Lifestyle / 27 February 2016, 10:00am / ZENZILE KHOISAN
SEVERAL years ago, in the aftermath of a storm, officials from the South African Museum were summoned to an abandoned section of a railway shunting yard near Woodstock to examine what appeared to be a mass grave that had been discovered by a machinist.
In the process of excavating and investigating the find, experts were able to reconstruct the scene, and subsequently identified the human remains as those of Portuguese soldier, Francisco D’Almeida.
The worker who made the discovery would not have known he had stumbled on a find of immense value, a piece of South African history underplayed in the national narrative. He would not have known the collection of bones offered physical evidence of South Africa’s first major war of resistance, the outcome of which significantly changed the course of its history.
The discovery is particularly pertinent today as the country attempts to come to grips with its past by recognising that the first peoples to rise up in defence of their land were the Khoi and the San.
It is further significant because the simple herders, gatherers and hunters who were the first inhabitants of these shores had defeated a feared European military commander.
D’Almeida had achieved repute as a man capable of brutality, with a string of conquests from North to East Africa, to the Indian sub-continent and beyond, leaving brutalised people and burned and pillaged villages in his wake. Seven decades after the general’s demise in at the hands of Khoi warriors, Portuguese poet Luis de Camões wrote of him in Os Lusíads:
“The Stormy Cape which keeps his memory / Along with his bones, will be unashamed / In dispatching from the world such a soul / Neither Egypt nor all India could control.”
Piecing together a cohesive narrative of the battle from colonial accounts and from academic studies, what emerges is the story of a ferocious battle between forces under the command of D’Almeida, who reportedly sailed into Table Bay on February 28, 1510, on his fleet’s return voyage to the Iberian Peninsula from the East.
The invaders, after a skirmish with the locals on their first day in Table Bay, as an act of revenge apparently travelled up the Liesbeeck River and came upon the ancient Gorinhaiqua kraal which was situated at what is now known as Oude Molen.
They are said to have stolen cattle from the kraal and abducted women and children, which gave rise to a confrontation with the local Khoi warriors.
Khoi and slave history authority Patric Tariq Mellet set the backdrop to the conflict when he wrote: “From the outset the Portuguese were obnoxious and aggressive. In 1510, they came ashore and tried to steal cattle and kidnap some Khoe children.
It was supposed to have been a reprisal for a clash the day before, when the Khoena had given a fellow named Gonçalo Homen a severe thrashing after he tried to trick them.
“Almeida and his 150 to 200 insurgents got a severe whipping at the hands of the Khoe, who were far fewer in number – an estimated 100 herders, no more.
“The Portuguese armour and weaponry, as well as their sheer stupidity in terms of tactics, resulted in Almeida losing his life along with 60-odd officers and men. The conflict on the beach illustrates two things: the hostility of the Portuguese and the determined resistance of the local Khoena to anything that smelt of exploitation and aggression.”
Reflecting on the merits and the impact of this military encounter, Mellet went on: “Historians evaluating this battle recognised the application of the Goringhaiqua battle leadership style – what’s now called the principles of war – which included their use of spearmen in infantry style together with oxen in modern-armour style.
“This, together with fighting at a time and place of their choosing, avoiding the beach, maintaining the element of surprise, utilising familiar terrain, attacking with maximum violence and speed and not disengaging but keeping up the momentum of the attack, all combined to bring about Almeida’s defeat. In the words of one military historian, Almeida was ‘out generalled’.”
Historian Willa Boezak, speaking last year at the annual celebration marking the commemoration of the event known as the Battle of Gorinhaiqua, said this event “proved beyond any doubt the patriotism of the first peoples and the intense love they held for each other and for the land of their ancestors”.
“It is a reminder of a time of victory, national pride, exceptional bravery and patriotism that defined our people more than five hundred years ago,” Dr Boezak said.
“This brilliant moment in the history of our country’s first indigenous inhabitants, is now celebrated most colourfully, with full cultural protocol, by the lifting of the horns, the calling of the names of the heroes in the four winds, and the burning of indigenous herbs by their descendants.”
The annual commemoration of the battle is an emotional experience for many of the indigenous leaders who believe the area where it took place, now incorporated in the proposed Two Rivers Urban Park development plan, should become a heritage precinct, as it was also the site of another major conflict between colonial forces and the local Khoi.
According to Ron Martin, chairman of the First Peoples Museum Foundation and member of the National Reference Group on Khoi and San Land Claims, this site holds not only the key to our country’s past, but is an important part of the collective future we wish to secure.
“One hundred and fifty years after D’Almeida was defeated on the shores of Salt River beach, our people once again had to contend with the injustice of colonial invaders to our shores.
“In 1510 D’Almeida’s men came to our sovereign kraal, desecrated it and as a final insult stole our livestock and abducted our women and children.
“For this he was severely punished by our warriors. Then Van Riebeeck came along and rather than show respect to our leader Gogosoa, he simply parcelled out land to the free burghers, with the approval of the Dutch East India Company, causing great unhappiness to our people.”
Martin said it is this action by the settlers that was the final straw for the Peninsula Khoi Khoi and after Gogosoa’s protest was met with Van Riebeeck’s demand to see the Khoi title deed, the die was cast, leading to war.
“This was the beginning of the first Khoi-Dutch war of 1659 to 1660, in which the local indigenous people once again rose to defend their motherland.
“For this reason Oude Molen needs to be proclaimed a heritage precinct, where the rest of South Africa can come to learn of the heroism of the first defenders of our land,” Martin said.