The First Among us by Lindani Mchunu


A Khoi woman who worked as a domestic servant in the Van Riebeeck house and a translator for the Dutch authorities. Her marriage was the first recorded union between a ‘native’ and a ‘settler’. She was banished to Robben Island.

“Krotoa (known as Eva to the Dutch and English settlers) was the niece of Autshumao, a Khoi leader and interpreter to the Dutch (he was known as Harry/Herry first by the English and then by the Dutch).

A young Krotoa, of about 10 or 11 years old, was taken in by Jan van Riebeeck during the first few days of Dutch settlement in the Cape. She worked as a servant to the Commander’s wife, Maria van Riebeek (nee de la Quellerie), and is first mentioned in van Riebeeck’s diary in January 1654 as ‘a girl who had lived with us’. She mastered Dutch and Portuguese and responded eagerly to Christian instruction given her by Maria.


Krotoa ( Eva)

As her command of the Dutch language and her familiarity with Dutch ways grew, so did her usefulness as an interpreter. Krotoa established herself as a staunch friend of the Dutch, negotiating a co-operative relationship between the fort and the followers of her rich relative Oedasoa. She was later instrumental in working out terms for ending the First Dutch Khoikhoi War.

In the 1650s Eva was the only figure possessing an intimate knowledge of both Khoikhoi and Dutch culture; as she passed back and forth between one society and the other, she exchanged her Dutch clothing for Khoikhoi skins, and vice versa. However, her work as an interpreter was not easy at this time, as she was torn between her loyalty to the Dutch (who had taken her in and given her new clothes) and her own people (whose land was being taken over by the Dutch in the late 1650s). Due to this dilemma, Krotoa often struggled to maintain trust on both sides.

This struggle is evident in a report by van Riebeeck’s diarist, who recorded the words of the Khoi chief and interpreter, Doman: ‘I am a Hottentot and not a Dutchman, but you, Eva, try to curry favour with the Commander [van Riebeeck].’ Doman therefore saw her as a traitor.

Yet van Riebeeck, who understood that Krotoa was the niece of the Goringhaicona Chief Autshumao (Harry), felt she was overly devoted to her uncle.  Ironically it was according to Krotoa’s advice (supported by Doman) that van Riebeeck once had Autshumato captured and sent to Robben Island.

In 1662 Krotoa became the first indigenous Southern African to be baptised a Christian, and the Dutch settlers named her Eva. But in the same year, the Van Riebeeck’s left the Cape leaving Krotoa feeling vulnerable.  She was recommended to Van Riebeeck’s successor, Wagenaer, but the new Governor was suspicious of her. This was partly because of the fact that she left to visit her people from time to time. Life was also extremely hard for Krotoa after the deaths of both Autshumato and Doman, as she remained the only experienced go-between at the Cape.”
Krotoa (Eva) –

There are those among us who manage two worlds, in an attempt to someday unite them.  We seek this unification not only for peace and cohesion, but for ourselves. Our state of being is constantly oscillating between that which we were born to be and that which we wish to become. We find ourselves at odds with our past, present and future.

Upon reading Eva’s story I found myself amused at how life is one big recycling machine. More than 300 years ago, a young Khoi woman was grappling with the very same issues that plague my mind and so many others like me. Across colour, gender, class, religion, ideology, there are those among us who have never seen the world in black and white.

We see grey, we see colour, we see diversity and complexity and embrace all of it. We find ourselves in conversations around those that we relate with, but not relating to the conversation. We find ourselves in rooms with supposed enemies relating to a similar frustration, sharing the same sentiment and walking away unsure of why we are enemies.

The world has never known what to do with us, for the sky must reflect the ocean and there can be no in-between. Yet we keep pointing to the dance we see between the Sun and the Ocean and the amazing Colors that are painted across the very same sky, during sunset. How can the world not see? How can the world not see?

See you on the water.



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