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Borders and Ecotones in the Indian Ocean

Markus Arnold
Corinne Duboin
Judith Misrahi-Barak

III—Here, There and Across: the Macro and the Micro Ecotone

The Dutch East India Company and its Outposts: Colonial Ecotones in Islands by Dan Sleigh

J. U. Jacobs


Cape Town archivist Dan Sleigh’s epic historical novel Islands (2004) provides a detailed and comprehensive account of the Dutch East India Company’s colonial settlement of the Cape of Good Hope and of its outposts, including Mauritius, in the second half of the 17th century. Halfway between Europe and Batavia—the ‘Golden Orient’—the Cape is presented as a geographical, economic and cultural hinge between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, between West and East, and also between the Dutch colonists and the indigenous Koina peoples. Against a backdrop of the war-stricken Netherlands and Germany, Sleigh’s fictional mapping concentrates on the Company’s economic and military domination, trade monopoly, exploitation of human life and environmental destruction. In a permeable zone between historiography and fiction, and fiction and metafiction, the narrative trajectory moves back and forth from the isolated Cape settlement and its penal outpost of Robben Island, across the Indian Ocean to the island outposts of Mauritius, Ceylon and Batavia. The interlinked stories of these various insular contact zones show that the colonising presence was no more monolithic than the colonised indigenes were homogeneous. Through the conceptual lenses of ‘hybridity’ (Bhabha), ‘cultural seams’ (de Kock), ‘entanglement’ (Nuttall), ‘complicity’, (Sanders) and ‘transitivity’ (Clingman), the essay examines the ethnic and cultural heterogeneity of the communities in these island ecotones by focussing on three generations of creolisation and diasporic dispersion in the stories of three historical figures: the Goringhaicona leader Autshumao, the Koina woman Krotoa/Eva, and Eva’s biracial daughter Pieternella.

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  • 1 Sleigh has also written a historical work for young people, titled Jan Compagnie: The World of the (...)

1In his ‘Acknowledgements’ in his prize-winning historical novel, Islands (2004, translated by André Brink from the Afrikaans Eilande, 2002), Dan Sleigh, who is a researcher in the South African National Archives in Cape Town, states: ‘There is no history other than the analysis and interpretation of documents’, which, he continues, more poetically in the language of shipwreck at sea, is ‘a search for survivors in endless space’. In Islands, Sleigh presents a 758-page fictional portrait of the settlement and colonisation of the Cape of Good Hope, and also Mauritius, by the Dutch East India Company during the second half of the seventeenth century.1

  • 2 Christopher Hope, however, criticises the novel as ‘a work of historical devotion’; although he gr (...)

2Critics have responded favourably to both the scope and achievement of the novel, emphasising in particular its representation of the early history of the Cape Colony. Hans Pienaar refers to Islands as ‘Sleigh’s masterpiece’ and proposes that it ‘should be required reading for anyone wishing to understand S(outh) A(frica)’ (2017: n.p.). Michael Upchurch praises it for ‘its vast ambition, its range of settings and its close attention to the logistics of colonization’, and also because ‘each character here has a basis in the historical record, yet there’s never a sense of the author being hemmed in by the facts’ (2005: n.p.). John de Falbe calls it ‘a monumental, vividly imagined epic that, in spite of its huge cast and range, maintains its balance and direction’, and he says that ‘because Sleigh is so successful in bringing particularities to life, the vast upheavals of humanity, culture, environment, spirit and history are represented with Tolstoyan resonance’ (2004: n.p.).2 In a detailed, informative and illuminating exploration of literary recreations of the early Dutch East India Company (VOC) period at the Cape of Good Hope, with particular reference to Sleigh’s Islands, Hedley Twidle says that he responds to

what might broadly be called the historical turn of post-apartheid writing, in which Sleigh's work emerges as a major (. . .) unique text. Islands is surely the most comprehensive, archivally textured instance of the 'historical novel' set at the Cape of Good Hope. (2013: 127)

In his article, Twidle places the term ‘microhistory’ in opposition to ‘national allegory’, and argues most persuasively that

Islands is able to combine the strengths of the former—a reduced scale of observation, ‘thick description’, resonant detail, a self-reflexivity about the process of writing history—with a deep structural understanding of the ‘transmarine and transcontinental’ world of the Company. (131)

  • 3 In this connection, see Twidle’s account of the historical Johannes Guilielmus de Grevenbroek (164 (...)

The narrative of Islands unfolds in a permeable zone not only between historiography and fiction, but also between fiction and metafiction. In a metafictional final chapter, titled ‘The Clerk’, Sleigh’s narrator introduces himself as the historical Johannes Guilielmus de Grevenbroek from Leiden, who speaks seven languages, and was Secretary of the Council of Policy in the Cape from 1686 to 1694.3 A one-time Latin scholar, amateur botanist and student of philosophy, he served as regimental scribe, translator and ensign for six years in the war against France and England, and then became a Benedictine lay brother, travelling through Portugal, Spain and Italy. At the age of thirty he decided to go to the East, but on the way there he was dragooned at the Cape into becoming a clerk for the Dutch East India Company. He is now old, despises the inhabitants of the Cape and its corrupt and despotic governors, Simon van der Stel and his son Willem Adriaan, and has ‘no illusions about life, history or his own erudition’ (Sleigh 2004: 689). In a mise-en-abyme, de Grevenbroek tells how he spends his nights ordering all the inside information he has gathered during his career into a work titled A Portrait of the Cape, the First Half-Century, with a special interest in its native peoples, the West Cape Koina. His narrative eventually amounts to 700 foolscap sheets, assembled from hundreds of scraps of waste paper with brief notes that he has culled over the years from journals, letters in Latin, French, German, Portuguese and English, diaries, minutes of meetings, the Company’s secret documents and personal correspondence between the Directors and van der Stel. These notes have also been supplemented with interviews as well as his imagination. The motivation for his narrative, he confesses, is ‘to strike back at a later stage, in revenge, or at the very least with a kind of correction’ (721) at van der Stel. In addition to constantly reminding his reader of his archival sources, de Grevenbroek also self-reflexively draws attention to the contingency of his writing; using, like his author, the apposite analogue of a shipwreck survivor for this story about voyages of trade across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in the seventeenth century, he admits that he cannot get narrative closure:

It is a terrible tension to have an unfinished manuscript on your table for a long time. You drift in a storm, without help. You still write every day, make small changes to the manuscript. You’re treading water, you must go on, you know you must save yourself, and you know you’re getting weaker as time goes by. Nobody can help, nobody knows how. Your hand is writing in water. Nothing remains of it. (740–1)

In his book Topographies, J. Hillis Miller reminds us that every narrative provides an exercise in spatial mapping, since it ‘traces out in its course an arrangement of places’ (1995: 10), which the reader can map. Furthermore, the novel itself may be seen in a larger sense as a ‘figurative mapping’ (19) in the way it charts both imaginary and physical spaces and also the interpersonal spaces created by the complex relationships between characters. In Islands Sleigh’s mid-seventeenth-century narrative map encompasses the Netherlands, Germany, the Cape, and the Indian Ocean and its islands, as far as Dutch India and the Dutch East Indies. Dutch India comprised Ceylon, the Malabar southwest coast of India, the Coromandel southeast coast, and Dutch Suratte and Dutch Bengal. The Dutch East Indies, with Batavia as the capital, comprised what is present-day Indonesia.

3De Grevenbroek explains the importance of the Cape in this map; every Dutchman knew the role it played in the economy of ‘his waterlogged country’ (695) and could recite it like a nursery rhyme: ‘The key to the Dutch economy was the Company, the key to the Company’s success was control of the Eastern trade, the key to the Eastern trade was successful shipping, the key to shipping was the Cape replenishment station’—and, he adds, it was only later in life that he came to realise that ‘the key to the Cape replenishment station was its outposts’, and, furthermore, came to appreciate that ‘the outposts were living people’ (695, original italics). Halfway between Europe and Batavia, the Cape was for the Dutch East India Company what St Helena was for the English and Madagascar for the French. Sleigh’s novel contributes an important trope to the discourse around colonialism and colonial identity formation: in the words of a Company commander, the Company’s gold mine was situated in the East, but the Cape was ‘the hinge of the whole enterprise (. . .) Cape lost, Batavia lost, the Company lost, the fatherland lost. It was as simple as that’ (247, emphasis added). The figurative mapping in the novel develops this notion of the Cape as a geographical, economic and cultural hinge—between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, between West and East, and between the Dutch colonists and the indigenous Koina peoples.

4In oceanographic terms, the Cape marks the zone at the southernmost tip of Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. The metaphorical hinge, or dividing line, between them is more exactly along the meridian of 20°East off Cape Agulhas, where the warm Agulhas current that flows south along the east coast of Africa retroflects back into the Indian Ocean, and also meets the cold Benguela current that flows northwards along the west coast of southern Africa. The turbulent inter-ocean exchange that this creates is known as “the Cape Cauldron”.

5The Cape of Good Hope is also presented in Sleigh’s novel as a crucial point of crossing between Europe at a turbulent time in its history and a mythicised Orient.

6The Thirty Years’ War that was waged in Europe in the early seventeenth century involved France, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and Austria and numerous states of Germany. Its causes were rooted in national rivalries and in conflict between declining Roman Catholicism and rising Protestanism. At its end, in 1648, Germany was, in the words of the novel,

a rubble heap of burnt ruins, desecrated churches, felled trees, breached dykes, contaminated wells, bomb craters half filled with dark slime, decomposing carcasses, broken hedges, raped women, fatherless children, roads pockmarked with holes, unploughed field overgrown with weeds, dug-up graves in which wild boars gorged themselves by day and shadowy wolves at night (. . .) And lawlessness. (289–90)

England waged war against the Netherlands in the decades from 1652 on, but was itself ravaged by the bubonic plague that spread all over Europe in 1665 and the fire that destroyed London in 1666. And in 1667, in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the country was temporarily brought to its knees by the Dutch fleet at the Battle of the Medway. The Netherlands was war-torn. To counter the French invasion in 1672, the Dutch, under the Prince of Orange, broke the dykes and flooded the country. Furthermore, in the middle of the century Europe was experiencing severe climate change, which led to ever more Europeans leaving the frozen North.

7Against this historical background, Sleigh’s narrative presents the seventeenth-century Dutch vision of ‘the golden Orient’ (67) as an ancient, foreign and miraculous place, where fortunes were to be made, dreams realised and fame won. For the Dutch, Batavia became their ‘Golconda or Samarkand’ or ‘Eldorado’ (76). Sleigh’s narrative regularly returns to the power of this dream of East India, as expressed here by a German soldier in the novel, one of the many men who

heeded the voices from the sea that swept through Europe, calling farmers from their lands, clerks from their desks and bakers from their ovens. Come to the sea on the west coast, the voices lured them, come and man the ships sailing to the East, Orang lama, orang baharu, fair East India, those were sweetly favoured words, sounds to conjure with. Children knew them; at twelve they were tempted to find if it was true what they had been promised. The East, the East, the East, said the voices, it was the sound of breakers on a beach, of wind through rushes, of footsteps on a sandy track, of rustling palms, of the tumultuous young blood in your veins. The East was where every morning the sun displayed its gold, where the Magi had come from. The East was the Holy Land. (74)

Two seventeenth-century Cape Dutch epithets, that have survived into present-day Afrikaans, form a leitmotif in the narrative. The Malay term orang baru datang, which refers to those who have newly arrived, or greenhorns, was colloquially contracted into the word baar, which also came to mean raw and inexperienced. The Malay term orang lama datang, which, in contrast, referred to long-time residents, was abbreviated into orang lama, and corrupted through folk etymology into the Dutch word oorlam, which came to mean clever or knowing. To become orang lama, ‘a wise man who had seen the Orient’ (267), was the status desired by every young Dutchman setting out from the Netherlands on this rite of passage. In the Cape roadstead the opposite trajectories of the baar sailors and other travellers who were newly arrived from Holland and on their way to the East, intersected with those of the oorlams who were homeward bound, having crossed the Indian Ocean and experienced the East. And it was at the Cape, which is described in the narrative as ‘an isolated island, alone and remote between Europe and the East’ (515), that their stories became interwoven, including their tales about the squalor and brutality on board ship, the scurvy-stricken sailors, the hurricanes that sank large parts of the Company’s fleet, and the mariners who had drowned at sea and married ‘the widow with the endless womb’ (215).

8Importantly, the Cape of Good Hope features in Sleigh’s narrative as a complex contact zone between the newly arrived Europeans and the native inhabitants. The Koina peoples whom the first Dutch sailors and settlers encountered at the Cape were hardly less differentiated and conflicted a group than the Europeans who were to colonise them. Sleigh’s narrative distinguishes, for example, among the Goringhaicona who lived by the seaside (Watermen in English, Strandlopers in Dutch), the Sonqua (Bushmen or Bosjesmans) ‘who lived from hunting and scavenging’ (71), the dune-dwelling Goringhaiqua, Gorachoqua and Cochoqua who were the traditional foes of the Goringhaicona, the militant Grigriqua and the Obiqua, the Chainouqua who lived across the mountain, the Ngonnemoa, (or Gonjemans), beyond the Berg River, and further north towards the Garieb River, the hostile Namaqua. The Cape ecotone shows that Edward Said’s argument, that as a result of Empire all post-imperial cultures are ‘hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic’ (1994: xxix), is in many ways true also of pre-imperial cultures, colonised as well as colonising. It would be simplistic to view the Cape merely as the zone of contact between a monolithic European colonising culture and a homogeneous indigenous population; it might more accurately be regarded as a complex space of unequal engagement between different but comparably heterogeneous Northern and Southern peoples, as the following discussion will attempt to show through the lens of contemporary postcolonial theory, and in particular in a South African context.

9Sleigh’s depiction of early colonial South African identity formation at the Cape bears out Homi K. Bhabha’s argument that hybrid postcolonial cultural identities are formed in the interstices, or liminal spaces, between cultural systems. In these ‘in-between’ spaces, which Bhabha calls the ‘Third Space’ (see Bhabha 1994: 36–9), ‘complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion’ (1) are produced through processes of negotiation and translation. A number of South African literary theorists have proposed further tropes for conceptualising the way present-day South African identities have been created out of difference.

10Leon de Kock offers the metaphor of the seam for understanding how identities that have been formed in South Africa across ‘schisms, barriers, and misperceptions’ (2004: 9) have been represented in writing. The seam, he says, is a ‘site of joining together that also bears the mark of the suture’ (11); as a site of both difference and convergence, it is the place where ‘the representational “translation” of difference’ (12) happens, the place ‘where difference and sameness are hitched together—where they are brought into self-awareness, denied, or displaced into third terms’. Because South Africa has so overwhelmingly been a place of dualisms—‘civilized and savage, settler and indigene, White and Black, oppressed and privileged, rich and poor’ (18)—de Kock suggests that perhaps ‘to be a “South African” writer in the full sense requires imaginative inhabitation of the seam as a deep symbolic structure’ (18).

11In a similar attempt to get beyond the binary lenses of colonialism and apartheid and their separatist discourses, and to respond to the challenges of the postapartheid present, Sarah Nuttall proposes the notion of entanglement, ‘a condition of being twisted together or entwined, involved with’ (2009: 1), which she develops from critical discussions around historical, temporal, genetic, and racial entanglement, as well as from ideas of the seam, complicity, and the ‘entanglement of people and things’ (7). She suggests that entanglement ‘is a means by which to draw into our analyses those sites in which what was once thought of as separate—identities, spaces, histories—come together or find points of intersection in unexpected ways’ (11). The trope of entanglement indicates areas of mutuality and ambivalence, and provides for a mode of understanding beyond the confrontation and resistance of the past.

12In his study of the intellectual and apartheid, Mark Sanders turns to the idea of complicity, which is, ‘etymologically, a folded-together-ness (com-plic-ity)’ (2002: 5). Complicity, he says, is ‘at one with the basic folded-together-ness of being, of human-being, of self and other. Such foldedness is the condition of possibility of all particular affiliations, loyalties, and commitments’ (11–12). It is this condition of paradoxical foldedness with the other that Nuttall describes in terms of the mutuality and ambivalence of entanglement.

  • 4 Heilna du Plooy (2007) analyses intercultural contact in the early years of European settlement in (...)

13Sleigh shows in Islands how from the earliest colonial times identities in South Africa, whether defined with reference to seams, entanglements, or complicities, were not fixed but subject to ongoing negotiation and positioning over divides—what Bhabha calls ‘borderline engagements of cultural difference’ (1994: 2).4 The concept that Stephen Clingman uses to explain such borderline identity formation in his book The Grammar of Identity (2009) is transitivity. He situates his notion of a transitive grammar of identity in Noam Chomsky’s view of a universal grammar that is generative, and argues for the kind of identity that is based on a syntax of the self which, he says, in ‘its combinatory, unfolding possibilities (. . .) is a transitive syntax’ (2009: 16): like language, through recursion and combination, it navigates across boundaries, linking ‘syntax within the self to syntax beyond the self’ (21). Such an identity recognises boundaries that demarcate differences, but is also transitive in its engagement with and crossing of those boundaries. The transitive imagination, Clingman says, employing a nautical metaphor particularly appropriate for this discussion of Sleigh’s novel, is premised on the paradoxical interdependence of navigation, ‘whether internal, external, or linking the two’ (21), and the boundary—as he expresses it: ‘navigation occurs not despite but because of the boundary’ (original italics). A transitive syntax of the self ‘does not override or negate difference within the self or in relation to others—indeed, it depends on it. But it does hold out the possibility of connection’ (15, original italics). According to Clingman, it is precisely this capacity for navigation across boundaries that provides the self with its transitive form:

Differences within the self or between the self and other selves are not overridden or transcended (. . .) Rather, they become the foundation of identity as a kind of meaning—but meaning considered always as navigation, exploration, transition. (22, original italics)

The transitive boundary should therefore be understood, he says, as the space of navigation, to which he adds an important qualification: ‘navigation does not mean crossing or having crossed, but being in the space of crossing. It means being prepared to be in the space of crossing, in transition, in movement, in journey’ (24–25, original italics).

14Within the larger colonial context of Europeans ‘in transit between North and East’ (Sleigh 2004: 163) in the seventeenth century, Sleigh’s narrative subversively borrows a concept from the indigenous Koina peoples to chart the development of the Dutch colonisation of the Cape, namely, the Koina rites of transition for a woman: ‘at her birth, when she became a woman, when she got married, when she had her first child’ (11). These transition rites, which included the gift of cattle as well as the slaughter of animals, were also referred to as the ‘making-different’ (155). Without attempting to provide any kind of anthropological account of Koina rites of transition and referring to only some of their practices in relation to the indigenous characters, the narrative employs the term ironically as it figuratively maps the various stages in the ‘making different’ of the Koina peoples in unforeseen ways and foreign transitions under Dutch colonisation, as well as the ‘making different’ of the colonists themselves, in its exploration of cultural difference and navigation of boundaries in the space of crossing that was the Cape of Good Hope.

15For the Koina peoples of the southern Cape ‘the world became different’ (15) when Commander van Riebeeck first arrived there in 1652 to establish a service station for the ships of the Dutch East India Company. The coming of the Europeans signalled for the Koina ‘the first day of the new world’ (18). The narrative traces in detail, with frequent reference to archival sources, how the Dutch bartered their tobacco and brandy for Koina labour and afterwards for cattle and sheep, deliberately creating addictions that they could exploit. Although the settlers themselves went hungry in the first years, needing to be fed by passing ships and having to send sailing boats off to distant islands for food, Van Riebeeck clung to his vision of a vegetable garden at the Cape to provision a bay full of Dutch ships. On the beach where a sacred Koina cairn used to stand, he erected a fort, surrounded by hovels and native huts among the dunes, which later grew into a settlement around the new Castle Good Hope with stone houses, timber enclosures and a string of farmhouses in the Liesbeeck River valley. His great project was

to cordon off the entire fertile valley with a fence of poles and a hedge of fast-growing shrubs, the four redoubts armed with cannon, a stable for twelve horses, including barracks for the horsemen above. One long, unbroken farm, of grain and vineyards and vegetables and grazing for a thousand head of cattle. (94–5)

Besides the Company commanders and officials and their families, the population of the Cape consisted of free burghers, who were raw pioneers from the peasant and labouring classes, and slaves and natives. For material for the Company’s navy and army, the narrator says, its recruiters in the Netherlands ‘foraged in the musty straw of inn stables, in the damp guardhouse of the city prison, in the gutters of the street behind taverns, and in the dark alleyways where the tipplers urinated’ (304). The labourers on the new Castle Good Hope, whose foundations were laid in 1666, were Europeans, Koina, Orientals and black slaves; on its scaffolding, from a distance ‘one might distinguish as many as five languages at any one time’ (409). Sleigh’s narrative further chronicles the arrival in 1668 of the first French Huguenot refugees at the Cape; and in 1673 the offloading of 240 Africans, meant for West India, from an English ship captured near St Helena Island, to labour on the building of the Castle—the first blacks to be brought into the Cape from the sea.

16From the beginning, the express cost of Van Riebeeck’s project for the Koina was that ‘not an inch of land should remain for the natives. They had to remove from under the shadow of Table Mountain’ (94). The condition for those who wanted employment with the Company was that they learn the Dutch language and attend the Dutch church, ‘nothing more’. The Dutch colonial rule of ‘first work, then eat’ (14) became the tragic fate of the few remaining Goringhaicona people as they ‘disappear(ed) into the Hollander’s work’ (31) in a relationship of conflict and dependency. Their homes among the dunes became neglected and derelict while ‘around them a world was disintegrating’ (63), leading to their virtual extinction—in the words of a colonial sergeant to his commander: ‘There’s one tribe you can cancel off the books now (. . .) The Goringhaicona belong to the past, like the Philistines. They’re in the bag’ (121). The Koina peoples had to witness their water pastures being drained, whole forests felled, and their veld food sources ploughed up. As the colony expanded, the Dutch appropriated all the limited food sources, cattle and land, which caused the Koina to raid Dutch farms. Reprisals led to violent clashes, punitive expeditions, and later war. Dutch bartering and hunting expeditions into the interior provoked further hostility. The Dutch responded to stock theft with massacre of the Koina, which, the narrator suggests, amounted to ‘genocide’ (443). Ten guilders was the reward for the severed head of a shot Koina, simplified to just cutting off the upper lips to carry back as evidence.

17Justice in the Cape colony was in any case draconian. The narrator records how five young Koina boys who had stolen a few sheep from a farmer, were branded and flogged by the Company, each receiving fifty lashes on his bare back, after which all five were clamped to a single chain and banished to carry shells on Robben Island, three of them for fifteen years, and two for seven. Runaway slaves were scourged, ‘with the loss of their ears, followed by lifelong labour on (Robben) Island’ (495). Six starving soldiers working on the Castle were found guilty of mutiny, but the court showed ‘mercy’—they could draw lots for life or death. The two who drew death were hanged; the two who drew life were flogged and sentenced to hard labour in chains for twenty-five years; of the remaining two, one was flogged and forced to work in chains for three years, while the other had to straddle the wooden horse for three days. For slander, a Dutch woman was sentenced to an ‘iron spike through the tongue, forty strokes with the heavy cane on the bare back, six weeks’ solitary banishment to a desolate and unprotected island’ (264). A Dutch woman on Mauritius who had committed adultery with a black slave was thrown into the slave lodge brothel at the Cape for five years. For ‘the unspeakable sin’ (482) of homosexuality a Dutch ship’s captain, his 18-year-old butler and a 15-year-old cabin boy were weighted down and dropped into the ocean to drown.

  • 5 Twidle provides an informative discussion of Sleigh’s 1993 scholarly monograph on the VOC, Die Bui (...)

18The Cape could not function without the semicircle of armed outposts along the Liesbeeck River, from the sea to the mountain: Uitkijk, Keert-de-Koe, Coornhoop, Ruijterwacht, and Houdt-den-Bul, and to the north, Saldanha.5 De Grevenbroek tells how he learned from the Company’s documents—‘that burgeoning archive which was the biography of the country’s birth and infancy’ (706)—not only of the various functions of the refreshment service that these outposts fulfilled, but also how they lay at the heart of the Dutch political economy:

One provided thatch, another shell lime; one guarded a frontier, another provided transport, or gathered salt, chopped firewood or planted vegetables; another caught fish, yet another transmitted signals. There were a great number of them. It opened his eyes to the region’s economy. They really carried the Company, because without outposts the Cape could not function, without Batavia the Company was powerless, and so on all the way to the top, where the prince and his advisory council in Holland were carried on a shaky shield. (705–6)

The contribution of these outposts was more than just commercial; they formed part of the colonial cognitive mapping of southern Africa since postkeepers were also required to supply the university in Leiden with botanical and entomological specimens. De Grevenbroek describes the Hottentots-Holland outpost at Lourens River in greater detail to show how all the complex interdependencies of the colonial enterprise were concentrated in these ecotones: it was responsible for cultivating wheat; it served as a link with the Peninsular Koina for bartering stock; expeditions into the Overberg interior had to leave from there on their way to shipwrecks at Agulhas or to barter with the Chainouqua and Hessequa; and its workers had to collect specimens of the animals, plants and birds from the region ‘for the learned professors abroad’ (726). These outposts were also the spaces where the ultimate frontier in the Cape colonial imagination was navigated: they were gateways ‘between the colony and Africa. On the near side was the colony, on the far side was pure and endless savagery’ (310).

19The outpost of Robben Island was to be the most enduring symbol of Dutch colonialism in southern Africa. The narrative provides a bird’s eye-view of ‘that bleak, bitter and barren island with its sharp ammoniac stench and cold storm winds’ (195) that provided the materials for building the settlement at the Cape and its new Castle: the slate quarry on the Cape side; the limestone-pit in the middle of the island, and on the beach in the north-western corner the mounds of shells for burning into lime. A posthouse, a prison, and a sheep pen housed the postkeeper, the guards and the starving prisoners shackled together: ‘murderers, runaways, reprieved homosexuals, arsonists, dark princes from spice islands fallen into disgrace, counterfeiters, smugglers, procurers, thieves’ (381), whose work consisted of breaking stones, gathering shells, looking out for ships, sending signals—and all of them reduced to a single mass of barely human being. The narrative description of a gang of convicts symbolises Robben Island as a penal colony over the centuries: ‘a rough horde shuffling in a tight huddle, a single shapeless grey block like a heavy sea-worn baulk of wood with human faces chiselled into it. A score of bare feet caused the block to move; just above the sand their single chain alternately jerked and tautened’ (104).

20It is at these colonial outposts in the early Cape colony in particular that Sleigh’s narrative depicts what Bhabha calls ‘borderline engagements of cultural difference’ (1994: 2). The Cape settlement in the seventeenth century moreover exemplifies Robin Cohen and Olivia Sheringham’s argument in their book, Encountering Difference: Diasporic Traces, Creolizing Spaces, that islands and plantations, as well as port cities, form major contact zones where ‘creolization and diaspora intersect’ (2016: 40). The ‘making-different’ of the Koina under Dutch colonialism is fictionally mapped more closely over three generations of creolisation and diasporic dispersion in the lives of three historical figures.

21The lineage begins with Autshumao, the involuntary leader of a small band of debilitated Goringhaicona who survive a massacre by their Koina enemies and live among the low dunes, feeding themselves from rock pools and bartering wood and honey for bread and tobacco with passing English mariners in the Cape roadstead. Autshumao of the Goringhaicona crosses the Indian Ocean on an English ship to the East, contracts ‘the seamen’s diseases’ (5), learns English, witnesses the trading, and returns to the Cape as ‘Chief Harry’, or ‘Herrie/Herrij’ the Strandloper, as he is described in Van Riebeeck’s journal (1952: 82). His voyage to the Orient is an important rite of passage in the colonisation of Autshumao; on his return, the narrator says: ‘You might hunt him anywhere, Autshumao was no longer there, the ship had carried him to the Orient. Only his heart had turned back early, and went home alone’ (5). Harry understands that his world is rapidly changing and foresees that the arrival of shiploads of colonists at the Cape will be the end of his people. Bartering with passing Dutch and English ships, he is caught between worlds. Not having undergone the full Koina rites of transition nor having known any of its honours, he is alienated from his culture, likening himself to ‘a castrated dog without a home’ (11), on whom his Goringhaicona people look down as ‘a man without cattle or sons’ (11). While serving as van Riebeeck’s interpreter, or ‘mouth’ (38), and dressed in European clothes, he introduces other Koina chiefs to the Company’s ‘transition rites’ as they hand over their livestock for its tobacco and brandy. Later, seizing an ‘opportunity for the greatest remaking of his life’ (48), Harry steals a large number of the Company’s cattle, remakes himself as Chief Autshumao of the Goringhaicona, with ‘a tribe of his own’ (54), and wages war against the Dutch. He is afterwards banished by van Riebeeck to Robben Island as a political prisoner, but manages to escape in a stolen boat a year later. He was, the narrative records, ‘the last of the Goringhaicona. The very last’ (180).

  • 6 See Twidle’s discussion of the various representations of the figure of Krotoa-Eva in South Africa (...)

22Authumao’s niece, Krotoa, is taken into the van Riebeeck household as a child of ten, where she is remade into a young Dutch girl with the manners to match her Dutch dress, and known as Eva.6 Sleigh’s fictional version of the story of Krotoa-Eva focuses on her negotiation of the claims of her native and adoptive cultural worlds, and her efforts to stitch together an identity between thinking of herself as ‘a full-blooded Hollander’ (95) with ‘a Dutch heart’ (64), and her Goringhaicona filiation. Born into old brutal tribal divisions and reinvented between conflicting cultural worlds, she becomes someone ‘who lived in two homes, spoke two languages, wore two kinds of clothes’ (81), and prays to the Dutch God, ‘although she calls him by another name’ (94). Herself a translated figure, she serves as cultural broker, mediator, informant and translator for van Riebeeck in his negotiations with the Koina, internalising the conflict between translating his ultimatums literally and interpreting for herself their disastrous consequences for her people—who reject her as ‘a spy for the enemy’ (50), ‘a shame on her people’ and ‘a white man’s bitch’ (108). Despised by the Dutch ‘because she was brown, and by the Koina because she lived with the Dutch’ (99), and viewed as a traitor by both, Eva foregoes the ‘making-different’ rites of her own people, and when she meets and later has children by the young Danish Company surgeon, Peter van Meerhof, she is remade as a Christian and is catechised and baptised ‘Eva’ in the Dutch Church. Eva’s marriage to van Meerhof on 2 June 1664 is the first time that ‘a European’ marries ‘a Cape native according to the Christian formulary’ (184). At the small wedding feast afterwards, however, she confuses the guests and embarrasses her husband with the swaying and stamping and shrill singing of the traditional Khoina dance that she performs for herself.

23In Sleigh’s fictional representation of Krotoa-Eva, the conflicting cultural demands on her are never reconciled, and she periodically absconds to her people, taking off her Dutch clothes and wrapping a traditional skin skirt and kaross around her. When van Meerhof is appointed postkeeper on Robben Island, she pines away, especially while he undertakes various expeditions into the interior. His death during a slave-trading mission to Madagascar leaves her abandoned on the Island outpost, a pregnant widow with three neglected children. She turns into an alcoholic, and the rest of her life is spent between the Cape, where she becomes a prostitute, and Robben Island, to which she is eventually banished in shackles for life. There, when the young German postkeeper witnesses her solitary dancing in a hollow among the dunes, he—and likewise the reader—can only speculate about the torments informing it:

With dragging feet she would shuffle there in a circle, kicking up sand before her. She didn’t sing, she just shuffled in the circle with drooping shoulders, stamping her feet in the dust. Her length of light chain came bouncing after her in the dust. Her hands were clenched in fists, she stared straight ahead of her, her lips were parted and her breathing came in shallow, groaning gasps. There were flecks of foam on her mouth. She wore only a skirt of skins around her hips. (336)

Sleigh’s narrative finally provides a miserable picture of Eva, drunk and demented, covered in syphilitic sores, pregnant yet again by one of the prisoners, and rotting away in an outside shed. In a last colonial rite of ‘making-different’, she is given a simple Christian funeral and buried in the Cape, aged 31.

24The story of Eva’s Dutch- and Koina-speaking, biracial daughter, Pieternella, is a continuation of the ongoing colonial narrative of creolisation and diasporic dispersion, and is told as part of the story of the Company’s decision around 1664 to establish a new settlement on Mauritius, ‘the Cape’s other island’, halfway again between the Cape and Batavia, to supply the Company with red and black ebony and lime. Sent there, together with her younger brother, Pieternella, at the age of fourteen, marries a Dutch cooper from Mauritius, the oorlam Daniel Zaaijman. Sleigh’s fictional narrative maps seventeenth-century Mauritius in detail, recording especially the Dutch toponyms: Lemoenboomsvlakte, Kompasberg, the Kalk, Modderbaai, Kattieseiland, Juffershoedje, Roodekrans, Fransekerk, Sadelberg, Brandende Hoek, the beauty spots of Vermaaklikheidskiel, Natte Bos, Bokgat, Noordwyksvlak and Kroonenburg, These place names serve a more important function in the narrative than just historical accuracy; they bear out Miller’s argument that place and narrative converge topographically in the toponym: ‘place names and the names of geographical features (. . .) seem to be intrinsic to the place they name (. . .) Place names make a site already the product of a virtual writing, a topography, or, since the names are often figures, a “topotropography”’ (Miller 1995: 4). The toponymically encrypted place therefore generates stories that play themselves out within a topography, he says, ‘and narration is the way to talk about it’ (8). In these Dutch place names are encrypted the earlier stories of the first arrival by Dutch sailors in Mauritius in 1598, the subsequent attempt to establish a colony in the islands in 1638, its failure, and the withdrawal in 1658 of all the inhabitants—except for a ship’s boy and two slaves who had taken shelter in the forests. Sleigh’s present narrative deals with the second colonisation of Mauritius by the Dutch and charts the lives of Pieternella and Daniel as part of a small but increasingly heterogeneous settler community of Company officials, soldiers, free burghers and some slaves, first at South-East Harbour, later at Black River, and eventually at North-West Harbour. To use Cohen and Sheringham’s terms, the ‘islandness’ (2016: 43) of the Mauritians, which is characterised by a combination of ‘insulation’, from dwelling in a community, and ‘isolation’, from living on the periphery, comes to resemble that of the Cape.

25In the end, the story of Dutch Mauritius is one of inept or corrupt commanders, failed projects, ruinous drought, devastating hurricanes, and diseases such as dysentery and malaria that send the island into a decline. Increasingly, the Company in the Cape turns Mauritius into another Robben Island, and begins to regard the Mauritian outpost as ‘its penal colony’ (646), sending mainly its exiles and outcasts there, before beginning to withdraw from it. Pieternella and Daniel’s four daughters and four sons, Krotoa-Eva’s grandchildren, are born on Mauritius. Their daughters are married there, Catharina to an Italian-Swiss commander, Eva and Maria to Mauritian free burghers, Magdalena to a German doctor. When Magdalena dies of malaria, her husband takes their four children to Batavia, and later to the Cape. Catharina’s husband is posted to Batavia, where Catharina dies from dysentery, after which her husband is posted to Japan. The narrative indicates but does not pursue this secondary colonial diasporic dispersion of Krotoa-Eva’s descendants. When the Dutch finally evacuate Mauritius in 1710, they set fire to all their structures there and release their starving dogs to finish off the remaining small mammals, dodos and runaway slaves in the forest. Daniel and Pieternella return to the Cape, where they both die in the smallpox epidemic of 1713.

26De Grevenbroek’s narrative portrait of the first half-century of the Cape colony concludes more or less at the same time that the old city of Batavia goes into decline and together with it the Dutch dream of the East. A massive earthquake in 1699 in the mountains behind the city produced landslides and rockfalls that led to extensive flooding, leaving the city swamped and epidemics of dysentery and malaria breaking out. Scores of its inhabitants died every week, the city acquiring the nickname of ‘graveyard of the Europeans’. In the words of de Grevenbroek, ‘Batavia was ill, and in due course the honourable Company had to die in the fatherland’ (728). Or, as his informant, the disgraced former commander of Mauritius, Lamotius, reminds him: ‘When we were young, it was the city of our dreams, the capital of our empire in the East, founded by Ysterjan Coen, the hero of Holland. There, fortunes were made, dreams realised, fame won. If I had any choice at that time, monsieur, between Batavia and heaven, I would have chosen Batavia without a moment’s hesitation’ (728). The irony is not lost on the reader that it is a return fleet from Batavia that anchors in the Cape roadstead and first brings smallpox into the Cape Colony.

27I return in conclusion to the focus of this essay. Reflecting in the metafictional final chapter on ‘how heavily the Cape relied on its outposts, and each outpost in turn on the potential of its own available people’ (734), de Grevenbroek has ‘another thought about the hundreds of scraps of paper he had carried home in his sleeve with dark design’ (735) to produce his compendious Portrait of the Cape. He arrives at a fresh understanding of the human subjects of his narrative undertaking—the individual people whose lives (to return to earlier tropes) were stitched together, became entangled, who were complicit and who navigated different borders in the course of an ongoing colonial story:

at the outposts everyday life was contained in people like Lamotius and himself, people with souls, or who once had souls. Like islands separated from the continent, a commander would try to impose order there, families would try to eke out a living, convicts and slaves crawl from day to day, soldiers toss and turn on their beds in a sweat, every one alone. Each struggled to establish something, or simply to survive; they tried with their hands, sometimes in silence, sometimes furtively, sometimes with violence.
Against all their precautions and toil and labour stood the blank unknowingness of the sea, seasons, distance, time, and the changing authorities, about whom, on their remote outposts, they were, like children, ignorant. (736)

Theirs are the individual stories that de Grevenbroek and his author, Sleigh, have told in Islands with the scrupulousness of the historian combined with the imaginative insight of the novelist, in terms of the complex poetics of crossing in the Cape ecotone. Their stories form part of the novel’s spatial and figurative mapping of the Cape Colony in the second half of the seventeenth century as a zone of contact where immigrant and autochthonous cultures engaged with each other across physical frontiers and cultural boundaries. In the space of crossing (to credit Clingman’s term once again in conclusion) that was the Cape Colony, differences were recognised, translated and negotiated in complex relationships of conflict and resistance, dominance and dependency, and mutuality and ambivalence. Sleigh’s novel shows how, in the Cape ecotone, were formed the early beginnings of present-day South African identities, which have developed over three and a half centuries of subsequent colonisation, in-and out-migration, and creolisation. Referring to the ‘terrible tension’ of having ‘an unfinished manuscript on your table for a long time’ (740), de Gevenbroek may lament that he cannot get narrative closure to his 700-page Portrait of the Cape; however, an important truth finally to take away from Islands is, of course, that the ongoing story of colonialism knows no closure.


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Cohen, Robin and Olivia Sheringham. Encountering Difference: Diasporic Traces, Creolizing Spaces. Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016.

De Falbe, John. ‘Outposts of the imagination: Dan Sleigh’. The Spectator (24 April 2004): n.p. Accessed on 30 December, 2018.

De Kock, Leon. ‘South Africa in the Global Imaginary: An Introduction’, in South Africa in the Global Imaginary, Leon de Kock, Louise Bethlehem and Sonja Laden, eds. Pretoria: University of South Africa Press and Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2004; 1–31.

Du Plooy, Heilna. ‘Liminaliteit en oorgangsfigure in Eilande van Dan Sleigh: ´n roman oor die vroeë Nederlandse koloniale geskiedenis in Suid-Afrika—Liminality and liminal figures in Islands by Dan Sleigh: a novel about early Dutch colonial history in South Africa’. Afrikaans in Europa: Letterkunde (September 2007): n.p. Accessed on 30 December, 2018.

Hope, Christopher. ‘Harry’s Dementors’. The Guardian (22 May 2004): n.p. Accessed on 30 December, 2018.

Miller, J. Hillis. Topographies. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Nuttall, Sarah. Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-apartheid. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009.

Pienaar, Hans. ‘1795: Just whose colonialism is it, anyway?’. Business Day (30 March 2017): n.p. Accessed on 30 December, 2018.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1994.

Samuelson, Meg. Remembering the Nation, Dismembering Women?: Stories of the South African Transition. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2007.

Sanders, Mark. Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2002.

Sleigh, Dan. Jan Compagnie: The World of the Dutch East India Company. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 1978.

Sleigh, Dan. Eilande. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2002.

Sleigh, Dan. Islands: A Novel. Translated by André Brink. London: Secker and Warburg, 2004.

Sleigh, Dan. Die Buiteposte: VOC-Buiteposte onder Kaapse Bestuur 1652–1795. Pretoria: Protea Boekehuis, 2004 (1993).

Twidle, Hedley. ‘Writing the Company: From VOC Daghregister to Sleigh’s Eilande’. South African Historical Journal 65.1 (2013): 125–52.

Upchurch, Michael. ’Islands: Ambitious novel surveys South African struggles’. The Seattle Times (1 July 2005): n.p. Accessed on 25 May, 2018.

Van Riebeeck, Jan. Daghregister Gehouden by den Oppercoopman Jan Anthonisz van Riebeeck Deel 1, 1651–1655. Edited by D.B. Bosman and H.B. Thom. Cape Town: A.A. Balkema, for the Van Riebeeck Society, 1952. In English: Journal of Jan van Riebeeck. 3 Volumes. Edited by H.B. Thom. Cape Town: A.A. Balkema, for the Van Riebeeck Society, 1952–8.


1 Sleigh has also written a historical work for young people, titled Jan Compagnie: The World of the Dutch East India Company (1978).

2 Christopher Hope, however, criticises the novel as ‘a work of historical devotion’; although he grants the scope and energy of the novel, he finds it ‘long on meticulous reconstruction of times past—but short of the heartbeat that makes for life’ (2004: n.p.).

3 In this connection, see Twidle’s account of the historical Johannes Guilielmus de Grevenbroek (1644-1725) (2013: 137–9).

4 Heilna du Plooy (2007) analyses intercultural contact in the early years of European settlement in South Africa as represented in Islands in terms of the theoretical concept of liminality, with special reference to the female figures in the novel.

5 Twidle provides an informative discussion of Sleigh’s 1993 scholarly monograph on the VOC, Die Buiteposte van die VOC onder Kaapse Bestuur, 1652–1795 (The Outposts of the VOC under Cape Control, 1652–1795), in which ‘Sleigh explains his approach of viewing the Company from its periphery, from the manned outposts which spread throughout the Cape as it became clear that the planned refreshment station could not function within the geographic and economic limits of Table Valley’ (2013: 135).

6 See Twidle’s discussion of the various representations of the figure of Krotoa-Eva in South African Afrikaans- and English-language writing (2013: 141–2). See also Meg Samuelson’s analysis of Krotoa-Eva as ‘Translator, Traitor, “Rainbow Mother”’ in Chapter One of her book Remembering the Nation, Dismembering Women?: Stories of the South African Transition (2007).


J.U. Jacobs is Emeritus Professor of English, University Fellow, and Senior Research Associate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa. He has published extensively on South African and postcolonial writing, including the volumes a.k.a. Breyten Breytenbach: Critical Approaches to his Writings and Paintings (2004), Ways of Writing: Critical Essays on Zakes Mda (2009), Momentum: South African Writing 1976–1983 (2011), and the monograph Diaspora and Identity in South African Fiction (2016). He has most recently edited, with an introduction, a volume of the non-fiction writings of Zakes Mda, Justify the Enemy: Becoming Human in South Africa (2018), published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press. He is a founding editor of the journal Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa, and also serves on the editorial boards of a number of international scholarly journals.

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