In the 17th Century, Dutch colonialists prided themselves on their ability to learn the languages of the inhabitants of their conquered territories.
But there was one language they couldn’t master: that of the Khoikhoi of the Cape of Good Hope. Years after their arrival in 1652, they had made little progress in learning the local language.
The Khoikhoi, on the other hand, had no such difficulty in mastering conversational Dutch.
Three of their number in particular – Autshumao, Krotoa and Doman – would later be regarded by the Dutch as “great interpreters”.
Each of the three built a different type of relationship with the Dutch: Autshumao, a mixture of smooth talker and confidence trickery, lulled his part-time employers into a false sense of security while he built up his herds of sheep and cattle, many of which he stole from them.
Krotoa’s fascination with all things Dutch earned her employment in the Van Riebeeck household. There, she learnt to speak Dutch while enjoying the best of two worlds, flitting seamlessly in and out of her society and theirs.
And then there was Doman. Perceptive, suspicious by nature and a talented linguist, he was the first of the Khoikhoi to recognise the danger the arrival of Van Riebeeck and his group posed to the independence of the indigenous people. And he was the first to do something about it
Doman carved his name into the history books of southern Africa by becoming the first indigenous leader to wage a war of resistance against colonial invaders.
Centuries later, historiographers described the first contact between the Dutch, who had come to the southern tip of Africa to set up a refreshment station between the Netherlands and the lucrative trading stations of the East, and the Khoikhoi, as “the fatal contact”.
But it didn’t start that way
When Van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape with 82 men and eight women, and started building a fort, the first meetings with the Khoikhoi were peaceful, if cagey.
In addition to the need to grow vegetables to supply Dutch ships sailing to and from the East, fresh meat was also a priority, and the Khoikhoi had sufficient numbers of cattle and fat-tailed sheep to satisfy this requirement.
As traders though they were more than a match for the Dutch.
They quickly realised that what the new arrivals really wanted was to breed their own herds.
And so, for a long time, the cattle and sheep they were prepared to exchange in return for copper were the old, thin and diseased dregs of their livestock.
The Khoikhoi, in turn, fashioned bangles and other accessories from the copper they traded with other Khoikhoi groups in the interior for young and healthy livestock.
It galled the Dutch that their copper was contributing to the Khoikhoi growing large herds, while their own attempts at livestock farming were proving to be frustratingly unsuccessful.
The Peninsula Khoikhoi had, in fact, set up the first monopoly at the Cape. With Doman a key figure, they sealed off routes to other groups of Khoikhoi.
If the Dutch wanted to trade, it had to be with them.
It couldn’t be more lucrative: the Khoikhoi got their copper cheap, while they were able to exact a high price (in non-monetary terms) for their livestock
While commercial relationships between the Khoikhoi and Dutch ebbed and flowed relatively peacefully, Doman made impressive strides as an interpreter.
So highly did the Dutch value him that in 1657 they sent him to Batavia (present-day Jakarta in Indonesia) for further training.
But what he saw and learnt there horrified him. He discovered that the Dutch had sacked Jakarta in 1619, rebuilt it the way they wanted it, renamed it Batavia, and expelled all the indigenous people from the area.
It was obvious to him that the Dutch posed a great danger to the Khoikhoi of his homeland.
He had to get back to the Cape. With great cunning, he approached Commissioner Joan Cunaeus, telling him he wanted to become a Christian, and that he had become so devoted to the Dutch way of life that he doubted whether he could live with his fellow Khoikhoi again. It worked.
Once he had arrived back at the Cape, he emerged as the staunchest Khoikhoi critic of Van Riebeeck, especially after some employees had been given permission to become “free burghers” (in other words, to farm for their own account).
Thus, when Van Riebeeck seized several Khoikhoi leaders as hostages in 1658, Doman was the only one who protested.
Unfortunately for him, his earlier attempts to monopolise Khoikhoi trade with the Dutch had won him few friends.
Gogosoa, one of the local chiefs, refused to have anything to do with an attack on the Dutch.
But Doman was able to persuade some of the younger leaders to join him in his war of liberation.
He planned his attacks carefully. He chose a cold, wet day in May 1659 to start a series of raids on the herds of the free burghers.
He was well aware that the matchlock muskets of the Dutch (unreliable at the best of times) could not be fired in the rain with damp powder.
Doman’s band of raiders had no intention of killing any of the Dutch.
His war was meant to be one of persuasion, burning their crops, stealing their cattle, and hoping this would persuade them to leave the Cape and return to Holland.
The Dutch, on the other hand, were quite prepared to kill. They were ordered to shoot to kill – on sight.
The war ended in stalemate. The Khoikhoi were unwilling to attack the fort and Dutch forays against the Khoikhoi were unsuccessful due to the wildness of the terrain and the lack of guides.
When Doman died in 1663, the company diarist wrote: “For
(his) death none of us will have cause to grieve, as he has been, in many respects, a mischievous and malicious man towards the company.”