1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hottentots

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HOTTENTOTS, an African people of western Cape Colony and the adjoining German territory, formerly widely spread throughout South Africa. The name is that given them by the early Dutch settlers at the Cape, being a Dutch word of an onomatopoeic kind to express stammering, in reference to the staccato pronunciation and clicks of the native language. Some early writers termed them Hodmadods or Hodmandods, and others Hot-nots and Ottentots—all corruptions of the same word. Their name for themselves was Khoi-Khoin (men of men), or Quae Quae, Kwekhena, t’Kuhkeub, the forms varying according to the several dialects. Early authorities believed them to be totally distinct from all other African races. The researches of Gustav Fritsch, Dr E. T. Hamy, F. Shrubsall and others have demonstrated, however, that they are not so much a distinct or independent variety of mankind as the result of a very old cross between two other varieties—the Bantu Negro (containing a distinct Hamitic element) and the Bushman. Hamy calls them simply “Bushman-Bantu half-breeds,” the Bushman element being seen in the leathery colour, compared to that of the “sere and yellow leaf”; in the remarkably prominent cheekbones and pointed chin, giving the face a peculiarly triangular shape; and lastly, in such highly specialized characters as the tablier and the steatopygia of the women. The cranial capacity is also nearly the same (1331 c.c. in the Bushman, 1365 c.c. in the Hottentot), and on these anatomical grounds Shrubsall concludes that the two are essentially one race, allowing for the undeniable strain of Bantu blood in the Hottentot. This view is further strengthened by the vast range in prehistoric times of the Hottentot variety, which, since the time of Martin H. K. Lichtenstein (1800–1804), was known to have comprised the whole of Africa south of the Zambezi, and has since been extended as far north as the equatorial lake region.

Fritsch divides the Hottentots into three bodies; the Cape Hottentots, from the Cape peninsula eastward to Kaffraria, the Koranna, chiefly on the right bank of the Orange river, but also found on the Harts and the Vaal, and the Namaqua in the western portion of South Africa. Of these all save the last mentioned have ceased to exist in any racial purity. The name which the Namaqua give to themselves is Khoi-Khoin, and this name must be distinguished from that of the Berg-Damara or Hau-Khoin, since the latter are physically of Bantu origin though they have borrowed their speech from the Hottentots. While the Namaqua preserve the racial type and speech, the other so-called Hottentots are more or less Hottentot-Dutch or Hottentot-Bantu half-breeds, mainly of debased Dutch speech, although the Koranna still here and there speak a moribund Hottentot jargon flooded with Dutch and English words and expressions. When the Cape Colony became a part of the British empire the protection given to the natives arrested the process of extermination with which the Hottentots were then threatened, but it did not promote racial purity. Sir John Barrow, describing the condition of the Hottentots in 1798, estimated their number at about 15,000 souls. In 1806 the official return gave a Hottentot population of 9784 males and 10,642 females. In 1824 they had increased to 31,000. At the census of 1865 they numbered 81,589, but by this time the official classification “Hottentot” signified little more than a half-breed. The returns for 1904 showed a “Hottentot” population of 85,892. Very few of these were pure-bred Hottentots, while the official estimate of those in which Hottentot blood was strongly marked was 56,000.

Customs and Culture.—The primitive character of the race having greatly changed, the best information as to their original manners and customs is therefore to be found in the older writers. All these agree in describing the Hottentots as a gentle and friendly people. They held in contempt the man who could eat, drink or smoke alone. They were hospitable to strangers, even to the point of impoverishing themselves. Although mentally and physically indolent, they were active in the care of their cattle and, within certain limits, clever hunters. They were of a medium height, the females rather smaller than the men, slender but well proportioned, with small hands and feet. Their skin was of a leathery brown colour; their face oval, with prominent cheekbones; eyes dark brown or black and wide apart; nose broad and thick and flat at the root; chin pointed and mouth large, with thick turned-out lips. Their woolly hair grew in short thick curly tufts and the beard was very scanty. Amongst the women abnormal developments of fat were somewhat common; and cases occurred of extraordinary elongation of the labia minora and of the praeputium clitoridis.[1]

Their dress was a skin cloak (kaross) worn across the shoulders and a smaller one across the loins. They wore these cloaks all the year round, turning the hairy side inward in winter and outward in summer; they slept in them at night, and when they died they were buried in them. They had suspended around their necks little bags or pouches, containing their knives, their pipes and tobacco or dakka (Cannabis, or hemp), and an amulet of burnt wood. On their arms were rings of ivory. Sometimes they wore sandals and carried a jackal’s tail fastened on a stick, which served as handkerchief and fan. The women wore, besides the kaross, a little apron to which were hung their ornaments; and underneath this one or two fringed girdles; and a skin cap. Both sexes smeared themselves and even their dress with an ointment made of soot, butter or fat, and the powdered leaves of a shrub called by them bucchu (Diosma crenata).

Their villages were usually on meadow grounds. They never entirely exhausted the grass but kept moving from one pasture to another. The huts were in circles, the area of which varied with the pastoral wealth of the community. In the centre of the huts a hole served for a fire-place, and at each side of this small excavations an inch or two deep were made in the ground in which both sexes, rolled up in their karosses, slept. A few earthen vessels, well-made bowls of wood, tortoise shells for spoons and dishes, calabashes, bamboos and skins for holding milk and butter, and mats of rushes interwoven with bast, were all their furniture. Their weapons were primarily bows and arrows, but they also possessed assegais, and knob-kerries. To women much respect was shown; the most sacred oath a Hottentot could take was to swear by his sister or mother; yet the females ate apart from the men and did all the work of the kraal with the exception of the tending of cattle and of the curing of the hides; the men, however, assisted in the erection of the framework of the huts. The usual food of the Hottentots was milk, the flesh of the buffalo, hippopotamus, antelope or other game, and edible roots and bulbs or wild fruits. On the coast fish captured by hooks and lines or spears were also eaten. Cows’ milk was commonly drunk by both sexes, but ewes’ milk only by the women, and when cows’ milk was scarce the women were obliged to keep to ewes’ milk or water. Milk was drunk fresh, and not allowed to turn sour as among the Bantu. Meats were eaten either roasted or boiled, but for the most part half raw, without salt, spices or bread. From some meats they carefully abstained, such as swine’s flesh. Hares and rabbits were forbidden to the men, but not to the women; the pure blood of beasts and the flesh of the mole were forbidden to the women, but not to the men.

In occupation they were essentially cattle-breeders, and showed great skill in this pursuit, especially the Namaqua, who were capable of training the horns of their cattle so that they grew in spirals. Their social pleasures consisted in feasting, smoking, dancing and singing. Dances were held every first quarter of the moon and lasted all night, often for eight days in succession. Every signal event of life, and every change of abode and condition was celebrated with a feast. On the formation of a new kraal an arbour was constructed in the centre, and the women and children adorned and perfumed it with flowers and branches of trees and odoriferous herbs. The fattened ox was killed and cooked, and the men ate of it in the arbour, while the women sitting apart regaled themselves with broth. Upon such occasions the only intoxicant was tobacco or dakka.

Circumcision, which is common to the Kaffir tribes, was unknown to the Hottentots, but when a youth entered upon manhood a ceremony was performed. One of the elders, using a knife of quartz, made incisions in the young man’s body, afterwards besprinkling them with urine. When a man killed his first elephant, hippopotamus or rhinoceros, similar marks were made on his body, and were regarded as insignia of honour. Finger mutilation was common, especially among women; this consisted in the removal of one or two joints of the little finger, and, sometimes, the first joint of the next. The reason for this is doubtful; it may have been a sign of mourning, or, especially in the case of children, it may have been regarded as magically protective. Marriages were by arrangement between the man and the girl’s parents, the consent of the girl herself being a matter of little consideration. If accepted, the suitor, accompanied by all his kindred, drove two or three fat oxen to the house of his bride. There her relations welcomed the visitors; the oxen were slain, and the bridal feast took place. The nuptial ceremony was concluded by an elder besprinkling the happy pair. Among the southern Hottentots these ancient usages have ceased; but they are continued among some tribes north of the Orange river. Polygamy was allowed: divorce was common. Family names were perpetuated in a peculiar manner—the sons took the family name of the mother, the daughters that of the father. The children were very respectful to their parents, by whom they were kindly and affectionately treated. Yet the aged father or mother was sometimes put in the bush and left to die. Namaqua says this was done by very poor people if they had no food for their parents. But even when there was food enough, aged persons, especially women, who were believed to be possessed of the evil spirit, were so treated.

The Hottentots had few musical instruments. One named the “gorah” was formed by stretching a piece of the twisted entrails of a sheep from end to end of a thin hollow stick about 3 ft. in length in the manner of a bow and string. At one end there was a piece of quill fixed into the stick, to which the mouth of the player was applied. The “rommel-pot” was a kind of drum shaped like a bowl and containing water to keep the membrane moist. Reeds several feet long were used as flutes.

Government and Laws.—The system of government was patriarchal. Each tribe had its hereditary “khu-khoi” or “gao-ao” or chief, and each kraal its captain. These met in council whenever any great matters had to be decided. The post was honorary, and the councillors were held in great reverence, and were installed in office with solemnities and feasting. In certain tribes the hind part of every bullock slaughtered was sent to the chief, and this he distributed among the males of the village. He also collected sufficient milk at the door of his hut to deal out amongst the poor. A part of every animal taken in hunting was exacted by the chief, even though it was in a state of putrefaction when brought to him. The captains, assisted by the men of each kraal, settled disputes regarding property and tried criminals. A murderer was beaten or stoned to death; but if one escaped and was at large for a whole year, he was allowed to go unpunished. Adultery seldom occurred; if any one found parties in the act and killed them he was no murderer, but on the contrary received praise for his deed. Women found offending were burnt. Theft, especially cattle-stealing, was severely punished. The thief was bound hand and foot, and left on the ground without food for a long time; then, if his offence was slight, he received some blows with a stick, but if the case was an aggravated one, he was severely beaten, and then unloosed and banished from the kraal. The family of even the worst criminal suffered nothing on his account in reputation, privilege or property. The duel was an institution. If any one was insulted he challenged his enemy by offering him a handful of earth. If the latter seized the hand and the dust fell to the ground, the challenge was accepted. If it was not accepted, the challenger threw the dust in his foe’s face. The duel took place by kicking, with clubs, or with the spear and shield.

Religious Ideas.—The religious ideas of the Hottentots were very obscure. François le Vaillant says they had “neither priests nor temples, nor idols, nor ceremonials, nor any traces of the notion of a deity.” Other authorities state that they believed in a benevolent deity or “Great Captain,” whom they named Tik-guoa (Tsu-goab). There were other “captains” of less power, and a black captain named Gauna, the spirit of evil. The moon was a secondary divinity, supposed to govern the weather; and its appearance each month was hailed with dancing and singing.[2] George Schmidt, the first missionary to the Hottentots, says they also celebrated the annual appearance of the Pleiades above the eastern horizon. As soon as the constellation appeared, all the mothers ascended the nearest hill, carrying their babies, whom they taught to stretch their arms towards the friendly stars. Some of the tribes are said to worship a being whom they name Tusib, the rain god. An old Namaqua was once heard to say “The stars are the souls of the deceased,” and a Hottentot form of imprecation is “Thou happy one, may misfortune fall on thee from the star of my grandfather.”

Such as it was, the Hottentot religion was largely ancestor-worship. Their deified hero was named Heitsi-Eibib; and of him endless stories are told. The one most generally accepted is that he was a notable warrior of great physical strength, who once ruled the Khoi-Khoin, and that in a desperate struggle with one of his enemies, whom he finally overcame, he received a wound in the knee, from which event he got the name of “Wounded knee.” He had extraordinary powers during life, and after death he continued to be invoked as one who could still relieve and protect. According to the tradition preserved among the Namaqua, Heitsi-Eibib came from the east. Therefore they make the doors of their huts towards the east, and those who possess waggons and carts put their vehicles alongside the mat-house with the front turned towards the east. All the graves are in true west-easterly direction, so that the face of the deceased looks towards the east. The spirit of Heitsi-Eibib is supposed to exist in the old burial places, and, whenever a heathen Hottentot passes them, he throws stones on the spot as an offering, at the same time invoking the spirit’s blessing and protection. Johann Georg von Hahn asserts that there are many proofs which justify the conclusion that Heitsi-Eibib and Tsu-goab (the supreme being) were identical. Both were benevolent. Both were believed to have died and risen again. They killed the bad beings and restored peace on earth; they promised men immortality, understood the secrets of nature, and could foretell the future.[3]

Various ceremonies were practised to ward off the evil influence of ghosts and spectres, and charms were freely employed. If a Khoi-Khoi went out hunting his wife kindled a fire, and assiduously watched by it to keep it alive; if the fire should be extinguished her husband would not be lucky. If she did not make a fire, she went to the water and kept on throwing it about on the ground, believing that thereby her husband would be successful in getting game. Charms, consisting of bones, burnt wood, and roots of particular shrubs cut into small pieces, were generally worn round the neck. There was also a belief that in every fountain there was a snake, and that as long as the snake remained there water would continue to flow, but that if the snake was killed or left the fountain it would cease. Offerings were sometimes made to the spirit of the fountain. In common with the Bushmen, the Hottentots venerated the mantis fausta, a local variety of the insect known as “the praying mantis” (mantis religiosa). P. Kolbe saw sacrifices made in its honour when it appeared inside a kraal; to kill it was strictly forbidden. The Hottentots had great faith in witch-doctors, or sorcerers. When called to a sick-bed these ordered the patient to lie on his back, and then pinched, cuffed, and beat him all over until they expelled the illness. After that they produced a bone, small snake, frog or other object which they pretended to have extracted from the patient’s body. If the treatment did not succeed, the person was declared incurably bewitched. If death occurred, the corpse was interred on the day of decease. It was wrapt in skins, and placed in the ground in the same position it once occupied in the mother’s womb. Death was generally regarded in a very stoical manner.

Language.—The existence of a fundamental connexion between the language of the Hottentot and that of the Bushman was suggested by Dr Bleek and is supported by further evidence advanced by Bertin.

The Hottentot language was regarded by the early travellers and colonists as an uncouth and barbarous tongue. The Portuguese called the native manner of speaking stammering; and the Dutch compared it to the “gobbling of a turkey-cock.” These phonetic characteristics arose from the common use of “clicks,”—sounds produced by applying the tongue to the teeth or to various parts of the gums or roof of the mouth, and suddenly jerking it back. Three-fourths of the syllabic elements of the language begin with these clicks, and combined with them are several hard and deep gutturals and nasal accompaniments. The difficulty a European has in acquiring an accurate pronunciation is not so much in producing the clicking sound singly as in following it immediately with another letter or syllable. The four recognized clicks, with the symbols generally adopted to denote them, are as follows: dental = |; palatal = ♯; lateral = ||; cerebral = !. According to Tindall, one of the best grammarians of the language, the dental click (similar to a sound of surprise or indignation) is produced by pressing the top of the tongue against the upper front teeth, and then suddenly and forcibly withdrawing it. The palatal click (like the crack of a whip) is produced by pressing the tongue with as flat a surface as possible against the termination of the palate at the gums, so that the top of the tongue touches the upper front teeth and the back of the tongue lies towards the palate, and then forcibly withdrawing the tongue. The cerebral click (compared to the popping of the cork of a bottle of champagne) is produced by curling up the tip of the tongue against the roof of the palate, and withdrawing it suddenly and forcibly. The lateral click (similar to the sound used in stimulating a horse to action) is articulated by covering with the tongue the whole of the palate and producing the sound as far back as possible; Europeans imitate it by placing the tongue against the side teeth and then withdrawing it. The easiest Hottentot clicks, the dental and cerebral, have been adopted by the Kaffirs; and it is a striking circumstance, in evidence of the past Hottentot influence upon the Kaffir languages, that the clicking decreases amongst these tribes almost in proportion to their distance from the former Hottentot domain.

The language in its grammatical structure is beautiful and regular. Dr Bleek describes it as having the distinctive features of the suffix-pronominal order or higher form of languages, in which the pronouns are identical with and borrowed from the derivative suffixes of the nouns. The words are mostly monosyllables, always ending, with two exceptions, in a vowel or nasal sound. Among the consonants neither l, nor f nor v is found. There are two g’s, g hard and g guttural, and a deeper guttural kh. Diphthongs abound. There is no article, but the definite or indefinite sense of a noun is determined by the gender. In the fullest known dialect (that spoken by the Namaqua) nouns are formed with eight different suffixes, which in nouns designating persons distinguish masc. sing. (-b), masc. plur. (-ku), masc. dual (kha), fem. sing, (-s), fem. plur. (-ti), com. sing. (-i), com. plur. (-u), com. dual (-ra). The adjective is either prefixed to a noun or referred to it by a suffixed pronoun. This grammatical division of the nouns according to gender led to the classification of the language as “sex-denoting,” thus suggesting its relationship, in original structure, with the Galla and others.

There are four dialectical varieties of the language, each with well-marked characteristics: the Nama dialect, spoken by the Namaqua as well as by the Hau-Khoin or Hill Damara; the Kora dialect, spoken by the Koranna, or Koraqua, dwelling about the middle and upper part of the Orange, Vaal and Modder rivers; the Eastern dialect, spoken by the Gona or Gonaqua on the borders of Kaffirland; and the Cape dialect, now no longer spoken but preserved in the records of early voyagers and settlers. Of the Nama dialect there are three grammars: Wallmann’s (1857) and Hahn’s in German, and Tindall’s (1871) in English, the last being the best; and the four Gospels, with a large amount of missionary literature, have been published in it.

The vocabulary is not limited merely to the expression of the rude conceptions that are characteristic of primitive races. It possesses such words as koi, human being; khoi-si, kindly or friendly; koi-si-b, philanthropist; khoi-si-s, humanity; ♯ ei, to think; ♯ ei-s, thought; amo, eternal; amo-si-b, eternity; tsa, to feel; tsa-b, feeling, sentiment; tsa-kha, to condole; ama, true; ama-b, the truth; anu, sacred; anu-si-b, holiness; esa, pretty; anu-xa, full of beauty.

Literature and History.—Much traditionary literature—fables, myths and legends—existed amongst the Hottentots,—a fact first made known by Sir James Alexander, who in his journeyings through Great Namaqualand in 1835 jotted down the stories told him around the camp fire by his Hottentot followers. These Hottentot tales generally have much of the character of fables; some are in many points identical with northern nursery tales, and suggestive of European origin or of contact with the white man; but the majority bear evidence of being true native products. Bleek’s Reynard the Fox in South Africa (1864) contains a translation of a legend written down from the lips of the Namaqua by the Rev. G. Krönlein, which is regarded as an excellent specimen of the national style. Another legend relating to the moon and the hare conveys the idea of an early conception of the hope of immortality. It is found in various versions, and, like many other stories, occurs in Bushman as well as in Hottentot mythology.

The earliest accounts of the Hottentots occur in the narratives of Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India round the Cape in 1497–1498. In 1510 the Portuguese viceroy, Francisco d’Almeida, count of Abrantes, met his death in a dispute with the natives. Till the 17th century they were believed to be cannibals, but with the occupation of the Cape by the Dutch, in 1652, more accurate knowledge was obtained. A century of Dutch rule resulted in the Hottentots becoming a nation of slaves and in serious danger of extermination, and thus the arrival of the English in 1795 was welcomed by them. In 1828 an ordinance was passed declaring “all Hottentots and other free persons of colour” entitled to all and every right to which any other British subjects were entitled. (See Cape Colony: History; and South Africa.)

Bibliography.—A. de Quatrefages, Les Pygmées (1887); G. W. Stow, The Native Races of South Africa (1905); E. T. Hamy, “Les Races nègres,” in L’Anthropologie (1897), pp. 257 et sqq.; F. Shrubsall, “Crania of African Bush Races,” in Jour. Anthrop. Inst. (November 1897); W. H. J. Bleek, A Comparative Grammar of South African Languages (1862); and “Die Hottentotten Stämme,” in Petermanns Mit. (1858), pp. 49 et sqq.; G. Fritsch, Die Eingebornen Süd-Afrikas (1872), and “Schilderungen der Hottentotten,” in Globus (1875), pp. 374 et sqq.; G. Bertin, “The Bushmen and their Language,” in Jour. R. Asiat. Soc. xviii., part i., and reprint; P. Kolbe or Kolben, Present State of the Cape of Good Hope; Sir John Barrow, Travels in South Africa (1801–1804).

  1. See paper by Messrs Flower and Murie in Journ. Comp. Anat. and Physiology (1867); and Fritsch, Die Eingebornen Süd-Afrikas (Breslau, 1873).
  2. An interesting notice of this form of worship occurs in the journal of an expedition which the Dutch governor, Ryk van Tulbagh, sent to the Great Namaqua in 1752, which reached as far as the Kamob or Lion river (about 27° S. lat.).
  3. On the religion and antiquities see Theophilus Hahn’s papers, “Graves of the Heitsi-Eibib,” in Cape Monthly Magazine (1879). and “Der hottentottische Zai-goab und der griechische Zeus,” in Zeitschr. für Geogr. (Berlin, 1870).