The Advent of the Dutch and their Settlement at the Cape Colony

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The Dutch settlement at the Cape

The Dutch settlement at the Cape was a product of circumstances. From available historical records, a voyage from Europe to the Indies by the sea in the seventeenth century took almost six months. The crew on their voyages from Europe to the Indies went without adequate fresh meat, fruits, vegetables and water.

The shortage of these vital necessities like freshwater, fruits, vegetables and meat often led to scurvy, which in turn resulted in the death of many of the people on board. The Dutch, therefore, became interested in calling at the Table Bay for refreshment.

The Dutch and even the British called at the Cape both during their outward and homeward voyages. Their water-casts were filled with fresh water at the Fresh-River in the Table Valley and this helped them a lot on their voyages.

Post Office Stones

According to Leo Marquard, “The decision to set up a refreshment station at the Cape was not a sudden one ……the Dutch and English ships soon got into the habit of putting in at the Cape to take on fresh water and leave letters under the so-called ‘post office stones’.

Leo Marquard went further and said, “One of the main reasons for establishing a settlement at the Cape was to be able to supply ships with the fresh water, meat, fruit and vegetables that could save many lives”.

Arthur Keppel Tones was more emphatic about the circumstances that led to the Dutch settlement at the Cape when he asserted, “The utility of the Cape as a calling – place gave rise to the idea of a permanent occupation”.

The Strategic Location of the Cape

The strategic location of the Cape was also a vital point to be borne in mind when examining the circumstances that led to the Dutch settlement at the Cape. The Cape seemed to be the mid-way between Europe and the Indies. The Dutch, with a view to retaining the Cape as their area or sphere of influence, increased the white population by assisted immigration.

Dutch Cape Colony. Wikimedia Photo

White Population Increment

The determination of the Dutch to increase the white population could also be viewed as a defensive measure against any attack on the Cape by other European powers. It was in the light of this objective that French Huguenots from France and Dutch nationals were encouraged to settle at the Cape.

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The Englishmen Possession of the Table Bay

Early in the 17th century or precisely in 1622, due to the strategic importance of the Cape, the Englishmen took possession of the Table Bay in the name of King James I of England, but the king never ratified the claim.

As time went on, both the British and the French were greatly involved in the trade in the East, especially India and East Indies, and the Cape then became more important strategically. The Cape became a source of rivalry between Britain and France over the control of the trade in the East.

The fate of the Cape, therefore, depended very much on the part played by the Dutch in the conflict between Britain and France. Britain, like France and Holland, was aware of the strategic location of the Cape and this could be explained in the swift occupation of the Cape both in 1795 and 1806, as Britain determined to forestall French occupation, which could jeopardize her vested interests economically, socially and later politically in the East, while Britain occupied the Cape in 1795, she gave it back to Holland, by the Treaty of Amiens in 1803.

British Re-Occupation` of the Cape in 1806

Britain occupied the Cape again in 1806 and decided to have it as a permanent possession. As a result of the Cape being a gateway to India, Britain refused to hand over the Cape to Holland as she did in 1803, but paid N12 million to Holland so as to retain the Cape.

It can, therefore, be argued from the foregoing analysis that the strategic location of the Cape induced the Dutch to settle there. This claim was authenticated by Arthur Keppel – Jones who wrote “Before 1869, the Cape had something of the strategic importance that has belonged to the Suez region since that time.

International rivalry for trade and power in the East extended to the halfway house (i.e. the Cape) that could serve as a naval base for defending the route or what was more, for attacking anyone who used it”. Furthermore, L.M. Thompson supported this view when he commented that, “Britain had conquered the Cape to obtain the control of the sea route to India and the preservation of that control had been the one fixed purpose of her South African policy”.

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The Geography of South Africa

Another factor that gave rise to the Dutch settlement at the Cape was the geography of South Africa, most especially at the Cape. The Cape enjoys the Mediterranean type of climate having wet winters and dry summers. The soil around the Cape also favoured the growth of agricultural products like vegetables, wheat and wine.

Haarlem Got Wrecked

When one of the Dutch ships called Haarlem got wrecked at the Table Bay in 1647, and the crew of the ship had to stay for a year at the Table Bay, they planted agricultural products including vegetables, which served as their foodstuffs.

The members of the crew, having seen how agricultural products like vegetables and wheat performed well on the land, advised the directors of the Dutch East India Company, (the directors were referred to as Council of Seventeen or HeerenMajores) on getting to Holland, to establish a permanent station at the Cape to serve the needs of the company.

This request for settlement at the Cape, made by the crew on getting to Holland, led to the dispatch of an expedition under the control of Jan van Riebeeck to establish a settlement at the Cape.

According to Anene and Brown, “At first, the refreshment station was intended to be no more than a vegetable patch cultivated by the company’s personnel. But soon it was decided that farmers growing crops for their own profit would perform the task more efficiently than company servants working for salaries ……given land on which to set up as free burghers”.

One can therefore argue with a degree of certainty that the geography of the Cape gave rise to Dutch settlement at the Cape.

The Trade by Barter between the European and the Hottentots

The trade by barter between the European settlers and the Africans, notably the Hottentots, too, encouraged in no small measure the Dutch settlement at the Cape. Initially, the company itself produced fruits and vegetables, bartered sheep, cattle and goats from the Hottentots and attempted to increase its stocks and herds by breeding.

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Partly because of the reluctance of the Hottentots either to part with sufficient cattle to meet the ever-increasing demands of the company’s ships or to allow the Company to engage in agriculture or the company was finding the cost of maintaining the small settlement exorbitant, it became apparent that in the short term, it would be easier to release some of the men as free burghers and allow them to cultivate and raise cattle on the company’s behalf.

Allocation of Land

Despite the reluctance of the company’s directors, the refreshment station began to change into a colony of settlement. The land was allocated to the nine burghers in 1657 for the cultivation of fruits and vegetables and raising cattle and sheep for the company and they were provided with all requirements for settlement on credit by the company.

In. 1717, the company decided to halt the issue of free land hold, due to clashes between the burghers and the Hottentots for land and stock (cattle) and instead the burghers were to obtain a loan farm of 6,000 acres in return for annual rent.

This system permitted the colonists or burghers to acquire land without capital, thereby erroneously stimulating the dispersal of the burghers. Gradually the burghers moved steadily into the interior in search of land for cultivation and cattle grazing.

The company tried to check the infiltration into the interior but with little or no success. Cattle business and tendering for the company use can therefore be said to encourage Dutch settlement at the Cape.


It could therefore be argued from the above points that the Dutch settlement at the Cape could be explained in terms of the company’s desire to have a refreshment station at the Cape to cater for its ships going from Europe to East Indies.

The strategic location of the Cape as the gateway to India which the Dutch controlled when her power was still very supreme; the geographical condition of the Cape which favoured the growth of agricultural products like vegetables, fruits and wine and the bartering of cattle, sheep and goat with the Hottentots whose supply became irregular and insufficient and which consequently led to free burghers being given land on loan to practice agriculture and cattle rearing, thus giving rise to rushing for more land at the interior. All these developments helped to stimulate the Dutch settlement at the Cape.

Revision Questions

  1. The historical development in South Africa is profoundly influenced by geographical factors. Comment
  2. Account for the reference to the Bantu as the “first among equals”.
  3. Discuss the circumstances that led to the settlement of the Dutch at the Cape.
  4. Examine the activities of the Dutch East India Company at the Cape between 1652 and 1795.
  5. Justify the factors that led to the gradual movement of European settlers to the interior of South Africa up to 1800.
Written by Prof. V.O Edo and Dr S.A Ogunode

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