What’s in a South African name? From Krotoa to Van der Stel

Despite generations of official efforts to keep South Africans apart, “racial” mingling goes back to the very first years when white and black met at the Cape of Good Hope.

Unravelling our ancestry - and our names. From left, Krotoa of the Goringhaicona, Shaykh Yusuf of the Macassar, Walter Sisulu and Simon van der Stel.
Unravelling our ancestry – and our names. From left, Krotoa of the Goringhaicona, Shaykh Yusuf of the Macassar, Walter Sisulu and Simon van der Stel.

Saddled with the burden of apartheid and colonial-slanted textbooks, South Africans have tended to take their identities from their political leanings. But so-called “mixed marriages” are as old as South Africa itself. And more people are finding family tree research the key to understanding their own heritages.

The first written records of births, deaths and marriages, incomplete though they are, came with Dutchman Jan van Riebeeck in 1652, when he set out to establish a way station at the Cape of Good Hope with the aid of Robben Island.

Krotoa of the Goringhaicona

Perhaps the most representative of the mix of South African ancestry lines dating from those early days is the marriage of Krotoa of the Goringhaicona, a Khoi interpreter who worked for Van Riebeeck and married a colleague of his, Danish explorer Pieter Meerhof.

Burdened with the double obligation of fitting into European society and being loyal to her own people, Krotoa’s life was made even harder when Meerhof was seconded to Robben Island as superintendent.

Left as one of only two women on the island when her husband was killed on a slaving expedition, and shunned by both societies, Krotoa succumbed to depression and an early death at only 32. But she left behind at least eight children, one of whom was the progenitor of the Zaaiman family in South Africa.

Some of them went on to become key figures from all spectrums – including white premiers Paul Kruger, Jan Smuts and FW de Klerk.

Slave routes, slave roots

Then came the slaves: in 1658 the first two boatloads – one from Angola and one from west Africa – arrived, and some of these went on to marry Dutch citizens of the Cape or bear children by them after intermarriage became outlawed.

One couple, Anna and Evert, who were purchased by the Dutch from African slave lords in Benin in 1658, produced a daughter who went on to have a son by prosperous Dutchman Bastiaan Colyn. Her son, Johannes, married a descendant of the wealthy Cloete family and purchased De Hoop op Constantia, still one of the finest estates in the Cape.

After west Africa was declared out of bounds, the Dutch East India Company began bringing in slaves from the east – either from their base in Djakarta or China, Sri Lanka or India, often with Arabs as middlemen. The first boatloads arrived in 1681, and by 1730 they had extended their operations to include the Mascarenes, Mozambique and Zanzibar, with Portuguese colonists as middlemen.

With only 19 European women and 100 white free burghers at the Cape in 1677, most 13th generation South Africans with colonial ancestry have at least one slave ancestor from these parts. Though European female numbers increased 30 years later, slave women were often favoured for their beauty, and many became the ancestral mothers (or stammoeders) of generations of families in South Africa.

Angela of Bengal

Before the first official slave consignments had been sanctioned, Angela of Bengal (or Maaij Ansela) was bought by Jan van Riebeeck, the founder of the Dutch colony, was resold and freed by her master. She then married Arnoldus Willemsz Bason, and became the stammoeder of the Basson family in South Africa.

Through marriages of her children, Maaij (or Mooi, beautiful) Ansela is also the stammoeder of the Bergh and Van As families. One of her descendants was Voortrekker leader Andries Pretorius, who married Anna Retief, niece of slain trekboer Piet.

In 1692, four of the 34 Cape Town free burghers had ex-slave wives, but according to “Cape Town, Making of a City”, compiled by Nigel Worden et al, this mestizo culture was gradually discouraged by the ruling Dutch, although this did not discourage illicit affairs – and illegitimate children borne out of such unions.

One well-researched case is that of Isabella of Angola, who had children by a Dutchman thought to be Cornelis Claassen.

One of Isabella’s children is believed to be Armosyn van de Kaap, who became matron of the Slave Lodge and went on to have a daughter by a European. Armosyn’s daughter later married German soldier Hermann Combrink, the stamvader of that prolific family in South Africa.

Often the only ticket for freedom for slave women – or their children – was through marriage to a white man. In terms of a 1685 decree, male halfslag Company slaves of European ancestry were permitted to buy their freedom at 25, females at 22, provided they had been confirmed in the Dutch Reformed Church and could speak Dutch. Because of this, many Muslims officially converted religions, providing yet another marriage barrier.

Other Easterners taken as slaves were Muslim political leaders who objected to Dutch domination in the East Indies, perhaps the most well-known being Shaykh Yusuf, whose kramat near Faure is today an important pilgrimage destination for South African Muslims.

It is still not known whether Yusuf’s remains lie in the tomb or were transported back to Macassar, as the Dutch government reported, but some of his descendants did remain. One of his grandsons married Marie Jordaan, whose origins were in France.

The Huguenots

In 1688, a new influence brought with it another European aspect to the cultural kaleidoscope: the first French Huguenot Protestants escaping Catholic persecution in France were brought out by the Dutch.

Settling the area now known as Franschhoek, many of the Huguenots owned slaves to cultivate the winelands, and half-caste children, born mainly out of wedlock, were among the unfortunates who produced children who failed to pass the apartheid government’s pencil test over two centuries later.

By the early 1700s Dutch farmers had started moving inland. Though they were not officially allowed to be enslaved, Xhosa and Khoi were employed by the Dutch under conditions often equivalent to slavery, and inter-breeding among all three continued, often in the capacity of mistress or cuckold.

1820 settlers, shipwreck survivors

In 1795, the British occupied the Cape for the first time, and after losing it to the Dutch again in 1803, seized it as their own in 1806. With the British occupation came the impoverished 1820 settlers, who were sent to help wrest land from the Xhosa in the Eastern Cape and the Zulu in KwaZulu-Natal.

One of the better-known of these settlers to cross the racial divide was Henry Fynn, who befriended Zulu King Shaka and fathered children by many Zulu wives.

Other English names which crop up regularly in the history of the Wild Coast, traditionally the home of the Pondo, are King and Cane, explorers who lived among the local tribes.

Shipwreck survivors through the centuries have also produced many a blue-eyed black child in the area. In his book “The Caliban Shore”, Stephen Taylor describes the meeting of survivors from The Grosvenor with an escaped Cape slave who had made his home on the Eastern frontier, an indication of other possible influences in tribal ancestry.

Inter-tribal marriage was another influence, as Shaka absorbed smaller tribes in his quest for dominance.

With British rule came the banning of slave importation in 1807, but boatloads of “prize negroes”, slaves secured by the government from illegal slave ships, were still introduced into the colony as cheap labour. A number of British settlers married Madagascans and Mauritians imported in this way.

St Helena servants

In 1834, slavery was officially abolished, and mission stations dotted around the Cape absorbed many of those left jobless by the system.

Another much-contested scheme to compensate for the loss of slave labour saw a wave of St Helena servants imported, which continued to the end of the 19th century. A large portion of Cape Town’s Cape Flats today is the product of intermarriages, and many can remember their St Helena ancestors being broken by the system which crushed their progress with forced removals in the 1960s.

For brief spells between frontier wars, there was relative peace among the many nations of the land, but it was not long before the Boer Dutch farmers grew unhappy with their lot under British rule without slaves, and headed north.

By the time of the South African (or Anglo-Boer) War in 1899, after the diamond rush and the discovery of gold, Boers had married Brits, who had followed the original settlers in droves, both had married across the colour line, and slaves had married Khoi and Bantu.

Walter Sisulu, Simon van der Stel

Though marriage across the colour line was outlawed, it was little deterrent to those with soul aspirations. Perhaps the most well-known and most ironic product of such unions was ANC stalwart and pragmatic long-time adviser and friend of Nelson Mandela throughout his exile on Robben Island, Walter Sisulu, born in 1912 in Qutubeni, Transkei.

Though he had little to do with him, Sisulu’s white father, Albert Dickinson, a Port Elizabeth government worker, went on to have another child by his mother, Alice. They never officially married, and Walter took on his mother’s surname, adding Max Ulyate as his middle names. Though it has not been explored, the name Ulyate was a surname of a prominent family of 1820 settlers.

It only takes a trip or two out of Cape Town to be reminded just how much craziness the system bred. Simonstown, a naval base and popular tourist spot, and Stellenbosch, the home of the Afrikaans language, are just two of the many spots named after Dutch governor Simon van Der Stel, who set about seizing land from the Khoi on his arrival in 1679.

Though Van der Stel is widely accepted as being the greedy progenitor of apartheid whose sprawling, slave-worked estates were the elite homes of generations of Afrikaners, a little-known fact is that Van der Stel, born in Mauritius, was Eurasian – and probably just a generation away from slavery.

His father Adrian van der Stel was Dutch and his mother, Maria Leviens, was the daughter of Monica of the Coromondel, a former enslaved woman from India who became known as Monica da Costa.

Evidence shows that he and his sister covered up their mother’s origin in order to be given white status when they emigrated to Holland. The only proven picture of Van der Stel disappeared in 1934, but another which is thought to be his portrait shows an arguably Eastern demeanour.

Brand South Africa reporter

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