RICHMOND, VA—The Dutch East India Company established a small settlement at what is now Cape Town in 1652. The initial purpose of the settlement was to provide a rest stop and supply station for trading vessels making the long journey from Europe, around the cape of southern Africa, and on to India and other points eastward.
Slavery (of Africans, but also of some Asians) was a feature of the new colony almost from day one, as was the process of subjugating the local indigenous population. Academic historians commonly refer to the events of the 17th century and 18th century in South Africa as the “white invasion” or “conquest.” The first violent conflicts between the Dutch community and natives dates from 1659; over the next 50 years, the settlers took advantage of superior weaponry to gradually gain control of more land and more resources (livestock) formerly controlled or occupied by native Africans. A devastating small pox outbreak in the late 17th century further decimated the Khoikhoi (“Hottentot”) native population.
Also significant for South Africa’s subsequent history is the fact that the white colonial settlement had sharp “gradations of status and wealth,” as historian Leonard Thompson puts it. Colony administrators and a few wealthy farmers controlled land and resources, but many other white settlers were landless. This was the strata from which the first “trekkers” emerged—those white colonialists who over the course of the 18th century branched out from the Cape Town base and began expanding white presence in southern Africa, to the north and the east.
The trekkers had only limited contact with Dutch colonial culture during this process. Government beyond the Cape Town region was extremely limited, and the trekkers in effect made their own laws, particularly in dealing with native Africans. Over much of the 18th century, there were no formal schools for these settlers, and little organized religion; contact with the home colony base consisted of long, arduous trade trips. These colonialists of Dutch descent had an increasingly marginal relationship with Cape Town, much less Holland itself and the intellectual and political developments of 18th-century Europe.
Many trekkers owned slaves, and the trekkers formed “commando” units for military defense—and aggression—against native Africans. Periodic warfare with the Xhosa was a fact of life in the late 18th century, and the trekkers believed they received inadequate support from Cape Town. It was common practice among the trekkers to kill all adults in conflicts with hunter-gatherers and other natives, while keeping the children to use as laborers. This is not to say that the trekkers lived luxuriously, in the style of 19th-century plantation owners in the American South—indeed, they were almost all simply eking out a subsistence existence.
Meanwhile, back in Cape Town, a slave society continued to develop—almost two-thirds of Cape Town residents in 1795 were slaves. Thompson and other historians judge slavery in the Cape in this period to be more brutal than that prevailing in North America at the time.
These events were probably almost entirely unknown to leaders in Holland in the late 18th century, let alone the average Dutch person—although they were in many ways a predictable consequence of both the colonial impulse and the European ideologies of racism then prevailing. But unlike in the case of the American colonies and England, the Cape settlement was not a major political topic or concern for Holland over this time period. Most Europeans still regarded the settlement as a pit stop. Indeed, it is estimated that by 1793, the colony as a whole (including trekkers) totaled just 15,000 whites.
In 1795, England took control of the colony for the first time, a move made permanent in 1806. English settlers in substantial numbers first entered South African in 1820s as part of a government program to relieve poverty at home. British colonial rule was often just as brutal towards native Africans as the Dutch had been, especially in military conflicts. But humanitarian pressure and changing views on slavery led to legislation establishing legal rights and equality before the law for the Khoikhoi in the Cape colony in 1828, with all slaves to be fully freed by 1838.
These changes were not well-received by the Dutch-speaking colonists, who were also disappointed at Britain’s refusal to annex more land and what they felt was a low rate of compensation paid to former slave owners.
Resentment against English rule led some colonists of Dutch descent to embark on the “Great Trek” of the 1820s and 30s—a sustained effort, much larger in scale than the 18th-century trek, to achieve both white control over African land and autonomy from the English. In this process, the trekkers began forging a new, distinct national and cultural identity, distinct from the Dutch and in opposition both to indigenous Africans and the English—Afrikaner nationalism. The building blocks of this identity were a new and distinct language (Afrikaans) and much myth-making regarding the exploits of the trekkers. Central among those exploits were brutal battles with the Zulus and other groups, such as an 1838 battle that killed 3,000 Zulus in a single day.
The original trekkers had set out with the stated aim of preserving “proper relations between master and servant.” As Thompson puts it, the aim was to “recreate the social and economic structure of the Cape colony,” one based on the subordination of nonwhites as laborers for whites. The Afrikaners succeeded in this aim. When the discovery of diamonds and gold in the southern African interior in the late 19th century began transforming the country economically, the system of racial segregation was well-entrenched, and the mines were organized on the same principle. Native Africans were recruited to work in the mines at low pay, segregated from whites and separated from women, and subjected to body parts searches to prevent any theft of diamonds.
Ongoing conflict between the English and the Afrikaners in the region led to the South African War (Boer War) at the end of the turn of the 20th century, which I will not detail here. Suffice it to say that while the British succeeded in their aims of establishing unitary rule through southern Africa, they did not come close to succeeding in the stated goal of destroying Afrkaner nationalism—indeed, the war strengthened Afrikaner ethnic identity. The constitution sent to Parliament (and there approved) establishing modern South Africa in 1910 enshrined racial distinctions, and paved the way for white rule in governments predominated by Afrikaner leaders
The key point is there is direct historic continuity between the original Dutch settlements and the emergence of an Afrikaner national identity predicated on racial domination, and the subsequent adoption of the policies and ideologies of Apartheid.
Why does any of this matter, as the world awaits Holland’s attempt to win a World Cup for the very first time on Sunday against Spain? Let me specify two ways I don’t think it matters. First, I don’t think history should make anyone root against Holland on Sunday. Indeed, more recently Holland was a major center of anti-apartheid activism, beginning in the mid-1950s; some of this history is detailed here. Second, the point is not to condemn the present Dutch nation for the sins of the past, as if these were unique world historical events. The history of almost all powerful nations contain major crimes and injustices (including of course the United States).
Instead, I want to suggest three things. First, this history matters for its own sake—forgetting history is rarely a good idea.
Second, knowing this history helps make sense of the continued inequalities and under-development that haunt sub-Saharan Africa.
Third, placing this history front and center reminds those of us in the developed world, especially those of us of European descent, of both our historic linkages to colonial oppression and our ongoing collective responsibility—here and now— to address the devastating legacies of that oppression.
Sources: Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa (Yale, 2001); Nigel Worden, The Making of Modern South Africa (Blackwell, 2007).