Shortly after his arrival at the Cape with the purpose of establishing a refreshment station for the VOC, the new commander, Jan van Riebeeck took into his house one Khoi girl, Krotoa. She was the daughter of one of the locals, Autshumao or Harry, who had previous experience with seafarers and who was able to communicate to some degree with the Dutch. This young woman became an invaluable interpreter between the Dutch and the local inhabitants, and later she accompanied some of the early European explorers into Namaqualand, notably the expeditions led by Pieter van Meerhof, whom she was later to marry.
The commander had an obvious fixation with the idea that mystical cities and rich civilizations existed in the northern interior. Much mention is made of places like Vigiti Magna, Davagul, Monomotapa and the like in his journals. The possibility of these lying temptingly near behind the range of mountains that barred access to the interior was most likely discussed frequently within the hearing of the young girl, so in an effort to please, she obliged by giving positive feedback with the sort of elaboration the commander wanted to hear. According to her, there were nations of people living in stone houses along a great river, clothed in fine garments and bedecked with gold, ivory and jewels aplenty. This further aroused his cupidity and in the hope of furthering his career, he wasted no time in dispatching the first of a number of expeditions northwards in 1655 under the leadership of one Jan Wintervogel. His modest achievement was to reach the Malmesbury district, where they were the first Dutch to meet up with a Bushman band. Although trips along the coast as far as Saldanha Bay and St Helena Bay had become more frequent in the ensuing four years, the next ill-fated expedition under Christian Jansen attempted to reach the Namaquas in 1659 in the heat of summer, during which they suffered greatly from thirst and had to return without achieving anything noteworthy.
Late in 1660 one Jan Danckaert was once again sent northwards; he was accompanied by Pieter van Meerhof, who was to travel northwards altogether six times and pioneer the route along the Olifants River, past Clanwilliam. The latter finally had a friendly encounter with the Namaquas in the southern Sandveld. On subsequent journeys over the next few years, he was to meet up with them again and some small measure of trading occurred. The furthest north he penetrated was thought to be Mierfontein in the vicinity of Nuwerus.
In 1662 van Riebeeck’s term at the Cape ended and so did the quest for fabled riches and cities in the interior. His successor, Andries Wagenaar, had a more realistic outlook and after a short and uncomfortable trip to some of the Khoi settlements up the west coast, he sent one final expedition north under Pieter Cruythof and van Meerhof. They met the Namaquas, but were told that the clans were at war with each other and that they could not proceed. On their return they were attacked at night – apparently by Bushmen, causing several injuries to the Dutch party. Cruythof wanted to take revenge on an encampment they encountered, but his volunteers refused to butcher the women and children. A subsequent journey under the leadership of Jonas de la Guerre and the indefatigable van Meerhof was once more foiled by drought and heat and proved to be the end of these quests for the time being as Wagenaar dismissed the fabled cities and riches as travellers’ tales of no substance – a view endorsed by Pieter van Hoorn, the Council’s Extraordinary Advisor.
Some twenty years passed until Simon van der Stel took up the governorship of the Cape. A visit by a few Namaquas to the castle, bearing this time some raw copper ore, revived flagging interest and this was spurred on by the visit of the retired Governor-General of the Dutch Indies, Ryklof van Goens. He had been the person who encouraged van Riebeeck’s obsession with fabled cities, and he proceeded once more to raise the matter with the new man at the Cape, van der Stel. The latter, always keen to advance his career, wasted little time and sent off Olof Bergh, a seasoned traveller and trader, in late spring, when at least there was some water to be found, and who left a permanent token of his passage when he carved his name on a rock at Bergfontein near Graafwater. He met up with a band of Namaquas near the Groen River, but the tribespeople were not overly friendly and refused Bergh’s overtures and efforts at trading. Once again the travellers broke off their journey due to this and the crippling drought and returned to the Cape. The second effort by Bergh, a year later in 1683, met with no greater success. A year later Izaac Schryver with a party of soldiers and three miners accompanied some visiting Namaquas northward, but they too proceeded only a little further north of the Groen River, however they did bring back some copper bartered from the Khoi. (Theal, p266 )
The search for minerals of value was expanded at the behest of Commissioner H A van Rheede, and finding little of interest near the Cape, he authorised the Commander, Simon van der Stel, to organise and lead an expedition to search for the Namaqualand copper deposits. This commenced in August 1685 and the considerable body of over a hundred men, with wagons, carts and a coach tackled the route pioneered by the earlier travellers. Except for an attack on his coach near Piketberg by an enraged rhino, the journey passed without serious mishap and they contacted the Namaquas under the chief Oedeson near the Doorn River. Relations were cordial and the party was given definite information about the large river to the north, which the commander calculated correctly, must enter the sea near Cape Voltas, where Dias had made landfall almost two hundred years previously. In the company of the Khoi the commander reached the fabled ‘Copper Mountain’ and spent some weeks investigating the rich deposit and the surrounding country. He concluded that the remoteness and the scarcity of water and wood made it a poor proposition for extraction – however he did make a detour seaward and chanced on what would become Hondeklip Bay, the port of export during early mining days in mid 19th century. The account of his journey survived in several manuscript versions, and the one recorded by Francois Valentyn, and published in 1726, is the first printed work on the West Coast and Namaqualand to appear. It has the pride of place in the Kliphuis Namaqua Archive, and it is the oldest publication there. Our copy has an interesting and distinguished provenance, in that it bears the bookplate of Sir Abe Bailey, the well-known wealthy Randlord and associate of Cecil Rhodes, as well as that of Sidney Mullne. who presumably bought it at an auction of Bailey’s estate, as the archive also has a catalogue of this auction in which the item appears. How the book came into the possession of a Somerset West small-time bookdealer some twenty years ago, is unknown, but at the time a number of Bailey’s books appeared on the market in the Cape. It was obtained in exchange for a slightly damaged flintlock pistol of approximately similar age, which had been given to me some forty years previously by a commander in the navy, when we struck up a friendship during a lecture tour I made.
Godee Molsbergen, E C (1976) Reizen in Zuid Afrika, Vol 1- Tochten Naar het Noorden, Martinus Nijhoff
Mossop, E E (1927) Old Cape Highways, Maskew Miller
Mossop, E E (1931) Journals of Bergh and Schrijver, Van Riebeeck Society
Theal, G M (1964) History of South Africa, Vol 3, Struik
Thom, H B ed (1952) Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, 3 Vols, A A Balkema
Valentyn, F (1726) Beschryving van de Kaap der Goede Hoope… Vol 5, Johannes van Braam, Amsterdam, Gerard onder de Linden
Waterhouse, G ed (1932) Simon van der Stel’s Journal… Longmans Green and Co