The Journal of African History



Gender, Power and the Domestic Domain

EVA'S MEN: GENDER AND POWER IN THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE CAPE OF GOOD HOPE, 1652–74


JULIA C. WELLS a1
a1 Rhodes University

Abstract

Quite possibly, Eva, born Krotoa, is the most written about African woman in South African historiography. Her name fills the journals of the Dutch East India Company almost from the very start of their little feeding-station at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. She is known as a Khoena girl taken into Dutch commander Jan Van Riebeeck's household from the age of about twelve, who later became a key interpreter for the Dutch, was baptised, married Danish surgeon, Pieter Van Meerhoff, but then died as a drunken prostitute after his death. Yet her persona remains an enigma. As Christina Landman put it, ‘Krotoa is a story-generator’.

To conservative historians, Eva's life offers living proof that the Khoena were irredeemable savages. To black nationalist writers, such as Khoena historian, Yvette Abrahams, she personifies the widespread rape and abuse of black women by the invaders. Eva's chief biographer, V. C. Malherbe, forms a more neutral judgment by describing Eva as primarily ‘a woman in between’. Landman views her as an early synthesizer of African and Christian religious traditions. Carli Coetzee demonstrates how recent Afrikaans-speaking artists, poets and actors have constructed an image of Eva as the mother of the Afrikaner nation, a tamed African who acquiesced to Europeanness. She is often portrayed as yearning to return to her African roots, but without success.

Virtually all of the representations of Eva construct her as a helpless victim of vicious culture clashes. Today's racial consciousness, laced with assumptions of inevitable African/European hostility, is often read back into the historical record. Frustratingly large gaps in that record leave room for a wide range of interpretations, depending heavily on the subjectivities of the historian. Virtually all previous writers, however, have judged Eva primarily by the tragic circumstances of her death, while minimizing the considerable achievements of her earlier years.