Prestwich Memorial Ossuary, Stacey Vorster 2020

“I know I can’t change the future, but I can change the past. It is the past, not the future, which is infinite. Our past was appropriated. I am one of the people who has to reappropriate it.” – Toni Morrison1

I first met Groote Catrijn in the Western Cape Archives and Records, housed on Roeland Street in Cape Town. I was on a research trip attempting to map out slave histories — visiting the Iziko Slave Lodge, Prestwich Memorial, The Company's Gardens, excavation sites near Gallows Hill and Museum van de Caab in Franschhoek. All these sites were key points in my journey to understanding the city’s haunting colonial past. I wanted to understand how the present is constituted through histories of slavery.

Later, when I relocated to Cape Town, I interacted regularly with these sites of memory and my relationship with them evoked a strong sense of connection. The great injustices that had been committed against enslaved men, women, and children, loomed over my head and the more I thought about these histories, the more gratitude I felt towards my ancestors. My continual return to Groote Catrijn was not because of a direct lineal connection, but rather, something in her story drew me to her. I wanted to know how she came to be a washerwoman at the Cape Fort during Jan Riebeeck’s commandership and how her life unfolded within the oppressive walls of the Fort. As with many enslaved people, details of Groote Catrijn’s life are few and far between and fail to account for periods of her life before and after enslavement.

Born c.1631 in what is currently known as Pulicat, India, Catharina (last name unknown), sometimes referred to as Catharina van Paliacatta, Catharina van Bengal and Groote Catrijn, was brought to South Africa through Batavia (present-day Jakarta, Indonesia). According to formal records situated at the Museum van de Caab in Franschhoek, Catharina was brought to the Cape Colony at the age of 26 as a prisoner, to serve out a life sentence for the murder of her lover, Claes van Malabar. Claes was also a slave in Batavia. Defending herself from Claes’ abuse, Catharina is said to have hit him with a ladder across his stomach. Claes died four days after the incident, due to complications resulting from a burst bladder, and in the aftermath, Catrijn was convicted and banished to the Cape Colony. This act of defending herself, I thought, might point to a wider pattern of resistance against oppression in Catrijn’s life.

Catharina, believed to be the first recorded female convict, arrived at the Cape on 21 February 1657, working as a washerwoman for Cape Fort commanders. Her journey from Pulicat to Batavia is not well documented. (The ship would have stopped in Batavia presumably because the Dutch East India Company (VOC) dominated the textile trade between Pulicat and Batavia.). In 1669, Catrijn, then working as a washerwoman at the Cape Fort, had a child with a German soldier, Hans Christoffel Snijman. The child took his father’s name, and his lineage can be traced to a family of winemakers owning the Solms Delta Wine Estate in Franschhoek. Groote Catrijn mothered another child; Petronella Everardsz. Petronella’s father is believed to be Pieter Everaerts, who served in The Council of Policy, which was the highest authority of the VOC in the Cape at the time. Catrijn mothered two more children; Susan and Anthoni (who were possibly born before Christoffel) but these children either died early or were not formally recorded. Eventually, she married Anthonij Jansz van Bengale, an enslaved man from India, in 1671. Her life after this marriage is largely unknown. Records place her death between December 1682 and February 1683, in the Cape.

Groote Catrijn’s life story makes visible the complexities of surviving conditions of enslavement and points to tangled relationships of genealogy and heritage between European sailors and soldiers and enslaved women. Survival within states of precarity and fragility necessitated fluid and negotiable ways of being. It is difficult to fully grasp and articulate moments of agency within oppressive conditions, but from the little that we know it seems obvious that they existed. Groote Catrijn makes it possible for us to think through loopholes that are possible within states of terror as well as the possibility of survival outside of what we might think of as “an escape.”

In thinking about Groote Catrijn’s life, I invoke gratitude as a mode of attunement. My gestures include reflecting, imagining, dreaming, and communing. The inclination towards gratitude as a gesture in the recollection of slave narratives is premised on the belief that if we are unable to let the dead rest, then our recollection of their lives should at least, in part, be in their service.

In the Anthropocene Unseen, social anthropologist Iza Kavedžija describes gratitude as that which combines generosity and humility, noting; “it [gratitude] encourages us to recognise the importance of others in making our lives liveable”.2 The extent to which our lives are liveable is linked to those for whom the terror of living was incalculable — slaves who were stolen from their homelands, transported, and transplanted into foreign territory and forced to survive in horrifying conditions of violence. By remembering their lives, we are reappropriating the past as a way of understanding our current states of being. Reappropriation—read through Morrison’s quote above—is an essential tactic towards collapsing linear readings of time. It allows one to reach into the infinite past and reorient oneself towards it. Through Morrison’s methods, one can sense one’s connection to the past. For Kavedžija, this connection can be experienced and made visible through practices of gratitude. She writes: “it could be said that gratitude makes acting in the world possible, by making us aware of the interconnected nature of life”. We are connected to our histories and contemporary life is inextricably linked to the realities and effects of slavery. Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola asserts this interconnection in her 2010 book, What is Slavery to Me? Gqola examines South Africa’s construction of itself during a time of transition and how slavery is evoked and remembered as part of negotiating ways of being. For Gqola, history is a continuation in space and time (and not always in a linear trajectory), she notes; “uncovering memory and history demands a critical attentiveness to the uses of the past to negotiate positions in the present.”

In remembering Groote Catrijn, I imagine possibilities of understanding while also leaving room for opacity where certain moments of illegibility and evasiveness can be respected. I accept the impossibility (and necessity) of ever fully understanding Groote Catrijn but, taking instruction from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the past, I will continue in the unceasing labour of thinking through historical narratives outside of the structuring principles of erasure and trivialisation. Erasure follows from a denial of enslaved people’s sense of interiority. The inner characters of the enslaved are often rendered unimaginable and therefore denied. This form of erasure lacks the imagination to conceive of ways in which enslaved people were able to create meaningful lives despite their oppression. Similarly, trivialisation underplays what a great feat it is for enslaved people to have survived. Trivialisation sees no terror, but it also sees no beauty in the lives of the enslaved. In a conversation recorded in 2016 as part of a series at the Duke Divinity School, “Black Outdoors: Humanities Futures After Property and Possession”, Fred Moten alludes to this relationship between terror and beauty, noting; “anybody who thinks they can come even close to understanding how terrible the terror has been without understanding how beautiful the beauty has been against the grain of that terror is wrong. There is no calculus of the terror that can make a proper calculation without reference to that which resists it. It’s just not possible.”4 Similarly, it is impossible to think about the traumatic conditions that made up Groote Catrjin’s life without thinking of her life as what Saidiya Hartman refers to as a beautiful experiment.

Going back to the question of letting our dead rest —thinking through why we feel compelled to go back to the grave. And why we feel the need to dredge up the lives of enslaved people, Saidiya Hartman recognises the set of oppositions inherent in “placing yet another demand upon the [dead] girl, by requiring that her life be made useful or instructive”5 and proposes a reading of the work of memory as a labour of care that works against silencing and neglect. I believe this labour of care can be practised through small but important gestures of gratitude.

Gestures of gratitude are sounded out through unbounded relationality; they perform a labour of care and expression. This type of labour works against the violence of forgetting and offers a kind of communion—thinking of each other and thinking with each other through time, because we owe each other everything. It is a dedication to those often forgotten, whose lives are encountered in ledgers, court records and inventories.

1. Morrison, T., Conversations with Toni Morrison. ed. Danille Kathleen Taylor-Guthrie, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), pp. 14-15.
2. Kavedžija, I., “Gratitude”, Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon, ed. Cymene Howe, Anand Pandian (Punctum Books, 2020), pp. 221-225.
3. Gqola, P. D., “Introduction: Tracing (re)memory, thinking through echoes of colonial slavery in     contemporary South Africa”, What is Slavery to Me? Postcolonial/Slave Memory in Post-apartheid         South Africa. (Wits University Press, 2010): pp1-22.
4. Fred Moten, “The Black Outdoors: Humanities Futures After Property and Possession”, (Duke           University Divinity School, 2016)            humanities-futures-after-property-and-possession.
5. Saidiya Hartman. “Venus in Two Acts”, Small Axe, Number 26. (Duke University Press: June 2008) pp.1-14.

Nkgopoleng Moloi is a writer and an MA student in contemporary curatorial practices at Wits University. Using archives and exhibition histories, her research explores womxn’s mobility —attempting to understand and draw attention to factors that enhance or inhibit womxn’s freedom of movement. Her interests are in history, art, language, and architecture.

The Archive of Forgetfulness is funded by the Goethe-Institut.