If Rhodes Must Fall, then so must Jan van Riebeeck
On May 18, 1899, Cape Town mayor Thomas Ball, an Englishman born in Yorkshire, unveiled the statue of Jan van Riebeeck on the site where he had reportedly stepped ashore in 1652.
Present was the council of the City of Cape Town. Absent was the sponsor of the statue, another Englishman by the name of Cecil John Rhodes.
Rhodes had commissioned a Scottish sculptor, John Tweed, to complete the statue. Rhodes set two pre-conditions: his name should appear on the statue, not Tweed’s, and the statue should be larger than life-size.
The deception was at the conception. In the absence of an appropriate representation of Van Riebeeck, an image of Bartholomeus Vermuyden was used. Subsequently, the image appeared on coins, banknotes, stamps, tourists brochures and textbooks to project a false image of Van Riebeeck.
No image of Maria van Riebeeck née Maria de la Quellerie existed. Her statue in Cape Town shows the face of the wife of the chairperson of the Dutch committee, Mr Kettering, who helped organise the Van Riebeeck Festival in Cape Town. This was an important event for the Nationalist apartheid government in 1952 to promote its racist agenda.
Placards hang around the necks of the statues of Jan van Riebeeck and his wife Maria de la Quellerie in the CBD. Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)
Van Riebeeck was employed by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), spent much of his time in Vietnam, Japan and Batavia, and stayed at the Cape for only 10 years. He died in 1677 and is buried in Jakarta.
Van Riebeeck had stayed in the Cape for 18 days in 1648. He was on his way to Holland to face a disciplinary hearing for fraud and corruption following his transgressions in Tonkin in Vietnam. He was found guilty and was dismissed by the VOC.
In 1652, Van Riebeeck had redeemed himself and was back in the Cape with a mandate to establish a refreshment station. When he arrived with his crew of 90 and a group of slaves, there were 60 sailors living in the Cape from a shipwreck, the Haerlem.
Historian and researcher Patric Tariq Mellet says: “Numerous records exist to show that the ships of five nations received support services from the Indigene entrepreneurs at the Camissa River in Table Bay. To project 1652 as a magical date of “foundation” of European interests in the Cape starting on April 6, 1652 is factually untrue, and that Jan van Riebeeck was the founder of the port and Cape Town”.
The arrival of Van Riebeeck was an invasion and an occupation of the Cape under the guise of setting up a refreshment station. The VOC was granted a charter by the Dutch government, which gave it the power to colonise whichever territory it desired and enslaving the indigenous people according to the VOC capitalist market requirements.
Van Riebeeck occupied land of the Camissa community on the banks of the Camissa River and constructed his fort. He also seized control of the strategic trading spot used by the indigenous traders. He forcefully usurped Chief Autshumato and the Goringhaicona clan’s role as established commercial traders to passing ships.
Mellet said it was an act of invasion and conquest. “Was there any kind of statement that Van Riebeeck knew that he had taken over something that Autshumato and the Indigenes had started? Van Riebeeck in his own journal clearly states word for word the articulated objections of the Khoena to the VOC actions violating their territorial rights, and his own response that he had won the right to take their land by the laws of conquest.”
Dr Richard Ruben relates Van Riebeeck’s diarised conversation with the Khoisan leaders: “They strongly insisted that we had been appropriating more and more of their land, which had been theirs all these centuries, and on which they had been accustomed to let their cattle graze.
“They asked if they would be allowed to do such a thing supposing they went to Holland, and they added:‘It would be of little consequence if you people stayed here at the fort, but you come right into the interior and select the best land for yourselves, without even asking if we mind or whether it will cause us any inconvenience’.”
Rhodes’s admiration for Van Riebeeck is obvious. They were both Protestant white males on a civilising mission to darkest Africa. They viewed people of colour as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”, and themselves as the custodians of civilisation and the owners of all they surveyed.
Rhodes’s association with Van Riebeeck meant he was claiming an invented Dutch past as part of his vision for South Africa. Rhodes was “erecting British culture in the Dutch heritage as overlapping identities”. All white people are united in their “white supremacy”, and can be assimilated in South Africa and provide justification for white domination and white rule.
Recently in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson resisted the removal of “historical statues”, saying: “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past Those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults.”
Erecting statues is part of the process of controlling memory and space by those in power. Britain must grapple with its destructive colonial misadventures. In South Africa, we can have a more honest view of our past. We can free ourselves from the shackles of a divisive and distorted narrative and develop a more inclusive sense of who we are as a nation.
We call on the mayor of Cape Town, the Honourable Dan Plato, and the City of Cape Town to distance themselves from the cynical and fraudulent attempt of Rhodes to erect a fake statue of Van Riebeeck to draw the Afrikaners into his colonial and imperial project. We also call on all Afrikaners to free themselves of this “false heritage”.
The mayor and the City must do the honourable thing and reverse the decision made in 1899, and to remove the statue from its site on the Foreshore and move it to the Castle, where it can be used to educate all of us about our true history and heritage.
* Yusuf Lalkhen is the chairperson and Shabodien Roomanay the founder of The Salt River Heritage Society.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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