Arrival of Europeans in South Africa

Arrival of the Europeans Dutch, Khoi and slave society at the Cape

The first Europeans to make contact with these three different social groups in southern Africa were Portuguese sailors attempting to find routes to the spice islands of Asia. For many years the Portuguese had been pushing further and further south along Africa's western coastline and in 1487 a ship captained by Bartholomew Diaz made it around the Cape of Good Hope and sailed up the eastern coast of southern Africa as far as Algoa Bay. Ten years later another Portuguese sailor, Vasco da Gama, rounded the Cape and continued up the continent's eastern coast before heading further east, eventually to India. Over the next 200 years increasing numbers of Portuguese traders and their Dutch and British competitors began to make the journey to the east via the Cape of Good Hope.

Though they occasionally stopped for fresh water and supplies in some of the more sheltered Cape bays and river mouths, the Portuguese usually tried to give a wide berth to the territory that is now South Africa. Apart from the treacherous coastline they also often encountered a hostile reception from the local inhabitants. Instead the Portuguese had trading and supply posts in present-day Angola and Mozambique where they were able to both resupply their ships on the way to their eastern empire and capture slaves to send to their American colonies. The Dutch were the first European trading power to set up a permanent settlement in South Africa. In 1652 the powerful Dutch East India Company built a fort and established a supply station under the command of Jan Van Riebeeck on a site that later became Cape Town. The idea was that this was to be simply a point where passing Dutch ships could drop in to get fresh supplies and to rest sick members of their crew. The company did not envisage the settlement growing into a larger community and at first, every inhabitant was a company servant.

This situation soon altered, however, when the company decided that it would allow a group of servants who had worked out their contracts to settle close by as independent farmers and supply the post with their produce. Prior to this decision all fresh supplies had been either delivered by sea or brought from the Khoi groups living in and around the Cape Peninsula. These independent settlers were known as burghers and their number was soon increased by the freeing of more servants and the arrival of new settlers from Holland and, after 1685, Huguenots fleeing French anti-protestant legislation.

With the advent of free burghers, the size of the settlement began to increase and some farmers moved out into outlying districts. This brought them into increased conflict with Khoi herders. There were a series of small skirmishes which the Dutch, with their superior weapons, easily won and the Khoi found themselves displaced from more and more land and their herds of cattle diminished. Under these circumstances some began to work for the burghers on their farms, theoretically as free labourers but in effect as little more than slaves. In this early expansion and subjection of the Khoi the seeds of a whole long history of dispossession of the established population of South Africa are apparent. As the settler farming areas expanded they came into contact with San groups whom they systematically slaughtered in revenge for their raids on settler livestock. European and Asian diseases, especially smallpox, also killed many more San and Khoi and by the end of the 18th century they had almost all been either absorbed into the settler economy as servants, pushed into the most marginal mountain and desert areas, such as the Kalahari, or exterminated.

As the settlers moved further to the east and north they encountered environments less conducive to settled agriculture and more suited to pastoralism. Many settlers adopted a life as semi-nomadic trekboers living exclusively by trading their livestock and the products of hunting with the settled colonists in the Western Cape. As they moved east they also began to come into contact with Bantu-speaking Africans, in particular the Xhosa in what is now the Eastern Cape. Trading relations were established between the settlers and Xhosa, and some Xhosa also came to work on settler farms in return for guns and other European imports. As well as trade, however, the settlers and Xhosa also interacted through warfare. Cattle raiding was especially common and some historians argue that settlers also indulged in widespread slave raiding . These battles were, however, inconclusive and a fluid and unstable boundary between the trekboers and Xhosa persisted for many years.

The other factor that began to alter the original function of the settlement was the arrival, in 1658, of a group of slaves captured from the Portuguese in Angola. The company had originally intended that there would be no slaves at the settlement but the company servants and free burghers soon became accustomed to avoiding the hardest and most menial manual tasks and demanded that they be supplied with more slaves. Unlike in the Americas most of these slaves did not come from West Africa but from Asia and Madagascar. They tended not to be owned in large numbers on huge plantations but in small groups, often less than 10, by individual farmers. The balance between the slave and free population of the Cape remained much more even than in West Indian and South American colonies.

There was, however, always a big gender imbalance in both the settler and slave populations, with far more men than women. Sexual encounters between slave owners and their female slaves, or Khoi servants, were frequent and a number of slave owners married freed slaves. Apartheid history taught that the present-day coloured population are the descendants of slaves and passing sailors, but even a cursory reading of the contemporary Dutch and other European reports of the settlement show that it it is probably more accurate to see the present-day Afrikaner and coloured population as having the same ancestry. Another fact about the present-day coloured population that is seldom recognized is that they are frequently the direct descendants of original Khoi inhabitants of the area. This is especially so in the Eastern and Northern Cape, where there was never a large slave population and certainly no sailors.

A number of slaves managed to escape from their captivity and joined up with still-independent groups of Khoi and miscellaneous European and mixed-race adventurers beyond the frontiers of the Dutch colony. Here they formed new and unusual political groupings and often existed by raiding both European settlers and African groups in the interior. The best-known of these bands were the so-called Griquas. With European horses and guns they became an important political force in the South African interior right through until the mid-19th century.

Arrival of the British

During the 18th century Dutch economic and political power began to wane. Just as the Dutch had superseded the Portuguese they were themselves challenged by the rising power of the British. In 1795 the British sailed into False Bay and annexed the Dutch colony (The Battle of Muizenberg). The British were concerned that the French, with whom they were fighting in Europe, would take over the strategic port. In a general peace settlement of 1803 the colony was returned to the Dutch but in 1806 the British reconquered the territory and their sovereignty was finally accepted by other European powers in the peace settlement of 1816.

The British were only really interested in the Cape as a staging post and strategic port to protect trade with their new Asian empire. The colony was not profitable and neither the British government nor business took much interest in the new possession. There were, however, two important events in the early years of British rule that were to have crucial impacts on the subsequent history of South Africa.

The first factor was the British authorities' concern over persistent and inconclusive fighting along the colony's eastern frontier with the Xhosa. Some Xhosa groups had taken advantage of the instability in the colony to re-establish themselves to the west of the Fish River. The British decided that the only way to stop the persistent battles was to push the Xhosa back across the Fish River and establish a secure and clear frontier. During the first years of their rule they cleared the Xhosa occupying this area and tried to ban trekboers from having any contact with them. It was decided that what was needed was a group of permanent settlers on new farms in the area from which the Xhosa had been cleared in order to keep them apart from the trekboers.

In 1820 the British parliament agreed to release £50,000 to transport settlers from Britain to occupy this area. The money was used to send out 4000 settlers, with an additional 1000 paying their own passage to the region. These people became known as the 1820 Settlersand formed the nucleus of the subsequent British settler community.

Though the British authorities had intended that they should become farmers and hence occupy the disputed territory, most of the settlers were from urban artisan backgrounds and few had the skills or inclination necessary to become successful cultivators in the difficult and unfamiliar environment of the Eastern Cape. Most of them quickly gravitated towards the small towns, especially Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown, where they used their previous experience to become traders or skilled artisans. Their presence introduced an important new element to the equation, not least cultural, and 1820 Settler attitudes towards things such as the freedom of the press and towards the proper role of government played an important part in shaping 19th-century Cape settler society.

It soon became apparent that the British attempts to create a permanent border between the Xhosa and settlers had failed and cattle raiding backwards and forwards across the border continued. The Xhosa tried on numerous occasions to reclaim their land, occupied now by the settlers, but these attempts always failed, despite many initial successes. The Frontier Wars between Xhosa and settler continued for the next half century with Xhosa independence and land occupation being progressively eroded until their remaining areas (which became known as Transkei), were eventually incorporated into the Cape Colony.

The other fundamental change that British rule brought about was the ending of the slave trade and then the total banning of slavery. The peripheral role of South Africa in the British colonial empire and the dispersed nature of its slave population meant that it was seldom considered in debates about slavery, which instead concentrated on the massive slave plantations of the West Indies. Nevertheless, when the British parliament eventually decided to call an end to the institution that many felt was both inhumane and, more importantly, not beneficial to the empire's economy, it was also banned in South Africa. In 1834 slaves throughout the British Empire were officially emancipated, though they were to remain with their owners as apprentices until 1838. Slave owners were also offered compensation of one third of the value of their slaves.

Though emancipation provided some slaves with new opportunities, in reality many of them continued to live very similar lives, carrying out the same heavy manual labour, under extremely harsh conditions, on the same Cape farms.

Nevertheless, many of the original Dutch settlers were extremely unhappy about the emancipation of slaves. To make things worse the British government, after extensive lobbying by British missionaries working in South Africa, also prevented them from introducing legislation aimed at tying both freed slaves and Khoi servants to individual farms as indentured labourers. The Dutch settlers had already been annoyed by the way their extremely loose system of administration had been reformed by the British, making it more difficult for individual farmers to impose their own law on their particular district. Many trekboers in the eastern districts also felt that the British were not quick enough in coming to their support when they had cattle raided by Xhosa groups to the east. Now they were not only losing a large proportion of their 'property' (slaves) but were being prevented from making sure they had a captive (cheap) labour supply. Though they were offered compensation at one third of the value of their slaves this had to be claimed in London. Many slave owners, therefore, sold their compensation rights to agents at usually about one fifth of the slave's value.

In response to these complaints a number of Dutch settlers decided that they would set out with their families and servants in search of new land beyond the British colonial boundaries. Between 1835 and 1840 around 5000 people left the Cape colony and headed east in a movement that later became known as the Great Trek. It tended to be the trekboers from the eastern areas, who had fewer possessions and little investment in established farms who took part in this movement. The settlers taking part in the trek became known as Voortrekkers and their experiences beyond the colonial frontiers became fertile ground for 20th-century Afrikaner nationalism. One thing not often celebrated in the national myths that grew up around the Great Trek is that accompanying the treks were a large number of Khoi servants and a small number of freed slaves still economically and socially bound to their masters/patrons. 
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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