Tanap Research

"Land of Our Forefathers", Jan Paerl: A Khoikhoi Prophet in Cape Colonial Society, 1761-1851


Dr. Russel S. Viljoen
(South Africa)

curriculum vitae

Graduation: Leiden University, Faculty of Arts, December 4, 2003.
Promotors: Prof. dr. J.L. Blussé van Oud-Alblas and Prof. Dr. R.J. Ross

The thesis comprises a biography of a Khoikhoi individual named Jan Paerl and describes his attempts to liberate the Khoikhoi people from Dutch colonial rule at the Cape during the latter half of the 18th century. It also mirrors Khoikhoi resistance against colonial domination at a time when European expansion and Dutch colonial empire-building entrenched itself on indigenous societies worldwide.

Based on VOC archival documents, missionary records and travel accounts, the book relates how Paerl initiated a divinely-inspired millenarian cattle-killing movement to reclaim the land of their birth from the Dutch. Born in Swellendam 1761, Paerl was a Hessequa Khoikhoi, even though he was raised on a colonial farm. He spoke Khoikhoi and also mastered Dutch.

During the latter half of 1788, Jan Paerl emerged from relative obscurity and introduced himself as a prophet, Onsen Liewen Heer (lit. Our Dear Lord). Claiming to be endowed with magical death-defying powers, he predicted that the world would cease to exist on October 25, 1788. Before the "new world" would be ushered in though, he urged potential followers to slaughter their cattle, build new huts, burn their European clothes, murder colonists and attack the local Swellendam drostdy. Within weeks, mainly through word of mouth and the efforts of zealous disciples, the millenarian movement gained momentum and secured a substantial following ranging between 100 and 200 men, women and children.

On October 23rd, 1788, Khoikhoi adherents assembled in the mountains overlooking the drostdy. At night, fires were lit and songs were chanted. Farmers became "zeer bevreesd" (lit. extremely frightened) and petitioned the Landdrost of Swellendam, Constant van Nult Onkruijdt for assistance. Onkruijdt did everything in his power to crush the uprising. Days before the actual Khoikhoi attack on the drostdy was to have taken place, he sanctioned an attack on Khoikhoi kraals. To his horror, he discovered and seized large quantities of newly manufactured weapons. Onkruijdt also commented that he had "never seen so many livestock slaughtered", which suggests that Khoikhoi followers had been engaged in slaughtering their livestock in line with Paerl's millenarian utterances. The attack on unoccupied Khoikhoi kraals and the confiscation of weapons by Onkruijdt's men, effectively neutralized the Khoikhoi uprising. The millenarian movement disintegrated shortly thereafter and Paerl fled in the direction of Stellenbosch, a colonial village founded in the 1680s. For nearly a year, Paerl remained a fugitive and he was eventually arrested and imprisoned towards the end of 1789.

The Court of Justice sat in April 1790 and concluded that the uprising was not an act of sedition and offered no significant threat to Company rule at the Cape. They claimed that the upheaval was inspired by an "aboriginal superstition", orchestrated by a lunatic, who named himself Onsen Liewen Heer. Paerl was not executed, nor banished to Robben Island, but, he was placed under house arrest though, in Stellenbosch. Despite these restrictions, Paerl was nevertheless a free man, provided that he adhered to stipulations imposed on him by the Court of Justice.
In 1796, Paerl trekked to Genadendal and soon appropriated the Christian faith as preached and understood by the Moravian church. Paerl was a "model" convert and hardly allowed liquor and similar social evils prevalent among Khoikhoi converts to become his master. Throughout his entire life, Paerl enjoyed the best of health, but during the latter half of the 1840s, his health deteriorated rapidly and he gradually detached himself from the community, he had known for nearly fifty years. Paerl found solace in meditating outside his cottage staring into the sky "looking for Him, who will fetch [his] soul". Described by missionaries as the "oldest man in Genadendal" at the time, Jan Leonard Paerl died on April 9, 1851, aged 90. 


Prof. Dr. Gerrit J. Schutte
Prof. Dr. J. Leonard Blussé
Prof. Dr. Robert J. Ross

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