A new local biopic on Khoi historical figure Krotoa opens on circuit this week after raking in eight international festival awards so far. Grethe Kemp speaks with director Roberta Durrant about who Krotoa, the woman some consider the mother of coloured people in South Africa, really was. by Grethe Kemp
"I am Krotoa!” she tells herself, screaming, crying, in the fort of Jan van Riebeeck and the Dutch settlers of the 1600s. She’s taken off her long, bodiced European dress and is back in the skins and beads of her people. The Dutch call her Eva, but although she has adopted their religion, their culture and their language, she is not Eva. She is Krotoa.
She’d come there to work as a servant, nanny and playmate to Van Riebeeck, his wife Maria and their children. Maybe she wanted to go – enchanted by these new settlers in their feathered hats, enchanted by the wares they unloaded from their ships. Or maybe she didn’t, and was bartered by her uncle Autshumao (named Harry/Herry die Strandloper, first by the English and then by the Dutch).
Women didn’t count much in the 1600s, and even less so if you weren’t white. So, for Krotoa to have been mentioned in historical documents such as Van Riebeeck’s diary shows that she must have been remarkable.
At the fort she quickly picked up Dutch and some Portuguese, and soon became Van Riebeeck’s primary translator.
Beyond simply translating, she possessed the skill of negotiation and diplomacy. History notes that she played a pivotal part in not only forging cooperation between the settlers and her relative Oedasoa, but was instrumental in working out terms for ending the First Dutch-Khoi War.
Land was the primary dispute, as it remains to this day. Livestock was also an issue, and where cattle could graze.
Penguin Films’ Roberta Durrant, known for her many TV productions including ’Sgudi ’Snaysi, Stokvel and Izikizi and her feature-length films including Felix, has now put Krotoa’s life on screen.
#Trending asked her about the research that went into depicting a character who lived such a long time ago.
“Kaye Ann Williams, now the head of content at M-Net, created a documentary series for the SABC called Hidden Histories. We [Penguin Films] produced two episodes and one of them was on Krotoa. If you go back and look at what you actually have to work with – you’ve got oral traditions and Khoi knowledge about the tribes, the chiefs and their ancestry. And then you also have various historians who have written essays and subject matter on Krotoa and on that period. But a lot of it is supposition and a lot of it is deduction. There’s actually very little written down factually or in history books.
“What we have from that period is Van Riebeeck’s diary, and that diary was actually not even written by his scribes. We say quite clearly that the story is a narrative fictional story inspired by what we believe were the historical facts. You’re going back to 1652, and history was very much a man’s domain. Women didn’t have a voice, not in a European context, or any context, really. What Kaye wanted to do was give Krotoa a voice, in terms of the deductions and the facts at our disposal.”
An integral part of the film was Krotoa’s complex relationship with her benefactor, Van Riebeeck. Although Krotoa was elevated from a simple servant to the status of interpreter, there was obviously still a master-servant dynamic between them. But the fact that he took Krotoa in as a “Dutch woman” shows that he must have been drawn to her, and could very well have been attracted to her. In the film, this forbidden lust (Van Riebeeck was married and his wife Maria stayed in the fort) ultimately leads to him raping Krotoa.
“There’s no concrete evidence that that happened other than supposition,” says Durrant. “In terms of the rape, it was a very complicated moment in the film. And hopefully it comes across, but theirs was a complicated relationship and we chose to make it that way...
“But we hope that people see in the rape a metaphor. We want to look at the rape in terms of an attraction to a country and a place by the Dutch, and how they ultimately settled here and they took this as their place. And it was a brutal occupation, in the sense that the Khoi people were displaced, a lot of them did die, and there were the Dutch-Khoi wars, and land was taken.”
Though kept hush-hush during apartheid, and even today, the fact that Van Riebeeck and many Dutch settlers had sex with Khoi women is documented history. The issue of consensuality is a difficult one. Sure, many of these women may have been willing partners, but what was the power dynamic? Can one ever call sex between a more powerful coloniser and a more or less oppressed woman consensual?
I asked Crystal-Donna Roberts, who plays Krotoa wonderfully in the film, what it was like filming the scene. Roberts is most known for her role in 7de Laan, but has lately been taking on heavier roles, including Tiny in Oliver Hermanus’ violent and melancholic The Endless River.
“It was intense, especially considering the reality of this country and the rape statistics that we have. But on set a safe space is provided for you in terms of the team and my co-star [Armand Aucamp] and the people you’re working with.”
No middle ground
Although cooperation and diplomacy between the settlers and Khoi were things both Krotoa and Van Riebeeck believed in, there would ultimately be no compromise. When Van Riebeeck left in 1662 and the more conservative Zacharias Wagenaer took his place, Krotoa found herself dismissed as interpreter. Her marriage to Danish soldier Pieter van Meerhof (the first documented interracial marriage in South Africa) was also thought to be a point of embarrassment for Wagenaer, and he stationed Van Meerhof as a superintendent at Robben Island. This was no plum job, and his duties included getting rid of snakes, spiders and similar creatures.
By this time Krotoa had been cast out by her tribe, who saw her a traitor and in collusion with the Dutch.
Khoi chief and interpreter Doman was recorded as saying: “I am a Hottentot and not a Dutchman, but you, Eva, try to curry favour with the commander.
Krotoa would spend long periods of time left to her own devices on the desolate Robben Island, with only her children and a Cape Verde slave to keep her company.
She would often see her tribespeople locked up in the island prison for cattle theft or other indiscretions against the Dutch, and she had no way to help them. She became an alcoholic.
“Alcohol would have been something that was easily accessible. Especially if you consider that Krotoa may have been paid with the dop system,” says Roberts.
Around 1666 Van Meerhof was killed on a slaving expedition to Mauritius. Krotoa returned to the mainland, and reportedly abandoned her children and engaged in sex work.
She became increasingly anti-settler, and in the film is shown going to one of Wagenaer’s dinners dressed in her traditional clothing and admonishing him for decimating her people.
Ultimately, Krotoa’s life ended tragically.
A distinctly racist entry by the official scribe of Van Riebeeck’s diary reads: “With the dogs she returned to her own vomit. A clear illustration that nature, no matter how tightly muzzled by imprinted moral principles ... reverts to its inborn qualities.”
Perhaps we can see her as the first victim of mediation – a person who believed desperately that settlers and indigenous tribes could get along, and who’s heart was broken to find that ultimately they could not.
Krotoa was incarcerated on Robben Island in 1665 for drunken behaviour and died there the following year. Her children were shipped off to Mauritius and adopted by a Dutch couple. The children she birthed out of wedlock went largely unrecorded.
Today, some call Krotoa the great ancestor of coloured people in South Africa. According to micro-historian Mansell Upham, 3 million descendents can be traced to Krotoa’s daughter Pieternella, who married Dutch farmer Daniel Zaaiman. According to genealogist Keith Meintjies, her blood also ran or runs in the veins of white political figures such as Paul Kruger, Jan Smuts and FW de Klerk, something that would not have been openly admitted during apartheid.
Popular comedian Casper de Vries had his DNA tested in 2011 and believes that Krotoa is his direct ancestor, something he is quite proud of.
It has taken centuries for Krotoa to be written about in mainstream culture but, still today, most South Africans do not know who she is. Slowly but surely local films such as Kalushi are adding to our library of apartheid-era films, but the number of films we have on our pre-apartheid history – and the diversity of the film makers behind them – is still problematically low. Durrant hopes that Krotoa could be used as a teaching tool in schools.