The Forgotten People of the West Coast:
Who were the Khoisan?
coastal regions of the south-western Cape were densely occupied by
pastoralists, or herders, known as the Khoikhoi. The West Coast
region was the land of the CochoQua, which included Saldanha Bay to
Vredenburg. The ChariGuriQua or GuriQua occupied the lower Berg
River area, St Helena Bay and points around Piketberg.
A Brief Introduction
culture were responsible for the discovery and widespread use of
Sceletium tortuosum (Kanna), which is gaining in popularity around
the world. The word 'Khoisan' is used in a broader term to
describe both the Khoikhoi as well as the San or 'Bushmen' as if
they were one people sharing a common culture. These were, however,
two distinct cultural groups. The Khoikhoi called themselves 'the
real people' or Khoi-na, to distinguish themselves from other groups
such as the San (SoaQua or SonQua), named Bushmen by the colonists.
The 'Bushmen' were smaller groups of hunter/gatherers who lived off
the veld and had no cattle. The Khoikhoi, on the other hand, were
nomadic herders who owned vast herds of cattle and sheep and lived
in large groups based on an exogamous clan system. Exogamy entails
choosing a marriage partner from a social group of which one is not
a member, as such a marriage brings certain benefits by establishing
alliances between the groups. It can also be regarded as necessary
for the groups' survival.
the hunting and foraging society of the San, all people are equal.
Khoikhoi society was hierarchial. Those who owned stock were
regarded as 'wealthy'; there were servants (without stock) and those
who would work as herdsmen as a form of hired labour. A herdsman
would receive a lamb in payment for service. The Khoikhoi lived in
villages which consisted primarily of members of the same
patrilineal clan. Each village recognised the authority of a headman
which was a heriditary position passed on from father to eldest son.
Several villages were usally united into a much larger unit called a
tribe, which could range in size from a few hundred to several
Local clans could
move around and use pasture, water resources, game, wild fruit and
vegetables within the tribal area. Unrelated clans from another
tribe, however, had to obtain permission from the local chief to use
local resources. A good water supply was essential for the Khoikhoi
herders, since adequate grazing is of little value without water. It
was understood that outsiders could move into another tribal area,
as long as they requested permission and paid some form of tribute
to the chief. The chief "owned" neither land nor the resources on
it, as land could not become the property of individuals. The rights
granted to outsiders were temporary. (We can now see why there were
so many misunderstandings when the first Europeans arrived).
livestock, particularly cattle, played a central role in the culture
of the Khoikhoi people. Their religious, political, economical and
social life was intricate; strict rules and social control governed
every individual. Birth, puberty, adulthood, marriage and death were
accompanied by rituals and rites of passages as important to the
Khoikhoi as to any other people. Yet, these facets of Khoikhoi
existence were often misunderstood and even ignored by the early
explorers, who saw only a savage people no better than animals.
Excerpts from the
journals of early travellers:
1627: "Their language is rather apishly than articulately sounded,
with whom 'tis thought they have unnatural mixtures...During the
time I stayed amongst them, I saw no signs of any knowledge of God,
the law of Nature being scarce observed: No spark of Devotion, no
symptom of Heaven or Hell, no place set apart for Worship, no
Sabbath for rest..."
John Milford, 1614: "These people are the most miserable, destitute
of Religion in any kind, as farre as we can perceive and of all
civility: their speech a chattering rather than language; naked save
a short cloake of skinnes on their shoulders, ...eate that which
dogges would hardly digest.
Pyrard de Laval, 1610: "the people who live along this coast ... are
very brutish and savage ... They eat human flesh and entirely raw
animals, with the intestines and guts without washing them, as do
dogs... Further, they live without law or religion, like animals.
explorer's requirements, especially for water, placed them in
contention with the herders. Just as farmers today are protective of
the water holes, so were the pastoral people of that time. Water
holes were maintained and kept open. Permission to use the water was
normally granted if it was politely requested, followed by a gift.
To 'take' water without permission could be regarded as an act of
Da Gama mentions an
incident where Bartholomeu Dias was attacked for taking water. "They
defended the watering place with stones thrown from the top of a
hill which is above this watering place, and Bartolomeu Dias shot a
cross-bow at them and killed one of them." In Mossel Bay Da Gama
notes that: "While we were in this bay of Sao Bras taking in water
one Wednesday, we placed a cross and a padrao at the said bay of Sao
Bras. We made the cross out of a mizzen-mast and it was very tall.
The following Thursday, as we were about to leave the said bay,
before we departed, we saw about 10 or 12 negroes overthrow both the
cross and the padrao. After taking in everything that was necessary
we departed from here."
We have Vasco da
Gama's version of what happened in St Helena Bay. He records that:
"In the land the men are swarthy. They eat only sea-wolves and
whales and the flesh of gazelles and the roots of plants. They have
many dogs like those of Portugal, which bark as do those." He
describes the abduction of a man who "was small of body, and ... was
going about gathering honey on the moor." A misunderstanding between
the sailors and the indigenous people most likely caused the
skirmish that followed:
The people caught a
seal, roasted it and gave some of it to Veloso, a sailor who had
requested permission from da Gama to accompany the people "to their
houses to learn in what manner they live and what they eat and what
their life was like. When eating was finished, they told him that he
must return to the ship, and that they did not wish him to go
further with them."
When Veloso reached
the ship, he began to shout (we do not know why). A skirmish
followed and da Gama and three or four men were wounded. There are
other accounts: de Goes says that the Khoikhoi or SonQua attacked
only when da Gama and others landed to 'rescue' Veloso - whom they
had not harmed - thinking that da Gama's party intended to attack
them. Faria y Sousa says that in revenge, da Gama fired on them with
crossbows from on board. We will never know what really happened
that day. The Khoikhoi as well as the SonQua were strongly
protective of their women and children, which explains why the
resisted all attempts made by 'strangers' to accompany them to their
homes. Women and children were seldom seen by the sailors and then
often only at a distance.
from Europe named the people of the Cape "Hottentots", (a word that
was later used to describe people as subservient and inferior.)
There are two possible origins for this word: one describing a dance
and the other describing the language:
Beaulieu, 1620: "They speak from the throat, and seem to sob and
sigh when speaking. Their usual greeting on meeting us is to dance a
song, of which the beginning, the middle, and the end is 'hautitou'."
Vasco da Gama, 1497: "..small in stature, ugly of face, and when
they speak it seems as if they hiccup."
Cornelis de Houtman, 1595: "I could learn no more from them but that
they speak very clumsily, like the folk in Germany .. who suffer
Edward Terry, 1616: " ... their speech it seemed to us inarticulate
noise, rather than language, like the clucking of hens, or the
gabbling of turkeys..."
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, 1649: "When they speak they fart with their
tongues in their mouths, yet, although their speech is almost
without separation of word from word, they understand each other
very readily .... they have no knowledge of gold or silver, and
properly speaking know nothing of religion..."
are many Khoikhoi words common in everyday Afrikaans and English
speech in South Africa. There are the geographical place names such
as OuteniQua, Karoo, Gamka, Namaqualand and Keiskamma.
There are animal
names - gogga, koedoe, kwagga, geitjie - and plant names - boegoe,
dagga, koekemakranka, karree, and the names of things such as karos
and kierie. The words refer not only to things and places but also
include adorable words such as abba, kamma, eina and aitsa. And many
more... We use these words every day but we do not always know or
acknowledge their origin. So, in our small way we pay tribute to the
lost people of the West Coast.