Andries Pieter van der Graaf (1909-1996) spent almost his entire professional career (1928-1970) with the Dutch company Zuid Afrikaans Handelshuis (ZAH). In 1950 he was posted to Angola to act as managing director of the Luanda Office. He served as Dutch Honorary Consul from 1952 till 1971.
It is with great pleasure that we present in Retrovisor excerpts from a memoir in which he tells about his experiences learning to run a Dutch trading company in Angola in colonial times and his fascination with the country and its peoples.
Many thanks to Elizabeth Davies (van der Graaf) and her family for allowing me to adapt the text and to illustrate it by using photos from the family's collection.
* * *
I visited Angola for the first time in 1950. ZAH (Zuid Afrikaans Handelshuis) had two offices there, one in Luanda, the other in Nova Lisboa. The area covered by the Nova Lisboa office was mostly that along the Benguela Railway: a section from the coast to the border with the Belgian Congo (Katanga). The purpose of my stay in Nova Lisboa was to familiarize myself with the activities that the business had in Africa. Luanda always brought in good year-end results, but paid very little attention to the advice and instructions coming from Head Office, causing continued conflict.
Zuid Afrikaans Handelshuis, Luanda c. 1960
The ZUID building in Nova Lisboa was a warehouse, mostly. Trade was mainly in foodstuffs, textile, construction materials, paint, small agricultural tools, general merchandise, and so on.
Massive square piles of cotton cloth were the first thing you saw. The cotton prints that attracted the greatest interest were the ones that had just arrived: "novidades". In the area around Nova Lisboa, "pintados" ("blue print"), originally from Germany (Fritz Becker), were still in general use, and worn by both men and women. It was dark blue material with white lines or spotted patterns.
Sometimes business contacts arrived from the interior with elephant tusks. Their weight varied from 10 to 40 kg, sometimes even more. Consignments were made up and eventually shipped to Holland, where there was always a great deal of interest in these tusks. The tusks were mainly used to make billiard balls. Other products from the upper plateau which were exported by ZUID were beans, castor seed, manioc (cassava, Portuguese: crueira) and sesame seed; and from the river basins: palm nuts, palm oil; also Arabica coffee, as opposed to Robusta, which was practically the only kind of coffee grown in the north of Angola.
Map of Angola c. 1960
During the eight months I spent in Nova Lisboa, I made a number of trips to the coast. In the rainy season, these trips often had to be postponed, as the road was poor, and very little was done about this, as the Railways, who had a great say in the matter, felt that good road connections would harm the railway's interests.
Ferry across the Cuanza
On the road from Sá da Bandeira (formerly "Lubango") to Moçamedes, I saw groups of zebra grazing near the road, and further off, herds of springbok, leaping to get out of the way. There are very few springbok left nowadays. The Portuguese name for them is "cabra de leque." "Leque" means "fan," and when alarmed, the hair on their backs stands up on end.
Cabra de Leque
Benguela itself still had the appearance of an old slave town, with the old walled enclosures still there, where the slaves were kept after their arrival from the interior until being shipped away. Other than that, the most striking things were the red-colored earth and the orange blossoms of the acacia rubra (flame tree).
Nova Lisboa c. 1960
Benguela, c. 1960
I remember that one morning, a young native man who always travelled with us to help with the bags, told me that "the rain had rained during the night." This was the first time I had come across the typically Bantu personification of natural phenomena.
... to be continued...
Andries Pieter van der Graaf
Translated by Elizabeth Davies (van der Graaf) 2012
The memoir of Andries Pieter van der Graaf is in two parts: Part 1 (written in English) starts in 1909 with his birth, and provides a vivid description of his early life in Krimpen aan de Lek, a small community near Rotterdam; of the effects of the Depression on the family; and of his experiences during the war. In Part 2 (written in Dutch, translation into English provided), he takes us from his first day in Angola, through his years learning how to run a Dutch trading company in Angola in colonial times, to his fascination with Angola and its peoples.
Map of Angola: Veteranos da Guerra do Ultramar
Nova Lisboa and Benguela: Tempo Caminhado