How the ‘media’ of the time around 1600 contributed to the genocide in southern Africa

Coat from the National Museum of World Cultures Collection.

The San, a hunter-gatherer nation in southern Africa, are one of the oldest living populations in the world. Some of the rock paintings that the San made are 77 thousand years old. Their knowledge and skills as trackers for animals, water sources, food and minerals are renowned. For millennia, San communities lived in groups of 80 to 120 people, led by ‘wise men’, without central authority, money, scriptures or laws. This way of life came to an end at the end of the 16th century.


It is August 4, 1595, when Dutch settlers led by Cornelis Houtman drop anchor in Mossel Bay. There, during their early explorations of the Cape, they encounter the San and their related Khoi. The Dutch call the San ‘Bushmen’ and the Khoi ‘Hottentots’, names that are now seen as highly derogatory by both groups.

Both the Khoi, a nation of shepherds, and the San wear fur cloaks, such as the San cloak of jackal game shown here. Their other garments, such as loincloths, headgear, shoes and aprons, are also made of animal skins. Sub-merchant Willem Lodewycksz writes in 1595 about the Khoi’s appearance: ‘Go naked with an oxhide rounded in the manner of a cloak. […]d’an end hanging for her shame […]. They were always very smelly because they were always greasy and dirty [smeer] lubricate.’

In the first drawings made by the Dutch of the Cape people, they show Khoi and San wrapped in fresh sheep intestines. People in the Netherlands find it repulsive and barbaric. The fact that they rub themselves with animal fat is also seen as something disgusting. The Dutch do not understand anything about Khoi and San. How can you live without central government? They also see no religion in the way of life of African societies. Gut-eating, stupid, animalistic and soulless cavemen, that’s how the settlers characterize the inhabitants of the Cape. And as cannibals – that they were has never been proven.

Carel Allard, 'Domestic Africans', from: Orbis Habitabilis Oppida et Vestitus, Amsterdam ca.  1692. Sculpture Rijksmuseum

Carel Allard, ‘Domestic Africans’, from: Orbis Habitabilis Oppida et Vestitus, Amsterdam ca. 1692.Statue Rijksmuseum

snake venom

It did not become clear until about 1800 that the Dutch illustrators misinterpreted the descriptions of the travelers who returned: in fact, the Khoi and San wrapped dry strips of skin around the ankles and shins to prevent snakebites. And as for the fat: it served to protect against the winter cold, something that many Dutch people did themselves.

In addition to this image created by the Dutch in southern Africa as a hell filled with barbaric inhabitants, the settlers position themselves as saviors. The administration of the Cape Colony, officially taken over by the VOC from 1652, will make the area a fertile place where peace and order reign. This country needs us is the myth perpetuated by centuries of colonial history. And that myth fuels a persistent belief that it is better to get rid of the useless inhabitants of that country than to be rich. With far-reaching consequences.

For the San are not about to surrender their hunting grounds and water sources to the newcomers without resistance. Their arrows dipped in snake venom kill advancing colonial farmers. The larger the colony area, the more the San protect their territory. The Khoi steal cattle from the farmers. You our country, we your livestock, will have been the thought.

Around 1770, San groups stop hundreds of covered wagons of migrant farmers about 700 kilometers from the Cape. In retaliation, the VOC board organizes a manhunt. The death toll rises to several hundred. San women and children are taken away as slaves. Still, San doesn’t give up.

poor creatures

In 1777 the political council concluded ‘that all means are available to support the brigand bushmen’ [en] to bring the Hottentots to a halt, has been used in vain.” Therefore it has had to be ‘decided, in order to […] them by getting stronger commandos to attack, and exterminate them that way’. This not only means that the peasants can now kill any San they encounter without provocation, but goes further than that. This is the deliberate extermination of a population group: genocide.

The military cartographer Robert Jacob Gordon writes in 1778 that the San, including their children, are being killed by peasants and that he wishes to mediate between the parties to ‘put an end to the daily massacre of the poor creatures’. Gordon calls ‘our farmers’ bad people and says these killings mean nothing to them. In a later letter, he predicts that ‘the dominant Europeans’ will make the ‘natural inhabitants of the countries’ disappear in various ways.

In 1792, the political council passed a resolution to stop the killing of San. Why? Because the Council decides to see the San as human after all. Keeping the San alive is well deserved: farmers who ‘produce’ San children under the age of 7 earn 10 riksdaler, a living adult San gives 15 riksdaler. The captured Cape residents were forced to work.

Yet the killing of San does not end there. There are plenty of sources from the last four centuries, up to several decades ago, attesting to a customary right to kill the San at will. By the farmers, and in their wake also by other groups. Not only in armed conflicts, but also just like that. For hunting or for fun, as a pastime.

Martine Gosselink, director of the Mauritshuis in The Hague.  Picture AVROTROS

Martine Gosselink, director of the Mauritshuis in The Hague.Picture AVROTROS

Martine Gosselink

Martine Gosselink is director of the Mauritshuis in The Hague. She previously worked as head of history at the Rijksmuseum, where she curated an exhibition on the relationship between South Africa and the Netherlands. She is also involved in advising on colonial looted art. A permanent room has recently been set up in the Mauritshuis on Johan Maurits and the role he played as governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil.

Stereotypical image

Khoi and San are stereotyped as cannibals in European descriptions. Here is a body torn to pieces. The woman has wrapped raw sheep intestine around herself for decoration, another stereotypical image. A similar scene takes place in the background. Behind are the Castle of Good Hope and Table Mountain.

Carel Allard, ‘Domestic Africans’, from: Orbis Habitabilis Oppida et Vestitus, Amsterdam ca. 1692 (Rijksmuseum 301 C 17)

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