Contact Rock Art in South Africa


The impact of colonisation in South Africa as a result of Dutch and English settlement from 1652 onwards has been well-documented - with devastating consequences socially, economically and culturally for many indigenous populations.
One of those impacts was the demise of rock art as a cultural practice by many San|Bushmen, with the last rock art being made around 100 years ago. Nevertheless, rock art has provided some interesting glimpses into Colonial events, experiences and encounters from an indigenous perspective. Depictions of ships, horse-drawn wagons, guns and people wearing European clothing are not simply observational records in stone, but tell of history and heritage, memory and identity. This type of rock art, one that depicts European objects and people, is termed ‘contact art’.

History of European contact

Throughout the 15th century, Portuguese mariners navigated the western coast of Africa exploiting the lucrative trade possibilities on the continent. In 1487, Bartholomeu Dias’s expedition of two 50-ton caravels (small, fast Portuguese sailing ships of the 15th–17th centuries) anchored in Mossel Bay on the Southern Cape coast because of a storm, later sailing along the coast to Algoa Bay (east of the Cape of Good Hope) before returning to Lisbon. Ten years later, in 1497 another Portuguese expedition led by Vasco de Gama sailed along the eastern coastline to modern day Mombasa before crossing the Indian Ocean to India (Thompson, 2014:31)

On 25 March 1647 the Dutch vessel, the Nieuwe Haerlem, was wrecked in a storm in Table Bay. Sixty crewman and a junior merchant named Janszen remained in the Cape for a year waiting for another vessel to collect the crew and rescued cargo to return to Holland. During the waiting period Janszen and his crew grew vegetables, bartered fresh meat from the Khoi and fished. Upon his return to Holland in 1649, Janszen produced a report for the Dutch East India Company on the feasibility of the Cape as a refreshment station. Janszen recommended it for its strategic location, the fertility of the land, the abundance of fish and most importantly, the lack of animosity towards strangers of the indigenous people (Adjibolosoo, 2001:141) Three years later, in 1652, Jan Van Riebeek and 80 employees of the Dutch East India Company arrived as commander of the Cape with the aim of building a fort and supplying the Dutch fleets with fruit, vegetables and meat (Thompson, 2014:32). Van Riebeek established what is now Cape Town and is seen by many Afrikaaners as the founding father of their nation.

However, the expansion of the Dutch East India Company to the north and east of the Cape region resulted in the marginalisation of local populations. By 1740, less than a hundred years after the Dutch arrived, the traditional hunter-gatherer-fisher way of life in the Cape had all but disappeared either by the active dispossession of land, sustained political interference or enforced labour. For the indigenous populations, their “ultimate position as a servile and landless class inevitably led to the beginnings of the extinction of local indigenous culture” (Yates et al.1993:59). This contact between indigenous populations and European colonists was expressed early in the contact period and most vividly in rock art imagery.

Contact Rock Art


150km north-east of Cape Town in the Skurweberg Mountains, near Porterville,there is a representation of a three-masted sailing ship painted in red ochre called the ‘Porterville Galleon’.

The detailed depiction of the vessel suggests that the artist was visually familiar with European ships. However, while three of the mast flags are pointing in the same direction, the flag on the mizzenmast (far right in the image) flies in the opposite direction, suggesting the artist was less conversant with the technology of sailing ships. In 2016, British Museum curators requested that the image of the Porterville Galleon was assessed by experts at the National Maritime Museum, who identified a cross on the shoreline (on the left of the image) and the ship to the right, including a bow, short bowsprit crossed with a spritsail yard, and three masts with Dutch flags. The combination of these features suggests the ship dates to the mid-seventeenth century date, coinciding with sinking of the Nieuwe Haerlem and the founding of Cape Town (Giblin and Spring, 2016:69).


In an east-facing sandstone overhang just north of Mossel Bay on the Southern Cape coast, the black charcoal outline of a sailing ship is drawn in a deep and broad crevice. Reddish-orange paint was applied to the rock surface first and may have served as a background or canvas on which the ship was then painted. The ship is superimposed on numerous fine line red paintings of human figures and animals as well as a series of 13 red handprints and black dots (Leggatt and Rust, 2004: 5). Although the site is more than 30km from the coast, the details of the ship visible above the water line are portrayed in clear detail. The depiction of the sailing ship corresponds with what we know of sailing ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope from the end of the 16th century.

The tricolour design of the flag on the mainmast suggests that the ship represents a Dutch vessel (Leggatt and Rust, 2004: 6). Prior to 1595 the only sailing ships known to have visited Mossel Bay were Portuguese vessels, which did not fly tricolour flags. Moreover, they attempted to avoid the southern African coast after a conflict with Khoe herders in Table Bay in 1510. The first Dutch sailing ships under the command of Cornelis de Houtman anchored in Mossel Bay on 4th August 1595, spending a week in the harbour bartering iron for cattle with the local populations (Leggatt and Rust, 2004:6).

It is difficult to know exactly who the artists were of this so-called ‘contact art’, but the images of ships are likely to have been made by Khoe pastoralists and San|Bushmen hunter-gatherers who were the indigenous populations when Dutch ships started landing around the southern coastline of South Africa.


Later colonial period rock art can be found in a cluster of sites in the Swartruggens Hills, on the eastern margins of the Cederburg Mountains. Increasingly, European farmers started using the Swartruggens for grazing, and by 1728 some colonists were present in the region. The relative isolation of the area provided a refuge for escaped slaves, discontented employees of the Dutch East India Company and the remaining populations of the Khoisan communities (Hall and Mazel, 2005:127).

The rock art at Swartruggens comprises a limited but repeated set of motifs. These include men in European clothing, notably wearing wide-brimmed hats and boots, and women wearing bell-shaped crinoline dresses, cinched in at the waist. Many of the dresses are patterned with vertical and horizontal stripes. The shape and style of these dresses are reminiscent of those that dominated western female fashion between 1830-1860, and the grid pattern was a popular pattern during this time (Hall and Mazel, 2005:132). Some men are depicted smoking pipes and firing guns.

Horses and mules are prevalent, often depicted feeding at troughs, running free and harnessed pulling wagons (Hall and Mazel, 2005:131). Of the 340 images at the site of Stompiesfontein, 165 are images of horses with 33 depictions of wagons - more than half the total number of images. Wagons are generally depicted in profile being pulled by team of 4, 6 or 8 horses (Hall and Mazel, 2005:134). The drivers of the wagons are clearly identified, wearing large brimmed hats holding long whips. In all cases the artist has depicted the interior of the wagon clearly showing the transportation of both men and women and in some cases children. Alongside the wagons are men driving packhorses or mules with others riding on horseback. A repeated feature in the wagon panels is the depiction of women who are always positioned above the wagons and encircled by finger dots (Hall and Mazel, 2005:135). The use of horse-drawn transport has been dated to around the early 19th century and coincides with the development of better road systems from Cape Town into the southern and eastern Cape regions (Hall and Mazel, 2005:136) However, until 1848, with the opening of Michell’s Pass, the area around Swartruggens was not easily accessible by horse-drawn wagons, which make a probable date of later than 1850 for the paintings (Hall and Mazel, 2005:137).

Many of the wagons depicted at Swatruggens are of a type known as the Spring Wagon or Spring Wagonette. Of South African design, these wagons were manufactured in large numbers in the last three decades of the 19th century in response to the demand for transport to the diamond mines in the north of the country (Hall and Mazel, 2005:138). As such, the wagons seen in the Swartruggens rock art are likely to have been painted from the 1870s onwards but before 1885 when the railroad reached the diamond region of Kimberley in the north.

The contact period rock art at Swartruggens then seems to depict a certain event during the late 19th century when people were moving northwards seeking wealth and fortune. The production and reception of these images “stemmed from local, social, political and economic conditions of the farm labourers, squatters, drovers and shepherds - whom we assume were among the artists” (Hall and Mazel, 2005:141).

Artists and Subjects

The identity of the artists and their relationships with the figures depicted is an interesting yet complex one. Do the images simply portray experiences of contact with Europeans or were the artists framing themselves within these tableaux? It is likely that wagons are the property of the Europeans and that the majority, if not all, of the passengers depicted are European.

A common posture for figures painted outside of the context of wagons is a characteristic hands-on-hips posture, which has been identified as an European stance. Interestingly, this is a universal convention employed by contact period artists around the world in their depiction of both male and female European colonists (Hall and Mazel, 2005:142). This convention may possibly just be an observation of cultural differences, but as Hall and Mazel have suggested, “it potentially makes a wry comment about a posture of arrogance and people in the possession of idle hands“ (Hall and Mazel, 12005:142). In the rock art of the Swartruggens there does not appear to be any intentionality on the part of the artists to insert themselves into the scenes, “the people, events and episodes depicted are of the Europeans’ world and the art seems to be all about ‘outsiders’” (Hall and Mazel, 2005:143).

However, this does not apply to other examples of contact rock art. Recent research has shown that some depictions in the Maloti-Drakensberg reveal a cultural admixture of both European and indigenous elements. In the 19th century, groups comprising San-, Khoe- and Bantu-speaking peoples came together to form a new cultural identity. These short-lived but culturally mixed groups reflected the social, economic and political milieu of 19th century South Africa, raiding their European neighbours for cattle and horses, exchanging them for corn, tobacco and dogs (Challis, 2012:265). As well as being ethnically diverse, they shared certain customs and belief systems. In this “creolised” (Challis, 2012:80) rock art depictions show figures on horseback, armed with guns, bows, spears, and knobkerries, wearing feathered headgear , wide-brimmed hats, tasselled armbands and skin capes (Challis, 2012:277)

Moreover, as well as the adjacencies of European and local material culture, rock art depictions show that traditional belief systems were incorporated into these tableaux. Some images depict figures engaged in dancing a variation of the Trance Dance, a traditional San medicine dance whereby shamans would enter altered states of consciousness and are represented transforming into symbolic animals such as the eland. Contact rock art amalgamates this with elements of Nguni (a local and indigenous cultural group of South Africa) culture and shamans transform instead into baboons, a symbolic animal for the Nguni that is associated with ideas of protection (Challis, 2014:249).


Not simply a visual record of encounters and experiences, contact rock art is as complex socially, politically and culturally as the period in which it was created. Depiction of European encounters sit within a framework of local rock art traditions and belief systems as well as colonial history.


Adjibolosoo, Senyo B-S. K. (2001) Portraits of Human Behavior and Performance: The Human Factor in Action. Oxford and Maryland: University of America Press.

Challis, S. (2012) ‘Creolisation on the Nineteenth-century Frontiers of Southern Africa: A Case Study of the AmaTola1 ‘Bushmen’ in the Maloti- Drakensberg’, in Journal of Southern African Studies, Volume 38, Number 2, pp:265-280.

Challis, S. (2014) ‘Binding beliefs: the creolisation process in a ‘Bushman’ raider group in nineteenth-century southern Africa’, in The courage of |Kabbo and a century of Specimens of Bushman folklore. J. Deacon and P. Skotnes (eds). Cape Town, UCT Press. 246-264.

Hall, S. and Mazel, A. (2005) ‘The Private Performance of Events: Colonial Period Rock Art from the Swartruggens’, in Kronos, No. 31, pp. 124-151.

Leggatt, H. and Rust, R. (2004) An unusual rock painting of a ship found in the Attakwaskloof, in Digging Stick, Vol.21 (2), pp:5-8.

Thompson, Leonard. (2014) A History of South Africa. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Yates, R., Manhire, A., and Parkington. J. (1993) ‘Colonial Era Paintings in the Rock Art of the South-Western Cape: Some Preliminary Observations’, in Goodwin Series, Vol. 7, pp. 59-70.