Wednesday, October 15, 2003

I'm in the process of writing a paper on European views of non-whites in Early Modern Europe. While it can be extremely disheartening to read about racist imperialism and slaughter, there are many moments where a European displays genuinely humane actions or when the tide turns, so to speak.

I came across a "turning tide" today while I was skimming Noel Mostert's monstrous book Frontiers: the Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. I've barely made a dent in the book but I did come across a story I found very intriguing.

In 1510, the Portuguese were stopping for water near modern day Cape Town. Some of these Porguese went to a Khoikhoi (or San, Bushmen, or derogatory Hottentot) village in order to obtain fresh meat. The Khoikhoi felt they deserved more in the barter than the Portuguese were willing to offer and so the Khoikhoi helped themselves to what they felt was fair. There was a small skirmish which saw some of the Portuguese receiving bloodied faces and some broken teeth (I'm not sure how hard it is to knock out the teeth of a man with scurvy, but it dented Portuguese pride nonetheless.)

This humiliation was more than the Portuguese could bear. They were soldiers and sailors who had just finished displaying their predominance over powerful Middle Eastern and Asian nations and they weren't going to allow themselves to be bullied by a bunch of "ignorant savages." Around 150 Portuguese set out (without armour or firearms) and raided the Khoikhoi village, seizing cattle and children. Unfortunately for the Portuguese, a wind had sprung up and their boats had moved further along the beach, lengthening the distance they had to cross.

The Khoikhoi cared little about their cattle, they could call them back using various whistling signals, but when the Portuguese stole Khoikhoi children . . . well, you know how parents are about their children.

The Portuguese, armed only with their lances and swords, were no match for the angry Khoikhoi with their trained war oxen. The Khoikhoi attacked "so furiously that they . . . came into the body of our men, taking back the oxen; and by whistling to these and making other signs (since they are trained to this warlike device), they made them surround our men . . . like a defensive wall, from behind which came so many fire-hardened sticks that some of us began to fall wounded or trodden by the cattle."

Approximately half of the Portuguese force was killed by the rampaging war cattle and the furious Khoikhoi. In the words of Noel Mostert, "Fallen at the hands of those they considered the least of men, they were victims of their own contempt."

I know I shouldn't laugh, but . . .

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