The Cape peninsula on the southern tip of Africa is a world of sun and seas, towering mountains, forests, wild animals, fertile valleys of olives, vineyards, crops and livestock – and, inevitably, rivers of blood.
Back in time our ancestors, gathered around a great fire recounting their day’s activities, talked about their spoils from the hunt, the pelagic riches caught in the sea, their discoveries on walks in the mountains. These tales were repeated, passed down by word of mouth, became knowledge transmitted from one generation to the next, and over time were merged with myth and legend.
The Stone Age people flourished here 600 000 to 30 000 years ago, followed by groups of hunter-gatherers. About 2000 years ago, nomadic herders domesticated herds of cattle and sheep. The Khoikhoi – a Nama word meaning people – were skilled pastoralists and livestock farmers who settled beneath Table Mountain and other areas around the peninsula with fresh water. When European settlers first arrived here it is estimated there were about 8000 Khoisan living in the area.
In 1510 the Khoikhoi fought a historic battle against the Portuguese Viceroy Dom Fancisco Almeida, defeating his forces in Table Bay and killing the commander. Almeida’s humiliating end at the hands of the original inhabitants of the Cape put a temporary end to Portugal’s sequence of military and naval victories in Africa.
There were a couple of brief descriptions of Almeida’s death in 19th century writings at the Cape. John Philip in his Researches in South Africa (1828) wrote:
‘When the Portuguese first visited the Cape of Good Hope, they found the inhabitants rich in cattle, living in a happy and comfortable manner, and possessed of sufficient spirit to repel aggression and to resent unjust treatment . . . . It was said that they were remarkable for the excellence of their morals, that they kept the law of nations better than the most civilized peoples, and that they were valiant in arms. Of this latter quality, they gave a memorable proof in the year 1510, when Francisco Almeida, the first viceroy of the Portuguese India, was defeated and killed in an obstinate engagement with the Hottentots, near the Salt River, in the neighbourhood of where Cape Town now stands.’*
In a speech delivered to parliament to mark the retirement of Nelson Mandela on 26 March 1999, South African President Thabo Mbeki referred to the victory of the Khoikhoi over Almeida and his forces in Table Bay on 1 March 1510:
‘We are blessed because you [Mandela] have walked along the road of our heroes and heroines. For centuries our own African sky has been dark with suffering and foreboding. But because we have never surrendered, for centuries the menace in our African sky has been brightened by the light of our stars. In the darkness of our night, the victory of the Khoikhoi in 1510 here in Table Bay, when they defeated and killed the belligerent Portuguese admiral and aristocrat, Dom Francisco de Almeida, the first Portuguese viceroy in India, has lit our skies for ever.’*
*Remembering the Khoikhoi victory over Dom Francisco Almeida at the Cape in 1510 by David Johnson