Recently, the Guardian Weekly reported on a controversial project to construct houses, shops, a hotel, and conference centre in Cape Town, South Africa–depicted above in a 1726 print. This has been resisted by some Indigenous communities, who regard this capitalist venture as ‘history repeating’–displacement by yet another wealthy corporation, as was the case four hundred years ago–but supported by others for its potential economic benefits. At stake is formerly sacred ground for the Khoi and Sān peoples, until it was invaded by the Dutch in the mid-seventeenth century. Why and how did the Dutch come to settle in the area and displace the local peoples, inducing a state of Cape fear?
For millennia, the region was occupied by Sān hunter-gatherers, followed by Khoi pastoralists. Following its long struggle for independence from Spain, the Netherlands emerged as a major colonial power by the seventeenth century. In the early 17th century, the Dutch East India Company (the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC) was formed to establish overseas commercial networks in areas claimed by the Portuguese. With interests in Southeast, East, and South Asia, the VOC realised that South Africa could be a key station in their trading routes. The Dutch empire of commerce immensely enriched merchants back in the capital, and thus gave them an Amster-damn good time.
VOC designs on South Africa took some time to come to fruition. As Kerry Ward notes in a 2015 article, the Cape at the tip of southern Africa was long a stopping point for European ships sailing between the Atlantic and Indian oceans on their way to Asia. A VOC settlement could provide food and water for their trading ships. The company commissioned Commander Jan van Riebeeck to establish a settlement. Van Riebeeck arrived in 1652, but his crew was mutinous, unwilling to carry out the mission. In other words, they were reluctant to be Cape crusaders.
In 1657, van Riebeeck obtained permission for Company servants to be released from their bonds and farm on the land. These settlers, however, struggled to survive: many sought to rejoin the VOC or fled in other European ships. Given these problems, van Riebeeck bartered with the local Khoi clans to secure livestock. Initially, then, Dutch colonisation was not effected through force or invasion. Van Riebeeck used a high born Khoi girl named Krotoa (renamed Eva) to act as mediator and negotiator between the colonists and her people. At the outset, at least, this VOC settlement was based on cattle, not battle.
Officially, the VOC recognised the independence of the Khoi clans in the Western Cape region. Things eventually went south in this southernmost point. Krotoa married a VOC surgeon and converted to Christianity, while other Khoi women were taken as wives or sexual partners for the colonists. Gradually, as the Dutch expanded over the territory and appropriated the local livestock, Khoi peoples who were displaced became bonded labourers in the settlement. For the Indigenous peoples, the region became a Cape of bad hope for their descendants. The VOC settlement in South Africa was a sad imperial Caper, in which the colonists were in-Cape-able of recognising Indigenous inhabitants as equals.
Happy beginning of summer, and do check out the 2022 Early Modern Studies summer reading list!
Till next time,
Early Modern VOC-and-roll Studies Program