Cape Town: AD 1652
Ships sailing to and from the east make a habit of calling in at the bay below Table mountain – to barter with the Khoikhoi tribes of the region for fresh food, and to engage in an informal postal system. Letters and news sheets are left under marked stones, to await a particular recipient or to be carried in the appropriate direction by the next passing ship.
There has even been a feeble attempt by the English to settle the Cape, in 1615, leaving ten criminals reprieved from the gallows as the founding colonists. But the first serious effort to establish a settlement comes in 1652, with the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck and ninety employees of the Dutch East India Company.
They arrive in three ships, well equipped with seeds and with tools for agriculture and building. Their purpose is to establish a secure fort, to acquire cattle from the Khoikhoi and to develop a vegetable garden to provision passing Dutch ships. During the ten years which van Riebeeck spends in the settlement (and records in detail in his journal), these aims are fulfilled. A fort is built, of earth ramparts and wooden palisades, and eight miles of coast are brought under cultivation.
Van Riebeeck also initiates two developments of great significance for the future.
Free burghers and slaves: AD 1657
By 1657 it is clear that there is more work at the Cape than can be done under central direction by the company’s employees. Van Riebeeck proposes that it will be more effective to release married men from their contracts and to give them farms of their own to cultivate. This development is approved by the company. The independent farmers become known as free burghers.
The second innovation, also put into effect from 1657, is van Riebeeck’s purchase of slaves to do domestic and agricultural work. At the start many of the slaves are brought from the company’s eastern stations, in Indonesia and India; later Mozambique becomes the main source of supply.
By the mid-18th century half the white adult males in the Cape colony own at least one slave. In this society slavery forms, from the start, an integral element.
With adult male slaves outnumbering their free counterparts by two to one, and a high purchase price prevailing in the market, both the penal code for slaves and the level of work demanded from them become brutally harsh in the developing Dutch settlement.
Cape Dutch and Trekboers: 18th century AD
Until 1707 the Dutch East India Company makes some effort to encourage immigration to the Cape. Yet by that time, half a century after the first settlement, the burgher families still number only 1779 men, women and children – consisting of Dutch, German and a minority of Huguenots. Together they own 1107 slaves, mainly adult males.
Thereafter the growth of the settler population is by natural expansion – reaching about 15,000 (with approximately the same number of slaves) by the end of the 18th century. Something approaching a full-scale Dutch colony has developed by accident rather than design, in place of the original depot for the provisioning of ships.
During the 18th century the colony’s territory expands more dramatically than its population, for a reason directly connected with the reliance on slaves. Free burghers come to regard manual labour as slaves’ work. But for many of them there is no other available employment.
The response of the unemployed is to move away from the coast, into vast open expanses sparsely occupied by Khoikhoi and San tribes. In these regions the Dutch live as semi-nomadic herdsmen, fiercely independent, fighting the native tribes for their land and their cattle.
By the 1770s the Dutch nomads have penetrated as far as Graaff-Reinet, some 400 miles northeast of Cape Town. They become known as Trekboers (Dutch for ‘wandering farmers’), a word subsequently often shortened to Boers. When they go on raids, to rustle the cattle of the tribes, the Trekboers form themselves into armed bands of mounted gunmen known as commandos.
At first the commandos make short work of tribal opposition. Between 1785 and 1795 they kill some 2500 San men and women and take another 700, mainly children, into slavery. But by this time the Boers, approaching more fertile territory near the Great Fish River, are meeting stronger opposition from Bantu-speaking Xhosa tribes.
A series of frontier wars between Boers and Xhosa begins in 1779. The Boers appeal to Cape Town but get little help. In their frustration, in 1795, they declare Graaff-Reinet an independent Boer republic.
The Boers are by now, both in their own estimation and in reality, a people different from the Dutch at the Cape. They call themselves Afrikaners, proudly emphasizing their birth in Africa. Their language, Afrikaans, already differs from Dutch. Their fierce independence is accompanied by an equally uncompromising variety of Calvinism. But in the very first year of their new republic a wider conflict intervenes. In 1795 the British seize Cape Town.
The Cape during the French wars: AD 1795-1814
The pretext for Britain’s seizing of the Cape, as the most strategic point on the important sea route to India, is the French conquest of the Netherlands in 1795. This brings the Dutch into the European war on France’s side and makes their attractive African colony a legitimate prey.
The peace of Amiens, in 1802, restores the Cape to its previous owners and brings back a Dutch administration. But war is renewed in 1803. The British capture the Cape again in 1806. And this time the terms of the peace ending the Napoleonic wars, agreed in the congress of Vienna, leave the southern tip of Africa in British hands. It is an arrangement which, for the rest of the century, will lead to friction between the British administration and the original Afrikaner colonists.
Slaves and ‘Hottentots’: AD 1806-1835
The British, taking control in the Cape colony, encounter a society in which the use of slaves has long been part of the established system and in which the local tribespeople (the Khoikhoi, known at the time by the Afrikaans word Hottentot) are employed in conditions little better than slavery.
This clash of cultures comes at a time when British public opinion is enthusiastic in its support of the campaign against slavery. This campaign achieves its first great success just after the return of the British to the Cape. Parliament enacts in 1807 the abolition of the slave trade, making it illegal for British ships to carry slaves or for British colonies to import them.
An early statute of the British in the Cape colony becomes known as the Hottentot Code (officially the Caledon Code, 1809). It requires written contracts to be registered for the employment of tribal servants and it provides safeguards against their ill treatment. But it also enshrines one familiar condition of serfdom; servants may only leave a farm if a pass is signed by their employer.
British missionaries, led by John Philip, are soon protesting at this restriction. From 1826 Philip campaigns vigorously back in Britain and in 1828 the house of commons passes a resolution for the emancipation of the Cape tribes. In the same year the governor of the Cape colony guarantees complete liberty of movement to ‘free persons of colour’.
From the point of view of the Afrikaners, worse is to come. In 1833 the reformed parliament in London passes the Emancipation Act. All slaves in British colonies are to be freed after a period of ‘apprenticeship’, which in the Cape colony ends in 1838.
The Afrikaners inevitably feel that alien ways are being imposed upon their long-established culture by a new colonial power, and their sense of isolation is increased by other changes. In 1820 British families, numbering about 5000 people, are shipped to the Cape and are given 100-acre plots of land.
Under the new regime English becomes the language of the law courts. British teachers set up village schools where the lessons are in English. But above all it is British interference in the relationship between the races in South Africa which gives the most profound offence to the traditionally-minded Boers – and prompts the Great Trek.
An Afrikaner woman, Anna Steenkamp, later records in forthright terms her people’s complaint. The British had placed slaves ‘on an equal footing with Christians, contrary to the laws of God and the natural distinctions of race and religion, so that it was intolerable for any decent Christian to bow down beneath such a yoke; wherefore we withdrew in order thus to preserve our doctrines in purity.’