The Khoina

The massacre of Viceroy Francisco d’Almeida in 1510 by Angus McBride, 1984.

Many historians date the founding expedition of South Africa to 1652, the year when Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape of Good Hope to establish a ship-repair facility and replenishment station for the Dutch East India Company – better known as the VOC. Here the trading ships could call in on their arduous voyages between the Netherlands and the Company’s main trading outpost at Batavia, on the island of Java in today’s Indonesia.

However the first strand of that golden thread which winds its way through the chronicles of South Africa’s past was woven long before Van Riebeeck set foot on the shores of Table Bay. Historical beginnings can be obscure because they are so often a confluence of different events, large or small; but here we can find four such events which bind the era of the assegai to that of today.

The first was a small but bloody action fought in 1510, almost a century and a half before Van Riebeeck’s arrival. At that time Portugal was a major maritime trading nation, its intrepid sailors, fishermen and merchants ranging far and wide in their tiny ships, braving a seemingly endless stream of hair-raising perils, some foreseeable and others not, to establish outposts in the distant corners of the Far East – even as far as the inscrutable and strongly isolationist land of Japan. There they traded in a wide variety of goods, including the pepper, nutmeg and other exotic spices for which Europe had such an apparently inexhaustible appetite.

By the beginning of the 16th century the Portuguese were well established in the Far East, and so it was that on 28 February 1510, a small return-fleet of three caravels heading for home arrived in the bay to take on fresh water and provisions, after the long haul across the Indian Ocean, as passing Portuguese ships had been doing for a number of years.

The commander of the fleet was the nobleman Dom Francisco d’Almeida, who had just spent five years as the viceroy of all Portuguese-controlled areas on the Indian continent and in Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka). His fleet of three merchantmen, the Garcia, Belem and Santa Cruz, anchored in the bay, probably in the vicinity of today’s Salt River, and D’Almeida sent ashore a landing party which duly made contact with an impromptu reception committee consisting of members of a local Khoina clan. It seems to have been an extremely cordial meeting; so cordial in fact that, after successfully trading pieces of iron and cotton cloth for a few head of livestock, a group of 12 or 13 sailors received permission to visit the clan’s kraal, which was probably located near the present-day suburb of Mowbray. This second visit started in an atmosphere as cordial as the first, the clan chief reportedly showing great friendliness, but the amicable spirit did not last.

The cause of the sudden breakdown in goodwill has long been lost in the mists of time, and modern theories vary: historian Dr Dan Sleigh quotes Portuguese records, which claimed that the Khoina had pilfered some goods – in response to which the sailors abducted several children to persuade the locals to return the stolen items. Conversely, Lieutenant-Colonel Dr Paul Grobbelaar, says that the sailors did not obtain the quantity of fresh provisions they sought, and abducted a member of the clan to use as a bargaining-chip to get more. Historian PW Laidler claims an entirely different version, that the sailors negotiated with an individual for sheep, then conceived the idea of taking him back to the flagship, dressing him in Portuguese clothes and showing him to D’Almeida before returning him to shore. The Khoina concerned misunderstood their intention and called for help from his clansmen. It has also been claimed that the intention was to take a local to Portugal by whatever means, teach him Portuguese and then return him to the Cape to become a sort of agent-in-place.

Whatever the case, the Khoina did not take this lying down. A hand-to-hand running fight ensued which did not end until the sailors boarded their boats, considerably the worse for wear. On their return to the ships there was some debate among the officers as to the correct reaction. Some took the view that the sailors were to blame and had got what they deserved. Others insisted that the ‘insolent barbarians’ needed to be punished. At length D’Almeida agreed to take a punitive force ashore the next morning, although not with any enthusiasm; he was 60 years old, a considerable age at that time, and no longer really fit for action. It was a fateful – and, in his case, fatal – decision.

D’Almeida landed with about 150 men who were well-armed with swords, lances and crossbows. It was a formidable force in the circumstances, since the Khoina had no real distance weapons and at most probably numbered no more than a few hundred, women and children included; but their headman (his name, like the exact circumstances that sparked the incident, is now lost beyond recall) had worked out an effective response. He did not attack the Portuguese on the beach, where their crossbows could have been used to the best effect, but let them advance into the heavily bushed coastal area. Eventually the Portuguese reached his kraal, which they found deserted but for some children and a number of calves. Probably feeling considerably uneasy by now, they rounded up the calves and set off back to the beach. Then the Khoina headman made his move. About 150 of his men burst out of the bush and flung themselves on the Portuguese. At first glance it might seem that the Khoina were unduly disadvantaged, but they were armed with fire-hardened spears and poisoned arrows, and they made use of a veritable ‘secret weapon’ that surprised and disconcerted D’Almeida’s men: trained fighting-oxen that could be controlled by whistles or shouts. Above all, they were fighting in familiar terrain and were experts at ‘veldcraft’.

The Portuguese were hit by a phalanx of oxen, the Khoina spearmen running behind and between them, effectively protected by the animals from any crossbow bolts that might be fired before they could close in to stabbing range. The Portuguese, their lethal but slow-loading crossbows almost useless against this sudden and controlled close-quarters onslaught, set off in pell-mell retreat back to the beach. The Khoina kept up the pressure, harassing them with further coordinated attacks. The Portuguese arrived at the beach, having left a number of their shipmates lying dead, and were confronted by yet another disaster: in their absence a stiff breeze had sprung up and the boats had returned to the ships. Backs to the sea, they made a stand while the boats came back for them. But by then between a third and nearly half had died (figures range from 50 to 65), among them D’Almeida himself, as well as several other Portuguese of high birth.

As battles go it was a minor affair, but a noteworthy one. In the short term it was, needless to say, a great embarrassment to the Portuguese, but its long-term consequences affected the history of all of southern Africa and, in fact, territories much further afield. It conferred on the Cape Khoina an undeserved but long-lasting reputation for ferocity, and led to strict enforcement of an earlier directive that banned all Portuguese ships from landings on the lower part of the east and west coasts; this meant that when the Dutch, English and French displaced Portuguese pre-eminence in the Far Eastern trade in the early and mid-17th century, they had free use of the Cape for a replenishment-point, and got to know it well.

Five centuries later, the short, sharp clash between the Khoina and the Portuguese still provides the military historian with some interesting food for thought. The battle plan evolved by that almost forgotten headman, untutored though he was in European military standards of the time, exhibited a sound grasp of what we would now call the principles of war. He fought at a time and place of his own choosing (avoiding the beach, where the Portuguese crossbows would have had the advantage), achieved complete surprise, made good use of the terrain, attacked with maximum violence and speed, did not disengage at any stage but maintained the momentum of the attack and skilfully deployed and coordinated his combat assets, namely his infantry (the spearmen) and ‘armour’ (the oxen).

The plain fact was that the Portuguese, although doughty fighters themselves, were out-generalled. As a result, a weak local force was able to vanquish a stronger foreign enemy in spite of the theoretical advantages of the relative disparity in numbers (classically, attackers should always significantly outnumber defenders) and the relative qualities of the weapons involved. It was a scenario that in later centuries was to be repeated again and again in southern Africa.

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