Jan van Riebeeck was sent to the Cape to establish a station at which ships of the United Dutch Chartered East Indian Company could obtain fresh vegetables and fill their waterbutts, while meat would be obtained by barter with the indigenous peoples, the Khoina. First contact with Blacks would only be by the end of the 1700s, coinciding with the end of Company rule.

Van Riebeeck planned to stay for a few years before leaving for the Far East, but an uneasy relationship with the Khoikhoi and San and unfavourable climatic conditions forced the Company to hand over agricultural endeavours to free burghers. Thus the revictualing station changed into a colony proper. It remained Dutch in character, despite employing men from all over Europe. 

The colony grew slowly during the first 50 years – the free burghers numbered about 1000, of which one sixth were Huguenots (refugees from France since 1688), who settled mostly in the Drakenstein area (today mainly Paarl and Wellington). The French injection in the white community amounts to about 15% of the cultural group known as the Afrikaners.

Identification and awareness of being a unique group probably started by the early 1700s. The statement by Hendrik Bibault, who was of French-Dutch extract, namely “‘K ben een Africaander” in 1707 is generally perceived to be the earliest expression of this awareness.

Town Planning and Management

The site of Cape Town was claimed by right of conquest by the Company, and Khoikhoi were warned to stay away, except to barter. Palisades, watchtowers and a hedge marked the boundaries, wherein 125 Europeans lived and worked. The plan was to “stay in the shadow of the fort”, but eventually a town grew out of the homes of the Free Burghers.

By 1714, there were 274 houses and several taverns. Smallpox almost decimated the community in 1713, 1755 and 1767, but at the end of the Company‘s rule (1795) approximately 5500 White inhabitants lived in Cape Town in 1000 houses. Visitors remarked on its cleanliness and neatness, which compared favourably to European cities, but this was not always the case – as with the economy, the Cape’s town management had its ups and downs.


In Cape Town proper, as in later outlying areas, the heart of the economy was agricultural at first. The neat garden founded by Van Riebeeck’s gardener Hendrik Boom was the nucleus, of which only the southern section of it still exists today. This project was not successful at first and rice had to be imported (c.1654-1662). From 1657, the free burghers took over the agriculture, as well as most of the economy – wood cutting, wagon building, shoemaking, etc. were entrusted to people not on the Company payroll. Still, lack of manpower lead to the importation of more slaves, on whom the economy became dependent. Stock farming eventually became more important than the cultivating of land.

Cape Town was called the “tavern of the ocean and the shopping centre for the interior.” This perception grew from the reason for its origin and did not change much during the first 200 years. From 1772 to 1793, the free burgher population grew by two thirds, while the economy did not develop correspondingly. This eventually led to racial discrimination – the Whites claimed dominance and privileges regarding essential resources. Because of corruption and Company monopoly, only a handful of burghers became truly rich, especially during the early part of Company rule. 

Cultural Life

A rigid social stratification developed, with senior Company officials at the top, and the ideals of freedom and equality did not reach the Cape before the late 1700s. Cape Town became more cosmopolitan, with the influences of a French garrison (1781-1783) and a short-lived economic boom – the so-called “petit Paris” period – ensued. Affluence and extravagance abounded and burghers lived like country gentlemen and ladies, which caused certain class prejudices. Some burghers lived beyond their means, amassing huge debt. Conversely, there was no theatre or public hall of entertainment.

During the reign of the Company the unique Cape Dutch architecture evolved and Louis Thibault (French architect), Anton Anreith (German sculptor) and Hermann Schutte (German builder) made their names. Despite the low education standard, burghers stayed abreast with European fashions via visiting ships.

Since the arrival of the Dutch, a new language originated, influenced by indigenous and Eastern languages, but rooted in the 17th century “common” Dutch of the Low Countries. This language, eventually known as Afrikaans, evolved because of geographical isolation and the interpretation of Dutch by both foreigners (the Company was the first multi-national company, employing people from many nationalities) and indigenous people who were compelled to learn the language of the dominant class. The arrival of the French Huguenots (1688) added to the growing vocabulary. However, Afrikaans would not enjoy recognition as a language before the 1900s.

Little reference is made to musical activities at the Cape during the Dutch period. It was reported that in the period 1803-1809 approximately 20 opéras-comiques had been performed. Dance music was popular, probably influenced by the French garrison, while score sheets were imported from Amsterdam’s print shops. The piano and harpsichord seems to have been especially popular with the local ladies.


Initially education was limited to the catechism (all teachers were licensed by the church and state). Few burghers were well read and books were scarce at the Cape, but several primary schools were established during the 1700s, attended by White and slave children. There was no secondary education on a sustained basis until the 1790s.

Before the 1800s, Cape Town had no newspapers. A library, bequeathed by J. von Dessin (1761) contained about 4000 books and manuscripts, although probably of no great literary value. The standard of education among Whites was low, with some slaves being better educated than their masters. Educators at the primary schools were usually slaves or free Blacks. Educators who taught in rural areas were mostly White men.


The Calvinist religion was protected by the Company, who paid the salaries of the clergymen. The first ordained minister arrived in 1665, leading to the first organised congregation. The Huguenots contributed to the intensity and theological awareness of Cape Calvinism. The European liberalism of the 1700s only reached the Cape by the end of that century, which meant that intellectual isolation took its toll, although more so in the rural areas. In 1704 the first church building (Dutch Reformed) was inaugurated.

The Dutch Reformed Church dominated local religion, until 1780, when a Lutheran Church was erected. Catholics were forbidden to worship – their children were baptized in the Reformed Church. Race and religion initially played a part in social stratifications, notwithstanding the uplifting work of missionary stations.

Sport and Recreation

Card playing, billiards, backgammon (and sewing, knitting and embroidery for the ladies), were pastimes at local homes, but most leisure - and cultural -activities (dinner parties, balls) took place at public venues. At the first day of each month a fÁªte day (bazaar) was held, which included drinking, feasting, dancing, dog and cock fights, baboon and bull-baiting, shooting competitions, play acting and gambling. Horse riding, hunting, mountaineering and hiking were also well-recorded activities. Some governors commemorated their birthdays with shooting contests and even fireworks. Sports such as football, cricket and tennis were only introduced after the second British occupation (1803).

This text was adapted for SAHO by Dr. F.P Verster, Company Archivist: Naspers, Cape Town.

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