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THE SECRET LETTERS OF JAN VAN RIEBEECK (article first published : 2006-07-6)

The show is The Secret Letters of Jan van Riebeeck and the timeframe is the 2006 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown where we are catapulted back to 16th of December, 1652. Commander Jan van Riebeeck, sans wig and tunic, is writing a letter to a friend in Holland telling him how things are going at the bottom end of Africa.

The days are fairly busy – either thrashing slaves, hunting Bushmen, arguing with Hottentots or explaining away several barrels of brandy which have embarrassingly made their way from the official stores into his apartments, apparently on the express command of his wife. Regarding the Hottentots and the Bushmen, he explains to his friend that it’s easy to tell them apart – when his hunting party appears, the Bushmen run away and the Hottentots remain and complain!

Jan bemoans the fact that his men are stealing from the stores in order to buy favours from the local women and wishes that he could install a whorehouse – as “only the Dutch can run a whorehouse with a proper sense of dignity”. He writes of the discussions regarding the origins of syphilis, the gays in his company and the fact that – heaven forbid! – squatters have moved into the vacant land outside the Fort. His contribution towards bringing Christianity to a backward country is to throw any of the recalcitrant local chiefs into the dungeon with a Bible.

Into Jan’s quarters comes the statue of a Bushman – well, actually half a statue - from the waist down, its manhood firmly making itself apparent from beneath a loincloth. As the show progresses, the statue acquires one arm, a head and finally another arm. Jan explains that stuffing Bushmen is a tricky business – and so the ladies in the company are given one part each to move the process along a little faster!

There are wonderful names like the gardener, Hendrik Boom, or the swineherd Naas Wonderfokker who has brought a strange game into fashion played with the bladder of an ostrich.

This then is the tenor of The Secret Letters of Jan van Riebeeck, written by Robert Kirby and based on a publication in 1992 of a set of entirely imaginary letters by Van Riebeeck. The letters were taken seriously by an academic at Botswana University who published a learned essay on them in the prestigious Journal of Southern African Studies … But that’s another story!

In this hour-long show, punctuated by Diane Wilson’s clipped narration, Robin Smith puts in a fine performance as the beleaguered commander who regularly has to shout commands out of the window to his slave master (“German”, he tells us with a bitter smile – “one of the members of the long-established Hitler family”) to go easy with his punishment of the slaves.

The audience at the performance I was in took a little time to warm up. Maybe it was the Dutch accent which takes a while to get attuned to but, more than likely, it was the biting and ruthlessly satirical – let alone highly un-PC - nature of Robert’s humour.

Commander Jan’s final comment is deeply telling as – now suitably bewigged and tunicked for an official photograph – he gazes at the little Bushman statue and ponders what the future will be of the Bushmen peoples and will they have benefited from the Christian education and ethics of “civilisation” thrust upon them.

The Secret Letters of Jan van Riebeeck is easily portable and raring to go on tour. It’ll change your idea of history! – Caroline Smart




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