What! No way, where are your meds .. everyone knows the first colonial power to colonise the Cape were the Dutch in 1652 ... not the British. We all have the history of Jan van Riebeeck and his five ships bravely making their way into Table Bay, a landing party of Dutch settlers carrying a Dutch Prinsenvlag (Prince Flag) coming ashore in peace and to trade with a smattering of local Khoikhoi (Hottentots), planting the flag and declaring the region as Dutch.
This painting by Charles Davidson Bell says it all, it depicts the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck, first Commander of the Cape, to Table Bay on the 6th April 1652. With the Dutch came a stoic religion and a civilising mind, set to colonise the region and establish a refreshment station, mainly for the Dutch East India Company’s trading ships passing the Cape.
South Africa’s epicentre of its civilising history had begun! The event burned into South African lore by the Nationalists, commemorated for decades and on countless bank notes, statues, emblems of state, the late national flag and postage stamps.
British – 1st attempt
The British were first! … What’s wrong with you? So, here’s a little inconvenient truth. and this next bit reminds me of the Eddie Izzard’s comedy sketch “do you have a flag”. The fact is the British colonised the Cape BEFORE the Dutch, in fact 30 odd years before … to quote Izzard “no flag no country” – huh! You lie! All true I’m afraid, read on.
The first flag to fly over the Cape in a colonising ceremony was NOT the Prinsenvlag, the first flag was that of King James the 1st of England and Scotland – the very first Union Jack (known then as the British Flag without the Ireland inclusion – Ireland was not part of the Union then). The flag was planted on Signal Hill in 1620 – long before the Dutch did it in 1652.
That’s how insanely biased the old Christian Nationalism Education policy was and how much the conscious narrative of the country’s history has become thanks to it. If you think I’m telling ‘Porkies’, look it up for yourself, 27 March 1620 – The HMS Unitie, one of three British ships, arrives in Table Bay from England, a small settlement had already existed there to furnish passing Spanish, British, Portuguese and Dutch traders. Two of the Commanders of these ships, Captain Humphrey Fitzherbert and Captain Andrew Shilling hoist the Union Jack on the slopes of Signal Hill calling it King James Mount and take possession of the entire countryside in the name of the British Monarch. Here they planned a plantation similar to that established by the Virginia Company at Jamestown. The settlement would have provided a revitalising stop on the way to the East for all the British trading ships, mainly the British East India Company.
But nothing came of the plan, it does not seem that King James the 1st acted on it, maybe he was too concerned with uniting England and Scotland at the time, who knows? What we do know is that the British left it to be settled by the Dutch, 32 years later. As historians we don’t really know what the British did with their Colony in intervening years between the two flag planting ceremonies, nobody has really studied it. We do however know it’s been ‘written out’ of the South African narrative – however the good news I can assure you there are now some serious historians ‘on the case’.
But, and this is a BIG but … neither the British, nor the Dutch can really lay claim to be the first European nation to plant a flag under Table mountain, or even the first people to start a trading station in Cape Town. The first European nation to set up trading posts at the Cape where the Portuguese. The truth is the ‘local’ Khoikhoi (the original inhabitants) were not too happy with them and saw them off in two famous instances. In 1503 (over 100 years before the British and the Dutch) Antonio de Saldanha, a Portuguese fleet commander, sailed into Table Bay and then disembarked to follow the freshwater stream to the foot of Table Mountain. During the visit, the Portuguese attempted to barter with the Khoikhoi. It failed and a group of Khoikhoi warriors ambushed the sailors wounding De Saldanha in process.
The Portuguese tried again in 1510 to colonise the Cape when Francis de Almeida the first viceroy of Portuguese Indies sailed into the Table Bay with a fleet in search of fresh water and trade. Some of his crew went to a nearby Khoikhoi settlement in the area around Salt River to trade for cattle and sheep. An armed conflict ensued. The sailors were driven back to their ships.
On hearing of the defeat de Almeida joined in with an armed expedition to deal with the Khoikhoi directly. The Portuguese force was overwhelmed and defeated, leaving 67 Portuguese sailors including de Almeida dead. These conflicts with the Khoikhoi ended any Portuguese aspirations around Table Bay and Colonising it.
As to laying a ‘claim’ the Portuguese did however erect stone crosses (padrão) at prominent points along the coast to proclaim sovereignty of the Portuguese realm by right of discovery. Dias erected his first cross on Dias Point (since renamed Lüderitzbucht in what is now Namibia),and at Kwaaihoek on the easternmost limit of Algoa Bay and on his return voyage at Buffels Bay near Cape Point.
As to the Khoikhoi, their history in the region goes back a very long way, Khoikhoi migrants reached the Western Cape and Overberg region and began settling it good and proper by 1100 CE (that’s 400 odd years before the Portuguese). Here’s a real fun bit and inconvenient to the traditional narrative of Dutch (or even the British) idea of ‘establishing’ a trading station at Cape Town, there was one there already – the Khoikhoi had already established one.
In 1600 (52 years before the Dutch and 20 years before the British) a small community of Khoikhoi established the port of ‘Camissa’ in Table Bay. The ‘Camissa’ meaning ‘sweet water for all’ people established their port near to what is now the Cape Town waterfront/foreshore. They were known to the passing European shipping by the Dutch term for them ‘Watermans’ (water people). From what can be gathered from ship records, this indigenous people’s port serviced over 1071 ships with fresh produce and other trade; Dutch, English, Danish, Portuguese and French shipping. Stay overs in the port are recoded as been about 3 weeks and even up to 9 months. The Camissa settlement and port was seized by the Dutch in 1652 and over the next eight years the Camissa people were forced out of the area, particularly after the first Dutch-Khoi war in 1659.
As to whether the Khoikhoi were favourable to the ‘benevolent’ Dutch taking over their land, think again. Unlike the rather benevolent painting of the first Dutch interactions with the Khoikhoi for trade, some rather serious disputes broke out over land ownership and livestock. This resulted in attacks and counter-attacks by both sides which were known as the Khoikhoi–Dutch Wars that ended in the eventual defeat of the Khoikhoi, and the destruction of their society. The First Khoikhoi-Dutch War took place from 1659 – 1660 and the second from 1673 – 1677.
At the end of these wars, a ‘peace treaty’ between the Dutch and Khoikhoi was drafted and ratified by a party of Dutch and defeated Khoikhoi at the newly established ‘Castle’ in Cape Town, and it would guarantee trading terms between the two antagonists in favour of the Dutch, the KhoiKhoi were to supply a free pre-fixed quota of livestock and farm produce to the Dutch annually and stop the theft (also read land dispute) from settler’s farms . Bound to these terms the ‘original’ inhabitants of the Cape literally ‘traded’ their way into irrelevance, the gradual assimilation into the ‘servant’ sub-culture and the Smallpox epidemic in 1713 saw the destruction and eventual disappearance of their society and culture. Their legacy and DNA can still be found in the modern day Cape Coloured community.
As to the British and the Dutch, and the swings between the two. Here’s another inconvenient truth to dispel the old Nationalist folklore of nasty British Imperial intentions in ‘their land’; the ‘British’ did not invade the Cape and snatch it from the ‘Dutch’ in 1806 – they attacked the ‘French’. Huh! On drugs again eh! … No, read on.
The British – 2nd and 3rd attempt
By the time the Napoleonic Wars kicked off in 1803, the ‘Dutch Cape Colony’ was not really Dutch anymore, it was under the control of the French. The Dutch had full sway in Southern Africa for 143 years but in early 1795 in Europe, intervention by the French Republic in the Netherlands region led to the downfall of the old Dutch Republic and it was replaced with a French vassal state called the Batavian Republic. The Batavian Republic, run by the French, comprised an amalgamation of what is now Belgium, Holland and bits of Germany.
The British were at war with the French and they took the opportunity to seize the Cape Colony from the Batavian Republic (read French). Two British invasions against the Batavian Republic in the Cape, the first in 1795 (settled by the Peace of Amins in 1802 and return of the Colony to the Batavian Republic) and the second in 1805 as part of the British campaign in the Napoleonic Wars. In July 1805 a British fleet was urgently despatched to the Cape, to forestall French troopships which Napoleon had send to reinforce his Batavian Republic garrison there. The arrival of the British led to a small but significant battle between the Batavian garrison and the British called the Battle of Blaauwberg on 8 January 1806.
Here’s a painting to commemorate it, the HMS Diadem at the capture of the Cape of Good Hope, by Thomas Whitcombe. What’s interesting about this, and to quote Eddie Izzard again “we stole entire countries with the cunning use of flags!” – it’s the same Union Jack without the Ireland inclusion that the HMS Unitie had when it arrived to colonise the place in 1620, although nobody bothered to commemorate that very first colonisation of the Cape with a painting.
The Batavian garrison lost the Battle of Blauuwberg and subsequent skirmishes, over 700 dead and wounded compared to the relatively light butchers bill for the British of about 200 dead and wounded. British victory at the Battle of Waterloo and the end of French Napoleonic era effectively ended Dutch and French aspirations in Southern Africa as Colonisers.
The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 and the Treaty of Paris 1814 to end the Napoleonic wars would see the British gain official control of the Cape Colony and also remunerate the Dutch for the retention of their ex-Colony (£6 million) along with favourable Dutch trading rights, with the exclusion of Dutch slave traders, from 15 June 1814 Dutch ships for the slave trade were no longer permitted in British ports.
This brings about another inconvenient truth, the British anti-slavery position in the Cape started well before their official abolition of slavery proclamation in the Cape Colony in 1834, and this was to have a marked impact and resentment of British rule by some of the local Dutch/French inhabitants in the region – kicking off the Great Trek in 1835, but that’s a story for a different day.
The British would then have absolute influence, and a bloody one at that, in the region for the next 142 years (the same time period as the Dutch) until 1948, and finally bowing out of all influence in 1961 when South Africa was declared a Republic by the National Party who then went on to withdraw it from the British Commonwealth of Nations completely.
Even though the European colonisation of the Cape can be evenly split 50/50 between British and Dutch in its time period – 300 odd years, we are still appraising things through an idea of ‘European history’, there’s evidence of discovery and trading by Chinese and Arabic explorers in Africa along the Indian Ocean coastline long before the Portuguese. The ‘European’ part of the story remains but a blimp in the actual historical timeline of human settlement in the Western Cape, at the end of the day the land belongs to the origin people’s the San and Khoi. As to ‘civilising’ – that depends on what you regard as a civilisation, the Khoikhoi had a system of communication, farming, animal husbandry, commerce, art, dance, music and laws by which their society was structured.
If anyone thinks they welcomed the Europeans to their lands .. history shows they did not. If you want to see that in a communication – go and look at the Khoi paintings in the Cederberg, here’s my photo – Khoi giving their fellow travellers advise as to dangerous and ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ European colonisers in the area.
Dangerous colonisers are depicted with guns above their heads – ‘bad’ colonisers in the area are painted upside down, ‘good’ are upright … many of them are upside down.
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens
Sources include the Cassima Museum, wikipedia, Day to Day Naval History of South Africa by Chris Bennett and The South African History Association (SAHA).