History of Khoekhoe people

Nomadic Khoikhoi dismantling their huts, aquatint by Samuel Daniell (1805).

Khoekhoen is a traditionally roaming pastoralist inherent population of southwestern Africa. They have often been classified with the hunter-gatherer San tribes. The name “Khoekhoe” is a kare or praise address, not an ethnic endonym. Still, the literature has been used as an ethnic term for Khoe-speaking peoples of Southern Africa, especially pastoralist groups, such as the Nama, !Ora, !Gona, Xiri, and ǂNūkhoe nations.

Mysterious Origin

The broad ethnic designation of “Khoekhoen” belongs to a population originating in the northern area of modern Botswana. This culture gradually spread southward, finally approaching the Cape around 2,500 years ago. “Khoekhoe” clans include ǀAwakhoen to the west, and ǀKx’abakhoena of South and mid-South Africa, and the Eastern Cape. These terms mean “Red People”, and are similar to the IsiXhosa term “amaqaba”. Farming of goats, sheep, and cattle grazing in lush valleys provided a regular, balanced diet. It allowed these lifestyles to grow, with larger groups forming in a territory previously occupied by the property foragers. Ntu-speaking agriculturalist community is thought to have entered this region in the 3rd century CE, pushing pastoralists into the Western areas. The example of the close relationship between the ǃUriǁ’aes (High clan), a cattle-keeping population, and the!Uriǁ’aeǀ’ona (High clan children), a more-or-less settled forager population (also known as “Strandlopers”), both seizing the area of ǁHuiǃgaeb, shows that the strict differentiation between these two lifestyles is wrong, as well as the ethnic categories that are assumed. Foraging peoples who historically value non-accumulation as a cultural value system would be distinct, however.

Still, the distinctions among “Khoekhoe pastoralists,” “San hunter-gatherers,” and “Bantu agriculturalists” do not hold up to investigation and appear to be historical reductionism.


Khoe-speaking peoples traded with seafarers from all worldwide for centuries, going back into old times, and this unquestionably included some Europeans, perhaps even Roman vessels. Still, Portuguese explorers and merchants are the first to record their contacts in the 15th and 16th centuries CE. The continuing face-offs were often deadly. In 1510, at the Battle of Salt River, Francisco de Almeida and fifty of his men were murdered, and ox-mounted defeated his party.

!Uriǁ’aekua (“Goringhaiqua” in approximate Dutch spelling), one of the Khoekhoe clans of the area, also included the !Uriǁ’aeǀ’ona (“Goringhaicona,” also known as “Strandlopers”), said to be the forefathers of the !Ora nation of today.

In the late 16th century, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, and English, and Portuguese ships regularly continued to stop in Table Bay en route to the Indies. They traded tobacco, copper, and iron with the district’s Khoekhoe-speaking clans to exchange fresh meat.

The local community dropped after the smallpox contagion was spread through the European movement. The Khoe-speaking community suffered high mortality as immunity to the disease was rare.

Over the following decade, the Khoe-speaking tribes were gradually driven off their land, resulting in various northwards migrations, the reformulation of many communities and clans, and the dissolution of many traditional structures.

“Khoekhoe” social organization was thus deeply damaged by the colonial expansion and land seizure from the late 17th century onwards. As social arrangements broke down, many Khoekhoen settled on farms and became farmworkers; others were incorporated into clans that survived. Georg Schmidt, a Moravian Brother from Herrnhut, Saxony, now Germany, founded Genadendal in 1738, the first mission station in South Africa, among the Khoe-speaking peoples in Baviaanskloof around the hills.

Kat River settlement (1829–1856) and Khoena in the Cape Colony

Khoekua marksmen played a crucial role in the Cape Frontier Wars. By the early 1800s, the surviving Khoe-speakers of the Cape Colony suffered from limited civil rights and unfair land ownership laws. With this pretext, the persuasive Commissioner General of the Eastern Districts, Andries Stockenstrom, facilitated creating the “Kat River” Khoe settlement near the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony. The more skeptical motive was probably to generate a buffer zone on the Cape’s border. Still, the region’s extensive fertile land allowed people to own their land and build peace communities. The settlements blossomed and expanded, and Kat River quickly became a large and prosperous Cape region that existed more or less autonomously. The people were predominantly Afrikaans-speaking Gonakua, but the settlement also began to draw other diverse groups.

Khoekua were known at the time for being excellent shooters and were often precious allies of the Cape Colony in its frontier wars with the neighboring Xhosa politics. In the Seventh Frontier War in 1846 against the Gcaleka, the Khoekua shooters from Kat River identified themselves under their leader Andries Botha in the slander on the “Amatola fastnesses”.

However, harsh laws were still executed in the Eastern Cape, to push the Khoena to abandon their farms in the Kat River field and work as laborers on white farms. The growing anger exploded in 1850. When the Xhosa rose against the Cape Government, large numbers Khoeǀ’ona joined the Xhosa rebels for the first time. After the downfall of the rebellion and the awarding of representative government to the Cape Colony in 1853, the new Cape Government endeavored to grant the Khoena political rights to prevent future racial discontent. Attorney General William Porter was famously quoted as saying that he “would rather meet the Hottentot at the hustings, voting for his delegate, than meet him in the wilds with his gun upon his shoulder”.

Thus, the government established the Cape franchise in 1853, which declared that all male citizens meeting a low property test, regardless of color, had the right to vote and seek Parliament elections. However, this non-racial principle was decayed in the late 1880s by a literacy test and later abolished by the Apartheid Government.

Massacres in German South-West Africa

From 1904 to 1907, the ruthless Germans took up guns against the Khoikhoi tribe living in what was then German South-West Africa, along with the Herero. Over 10,000 Nama, more than half of the surviving Nama population at the time may have been killed in the conflict. This was the single largest massacre ever observed by the Khoikhoi people.

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