Colonial history of Cape Town

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English Settlement

British presence in the Cape between the 1600s and 1795 was largely confined to the shores of the Cape and Table Bay as a halfway stop by the East India Company on their trading trips to the East. Tents were occasionally set up along the shores to trade with the Khoikhoi. The British also used Robben Island, located a few kilometres from Table Bay, as a goal. In 1615 John Cross compelled ten condemned prisoners brought from England to leave Table Bay and go to the Robben Island. Between 1632 and 1640, the British also placed a group of Khoikhoi under the command of Autshumato (or Harry) on the Island.

British travellers also visited the Cape and later the Dutch settlement throughout the 1600s and 1700s making sketches of the town and its activities. For example, Thomas Herbert, a British traveller, visited Table Bay in 1627 and sketched a painting of the Khoikhoi trading sheep for copper.

In 1620, Andrew Shillinge and Humphrey Fitzherbert, commander of the tow fleets of English East India Company on their way to Surat and Bantam, landed on Table Bay. They planned to establish a plantation to supply refreshments to British ships on their way to India.  When a British fleet under Admiral Keith Elphinstone and Major General James Craig sailed into False Bay on 11 June 1775, the British produced papers claiming that they had settled in Table Bay in 1620, earlier than the VOC. The British were determined to prevent the Cape from falling into the hands of the French after France had occupied the Netherlands. In an armed conflict that ensued, the Dutch were defeated by the British and an estimated 1200 British infantry forces marched into Cape Town.

The British viewed this occupation as a temporary measure that was meant to last until the defeat of the French. After the signing of the Treaty of Amiens, the British handed the Cape back to the newly installed Dutch Batavian government in 1803. When the Napoleonic War broke out for the second time, the British feared that the Cape could fall into the hands of the French. They attacked Cape Town from Bloubergstrand and retook the Cape from the Dutch in 1806. At the Treaty of Vienna in 1814 the British acquired the Cape permanently. The British then paid the Dutch for six million pounds. Cape Town then remained in the hands of the British and the Cape became a crown colony. A civilian governor based in Cape Town was appointed. The Dutch name of the city Riebeeckstad (Riebeeck’s Town) was eliminated as the British continued to use the name Cape Town.

Cape Town experienced major changes under the British occupation as it increasingly became the capital of an expanding British colony. In the 1820s more British officials were appointed and English became increasingly used as the official language. The Dutch garrison at the castle was replaced by English soldiers. There was a steady immigration of British citizens to Cape Town especially young men in search of a new life and the hope of making fortunes. British immigrants established themselves in various trades such as bakers, blacksmiths, saddle makers and cobblers. For example, in the 1790s British immigrants arrived as merchants in Cape Town.

In 1817, some British immigrants founded the Commercial Exchange which initially met in Berg Street. By 1820 there were 757 people of British origin in Cape Town. John Bardwell Ebden established the first joint stock private bank known as the Cape of Good Hope Bank in 1837.  Furthermore, the temporal economic boom of the 1830s laid the foundation for the commercial and financial infrastructure of the Cape Colony in Cape Town.

Many British arrivals built residences outside town in areas previously occupied by farms and gardens. Not all British immigrants that came to the Cape were those that sought fortune. Between 1833 and 1841, 700 British children were brought to the Cape by the Children’s Friend Society to work as indentured labour for local British employees. They were brought to rid England and other crown colonies of slum. Groups of British workers were brought to the Cape as indentured labour.

Despite intermarriage between the Dutch women and British immigrants, the growth of British influence in the Cape bred resentment by the Dutch. As a consequence, descendants of Dutch settlers left  the Cape Colony, migrating eastward and north eastward in the 1830s and 1840s in what became known as the ‘Great Trek.’ This resulted in the founding of Afrikaner Republics away from British control such as the Natal Republic in 1839, the Transvaal in 1852 and the Orange Free State in 1854.

The mineral revolution in South Africa, which was sparked by the discovery of diamonds in the 1860s and gold in the 1880s, set the stage for war between the British and the Afrikaner republics.  A war broke out between the Afrikaner republics and the British in what became known as the South African war. At the end of the war in 1902, all four colonies were placed under one flag.  On 31 May 1910 these were united in the Union of South Africa making South Africa a self governing colony but still under the British control. Cape Town became the legislative capital of the Union. By mid 1940s British influence was weakened even though English still remained the lingua franca.

Last updated : 13-Apr-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Jun-2011