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The Cape-Malay community of Cape Town

It started with spices, good old colonial greed and the first multinational corporation in the world. A few centuries went by, and thus it came to pass that a jungle woman in Japan and a jungle woman in Malaysia realized they had more in common than just bananas. Banana, incidentally, is piesang and pisang in their respective languages, because there's a long history between their countries.

The beginning was in 1602, when the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or Dutch East India Company was launched to trade in spices. Their ships took them to Java, Kalimantan, Makassar, Sumatra and Japan. They also captured the Portuguese colony of Malacca, on the south-eastern coast of today's Malaysia, and maintained a colony till 1824.

The Cape-Malay Quarter in Cape Town, with Lion's Head in the background.
Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

It was a long journey to the exotic Far East, and in order to ensure fresh supplies, they established a trading post on a faraway southern cape in 1652.

They were not the first – the Portuguese had preceded them and had named it Cabo das Tormentas (Cape of Storms) and later Cabo da Boa Esperança (Cape of Good Hope), the latter referring to the optimism engendered by the opening of a sea route from Europe to India and the Far East. When the Dutch kicked the Portuguese out, they renamed it de Kaap de Goede Hoop. Their trading post became a settlement and expanded into a region that was eventually fought over by the Dutch, the British, their descendants and several indigenous tribes. Today the city is called Cape Town and the country is known as South Africa.

That history, which I've recounted as briefly as possible, is necessary to explain why there's a Malay Quarter in Cape Town: the Dutch traded not only in spices, but also in slaves.

The gorgeous colours of my country , as it applies to houses and people.
Click on the photo to see a bigger version.

They settled in an area called the Bo-Kaap (Upper Cape), because it's situated on the steep slopes of Signal Hill above Cape Town. The unique culture that developed in this enclave is referred to as Cape-Malay. Strictly speaking it's not a correct description, since its residents are descended from slaves who were imported from several areas – including Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere in Asia – in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. You can still hear traces of other languages in the area – kanalah (from the Indonesia silahkan for please) and trim makasi (from the Malay tera makasi for thank you) – although the most common language nowadays is Afrikaans.

As a matter of fact, the Cape-Malay influence on the small fledgling language that developed in southern Africa in the seventeenth century should not be underestimated. Not only did the community contribute to the vocabulary of the language, but they ensured its survival. Today there are more so-called coloured speakers of Afrikaans (3,5 million) than white speakers (2,7 million). Coloured, incidentally, is an official ethnic classification in South Africa that refers to a group that is mostly Khoisan, but also Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian and West-African. The Cape-Malay community is part of this group.

The original slaves were political exiles, convicts, craftsmen, artisans, famous scholars and religious leaders. Many were Muslim, and they brought their religion with them. Today you can still hear the call of the muezzin echoing down the steep cobble-stoned streets and floating across the harbor. 

A mosque with Table Mountain in the background

If you ask me, though, the best aspect of the Cape-Malay culture is its magnificent cuisine. When the slaves arrived in Cape Town, they found themselves without access to their favourite ingredients like coconut milk (a staple of Malay cooking) and tamarind (an Indian favourite). So they began adapting their recipes and invented a new style of cooking. Along with bobotie (curried beef with egg custard)  and sosaties (a Mediterranean-style kebab marinated with Indian curry), they came up with tomato bredie, a tomato and mutton stew of Dutch origin that's seasoned with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves and chili powder. They combined a European-style pastry with an Indian gulab jamin, and created a koeksister, a fritter that's deep-fried and dipped in a syrup seasoned with ginger, cardamom and cinnamon.

Then there's geelrys or yellow rice made with turmeric, cinnamon and raisins; and let's not forget the condiments: sambal and atjar and fiery blatjang (chutney). 


Et cetera et cetera et cetera. This was the food of my childhood, and I will forever remain partial to dishes that combine sweetness with mild yet rich spices. (I should perhaps add that although apartheid separated white from coloured, the two groups are culturally close: we share a history, a location and a language. I'm much more familiar with coloured customs, including Muslim ones, than I am with a traditional black South African lifestyle.)

Nowadays the Bo-Kaap is a major Cape Town tourist destination thanks to its colourful houses, cobbled streets, great food, stunning views and unique culture.

Isn't it beautiful?

It's steep!


Beetle! I had a Beetle just like this. Awww!

That's the history of the Netherlands, South Africa and Malaysia; and that brings us to two jungle women and their pi(e)sangs. They met when the Malaysian commented on the South African's blog. The latter had in the meantime followed her ancestors to the Far East, not in pursuit of spices, but stalking a Japanese man. My pet theory is that a Dutch ancestor fell in love with a Japanese woman in Dejima and brought her with him to the Cape. Three hundred years later, I was one of their offspring. That would explain my love for Japan, don't you think?

Incidentally, it's possible that at least one slave in the Cape was Japanese. If you look at the Cape's old records, you'll find references to a mysterious man called Anthonij van Bengal de Later van Japan. It is possible that he was born in Japan and taken to the Dutch base Dejima near Nagasaki in the 1600s. There he became the slave of a man called Zacharias Wagenaar, who worked at Dejima from 1656 to 1659. When Wagenaar returned to the Cape, he took Anthonij with him and eventally gave him his freedom. I've checked my own genealogy, and as far as I can figure out, I'm not related to Anthonij. Drat. I write about him in this post.


Lina from Malaysia commented on the South African-in-Japan's blog, and soon the two jungle women were swapping jungle adventures, sharing their love for Tokyo's shitamachi and cheerfully insulting each other's idiosyncrasies. When I went to South Africa in February, I promised Lina that I would visit the Bo-Kaap and tell her more about it.

Lina, here's your story. It's been a pleasure to unravel the complex links between our countries and our ancestors. We'll celebrate our bilateral relations in Nara. Pi(e)sangs will feature.

A big "baie dankie" to my sister Heloise and my niece Diné for providing transport and playing tour guide!

That's Table Mountain in the background.

Cape Town harbour seen from the Bo-Kaap

Ice-cream colours

This is a kramat, which can be described as a Muslim shrine.

When you pass through the gate in the previous photo, this is what you see.
That's yours truly marching along with her dungerees and backpack.

Kids returning home after school

Logo painted on a school wall

Yes, it does.

This one needs TLC.

This one is getting TLC.

Evidence of the past: this street is called Neiderlandsstraat or Dutch Street.
Can you see the lion in the background?

I keep telling you, it's steep!

A coffee shop for Dru

Beetle! Silver Beetle, silver house.

Now this is a real Cape Town car. Check those rims, ek sê!

Biesmiellah is a Cape-Malay restaurant.

Biesmiellah's interior

Islamic art in Biesmiellah

Ru, surveying the most beautiful city in the world

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