The Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) or Dutch East India Company came into being on 20 March 1602 and is seen as the first company that issued shares to investors. The Company had been granted a monopoly to trade with Asia by the government of the Netherlands.
Jan van Riebeeck, a representative of the VOC, established a station at the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa, in 1652. The intention was to provide a post where traders could restock their ships with fresh water and food on the long and arduous journey to East Asia. The VOC brought soldiers, slaves and settlers to the Cape from the Netherlands and the East and eventually the station became a conventional colony when Europeans started to settle there.
Read more about the VOC in our Special Feature.
Contact with the Khoikhoi
Who are the Khoikhoi?
The Khoikhoi are a race of people of Southern Africa, of short stature and a dark yellowish-brown complexion, who formerly occupied the region near the Cape of Good Hope and are now almost extinct.
Shortly after his arrival at the Cape of Good Hope Jan van Riebeeck requested slaves to assist in the gathering of food and water for passing VOC ships. He had been instructed to erect a small fort, protect sources of fresh water and lay out a garden in which fresh vegetables could be cultivated. The first settlement was made up of servants of the VOC and was situated on the small peninsula on which Table Mountain is located. When relations with the local Khoikhoi population started to disintegrate the settlement was secured by a hedge with a series of outlook posts.
The Cape was not intended to be a colony, but a halfway house of sorts, and therefore the local inhabitants could not be enslaved. It was necessary that relations with the local population of Khoi and San remain positive as the Dutch had to barter with them for fresh meat. The requested slaves did not arrive immediately and the refreshment station’s labour requirements resulted in Van Riebeeck’s orders being disregarded. The requirements of the passing ships soon became too great for the employees of the VOC and on van Riebeeck’s suggestion a group of settlers were moved to farms of their own. These farmers would grow crops and would sell these to the VOC for their own profit. These men became free burghers or citizens who had gained their release from their contracts with the VOC by taking up plots of land and by entering into a burgher militia. The first 12 free burghers settled along the Liesbeeck River in 1657. By the time Jan van Riebeeck left the Cape to become commander at the new post at Malacca in 1662 there were 40 free burghers with about 15 women and 20 children. This resulted in the establishment of a permanent community which grew steadily and by 1672 the VOC took over Hottentots Holland, False Bay and Saldanha Bay.
By 1656 the first conflict between the Dutch and local Khoi erupted. This occurred as a result of the appropriation of land by Dutch farmers. The Khoikhoi were nomadic and felt they should have free access to all the land in the area to graze their cattle, as had been the case up to that point, while the Dutch farmers had been given land as part of the policy of freehold ownership where they farmed and lived. The Khoikhoi saw the Dutch as competition for available grazing and as invaders who were curbing their freedom of movement while the Europeans regarded the Khoikhoi to be inferior and a ready labour pool. The Khoikhoi attempted to regain their territory by again attacking the Dutch in 1659 and 1673, but lost many men in the conflicts.
The Cape soon became a colonial project and as a result of the importing of slaves the economy developed as slave-based. This state of affairs resulted in a social system of master and servant becoming firmly entrenched with the Europeans as masters while indigenous people were delegated to slaves and servants.
By the end of the 1600’s the greatest part of the Western Cape was under Dutch control and most of the land had been assigned to white farmers as freehold. Eventually the impoverished Khoikhoi were forced to move north into less fertile and uninhabited parts of the area and joined forces with San groups. Together they attacked, conducted stock raids, assaulted, burgled, murdered and looted Dutch and other Khoi groups on the southern coast of the Cape. This was the only form of objection to slaves and white farmers available and the Khoikhoi who stayed at the Cape became farm labourers, especially shepherds, and were absorbed into the community. Eventually they were also employed as seasonal labour and cost farmers less as they were not held responsible for housing, clothing of medical needs of the labourers. The Khoikhoi did not adapt to the manual labour required by planting and harvesting as they were by nature stock farmers.
Khoikhoi attitudes towards the Dutch were friendly, initially as they saw the Europeans as a ready source for trade and bartered with them on a regular basis. When the Khoikhoi realised that the Europeans ambitions were actually for their land they changed their attitude and refused to barter and avoided contact with the whites.
On 8 April 1713 smallpox epidemic broke out among the slaves at the Cape Colony. It also spread to the Europeans and Khoikhoi, who had never been exposed to smallpox and had no natural resistance to the disease. Many of the survivors fled and came into conflict with other Khoikhoi groups. The Drakenstein area suffered the most as the epidemic continued for between three and four months. In 1755 and 1767 two more smallpox epidemics nearly eradicated all the Khoikhoi and those who survived became westernised, Christianised and learnt to speak Dutch, which later became Afrikaans, and dress in European clothes.