Thisgingnio: South Africa’s only Chinese woman prisoner

by Karen Williams 

Although Chinese men made up the main contingent of prisoners that the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) held in South Africa, one Chinese woman prisoner has been documented. Thisgingnio1 was from Cirebon in Indonesia and she arrived in Cape Town on 9 April 1747. There is no information on her crime or reason for exile, but she was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment at the Slave Lodge in Cape Town. The Slave Lodge housed mostly slaves including enslaved children, but it also held some convicts (and a few ‘mentally insane’ white men).

The Lodge building still exists in Cape Town and is now the Slave Lodge museum. For a woman it not only meant enslavement, but also the probability and possibility of being raped every day. Part of the Lodge routine was that at 8pm every night, the male slaves would be sent out of the Lodge (often to do work like empty the city’s slop), and the European men stationed at the Cape would have access to the women housed in the Lodge for an hour, until doors were locked at 9pm. (There is no information on whether the children would leave, too, or whether rape access to the women meant permission to rape the children as well.)


Historians regularly refer to the Lodge as a “brothel”2, but it was a rape camp. Cape histories sometimes hint at the African and Asian family roots of white South Africans, many of whose ancestors were light enough to eventually pass into white society during colonialism. Yet few ask how that lightening was possible and consistent over a series of generations – even with a degree of intermarriage.Historians accept the validity of the Armenian genocide and the Herero genocide as well as the genocidal aim of the mass rapes in Rwanda 1994, applying contemporary language to historical atrocities. If we consider the experience of women at the Lodge, but also in all places where dark women have been enslaved and colonised, the historical question needs to be asked as to whether a large swathe of dark female ancestors within our own families individually experienced the practice of possible genocide through rape, by generation after generation being raped so that their dark bloodlines were eventually wiped out.


The VOC executing Chinese prisoners

The VOC executing Chinese prisoners

Besides her imprisonment at the Lodge, Thisgingnio also survived the perilous sea passage of 1747 from Indonesia to South Africa, where numerous prisoners and slaves died both on-board and after arrival at the Cape, particularly during the harsh Cape Town winter months of June-August. She also survived the 1755 smallpox outbreak when 196 VOC convicts and slaves died, also during the Cape winter. The Cape’s Free Black community and the indigenous KhoiKhoi and San populations were also severely impacted by the smallpox epidemics.

After she left the Lodge, Thisgingnio had six years of freedom before she too died a sudden death.

After her release, Thisgingnio twinned her life with the most prosperous Chinese man in Cape Town, Ongkonko, also exiled to the Cape in 1747 as a result of being convicted of high treason.

Armstrong writes, “In 1757 he (Ongkonko) sold a slave to the prominent Cape burgher, Joachim Von Dessin, and is described as a free Chinese. By 1706 he was listed on the opgaaf rolls, owning six slaves. In 1761 he rented two houses, one large and one small, from Hermanus Keeve, a former senior surgeon of the VOC. His will of 1761… left Rxdrs. 200 to his sister Insaaij in Batavia, and the remainder to the free Chinese woman, Tjojingjo, known in the Company’s books as Thisgingnio”. It is noteworthy that Thisgingnio is not described as his wife in his testament. As non-Christians they could of course not legally marry at the Cape.

The constant trauma and exile, unsurprisingly, took its toll on Thisgingnio and after Ongkonko’s death, despair increasingly took over. A lodger at her home had reported that she started staying out most nights and started drinking heavily, often returning home drunk. (The lodger himself is very interesting: Said Alowie (sayyid3 ‘Alwi), a leading Muslim figure in Cape Town, was a Yemeni who was an important advisor to the court of the Javanese ruler, the Susuhunan, based at Kartasura in Indonesia. Eventually he was exiled to South Africa in chains as a political prisoner, where he was also imprisoned on Robben Island, centuries before Nelson Mandela would be imprisoned there too as a political prisoner.)

Thisgingnio died on the night of 3-4 July 1763, and was found by Said Alowie and her slaves. A surgeon concluded that alcohol abuse had killed her.

Source:

Information for this section came from the article “The estate of a Chinese woman in the mid-eighteenth century at the Cape of Good Hope” by James C. Armstrong, in Contingent Lives: Social Identity and Material Culture in the VOC World, ed. Nigel Worden, published by the Historical Studies Department, University of Cape Town, 2007.

1 Other spellings of her name in records include Tigignio, Theongingon van Cheribon and Tjojingjo.

2Shanaaz Galant from the Iziko Slave Lodge first mentioned this in conversation.

3 The title Sayyid/Sayid refers to somebody who is a descendant of Prophet Mohammed.

All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.


Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.

Indian Ocean Slavery is a series of articles by Karen Williams on the slave trade across the Indian Ocean and its historical and current effects on global populations. Commissioned for our Academic Space, this series sheds light on a little-known but extremely significant period of international history.

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing edited and curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam.  A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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