Cape Town

Colonial history of Cape Town

The Dutch Settlement

The region of the Western Cape which includes the Table Bay area (where the modern city of Cape Town is located) was inhabited by Khoikhoi pastoralists who used it seasonally as pastures for their cattle. When European ships landed on the shores of Table Bay they came into contact with Khoikhoi.  In the summer months the Khoikhoi moved around between the areas of Table Bay, Swartland and Saldanha Bay in search of fresh grazing pastures with their cattle herds. It was the gradual dispossession of local Khoikhoi pastoralists by early Dutch settlers that opened up the area for European settlement.

Jan van Riebeeck, Source: Giliomee et al. (2007), New History of South Africa. Tafelberg Publishers: Cape Town.

Cape Town was founded by the Dutch East India Company or the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) in 1652 as a refreshment outpost. The outpost was intended to supply VOC ships on their way to Asia with fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and to enable sailors wearied by the sea to recuperate. What influenced the location of the town in the Table Bay area was the availability of fresh water which was difficult to find in other areas.

The town developed largely as a result of developments that took place both in Europe prior to the establishment of the refreshment station at the Cape. Muslim traders dominated the spice trade in the Indian Ocean in the medieval period.  They shipped spices from India to the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and eventually on to overland trade routes that led to Europe. European traders bought gold from Africa and exchanged it for spices and silk in Asia. The growth of the Ottoman Empire disrupted overland trade routes to Europe. As a result of this disruption, Portuguese explorers were tasked with finding an alternative trade route around Africa to Asia.  

In 1480, Portuguese ships landed on the shores of the West Coast of Africa. Bartholomeu Dias explored the continent further southwards and in 1488 unknowingly sailed round the Cape. Dias went as far as Port Elizabeth before turning back presumably due to protests by his ship crew.  On his return Dias erected a cross (on the Gulf between the Mountains later named by sailors as ‘False Bay’). Dias named the Cape, the Cape Storms, but John II the king of Portugal renamed it the Cape of Good Hope. The name expressed the king’s optimism that a sea trade route to India could be opened up via the Cape. In 1497 Vasco da Gama and later Ferdinard Magellan also sailed round the Cape all the way to India. The mapping of the coast of African coast by explorers and the establishment of an alternative trade route by sea between Europe and Asia precipitated the settlement of the Cape.

In 1503, Antonio de Saldanha, a Portuguese explorer caught in a storm sailed into Table Bay, mistakenly assuming he had already rounded the Cape. Seven years later in 1510, Francis de Almeida the first viceroy of Portuguese Indies, also sailed into Table Bay with a fleet in search of fresh water. Some of his crew went to a nearby Khoikhoi settlement in the area around Salt River to trade for cattle and sheep. Their attempts to kidnap two Khoi children and cattle belonging to the Khoikhoi sparked an armed conflict that drove the sailors back to their ships, ending in victory for the Khoikhoi. A punitive expedition of one hundred and fifty men was sent by de Almeida to deal with the Khoikhoi. Once again the Khoikhoi fought back and defeated the Portuguese force killing 67 people including de Almeida. Conflicts with the Khoikhoi led the Portuguese to avoid the Table Bay area.

This changed early in the 17th century when the Dutch and English formed trading companies that sought to challenge the Portuguese and Spanish domination of the European trade with Asia. In 1600 the East India Company of the British was formed, and this was followed by the formation the VOC in Netherlands in 1602. The VOC acted as an agent of the Dutch government in Asia by expanding the Dutch influence by taking possession of land, expanding trade routes and establishing trade outposts. For example, between 1610 and 1669 the VOC took possession of colonies in Batavia, Indonesia, Colombo in Sri Lanka, Malabar in India, Makassar and the Dutch East Indies.

By the middle of the 17th century the Dutch had replaced the Portuguese and the Spanish trading networks and established their own. By 1620, the VOC was the largest corporation in Europe trading in cotton and silk from India and China.  In the 1600s both the VOC and East India Company companies were increasingly using the Cape as a halfway stop  in their maritime trade and occasionally set up tents along the shore to trade with the Khoikhoi. During the same period the area around Table Bay and Robben Island were increasingly used by the Dutch and British. For instance in 1611, Dutch sailors were shipwrecked on Robben Island. In 1615 ten British prisoners were also dumped on Robben Island and in 1648 the Dutch dumped mutineers on the shores of Table Bay.

In 1651, the VOC issued instructions that a refreshment station should be established at the Cape to provide fresh supplies of vegetables, fruit and meat for VOC ships on their way to the East Indies. Jan van Riebeeck was engaged on a five year contract by the VOC as the man who was to build the refreshment outpost. Van Riebeeck was also instructed to build a fort of defence against the Khoikhoi and other European competitor. 

On December 1651, Van Riebeeck left the Netherlands for the Cape of Good Hope aboard the Drommedaris accompanied by two other ships arriving at the Cape on 6 April 1652. A mud and wooden structure was erected in the Table Bay area for shelter and defence. That same year the VOC granted men permission to own land, build farms and improve food supply. By 1655 some company employees were growing their own vegetable plots near the castle.

Despite these farming efforts, the settlement at the Cape remained largely dependent on food supplies brought from Amsterdam. For instance, in 1654 complete starvation was averted by the arrival of Tulp from Madagascar with rice supplies. Van Riebeeck complained that the land available was insufficient to meet the agricultural demands of the settlement both for farming and grazing company cattle.

Due to the growing need for supplies, in 1657 the VOC released some employees from their contracts and granted them freehold lands along the Liesbeeck Valley for them to start farming. The ‘free burgers’ were provided with seeds, tools and loans to start farming. They were ordered to sell their produce to the company and forbidden to trade with the Khoikhoi. Thus, the settlement steadily spread from shores of Table Bay to other parts of the Cape.

Dutch expansion into areas around Table Bay and beyond resulted in conflicts with the Khoikhoi who lost grazing pastures as settlers occupied their land and in some instances seized their cattle. Tensions over loss of pastures between 1654 and 1659 resulted in open conflict in the first Khoi-Dutch war from 1659-60.

By the 1660s, the settlement showed growth in the number of buildings and European visitors began to refer to the settlement as a town. The expansion was so evident that the VOC complained in 1661 that Van Riebeeck was establishing a colony and a town a plan that had been discouraged by the company.

In the 1670s the VOC committed itself to establishing a permanent settlement at the Cape. The growing influence of the British and the French who also had interests in the Indian Ocean posed a danger that they might lay claim to the Cape because of its strategic location before the Dutch. In 1670 the French attacked Saldanha Bay, exposing the vulnerability of the settlement.

When war broke out between the United Provinces of Netherlands against both Britain and France; the VOC declared itself the rightful owner of the Cape district, which included Table Bay, Houtbay and Saldanha Bay in 1672. The Dutch claimed that they had purchased the land from Osingkhima leader of the Khokhoi group known as the Goringhaiqua with brandy, tobacco and bread.

Thus, the order to set up a permanent settlement was an attempt by the Dutch to exclude the British with whom the Dutch were at war. In 1795, the British, who were at war with France, invaded the Cape Peninsula from False Bay and took over the Cape (including Cape Town) from the Dutch until 1803 when the colony was handed back to the Dutch. When war between the British and French broke out once more in 1806, the British permanently occupied the Cape Colony.