Love, lust and larceny at the Cape of Good Hope


Love, lust and larceny at the Cape of Good Hope

The wealthiest woman at the Cape in the early 1700s was the daughter of a slave and the owner of many slaves herself. Her remarkable Asian mother ‘belonged' to Jan van Riebeeck. This is a story about the Cape ancestors of today’s Bassons, De Wets, Vissers, Berghs, Groenewalds and Mosterts; also a story of heartbreak, triumph and corruption. By MAX DU PREEZ. #HeritageDay


IN 1657, Dutch East India Company (VOC) commander Jan van Riebeeck bought two slaves from Pieter Kemp, commander of the Amersfoort, who was on his way home from the East. Angela and Domingo van Bengalen (they were from Bengal on the Indian subcontinent) were among the first slaves at the Cape.

Angela worked in the Van Riebeeck household and quickly learnt to speak Dutch. Just before he left the Cape, Van Riebeeck sold her to a senior officials, Abraham Gabbema, which meant she continued to live at the fort.

On April 13, 1666, Gabbema, who was leaving for Batavia, freed Angela and her three children out of “pure fondness” and because of her loving relationship with the Gabbema children. She was only the third slave the Cape to be manumitted; the two before her had married white men.

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Angela then trained as a baker, but in February 1667 she was granted a plot in what is today Cape Town’s central business district, on the corner of present-day St George’s Mall and Krotoa Place (formerly Castle Street). She was also given a garden plot, probably near the Company’s Garden, and VOC records refer to her plot having been transformed “from wilderness to a garden with great labour and expense”.

Time to interrupt Angela’s story.

A young Khoe woman of the Goringhaikona clan, called Sara by the Dutch, who worked for the bailiff, Hendrik Lacus, was baptised as a Christian and spoke fluent Dutch and Portuguese. But when Lacus was deported after stealing company property, she went to work for Angela at her garden plot.

On December 18, 1671, Sara hanged herself in a stable at the plot, the first recorded suicide at the Cape.

According to the medical doctor, Willem ten Rhijne, Sara hanged herself out of “despair” because a white man who “wanted to further his lust” had promised to marry her then gone back on his word.

Like her more famous klanswoman of the time, Krotoa, she had chosen to integrate with Dutch society and was thus estranged from her own people. But she was never really accepted by white society.

The VOC council of justice saw her suicide as a rejection of European values and an act of ingratitude after all the settlers had done for her.

The council decided to make an example of Sara. A hole was dug under the threshold of the shed where she had killed herself and a mule dragged her body through it — an old European custom.

Her body was then put up on a forked post at the fort so everybody could see it and be warned. Birds picked at the body until it had completely rotted away.

Assimilation did not work for Sara, but it did for Angela. In 1668 she was baptised as a Christian and bought her own slave, Scipio Africanus, also from Bengal, and later two more Bengali slaves.

At the end of that year, she married Arnoldus Willemsz Basson, a former VOC soldier who became a fisherman and farmer.

Angela, by now known as Maai (mother) Ansiela, and Arnoldus baptised seven children between 1670 and 1695. She is the mater familia of all Bassons in South Africa. All her daughters married Dutch men.

Maai Ansiela died in 1720. She owned eight slaves, a farm with 300 sheep and 63 head of cattle, her initial house and plot in St George’s Street, and had 15,000 guilders to her name.

Her daughter from a previous union with one De Koning, Anna, became even more successful after she married the Swedish aristocrat Oloff Bergh, a senior military officer, explorer and friend of governor Simon van der Stel, in 1677. They had 11 children. All the Berghs alive in South Africa and many of the De Wets, Vissers, Groenewalds and Mosterts can count him as an ancestor.

Sexual liaisons, even marriages, between slave women and settler men were not uncommon at the time. In 1685, for instance, VOC commissioner Hendrik van Rheede found that 44 of the 92 slave women in the company’s Slave Lodge had children with white men. In 1683, report Richard Elphick and Robert Shell in The Shaping of South African Society, there were almost as many “mixed-blood” as “pure-blood” children at school at the Cape. They quote the early researcher OF Mentzel that it was common in the 18th century for teenage sons of respectable Cape families to “get entangled with a handsome slave girl belonging to the household” and get her pregnant. In such cases, the girl was rebuked but the boy’s escapade was “a source of amusement”.

Historian Hans Heese found 191 German settlers at the Cape in the last four decades of the 17th century who married or lived with women who were not “pure-blood” Europeans. Most of the slave women courted by white men were of Indian origin rather than from Africa or Madagascar. Many slave women sought liaisons with white men because it was the quickest and surest way to gain their freedom.

It has been calculated that about 7% of the genetic make-up of white Afrikaners today was contributed by slave (and in a few cases, Khoekhoen) foremothers. In Portrait of a Slave Society, Karel Schoeman quotes Robert Ross as saying “between 1657 and 1807, 480 women of apparently ‘black’ descent married into the white population”. Prof JL Hattingh of the University of the Western Cape, quoted by RE Van der Ross in Up From Slavery, traced the descendants of a slave couple, Louis van Bengale and Lijsbeth van de Kaap. They had three daughters, but she also had three other daughters with European men. Hattingh calculated in 1980 that Lijsbeth’s contribution to white society in South Africa numbered between 243,000 and 246,000.

JA Heese and C Pama calculated that in 1876, people who saw themselves as Afrikaners had 34.8% Dutch blood, 33.7% German, 13.2% French, 7% “people of colour”, 5.2% British and 6.1% others.

Back to Olof and Anna. Their story could easily have played out in present-day South Africa.

On April 16, 1686, a ship owned by the king of Portugal, the Nostra Senhora dos Milagros, ran onto the rocks on the Struisbaai side of Cape Agulhas. It had a rich trove of gold, silver and diamonds on board. Van der Stel dispatched his old friend Bergh to salvage the wreck.  

The Bergh party stayed on the ship for 12 days, claiming that most of the cargo area was under water and so unsalvageable. He declared only a few iron pieces, anchors, cables, some porcelain, cinnamon, carpets and cloth. Most of the chests, he said, had been opened and looted by the slaves.

Now this report was clearly not the truth. Jewellery and other objects of silver, gold and diamonds started surfacing among the wealthier citizens at the Cape, and gossip spread like wildfire that Bergh and his men had made a killing. One of Bergh’s men at the salvage operation, Sergeant Christoffel Henningh, was found in possession of valuables from the wreck.

A year later, Bergh was hauled before the court of justice. He repeated his version that the boxes with the most valuable items had been broken open and the contents stolen when he arrived aboard the ship, but he was betrayed by Sergeant Henningh, who had already been convicted of theft.

Bergh was detained at the Castle until he confessed on May 5, when he was taken to his home to dig up the gold items (and a flask of musk) that he had hidden in his garden, and return them to the VOC. Two weeks later he was imprisoned on Robben Island, where he spent four years.

Bergh protested to the VOC’s Seventeen Gentlemen that he had had an unfair trial. In 1690, they agreed and ordered Van der Stel to free Bergh and allow him to go to Batavia or Ceylon, if he wished, or to remain at the Cape. Bergh chose Ceylon, where he worked for the VOC until his return to the Cape in 1695.  

No-one researching his activities at the time can possibly come to any other conclusion than that he had not given all the loot from the Nostra Senhora dos Milagros back to the VOC; that he now, after his return, dug up considerable riches he had buried years before. His first farm was De Hoop, now in the Cape Town city bowl. His second was Phesantekraal (now Fisantekraal near Durbanville, next to the N7 to Malmesbury). Then he bought De Kuylen, where today’s Kuils River is, and Saxenburg in the same area.

In 1716, Bergh bought the jewel of the Cape, Great Constantia, with its wonderful vinyards and magnificent homestead and outbuildings. He spent the last years of his life there in great luxury.

His widow, Anna, inherited Groot Constantia and lived there in much the same luxury after his death in 1724.

Anna died in 1733 as the wealthiest woman at the Cape. Besides Groot Constantia, she owned several plots in Table Valley, two farms near Piketberg and a house on the Heerengracht, where her 24 adult slaves and their children lived.

♦ VWB ♦

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