The Contact Zone in South Africa:
Gender, Empire and Sixteenth-century Portuguese Shipwreck Narratives
Van Riebeeck’s Cape settlement of 1652 is considered by historians a central founding moment in South Africa’s history, as is Bartholomeu Dias’s rounding of the Cape in 1488 and Vasco da Gama’s landfall ten years later. In an impressive feat of archival scholarship published in 1967, Major Raven-Hart expanded South African’s knowledge of early records by assembling excerpts from over a hundred and fifty lesser-known chronicles. The extracts collected in Before Van Riebeeck: Callers to South Africa: 1488-1652 provide topographical information that is relatively unremarkable—after all, cloud-bedecked Table Mountain, the duned or rocked-out seashore, the rushing or languid rivers, the smallish or largish islands have been relatively stable geographic features for hundreds, if not thousands, of years—but the proto-ethnographic data about inhabitants’ sexual organs, personal hygiene, food preferences, and language are nothing short of preposterous. Here’s Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in 1649: “As soon as a male child is born the mother cuts away his right testicle and gives him sea-water to drink and tobacco to chew.”
I propose there is a more reliable set of early contact narratives for understanding encounters between indigenous Africans and Europeans before and during the era of Van Riebeeck’s settlement, an important corpus of orginary history that was largely ignored by Raven-Hart and other historians of the contact zone. These are the Portuguese shipwreck chronicles, remarkable journals and reports that describe overland marches of up to 500 shipwreck survivors along the Eastern Cape and Natal coastline between 1552 and 1686. I will argue in this paper that the accounts written by Portuguese shipwreck survivors provide a contact ethnography so at odds with Raven-Hart’s extracted passages that “regional variation” does not begin to explain the difference.