Establishment of the Cape and its impact on Khoikhoi and Dutch

The formation of the VOC in Netherlands in 1602 increased Dutch dominance of the in the maritime trade. Acting on behalf of the Dutch government, the company expanded Dutch influence by taking possession of land, expanding trade routes and establishing trade outposts in the Dutch East Indies. In 1651 the VOC issued instructions to Jan van Riebeeck to establish refreshment station at the Cape to provide fresh supplies of vegetables, fruit and meat for VOC ships on their way to the East Indies.

Van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape on 6 April 1652 as an employee of the VOC to spearhead the establishment of the refreshment outpost at the Cape. Central to ensuring a stable supply of refreshments and meat was the acquisition of land to cultivate a garden and rear livestock. A mud and wooden fort was erected in the Table Bay area for shelter and defence. Its vulnerability to the elements such as strong winds and flooding drove the need to build a more permanent structure. In 1652 the VOC granted men permission to own land, build farms and improve food supply and by 1655 some company employees were growing their own vegetable plots near the castle. The vegetable garden also failed to thrive and produce enough food, while reluctance by the Khoikhoi to barter with Dutch settlers deprived them of fresh meat. In 1657 the VOC released some employees from their contracts and granted them freehold rights on lands along the Liesbeeck Valley for them to start farming.

It was Dutch encroachment and expansion into areas around Table Bay and beyond that resulted in conflicts with the Khoikhoi. Dutch perceptions of land as a commodity with monetary value which could be privately owned, exchanged or sold, was at odds with Khoikhoi views of land and grazing pastures as property of the community not individuals. This is highlighted by the early tensions over land occupied by the Dutch around the castle area. For instance, in 1655 when the Khoikhoi built their shelter and grazed their cattle close to the fort, the Dutch attempted to chase them away. The Khoikhoi refused to move declaring that the land was theirs and that they would attack the Dutch if they were not permitted to graze their cattle or build their huts wherever they chose.

The Dutch continued to order the Khoikhoi to graze their cattle out of sight of the fort and company settlement. The VOC further inflamed the rising tensions by granting land to free burgers on Saldanha Bay, Swartland and Table Bay. Van Riebeeck also ordered the plating of bitter almonds trees, brambles and thorn bushes as boundaries along farms to keep the Khoikhoi cattle out of ‘company owned’ land. These were lands that were grazing routes seasonally used by the Khoikhoi. The loss of grazing pastures became a constant source of friction between Khoikhoi and the Dutch. Van Riebeek noted that the Khoikhoi leaders complained and conceded that “ ...we had been appropriating more and more of their land which had been theirs all these centuries and on which they had been accustomed to let their cattle graze...It would be of little consequence if you people stay here at the fort, but you come right into the interior and select the best land for yourselves, without even asking whether we mind or whether it will cause us any inconvenience...As for you claim that the land is not big enough  for us both, who should in justice rather give way, the rightful owner of the foreign intruder?”  (As quoted in Feinstein, C. H, (2005), An Economic History of South Africa, p.15)

The first Khoi-Dutch War

Rising tensions over loss of pastures between 1654 and 1659 exploded into open conflict in the first Khoi-Dutch war from 1659-60. Angered by the colonists increasing cultivation and restrictions to prime grazing land, a group of Khoikhoi men led by Doman seized seven of the company’s draught oxen. The Khoikhoi hoped the colonists would desist from farming activities and thus open up grazing land. An armed militia was organised by the company and sent to recover the cattle while some settlers fled to seek refuge at the fort. Doman, who led the assault on the Dutch, attacked them on rainy days when the gunpowder on their muskets would not ignite.

 On 19 July 1659, he was injured in battle and retreated to Saldanah Bay to recuperate. The war continued until the Dutch concluded a peace treaty with the Goringhaiqua and the Goarchoqua (groups of Khoikhoi who were at the forefront of the resistance) around April and May 1660. After the war, Khoikhoi lost more land to Dutch settlers. Doman returned to the Table Bay area and died in December 1663. The Khoikhoi were also restricted in their movement as they were forced to walk designated footpaths and to use designated gates when entering the fortified area. By 1676, the Khoikhoi were also excluded from residing in the area near the castle.

The Second Khoi-Dutch War

Dutch settlers continued to expand further inland relieving the Khoikhoi of their land and cattle. In response the Khoikhoi fought back and retreated inland. In the 1670s the Khoikhoi were defeated by the Dutch in numerous armed confrontations in the Saldanha Bay and Boland regions.  For instance, in 1673 the Council of Policy (the governing authority of the Cape Colony) sent a punitive expedition to the Cochoqua marking the start of the second Khoi-Dutch War. After the war, the VOC claimed the land by conquest and allocated seized land to farmers. Successive defeats of the Khoikhoi resulted in their loss of independence and pushed them into servitude where they began to work alongside slaves in farms.

In 1713 a smallpox epidemic further weakened the Khoikhoi whose fortunes were already dwindling due to Dutch expansion. Some Khoi entered into arrangements with farmers where they would be allowed to graze their cattle on the farmers’ land in return for providing labour. Although the Khoikhoi were not enslaved by the VOC as a matter of policy, their impoverished status brought them under the control of the VOC. As the conflict spread further inland San communities living as hunter gatherers also joined the resistance against Dutch expansion. For instance, in the 1730s both the Khoikhoi and the San intensified guerrilla attacksagainst white settler farmers in the Piketberg area. The VOC eventually gained control of the area by sending a major commando. However, this did not stop the resistance which continued until the end of the eighteenth century as some Khoikhoi and San leaders formed alliances to raid Dutch farmers. Resistance became more isolated and fragmented as commandos killed more people, captured woman and children who were in turn used as indentured labour. Furthermore, the shortage of slaves led to the incorporation of Khoikhoi and San labourers into the economy.

Last updated : 13-Apr-2016

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