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The Cape of Good Hope

VOCThe first European to sight the Cape was Bartholomew Diaz in 1486. He named it Cape Tormentosa or stormy Cape, but on his return to Europe, his master John II of Portugal, perhaps more farseeing than he, renamed it the Cape of Good Hope. It was renown for its frequently eerie weather and ideally situated as a port of call and refreshment for the long voyage from Europe to the East Indies. The Cape was used as a letter box by passing VOC-ships. The stones under which letters were left are still to be seen in South African Museums.

In 1652 Jan van Riebeeck, of the VOC, made a permanent settlement and began to build a fort. The British occupied the Cape in 1795 and in 1803 handed it back to the Dutch under the Treaty of Amiens. In 1806 the British occupied the Cape once again and kept it until 1910.

The settlement on Cape of Good Hope was a victualling station for VOC-ships on their way between Europe and Asia. In order to improve this function the VOC admitted free citizens who were allowed to settle as farmers and in this way enlarge the production of victuals.

In August 1657, Jan van Riebeeck and Capt. Claas Franssen Bordingh had made an extensive report on depth findings in the bay. They wrote that there were all sorts of ships, both large and small which sailed into the bay successfully both day and night openly and unhesitatingly.

In 1666 works started on the Castle and short distance from the Fort. In 1679 Stellenbosch was founded and the Castle completed. In 1688 the Huguenots, religious refugees (Protestant) arrived. The British occupied the Cape in 1795.

Click here to see some antique maps and prints of Southern Africa and the Cape, or items relating to the V.O.C.


VOC land grant In 1652 the first VOC employees arrived at the Cape on the ships Drommedaris, Reijer, and Goede Hoope and were shorly followed by a second batch of VOC employees on the ships Walvis and Oliphant. All were male and some were accompanied by slaves. Their leader was Jan Antoniszoon van Riebeeck. His instructions were clear from the Privy Council to build a fort for protection (one that remains a tourist attraction in Cape Town to this day) and use the men sent to the Cape to establish a vegetable garden and secure pasturage for the cattle and to establish a hospital. The settlement like all VOC settlements was controlled by a Governer, at the head of a 17 member Council of Policy. He established the VOC vegetable garden at what is today called the Garden at the top of Adderley Street and adjacent to what is to date St George's Cathedral. The first hospital was established in the 5 corner stone fort he built.
In 1657 the first 9 settlers previously employed by the VOC Company were allocated land grants.
The Council of Policy of the Cape felt that private land grants would be more productive than a centralized vegetable garden. In 1677 they started formally registering these land grants, along with slaves and debentures. This image is an early Slave Grant issued in favour of A. Hinloopun. This is one of the very first Slave Grants formally registered and started a century of conflict with the VOC Company who claimed ownership to all of the Cape and wanted the men sent to the Cape to work in the Gardens and attend to their cattle and establish a refreshment station at the Cape for their ships bound for India, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The early VOC settlers took dark skinned Hottentots and Griqua and other indigenous women as the common law wives and their decendants gave rise to what are called the "Cape Coloured Race", Cape Town Slaves in the 1700s

Most free burghers (citizens) had slaves. A distinction was made between VOC slaves and  'private slaves'. Many private slaves worked on the farms, but lodging houses and most households also had slaves. They performed domestic work - gathering firewood and water.
Visitors commented upon the sight of many slaves gathering along the river banks, drawing water and washing clothes. Some slaves performed at parties as musicians. Some were put in charge of selling their owners' products, others were put to work as artisans or fishermen. It is clear that some slaves occupied trusted positions, although all had to carry a pass signed by their owners.
slave grant

VOC slaves also held a range of occupations. Most, especially the Africans, were put to hard manual labour, but others, mostly Asians, performed domestic work, who served in the hospital, worked as artisans and some held clerical positions in Company offices.
Within the windowless slave lodge - where many hundreds of Company slaves lived - skilled slaves received privileges and had authority, whereas manual slaves ended up in cramped, poor conditions within the building. The mortality rate among manual slaves was very high.


Cape Town Slaves and Islam

A movement of lasting consequence was the practise of Islam among many slaves. Although slaves and convicts came from various cultures and religions, there is no evidence that Hinduism and other faiths were practiced at the Cape.  Islam, on the other hand, became a strong force, although it was not allowed to be practiced publicly. The tradition of Islam at the Cape - which can be seen in areas like the Bo-Kaap to this day - is credited to the influence of Muslim political prisoners sent to the Cape in the seventeenth century. The best known is Sheik Yusuf of Makassar, a nobleman banished by the VOC in 1694 after they captured Makassar . He was a noted Sufi scholar and arrived with a considerable retinue, including 12 Imams. He encouraged an Islamic revival among the slaves.


Click here to see some antique maps and prints of Southern Africa and the Cape, or items relating to the V.O.C.

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Author: Paulus Swaen 2017