The Dutch changed the course of South African history, culture and identity the moment they first stepped foot in what is now Cape Town.
The history of the Dutch in South Africa is a coin with two sides. Many regard the Dutch settlers as pioneers establishing trade routes, as the forefathers of Afrikaner culture. Yet, their involvement in the slave trade and the invasion of African land cannot be overlooked.
The influence of the Dutch, seen in the Afrikaans language, Cape Dutch architecture, and the movement of people groups (among many other things) are still actively shaping South Africa as we know it today.
The Dutch arrival in the Cape
While the Portuguese were the first Europeans to set foot in southern Africa, naming the area of Cape Town as The Cape of Good Hope, it was the Dutch who established the Cape Colony in 1652. Initially, this was only to serve as a trading post en route to Asia, supplying the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ships with fresh food and water, and a place to stop for rest.
But this land was already occupied by the Khoekhoe (or Khoikhoi) people, whose way of life revolved around hunter-gathering and cattle herding. The Dutch traded with the Khoekhoe for a while, exchanging tobacco and brandy for fresh meat.
But by the late 17th century, war had broken out between the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and both Britain and France. British and French interests in the Indian Ocean pushed the Dutch to establish a permanent colony in the Cape to protect their trading routes. They began expanding settlements, overtaking traditional grazing lands of the Khoekhoe.
Conflict erupted as attacks and counter-attacks ensued between the Dutch and Khoekoe in what snowballed into the Khoekhoe-Dutch wars (1659–1660 and 1673–1677). European diseases decimated Khoekhoe populations and they were increasingly pushed out of their lands. The conflict was eventually resolved with a peace treaty, in which the Khoekhoe had to offer 30 cattle to the VOC annually and vow never to attack Dutch settlements again.
By the end of the 18th century, without their grazing lands the Khoekhoe social structure had collapsed and the ethnic group had virtually vanished. Historians believe many of the Khoekhoe were forced to work for the Dutch, or acculturated with Bantu-speaking African ethnicities from the north.
The Dutch slave trade in South Africa
Many employees of the VOC retired in the Cape Colony, where they were given land to farm on condition they sell their crops to the VOC at a fixed price. The farms were very labour intensive, so the Vryberghers (free citizens) imported slaves from Angola, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and Asia (Dutch East Indies and Dutch Ceylon) to work the land.
However, the VOC owned slaves of their own, the first of which were brought from Angola in the Amersfoort and Hasselt vessels, establishing the Cape as a slave colony. With poor living conditions, mortality amongst the slaves was high and the Dutch settlers were continuously importing new slaves to the Cape. Over 150 years, around 40 slaving voyages were sent from Cape Town, bringing back around 4,300 slaves (who survived the journey).
As a half-way point between Asia and Europe, the Cape Colony also resupplied many VOC slave voyages passing through, including those which would go on to transport Africans to slave markets in the Americas. The Dutch shipped between 550,000–600,000 Africans in the Atlantic Slave Trade alone.
How the Cape Colony impacted South African demographics today
Today, around 1.27 million people living in South Africa are Asian South Africans (2.5% of the population), mostly of Indian descent from the workers brought over by the British and Dutch. Cape Malay culture is also unique to South Africa, born in the Javanese and Malaysian slave communities of the Cape Colony.
But Asian slaves also later intermarried with those from Madagascar and other parts of Africa, contributing to what is known as the “coloured” community in South Africa (around 8.8% of the population today) — distinct from the black African communities which amount to 79.4% of today’s 59.7 million people.
Around 9.2% of modern South Africans are white, with predominantly Dutch, German, French and British ancestry. But centuries of life in South Africa has blurred the lines between racial and cultural groups, giving many South Africans a complex combination of ethnic backgrounds.
British rule and the Great Trek
Back to our history lesson: in 1795, the British invaded the Cape peninsula and took over the Cape Colony (including Cape Town) from the Dutch.
Due to the British Slave Trade Act of 1807, the first wave of British settlers in the Cape (1820) were not permitted to own slaves, and the importation of slaves was banned in all British colonies. When slavery across the Cape was abolished in 1834, the British also passed the Amelioration Laws which allowed slaves to marry, purchase their freedom and receive basic education. This freed over 38,427 slaves in the Cape of Good Hope.
The Dutch Voortrekkers
The Dutch Vryburghers, however, were not happy about this. Tensions between the Dutch and British settlers grew, as the Dutch Boers (farmers) fought to keep their slaves. Eager to rule themselves, in 1836 about 1,200 Boers (one fifth of the colony’s Dutch population at the time) embarked on a journey across southern Africa known as the Groot Trek (Great Pull, directly translated), calling themselves the Voortrekkers (pioneers). They are an important element of Afrikaner folk history.
They travelled in wagons, over a distance roughly equal to that between Portugal and Poland, and lived semi-nomadic pastoral lifestyles. Crossing semi-deserts, the Orange River (which they named in honour of the Dutch royal family) and the Drakensberg mountain range (over 3400m high, which they named for its dragon-like shape) proved to be a challenging journey that would mould Afrikaner communities into a tough and strong people.
As they say in Afrikaans, “‘n Boer maak ‘n plan” (a farmer makes a plan), and it is this mindset that got the Voortrekkers across South Africa.
Conflict with African kingdoms
But as the Voortrekkers crossed over the Drakensberg into the fertile lands of Natal, they walked right into what is known as Mfecane — a period of war between the dominating Zulu Kingdom and smaller African kingdoms (1815–1840). This period caused tribes to temporarily move into new territories, resulting in thousands of refugees, and an estimated two million people who died during these wars.
But as the conflict died down and the tribes began to reoccupy their land, they found themselves face to face with the Boer intruders. The Boers, of course, claimed that the land was unoccupied when they arrived, which would become the Empty Land Myth that says Europeans arrived in these lands at the same time as Africans. This myth would later be used by Apartheid politicians to justify Afrikaner Nationalism.
As you can imagine, conflict erupted between the Dutch Boers and the various African tribes they encountered. Military skill thus became key for the Voortrekkers, including the women and children, as they further invaded more lands. Armed with rifles and long knives, the Boers drove tribes like the Ndebele further north and took their children as slaves. In some cases, peace treaties were formed.
After winning the Battle of Blood River against the Zulu, the Voortrekkers declared the Republic of Natalia in 1838. The Transvaal became an independent Boer republic in 1852, and the Oranje Vrystaat (Afrikaans for Orange Free State) did the same in 1854, both of which had political connections to The Hague.
The Boer Wars
As the British Empire expanded, Lord Carnarvon (British Secretary of State for the Colonies) wanted to unite the British colonies, independent Boer republics and independent African kingdoms in South Africa into a confederation under British control. In 1876, he realised that this would not be achieved peacefully.
The Transvaal was in serious financial trouble after a war between the Boers and the Pedi — the largest African kingdom in the north of South Africa. Lord Carnarvon seized the opportunity, and the British annexed the Transvaal in 1877, renaming it the Transvaal Colony.
A couple of years later, the British launched the Anglo-Zulu war, while non-violent Boer opposition grew in the Transvaal. Dutch settlers still in the Cape Colony began supporting their brothers in the north as they protested for independence.
The First Boer War
In 1880, a disagreement over taxes to the British became the final straw for the Dutch Boers. Led by Paul Kruger and Piet Joubert, almost 10,000 Boers gathered and proclaimed the restoration of the Transvaal Republic — and so, the first Anglo-Boer war began.
The red uniforms of the British made them easy targets for the skilled Afrikaner riflemen, who also knew the terrain better than the anglophones. The British suffered heavy losses at the battle of Laingsnek and Schuinshoogte, forcing them to retreat.
Reinforcements from Newcastle arrived and marched on a Boer outpost at Majuba, whom the Boers lured into the mountains and slaughtered. The embarrassing British defeat at Majuba in 1881 concluded the first war.
The Second Boer War
The discovery of gold in 1886 on the Witwatersrand, near Johannesburg, changed everything in the region and motivated the British to retake the land. By 1890, South Africa was the largest producer of gold in the world, employing thousands of African and European people, and bringing prosperity to the Boer republics. The Cape Colony, still under British rule, was no longer the strongest region in southern Africa.
Prospectors rushed to Johannesburg from all over the world, especially Europe. The Transvalers saw these Uitlanders (foreigners) as a threat to their independence and gave them restricted rights. This caused further strain between the British and Boer governments.
Meanwhile, the British were nervous that the Transvaal would expand into territories on the coast. The Boers had access to a harbour in modern-day Mozambique, but they were yet to own any ports for themselves. Control of the seas was the only advantage that the British had in southern Africa at this point, having earlier annexed Natal.
In 1895, 100 British soldiers launched the Jameson Raid on Pretoria, without permission from the crown. They were overwhelmingly defeated by the Boers and reprimanded by British command.
It was only in 1899 that the second Anglo-Boer war officially began. Anticipating British attack, the Boers struck first, taking out major British towns in Natal. Well armed and financially strong initial attacks by the Boers were successful.
But when the British General changed, and new tactics were implemented, the tables turned. In 1900, the British took back their towns and marched 400,000 men north to the Boer republics. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of men, the Dutch Boers lost control of both the Transvaal and Orange Free State. But they were not done fighting yet.
The Boers reverted to guerilla warfare, in a series of surprise attacks which dragged on for years. In response, the British initiated the scorched earth policy, whereby anything that could be used by the enemy was burnt to the ground. Boer survivors were forced into concentration camps where many civilians died of hunger or disease.
The Boers were forced to surrender in 1902, bringing an end to the final Anglo-Boer war. The Transvaal, Orange Free State, Natal and the Cape Colony were unified into the Union of South Africa in 1910 under the British Empire.
The system of racial oppression in South Africa, known as Apartheid (1948-1994), cannot be directly linked to the Dutch, as by this time the Afrikaner communities identified themselves as a distinct people group. But the ideologies passed down to them from the first Dutch settlers, slave traders, and Voortrekkers are evident in the white-supremicist policies of the Apartheid regime.
In short, Apartheid was a system that separated race groups classified by the ruling National Party (NP) into various zones around South Africa. Afrikaner Nationalism was at the heart of its ideology, which classed white citizens as superior.
Inequality across the zones was substantial, and education and job opportunities for non-whites was limited, pushing them into cycles of poverty. Non-white citizens were given fewer rights — including the inability to vote. Inter-marriage between the races was illegal, and friendships with different race groups were seen as suspicious.
It is a painful and complicated chapter of South Africa’s history, which I will not expand on here. Even so, it is important to learn more about Apartheid in South Africa.
The Dutch had a majorly influential role to play in what would become the Republic of South Africa. What I’ve covered in this article is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg, but I hope you now know something about the Dutch and South Africa that you didn’t know before.
What do you make of the Dutch involvement in South Africa? Tell us in the comments below.