By indexer
180 days ago

The origin of the Cape Colony

The Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa, was always going to be an important place for a European nation that was interested in establishing colonies anywhere further east. Before the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the Cape had to be rounded by any ship bound in that direction. Seeing that several countries besides Britain, most notably the Netherlands, France and Portugal, had imperial ambitions to the east of the Cape, it is hardly surprising that competition for control of the Cape was fierce.

The Portuguese were the first to use the Cape as a repair and refreshment station on the way to India, in the mid-16th century, but it was the Dutch who established a permanent colony there in 1652, under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company.

The hinterland of the Cape itself is notable for its suitability for European settlement, having a temperate climate that supports both arable and pastoral farming, and is mercifully free of the banes of much of tropical Africa, namely the tsetse fly and the mosquito. However, the Dutch did little at first to develop their colony, their main interests lying elsewhere. Hence the small Dutch community was not augmented by new arrivals, and for 150 years the population only increased by natural means. Whereas there were probably a million settlers of British origin in North America by 1760, the Dutch population of the Cape was only 5,000.

The Cape Colony came into British hands in 1795 during the Napoleonic Wars, when the Netherlands had become part of France’s continental empire. It was not in Britain’s interest for the French to have control of such a strategically important place on the route to India. The British recognised that this was essentially a Dutch colony and fully expected to return it to Dutch hands at the end of hostilities. Indeed, in 1803 this was just what they did, when it looked as though the Netherlands would be free of French domination. However, the situation changed again in 1806, so the Cape Colony was recaptured. After that, especially after the 1815 Treaty of Vienna decided how Europe was to look in the post-Napoleonic era, it seemed expedient to keep control of the Cape.

The Dutch settlers, who became known as Afrikaners, had far more interest in developing the hinterland of the Cape than did the British. They were essentially farmers, and during the years of British ownership of the Cape they had moved eastward along the coast, where they came increasingly into conflict with native Africans. The Xhosa wars lasted, on and off, for much of the 19th century, with the Africans gradually losing out and having their lands in the eastern Cape appropriated by the Europeans.

The Afrikaners’ attitude towards the Africans reflected their religious belief that the black-skinned races were condemned by God to be subservient to the white-skinned ones, this being rooted in the legend that the descendants of Ham (son of Noah) were black and were cursed by God for Ham’s disrespect towards his father. This Afrikaner mindset was to percolate down through the generations to culminate in the Apartheid system that bedevilled South Africa until late in the 20th century.

Having not been particularly interested in colonizing the Cape, as long as the French did not do so, the British began to encourage settlement there from around 1820. About 5,000 settlers, whose passage was paid for by the British Government, arrived and established themselves as farmers in the eastern part of the Cape Colony, with a view to countering the Dutch influence and, if possible, protecting the Africans who were being threatened with oppression and slavery. The British farmers started by attempting to grow grain, but later found that sheep farming was easier and more profitable.

However, many of the British settlers had no background in farming and preferred to settle in towns and cities where they could practice their crafts and skills. The division between urban Brits and rural Afrikaners soon became clear. This strengthened the position of the British governor, and English became the official language of the Colony. The Afrikaners, on their remote farms, had no great problem with this at first.

For some years the Cape Colony carried on as three fairly distinct communities, with a prosperous and flourishing community around the port of Cape Town to the west, occupied almost entirely by the British, a farming community to the east and along the coast, peopled by a mixture of Brits and Afrikaners, and the interior, where the more adventurous Afrikaners were developing greater tracts of land. These pioneers were independent-minded people who tended to mistrust governments of any kind, be they British or Dutch.

It was the efforts of the British to curtail the Afrikaners’ oppression of the Africans that led to trouble. Not having the same religious attitudes as the Afrikaners, the British governors, encouraged by missionaries who had travelled widely throughout the colony, administered justice according to British principles, which meant that British, Afrikaners and Africans were to be treated as equals in legal terms. This was established by law in 1828, which the Afrikaners simply could not understand; to them, the British were acting contrary to the laws of God. Justice was served against a number of Afrikaners, including the death sentence being passed on those found guilty of the murder of Africans.

In time, many Afrikaners found it impossible to live under British rule, and thousands of them made the “Great Trek” to the north and east in the 1830s and 1840s to set up their own Afrikaner provinces of the Transvaal, Orange Free State and Natal. The Cape Colony, now the Cape Province, therefore lost many of its Afrikaans-speaking population, which accounts for the high proportion of English-speakers who live there to this day
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