Genadendal to host 2016 heritage symposium
The historic Genadendal Mission Station – one of several situated in the southern Cape – has been selected as this year’s venue for the annual symposium of the Heritage Association of South Africa (HASA). The theme of the symposium is: The role of Mission Stations .
This symposium, which takes place from 20 to 22 October, will be the fourteenth consecutive event hosted across the country by HASA to explore local history, and in particular to promote the conservation of the early habitats of all South Africa’s people.
The Genadendal Moravian Mission Complex was declared a National Monument in 1980 and is today a Provincial Heritage Site of the Western Cape.
The mission was founded by the missionary George Schmidt in 1737 to evangelise among the Khoi people, making it the oldest mission village in South Africa.
Soon after Schmidt established the mission, Cape Dutch Reformed clergy put a stop to his missionary work on the grounds that they did not believe he had the right to baptise converts.
Forty-five years later, the Moravians resumed Schmidt’s work and Genadendal grew into one of the largest settlements in the Cape Colony.
While the establishment of Genadendal’s mission statement is and remains the traditional focus of narratives about the station, there is a much more complex history that needs to be considered, according to the academic planners of the symposium programme.
The history of Genadendal is depicted by several historic illustrations that show the changing situation of the Khoi before and after the establishment of the station. These illustrations, made by early travellers to the Cape, often contradicted traditional European assumptions about the indigenous peoples of southern Africa.
The very first drawings represented a primitive people wearing animal skins, with entrails as head coverings. Their bodies were coated in animal fat and they lived in simple reed huts, adapted to ‘pick up and move’. The Khoi were nomadic herdsmen divided into a number of groupings around the western Cape and further afield – mainly to the west. They had huge herds of cattle and sheep. They traded their produce for copper sheet, copper wire and fancy beads, but most of all for liquor and tobacco.
Having no knowledge of the Dutch concept of ownership or way of life, the Khoi readily allowed the newcomers to claim certain areas of land and, before the Khoi knew it, they were excluded from the area beyond the Liesbeek River. This situation existed for about 20 years under Van Riebeeck and Wagener. This was followed by a period of consolidated VOC expansion, when loan farms were granted over land that included Khoi kraals. These 30 years saw the Khoi go from herdsmen to servants – herd boys and wagon drivers – as the colony expanded over the mountain and into the Brede River valley and Hottentots Holland Mountains.
By the 19th century the mission station had been established. There were “some gains” with missionary teachings, according to early sources but the Khoi were left in a vacuum, caught between their “old beliefs and the new religion”. At this time the illustrations represented the Khoi as “converts” in “European clothes participating at recognisable churches”.
To deny the ‘colonial conversion’ would be to deny the existence of the mission buildings. The Khoi were now illustrated as living in permanently constructed cottages wearing European clothes, and visitors to the area wrote about the attendance of church services by the local inhabitants.
While celebrating the buildings of the European missionaries we must remember they were built with Khoi labour. Skills were learnt and changes made which resulted in the loss of the Khoi way of life and the land required to follow it. The church promoted a different belief system which left the Khoi in suspension.
The Khoi were caught between two cultures. The early illustrations reflect this; many were engraved by specialists in Europe and represented the converts as being more reflective of Europeans than was actually the case. Most of the visitors during the 19th century were sponsored by the mission movement and the publications which carried their illustrations were published for the benefit of these sponsors.
The traditional Eurocentric view of history is portrayed in the recorded illustrations but history is much more complex and we wish to progress to a more inclusive view of what took place.
This is the purpose of the symposium
The speakers who will be brought together for the 2016 HASA symposium will reflect on questions about human identity raised by early illustrations and engravings of Genadendal. The historic context and importance of the buildings and cultural material and collections preserved at the Genadendal museum will also be examined.
What is evident is how the mission assisted the transition of the nomad tribes into communities representing the way of life and appearance of the colonists. Little was done to replace their losses or to compensate the Khoi for the destruction of their way of life and the means to achieve it. Moreover, the new system placed the Khoi at the bottom of the social ladder.
During the comprehensive programme, attendees will have the opportunity to weigh up historic imponderables such as these:
- With hindsight, the motives of early missionaries may be seen as dubious. Was the missionary zeal in converting the Khoi into god-fearing and educated citizens justified, in view of the simultaneous complicity in subjecting these inhabitants to obedience to their new rulers?
- Many freed slaves fled to the Genadendal Mission Station for protection. Is this a reflection of the balancing act that the mission played in both protecting their subjects’ ‘human rights’ and training them to be servants of the colony?
- The results of Mitochondrial DNA tests have recently been released. Does the genetic line of the Khoi exist to a much larger extent than we actually believe?
The 2016 Symposium of the Heritage Association of South Africa will be held at the Genadendal Mission Station from Thursday 20 to Saturday 22 October 2016.
The full programme of presentations and excursions – and more – will soon be announced.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit www .heritagesa