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Place Names of Pre-colonial Origin and their Use Today

  • Posted on August 2, 2012

Changing the names of places is nothing new. But what has become interesting is how some place names still reveal aboriginal origins in spite of colonial onslaughts. Examples include, México, named after the Mexica, and Quebec from Míkmaq (kepék) meaning “strait, narrows”. Many places in Australian have officially been named after Aboriginal people or language groups, such as Aranda or Tullamarine

It is possible to revert to old names in places where oral history has been kept of the knowledge of the pre-colonial names. Oral history is not myths, chitchat, idle talk, or fairy tales, but rather the orderly collection of living people’s testimony about their own experiences. Khoi-San names of places are amongst the oldest in the country and even the world. Archaeological findings indicate that modern humans have inhabited Southern Africa for at least 170,000 years; with the Khoi-San’s history spanning as far back as the Later Stone Age, from about 40,000 years ago. They are thought to be the earliest-diverging human group showing the largest genetic diversity in matrilineally transmitted mtDNA of all human populations, and represent a group that has preserved the original human lifestyle along with genetics.

Mounting evidence suggests that early human communities lived in sight of Table Mountain. The study of names these communities gave to places thus constitutes an important contribution to the cultural and linguistic history of the entire population of the country. Giving names to places is an activity exclusive to humans and as such name-giving is part of the history of the human race spanning over millennia. Having command of language allowed humans to give names; and place names are, therefore, obviously in terms of time and space also related to the particular people from whose language they derive. 

By means of word of mouth, oral history was the first kind of recording the past. Names of places are an important aspect of oral history as they become carriers of the past, allowing us a glimpse into occurrences in the past that history books often may have failed to mention. Over time the tip of Africa was well visited with devastating effects on the Khoi-San who were often displaced, conquered, absorbed and assimilated at the hands of migrating Africans on foot from the north around 300 AD and, later, Europeans arriving by sea. 

Places have layer upon layer of history which often are capsulated in the names given to them over time. The case of Cape Town makes for an interesting study, as the memory of the Khoikhoi name //Hui !Gaeb had been forgotten in the place itself.

The many names of Cape Town warrant mentioning. On account of tremendous storms encountered on the high seas, Bartolomeu Dias, in 1487, called it, Cabo Tormentosa (Cape of Storms). In the hope of finding a sea route to India, King John II of Portugal in 1488, named it, Cabo de Boa Esperanza (Cape of Good Hope), a name that remained until 1686 when it was called Cabo de Goede Hoop by the Dutch. Antonio de Saldanha in 1503 was the first European to climb Huri ╪oaxa (Hoerikwagga) and for this feat he named it Taboa do Cabo (Table Mountain) and even had the bay called Aguada de Antonio de Saldanha (Watering place of Antonio de Saldanha). Dutch Captain Joris van Spilbergen in 1601 changed the name of Saldanha Bay to Table Bay. The first colonists were also known as Cabo or De Caab, an identity that seemingly started to develop around the new found colony. As the settlement took shape it developed into the establishment of a town around its harbour and by 1700 was named Kaap Stad. The earliest known English name in the country is “Chapman’s Chance” later known as Chapman’s Peak and with the English take-overs in 1795 and again in 1806, Cape Town got its name, which still stands today.

Having evolved over thousands of years, indigenous names of places derived from aboriginal languages, and the cultures which they transmit. As arbitrary verbal symbols, by which a group converses, interrelates and self-articulates, languages preserve the mysteries, customs, and traditions of the people. It’s more than just preserving things of yesteryear; it involves maintaining bodies of knowledge, and beliefs.

Place names are never just meaningless sounds. Rather, they embody stories about the places to which they are attached. They give us valuable insights into history and provide clues about South Africa’s cultural and social development. In a manner of speaking, place names are the table of contents of the country’s history of customs and traditions often long forgotten. Accounts of Khoi-San place names that have been replaced by other names are numerous. Some of these names were only known to the early travellers while others existed alongside new names until they eventually became forgotten.

Today, the historical view of the Khoikhoi and Bushman as the Cape aboriginal inhabitants has always been through ‘European’ eyes. Oral tradition is lacking especially in the Western Cape. No qualified linguist was able to study the languages of the people at the Cape before these languages disappeared. But some early travellers and settlers did collect word lists. The Cape Khoikhoi spoke a dialect of Khoekhoegowab (Khoikhoi-language) akin to Nama, Griqua and !Korana, the dialects spoken on the west coast and along the Orange River, a language also spoken today by Khoe-speaking Bushman of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. 

With a few exceptions, it took Europeans almost 400 hundred years, from Bartolomeu Dias up until 1870-1880, to show special interest in Khoi-San languages, with the /Xam and !Khun interviews and narratives by Lucy Lloyd and Wilhelm Bleek. Vasco da Gama penned this disinterest in 1497 by commenting, “…small in stature, ugly of face, and when they speak it seems as if they hiccup.” Cornelis de Houtman in 1595 further illustrated this linguistic disinterest by writing, “I could learn no more from them but that they speak very clumsily…” Edward Terry in 1616 implied animal (bird)-like sounds, saying, “... their speech it seemed to us inarticulate noise, rather than language, like the clucking of hens, or the gabbling of turkeys…“ 

The Khoi-San gave names to places throughout the country to identify the land they knew and with which they had a strong spiritual connection. Many of these names still survive today; to mention a few, !Huni //hāb for Johannesburg, //Khara hais for Upington, Gūdaos for Goodhouse, Kai mûs for Keimoes… The place names themselves, at times, have been taken over in more or less adapted form into the languages of the other people of the country as current linguistic items. Although the use of Khoi-San place names were substantially eroded by contact with Europeans, some traditional beliefs have been preserved through oral histories, and even some religious practices are still observed in remote areas of Botswana and Namibia.

It is with this particular interest that I followed the spoor of the earliest Khoikhoi migration routes away from the European occupation, leading me to the trek across the !Gariep (Orange river) to Khaxutsus (Gibeon), in Great Namaqualand, during 2008 at the 103rd Heroes Day Festival, also the 30th year of reign of the 8th /Khowese Nama King, Gaob //Gawamūma /Ōnōb, Dr. Rev. Captain Hendrik Witbooi. Oral history, shared by Senior Chief P.S.M. Kooper of the Kai //Khaun of the Great Red Nation from !Hoaxa !nâs, indicated that historic information passed down. The information suggested they left what we know today as Cape Town 17 generations ago when it was still called by its pre-colonial name, //Hui !Gaeb or //Hui !Gais in search for their own autonomous rule away from the Cape Colony. I later discovered a number of writings referring to this name as the pre-colonial name of the Cape. 

Hottentot (Khoekhoen) Place Names by G.S. Nienaber and P.E. Raper, specify that the first person to record it as the name of Cape Town was the apostle of the Namas, Father J.H. Schmelen (1831), who married a Nama women. Later Dr. Theophilus Hahn stated in Tsuni //Goam (1881), “wherever the Khoikhoi tongue is spoken, //Hu !Gais is the name by which Cape Town is known” (p.34). This name consists of two words, //hūs which is an old word used for cloud and !gai meaning to bind, to surround, to tie, to envelop; consequently denoting “veiled in clouds”. P.J. Nienaber in Dictionary of South African Place Names, highlights the use of //Hui !Geis, which didn’t entirely disappear out of existence, but was still in use by the Nama speakers in Namaqualand, as the Khoikhoi name for Cape Town. 

Although Dutch settlers gave their own names to places, they also took note of the indigenous names of prominent geographical features such as mountains and rivers, which are the oldest names in South Africa. Such names include Bikamma (Melk River), Gantouw (Elandspad/ Sir Lowry’s Pass), Breë River (Synna), Nyara, Keiskamma, and Tsitsikamma

Preserving and even reviving Southern African indigenous names of places is of importance to all Southern African people, whether they are themselves of indigenous origin or not, and to mankind as a whole. For times immemorial, these names, that described the natural features of the land or commemorated significant historical events, were passed from one generation to the next. Aboriginal place names contribute to South Africa’s rich tapestry of cultural landscaping. These names reflect the diverse history and heritage of the nation and many of our earliest place names draw on Khoi-San origins. Only over the last few hundred years did pre-colonial place names go out of use as conquered places became re-named to mark occupation. Retrieving oral memories is thus a task more pressing than ever, especially in this country still wounded by a legacy of discrimination because of race.

Bradley van Sitters writes in his personal capacity

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  • welldone its such a very broad reseach and very informative

    By Abide Ntini on 19/02/2014