Sodomy at the Cape of Good Hope

GMax & Sapa-AFP | April 22, 2004

Prisoners of love: Neil Sandilands, left, and Rouxnet Brown on the set of Proteus. Pictures Ruvan Boshoff

The handing over of boxes containing the bones of 18th-century slaves who died under Dutch colonial rule yesterday was a symbolic moment in South Africa's history.

Discovered at a Green Point, Cape Town, building site last May, the bones were delivered to Woodstock Day Hospital yesterday before being taken to a memorial site.

The bones were believed to be those of slaves who were brought to the Cape colony from West Africa, Madagascar and later from Malaysia and India by the Dutch East Indies Company, which established a trading post there in 1652.

Prayers were conducted by clergy from various denominations, before the ceremonial procession of the 11 flag-draped boxes through Cape Town's streets.

A garden of remembrance will be built for the bones, which were dug out of a 20m-long trench.

The slave trade was banned in the Cape in 1807, shortly after Britain occupied the colony, but only formally abolished in 1843.

Were it not for Court of Justice and the Dutch India Company (VOC) records of sodomy trials the names of many gay men would not be known today.

So while the nameless people are now being remembered, slaves and sailors who were gay lovers have also been saluted in the film Proteus.

Cape Town filmmaker Jack Lewis and Canadian filmmaker John Greyson tell the story of Khoi man Claas Blank and Rijkhaart Jacobsz, a sailor from Amsterdam. Their 1735 affair while imprisoned on Robben Island for sodomy has been immortalised on film.

But there were others.

The 1753 trial of a Dutchman and two slaves, all detained on Robben Island, started at the Court of Justice in the Cape of Good Hope.

The Dutchman, Nicolsas Modde, from Amsterdam, a nameless slave from the Chormandel Coast in India had committed mutual masturbation at the chicken house on Robben Island. They also engaged in anal sex.

They were executed by being tied together and thrown overboard into the icy waters of Table Bay.

It was a common form of execution in the Cape of Good Hope for sodomy at the time.

It was the second interracial sex case in the Dutch colony. The harsh punishment was almost certainly meted out because the men were from different ethnic groups.

Their graves became the dark waters of Table Bay.

Other 'sodomites' were luckier: Reijnier van den Bergh and Christiaan Pruijsman, both VOC sailors were not executed when their case came to trial in 1763. They were whipped and banished to the Dutch Republic because of their ages. Van den Bergh was nineteen and Pruijsman fourteen.

All these 'habitual criminals' - like Gerrit Wijntjes who was known to be a sodomite - were punished harshly because they loved other men.

Records reveal that there was often 'passionate' kissing. And loving. Not just sex.

As South Africa celebrates 10 years of democracy we remember those who suffered for not fitting in. And those who died awful deaths.

Robben Island today stands for hope. And the repressive colonial laws have made way for a Bill of Rights where everybody is equal before the law.

Further Reading
  • R. Ross, "Oppression, sexuality and slavery at the Cape of Good Hope", Historical Reflections/Reflections Historiques 6 (1979): 421-33, esp. 421.
  • Civiele en Criminele Regtsrolle benevens de Processtucken van de Raad van Justitie des Casteels de Goede Hoop, archival nos. VOC10907 to VOC 10992 (1705 to 1792), kept in the General States Archives in The Hague (Dutch)

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