Disposession and original sin

Samoset knew that land came from the Great Spirit, was as endless as the sky, and belonged to no man. To humour these strangers in their strange ways, however, he went through a ceremony of transferring the land and made his mark on a paper for them. It was the first deed of Indian land to the English colonists.

This, according to Dee Brown in Bury my heart at Wounded Knee, her seminal account of the dispossession and decimation of the Native American nations, was the response of Samoset of the Pemaquids to the entreaties of the Plymouth colonists who arrived from Europe on the Mayflower in 1620, when they demanded more land on which to farm and grow crops.

Samoset and three Wampanoags named Massasoit, Squanto, and Hobomah had played a key role in the settlers surviving the first cruel winter in the New World, having supplied them with food when their meagre supplies brought from Europe were exhausted before the arrival of spring.

As thousands more European settlers arrived, the demands for land increased, and the inevitable conflict ensued. In 1675, Metacom, chief of the Wamponoags after his father Massasoit died, led his Indian confederacy in a war to save the tribes from extinction. After months of fighting, the superior firepower of the settlers had all but exterminated the Narragansetts and the Wampanoags.

Metacom was executed, his head put up on public display in Plymouth for 20 years, and his surviving family, along with other captured Indian women and children were sold into slavery in the West Indies.

Over the next 250 years virtually every other Native American nation was dispossessed of its land, and hunted to extinction, or penned into a reservation on marginal ground, often a great distance from their ancestral lands.

On April 6 1652, 32 years after the Plymouth settlers arrived in what was to become New England, Jan van Riebeeck arrived in Table Bay, and the following day stepped ashore, to start building a victualling station to supply the ships of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC).

He met with a member of a tribe of Beachrangers, Atshumao, who spoke some English.

Atshumao, or Harry the Strandloper as he became known, acted as an intermediary between the Dutch and the Khoikhoi with whom the Dutch wanted to barter for cattle.

In short order, the required fort had been constructed, and a vegetable garden established but like the Plymouth settlers, the Dutch settlers barely managed to survive their first winter at the Cape.

In 1657 the VOC released a number of employees from their contracts and granted them freehold land along the Liesbeek River.

This was at odds with the Khoikhoi view of land and grazing pastures as property of the community not individuals.

Tensions eventually erupted into war, and over the next 256 years, virtually every Southern African tribe was dispossessed of its land. Some, like the Khoikhoi and San, were hunted almost to extinction, and the rest were confined by the 1913 Land Act to tracts of barely arable ground, some a great distance from their ancestral homes.

They were systematically stripped of their rights and freedoms and consigned to virtual servitude until the edifice of grand apartheid was torn down and we entered, for the very first time in 1994, the age of true democracy.

While the sustainable solution to our land question cannot be a win-lose outcome, we would do well to remain mindful of what has happened since 1652, and try to see the world through the eyes of the dispossessed.