1. The Time of the Portuguese 1487-1647

Chapter 1 in the series WHO STOLE THE LAND?

— Soon after defeating the Moors at Ceuta in Moroccan Africa in 1415, King João I of Portugal appointed his son Henrique as Governor of the Algarve. Henrique became known as Prince Henry the Navigator who dispatched ships down the coast of Africa. By 1483 Diogo Cão reached the Congo River. By 1484 he landed in Angola and in 1485 he raised a stone cross, a padrão, at Cape Cross on the frightening northern Skeleton Coast of what is now Namibia.

In 1487 Bartolomeu Diaz set sail to find the sea route to India around the southern end of Africa. Diaz made his way south down the west coast of Africa and erected a padrão (at right) at Angra Pequena, the present day Lüderitz on the Namib Desert coast of Namibia.

Diaz and the Khoi people

Blown badly off course into the Southern Oceans, Diaz sailed north and struck land at a bay they called Bahia São Bras, the present day Mossel Bay. The year was 1488.

Here he became the first Westerner to meet the Khoekhoe (Khoi) people the Dutch would later call the “Hottentots”.  Diaz continued his journey along the coast, eventually planting another padrão at Boknes (below, on the headland). He continued the exploration up to what he called the Rio do Infante—The Great Fish River—but there his men threatened mutiny and he thought it better to turn for home.

In the next big step, Vasco da Gama departed Portugal on 8 July 1497 and sailed past the Cape to reach India on 14 May 1498, but not before firing a cannon1 at the Khoekhoe at Mossel Bay. Clearly the Portuguese and the Khoekhoe were not seeing eye to eye. We now proceed to consider Da Gama’s trip up the South African East Coast. The document we rely on here, is Ravenstein’s translation of Da Gama’s Journal.

Da Gama and the African Black people.

After stopping off at one of the islands in Algoa Bay, Da Gama sailed up the coast and saw cattle and “two men running” along the coast in the general area around the Fish River. We know this location, because he was already beyond the Fish River2 by the end of that day, 16 December 1497.  We do not know whether the men were Khoi or Ba’Ntu, but that point will be clarified later in this article. Da Gama describes the land and much in the way of cattle, but did not describe the people:

The country about here is very charming and well wooded; we saw much cattle, and the further we advanced the more did the character of the country improve, and the trees increase in size.

On Christmas Day 1497, Da Gama was “seventy leagues”3 beyond Diaz’s last point of exploration, the Great Fish River. Since there are 5.5 kilometres to a league, it means he was now 385 kilometers beyond Boknes. This places him around the mouth of the Mtamvuna River (below), just south of the present Port Edward. He named the land “Natal”.

Here, in fear of the easterly wind driving them onto land, they turned east for open sea. When they turned back, they were at the coast of the present day Mozambique. Here Da Gama finally and indisputably found Black people4:

On Thursday, January 11th [1498] we discovered a small river and anchored near the coast. On the following day we went close in shore in our boats, and saw a crowd of negroes, both men and women.

Thus, Da Gama found no Black people up to the Mtamvuna River and he cannot testify to who lived north of that river up to Mozambique. Theal puts the southern limit of the Ba’Ntu peoples along the Southern African east coast in the year 1500 at the Mtamvuna, the present southern border of the Province of KwaZulu-Natal5:

..north of a line drawn from a point about five and twenty or thirty miles above Walfish Bay on the Atlantic shore to the upper waters of the Vaal river, and thence curving to the mouth of the Umtamvuna, the country was occupied in the year 1500 by the Bantu.

It is unclear what Theal could possibly base his “Umtamvuna” comment on, but we give him the benefit of the doubt.

After Da Gama, the Portuguese dispatched a fleet a year around the Cape, but few touched the coast before getting to Mozambique. They used the island of St. Helena as refreshment station instead of the Cape of Good Hope. When Viceroy d’Almeida returned from India in 1510 and was killed by the Khoi at the Cape along with 64 other men, the Portuguese wrote off the wind-swept South African coast as a bad investment for their effort. They therefore added little new information until the loss of several ships in the 1600s.

The only people the Portuguese explorers of 1500 ever saw in South Africa up to the Mtamvuma River forming the southern border of Natal were Khoekhoe, not Black Africans.

♦ The Wreck of the São João Baptista (St. John the Baptist).

Several Portuguese ships were wrecked off the Southeast Coast of the country in the decades immediately preceding the Dutch arrival at the Cape. One of these was the São João Baptista on 29 September 1622, which is believed to have run aground at Cannon Rocks, 10km west of Kenton-on-Sea on the Bushman’s River. This is only about 30 years before the Dutch landed at the Cape of Good Hope.Francisco Vaz d’Alamada was one of the survivors of this epic wreck. What follows is from his description6 of the events of 3 October 1622, while they were still at the wreck site:

These negroes are whiter than mulattoes…
• … plunged their hands into the entrails of the ox while it was still alive and bellowing, and anointed themselves with its dung..
• … keeping for themselves the hide and entrails, which they placed on embers and ate on the spot.
• … we could never understand a word…their speech is not like that of man, and when they want to say anything they make clicks with their mouths at the beginning, middle, and end…

These were clearly Khoekhoe people. On 6 November 1622, the 279 survivors set off eastward along the coast7 for Inhambane in Mozambique, initially carrying some of their party in litters. By the narrator’s description, the first people they encountered were obviously Khoi:

The inhabitants live solely upon shell-fish, certain roots found in the earth, and the produce of the chase. They have no knowledge of any seed or other kind of provisions.

On 15 December 1622, after 38 days of marching, they found the first Black Ba’Ntu people8. D’Almada proves their ethnicity with the following statement:

…these Kaffirs could understand those we had brought with us from India.

Using a conservative calculation of 12 km of progress a day on average as the crow flies, this places them 460 kilometres along the coast from Cannon Rocks. This would mean they were likely near the Mtamvuna River at what is now Port Edward. Thus,

Thirty years before the Dutch founded the settlement at the Cape of Good Hope, the nearest coastal Black Ba’Ntu people still lived in the present KwaZulu-Natal.

Of the 270 souls who set out from Algoa Bay, only 27 survivors entered the island town of Mozambique off the coast of Northern Mozambique in a chanting procession, bearing a Christian cross before them. They had been reduced to cannibalism along the way through Natal, the ultimate taboo among the proud coastal Black people of South Africa.

♦ The Wreck of the Nossa Senhora de Belem.

Thirteen years after the loss of the São João Baptiste, in 1635, the Nossa Senhora de Belem ran aground at the Mzimvubu River at the present Port St. Johns on the Wild Coast. On this occasion, the shipwrecked Portuguese found9 a community of Black Ba’Ntu people living at that spot, identified by the fact that they grew millet. The Khoekhoe people never developed any form of agriculture, preferring to look down on those who tilled the earth.

Seventeen years before the Dutch founded the settlement at the Cape of Good Hope, the nearest coastal Black Ba’Ntu people still lived near the Mzimvubu River.

♦ The wreck of the Nossa Senhora d’Atalyah

On 4 July 1647 this ship was wrecked near the Fish River. They also found Khoekhoe people in that area10.

When they approached to speak no one could understand them, because they spoke with clicks. They go naked, and only wear a few skins. They sow no grain, and live only on roots, the produce of the chase, and some shell-fish when they come down to the shore.

After travelling up the coast for 28 days and passing people who “spoke by smacking their lips” (likely Khoekhoe click sounds), they arrived at the wreck of the Nossa Senhora de Belem, and soon after met with settled Black people11. They had earlier only met hunting parties. This means that,

As the Dutch prepared to found the Settlement at the Cape of Good Hope, the nearest Black Ba’Ntu setllements were still established beyond the Mzimvubu River.

 —Harry Booyens


1.   Council of the Hakluyt Society, A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499, (1898) p. 12

2.   Council of the Hakluyt Society, A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499, (1898) pp. 14-15

3.   Council of the Hakluyt Society, A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499, (1898) p. 16

4.   Council of the Hakluyt Society, A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499, (1898) p. 16

5.   George McCall Theal, Records of South-Eastern Africa, Vol. VII (1901), p.388

6.   George McCall Theal, Records of South-Eastern Africa, Vol.VIII, (1902), p.76

7.   George McCall Theal, Records of South-Eastern Africa, Vol.VIII, (1902), p.77

8.   George McCall Theal, Records of South-Eastern Africa, Vol.VIII, (1902), p.85

9.   George McCall Theal, Records of South-Eastern Africa, Vol.VIII, (1902), p.205

10. George McCall Theal, Records of South-Eastern Africa, Vol.VIII, (1902), p.307

11. George McCall Theal, Records of South-Eastern Africa, Vol.VIII, (1902), pp.319