Eva's men: gender and power in the establishment of the Cape of Good Hope, 1652–74

Wells, J. (1998) Eva's men: gender and power in the establishment of the Cape of Good Hope, 1652–74. Journal of African History, 39 (3). pp. 417-437. ISSN 0021-8537



Official URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0021853798007300


This article offers a fresh interpretation of the life of Krotoa/Eva, the famous Khoena interpreter of Jan Van Riebeeck, whose gender gave her a unique position in relation to both Dutch and Khoena society. It appears that her own people sent her to work for the Dutch as a young girl, both to serve as a token of goodwill, to gain prestige as the protegee of the household of a powerful leader and to become familiar with Dutch ways. The Dutch received her comfortably as a servant, child minder and companion for Van Riebeeck's young nieces. When Eva learned Dutch expertly, she quickly became their most trusted interpreter. The evidence also hints at an especially close and sensitive, possibly sexual, relationship between her and Van Riebeeck. When military conflicts left Eva identified as a Dutch collaborator, she contacted her sister's husband, chief Oedasoa. Her direct mediation enabled the Dutch to open up a profitable new trading enterprise with Oedasoa, who in turn used Eva as his personal agent within the Dutch community. Her unique position attracted the attention of a bright young employee of the Company, Pieter Van Meerhoff, who became her lover soon after his arrival at the Cape in 1659. Pieter became actively involved in northern expeditions of exploration and prided himself on his sensitivity and capacity to get on well with various Khoena chiefs. Eva continued as an interpreter, intermediary with Oedasoa and the couple had two children together. Eva and Pieter married only after Van Riebeeck left the Cape. Their decision to conform to the norms of Dutch society disappointed Oedasoa who had offered them enough livestock to establish an independent lifestyle but brought both much higher levels of respect from the Dutch, including significant promotions for Pieter. When Pieter was killed in 1666, heading up a trading mission to Mauritius, Eva's life sharply deteriorated. She died in 1674, accused of having become a drunken pest and prostitute. Eva's story exemplifies how an African woman in an early colonial encounter could manipulate a variety of gender roles. Seen as a safe intermediary by both Africans and Europeans, she built herself a unique career and formed a durable liaison with a spirited young man. However, as the nature of contact between the races deteriorated, her role as intermediary diminished in importance. Ultimately, without Pieter, she could not sustain her pivotal place in Dutch society, dying a miserable death. Her life reflects the rapidly changing nature of early colonial contacts.

Item Type:Article
Uncontrolled Keywords:colonialism; gender roles; historical perspective; racial consciousness; Jan Van Riebeeck; cultural interaction; colonial history; Dutch East India Company; Cape of Good Hope; South Africa
Subjects:Y Unknown > Subjects to be assigned
Divisions:Faculty > Faculty of Humanities > History
ID Code:709
Deposited On:06 Sep 2007
Last Modified:06 Jan 2012 16:18
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