Who Views Who? The Khoisan pages
An educational information resource
Provided by the Future Perfect Corporation

The view of the San, Bushmen or Khoikhoi has always been through European eyes - this is because Europeans have a long tradition of recording written history, and so it is easier for people to reference this information. During the Middle Ages, Africa was known as the Dark Continent. Accounts of people to be found in Africa came from Greek and Roman sources, and they included descriptions of monstrous people who had names like Scopapods (one-legged people), Anthropophages (man-eaters), Troglodytae (blind people living in caves).

The first travellers to the 'edges' of the world expected to meet these monstrous races. What they found were people who were very different from themselves that the Europeans had no difficulty in placing them into one or other of the expected categories. For example, Augustin de Beaulieu in 1620 described the Khoikhoi as "the most miserable savages which have been discovered up to now, since they know nothing of sowing or of gear for ploughing or cultivating the soil". John Jourdain in 1608 thought they might be cannibals" they could come to eate mans flesh, they would not make any scruple of it, for I think the world doth not yield a more heathenish people and more beastlie." This image of the Khoikhoi was thus created by Europeans, and in some ways it has lasted to the present day.

When Europeans met hostility among the natives of the place where they called, they often referred to them as cannibals, a name which expressed their fears of the unknown, and which was used to justify, as self-defence, any steps they took against the native inhabitants.

With the foundation of the colony at Table Bay, day-to-day contact modified the impressions of the Europeans, however, the ideology of superiority, along with an economy based on the merchant wealth of one of the world's great maritime empires, made it impossible for them to accept the Khoikhoi as equals. The Khoikhoi's infinitely superior ability to deal with the African environment was not given any value, even though this knowledge enabled the early colonists to adapt to the landscape as they trekked beyond the settlement of Cape Town. When historians investigate earlier writings they sometimes find that they were not based on first hand observations of the writer. These stories were copied, or used as if they were their own ideas, by later writers and spread more widely in the guise of first-hand information. For example:

1813 John Campbell: 'The name Bushmen perhaps originated.. 1st From their country .. being almost destitute of trees, but much of it being covered with bushes: 2nd From their method of assault, as they never attack man or beast openly but from behind bushes.'

1820 Barnabas Shaw: 'The race of people called Bushmen, are thus designated from the place of their residence, which is among the bushes; or from the concealed manner in which they make an attack either to kill or plunder.'

1799 James Kicherer: Bushmen were ' total strangers to domestic happiness …(and) will kill their children without remorse as when they are ill-shaped, when they are in want of food, when the father of a child has forsaken its mother, or when obliged to flee from the Farmers or others… There are instances of parents throwing their tender off-spring to the hungry Lion … Many of these wild Hottentots live by plunder and murder, and are guilty of the most horrid and atrocious actions.'

1820 Barnabas Shaw: 'The Bushmen are altogether the slaves of passion. They are deeply versed in deceit, and treacherous in the extreme" .."Cruelty, in its most shocking forms, is familiar. Hottentots seldom destroy their offspring but the Bushmen will kill them on various occasions, as, when they are in need of food; when obliged to flee from their enemies; when the child is ill-shaped; or, when the father has forsaken its mother. There are also instances of parents throwing their children to the hungry lion, when he has approached their residence.'

The Khoikhoi
Reconstructing the Past
Where did they come from?
What did they do?
Social Organisation
Stock Ownership and Management
Religion and Nature
Further reading
The reference books used for the development of this site are recommended reading of the University of Cape Town and may be purchased online at Kalahari.net: Discovering Southern African Rock Art, The Bushmen of Southern Africa, Once We Were Hunters, The Cape Herders.
About this page
Where did it come from?
Developed by: Alan Levin
Edited by: Carolyn Neville
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