A Land Dispossession History 1600s-1990s

Conquest: 1600s-1800s

"They strongly insisted that we had been appropriating more and more of their land which had been theirs all these centuries... They asked if they would be allowed to do such a thing supposing they went to Holland, and they added: 'It would be of little consequence if you people stayed at the fort, but you come right into the interior and select the best land for yourselves ..." - Jan van Riebeeck.
(Morris, M. (2004). Every Step of the Way: The Journey to Freedom in South Africa, Cape Town: HSRC Press, pp 43-44, (Commissioned by the Department of Education)).

This excerpt from Van Riebeeck's diaries describes with surprising honesty, the sentiments expressed by the Khoikhoi leaders at the so-called peace talks in 1660, which brought to a close the first Dutch-Khoikhoi war in the Cape. It was to be the first of many wars waged by settlers against the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa and raises as a key factor, the issue of land. It is an issue that has remained the central question in South Africa to this day.

From a Way-Station to a Settler Colony

In 1652 Europeans settled where Cape Town is now located, to set up a half way station for ships travelling to the east. The first indigenous peoples they encountered were groupings of Khoisan who had been occupying the Cape peninsular for hundreds of years. Early European records describe these pastoralists, with large herds of stock, as being far wealthier than the average European peasant of the time. However, their wealth and prosperity would prove short-lived in the face of increasingly aggressive European migration into the interior.

Three decisions by the VOC (Dutch East India Company) altered the course of history in the Cape Colony. The first was to release a group of company officials to become independent farmers (the so-called free-burghers); the second was to employ slave labour to solve the rising labour demands of the growing colony and the third was to swell the ranks of settlers with other groupings from Europe (most notably the French Huguenots who brought with them skills in viticulture). They set in motion a train of events that would lead inexorably to an ever-increasing lust for land and labour, as the competing and often conflicting interests between settlers on the one hand, and Company (and later British colonial) agendas played out at the expense of the indigenous population.

The growth of the settler community soon led to expansion. Much of this was by mobile stock farmers - the so-called 'Trekboers', who moved into the interior to escape rigid Company restrictions as well as to satisfy the need to secure sufficient grazing and water resources. This brought them into direct conflict with indigenous pastoralists and farmers who were dependent on the same resources. The resultant plight of the Khoisan was described by a colonial magistrate of the time:

"Those who used to live contently under chiefs, peacefully supporting themselves by breeding cattle, have mostly all become [...] hunters and robbers, and are scattered everywhere among the mountains"

By the late 1830s the first phase of European expansion into Southern Africa was complete. The Cape colony, which started as a tiny European way station on the southern tip of Africa, now stretched to the Orange River in the north and the Keiskamma River in the east. The conquest of indigenous people (in particular the Khoisan and the amaXhosa), and the dispossession of their land, was largely complete in this region.

Resistance is Ruthlessly Crushed

The expansion of the Cape colony was, however, not a smooth or uncontested process - African people consistently resisted the dispossession of their territory. During the 17th, 18th and most of the 19th century there was ongoing conflict between settlers and indigenous people - initially between settlers and the Khoisan, but with expansion eastward, increasingly with the amaXhosa. Forms of resistance differed - from raids on settler livestock to protracted periods of guerrilla resistance and open warfare.

Between 1799 and 1803, on the eastern frontier, the Khoisan and amaXhosa rose up in common resistance against settler expansion. This uprising differed from previous resistance in that it involved Khoisan who had by that time lost their access to land and were already labourers on settler farms. Unlike previously, they sought not only to stem territorial expansion by European settlers, but to overthrow settler society and drive the Europeans out of the region.

Resistance was ruthlessly crushed - initially by armed commandos (comprising European farmers, slaves and African vassals) and later, from 1811, by the British army which launched the first of several military attacks on the amaXhosa across the eastern frontier. The end result was always the same - indigenous people lost their land and livestock and with this, their livelihood.

Last updated : 12-Apr-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 21-Mar-2011