In the 17th century, Dutch colonialists prided themselves on their ability to learn the languages of inhabitants of their conquered territories.
But there was one language they couldn’t master: that of the Khoikhoi of the Cape of Good Hope. Years after their arrival in 1652, they still struggled to wrap their tongues around those clicking sounds.
The Khoikhoi, on the other hand, had no such difficulty, and three in particular – Autshumao, Krotoa and Doman – would later be regarded by the Dutch as “great interpreters”.
Each of the three built a different type of relationship with the Dutch: Autshumao lulled his part-time employers into a false sense of security while he built up his herds of sheep and cattle, many of which he stole from them.
Krotoa’s fascination with all things Dutch earned her employment in the Van Riebeeck household.
And then there was Doman.
Perceptive, suspicious by nature, and a talented linguist, he was the first to recognise the danger the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck posed to the independence of the indigenous people.
Doman wrote his name into the history books of Southern Africa by becoming the first indigenous leader here to fight for freedom against colonial invaders.
When van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape with 82 men and eight women, and started building a fort, the first meetings with the Khoikhoi were peaceful, if cagey.
Growing vegetables and having fresh meat for Dutch ships sailing past from the East was a priority — and the Khoikhoi had sufficient numbers of cattle and fat-tailed sheep to satisfy this requirement.
As traders, though, they were more than a match for the Dutch.
They quickly realised that what the new arrivals really wanted was to breed their own herds.
And so, for a long time the cattle and sheep they were prepared to exchange in return for copper, were the old, thin and diseased dregs of their livestock.
The Khoikhoi, in turn, fashioned bangles and other accessories from the copper, which they traded with other Khoikhoi groups in the interior for young and healthy livestock.
The Peninsula Khoikhoi had, in fact, set up the first monopoly at the Cape. With Doman a key figure, they sealed off routes to other groups of Khoikhoi.
If the Dutch wanted to trade, it had to be with them.
Meanwhile, Doman made impressive strides as an interpreter.
So highly did the Dutch value him that in 1657 they sent him to Batavia (present day Jakarta in Indonesia) for further development and training.
But what he saw and learnt there horrified him. He discovered that the Dutch had sacked Jakarta in 1619, rebuilt it the way they wanted it, renamed it Batavia, and expelled all the indigenous people from the area.
He had to get back to the Cape to warn his people.
With great cunning, he approached Commissioner Joan Cunaeus, telling him he wanted to become a Christian, and that he had become so devoted to the Dutch way of life that he doubted whether he could live with his fellow Khoikhoi again. It worked.
Once he had arrived back at the Cape, he emerged as the staunchest Khoikhoi critic of Van Riebeeck, especially after some employees had been given permission to become “free burgers” (in other words, to farm for their own account).
Thus, when Van Riebeeck seized several Khoikhoi leaders as hostages in 1658, Doman was the only one who protested.
Unfortunately for him, his earlier attempts to monopolise Khoikhoi trade with the Dutch had won him few friends.
Chief Gogosoa refused to have anything to do with an attack on the Dutch. But Doman was able to persuade some of the younger leaders to join him in his war of
Doman’s band of raiders had no intention of killing any Dutch. His war was meant to be one of persuasion, burning their crops, stealing their cattle, and hoping this would persuade them to leave the Cape and return to Holland.
The Dutch, on the other hand, were ordered to shoot to kill on sight.
The war ended in stalemate. The Khoikhoi were unwilling to attack the fort and Dutch forays into the bush were unsuccessful due to the lack of guides.
When Doman died in 1663, the company diarist wrote: “For [his] death none of us will have cause to grieve, as he has been, in many respects, a mischievous and malicious man towards the company.”