Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Women who did time at Robben Island - the Dutch Years

While volumes had already been written on the subject of Robben Island's most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, not much is known about the women who hadspent time on the island, whether as inmates, as workers or for other reasons.

Incidentally, one early name of Robben Island was Isla de Cornelia, to honor the mother of a Dutch ship captain Joris van Spilbergen who stopped there during the early 1600s.

The first known group of Robben Islanders that might have included women, was that of Autshumato's people. Autshumato, better known to history books as Harry, was a Khoi man who had been taken by the British to England, where he learned their language. Upon his return, he began to act as an interpreter. During the 1630s, Autshumato's small group of followers lived from time to time on Robben Island, scavenging penguins for food.

From 1657, relatively soon after the 1652 founding of the Cape Colony, a Dutch postholder was stationed on the island, and several of the wives of such officials are known to have accompanied their husbands. Jan Wouterssin, the first postholder went in disgrace, disciplined for insulting behaviour and it was noted that his punishment was mitigated only in consideration of his (unnamed) slave wife, who was pregnant at the time.

Another woman sent to Robben Island was the slave Eva, who was to help with lime gathering operations. About her, Wouterssin had many complaints. Allegedly, she would not obey any directions and spent most of her time chasing sheep around. At the time, there was still relatively few slaves in the Cape and Eva came from Madagascar, which had been under French rule since 1642. What language barriers this poor woman had to overcome in a Dutch-speaking community, can only be imagined. Eva returned to the mainland around the same time Wouterssin did.

Jan Sacharias, fourth postholder on Robben Island, had married an ex-slave named Maria of Bengal who also lived there.

By far the most famous woman to live on Robben Island during this period, was Krotoa, also known as Eva, the young Khoi interpreter who could easily be described as the Pocahontas of the Cape. The niece of Autshumato, she had a gift for languages, being fluent in Dutch, English, French and Portuguese. Embracing colonial life, she married Danish explorer and doctor Pieter van Meerhoff and accompanied him to the Robben Island in 1665 when he became its administrator. When he was killed, she returned to Dutch society on the mainland in September
1668, but grief and alienation led to problems with alcoholism. When she became too much of a scandal for the colony, she was returned to the desolate island, in March 1669 this time as inmate. She died there on the 29th of July, 1674.

The majority of those imprisoned on Robben Island during Dutch Rule were male, but in 1677, a Dutch widow, Mayke van der Berg, is named as having spent a month there for theft, before being deported. According to some reports, no women stayed on the island after this time, but one story contradicts this. In 1728, one of the inhabitants of Robben Island, was a royal exile, the Prince of Ternaten in the Moluccas, whose gambling and womanizing with female slaves became so notorious, he was actually removed from the island. None of his female companions were named, though.

More about women who lived on Robben Island in my next blog entry.

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