By S A M Marshall

The subject of novels, the latest of which has just been released, the woman whose marriage was the country's first 'mixed' union intrigues South Africans centuries after her death.

"How changeable this African climate is The West wind which had by its violence caused a boisterous sea, and during the last two days had threatened everything with destruction, had today (July 29 1674) gone down completely, followed by such calm weather that not the slightest motion could be observed in the air, whilst the bay was as smooth and bright as a mirror. This day departed this life, a certain Hottentoo named Eva, long ago taken from the African brood in her tender childhood..."

The passage from the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) journal describes the day that Eva Meerhoff, widow of an ambitious Danish surgeon, met her death at the age of 31 on Robben Island. Six years earlier, her husband and father of three of her children, Pieter, had faced his final judgment call when the slaves he sought to buy in Madagascar massacred him and his party of Company traders at Antogil Bay.

Tones of divine justice like this make the Eva story poignant still today, and although there was none for her, the appellation the Dutch gave her - in place of Krotoa, her indigenous name - has prompted many a writer to add biblical allegories to the complex socio-political situation developing in the Eden at the tip of Africa in the late 17th century.

Simplistically put, in 1652 Jan van Riebeeck and his band of European disciples chose the Cape to set up a refreshment station midway to the mysterious East, which lured them with promises of exotic wealth.

Although the situation looked promising, the lords of the autocratic Dutch East India Company needed cattle, which meant barter with the strandlopers who spoke an incomprehensible tongue.

So they used Chief Autshumao, who had learnt to speak English after being taken to the East on an English ship, to facilitate trade and fatten their stocks. Amongst his tiny band of Goringhaicona, a clan of Khoi who lived off the fruits of the sea, was Chief Autshumao's young niece, Krotoa, who was possibly born on Robben Island, and who picked up the Dutch language quickly.

In return for cattle (to be secured by Autshumao), housekeeping and translation services, Van Riebeeck offered Krotoa a home - Christianised, Euro-civilised and very different from the wandering life she was used to.

Just when Krotoa fell from grace (or faith) is a matter of speculation, as primary records offer new clues, but relations soon began to sour between indigenous tribes - a complex mix of Khoi already competing with each other and encroaching on Nguni tribes in their search for cattle - and the Dutch fat-cats who, with their double-talk, sophisticated weapons and buying power, took over more and more grazing land on the banks of the fertile Liesbeeck River and beyond.

Although some Khoi descendants contend that her identity begins and ends with her Khoi birth-status, others see her as "the woman between". In order to fit in to "the Dutch environment, albeit unchosen", Krotoa had to stop walking about "naked" and trade her skins for western attire, learn the art of dinner-table etiquette, and convert to Christianity.

She also had to engage in proverbial white lies both to her employer Van Riebeeck and to her own people to keep the increasingly fragile peace. This resulted in the Khoi tribes setting aside their own raging differences to revolt against the colonial oppressors.

Perhaps the truth was too complicated, and double-sided, for her to understand, but it is clear from a jubilant entry in Van Riebeeck's journal - "Eva says she has a Dutch heart" - that the Dutch commander's interest in her was crucial to relations at the Cape. It is this early cross-cultural interaction that played such a huge, unsung role in the South African story that Cape Dutch historian Dan Sleigh explores - with some poetic licence - in his novel Islands, a title aptly drawn from the famous John Donne adage "No Man is an Island" and which alludes to the ubiquitous role of Robben Island.

Around this time, Krotoa, now in her late teens, evoked the attentions of Pieter Meerhoff, a newly appointed surgeon who often dined with the Van Riebeecks. An adventurer at heart, he had dreams of living in the East, with Krotoa at his side, as suggested by Sleigh in Islands. Whether or not it was the result of a romantic attempt to sanctify Meerhoff, or whether or not she was effectively raped, as suggested by the historian Yvette Abrahams, Krotoa gave birth to a son, Jacobus, in 1661.

A year later, Krotoa's life was set to change again. Van Riebeeck was transferred to Batavia (present-day Jakarta) in 1662, and although, inexplicably, her union was not solemnised, Krotoa was baptised by a Christian minister a few days before the Van Riebeecks left. Only after the birth of a second child, Pieternella, in 1663, when Zacharias Wagenaer was the new commander, did a wedding ceremony at company expense take place on June 2 1664.

The next upheaval in Krotoa's life was in progress. Now a lawfully wedded wife, she had little choice but to accompany her husband to Robben Island. He was appointed as postkeeper, overseeing exiled convicts, on May 19 1665.

This was a controversial move, which many researchers suggest was a ruse to keep the undesirable match out of sight; it rendered Krotoa more isolated from her roots than ever. It was while here, after conceiving her third child, Salomon, that her husband was commissioned in 1667 to lead a slaving expedition in Madagascar from which he never returned.

Returning to a house on the mainland with a Cape Verde slave owned by her husband, the widow Meerhoff sank into a hopeless depression - aided by alcohol, which had been introduced to her people by European explorers.

Rumours of prostitution were rife and she gave birth to at least two more children, refused to conform to colonial behaviour codes, and remonstrated drunkenly in front of a hypocritical European society that rejected her (as did many of her own people, who criticised her cross-marriage). In 1669, she was sent, without trial, to Robben Island, away from her children, to mend her "immoral ways".

Five years later, at the zenith of the second "Hottentot" uprising that saw an unprecedented public execution of indigenes, she was dead. Although she was given a Christian burial at the Old Fort, the Company journal "obituary" makes no pretence at hiding officials' intolerance of her - and of the people they sought to vanquish.

Her remains were later moved to a burial site that is now below the foundations of the Groote Kerk in Bureau Street, Cape Town. But the bitter irony of her story, which in many ways set the tone for apartheid, was only to come later.

Today her documentable legacy lives on, as paradoxically as her life, in about 3 million - previously classified white - descendants of her daughter, Pieternella, who married Dutch farmer Daniel Zaaiman; among them are apartheid statesmen of varying degrees: Paul Kruger, Jan Smuts and FW de Klerk, according to lineages in the possession of genealogist Keith Meintjies.

Both Pieternella and Salomon were shipped off to Mauritius with a childless Dutch couple and were later joined by Jacobus, who, rejected by his sister, fell mysteriously to his death from the ship returning him to the Cape. Salomon died young but there is a chance that descendants of Krotoa's sons Jeronimus and Anthonij, spawned by liaisons post-Meerhoff, escaped being recorded, as many non-Europeans did.

Perhaps therein lies the real reason for the spell she casts 330 years on. Many with Khoi ancestry see her as a traitor to her people, and although a photograph of a smiling person believed to be her has been added to the memorabilia at the start of the Robben Island tour, officials decided for this reason against naming a tour boat after her.

Others see her as a pawn in the power game the Dutch played with the aborigines - who, sans an organised leadership hierarchy, were willing to trade services to hang onto their land. Besides being a voice for the dispossessed, female victims of exploitation and those "caught between" colour and culture bars still today, the Eva story is in many ways the uncut South African story, details of which micro-historian Mansell Upham, himself a descendant, has explored in genealogical journals.

The debate about her status as "mother of us all" is not a new one, and Upham is documenting her descendants, who include members of the illustrious Diodati family, one of whom was the commander of Mauritius and who married Pieternella's eldest daughter.

Piecing together previously unexplored documentary evidence - like the diary of Hans Petersen, a Danish visitor who met Krotoa during her stay on Robben Island - with a view to publishing a factual, rather than "factional" account of the life of this unwittingly powerful matriarch, Upham's message is one that South Africans cannot afford to ignore.

Complex though it may be, only the truth shall set us free.