How the ‘Men of Wealth and Influence’ left deep traces in our history


How the ‘Men of Wealth and Influence’ left deep traces in our history

Who was the leading intellectual at the Cape during the occupation of the Nederlandse Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC)? If your last name is Retief, you may be his descendant. MAX DU PREEZ digs into the story of political exiles from the East and the roots of Islam in the Cape — it's our common history.

Sheik Yusuf's kramat in Makassar. The sheik is still honoured as a National Hero of Indonesia. The photo was taken by Cape Town photographer Mikhail Adam Motala, who documents the ties between the Cape and Indonesia.
Sheik Yusuf's kramat in Makassar. The sheik is still honoured as a National Hero of Indonesia. The photo was taken by Cape Town photographer Mikhail Adam Motala, who documents the ties between the Cape and Indonesia.

MANY of the slaves from the East and even Africa who were brought to the Cape in the 17th and 18th centuries were Muslims. But Islam might not have taken root as a religion at the Cape had it not been for the Orang Cayen, the Men of Wealth and Influence, who were shipped not as slaves but as political exiles from the East Indies to the southern tip of Africa.

They were kings, sultans, princes, imams, Muslim intellectuals and political activists, mostly wealthy and highly educated, who challenged the VOC's occupation of their homeland.

The genes of many of them are widely distributed among South Africans alive today, especially coloured people but also white Afrikaners.

Foremost among them was a man who, during his lifetime and for generations thereafter, was regarded as one of the foremost Muslim intellectuals in the world. His birth name was Abidin Tadia Tjoessoep but he is remembered as Sheik Yusuf al-taj al Khalwati al-Maqasari, or Sheik Yusuf of Makassar. He arrived in Table Bay on 2 April 1694 on the Dutch ship Voetboeg.

In 1997, President Nelson Mandela and his Indonesian counterpart, General Suharto, visited the tomb in Macassar outside Cape Town where the sheik was buried. Mandela called him the forefather of the liberation struggle in South Africa and Sheik Yusuf was declared a National Hero of the Republic of Indonesia.

The sheik was part of the royal family of the island of Celebes (now Sulawesi in Indonesia) and grew up in the palace of Sultan Alauddin Tumenangra ri Gaukanna. From an early age he stood out as an exceptionally intelligent and spiritual boy and was instructed by the best imams in different Muslim centres.

He was only 18 when he undertook the long pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's holiest city. On the way he spent time on the island of Java, where he befriended the crown prince of Banten, who would later become the sultan, and he also visited Istanbul.

Yusuf studied in Mecca and Jeddah for several years and soon became one of the most influential Muslim intellectuals of his time. He then returned to Banten, where he became the spiritual adviser of his old friend, now Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa. The sultan launched an armed rebellion against the VOC in 1680, with Yusuf as one of his fighting generals. The revolt was suppressed but Yusuf continued fighting and was captured in 1686.

The colonial rulers realised that the usual punishment for armed rebellion, execution, would only provoke a worse war because of the sheik's status as a popular and spiritual leader. He and his two wives, their children and 12 imams in his company were therefore sent into exile in Batavia (now Jakarta).

South Africa and Indonesia jointly issued a postage stamp featuring Sheik Yusuf in 2011.
South Africa and Indonesia jointly issued a postage stamp featuring Sheik Yusuf in 2011.

Influential exile

But here it was also clear that he was very influential and would not do an about-turn. He was regarded as a kind of saint — people picked up his betel nut chew, for example, and treasured it as a sacred item. He was then sent to Colombo (in today's Sri Lanka), where he was visited by Muslim intellectuals from all over the region and wrote many books. He wrote in Malay, Arabic and other local languages ​​and many of his books are still in libraries all over the world. One of his most famous works, Zubdah al-Asrar, was translated in 1990 by Prof Suleman Dangor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal as The Essence of Secrets.

At their wits' end, the VOC decided to send Yusuf as far away as possible from their territories in the East — to the Cape of Good Hope.

He arrived in Table Bay with his wives, children and imams (and, interestingly, a few slaves in his possession) in 1694 with a warning from the VOC bosses that he was a powerful man and royalty and should be treated as such. He was received by Governor Simon van der Stel and was first housed in the Castle. Later, he and his retinue were moved to the farm Zandvliet, between today's Khayelitsha and the Strand, because it was feared that he would promote Islam among the slaves of the Cape.

And that is exactly what he did. Slaves who deserted and other exiles from Makassar flocked to his homestead. The historian Achmat Davids believes Zandvliet became the first real Muslim community in South Africa.

Sheik Yusuf died of natural causes on 22 May 1699 at the age of 77 and was buried on the farm. It was later renamed Macassar, as it is still called today, and his kramat is still visited by pilgrims from all over.

The sheik's wives, children, imams and slaves were taken back to the island of Celebes in 1705, but two imams and one of his daughters, Sitti (also spelled Zytia) Sarah Marouff, decided to remain in the Cape. She later married another Muslim royal exile, Adbul Basir, the raja of Tambora.

The raja arrived at the Cape in chains in 1679 and was kept in a cell in the Castle until Sheik Yusuf insisted he should be released. He then settled on the farm Vergelegen, property of Willem Adriaan van der Stel, in today's Somerset West. He and Van der Stel soon became good friends and he lived a luxurious life. He presented Van der Stel with a handwritten copy of the Koran. He was allowed to live in Batavia in 1710, but when he got up to his old tricks and rebelled against the VOC, he was sent back to the Cape. He died in 1719.

Sheik Yusuf of Makassar's kramat in Macassar outside Cape Town.
Sheik Yusuf of Makassar's kramat in Macassar outside Cape Town.

Branching of the family tree 

Here's an interesting twist. All the children of the raja and Sitti became Christians. Colonial historians believe it was by choice or because it made it easier for them to fit in with the ruling class at the time, while several Muslim historians claim they were forced to renounce Islam.

Their son Ebrahim Adahan was baptised in 1721 and changed his name to Abraham de Haan. He married Helena Valentynse (daughter of the slaves Hercules Valentynse and Cecilia van Bangale). After his death, Helena married Hendrik Kotze and they had a daughter named Johanna Adriana Kotze.

De Haan and Helena's daughter Maria married Johann Anton Adolph Butger, and their daughter Christina Alesia married Francois Johannes Retief. The historian Robert Shell believed the Voortrekker leader Piet Retief was one of their descendants, but other Retief researchers say he confused it with another Retief branch.

A lot of other Indonesian and Malay political activists and imams were sent to the Cape by the VOC. Most of them died there and left behind descendants.

An example is one of the rulers of Java, Saloringpasar, who was exiled with his family to the Cape in 1715. He adopted the name Loring Pasar and the VOC gave him a farm with a large house next to the Eerste River  in Stellenbosch. His brother, Pangeran Dipanegara, was also exiled to the Cape and moved in with Pasar. They were sophisticated people and were treated like royalty, moved around as they pleased and were allowed to practise Islam, the first time this had happened in Stellenbosch. Loring Pasar died of old age and his brother was repatriated as an old man.

Another example is Raden Mas Kreti, son of another Java ruler, who was taken to the Cape in 1750 when he was only 17. He was a popular guest in Governor Rijk Tulbagh's social circles and was even allowed to travel to Europe. There is a note in the Cape records that on occasion he led the Eid al-Fitr ceremony to celebrate the end of Ramadan in what is today the Bo-Kaap. He married his slave Sarah and their son, Wirjakusuma, later became a powerful Muslim leader in Java.

One of the influential Muslim exiles at the Cape was from Yemen: Sai'd Alowie, who arrived in the Cape in 1744 and was detained on Robben Island. After his release, he worked as a policeman and at night taught slaves in the Slave Lodge to read and write. Some researchers call him the first real imam at the Cape.

In the latter decades of the 1700s, one Muslim exile towered above all others: Prince Abdullah Kadi Abu Salaam of Tidore, one of the Maluku Islands in Eastern Indonesia. He was sent to the Cape in 1780 and is still famous in the Muslim community today as Tuan Guru (Master Teacher). He is seen as the real father of Islam in South Africa.

Tuan Guru was detained for 12 years on Robben Island, where he wrote two copies of the Koran from memory — one is still kept in the Dorp Street Mosque — and a book on Islamic law that was used as a manual by Muslims in the Cape for many decades.

After his release in 1792, he founded the first madrassa (Muslim school) in South Africa in Dorp Street and held the first public Juma (Friday prayers) in the stone quarry in Chiappini Street in the Bo-Kaap — which was still illegal at the time.

He died in 1807 and was buried in the Tana Baru cemetery in the Bo-Kaap.

‘Potatoes become rocks’

Many myths and stories about Tuan Guru were told for many years after his death. The controversial Afrikaans writer ID du Plessis, at one stage head of the Institute of Malay Studies at the University of Cape Town and during the 1950s the commissioner of “Coloured Affairs", writes in his book The Cape Malays (1972): “One [of the stories] relates how Tuan Guru one morning found himself among the crowd at Groentemarkplein, then still a vegetable market, when a European farmer arrived with a wagonload of bags which he packed in the potato section. When Tuan Guru asked him what was in the bags, his answer was: stones. The Malay tapped the bags with his staff as he walked away. When the auctioneer arrived to sell the farmer's potatoes, it was found that all the bags contained stones. Only after the farmer pleaded with him did the Tuan tap the bags again and turned the stones into potatoes again."

Tuan Guru's school grew rapidly, and when imam Achmat van Bengalen was schoolmaster in 1825 there were about 500 pupils. It was in this school, says Achmat Davids, that the written language of the Cape Muslim community, Arabic-Afrikaans, which was commonly used until the 1930s, originated.

Davids, one of the leading experts on the roots of Afrikaans, maintains that the first printed book in Afrikaans was Al Qawal Al Matim in Arabic script in 1865, six years before the first Afrikaans book in Roman script, LH Meurant's Zamenspraak tusschen Klaas Waarzegger and Jan Twijfelaar. Other researchers differ from him.

(I made a documentary film about the Afrikaans Language Monument for the SABC in 1994. Davids said in an interview that by rights the monument should not have been erected in Paarl but in the Bo-Kaap.)

Islam began to flourish at the Cape after the British takeover in 1806. Building mosques and madrassas was easier then and Muslims could worship freely.

Six years after the slaves were freed in 1834, some 6,500 people in the Cape, about a third of the population, identified as Muslims.


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