Although Genadendal is today a melting pot of different cultures and faiths, it was originally established with the purpose of evangelizing the Khoikhoi, some of whom ended up settling in the area after being forced out of the Cape by Dutch settlers.

Khoikhoi family
17th century sketch of Khoikhoi family with cattle

The word “Khoisan” is the collective name given to describe two separate indigenous groups of the South Western regions of Africa, namely the Khoi (aka Khoe) who were herders and the San who were hunter-gatherers.

The Khoikhoi (aka Khoekhoe) were scattered throughout the region into various tribes, each led by a traditional chief.

Khoikhoi territories before European contact
Khoikhoi territories before European contact

Tribes were constantly on the move in search of fresh grazing for their livestock and thus lived in simple huts that could be quickly broken down or rebuilt.
The huts were oval in shape and were made of branches stuck into the ground, which were then tied together and covered with woven reed mats. The size of a hut varied depending on the size of the family living in it. The mother was the head of the household with men being the protectors and providers.
The huts were arranged in camps called kraals which was a circular arrangements of huts with an open central area. Kraals would vary in size depending on natural resources and seasonal patterns but some have been noted to contain over 100 huts.


Although the Khoikhoi did hunt occasionally, their lives and lifestyle was intimately woven with that of their livestock, which also formed their main measure of wealth, as land itself could not be divided amoungst individuals. Chieftains were usually the ones with the most stock and were therefore most able to look after the kraal in times of difficulty.
Skilled herdsmen, it is said that 3 Khoikhoi men could easily herd 1000 heads of livestock.
Initially herding mainly sheep, cattle became their preferred livestock as a means of trade, after contact was made with Europeans.

When the first ships from Europe made their way to India in the late 1400’s, the Cape of Good Hope was the half way mark and was a good place to restock.
Some of the Khoikhoi set up a trading post at the Cape to meet the demands of the passing ships for fresh supplies. Trading water, livestock, meat and plant food for clothes, metal and beads.

See the Camissa People website for a more in-depth article on life at the Cape at this time.

Arrival of the Dutch

Jan Van Riebeeck, a commander under the employ of The Dutch East India Company (DEIC), arrived at the cape with instructions to set up their own refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652.

The Dutch were met by Autshumato also known as Harry the strandloper (beachcomber), who was an member of the Gorinhaikonas. The Gorinhaikona were a group of various Khoi tribesman who had set up camp at Table Bay with the sole purpose of trading with passing ships. When Van Riebeeck met him, Autshumato could already speak Portuguese, French and English. Autshumato was seen as the leader of the Gorinhaikonas. His ability to learn and speak multiple languages made him very useful to his people and the Europeans who were engaged in a trading relationship.

The Gorinhaikonas were used to having some of the Europeans stay for extended periods at Table Bay and had a reputation of being hospitable hosts. This hospitality was initially extended to Van Riebeeck and his men who camped alongside them. Over the next few months, Van Riebeeck proceeded to build a fort and from there started intercepting the trading with the passing ships. The Gorinhaikona, now being prevented from trading with the ships and ever adaptable, started providing services to the newly built fort.

In 1659, after an altercation, Autshumato and two others, Simon Boubou and Khamy, were banished by Jan Van Riebeeck and became the first prisoners on Robben Island. The following year Autshumato and one other prisoner escaped by stealing a rowing boat, which got them to the mainland. Autshumato and his fellow escapee are the only people to successfully escape from Robben Island. A year later he applied for pardon and resumed his duties as an interpreter. He died a few years later in 1663.

Autshumato had a young niece Kratoa (aka Eva) who was taken in by Van Riebeeck as a servant girl for his wife. She learnt to speak Dutch, Portuguese and French and was pivotal in maintaining relations between the Dutch and Khoikhoi, being the only person with an understanding of both cultures and able to speak both languages fluently. She became chief interpreter for Jan Van Riebeeck and was a major influence in peace negotiations in the first Khoi-Dutch war. Kratoa is regarded by many to be the mother of Afrikaans, which emerged as she attempted to interpret multiple languages into Dutch.

She became the first Khoikhoi to convert to Christianity, later marrying a Danish soldier and explorer Pieter Van Meerhof with whom she had 3 children. When Pieter died on an expedition in Madagascar, Kratoa took a turn for the worst. She started drinking heavily, was eventually charged with immoral behaviour and was banished to Robben Island where she died 5 years later.
A documentary on her fascinating life can be found here.


The Khoi-Dutch Wars

In 1658, tensions between the Khoikhoi and the Dutch reached boiling point in the form of a series of armed confrontations which initially were a result of disputes over land.

The first official Khoi-Dutch war was led by another Gorinhaikona called Douman in 1659.
Having also been sent to present day Indonesia to become an interpreter, he witnessed first hand how the Dutch reduced indigenous people to servitude. On his return, he became Jan Van Riebeeck’s staunchest critic and actively tried to rally other Khoi tribes to revolt against the Dutch.
On a cold and wet day on 19 May 1659 he led a series of raids on the free burghers’ herds. Douman had waited for rainy weather, knowing that the Dutch matchlock muskets could not be fired in the rain with damp powder.
After a year, lacking firearms and unwilling to storm the central fort, the Khoikhoi eventually signaled their willingness to parley. A peace was negotiated and the war ended in a stalemate.

Douman bronze statue at Cape Castle
Douman bronze statue at Cape Castle

The second and third Khoi-Dutch war occurred when the Dutch, in need of fertile grazing ground for their livestock, approached Khoikhoi chieftains in order to strike deals which would allow them to use Khoikhoi land for grazing. Gonnema was chief of the Cochoqua tribe which was one of the older and larger Khokhoi tribes at the Cape. Gonnema was willing to negotiate but due to the Dutch terms, he rejected the deal. The Dutch responded by looting his cattle repeatedly.
In 1673 Gonnema killed a hunting party of 8 Dutchmen. The next 4 years was dotted with various confrontations with Gonnema and his men on the one side and the Dutch and surprisingly, other Khoikhoi tribes on the other. The Khoikhoi tribes were naturally competitive with each other and this was used to divide them.

The Dutch were never able to apprehend Gonnema but they repeatedly engaged with his tribe, taking prisoners and cattle in the process. In 1677, after having lost over 5000 heads of cattle in the dispute, Gonnema approached the Dutch with a treaty for peace. 
The Dutch accepted the peace deal on condition that the Cochoqua give an annual tribute of 30 heads of cattle to the Dutch and to submit to their rule. 

This submission opened the door for the DEIC to “legally” and systematically squeeze the Cochoqua tribe out of the Cape by giving Dutch settlers exclusive use rights to Cochoqua grazing and watering locations. By the end of the 17th century there were virtually no independent Khoikhoi on the Cape plains. Those who chose to remain, ended up as farm labour for the new settlers. Others moved with their families and herds away from the Cape towards the interior of the country, some of whom settled near the Genadendal area. But they could ultimately not escape for long. The DEIC continued to expand their enterprise and repeated the processes with other Khoikhoi tribes in other parts of the region.