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Dutch Activities at the Cape Colony, 1652 – 1795

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The Dutch East India Company was formed in Holland and it was granted a charter in 1602 from the States-General. (The States-General was the government of the United Provinces – Holland).

The Dutch East India Company

The decision to set up a refreshment station at the Cape by the Dutch East India Company was taken by the directors of the Company, otherwise called the Council of the Seventeen or HeerenMajores. It was this refreshment station that later grew into a settlement and later to a colony.

Therefore, it should be noted that the company formerly had no intention of permanent settlement or colonizing motives, but historical development indicated and influenced the growth of the Cape of South Africa.

The year 1652 marked the establishment of the refreshment station of the Cape, while 1795 marked the first British takeover of the Cape from the Dutch East India Company.

Aims of Establishing a Settlement

The aims of establishing a settlement at the Cape were the following: – The Company was to secure the supply of fresh water and fresh food like meat and vegetables and fruits that would serve the needs of the people passing through the Cape; obtain cattle by barter from the Hottentots, to build a small fort and remain at peace with the inhabitants of the Cape.

Arthur Keppel-Jones while enumerating the aims of the company said, “Its task (i.e. the company) was to, build an earthen fort for defence against the Hottentots, to plant a vegetable garden, to obtain cattle and sheep by barter, to supply these commodities to the company’s ships and to care for the sick members of the crew who were left ashore to recover”.

Jan Van Riebeeck

The activities of the company were manifested in the officials’ entrusted with the responsibility of the administration of the Cape. Jan Van Riebeeck was the first commander of the Cape and he spent ten years at the Cape (1652 -1662). Under him, the company started growing oats, wheat and barley among other crops. As time went on, the running of the Cape settlement became too expensive for the Company.

Freedom of the Some Company’s Employees

In addition, the company was equally not justifying the aim of supplying sufficient vegetables and cattle for the ships passing through the Cape. Jan Van Riebeeck, therefore, in 1657 decided to free some of the employees of the company at the Cape to become farmers so that they would be able to provide enough commodities, especially vegetables and meat for the passing ships.

The number of the company’s employees that was released to produce commodities was nine. The nine of them were called free burghers or colonists. They were granted land for raising the commodities. They were equally exempted from any land tax for some years, precisely, twelve years.

Grants of Credit Facilities

The company in addition granted credit facilities like seeds and money to purchase agricultural implements. The free burghers or colonists were to produce the commodities and sell them to the company.

The company monitored the activities of the nine burghers very closely, for instance, the company made it compulsory that the company would buy the commodities produced by the burghers at prices to be dictated by the company.

Worse still, the company was to fix the price of the produce. Besides, trade with the Hottentots was to be limited only to cattle and tobacco was not allowed to be cultivated. The nine free burghers formed the nuclei of the European settlers of South Africa today.

According to Leo Marquard, “Nevertheless, whatever objective Van Riebeeck had in mind, these nine free burghers and their families were the first real colonists in South Africa as distinct from company’s officials and they soon began to assert their rights as freemen by protesting against restrictions and demanding that their interests, as well as those of the company, should be considered”.

It should be noted, however, that these trade restrictions placed on the burghers would create problems eventually between the burghers and the company.

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Dutch Cape Colony, cr: YouTube C.

Problem of Manpower

The company soon faced the problem of manpower in raising enough commodities required to serve the needs of the passing ships. The company embarked on ways of increasing the number of free burghers.

As noted earlier on, the Dutch East India Company under Jan van Riebeeck had in 1657 discharged nine of its servants to become free burghers. The company, with a view to producing enough manpower, encouraged mixed marriages and also slaves were later brought to the Cape from Angola, East Africa and Indies.

Company’s Initial Difficulties

The Dutch East India Company suffered initial setbacks and Jan van Riebeeck and his men had to contend with different difficulties.

Some of these difficulties include the washing away of their gardens by storms, constant harassment by baboons and other wild animals, various equipment, including wheelbarrows, were worn out.

Also, Riebeeck’s men stole copper wire, which was used to repair the equipment, and sold them to the Hottentots, lack of enough food and too much work – all brought illness and discontentment, and some of the people even left Jan Van Riebeeck.

Unhealthy Relationship between the Company and the Hottentots

In addition, cattle theft was common and this made the relationship between the Hottentots and the white settlers unhealthy. For example, the cattle theft led to war in 1659, which was termed the First Hottentots war. Also, this was followed by various raids and counter raids.

The unhealthy relationship between the company and the Hottentots made Riebeeck to mark a clear frontier by planting a hedge of bitter almonds. He struggled to keep the European settlers within the hedge and the Hottentots and the Bushmen outside the hedge.

It should be observed that the problem of separating Europeans from the non-Europeans in South Africa stared the company in the face throughout the period under consideration and even till today.

Símon Van der Stel

Símon Van der Stel succeeded Jan van Riebeeck as the commander of the Cape (1679-1699). The company instructed him to strengthen the settlement and to reduce the cost of administration of the Cape.

From Settlement to Colony

During the time of Simon van der Stel, the settlement gradually became a colony. In the words of Leo Marquard, “He (Simon van der Stel) was an enthusiastic colonizer who saw the potentialities of the Cape as a colony so heartily that he had to be reprimanded by the directors for inducing artisans on their way to India, to settle at the Cape…….”.

He encouraged the Dutch and Germans to settle at the Cape. He also encouraged the Company servants to take their discharge’ and become free burghers. He explored the immediate hinterland of Cape Town and beyond and also set up a new settlement at Stellenbosch, which was about thirty miles (forty-eight kilometres) from Table Bay.

Increased Burgher Population

By 1688, the burgher population had considerably increased to 600. In the same year, 1688, Simon van der Stel received the largest number of immigrants who were Huguenots (French protestants who were running away from religious persecution in France when Loius XIV of France in 1685, revoked the Edict of Nantes).

The French Huguenots

The company, therefore, granted the French Huguenots often called refugees to settle in the Cape and they were resettled among the Dutch and German immigrant farmers of the Berg Valley and were given the same terms as other free burghers.

The settlement of the French Huguenots at the Cape had profound effects on the development of the Cape. Their skills as vine growers were placed at the disposal of other burghers. Their strong Calvinist faiths considerably contributed to the promotion of racial segregation along religious lines.

Political Reforms of Simon van der Stel

The period of Simon van der Stel also marked the period of political reforms. He had a council of Policy, which advised him in taking some decisions even though he was not bound by their advice.

Also, there was a council of war that was saddled with the responsibility of defending the Colony against attack. There was the High Court of Justice through which burghers could put their grievances to company officials who visited the Cape. The heemradens were set up as local courts to try petty cases.

Willem van der Stel’s Administration

The activities of the company continued under Willem van der Stel who succeeded his father as governor in 1699. He considerably improved the stock farming and agriculture at the Cape.

He used his official office to amass wealth illegally. For example, Willem van der Stel succeeded in persuading MonterValckenier, who was a visiting commissioner to grant him farms as well as his colleagues.

Gradually, he and his colleagues succeeded in owning about one-third of the farming land in the Cape Colony. He even used company labourers and slaves for his private work. In the final analysis, the burghers sent protest letters to the Governor-General in Batavia against him and he was finally dismissed from the company in 1707.

The Refreshment Station into a Colony

By the close of the 18th century or precisely by 1795, the Dutch East India Company had succeeded in turning the refreshment station into a colony, which was inhabited by about 30,000 people and there were four districts-namely, Cape, Stellenbosch, Swellendam and Graaf – Reinet, in the colony.

The company also laid the foundations for white settlements in South Africa. It has also succeeded in controlling, very strictly too, all forms of commerce. It also kept down as much as possible the expenses of running the administration of the colony.

The Weakness of the Company

It should be noted, however, that by 1795, the company had become quite weak and this weakness and decline was a carryover from the decline of Holland itself.

The weakness of the company could be seen when Graaf-Reinet and Swellendam in the early parts of 1795 and 1796, respectively decided to put a stop to company rule and they went away with it, as the company could do nothing, especially to stop the two districts from rebelling against it.

The company finally became bankrupt in 1774, partly due to its weakness and excessive bribery and corruption of its officials.

Invasion of Holland

Finally, late in 1794, the French revolutionary armies invaded Holland and as the fate of the Cape partly depended on the role played by the Dutch in the worldwide conflict of Britain and France; Britain by special arrangement with the Dutch king, Prince of Orange that the Cape would be given back to the Dutch king after his restoration to the throne, occupied the Cape in 1795, for the first time.

Written by Prof. V.O Edo and Dr S.A Ogunode

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