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South Africa - Colonial Period

Portuguese seafarers, who pioneered the sea route to India in the late 15th century, were regular visitors to the South African coast during the early 1500s. Other Europeans followed from the late 16th century. In 1652, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) set up a station in Table Bay (Cape Town) to provision passing ships. Trade with the Khoekhoe(n) for slaughter stock soon degenerated into raiding and warfare. Beginning in 1657, European settlers were allotted farms by the colonial authorities in the arable regions around Cape Town, where wine and wheat became the major products. In response to the colonists’ demand for labor, the VOC imported slaves from East Africa, Madagascar, and its possessions from the East Indies.

Portuguese mariners explored the west coast of Africa throughout the latter half of the fifteenth century. Two ships under Bartholomeu Dias eventually rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and traveled more than 600 kilometers along the southwestern coast. In 1497 an expedition under Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape, sailed up the east African coast to the Arab port of Malindi (in present-day Kenya), and then crossed the Indian Ocean to India, thereby opening up a way for Europeans to gain direct access to the spices of the East without having to go through Arab middlemen. The Portuguese dominated this trade route throughout the sixteenth century. They built forts and supply stations along the west and east African coasts, but they did not build south of present-day Angola and Mozambique because of the treacherous currents along the southern coast.

At the end of the sixteenth century and in the early seventeenth century, English and Dutch merchants challenged the Portuguese monopoly in West Africa and Asia and saw the Cape peninsula as a source of fresh water, meat, and timber for masts, all of which they could obtain through trade with the local Khoikhoi. The English government refused its mariners' requests that it annex land there and establish a base, but in 1652 the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie--VOC) established a supply station in Table Bay on the Cape peninsula, instructing its station commander, Jan van Riebeeck, and his eighty company employees to build a fort and to obtain supplies of foodstuffs for the Dutch fleets.

The VOC's directors intended that the settlement at Table Bay should amount to no more than a small supply station able largely to pay for itself. European settlement was to be limited to VOC employees only, and their numbers were to be kept as small as possible. Company ships could stop to take on water, to get supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables grown by VOC employees, and to trade for fresh meat and milk from the local Khoikhoi. The Khoikhoi were also expected to supply the labor needs of the settlement--building wharves and warehouses, putting up offices, and laying out roads. Within its first half decade, however, the Cape Colony was growing in ways unforeseen at its establishment. Most Khoikhoi chose not to labor for the Dutch because of low wages and harsh conditions; and, although ready initially to trade with the Dutch, they became increasingly unwilling to sell their farm products at the prices offered by the VOC.

As a result, three processes were set in motion in the 1650s that were to produce a rapidly expanding, racially stratified society. First, the VOC decided to import slaves to meet local labor needs, and it maintained that policy for more than 100 years. Second, the VOC decided to free some of its employees from their contracts and to allow them to establish farms of their own to supply the Dutch fleets, thereby giving rise to a local settler population. Third, to supply the needs of the fleets as well as of the growing local population, the Dutch expanded ever farther into the lands of the Khoikhoi, engaging in a series of wars that, together with the effects of imported diseases, decimated the indigenous population.

Van Riebeeck had concluded within two months of the establishment of the Cape settlement that slave labor would be needed for the hardest and dirtiest work. Some thought was given to enslaving Khoikhoi men, but the idea was rejected on the grounds that such a policy would be both costly and dangerous. With a European population that did not exceed 200 during the settlement's first five years, war against neighbors numbering more than 20,000 would have been foolhardy. Moreover, the Dutch feared that Khoikhoi people, if enslaved, could always escape into the local community, whereas foreigners would find it much more difficult to elude their "masters."

Between 1652 and 1657, a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to obtain men from the Dutch East Indies and from Mauritius. In 1658, however, the VOC landed two shiploads of slaves at the Cape, one containing more than 200 people brought from Dahomey (later Benin), the second with almost 200 people, most of them children, captured from a Portuguese slaver off the coast of Angola. Except for a few individuals, these were to be the only slaves ever brought to the Cape from West Africa. Thereafter, all the slaves imported into the Cape until the British stopped the trade in 1807 were from East Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, and South and Southeast Asia. Large numbers were brought from India, Ceylon, and the Indonesian archipelago. Prisoners from other countries in the VOC's empire were also enslaved. The slave population, which exceeded that of the European settlers until the first quarter of the nineteenth century, was overwhelmingly male and was thus dependent on constant imports of new slaves to maintain and to augment its size.

By the early 1700s, the colonists had begun to spread into the hinterland beyond the nearest mountain ranges. These relatively independent and mobile farmers (trekboers), who lived as pastoralists and hunters, were largely free from supervision by the Dutch authorities. As they intruded further upon the land and water sources, and stepped up their demands for livestock and labor, more and more of the indigenous inhabitants were dispossessed and incorporated into the colonial economy as servants.

Diseases such as smallpox, which was introduced by the Europeans in 1713, decimated the Khoisan, contributing to the decline of their cultures. Unions across the color line took place and a new multiracial social order evolved, based on the supremacy of European colonists. The slave population steadily increased since more labor was needed. By the mid-1700s, there were more slaves in the Cape than there were “free burghers” (European colonists). The Asian slaves were concentrated in the towns, where they formed an artisan class. They brought with them the Islamic religion, which gained adherents and significantly shaped the working-class culture of the Western Cape. Slaves of African descent were found more often on the farms of outlying districts.

In the late 1700s, the Khoisan offered far more determined resistance to colonial encroachment across the length of the colonial frontier. From the 1770s, colonists also came into contact and conflict with Bantu-speaking chiefdoms. A century of intermittent warfare ensued during which the colonists gained ascendancy, first over the Khoisan and then over the Xhosa-speaking chiefdoms to the east.

It was only in the late 1800s that the subjugation of these settled African societies became feasible. For some time, their relatively sophisticated social structure and economic systems fended off decisive disruption by incoming colonists, who lacked the necessary military superiority. At the same time, a process of cultural change was set in motion, not least by commercial and missionary activity. In contrast to the Khoisan, the black farmers were, by and large, immune to European diseases. For this and other reasons, they were to greatly outnumber the white people in the population of white-ruled South Africa, and were able to preserve important features of their culture.

Perhaps because of population pressures, combined with the actions of slave traders in Portuguese territory on the east coast, the Zulu kingdom emerged as a highly centralised state. In the 1820s, the innovative leader Shaka established sway over a considerable area of southeast Africa and brought many chiefdoms under his dominion.

As splinter groups conquered and absorbed communities in their path, the disruption was felt as far north as central Africa. Substantial states, such as Moshoeshoe’s Lesotho and other Sotho- Tswana chiefdoms, were established, partly for reasons of defence. The Mfecane or Difaqane, as this period of disruption and state formation became known, remains the subject of much speculative debate.

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