Mapping South Africa: Heritage
A Shared History of South Africa and the Netherlands
The Cape of Good Hope was a Dutch colony for some 150 years, from 1652 until 1795, when it became British.
Along the route to the East Indies, the bay of the Cape of Good Hope was considered an ideal station for the supply of refreshments, provisions and repairs for the Dutch East India Company’s (‘VOC’) crews and ships. Due to the fact that the native inhabitants of this region, the Khoikhoi (Hottentots) and the San (Bushmen) respectively were nomadic stock farmers and hunter-gatherers the VOC had to make its own arrangement for a refreshment station. In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor, was ordered to start the construction of a fort (Fort Kaap de Goede Hoop) and to establish the company’s gardens. The Cape became an important hub between Europe and Asia, and the settlement expanded thanks to the continuous arrival of immigrants and slaves. The culture of Whites absorbed numerous elements of these immigrants, from food to language. Some Whites established new settlements inland, such as Swellendam, Stellenbosch and Tulbach. Gradually the independent ‘Free Burghers’ moved into the interior of Southern Africa trekking after good pastures. They carried this culture, an independent way of life adapted to severe conditions of nature, with them. In 1836, thirty years after the Cape was taken over by the British, a huge number of farmers living to the East of Cape Town, called Boers, were not prepared to simply accept the enforced colonisation (assimilation) by the British and set off to the North, into the interior of Africa of the country. This episode is known as the Great Trek. It was motivated by the Boers’ desire to retain their own (religious) traditions, identity and language: Afrikaans.
The Netherlands separated its ties with the Cape Colony at the start of the 19th Century only to connect to the Boers some 1.000 kms to the North of Cape Town seventy years later. Dutch civil servants, teachers, lawyers, engineers and architects were invited by the two Boer Republics (Orange Free State and the South African Republic) to help building the country with tax money from the diamond and gold mines during the 1880’s and 1890’s. The many churches, town halls, post offices, school buildings and railway stations recall the architecture of towns in the Dutch countryside. Descendants of the Dutch continued to play a relevant role in South African history, up to the peaceful transition during the 1990’s from an apartheid to a democratic country.
The construction of the Fort at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 corresponded with the establishment of the first European settler colony. This node of European culture at the southern tip of Africa attracted immigrants from many countries, such as Germany, France and the Netherlands. Huguenots migrated to South Africa around 1680, fleeing from religious persecution by King Louis XIV via a short transit stay in the Netherlands. At the Cape, the Huguenots were not allowed to live separately in villages, but were ‘distributed’ between other communities, which were already of a mixed composition, mostly of Dutch and German origin. The Huguenots introduced viticulture (cultivation of grapes for wine-making) and gave a refined touch to the civil and religious buildings. As the Cape Colony continued to grow, new migration movements followed from the East Indies and the interior of Africa. The Maleiers (Malaysians) settled in the Malay Quarter adjoining the White area of Cape Town and introduced Islam to South Africa. This religion would be embraced by many of the slave communities from West Africa and Asia working in the Colony. With the Great Trek of 1836 the Boers transferred their already mixed culture to the Northern Territories. This in turn was submitted to the dominance of the British Empire after the Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902). During the same century huge numbers of Black tribes moved south from the interior of Africa, clashing with the Boers when the latter trekked north. All of these massive migrations dating back to the period of the Dutch Colony shaped the multicultural society of today’s South Africa.