What is the research basis for the term Camissa?

The Camissa River! Is it sucked from the thumb as claimed by a couple of social historians who resist new black perspectives presented? We are told that there never was a Camissa River in Cape Town because according to the Europeans there was just one Camissa or Cumissa and that was the river they called the Fish River.

It is first important to note that Camissa, Hoerikwaggo (Table Mountain) and other Khoe words used today are creolised versions of the original words.

The original words are ǁk̮amis sa or ǁkhamis sa (if we want to avoid having to put the little symbol below the ‘k’). The first ‘s’ simply denotes the feminine in reference to river’, and the ‘sa’ means ‘(for) we all’. (other variants in spelling are ǁammi and  ǁgammi, again with ‘s’ used at the end for the feminine, followed by ‘sa’. In Khoehoegowab it is also written as ǁamma.)

The meaning is ‘Sweet water for all’ in reference to drinking water as differentiated from sea or saline water which is ǁuriǁamma.

This explanation draws on the research from “KORA – a lost Khoisan language of the early Cape and the Gariep” by  the linguistics expert Meǹan du Plessis”. She also provides two photographs of the transcription directly from Kora speakers in the mid-19th century to illustrate the exact manner in which it was directly recorded from the kora speakers.

There is ǁkammi... ǁk̮ami (or ǁkhami) and when an ‘s’ is added it denotes water as the feminine and followed by ‘sa’ meaning ‘(for) we all’.

When linking water to people as in water-people ‘a’ replaces ‘I’ so we have ǁAmmaqua meaning ‘Watermen’. Some also use ǁamma in the modern Khokhoegowab language aka Nama.

It is interesting to note that before the Dutch called the Camissa by other names, they too simply called it the ‘Vars’ Rivier and distinguished it from the ‘Zouten’ Rivier.

These words in its various forms as meaning rivers of fresh drinking-water remains in place today across the three Capes as names of rivers and is not exclusive to Cape Town only.

The word ǁkhamis sa is creolised as Camissa and means ‘Sweet water for all’. It is a simple utility reference.  This creolization is not new as the word for water has a number of variants - ‘amma’, ‘gamma’, ‘khamis’, ‘kamma’, ‘cummis’ and their appearance all across the Cape refers not to European-style naming of rivers and mountains after people, events, and the European gaze, but simply to the fact that this was drinking water/sweetwater. Tsitsi-kamma means a place of much water. Keis-kamma means the great water. Kagga Kamma means place of water. Gqeberha or !Gūbeǂgab ǁamma means the concealed water. The indigenous people have simply used the word Camissa for all rivers that have drinkable water.

The river with its fresh drinking water thus becomes a metaphor as the peopling of Southern Africa can be traced to the coming together of multi-ethnic peoples alongside all of the great rivers in Southern Africa.

What stands out as interesting is that the trader indigenous group in Table Bay chose to link their identity to the water, when Autshumao explained to Jan van Riebeeck in English that he and his people chose to call themselves the Watermen. (Journal of Jan Van Riebeeck Vol 1; 13 November 1652, discussion with Autshumao; edited D.B. Bosman en H.B. Thom)

There is no merit in the fallacious argument forwarded by a few historians, that there was only one Camissa River mentioned by the European records, based on a record by outgoing VOC Governor-General of the Dutch Indies, Rijklof van Goens Snr during his visit to the Cape where he refers (29 April 1682 )  “…. the river named on the coast Rio de Infante [the Great Fish River], but called in the interior Camissa or Cumissa, a very large river, the discovery of which will be a great point, and a step towards the subsequent discovery of the river of Monomutapa….”

The fact that van Goens makes this statement means little. One has to apply the mind to the broader and wider use of the term Camissa or ǁKhamis  for fresh-water rivers. The reference to interior people (indigenes) talking of Camissa or Cumissa can be explained by the fact that all drinking water rivers were referred to as such, and this was not related to the Europeans naming traditions. Proof of this can be seen everywhere where such names still exist to this day.

In reference to the van Goens record, we today know for instance that the Kingdom of Monomutapa was closer to more than 2000 kilometers away in northern Zimbabwe and Mozambique, than the 130 miles away from Cape Town as asserted by Jan van Riebeeck or the notions that van Goens had on the location. As much as these are not facts, so too is the claim that Camissa is simply the name of the Fish River alone. The rigidity used by colonial orientated historians that ‘facts’ are only what is pronounced by Europeans and in writing cannot be taken seriously. We have to look at the bigger picture and not simply reduce exploration of history and heritage to the kind of fundamentalism represented by literal scripture and verse interpretations.

It is both disingenuous and supremacist that a few colonial orientated researchers constantly make reference to the work of their black peers as simply indulging in ‘political correctness’ rather than following an approach of honest exploration, research and perspective.

Today self-respect drives exploration of our history by black researchers rather than what is called ‘political correctness’ and the approaches used employ a different eye which also looks at the overlooked and reinterprets European colonial assumptions. The intellectual abuse of accusations of ‘political correctness’ is no different to the frequent use by our fellow white citizens  of expressions like ‘playing the race-card’ and ‘what-about’ and ‘all lives matter’. Use of this type of language just drives an unnecessary wedge between fellow South Africans engaging in championing historical enquiry, heritage, and restorative memory. In the intellectual arena, Black Lives Matter, as much as in the broader world to which this phrase is directed. This calls for a lifting of an intellectual knee from the heads of black counterparts. Intellectual debate and robust critique can only be positive as long as ‘race’ based intellectual superiority and assumptions about black intellectual inferiority is set aside.

The Camissa River running through Cape Town,  was drinking water, regarded as ‘water for all’ rather than belonging to the Europeans who expropriated the river, dammed it, and redirected it to the early harbour wharf. This was after expelling indigenous people from the Cape Peninsula. The people servicing the very busy shipping stop-over, associated themselves with the Camissa Waters and there is ample historical text that they also had a sense of ownership of the land around the Camissa. You cannot get more of an association than by people calling themselves ‘Watermen’ (ǁAmmaqua) as Jan van Riebeeck asserts that Autshumao explained.

In case there is any confusion, the word for seawater and saline water is different – it is ǁuriǁamma. In the realm of suppressed historical expression, oral history, community perspectives of themselves, imagination, nuance, and interpretation, and digging deep to connect dots this is an important part of restorative memory which leads to restorative justice. History and heritage cannot be dumbed-down and just be about what Europeans once said about Africans and Africa. Africans can and are asserting an alternative narrative and in our research, we look out for very feint traces of the indigenous voice. Traces that have been overlooked or dismissed by other historians.


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