Historically my family has wandered all over the globe.
It was the mother of all journeys. A Dutch merchant fleet set out on a lengthy and heart-in-the-throat trip to the tip of Africa. From there it was on to Asia to load up with spices and other luxury goods that were all the rage in Europe. That voyage required all the courage and stamina that a 19-year-old Frenchman could muster. On occasion nearly a third of the fleet could be lost as the tiny ships ploughed through the fierce storms of the Atlantic Ocean. After a harrowing journey surviving the threat of pirates, scurvy, and unending seasickness the ships came in sight of the Cape of Good Hope. According to tradition the first person who sighted the famed flat top Table Mountain was give a silver coin by the captain of his ship.
There is a back-story to this mid-sixteen century adventure of my ancestor Louis Fourie. The Dutch East India Company (DEIC) was looking for a few good young men to send to its business at the tip of Africa. In fact the Cape was not a colony but a business venture. Strong bodied workers were needed to work the land to provide supplies for its ships to and from India.
Louis Fourie my mother’s namesake from several generations ago, signed up for what he thought was the deal to beat all deals. It was the adventure of his life.
The terms: A free trip on one of the DEIC’s ships to South Africa and 100 acres of land that would become his own. The small print in the contract was that he had to work the land for five years and not return home early. This was an offer that he could not refuse.
Louis was not Dutch but a refugee from France where his family was from the French Huguenot community. They were under severe persecution by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. These Calvinist Protestants lives had become so unbearable that tens of thousands had fled to various parts of the world.
At first Louis, my many times over great grandfather, migrated to Holland where he found a warm reception for his particular brand of Protestantism. But he was a man without a country with no real roots in this religiously hospitable country. So when a friend told him of the offer from the DEIC of a new life at the other end of the world in Africa, he found it hard to resist the call to a new adventure.
But the trip was no cakewalk. For several weeks he succumbed to many bouts sickness. He seemed to spend endless moments with his head over the ship’s rail “feeding the fish” with throw up. He also discovered that there was very little drinking water on board. The hardened crew discovered from experience that wine kept better than water on the long trip. Also because of its vitamin C content it held the dreaded scurvy at bay. So Luis drank a lot of wine on that trip.
Then came the grand finale of his trip. The Cape of Storms so named by the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias who rounded it in the year 1488. Years later it was name the Cape of Good Hope by King John II of Portugal as a marketing ploy. He wanted sailors to view the journey as a good omen in that India with its spice riches could be reached by sea from Europe. This geographic point was at the confluence of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. This location was a dreaded part of any trip even amongst the most seasoned seamen because of its frequent heavy storms. Many a ship had sunk and the bodies of its crew were forever buried in what was named “Davy Jones Locker”. But Louis escaped that fate. After landing in the Dutch Cape Colony he was given a warm reception by the then Governor Jan Van Riebeeck and his French wife.
Louis eventually assimilated into the South African culture because of his Calvinist roots and strong work ethic. But unfortunately some persecution continued as he was forced to speak Dutch and not French by the governing authorities in the Cape. That Dutch evolved into Afrikaans. This was the mother tongue of my mother Elma Fourie.
Within a year of landing in the Cape Colony Louis moved to his new home seventy-five kilometers from the main Colony. That location eventually became known as Franschhoek (French Corner). Today the town is the center of a thriving wine industry. Here his hundred acres of scrub-covered land took a couple of back breaking years to clear before he could even plant the crops. But like another South African many years later Desmond Tutu, Louis was a “Prisoner of Hope”.
Maybe his spirit of optimism was sustained by a belief in the divine will contained in his Calvinist religion. The people of this faith tradition saw themselves as part of some providential plan. They designated themselves as children of the Covenant. That agreement between them and the Almighty was that they were chosen for a special mission in South Africa. Louis could recall the many times his Predikant (Dutch for minister) would give a sermon based on the ancient Hebrew text
And I will establish a covenant between me and thee….and I will give unto thee, and unto thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.
His church viewed its white followers as chosen by God. They appropriated this ancient promise to the Israelites and applied it to themselves.
White superiority was also sustained by the caste system set up by an ancient Biblical story. Blacks were viewed as the descendants of Noah’s son Ham. The story goes that after the Great Flood Noah planted a vineyard and produced wine. One day in a drunken stupor he fell asleep naked in his tent. His son happened on the scene and saw his naked father. When Noah awoke and realized what Ham had seen he cursed Ham’s son Canaan. The Scriptures declare “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers”.
In her book “Caste” Isabel Wilkerson writes “The story of Ham’s discovery of Noah’s nakedness would pass down through the millennia..the biblical passage would be summoned to condemn the children of Ham and to justify the kidnap and enslavement of millions of human beings, and the violence against them”
And the children of Ham were black.
And in relationship to the indigenous population of South Africa Louis my line of ancestry were incontrovertibly children of the Covenant.
This man-made God-rationalized tradition became the roots of the future Apartheid racist political system. Whites viewed themselves as elevated to be the rulers of the black skinned people who, according to the Dutch interpretation of the Bible, were cursed by god
Therefore you shall be under a curse, and your race shall always be hewers of wood, and carriers of water unto the house of my God. And now ye are cursed, and ye shall never cease to be bondmen, and hewers of wood, and drawers of water for the house of my God.
There was nothing like divine permission to encourage folks oppress another ethnic group. Just like the USA under President Polk in the 19th Century defined racism and expansionism in terms of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, so too the Children of the Covenant saw it as their destiny to be rulers in a land that was theirs by occupation. Herein lay the roots of my sense of white superiority and entitlement that persists today in the USA. I assiduously fight this racial bias today.
Another part of that Divine plan (most things were framed in those terms) was when he met and married Suzanne Cordier with whom he had ten children. After her death he married Anne Jourdaan and had eleven children with her. Such was my ancestry line in South Africa. I just discovered recently through a genetic test that I have 2% black blood coursing through my veins. I wonder what that story is all about?
My family trip from South Africa to the USA in the early 1970’s was a breeze compared to that of Louis. We had 18 hours of flying time and a minor inconvenience of being stranded at Heathrow airport due to a TWA labor strike. I lost my wallet with passport and credit cards at a phone booth (returned by the airport staff) and our biggest hassle was managing two squirmy toddlers. However, the reality was that we were still migrants and descendants of migrants. There are very few natives in this world. It seems like we are either always leaving one place or arriving in another.
None of us have reliable crystal balls. We plan, guess, hope but in the end, all of our leavings put us in the position where we are today, living with a series of new beginnings.