People of South Africa – The Europeans

By Laurence Marks

It was believed that the Phoenicians were the first to sail the shores of Southern Africa in the fifth century BC, no proof has been found. The Arabs however have sailed these shores between 800 and 1200 AD, proof of this can be found throughout the northern region of South Africa in the province of Limpopo, one of the archaeological sites is Mapungubwe – “The hill of the jackal”. This area was known as the “slave route”, stretching between Berea on the east coast of Mozambique to Botswana in the west and from the Soutpansberg – “Salt Pan Mountains” in the south, to the mighty Limpopo River in the north, these traders traded with salt, ivory, gold and slaves.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Southern Africa, men such as Bartholomew’s Dias 1488 and Vasco Da Gama, who spotted a stretch of shoreline on the south east coast of Africa on the 25th December 1497 and named it Natal, the Portuguese word for Christmas. Then the Spanish arrived, Antonio Da Saldanha in 1503, who named the present Table Bay, Saldanha Bay after himself. Table Bay’s history as a harbour of refuge may be said to have begun in 1591, as in that year the first English fleet put into the waters of this bay. Discouraged by adverse weather conditions the English abandoned attempts to colonize the Cape, an expensive decision for the British who would eventually have to send no less than three expeditions of conquest and fight two pitched battles against the Dutch, before they were finally able to annex the Cape in 1806.

By 1600 Joris van Spilbergen, a Dutch caller at the Cape, had renamed “this place of Saldanha” – Table Bay. In 1606 a British ship anchored outside a little bay south east of Table Bay, a British naval officer by the name of Chapman was instructed to investigate the possibility of this bay offering a safe anchorage. This bay became known as Chapman’s Chance, today it is called Hout Bay – “Wood Bay”, here one can travel along one of the most spectacular and scenic ocean-view drives in the world, the Chapman’s Peak Pass, therefore giving “Chapman” the oldest English name in South Africa.

Commander Jan van Riebeeck of the DEIC (Dutch East Indian Company) landed in Table Bay in April 1652. He had been instructed to erect a fort, to lay out a vegetable garden, to barter sheep and cattle from the Hottentots and secure a supply of fresh water for passing DEIC ships. His labour force proved inadequate for the task; his men were difficult to handle for they were always grumbling and some even deserted. It is not surprising, therefore, that soon after his arrival Van Riebeeck suggested to the authorities in Batavia (Netherlands) that colonists would be useful in increasing the production of the settlement.

He mentioned that there were several servants of the Company at the Cape who would be willing to take their discharge and become free burghers. The free burghers could grow all the necessary produce, which would be sold to the Company at a price fixed by the Company. The DEIC decided to adopt the scheme, in February 1657 the first nine free burghers or “Free Citizens” were given land.

The free burghers soon encountered many difficulties and it was not long before they complained. They protested against the restrictions on their farming activities and the low prices paid for their corn. They demanded the right to trade freely with passing ships and they expressed their determination not to be ‘slaves of the Company’. The refreshment station had become a colony, and these free burghers may be considered as the first South Africans. The Company did not intend that the settlement should extend beyond the boundaries of today’s Cape Town, but it did, the free burghers’ were the initiators of a movement of expansion which was pursued for over two hundred years, from Table Bay to the Zambezi River.

Another consequence of the coming of the free burghers was the importation of slaves to provide them with labour. The Hottentots (indigenous people of the Cape) proved unsuitable as farm labourers. In 1658 a Portuguese slave-vessel was captured and 170 slaves brought to the Cape. Later, slaves were brought from West and East Africa and from the Malay Peninsula. The latter were the most valuable slaves as they could be used as skilled artisans such as tailors, carpenters and cobblers.

In spite of the Company’s encouragement, few immigrants’ came to the Cape until the arrival of the Huguenots in 1688. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 by Louis XIV led to the flight of the Huguenots from France to Germany, Britain and Holland. The Company seized the opportunity and decided to send some of the refugees to the Cape. From about 1688 to 1690 almost 280 Huguenots came to the Cape where they were given farms in freehold provided they stayed at the Cape for at least five years.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, a new type of colonist had appeared – the cattle-farmer, who on account of the roving existence he led has been called a trekboer (moving farmer). The trekboers learnt to supply their own needs and became independent of the Cape Town market. Their guns gave them self-reliance, their wagons freedom of movement and their cattle economic independence. Food was easily obtained, trekking was easy in an easterly direction as there were no great rivers, or impenetrable forests, or fever areas and the climate was healthy for these pioneers, it was neither too hot in summer nor too cold in winter. However, it was not until the trekboers met the Bantu near the Fish River in about 1780 that they encountered the first formidable barrier to their advance. Here the trekboers were halted and there began in our history a century of warfare between Boer and Bantu on the so-called eastern frontier.

The trekboers were the pioneers who blazed the trail and opened up the country for civilization.

“All over the country the story unfolded of Afrikaner wagons nosing their perilous way through mountain ranges. The wagons taken apart and loaded upon oxen over the more frightful precipices; crawling patiently at 5 miles an hour over the vast expanse of monotonous veld, their isolation floodlit by an African moon that the oxen might graze by day. The men who drove the wagons feared neither the distance nor silence, nor the void of learning and of bodily comfort. Indeed, the Calvinist best of them trusted in Jehovah with all the faith of the Israelites, and many believed that the footsteps of the Israelites had preceded them. It was not surprising that it bred a race of men extraordinarily independent, self-confident and willful… and an attitude of mind on the part of the burgher towards the aborigines, at variance with the Government, and with every successive government (Spilhaus, pp. 91-2).

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