apartheid, many African Capetonians reclassified as coloureds to get better access to jobs, goods and services.

They took coloured surnames and improved their Afrikaans, all in an attempt to game an effed-up system.

Light-skinned coloureds also reclassified themselves - or just casually passed - as white to gain a step up in the racial hierarchy.

White people who married coloureds were also forced to be reclassified as coloureds if they wanted to remain married and live with their families in designated “coloured areas”.

Today, while the coloured identity remains open to anyone “mixed,” those born of such unions today (first-generation, so to speak) are not automatically considered coloureds.

They can claim this identity if they want, but most now feel that individuals should be allowed “more” freedom in choosing their own identities, especially if they align with one of the parents’ backgrounds.

In sum, the Cape coloured community’s unique genetic make-up, cultural heritage and racial identity means that, while they are no doubt indigenous to Africa, they’re not seen as African.

And though they are clearly Westernised, they’re not seen as Westerners.

Shaped by all, claimed by none.

Leaving them with the one name they can truly call their own: Kaapenaars.

* Trotter will be launching his book on Thursday, November 7, at the Book Lounge. Corner of Buitenkant and Roeland Streets. 5:30 for 6pm. RSVP [email protected] or 0214622425.

Cape Argus

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