Home, Sweet Home

One night in 1999, Joan Sutherland sang her final role in the Sydney Opera House as Queen Marguerite de Valois, in Meyerbeer’s ‘Les Huguenots’. She was bidding farewell to her career. When the curtain went up on Act II, the audience burst into the sort of cheers most singers receive after they sing.

As the opera ended, the curtain went down, and the lights went out. When the curtain rose in the darkness, Joan Sutherland stood there in a black, sequin-encrusted gown of thousands of stars. The audience stood and shouted, whooped, cheered, and stamped their feet for a long time. It was spellbinding; it was enthralling!

She just stood there as the ovation went on and on. Then, finally, she smiled and waved, tears rolling down her cheek. Then, the rest of the cast joined her on stage. The ovation slowly died down to a whisper, with a solitary clap here and there.

Then came the evocative sound of a solo oboe!

Joan sang: Home Sweet Home:

‘Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home
A charm from the skies seems to hallow us there
Which seek thro’ the world, is ne’er met elsewhere
Home! Home!
Sweet, sweet home!
There’s no place like home
There’s no place like home!’

We wept with the audience in Sydney that night. But we had mixed feelings—which was Home1 and where was Home?  

Place, is like Home; it has a special meaning.

George Seddon describes Place, or ‘Sense of Place’ As a tie-in between people and the space they live in or visit. Some places have such a sense, while others do not. It may be a feeling or awareness about Place—not the house, town, or country. To some, those are good feelings—positive emotions—strong attachment, deep love, and belonging. To others, negative emotions—fear, hate, and unwelcoming.

Steven Feld2 and Keith Basso define ‘sense of place’ as: ‘the experiential and expressive ways places are known, imagined, yearned for, held, remembered, voiced, lived, contested and struggled over […]’. 

(Seddon, 2024)3

‘My Homeland’, composed by Czech composer Smetana, tells about longing and great love for the beautiful Bohemian countryside, history, and legends—evocative, nostalgic music of a proud and culturally rich region of Europe. It resonates for most who love Place! When I hear that music, I see my South African Place through the eyes of my youth: pristine and perfect.

I felt the same about South Africa as Theodore Roosevelt felt about his Country, the USA. He said, ‘Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage for your children and your (sic) children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests strip your country of its beauty, riches, or romance.’

Country‘ has a very special meaning for Aboriginal People and, indeed, for Indigenous peoples around the world, such as the San and Khoekhoen People of Southern Africa.

The Aboriginal people add many more dimensions to the meaning of their ‘Place’; the land they lost in colonial times.

The Aboriginal people tell us that4: ‘Country encompasses land, waterways, seas, and skies, as well as the energy and space in between. It also encompasses relationships—relationships with plants, relationships with animals, and relationships with Ancestors.

First Nations relationships within Country are grounded in reciprocity. Reciprocity is about mutual respect and exchange. For First Nations people and Country, it’s about keeping balance. We take only what is needed, so natural resources are never exhausted. When we do need something from Country, like a bush medicine or drinking water, we make sure we’re adding value in other ways, like cultural burning or through traditional ceremony.

So, while Country is Place, it is also a relationship. It’s because of this deep relationship, that when Country is disrespected, First Nations people and wellbeing are impacted deeply.

This is what Aboriginal People say about ‘Country’:

  • ‘Healing Country is healing us. We are Country and Country is us. We are all one’, says Worimi Elder; Uncle Steve Brereton.
  • When the British came here, their idea of home was their homesteads. Our idea of home is Country says Yugambeh Elder, Uncle Steve Cora
  • ‘First Nations people are intrinsically entwined and connected to Country. We are inherently a part of our natural ecosystems where bloodlines run deep into our land and oceans. We must protect Country so that Country can protect us’ says Kulkalaig Woman Tishiko King.
  • The Old People told me that we keep Country company. We sing to it, we dance, we look after it. And in any other form past this life, you will not have the same privilege to look after Country in the same way’, says Nyikina Warrwa and Wangkumara Barkindji Woman Marlikka Perdisat.

In Country everything should fit harmoniously, like a jigsaw puzzle. Everything has its place: the red earth, the blue sky, the eucalypts, and the wattles. The myriads of wildflowers. The magpies, wattlebirds and kookaburras. The echidnas, kangaroos and wallabies.

“The land is the mother, and we are of the land; we do not own the land; rather, the land owns us—the land is our food, culture, spirit and identity”, says Dennis Foley, a Gai-mariagal and Wiradjuri man.

But that was a pivotal moment. After Joan Sutherland’s heartfelt performance, a time came when I experienced joy and relief when coming Home, and that Home had become Australia. Then there would be joy when the ‘Flying Kangaroo’ crossed the jagged white foaming line that separated land and sea, approaching the low hills that separated Perth from the rest of the country.

Multicultural Australia

When we arrived in Australia in 1987, it had become the most successful multicultural place in the world, as Esther Rajadurai5 described it. Being a migrant—adding to the multicultural mix and having prospered in Australia then I did not contemplate how multiculturalism impacted Aboriginal people.

Multiculturalism is aligned with migrants’ integration and the ability to adapt; the mark of success in their adopted countries, according to ’empirical research’, according to Esther Rajadurai5. She goes on to say that different ethnic and cultural groups have integrated successfully, where dominant and minority groups, by and large, respect each other’s cultures. She does not refer to the Aboriginal People.

Aboriginal People, our First Nation people, are not migrants in the physical sense of the word but metaphorically are—having been forced to ‘migrate’ into an alien colonial society.

I no longer saw an ugly, colourless, and formless Australian landscape. Instead, my eyes were opened to see gentleness and subtle beauty in this geologically ancient land and the environment that has successfully adapted to aeons of harsh, hot and unforgiving circumstances. I had learned to love the strangely beautiful animals, the gorgeous birds and the rather malignant creepy crawlies – the snakes, spiders, and bull ants!

Ruin of ‘Country’

Many indigenous cultures are losing their sense of place because of climate change and “ancestral homeland, land rights and retention of sacred places”.

As a migrant to Australia, many of my ancestors have been responsible for the ruin of the ‘Country’ I have left. My ancestors have much in common with the British colonial people who have been responsible for the ruin of ‘Country’ for the Aboriginal people of Australia.

Our Transvaal, Orange Free State, Griqualand West and Namaqualand families in Southern Africa were all involved in ‘land clearing’ and the eradication of Indigenous peoples; they were considered as human ‘vermin’, standing in the way of the land grabbers. Isn’t this just as true for the British colonial masters and convicts who established the colonies in Australia? I can go a step further and say the same for many colonising countries from the 15th century onwards.

Before proceeding, I want to differentiate clearly, if possible, between Society, ‘Place’, and ‘Country’. Those of us with ‘colonising’ ancestors can probably understand what ‘Society’ and ‘Place’ mean. Understanding ‘Country’ is difficult, if not impossible, for we have never lived in ‘Country’!

 

Society

We live in Australian society now, a multicultural society where we are all equal, only separated by a rather intangible class distinction—between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ or, possibly more correctly, the ‘have-muchs’ and the ‘have littles’. Wikipedia defines ‘Society’ as follows.

‘Place’

We all have a ‘sense of place’, or ‘Place’.

society is a group of individuals involved in persistent social interaction or a large social group sharing the same spatial or social territory, typically subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations. Societies are characterized by patterns of relationships (social relations) between individuals who share a distinctive culture and institutions; a given society may be described as the sum total of such relationships among its constituent members.

Human social structures are complex and highly cooperative, featuring the specialization of labor via social roles. Societies construct roles and other patterns of behavior by deeming certain actions or concepts acceptable or unacceptable—these expectations around behavior within a given society are known as societal norms. So far as it is collaborative, a society can enable its members to benefit in ways 

Society. (2024, May 28). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society

Apologising for them and telling the stories about them can only be a symbolic gesture, sending the message that we’re all in the new ‘quantum’.

I will tell the story of how our ancestors caused the ruin of the Khoisan. Is it not similar to the ruin caused by the settlers in Australia to the Aboriginal people?

The ‘Voice’

We faced a referendum on giving the Aboriginal people a ‘Voice’ to parliament in Australia. 

Step by step, ‘quantum by quantum’, societies evolve to other states; dictated by the inevitable march of progress. It is impossible to move back to the previous quantum state; to take a step back—everything has moved on! The same is true for Country!

The Breaking of Country

My Trekboer (nomadic farmer ancestors) were prolific hunters, often hunting for amusement, ever depleting the San’s food supply. They pursued the Eland and Ostriches to the point of extinction. The Eland were tremendously important animals to the San.  What incensed the San most was that the Trekboers made biltong (a jerky) out of the Eland, which became very popular everywhere. The Eland numbers declined rapidly, causing the loss of their food supplies and destroying one of the significant elements in their spiritual lives.

The Eland had great spiritual significance. A San belief was that if a ‘Shaman’ (healer or medicine man) painted a creature, such as an Eland, on a cave wall, it would be an opening into the spiritual world. Kaggen, the Praying Mantis, was a supreme genderless god and a trickster. The San in the Kalahari believe Kaggen can appear as a ‘trickster’ in other animal forms. Teachers taught us that the San were so ‘primitive’ that they worshipped a Praying Mantis, a ‘Mantodea’.  

The Jhirrinbala Tribe of Northern Australia also worships the Praying Mantis. In an Aboriginal Dreamtime story, a Praying Mantis brings news to people about people. The Mantis observes and influences the tribespeople’s lives and lifestyles throughout their lives. The Mantis watches over them and passes news about them to other members of the tribe. It also warns them when they are in danger.

Wurundjeri people in Australia also have a profound mystical connection to the land and believe that everything with a distinct shape has its own spirit, known as Murrup Biik (Spirit Country). A tree or rock has its spirit, as do features along a river, and a billabong, bushland, or grass clearing has its own Tikilara (spirit of place). This belief is not far from the San faith in Kaggen!

The Wurundjeri people travelled by foot from site to site, ‘singing country’, following the marker tree routes. Their joyful voices told the Tikilara spirits of their peaceful and respectful arrival at a place. The Wurundjeri people believe it is a human responsibility to ‘care for ‘country’ and respect its Tikilara.

The San believed there were many ways to be part of the spirit world. The trance dance, a circular dance with women clapping and singing and men dancing rhythmically, was such a means. The dance led to a state of altered consciousness through rhythmic dancing and hyperventilation. The belief was that the dance could heal the community and bring people together.

These dances go back thousands of years – recorded in rock art in the same areas where my ancestors, the Khoikhoi and the Bantu, hunted the Eland and those San to extinction.

Aboriginal art sites in Australia often form an interconnected grid of places, all part of an overall story – a story of ‘country’. A local rock art site might tell a particular creation story connected to another rock art site that might be a few hundred metres away. Some sites are a long distance apart but connected through the Dreaming stories they tell.

The Woodside Petroleum company in Australia caused outrage among the Aboriginal community by moving 170 ancient rock engravings to build an LNG plant on the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia. This displacement of engravements meant the destruction of important markers along a spiritual route. It also destroyed the meaning of the markers. With the ‘marker’ map gone, ‘country’ was gone!

The San people, known earlier as ‘Bushmen’, wandered over a good part of Southern Africa before the arrival of our Huguenot, Slave, Dutch and German ancestors.

Trekboer Beliefs

San were believed to be living in a feral state not far apart from animals. They were nomads, naked, apparently irreligious and lived in societies that the Trekboers could not identify with. They had no concept of land ownership, law, government and God. They did not even have an ‘intelligible’ language – so they were still animals. They were called ‘schepselen’ creatures of creation – but creatures created to exterminated – vermin. Johannes Kicherer, who gave them some creation ‘credit’, said that they were so barbaric and repugnant that they were ‘on a level with brute creation’.

Figure 49: San

Conflict and Hunting Parties

Then came the Trekboers moving into a region that for thousands of years had been occupied by hunter-gatherers. By 1725, Trekboers from the south-western Cape had made their way to the Hantam (Figure 41, Page 82), and in 1746 the VOC handed out the first farms in Roggeveld(Figure 41, Page 82) , a region suited to the rearing of sheep.

Because of the scarcity of water and good grazing lands, the Trekboers moved far and wide into the pastoral territories of the San and Khoikhoi. There was bound to be a terrible conflict!

This is what the leader of the Renish missionary society, Dr. Baron Theodore von Wurmb said about the ‘Ubiqua’ – a San tribe, in the Cedarberg in 1830: ‘The Bojesmannen (San) have attacked a farm in our neighbourhood. Everything on the farm was murdered, some of the stock driven off, and the rest shot with their poisoned arrows.

At the moment the Bushmen are carrying out the most terrible atrocities in the surroundings, as, because of the great drought in their country, they have nothing to eat. Alas, the local Europeans (farmers) are themselves the cause of these atrocities, because they essentially treat these Bushmen as wild animals, and every local farmer boasts about who has shot dead many of these people.

The farmers organise common hunting parties against the Bushmen; and if Bushmen come to a farm and request food, they are given nothing, but rather all their goods are taken away and they are driven off with sticks or forced to perform the farmer’s work. You should not be apprehensive that the Bushmen should do anything against us – towards us they behave with great friendliness, and when they come to us, we give then the food that we have; they show great love towards us and several of them desire to hear something about God….

Many of them have been captured by the farmers and brought to Clanwilliam gaol, where I visit them and preach the Christ whenever I come to Clanwilliam. Bushmen (or men who stay behind the bush), this gibe of the name is conferred on them because of their way of life.

They call themselves ‘Naevii Ukaas’ …. that they are so savage is manifestly on the conscience of the Europeans who live here and who treat them as dogs and shoot them dead whenever they can get hold of a single one. I have been an eyewitness at scenes which have totally outraged me; and since then, I have daily implored God that these poor creatures be admitted to his mercy. The Bushmen are very cruel towards the old and sick from their own tribe; they abandon their own parents to starve when they can no longer follow under their own strength.

I therefore interviewed a young Bushman who had been guilty of this course of action towards his father and asked him if he remembered the kindnesses which his father had shown him from his childhood. He said, that was his duty, as it is mine towards my own children, and they will treat me no better when I become old. I have no sign whatever of ‘belief’ among, this nation; in this they are like unto the animals. Their only concern is eating, and, as long as they have something, they do this so immoderately, that when they are crammed full, they cannot move for three or four days.

I have myself seen that a Bushman with his wife and a seven-year-old boy completely consume a fat African sheep in a single night, which I would not have countenanced if I had been told it. Against this, they can fast for a remarkable length of time. When they attack the herds of a colonist, they kill the herdsmen, eat the stock to their heart’s content and shoot the rest; then they take flight. They do not work at all, but they do manufacture their bows and arrows, and also large clay buckets in which to keep water. As bottles, to carry water on their journeys, they use empty ostrich eggs; tortoise shells are their bowls and ladles…

Whoever makes the best bows, shoots the most game, collects the most wild honey, he is the most respected among them. The poison on their arrow is strong and causes immediate death. Despite all my efforts, I have not yet been able to discover what they make this poison from. If they shoot game or stock with these arrows, then they fall upon it straight away and cut out the poisoned part, with the arrowhead, with small, pointed pieces of iron or sharp stones’.

As our ancestors moved farther into the hinterland, the conflict became a way of life – uncompromising and brutal. The Bushmen resisted every step of the way. In the 1770s the front stretched along the entire length of the escarpment, from the Roggeveld Mountains to the Sneeuberge (Figure 53).

Figure 53: VOC Map

Genocide

The main driver for violence towards the San, was most likely competition for scarce resources, but dehumanisation made it much easier to hunt them as animals – to enslave and kill them.

By the eighteenth century, commando-style raids involved as many as 250 Trekboers at a time – and any others who liked to join the ‘sport’! It had become a ‘sport’; akin to fox hunts by English and European gentlemen! All headed out to kill the San and as many Eland and other animals as possible. And they kept the score – borne out in historical records of these hunts. VOC commanders left tallies of the San killed. Together with the Bantu and disease attacks, these hunts were the start of a genocide. These attacks were kept secret and swept aside as rumours. We know that servants overheard conversations about these hunts. Game hunting parties would divide in the veld, with some members going to presumably hunt animals.

These were war crimes! Many Trekboers killed the San with impunity and did so indiscriminately.

Attacks usually came at dawn, as the raiding parties found the campfires of the San. The parties killed the men and took the women and children as semi-slaves. The women would become servants and do menial tasks around the homesteads. Sometimes they were ‘given’ to the Khoikhoi men as wives. The San children were indentured to the Trekboer families in what amounted to slavery, except they could not sell them.

These raids and attacks are chillingly like attacks in Australian colonies – raids on Aboriginal communities throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century – it was the done thing in the colonies!

This is what was said about the San at the time: Anders Sparrman in 1775 said ‘Does a colonist at any time get sight of a Bushman, he takes fire immediately, and spirits up his horse and dogs, in order to hunt him with more ardour and fury than he would a wolf or any other wild beast.’

In 1774, the VOC went headlong into the genocide of the San, to be exterminated as vermin – to be eradicated so that the Trekboers could get on with their lives. Efforts intensified – hundreds were killed in single attacks. In September 1792, 250 Bushmen were killed near the Sak River (Figure 53).

By 1800, thousands of Bushmen had died. Later, raids by our Trekboer ancestors, who joined commandos, wiped the San out in Bushmanland, Griqualand West, Gordonia and other areas north of the Orange River.

Louis de Grandpre, a French army officer who visited the Cape in 1786 –87, said that the Trekboers were crueller than the conquistadors (Figure 48) because ‘they have hunted the Boschis as one would hunt hares; their dogs are trained for it’.

Figure 48: Keeping Dogs Taste for Human Flesh Alive

The Spanish conquistadors kept their dogs’ appetites for human flesh alive. They had Indians brought to them in chains, then they would unleash the dogs. The Indians would come meekly down the roads and be then killed. They had butcher shops where the corpses of Indians were hung up, and on display and someone will come in and say, more or less: ‘Give me a quarter of that rascal hanging there, to feed my dogs until I can kill another one for them’.

The genocide continued through the 1830s into the 1850s – there is little written about that. Then the Trekboers expanded into Bushmanland and beyond, such as the Beukes family, who trekked through Bushmanland towards Bowesdorp. Brutal clashes took place between Trekboers and the San near Kenhardt, with the San hunted down and killed by Trekboer commandos.

But the Trekboers and the Griquas were committing genocide in the complete sense of the word, according to the 1948, United Nations Genocide Convention – which defined genocide as any of five ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. These five acts were: killing members of the group, causing them serious bodily or mental harm, imposing living conditions intended to destroy the group, preventing births, and forcibly transferring children out of the group. Victims are targeted because of their real or perceived membership of a group, not randomly’.

Guerrilla Warfare

But the San people were stubborn and ferocious. Like the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, they resorted to guerrilla warfare. They attacked the Trekboers and their settlements, slaughtered animals, set houses on fire, and often killed the settlers.

Modern Times

We did not know that the last permit to stalk, prey and hunt the Bushmen (San) was issued from Pretoria in 1936. The permit was to hunt the San like vermin and applied to all genders ‘female and male Bushman’. The issuing of permits to hunt the Bushman (San) like vermin was not an accident of history. Not that long ago Australian Aboriginal people were classified under ‘fauna and flora’. What did the Trekboers and, indeed, the VOC Council of Policy think about the San people?

Atonement

Can we atone for the loss of their ‘country’ – that which is forever gone?

We are sorrowful for that which is forever gone, just as we are sorrowful for the loss of flora and fauna, and indeed, the landscape itself. The remaining Indigenous peoples of South Africa, Australia and everywhere, should be allowed to tell their truthful stories and we ours. Together we should be allowed to collectively seek to restore what we can and adopt ecologically sound management practices that we can learn from Indigenous peoples.


[1] Bushmen, Hottentots, and other Indigenous groups

 

  1. Home is italicised to convey this special meaning. ‘Home is often considered a feeling rather than just a physical place because it involves a complex set of psychological, emotional, and philosophical aspects that go beyond the mere location of a building or structure’.
    ↩︎
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sense_of_place#cite_note-1 ↩︎
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Feld ↩︎
  4. https://www.instagram.com/commongroundfirstnations/ ↩︎
  5. Rajadurai, Esther (December 2018). Australia: the most successful multicultural nation in the world. Economist, The McKell Institute; Pty Ltd. ↩︎
  6. Rajadurai, Esther (December 2018). Australia: the most successful multicultural nation in the world. Economist, The McKell Institute; Pty Ltd. ↩︎