Johan Jacobs

Cultural Crossroads at the Cape: The Dutch East India Company and its Ocean Empire in Dan Sleigh’s Novel, Islands (2004)

In his prize-winning historical novel, Islands (2004), the South African writer and archivist Dan Sleigh presents a fictional portrait of the settlement and colonisation of the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East India Company during the second half of the seventeenth century. Sleigh’s mid-seventeenth-century narrative map encompasses the Netherlands, Germany, and in particular the Company’s Indian Ocean empire, from the Cape as far as Mauritius, Dutch India (Ceylon, the Malabar southwest coast of India and the Coromandel southeast coast) and the Dutch East Indies. In a mise-en-abyme, the narrator, a former Company secretary, tells how he spends his nights ordering all the inside information he has gathered during his career from journals, letters, diaries, minutes of meetings and the Company’s secret documents into a work titled A Portrait of the Cape, the First Half-Century. He explains the importance of the Cape: “The key to the Dutch economy was the Company, the key to the Company’s success was control of the Eastern trade, the key to the Eastern trade was successful shipping, the key to shipping was the Cape replenishment station”. Half way between Europe and Batavia – the “Golden Orient” – the Cape is presented in Sleigh’s novel as a geographical, economic and cultural hinge, between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, between West and East, and also between the Dutch colonists and the indigenous Koina peoples. The growth of the Cape replenishment station into a colonial settlement consisting of Company commanders and officials and their families, free burghers from the peasant and labouring classes, rough recruits into the Company’s army and navy, and slaves is described in relation to their encounters and conflicts with the various indigenous Koina peoples. Sleigh’s depiction of early colonial South African identity formation at the Cape bears out Bhabha’s argument about hybrid postcolonial identities being formed through processes of negotiation and translation in the “in-between spaces” between different cultural systems. A number of South African literary theorists have proposed further tropes for understanding the way present-day South African cultural identities have been created out of difference: Leon de Kock suggests the metaphor of the ‘seam’ for the stitching together of different cultures; Sarah Nuttall offers the notion of cultural ‘entanglement’; Mark Sanders develops the idea of ‘complicity’, which is, “etymologically, a folded-together-ness’; and Stephen Clingman puts forward the concept of ‘transitivity’ to describe an identity that recognises boundaries that demarcate differences between cultures, but navigates, crosses over and engages with those differences. This paper will examine how, in Sleigh’s major work of fiction about the Cape of Good Hope as ocean cultural crossroads where the opposite trajectories of outward-bound and return trading fleets intersect, the stories of sailors and other travellers who are newly arrived from Holland and on their way to the East become interwoven with the stories of those who have crossed the Indian Ocean and are homeward bound, as well as with those of the Koina peoples, to form the basis of a heterogeneous South African colonial identity.