I HAVE been researching a book on Tuan Guru, Imam ‘Abdullah ibn Qadi ‘Abdus Salam of Tidore, one of our iconic historical figures at the Cape. What has emerged, so far, is that what we know is fragmentary, and that we have absolutely no details of his life before his exile to the Cape in 1780.
Despite this, a personality does emerge. It is evident that Tuan Guru – who described himself as ‘mazlum’ (the oppressed one) – was feisty enough to defy the Statute of India to hold the first jumu’ah (Friday prayers) in the Chiappini Street quarry, and to be a pioneer of education via the establishment of his madrasah (school) in 1793, five years before the founding of the Awwal mosque, the first in South Africa.
In searching for Tuan Guru, other characters such as Tuan Sayyid Alawi, Achmat van Bengal from Chinsura, Jan van Boughies of Long Street and Paay Schaapie – the kindly dervish with a calabash on his head – emerge from the shadows.
Profound in this journey is just exactly how colonialism has marginalised the narrative of those not writing it. Archivally, it is often just a throwaway line, a quick derisory mention by a colonial official – or as in the instance of the Awwal masjid, a court case – that gives us the leads.
Being of their times, the accounts are also patriarchal. Women are rarely mentioned, and if they are, it’s fleetingly. The Slave lodge, a house of many horrors, became a glorified brothel and records show that not one person was ever convicted for the rape of a slave woman at the Cape.
So it is supremely ironic that I find two women – both Sarah, but called the Dutch diminutive ‘Saartjie’ – who play such a crucial, but disparate, role in our early history. Both lived at almost the same time, but their lives could not have been more different.
Saartjie van de Kaap is the daughter of Trijn van de Kaap, who married a manumitted slave, Coridon of Ceylon, a landowner. Trijn is most likely a compaction of ‘Katerina’. Despite not knowing her original name, we do know – via the archives – that after the death of her husband in 1797, Trijn owned four slaves and rented out property.
What’s noteworthy is that Trijn, and not a male family member, inherited Coridon’s landed estate. This indicates that Coridon (and Trijn) must have had knowledge of Islamic law allowing Muslim women – despite the paternalism of the era – to own property.
In her household was Ahmad van Bengal (registered as Job van Bengalen), and Tuan Guru’s most trusted associate, who had married her daughter, Saartjie. It was while the property was owned by Trijn that the Awwal mosque was established in 1798.
It is in her will of 1841 that we see her character. After Ahmad van Bengal passed on in 1843, and with the Muslim community beginning to fragment, she had the foresight – and courage – to request Imam Abdol Barrie (as opposed to one of her three sons) to be the imam at her funeral.
She appointed an independent advocate as the executor of her will, instead of her sons Mochamat, Hamiem and Saddik, who were – to her great hurt – planning the establishment of the Nurul Islam mosque.
In addition, her will stated that the property at 28 Dorp Street be used as a mosque by her descendants for as long as Islam remained at the Colony, and that conditional to this was that the property of the mosque never be sold, or mortgaged.
Indeed, not only was the first mosque in South Africa initially owned by a woman, Trijn van de Kaap, but also the first waqf in South Africa was decreed by her daughter, Saartjie van de Kaap.
From the triumphs of Saartjie van de Kaap we go to the trials of Saartjie Baartman, the most tragic symbol of the colonial era, and a victim of the grossest scientific racism in modern times. Born in the Gamtoos River area, and from the Gonaquasub clan, she allegedly ‘signed’ a contract with an English ship surgeon, William Dunlop, to go to England.
Baartman’s large buttocks and enlarged pudenda made her the object of fascination by the colonial Europeans, who presumed that they were racially superior and that ‘negroid’ peoples were primitive and over-sexed like animals.
She was paraded in a cage like a circus animal, her vital parts covered by a cloth. Sadly, after her death in 1815 – due to a combination of alcoholism, syphilis, possibly pneumonia or smallpox and even heartbreak – two Khoi-San would be taken to Germany in the same manner in 1845, with two more being shown as ‘Bosjemans’ in a travelling circus in 1846.
Baartman attracted the attention of George Cuvier, a naturalist, who asked if she could be studied as a science specimen, when she was sold in France to an animal trainer. From March 1815 until her untimely death, Saartjie Baartman was prodded and studied by French anatomists, zoologists and physiologists.
Cuvier concluded that the young Gonaquasub woman was a link between apes and humans. Interestingly, Cuvier observes that Saartjie Baartman was actually an intelligent woman, with an excellent memory – especially faces. She spoke Khoi, Dutch, passable English and a smattering of French, and had a lively personality.
Cuvier even mentions that her shoulders and back were ‘graceful’, that her arms were ‘slender’, and that her hands and feet were ‘charming’ and ‘pretty’, yet – sadly – he is unable to break from the acculturated shackles of his racism, or even comprehend his grotesque contradictions.
In every way, I would suggest that Saartjie Baartman and Saartjie van de Kaap are kindred sisters, spirits of our unrecognised history – one an icon, one a pioneer. It is said that no one chooses their destiny, but in the contrasts – and in the victories and in the supreme tests of their lives as women – we find meaning in what they represent that resonates even in today’s South Africa, from the wretched to the sublime.