The First Prisoner on Robben Island

Last updated: Jul 06, 2015

Mandela called him the "first freedom fighter on Robben Island". The Dutch called him Harry the Strandloper, but his real name was Autshumao.

He was the chief of a KhoiKhoi tribe called the Goringhaicona, who were an outcast group that lived in Table Bay and were despised by other KhoiKhoi groups for their scavenging.

Autshumao was picked up by British sailors and sailed with them to Batavia. During the trip he learnt the English language and when he returned to the Cape became the postmaster for the passing ships. Sailors would drop off letters which Autshumao would then pass on to other ships.

When Jan Van Riebeeck came to the Cape in 1652, Autshumao moved back to the mainland to help establish trade between the KhoiKhoi and the Dutch. Because Autshumao could speak English, he was made an interpreter. Autshumao was a cunning man and quickly amassed herds of cattle and sheep.

The KhoiKhoi would trade livestock with the Dutch in exchange for tobacco and alcohol. One day the Dutch swindled them in a deal and in revenge Autshumao and a few other KhoiKhoi men stole from the Dutch. As punishment, Van Riebeek banished them to Robben Island, making them the first prisoners on Robben Island. After more than a year on the island he managed to escape back to the mainland in a leaking boat, and after more dust had settled was accepted back for his job as interpreter.

Autshumao's niece, Krotoa (called Eva by the Dutch), also worked as an interpreter for Van Riebeek. She got baptised and married a Danish surgeon called Peter Van Meerhof. They had three children together who survived infancy, and after Peter Van Meerhof was killed in Madagascar life became very difficult for Krotoa. She sank into depression and alcoholism which lead to the Dutch banishing her to Robben Island, but at the same time she was also rejected by the KhoiKhoi tribe as a traitor. She was caught between two groups, neither of whom wanted her.

Today Krotoa's legacy lives on through her descendants which interestingly include Paul Kruger, Jan Smuts, and F. W. de Klerk.

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