In South Africa, Colonialism Was Written on Stone

An ocher painting of a ship from the early 18th century serves as a visual reminder of the clash between indigenous peoples and settlers.

Published December 12, 2016

At the base of a steep outcrop near the small South African town of Porterville, outside Cape Town, is a painting of a wooden ship. Its masts and rigging are clearly visible, traced on a lined and rutted rock surface. Three flags blow to the left; a fourth blows to the right. This suggests that the artist did not fully understand sailing technology, an incongruity that can be readily explained. Archaeologists believe that the ship represents an extremely rare record of encroaching colonial activity, painted by someone whose ancestral land was being wrested away. Today, the painting footnotes an era of conquest that had devastating consequences for local people.

Whoever painted the ship trekked far inland before leaving his or her mark: the nearest coastal bays lie 100 kilometers to the west. The painting, dubbed the Porterville Galleon, is found in one of the richest rock art areas in southern Africa. The parched and rugged mountain range 200 kilometers north of Cape Town known as the Cederberg has several thousand ocher paintings on boulders and sandstone ledges. The images record the lives and rituals of the indigenous peoples who inhabited the Cape of Good Hope for hundreds of generations before European settlers—first from the Netherlands, and then Britain—took control of the land.

Some paintings found near the Cederberg are more than 3,500 years old, left behind by ancient San hunter-gatherer societies. They depict animals, humans, and therianthropes—people with hybrid animal features metamorphosing during trance states. Geometric patterns, handprints, and paintings of domestic sheep overlay some of these images, which are thought to date to the appearance of Khoi pastoralists 2,000 years ago. The ship painting marks a more recent and dramatic historical contact.

The South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) incorporated the painting into a logo for its National Survey of Underwater Heritage in 2003. Around that time, SAHRA manager John Gribble wrote that the image, which has been speculatively dated to the early 18th century, was an “important graphic reminder of the meeting of precolonial and colonial maritime worlds.” John Parkington, professor emeritus of archaeology at the University of Cape Town, is more cautious about the art’s provenance. “It’s a painting on a rock,” he says. “You can never be completely sure who put it there, that it wasn’t some joker in the 1960s. But it’s likely that the image is authentic: there are much older paintings, produced with what seems to be the same iron oxide pigments, nearby.”

According to Parkington, indigenous societies had been “wrecked, disempowered, and dispossessed” by the time the ship was painted. “Things had changed dramatically for local people. Settlers were expanding north from Cape Town, claiming new territory. Many herders started working for white ranchers. Hunter-gatherers were scarce. While the old traditions and languages probably still existed, it’s doubtful many new paintings were being made.”

There are at least five known rock paintings of ships in South Africa; according to Parkington, the Porterville Galleon is the “clearest and most interesting.” Other colonial-era rock paintings show wagons, men smoking tobacco pipes, and women in ankle-length dresses. These images mark the end of a visual archive extending back thousands of years. Khoi and San groups were largely annihilated by the mid-19th century, engulfed and splintered by colonial development. Many people died of smallpox, a fate shared by millions of indigenous peoples on the other side of the Atlantic when the Americas were colonized. In South Africa, more people still were killed in systematic horseback raids by settler militias—a genocide, according to the Cape Town historian Mohamed Adhikari and several other scholars and activists.

“It was a period of immense disruption,” Parkington says. “We don’t know why the artist traveled to the mountains from the sea, but this painting is evidence that they did.”

Slowly fading, the image provokes questions that cannot be resolved. Who painted it? What message was it supposed to convey? When the ship loomed near shore, its flags rippling, what did the artist see?