WE ARE THE EVIDENCE: Names of groups that have disappeared in the US (National Museum of the American Indian; photo by Johan Fourie)

WE ARE THE EVIDENCE: Names of groups that have disappeared in the US (National Museum of the American Indian; photo by Johan Fourie)

It is often said that history is written by the victors. (The quote is attributed to Churchill but its origin is unknown.) But perhaps it is better to think of it another way: History is written by the survivors. Or, more accurately, the descendants of survivors.

This is because even our recent past includes frightening numbers of vanished peoples; groups of indigenous people that have disappeared and are now retired to the footnotes of history. In September last year, Helanya, Dieter, Wimpie and I visited the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, a museum dedicated to the indigenous peoples that lived across the North American continent when Europeans arrived in the fifteenth century. Over the following four centuries, European guns and especially European diseases killed millions of these peoples; I found the image of the names of the vanished tribes, shown above, bone-chilling.

Of course, the American experience is not dissimilar to our own. The Khoesan, consisting of the nomadic, pastoral Khoe and hunter-gatherer San, inhabited most of the Western Cape, Northern Cape and parts of the Eastern Cape when Europeans arrived in the mid-seventeenth century. (Read this for more on the origin of the Khoesan.) Two centuries later, the descendants of the Khoesan and imported slaves were an underclass, living mostly on farms as labourers and subjected to harsh work and living conditions. Several smallpox episodes, notably in 1713 and 1755, had killed a large proportion of the population and those that would not work on settler farms were forced to move deeper into the drier interior, settling in areas with little economic potential. Their economic and social way of life soon disappeared; names such as the Attaqua, Chainouqua, Cochoqua, Damaqua, Gonaqua, Gorachouqua, Namaqua, Hessequa, Hoengeiqua, Outenique and Sonqua all but vanished.

What we know about these groups we must learn from the records of the victors; the journals of European travellers, letters by settler farmers, reports by Company officials. Even here, there are large gaps. We don’t know, for example, how many Khoesan worked on settler farms, and exactly what they did. Because the Khoesan could not be enslaved, mention of them is also missing from tax censuses or probate inventories, records that kept meticulous account of the number of slaves (imported from south-east Asia) working on farms. So when calculating things like Cape per capita production, or levels of inequality, or slave productivity, what historians (myself included) simply did was to ignore the Khoesan: somewhere in a footnote we would note the existence of a group of people we cannot count because we have no quantitative information about their size and whereabouts. All our earlier estimates of the Cape economy had the caveat of the missing people.

So Erik Green of Lund University and I decided to do something about this. We use the qualitative information available from traveller accounts, settler journals and letter, and Company reports to reconstruct the size of the Khoesan population. Making several assumptions based on anecdotal evidence (anecdata?) and using the eighteenth century tax censuses, we calculate an annual estimate of the Khoesan population. We then use these new estimates to adjust earlier estimates of slave productivity, societal inequality, and GDP growth. It turns out that earlier estimates for slave productivity was much too large, between-group inequality much too low, and GDP per capita too high. The paper is now available as an ERSA working paper.

South Africans have mostly surrendered the history of these peoples to the dominant narrative of colonisation and liberation history (first, white, now black). There are attempts under way to address this: the Department of Traditional Affairs has, for example, decided to include the descendants of Khoesan in the National Traditional Affairs Bill. Yet, given that the Coloured population in the Western Cape are now genetically between 32 and 43% Khoesan (see a recent study by De Wit et al. in Human Genetics), it is not obvious who would qualify as ‘descendants’, and what their interests are. With land claims before 1913 now a possibility, expect more enthusiasm for any evidence that ties current descendants to ancestral lands.
To be able to claim land, I suspect, the location of the ‘original’ Khoesan inhabitants must first be established and, secondly, the modern-day descendants (and claimants) must be linked to those original inhabitants. This is, in truth, an almost impossible exercise in the absence of detailed records for the early Cape Khoesan. And, to be sure, given the high levels of mortality, it is highly likely that most of the Khoesan in the south-west Cape would have left few, if any, descendants.

Again, it seems, history will be written, if not by the victors, then certainly by the survivors.