South Africa: Dutch colonialism, the destruction of the Khoekhoe and the rise of Chiefdoms (1652-1795)

Updated February 2011

In 1652, in accordance with the instructions of the Dutch East India Company's (VOC) board of directors, a refreshment station was established at the Cape of Good Hope (Ross 1989, 243). From the beginning there was no intention that the small colony should develop beyond supplying meat, vegetables fruit, wine and wheat to Dutch ships travelling between the Netherlands and its trading posts in far east Asia and to act as a point of convalescence for stricken travellers (Feinstein 2005, 22, 23). It was initially staffed with VOC officials, and supplemented by free burgers, drawn from demobilised soldiers and sailors, charged with growing grain; it was run as a logistical base aimed solely at increasing revenue for the VOC and the VOC maintained monopolistic relations of trade with the free burgers, the Khoekhoe and the passing ships (Feinstein 2005, 24; Ross 1989, 243). From 1658 onwards, since enslavement of the Khoekhoe was outlawed by the VOC and they were reluctant to take up wage labour, slaves were imported to the Cape in large numbers from Indonesia, India, Madagascar and Mozambique to meet the demands of the settlers for labour (Mesthrie 2002, 14; Marks 1972, 63, 64). Maize and later sugar cane were introduced, and in 1672 brandy was distilled (South African History Online 2006a). Around the initial fort a small urban settlement emerged consisting of taverns, lodging houses, bakeries, breweries, shops and artisans enterprises (Ross 1989, 243). In the 1680s the population was supplemented by 50 Dutch and German farmers and women from orphanages and at the end of the decade by 200 by Hugenots, where after, except for the landing of an occasional adventurer, the colony's white population grew largely by natural increase to about 1300 by 1700; however a smallpox epidemic in 1713 killed about a quarter of the whites and estimates for 1717 put the population at 744 officials, about 2000 free burghers and over 2700 slaves (Feinstein 2005, 23, 24; South African History Online 2006b).

In the beginning relations between the Khoekhoe and the small settlement were cordial, but they deteriorated rapidly once the Khoekhoe realised that not only was the Dutch settlement permanent, but that it also excluded trade between them and the British (Marks, S 1972 60-62). The population of the Khoekoe in South Africa in 1652 is uncertain, with estimates varying between 100 000 and 200 000 (Traill 2002, 29). By 1659 Khoekhoe resentment at the expansion of the colony and conflict with the settlers over livestock, land and escaped slaves precipitated the first war between the Dutch and the Khoekhoe groups of the Cape (Marks 1972, 64). Led by the men appointed by the Dutch to act as intermediatories between them and the Khoekhoe, the guerrilla war dragged on for a year, bringing the colony to the verge of ruin, and ended only when the unquelled Khoekhoe, empoverished and desiring the resumption of trade, sought a peace settlement (Marks 1972, 64).

This set the pattern for white expansion; contact with a Khoekhoe group, trade, dispossession of cattle and land, impoverishment and reduction to servitude or displacement to marginal arid or mountain zones (Mesthrie 2002, 14-15; Marks 1972, 64, 66). In this process the Dutch were able to exploit rivalries between the various Khokhoe groups, though resistance continued in the form of raids and assaults conducted from the interior from 1672 onwards, which the Dutch were unable to suppress until 1677; though resistance continued thereafter the balance of power had shifted in favour of the whites (Marks 1972, 66-68). The process of dispossession conquest and assimilation was facilitated by successive smallpox epidemics (1713, 1755 and 1767) that fatally weakened the Khoekhoe and brought them to the edge of extinction (Traill 2002, 29). Within 60 years of the landing of the Dutch the traditional economic, social and political order of the Khoekoe was destroyed and by 1750 their languages had all but disappeared (Traill 2002, 29).

By 1680 the incipient Trekboers entered the Karoo, took to an autonomous, self-sufficient semi-nomadic lifestyle and violently disposed the remaining Khoekhoe of their lands and livestock (Feinstein 2005, 24-25). The rapid expansion of the Colony to the east and the north was uncontrolled, for the Trekboers moved outside the already weakly administered frontier domains of the VOC; the VOC was forced to follow belatedly in their footsteps, proclaiming inadequately staffed magisterial districts in their wake, in attempts to bring the colonists under VOC suzerainty (Marks 1972, 67-68; Feinstein 2005, 25). A measure of the small number of people involved is found in the fact that by 1750 the white population of the whole Colony numbered only 5000-6000 people (Marks 1972, 68). The scale of livestock dispossession is indicted by estimates that between 1700 and 1710 alone the colonists' ownership of cattle increased from 8300 to 20 000 head and of sheep from 54 000 to 131 000 head (South African History Online 2006). In about 1740 the first clashes between the advancing Trekboers and the /Kham speaking San people, who had occupied the most of the Northern Cape province and much of the northern parts of the Western Cape, occurred that was to culminate in the dispossession of their land, the enslavement of their women and children and the extermination of their men over the next 170 years (Traill 2002, 36, 37).

The expansion of the Late Iron Age (LIA) cultures into the Highveld continued. From 1640 settlements in the southern Transvaal and north eastern Free State proliferate, with the emergence of dry stone-walling in this area for the first time (Vogel & Fuls, 1999, 99). By the mid 17th century the LIA people had reached the Caledon River Valley (Maggs 1976, 328). Similarly, EIA colonisation of the eastern littoral of South Africa, that reached the Kei River by 600 CE, now began expanding northwards into the interior of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape (Maggs 1980, 12, 13). The expansion into the grasslands of the interior, with their limited fuel resources for metal smelting, stimulated the development of trade networks (Maggs 1980, 14). Around 1700 a cooler climatic phase and drier climate in the interior of South Africa cutailing the occupation of the Highveld (Ballard 1986, 367, 368). This was followed by a period of wetter weather, and the rapid growth of population in the second half of the 18th century was facilitated by the introduction of maize in the early 1700s by the Portuguese to Delgoa Bay, from where it was quickly adopted and diffused throughout the sub-continent, so supplementing sorghum production (Ballard 1986, 368; Vogel & Fuls, 1999, 100).

It is not clear at what point the Chiefdoms that dominated the political life of Southern Africa's LIA peoples, at the time that whites first came into contact with them, first emerged; Hammond-Tooke (1965, 143) thought that, at least in the case of the Cape Nguni, this has occurred by the 15th century. At the core of the organisation of a chiefdom as a political structure, regardless of what might have gone before, was a client-patron relationship where land recognised to be under the sway of a chief was allocated by him to the households in the chiefdom on the basis of fealty to the chief (Hammond-Took 1985, 311). The act of fealty was entered into by the heads of homesteads resident with the domain of the chiefdom and by outsiders seekinh the chief's protection and assistance in times of economic distress; these ties wre strengthened by the loan of cattle by the chief to individuals. Each homestead formed an autonomous economic unit that paid tribute to the chief on defined occasions such as a head of cattle to a new chief on the death of the old (Hammond-Took 1985, 312). In itself, the chiefdoms were liable to fission and defection under conditions where land was abundant, with dissatisfied clients leaving the chiefdom's territory and making off on their own, or settling in the territory of a rival chief; as a result these political units tended to be relatively small (Hammond-Tooke 1965, 152, 154, 163, 164).

In the Eastern Cape the Cape Nguni had, by the time of the arrival of the whites, formed a dense belt of settlement between the coast and the Drakensberg Mountains (Lester 1998, 17). In around 1750 the Khoekhoe between the Kei and Keiskama rivers were incorporated into the Xhosa chiefdoms and the Khoekhoe were assimulated into the Xhosa population over time (Traill 2002, 29). The reign of Phalo (c1730-1775) saw power struggles between his sons, Gcaleka and Rharhabe, result in fissions and the emergence of new chiefdoms grouped under each of them after his death (South African History Online 2006). In 1778 the Fish River and Boesmans River were proclaimed the boundaries of the Colony by the VOC, intruding into Xhosa territory, resulting in conflict between the colonists and the Xhosa that escalated into a war that ended in a standoff and the expansion of the Colony eastwards was halted, while fierce resistance by the San prevented its expansion northwards (Feinstein 2005, 25; South African History Online 2006). The internal political conflicts between the Xhosa chiefdoms force a westward movement of people across the Fish River, and Xhosa raids on colonial cattle led to a second three year war in 1790 as the VOC attempted to reestablish the border of the Colony to the Fish River, but ended instead in aa affirmation of the status quo that had prevailed before the war (South African History Online 2006).


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