On 24 December 1651 Jan van Riebeeck set off, accompanied by his wife and son, from Texel in the Netherlands for the Cape of Good Hope having been appointed on a five-year contract as an employee of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). His task was to set up a refreshment station which could be used by VOC ships on their way to the spice-rich Far East.
His ship, the Drommedaris, sailed with two other ships, Reijger and De Goede Hoop, and Table Mountain was sighted on the 5th of April 1652. Within a week of his landing on 6 April, Van Riebeeck had begun work on the Fort of Good Hope.
For centuries most writers of South African history regarded the arrival of Europeans in this southern region of Africa as the starting point of South African history. The assumption was that because southern Africa did not have societies that documented its history in a written form, it had no history and was hence inferior to such cultures that documented history in written and bureaucratic forms. The arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in April 1652 at the Cape of Good Hope to establish a refreshment station for the Dutch East India Company's trading ships that were en route to East Asia marked the beginning of permanent European settlement in the region. This event has been used consistently until well into the second half of the twentieth century to justify the eventual colonisation of what was to become known as South Africa. It was only in the 1960s that some historians began to revise their thinking and understanding of what history can be: that all people and cultures produce history in various forms and expressions, and that these need not be transmitted solely in a written form to be regarded as "history".
Countless generations of school students as well as other students of history grew up with the idea that South African history began when the Dutch East India Company, also known by its Dutch acronym, the VOC, had sent Jan van Riebeeck to the Cape of Good Hope to establish a refreshment station to supply the crew of the Company's passing trading ships with fresh water, vegetables and fruit, meat and medical assistance. Indeed, if one were to understand past solely in terms of written documents of battles, buildings and bureaucracy, then "history" did begin with the arrival of Van Riebeeck. The VOC certainly had that view of history, because Van Riebeeck came equipped with a document called the Remonstrantie, which had been drawn up in the Netherlands in 1649 and which was a recommendation on the suitability of the Cape for this VOC project.
When Van Riebeeck left the Netherlands in 1651 for the Cape, a bureaucratic governing structure for the refreshment station, the Council of Policy, had already been established. On board his ship the Dromedaris Van Riebeeck conducted official meetings with his officials. The minutes of the meetings of the Council of Policy dated December 1651 have been carefully archived and are looked upon as the first public or governmental record of South Africa, a document that has binding value for those in power as well as those who had been subjugated.
On the other hand, the indigenous population on whose land van Riebeeck was to carry out the refreshment station project, the Khoikhoi and the San, lived a semi-nomadic culture, which included hunting and gathering. Since they did not have a written culture, they had neither written title deeds for their land, nor did they have the bureaucratic framework within which to negotiate the sale or renting of land with strangers from a culture with written records supported by a bureaucratic system of governance. Hence Van Riebeeck, coming as he did from a bureaucratic culture with a unilateral, albeit written, mandate to establish a refreshment station, refused to acknowledge that land ownership could be organised in ways different from the Dutch/European way. He denied the Khoisan right and title to the land, claiming that there was no written evidence of the true ownership of the land. Consequently within three years of his attempt at establishing a refreshment station on the land of the Khoikhoi and San, the Khoikhoi embark on the first of an unsuccessful series of armed resistance against the Dutch invasion and appropriation of their land that was to continue for at least one hundred and fifty years.
The Dutch colonial administrators documented this history of colonisation in reports, memoranda, maps and correspondence and other forms of records in their archives in Cape Town and in the Netherlands. The indigenous people recorded this history in their various oral forms of history. As far as the colonists were concerned, their claims to the land had more validity than those of the Khoikhoi since they had written proof of ownership in the form of title deeds, reports of battles and peace agreements and settlements, land grants and birth certificates. Orality became powerless against the written record.
In a sense the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in April 1652 was the irreversible beginning of the end of indigenous cultures, of their ways of organising society and of knowing. Far from merely establishing a refreshment station, Van Riebeeck opened up the floodgates for the total colonisation of independent political entities and free people. Hence a question for students of history around commemorating the arrival of Europeans is: what role can the study, writing and oral recording of history play in coming to terms with the legacy of colonisation?