Nils Mattson Kiöping at Table Bay

Table Bay and Cape Town, 1820, oil on card.

The first travel book published in Swedish about Asia was Nils Mattsson Kiöping’s travelogue, which appeared in 1667. After a period where I would transcribe a few scanned pages each night from the first edition, I put the whole thing on-line in 2005. It had never been re-issued unaltered and in full before. In 2016 the Ruin publishing house published my transcription on paper in a handsome little volume. Now I have been invited to submit an annotated translation to the Hakluyt Society’s peer-reviewed e-text repository, the Hakluyt Society Journal. I’m making good headway with the work. Here’s chapter 6, divided into paragraphs for legibility.

Table Bay

Anno 1656 I lay there for three weeks on a Dutch ship in a bay named Taffwelbayet [Table Bay, South Africa]. Among other things in the sea, we saw a whale and a swordfish fighting, where the swordfish got the upper hand, and had cut up the whale’s belly, whereupon it came drifting ashore dead. Then a great number of the inhabitants (who are called Hottentots [Khoikhoi: non-Bantu nomadic pastoralists.]) came and ate the whole whale in a quarter of an hour. This fish [The whale: NMK calls it hwalfisk / hwal / fisk.] was 35 fathoms long [Whale 62 m, swordfish 5.3-5.9 m by 0.9 m. The confirmed length record for Xiphias gladius is in fact 4.55 m.], the swordfish might be about nine or ten ells, not very thick, perhaps 1½ ell. It is triangular, has four fins more than other fish, on the snout is its sword, about a good ell long and a hand’s width wide, set with large sharp spikes on either side, like wolf’s teeth, with which it goes below the whale and cuts up its belly.

These inhabitants are very fast runners, so that one of them can chase down a deer over a long distance. Furthermore some can throw stones and hit a fly, and they are not frightened by a rapier. But with a pistol, even if not loaded, you can scare a thousand. It is said that these Hottentots would be cannibals, but there is no truth to that, because we buried many dead there which they let lie peacefully and untouched. Also, when a woman is to keep herself to one man, then she must allow to be cut off the outer joint on the little finger of her left hand. In the night more than several hundred men and women gather to dance around a bonfire and clap their hands, because there are dangerous beasts, like lions and tigers, here in great numbers. There are also many ostriches, which the inhabitants know to catch in very ingenious ways.

The Elephant Master or rhinoceros is the hereditary foe of the elephant and is also found in this place. The beast is about 1½ ell tall and three ells long [90 cm tall, 180 cm long.], shaped like an elephant, carrying a horn in front on its snout, which it sharpens against stones when entering battle with the elephant, and has a trunk like an elephant which goes beneath the horn. And though those who have never seen it, particularly painters depict it with shields on the back and across the belly, they are quite wrong, because its skin is not only thick and smooth in itself, but lies in folds one upon the next, fold on fold, from the head and down to the beast’s bottom, so that not even the strongest man can chop through its skin with any axe, no matter how sharp. Everything on this beast is useful for healing, its dung as well as other things: on Jawa I have seen its blood sold for one riksdaler per lod [A lod is 13.3 grammes.]. It is ashen in colour but a little blacker than that.

This great promontory is visible eight or nine miles [86 or 96 km.] across the sea and consists of two high mountains: one is called Tafwelberget and is completely level like a table; the other is Lion Mountain [Today, Table Mountain and Lion’s Head.] because it looks much like a lion with head, back and bottom, legs and claws, lying on its belly, wearing a crown on its head.

In this mountain or bay where we lay with the ships you could often see all kinds of sea animals, like sea horses, sea cows, which where in every respect like other horses and cows except that they had no hair and their feet were like those of seals or geese. The horse had a mane like a normal horse but the rear was like a fish. The cow went onto land to feed, and was killed by our people. There were also sea dogs, sea cats etc. Summing up, there is no beast on land that has no equivalent in the sea. Fish is also extremely abundant here, particularly when the whale drives it into the bay at flood and eats it. Occasionally it goes too far up and the water falls from it, so it gets stuck there and falls victim to the inhabitants. It looks a lot like there might be good ore in these mountains, but for the absence of wood they can do nothing.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

20 thoughts on “Nils Mattson Kiöping at Table Bay”

  1. Plus with a bit of imagination they are kind of triangular in shape, being rays, and have an extra pair of fins. His description is a pretty good layman’s description of a largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis) – largest confirmed was one caught in West Africa which was 7m long. Now critically endangered, but historically they were found in South Africa.

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  2. This great promontory is visible eight or nine miles [86 or 96 km.] across the sea

    What miles was he using? The two I am familiar with are the statute mile, which is 1609 m (that’s the mile used in the US and UK), and the nautical mile, which is 1852 m (about one arcminute of latitude). Since he’s on a ship, the latter is more likely, which would make that 14 to 16 km; if it’s the former, it would be 13 to 15 km.


    1. Isn’t the nautical mile defined as 1 minute of longitude at the equator (pretty much the same as a minute of latitude)? If so, then no coincidence that the two are about the same, just like it is no coincidence that the circumference of the Earth is almost exactly 40,000 km or that a cubic centimetre of water weights almost exactly one gram.

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      1. Per Wikipedia, the definition was a minute of latitude. Which is not the same as a minute of longitude at the equator, due to the Earth’s equatorial bulge. The meter was originally defined as 1/10^7 of the distance from the North Pole to the equator. Simple arithmetic tells you that an arcminute of latitude is therefore 1851.85… meters by that definition. Wikipedia says that the definition of the nautical mile has been changed to exactly 1852 m, basically rounding it to the nearest meter. The definition of the meter has also changed: it is now defined in terms of the speed of light, which is 299792458 m/s.


      2. Sorry; at least in Germany, a minute of arc of latitude at the equator. It depends on latitude, due to the equatorial bulge. Other countries defined it at different latitudes.


  3. I am baffled as to what the ‘sea horse’ might be, can’t think of anything at sea that has a mane like a horse..
    Given that rhinos neither fight elephants nor sharpen their horns upon stones, inclined to doubt Nils’ natural philosophy here 😉

    The ‘sea cow’ is almost certainly a hippopotamus, though these are not usually seen at sea. The Afrikaans for it is ‘seekoei’ which translates to ‘sea cow’. ‘Hippopotamus’ is river horse in Greek, so a sea cow is a river horse. Nice.

    There’s a large freshwater pond on the other side of the mountains in False Bay, named Zeekoeivlei.
    My grandfather at one point was curator of the Amathole museum which has the remains of a famous hippo,

    ‘divided into paragraphs for legibility’
    The other day I stumbled across the website for the Codex Sinaiticus, which includes facsimile pages of the oldest known Bible. The pages are Greek characters with no punctuation, capitalization or paragraphs.. Graecum est; non legitur..

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  4. Yes, the stuff on rhinos is fanciful – probably things he was told, not witnessed first hand.

    The last para. had me head-scratching. My immediate thought was that “sea cow” = hippo, and that one came out of the water to graze on land fits with hippo behaviour. “Sea cat” would be a reasonable description of a sea otter, but they have very obvious fur; their webbed feet could be likened to goose feet, I suppose, although it’s a bit of a stretch. “Sea dog” = seal or sea lion? They bark. “Sea horse” really has me stumped. Adult male sea lions have a mane on the neck and shoulders, but it’s nothing like a horse’s mane – the top half of them looks more like a bear than a horse.

    The only animal I can think of that has a mane like a horse is a wildebeest, but they are not remotely marine animals. They swim across rivers when migrating, but I think this is really stretching beyond plausibility to try to solve the puzzle.


  5. Incidentally, ref. para. 1, the longest blue whale, the largest of the whales, that has ever been reliably recorded was 36.6m. Allowing for possible larger specimens in the era before they were over-exploited, when their size was typically exaggerated, it still means that a 62m whale would have been an impossibility.

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  6. That sounds like great work, and a lot of fun. It’s fascinating trying to make sense of old travelogues. I remember reading a translation of Marco Polo’s adventures with two senses of wonder. One at the scope of his journey, and one at his general disregard for physical and political reality. Measurements of distances, sizes, wealth and populations are at best guesstimates, like the patter of a New York City tour guide. Story tellers love to imagine wars between animals with suitable melodramatics. Jules Verne had a fanciful War of the Whales in his 20,000 Leagues, for example. Let’s not even get into their descriptions of women.

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      1. Because they probably fall into one of two categories: comically inaccurate, and painfully inaccurate.


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