Cape Town an Overview

The natural environment has influenced the formation of Cape Town. The first pre-colonial society to be recorded by passing British and Portuguese ships, were the Khoikhoi or Khoe. The expanse of ocean and traditional fynbos wilderness provided a sufficient larder of wild plants, roots berries and shellfish to sustain a Stone Age culture. While the domestication of sheep provided an alternative lifestyle, the dominant mode of living at the Cape was to remain a nomadic peace between those Khoe who had adopted raising herds of sheep as a way of life and those who subsisted on gathering food from the ocean and wilderness. This mode of living remained dominant throughout the Portuguese age of exploration and stretched up until the arrival of the British at the Cape.

The Portuguese explorers never colonized the Cape, and it was left to the Dutch under the East India Trading Company to set up a resupply station at the Cape. This came about with the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck on the 9 April 1652, and a fortification, the Castle of Good Hope, was erected. During this period, Britain and France were vying for dominance in Europe, and Holland as an ally of France considered it strategically advantageous to occupy the Cape, as it was the only harbor on the route around the tip of Africa. The fledgling colony at the Cape struggled initially, with many of the early pioneers succumbing to disease as well as deserting.

Initial Dutch contact with the indigenous inhabitants was limited to trading.  Later, with the construction of the Castle of Good Hope between 1666 and 1679, local inhabitants were employed to do housekeeping, gardening and other labour. Krotoa was the first indigenous women to marry a Dutch man. The Dutch also regarded the Cape as somewhat of a penal colony in that many of their colonial subjects from Malaysia and Batavia were transported to the Cape as exiles for resisting Dutch rule. This is considered the advent of Islam in South Africa, as many of the exiles transported here as slaves were scholars and religious leaders.

At this point we notice a stratification of Cape Town Society in terms of a settler upper class and a slave/indigenous working class. The contrast would become much more pronounced as Cape Town became more established. The population of Cape Town received a mayor boost with the arrival of the French Huguenots, as many of the Huguenots were skilled farmers and winemakers.

Last updated : 12-Dec-2011

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