What was South Africa like in 1750?

1_2_khoikhoiThe foreground of this illustration from Bogaarts's Historische Reizen (1711) depicts the Khoikhoi way of life. The background shows the Dutch settlement and way of life beginning to take root. Source: South African National Library.

By 1750, the Cape was already colonised, there were no African farmers settled there, as the Cape was not suitable for crops that required summer rain. The Cape (area between Table Bay and Table Mountain) was being governed by the Dutch East India Company. Cape Town at this time was becoming a cosmopolitan town with; Dutch, Portuguese and French settlers, as well as a variety of different nationalities that made up the slave population. By this time, the towns, Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Swellendam had been established.

As they expanded eastwards, the British encountered Xhosa Iron Age farmers, who were much more powerful than the Khoisan. The farmers were also more resistant than the Khoisan to the diseases that the Europeans brought with them.

One of the most important aspects of the 18th century was that communities in the interior of southern Africa increased their contacts with European traders and colonists. During this period, southern Africa was drawn increasingly into a world economic system that was dominated by the industrialising nations of Western Europe.

In particular there was growing trading contact with Delagoa Bay (Maputo) on the southeastern coast of Africa and with the Cape Colony to the southwest. Many chiefs were quick to realise the advantages of new trading opportunities. But this also meant that competition between chiefs increased. Some chiefdoms became larger and more powerful, while others were absorbed and lost their independence.

Power and wealth was based upon deeply rooted values around the importance of cattle. Chiefs were mostly interested in acquiring cattle and increasing their personal herds. Through owning cattle a chief could gain power over larger groups of people.

Obtaining trade goods and controlling trading arrangements (between chiefdoms as well as with colonial markets) helped make some chiefs become wealthier. Wealth was expressed in cattle, and trade goods could be traded for cattle.

Ivory was an important trade item, and the archeological and written records indicate a sharp increase in the amount of ivory coming from the interior and being traded at the coast.

Also, people like the newly formed Kora and the Griquagroups were moving inland from the Cape Colony. They were groupings of indigenous people of mixed descent and runaway slaves who had escaped from the Colony. The Kora and Griqua had guns and horses, and could move quickly over long distances. Theyalso played a part in destabilising the northern colonial frontier from the late 18th century through increasing competition for trade, and also by raiding.

Throughout the 1700s powerful and wealthy chiefs attracted more followers and people were organised into larger groups. And as a result, settlements grew larger. Increasing numbers of homesteads were built clustered together.

During the period 1750 to 1850, the authority of many African kingdoms was still recognised. African kingdoms tried to hold onto this independence in different ways. They sometimes made alliances and treaties with Europeans. Sometimes African chiefdoms helped Europeans fight against other African kingdoms hoping to gain land or security. Sometimes, they fought wars of resistance. During the 19th century, the British slowly but surely, in a long drawn out struggle, colonised the whole of South Africa.

Teaching note:

Extracts of this section are from our 2003 curriculum content. This content has been provided as an overview into what South Africa was like in 1750. This section will be expanded at a later stage, so please click on ‘contribute’ if you have any content to share.

Further Reading

The section on the Dutch and the VOC goes back a bit further than 1750; it provides for background reading and understanding and can be used as an introduction to this lesson.

Dutch in Southern Africa

The Dutch challenged Portuguese domination of the Indian Ocean trade in the late sixteenth century when they began trading in spices, calico and silks in the East and gold, copper, ivory and slaves in Africa. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the Netherlands became the wealthiest European trading nation, until Britain challenged them in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Dutch East India Company (known by the Dutch abbreviation VOC) was established in 1602 to conduct Dutch trade with the East Indies. Its headquarters were in Jakarta on the island of Java. Because the journey to the East took so long, European shipping nations stopped at the Cape of Good Hope to collect fresh water and food. The Khoikhoi people at the Cape traded sheep, cattle, ivory, ostrich feathers and shells for beads, metal objects, tobacco and alcohol. Unlike the Portuguese, the Dutch did not trade guns as they did not want the Khoikhoi to use the guns against them.

In 1652, the VOC decided to establish a permanent refreshment station at the Cape. Jan van Riebeeck was appointed commander of this station. It was his responsibility to build a fort for their protection and a hospital for sick sailors. Employees of the company planted vegetables and obtained meat from the Khoikhoi so that they could supply the ships as they called in at Table Bay. French and English ships were also allowed to stop at the Cape, but they were charged very high prices.

Expansion of the Dutch settlement

Increasingly the Khoikhoi lost land and cattle to the Dutch as the settlement grew. This brought the Dutch into conflict with the powerful Cochoqua chief, Gonnema, who refused to trade with the VOC. The Company used rival Khoikhoi clans to raid the Cochoqua herds between 1673 and 1677. This is known as the Second Khoikhoi-Dutch War. The Cochoqua were defeated and lost all their cattle and sheep to the Dutch and their Khoikhoi allies. The boers then settled on their land.

Wheat and grapes for wine were grown in this area for the settlement and for export to the passing ships. The settlers were sold slaves from Madagascar, Mozambique and Indonesia to work the land.

The Trekboers

As the settlement grew, some of the farmers became hunters and cattle farmers in the interior of the Cape. They were known as ‘trekboers’ because they lived in ox-wagons and were always on the move. They were granted large pieces of land each and allowed their cattle to graze on the land until it was overgrazed and then they would move on.

In the 1680s and 1690s the VOC encouraged Dutch and French Huguenot immigration to the Cape. The new arrivals were settled in the fertile valleys of Paarl, Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Wheat and grapes for wine were grown in this area for the settlement and for export to the passing ships. The settlers were sold slaves from Madagascar, Mozambique and Indonesia to work the land.

Khoikhoi resistance in the interior

The Khoikhoi were at a disadvantage in their struggle to resist the expansion of the Dutch settlement at the Cape. They had no guns or horses and were nearly wiped out by a series of smallpox epidemics that swept through the Cape starting in 1713. Like the Aztecs in Mexico, they had no immunity against European diseases and they died in their thousands.

The Khoikhoi found different ways to resist Dutch expansion. At first they resisted by attacking and raiding Dutch farms. In reaction, the trekboers formed themselves into military groups called ‘commandos’ and attacked the Khoikhoi in order to get back their cattle. As a result, hundreds of Khoikhoi people were killed. As soon as the commandos returned to their farms, the Khoikhoi attacked again, setting in motion a continuous cycle of attack and counter-attack.

In the end the Khoikhoi had two options. Either they could move into more remote and drier regions of the expanding colony or else they could become servants of the boers acting as trackers, herdsmen and shepherds. Some even joined boer commandos and attacked other Khoikhoi groups. The boers were not allowed to enslave the indigenous people of South Africa, so these Khoikhoi servants remained free citizens, but they were seldom paid wages. They were usually paid in food, clothing, housing, brandy and tobacco. They were sometimes allowed to keep cattle, but they lost their independence and with that much of their culture and language. In the Eastern Cape, many Khoikhoi people were absorbed into Xhosa society.

The impact of Dutch rule at the Cape

  • The arrival of Dutch settlers marked the permanent settlement of Europeans in Southern Africa.
  • Dutch laws, customs and attitudes towards race were brought to South Africa and Dutch people became the ruling class until the Cape was taken over by the British in 1806.
  • The Dutch did not actively encourage the Khoikhoi or slaves to become Christians as this would imply they were equal.
  • The process of land dispossession by indigenous people in South Africa began soon after the arrival of the Dutch and lasted until 1994.
  • Racial mixing occurred at the Cape, but it was never openly accepted like it was in colonies such as Brazil and Mexico. A few legal marriages did occur between different races, but most of the relationships across race lines were between European men and their female slaves or Khoikhoi servants. The children of these relationships formed part of what is known today as the Cape Coloured community.
  • Freed slaves were also included into the Cape Coloured community. Many of the freed slaves were Muslims and maintained their Malay cultural and religious traditions.
  • The Dutch language became simplified as it was spoken by the multi-cultural community that existed at the Cape. Portuguese, Malay and Khoikhoi words were included in the common language now spoken, which became known as ‘Afrikaans’.

Last updated : 25-Nov-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 24-Nov-2011