Portuguese seafarers brought tobacco to the shores of southern Africa long before the Dutch colonised the Cape. The Khoi used it as a substitute for Cannabis sativa (dagga), which had spread southwards from East Africa. The Cape tribes began exchanging livestock for small quantities of tobacco, copper and iron in the 1590s, when ships of various nations started to call at Table Bay regularly.
These items were occasionally available inland by means of a complicated system of barter, but the Khoi appreciated having a more accessible market on their doorstep.
At first, the terms favoured the strangers, who obtained numerous beasts for small quantities of goods. Each captain strove for the best bargain and prices fluctuated accordingly. However, greed flourished, and the transactions were often marred by cheating and abuse. The Khoi soon learnt to conserve their young and healthy cows and restrict trade where possible to sheep and old or sickly cattle.
Modern commentators deplore the exchanges as cynical and unequal (which they were), but it’s difficult to know what else the Khoi would have valued at the time. They had no use for money, European clothing, finery, spices or luxuries. Metals were useful for decorative purposes and weapons, and both men and women enjoyed consuming tobacco and strong spirits when they were available, as did the sailors whose health depended on the fresh meat they obtained at the Cape.
When pressured, the Khoi resisted their cravings, refused to barter and retreated inland, a strategy they used when the Dutch arrived in April 1652.
Jan van Riebeeck was eager to trade and frequently gave small presents to foraging Strandlopers to signify his goodwill, but the cattle-herders kept their distance. After a week, Van Riebeeck managed to obtain a single cow and a calf, but the meat didn’t go far and the men were obliged to eat fish and the flesh of an unfortunate hippopotamus. Snares were set for game in July, but they weren’t successful. It wasn’t until October that various “Saldaniers” arrived ahead of a band of herders. They were liberally plied with wine and tobacco.
On Sunday, October 20, 1652, three head of cattle and four sheep were bartered for 11 plates of copper, half a pound (226g) of copper wire and about 1¼ pounds of tobacco. The commander considered this to be over-generous and wrote: “Believe that in the course of time we shall be able to make better and better bargains.”
The constant Dutch demand for cattle began to exert intolerable pressure on the fragile Khoi economy.
* Jackie Loos writes her "The Way We Were" column in the Cape Argus every week.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.