History of South Africa

Early European Settlement

Origins of Settlement

Portuguese mariners explored the west coast of Africa throughout the latter half of the fifteenth century. Two ships under Bartholomeu Dias eventually rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and traveled more than 600 kilometers along the southwestern coast. In 1497 an expedition under Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape, sailed up the east African coast to the Arab port of Malindi (in present-day Kenya), and then crossed the Indian Ocean to India, thereby opening up a way for Europeans to gain direct access to the spices of the East without having to go through Arab middlemen. The Portuguese dominated this trade route throughout the sixteenth century. They built forts and supply stations along the west and east African coasts, but they did not build south of present-day Angola and Mozambique because of the treacherous currents along the southern coast. At the end of the sixteenth century and in the early seventeenth century, English and Dutch merchants challenged the Portuguese monopoly in West Africa and Asia and saw the Cape peninsula as a source of fresh water, meat, and timber for masts, all of which they could obtain through trade with the local Khoikhoi. The English government refused its mariners' requests that it annex land there and establish a base, but in 1652 the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie--VOC) established a supply station in Table Bay on the Cape peninsula, instructing its station commander, Jan van Riebeeck, and his eighty company employees to build a fort and to obtain supplies of foodstuffs for the Dutch fleets.

Establishing a Slave Economy

The VOC's directors intended that the settlement at Table Bay should amount to no more than a small supply station able largely to pay for itself. European settlement was to be limited to VOC employees only, and their numbers were to be kept as small as possible. Company ships could stop to take on water, to get supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables grown by VOC employees, and to trade for fresh meat and milk from the local Khoikhoi. The Khoikhoi were also expected to supply the labor needs of the settlement--building wharves and warehouses, putting up offices, and laying out roads. Within its first half decade, however, the Cape Colony was growing in ways unforeseen at its establishment. Most Khoikhoi chose not to labor for the Dutch because of low wages and harsh conditions; and, although ready initially to trade with the Dutch, they became increasingly unwilling to sell their farm products at the prices offered by the VOC. As a result, three processes were set in motion in the 1650s that were to produce a rapidly expanding, racially stratified society. First, the VOC decided to import slaves to meet local labor needs, and it maintained that policy for more than 100 years. Second, the VOC decided to free some of its employees from their contracts and to allow them to establish farms of their own to supply the Dutch fleets, thereby giving rise to a local settler population. Third, to supply the needs of the fleets as well as of the growing local population, the Dutch expanded ever farther into the lands of the Khoikhoi, engaging in a series of wars that, together with the effects of imported diseases, decimated the indigenous population.

Van Riebeeck had concluded within two months of the establishment of the Cape settlement that slave labor would be needed for the hardest and dirtiest work. Some thought was given to enslaving Khoikhoi men, but the idea was rejected on the grounds that such a policy would be both costly and dangerous. With a European population that did not exceed 200 during the settlement's first five years, war against neighbors numbering more than 20,000 would have been foolhardy. Moreover, the Dutch feared that Khoikhoi people, if enslaved, could always escape into the local community, whereas foreigners would find it much more difficult to elude their "masters."

Between 1652 and 1657, a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to obtain men from the Dutch East Indies and from Mauritius. In 1658, however, the VOC landed two shiploads of slaves at the Cape, one containing more than 200 people brought from Dahomey (later Benin), the second with almost 200 people, most of them children, captured from a Portuguese slaver off the coast of Angola. Except for a few individuals, these were to be the only slaves ever brought to the Cape from West Africa. Thereafter, all the slaves imported into the Cape until the British stopped the trade in 1807 were from East Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, and South and Southeast Asia. Large numbers were brought from India, Ceylon, and the Indonesian archipelago. Prisoners from other countries in the VOC's empire were also enslaved. The slave population, which exceeded that of the European settlers until the first quarter of the nineteenth century, was overwhelmingly male and was thus dependent on constant imports of new slaves to maintain and to augment its size.

Emergence of a Settler Society

In 1657 nine European men were released from the VOC's service, given the status of "free burghers," and granted blocks of land. They were exempted from taxation for twelve years, but the VOC held a mortgage on their lands. They were free to trade with Khoikhoi for sheep and cattle, but they were prohibited from paying higher prices for the stock than did the VOC, and they were told not to enslave the local pastoralists. They were encouraged to grow crops, especially grains, for sale to the VOC, but they were not allowed to produce anything already grown in the company's own gardens. By such measures, the VOC hoped not only to increase local production and thereby to pay the costs of the settlement, but also to prevent any private producers from undercutting the VOC's control over prices.

Conflict between Dutch farmers and Khoikhoi broke out once it became clear to the latter that the Dutch were there to stay and that they intended to encroach on the lands of the pastoralists. In 1659 Doman, a Khoikhoi who had worked as a translator for the Dutch and had even traveled to Java, led an armed attempt to expel the Dutch from the Cape peninsula. The attempt was a failure, although warfare dragged on until an inconclusive peace was established a year later. During the following decade, pressure on the Khoikhoi grew as more of the Dutch became free burghers, expanded their landholdings, and sought pastureland for their growing herds. War broke out again in 1673 and continued until 1677, when Khoikhoi resistance was destroyed by a combination of superior European weapons and Dutch manipulation of divisions among the local people. Thereafter, Khoikhoi society in the western Cape disintegrated. Some people found jobs as shepherds on European farms; others rejected foreign rule and moved away from the Cape. The final blow for most came in 1713 when a Dutch ship brought smallpox to the Cape. Hitherto unknown locally, the disease ravaged the remaining Khoikhoi, killing 90 percent of the population.

The community at Table Bay grew larger and more diverse throughout the late 1600s, particularly after the VOC decided in 1679 that European settlement should be boosted in order to expand agricultural production. German and Dutch settlers were offered free farms if they would come to the Cape. In 1688 several hundred Huguenots fleeing persecution by the French were offered free passage to the Cape and grants of land. These settlers, all of whom soon assimilated Dutch culture and language, grew large crops of wheat as well as other grains for sale to the VOC, although they found such crops barely profitable. They also planted grapevines, so that they could make wine and brandy--products much in demand for Dutch sailors and capable of being exported to Europe, unlike other, perishable items. The mainstay of most settlers, however, was livestock farming, which required large areas of pastureland because the soil was generally poor. By the end of the century, pressures for land in and around the Cape peninsula had become intense. There were approximately 1,500 Europeans in the Cape settlement and a slightly larger number of slaves, and the area of settlement had extended well beyond the original base at Table Bay to include freehold farms reaching sixty kilometers inland.

The rise of an expanding settler society fueled tensions between free burghers and the VOC. Free burghers criticized the autocratic powers of the local VOC administration, in which the governor had full control and the settlers had no rights of representation. They denounced the economic policies of the VOC that fixed the prices at which settlers could sell their agricultural products. They called attention to the corrupt practices of VOC officers, who granted themselves prime land and then sold their own crops at higher prices to the company. Above all, they complained about the VOC's failure--at least in their eyes--to police the frontier boundaries and to protect the settlers' crops and herds from Khoikhoi and San raiders.

Trekboers (semi-migrant farmers of primarily Dutch, German, and French ancestry; more commonly known as Boers) played a key role in the eighteenth century in the expansion of the settlement and in the growth of frontier conflict. With much of the better land close to the Cape in the hands of VOC officials and rich burghers, poorer whites sought to make a living beyond the boundaries of the settlement. Traveling by wagon inland and along the southwestern coast, individual farmers, along with their immediate families (if any), a few slaves, several Khoikhoi herdsmen, and small numbers of livestock, set out to establish farms on large tracts of land (averaging 2,500 hectares) granted on loan by the VOC. Because much of this land was already occupied by Khoikhoi pastoralists near the coast and by San hunter-gatherers in the interior, considerable warfare resulted. Trekboers raided the herds of the Khoikhoi and seized control of the springs on which pastoralists and hunter-gatherers alike depended for water, while Khoikhoi and San counterraided the herds of the Trekboers.

In the face of burgher agitation, growing frontier conflict, and increasing overproduction of agricultural goods for the local market, the VOC in 1717 attempted to limit the growth of European settlement. It stopped all assisted immigration of Europeans and decided that thereafter only slaves should be used in the future development of the settlement. Moreover, it ended the granting of freehold title to land, although it did continue to make farms available on loan.

Such measures had only a limited impact on the growth of the settlement. Throughout the eighteenth century, the settlement continued to expand through internal growth of the European population and the continued importation of slaves. The approximately 3,000 Europeans and slaves at the Cape in 1700 had increased by the end of the century to nearly 20,000 Europeans, almost 25,000 slaves, and another 15,000 Khoikhoi and mixed-race people living within the boundaries of the settlement.

In the west, the economy was dominated by the bustling port at Table Bay and the wheat farms and vineyards of Stellenbosch and Swellendam, which depended almost totally on slave labor. Politically, the VOC governor continued to be in firm control, although a number of wealthy burghers exercised considerable informal influence. Socially, the community was marked by considerable stratification and diversity. Most wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few company officials and a minority of burghers. The majority of Europeans earned a living as artisans, traders, and innkeepers, although almost all whites owned at least one or two slaves. A small community of mixed-race people had also emerged, the offspring of relationships among whites, Khoikhoi, Asians, and African slaves.

In the eastern areas of the Cape, beyond the Cape Colony itself, Trekboers predominated with their extensive pastoral economy. Most owned some slaves, but they depended more on Khoikhoi and San to meet their labor needs. Although nominally under the jurisdiction of the VOC, the Trekboers largely ruled themselves. They did not believe that Khoikhoi and San should be treated equally with Europeans in the courts, and they established harsh labor regimes on their farms. To deal with frontier problems, they periodically raised armed bands of men to protect their herds and to carry out punitive expeditions against Khoikhoi and San. They developed a consciousness of themselves as a distinct community settled permanently in South Africa and, unlike the employees of the VOC, they did not plan to return to Europe.

By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, both western and eastern areas of the Cape were undergoing a period of stress. Continued overproduction for the local market in the west and resulting economic hardship led burghers to identify the VOC as the source of all their problems. The discontents of the Trekboers were even greater. Their continuing expansion was blocked by a number of barriers: by aridity 500 kilometers north of the Cape peninsula, by hunter-gatherer raiders in the northeast, and, most important, by large numbers of Bantu-speaking farmers (Xhosa) settled roughly 700 kilometers to the east of Cape Town and just south of the Great Fish River. Throughout much of the eighteenth century, Xhosa and Trekboers had peacefully traded with one another, with the Dutch exchanging glass beads, nails, and other manufactured items for African cattle and ivory. By the late 1770s, however, tensions rose as Xhosa farmers were expanding west of the Great Fish River at the same time that the Trekboers were moving eastward.

Demand for the same resources--land and water--brought Trekboers and Xhosa into conflict, and a series of frontier wars erupted in 1779 to 1781, and in 1793. In the second war, the Xhosa avenged their defeat in the first. Their capture of thousands of head of Boer cattle and their occupation of large areas of land previously claimed by the Dutch were officially recognized and accepted by a local representative of the VOC. Enraged by what they considered the treachery of the company, Trekboers in Graaff-Reinet rebelled in 1795, expelling the VOC magistrate and proclaiming an independent republic. This attempt at autonomy ended, however, with the British takeover of the Cape settlement in 1795.

Fearing that the strategic port at Table Bay might fall into the hands of Napoleon, the British seized the Cape to defend their sea route to India. They sent troops to the eastern Cape to prevent Boer insurrection and to establish order on the frontier, but they made no attempt to extend the boundaries of the settlement. Like the VOC before them, the British intended that the Cape settlement should remain as small as possible. Its value lay in its strategic position, not in its production. Moreover, the British had no wish to become embroiled in costly local struggles between European settlers and African farmers in the interior.

In 1802 the Treaty of Amiens, which ended a decade of upheaval in Europe, called for the return of the Cape Colony to Dutch control. This was accomplished in 1803, but the Dutch Batavian Republic in Europe had done little to implement this claim when the treaty began to break down in 1805. Britain again seized control of the Cape in 1806 and defied Dutch claims by occupying and expanding its presence in the Cape region. Finally, in 1814 the former Batavian Republic--the Kingdom of Holland--agreed to abandon its claim to the Cape in return for a grant of roughly 2 million British pounds.

South Africa History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress