Turning the Stereotype against Itself: A VOC Clerk, “Hottentots”, and the Formation of Colonial Discourse

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Stereotyping has always permeated inter-ethnic understanding, conflating knowledge with prejudice. The seventeenth century European image of the Cape indigenous peoples was bound by a sustained ideological bias. The so-called “echo chamber of the discourse of the Cape” captured the Cape Khoi as primitive beasts in a negation of Christian values, and meant that knowledge about the Cape Khoi did not actually advance (Coetzee). In this paper I show that the Dutchman Jan Willem van Grevenbroek, VOC clerk at the Cape from 1684 to 1694, did in fact challenge the prevailing European image about the Khoi, then commonly called “Hottentots.” In a Latin letter, he positions himself against negative primitivism and interprets Khoi customs as authentically Christian. However, Grevenbroek thus risks being drawn into an oppositional discourse that limits the possibilities for renegotiating stereotypes (Hall; Matusitz). At the same time, he strategically demonstrates that the stereotype contains no inherent knowledge about the people and thus exploits one of the few possibilities to open ideological discourse up to renegotiation (Hall). Grevenbroek’s position challenges the very notion of there ever having been a single, colonial discourse (White), which makes Grevenbroek a valuable voice in Cape history, post-colonial discourse, and the history of knowledge in South Africa and beyond.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)76-88
JournalCritical Arts
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jun 2022
Externally publishedYes


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