South Africa: A Narrative History

South Africa: A Narrative History

by Frank Welsh

In this epic narrative, Frank Welsh explores South Africa's eventful history through the clash and engagement of cultures — tribal, Afrikaner, and British, among them — that have made this nation not only the most powerful country on the African continent, but also the most controversial. See more details below


In this epic narrative, Frank Welsh explores South Africa's eventful history through the clash and engagement of cultures — tribal, Afrikaner, and British, among them — that have made this nation not only the most powerful country on the African continent, but also the most controversial.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Library Journal
With bold strokes that some may find candid but others coarse, Welsh sketches South Africa's history from the Portuguese landing in 1488 to the evolving nation's first democratic election in 1994. He follows the area's development from East Indies way-station to trading company site to settlement, through British expansion, the Boer War (1898-1902), and apartheid. Peoples and personalities lead his recap, from the original Bushman-Hottentots, advancing Bantu-speakers, and Afrikaners to English-speaking immigrants, including Indians and the racially mixed people called "coloured." Welsh emphasizes potential, writing of the area's peculiar historical isolation, its complexity of cultures, and its bountiful mineral wealth. The result reads with the verve that marked the English-born writer's A Borrowed Place: The History of Hong Kong (Kodansha, 1993), but it faces tough competition from works by Robert A. Ross, Timothy J. Keegan, and Leonard M. Thompson in the escalating contest to formulate a new history for a new South Africa.
—Thomas Davis, Arizona State University, Tempe
Welsh, an author and international businessman, draws on previously unpublished source materials to relate the story of South Africa beginning before the arrival of white settlers and ending at the finish of the Mandela presidency. He examines this history through the clash and engagement of cultures, including tribal, Afrikaner, and British, and analyzes South Africa's complex role in imperial history, as well as the international geopolitical impact of its history of apartheid. The book's readability make it useful both to students of African history and to more casual readers. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Stephen Taylor
Welsh maintains a clear narrative thread through this hugely complex story....Welsh hs grappled bravely with a vast and daunting subject...
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
This massive, thoroughly competent history of South Africa has everything except the final, galvanizing spark of life. As Welsh shows, from the first stirrings of recorded history, South Africans have demonstrated a perverse genius for making the precisely wrong choice at every important historical moment. Apartheid was only the latest and most egregious example of this historical ineptitude. Although it wasn't formally enunciated until the late 1940s, its roots go far back. From the very first encounters between exploring Portuguese and the native pastoralists and nomads, there was suspicion and hostility. Apart from scenery, some fresh water, and a few safe harbors, South Africa had little to recommend itself to early explorers. The Dutch eventually settled Cape Town merely as a provision stop for ships on the long voyage to the vastly more important Indies. But colonists-Dutch and French Huguenots at first, later English-continued to trickle in, and started spreading north and east. Violence and war were endemic, white on black, white on white, black on black. And it only got worse and worse, with escalations on both sides. With the discovery of diamonds and gold, South Africa was transformed from a backwater at the bottom of the world into a regional powerhouse, and whites became even more ossified in their attitudes. It was only with the end of apartheid and the transition to a full democracy that South Africans at last seemed to have escaped their fatal historical incompetence. Welsh (A Borrowed Place: The History of Hong Kong, 1993) has a great command of facts and details, and as a thorough and straightforward account of names, dates, and events, this is exceptional.But he has little feeling for the revealing details and telling anecdotes that illuminate the best histories.

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Chapter One

The Fairest Cape in the Whole Circumference of the Earth

The dogs bark just as they do in Portugal

On the third day of February 1488 herdsmen on the shore of what is now Mossel Bay underwent an extraordinary, unprecedented experience. The sea, that unpredictable and dangerous element, had produced huge objects, bigger by far than any man-made structure, from which human-like figures were emerging. Prudently, the herdsmen retired, driving their cattle away from the shore, but when it was seen that the strangers attempted nothing more threatening than filling containers with water, they advanced, beginning to throw stones. Some of these struck home, whereupon one of the sea-people snatched up a crossbow. It was the first encounter between Europeans and the people of what is now South Africa.

    The Africans on the shore were slight, yellow-skinned Khoikhoi – men of men, later known as Hottentots to the Europeans – who for centuries had inhabited the south-west corner of Africa, following the seasonal growth of pasture and becoming skilled in the management of their flocks. The sailors were the crews of Bartolomeu Dias, who had just doubled Cape Aguilas and crossed from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, the first men to do so. Unlike the western and eastern coasts of the continent, which had been in contact with the rest of the world, from China to Peru, the south-west had been isolated – from the sea by its lack of harbours, and from the north by the Namibian desert. Only along the eastern coast, many miles from Mossel Bay, were Khoikhoi in touch with other peoples, the bigger, darker, Bantu-speaking communities, themselves a long way south of the Limpopo and Great Zimbabwe, centres of trade and commerce with connections to Arabia, India and China. Europeans were latecomers on the African scene, but for the south theirs are the only written records; local African languages were given their written form by Europeans in the nineteenth century, and until recently even oral testimonies were recorded in European languages. Before such written evidence becomes available, South African history has to be based on archaeology, in the same way that the history of Celtic Britain depends on the records left by the Roman occupiers.

    After anchoring in Mossel Bay, which they named Bahia dos Vaqueros because of the herds of cattle, Dias' ships made their way some three hundred miles up the coast as far as Cape Padrone, on the eastern tip of Algoa Bay. There they landed and erected a stone pillar to commemorate their achievement before turning for home, satisfied that the way to the Indies was open. On the return passage Dias did at least sight the Cape of Good Hope, to which he gave the less attractive name of Cabo de Todos los Tormentos, the Cape of all Storms.

    Portuguese sailors had been nosing their way down the west coast of Africa for most of the century before they reached the southern extremity, initially encouraged by Dom Henrique, Iffante of Portugal, grandson of Edward III of England and known to the English as Prince Henry the Navigator. Both the Canary Islands and the Azores had already been discovered – in the sense of being shown on charts, although Arab geographers had earlier at least known of their existence – by about 1350, but the first Portuguese expedition was to Madeira, in 1420. Five years later the port of Ceuta, on the African coast opposite Gibraltar, was captured by the Portuguese. Gibraltar itself remained in Muslim hands, but the Moorish hold on southern Spain was slipping, and by the end of the century the passage from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic would be in Christian control. This was of particular importance since the rapid expansion of Turkish power threatened to disturb the land communications with the East. In 1396 the Turks had – with, it might be noted, the enthusiastic assistance of the Serbs – massacred a crusading army at Nicopolis on the Danube. Only Constantinople itself was holding out, and that precariously. Even if the Ottoman empire allowed the precious spices and silks from India and China to pass through to Western Europe, high duties were likely to be added to the already considerable costs of caravan transport. Since a small caravel with a twenty-man crew could carry the loads of a thousand camels, a sea route to India was an objective worth much effort.

    There was general acceptance that such a route existed. The maps of the period, which had not changed much since those of the Greek geographer Ptolemy of the second century AD, showed the East African coast in reasonable detail as far as the island of Zanzibar; the slightly earlier `Periplus of the Erythrean Sea' gave sailing instructions for that section of the coast, as well as for the coasts of Arabia and western India; later Arab and Chinese traders regularly visited this area. The western and central regions of the continent were much less well described, and maps were largely theoretical – entirely so south of the Bight of Benin – but a narrow and difficult strait around the southern coast was indicated.

    Other reasons than that of discovering a sea route to India existed for Prince Henry's endeavours. It was known that the barren coast of the Sahara, which stretched for a thousand miles south of the Pillars of Hercules, ended in a rich and populous land from which the Arabs exported gold and slaves to their cities on the North African coast. `Bilad Ghana' – the Land of Wealth – was watered by the Senegal River, which flowed into the Atlantic. If access to this country from the sea could be established, avoiding the long treks through the desert during which many slaves perished, this trade could be diverted at a stroke into Portuguese hands. For some years the explorers' efforts met with little success – the desert is not a propitious place for slave-raiders – and they had to content themselves with sealskins and oil, but by 1441 Prince Henry's ships had rounded Cape Blanco and reached a populous country. Under the banners of the Order of Christ, the Portuguese slave-hunters slaughtered all who resisted, and shipped the remainder, some 230 on the first expedition, back to Lisbon.

    In 1445 a fleet of twenty-six ships left Lagos to search for a steadier supply of slaves, and succeeded in reaching the Senegal River and Bilad Ghana itself, henceforward to be known as Guinea. Ivory, and an African lion, captured with some effort, joined the slaves as evidence of the new country's riches; the Iffante became Duke of Guinea, which together with the other discoveries, of the Azores, the Cape Verde islands and Madeira, was recruited into the recognized pattern of Christendom. While these acquisitions were being consolidated exploration progressed slowly. It was discovered more efficient, the market for slaves in Europe being limited, to trade those captured survivors of Portuguese expeditions with the established Arab slavers. The ivory and gold offered in exchange were easier to stow, while the Arabs were happy to avoid the often dangerous labour of catching the slaves. It was a pity that the blacks would be denied the benefits of Christianity, and forced to become followers of Mahomet; but business was business.

    After Prince Henry's death in 1460 his nephew, King Affonso V, subcontracted the task of exploring the African coast to Fernando Gomes, who covenanted to cover a hundred leagues of it each year. By the time of Affonso's death in 1481 Gomes' captains had made their way right round the Bight of Benin to prove that the coast then took a southerly direction.

    Confidence in the existence of the sea route to the Indies quickly developed, but it was left to King João II, one of the ablest and most personable of Renaissance monarchs, to establish its practicability. He began by commissioning Diego Cam, who reached the desolate coast of Namibia in 1485, recording his passage by placing padrones – stone pillars, two of which are preserved in the Lisbon museum – at his landing places. The following year Bartolemeu Dias, who had already made some voyages to Guinea, with fleets in which the young Genoese Cristofero Colombo also sailed, was given instructions that, come what may, he was to get around the extremity of the continent. Following in Cam's wake, his three small ships reached the latitude of twenty-six degrees twenty-eight minutes south, the present Luderitz Bay. There, impatient with contrary winds and the adverse currents found close inshore, Dias struck out due south into the open sea. After a fortnight the ships changed course to make for where the coast was expected to be. When after four hundred miles' sailing no land was sighted, Dias headed back north to make the landfall in Mossel Bay. It was clear that he had succeeded in sailing around the tip of Africa, and that the route to the Indies was open. On the expedition's return King João, delighted with the news, and with an eye to public relations, tactfully renamed the Cabo de Todos los Tormentos `Cabo de Boa Esperanza' – the Cape of Good Hope.

    Dias' discovery was not hailed elsewhere with particular enthusiasm, more interest being attracted by Colombo's proposals for an alternative route to the Indies, across the Atlantic. Much to his later chagrin King João rejected these ideas – as did Henry VII of England – and so had to accept Spanish dominance of the New World. Making the best of a bad business, the King deployed his considerable diplomatic skill to ensure that Portugal got her fair share of whatever new lands remained to be discovered. Pope Alexander VI Borgia attempted to settle things between Spain and Portugal in 1493, but King João was not satisfied with the adjudication; the Pope, being a keen family man, with the interests of his daughter Lucrezia and his son Cesare much at heart, had allowed himself to be too openly bribed by Spain. Eventually, in the Treaty of Tordesillas, King João got what he wanted: a boundary between Spain and Portugal running north to south at a distance of 370 leagues (about 1175 miles) west of the Azores, an arrangement that gave to Portugal all Africa, India and China, as well as the yet-to-be-identified country of Brazil. No other country was considered, the future imperial nations of Britain, Holland and France being too much occupied with their internal affairs at the time to consider risky explorations that would be likely to bring them into conflict with the Iberian countries.

    As a first step in exploiting Portugal's still theoretical new empire an expedition, under Vasco da Gama, was despatched to secure the new route round Africa and to arrange matters in India. Da Gama was instructed to sail direct for the Cape of Good Hope, rather than creeping around the coast as had his predecessors, and then to cross the Indian Ocean for the Malabar coast, a voyage far exceeding in distance and danger those of Colombo. That historic passage across the Atlantic had been some 2,600 miles, accomplished in thirty-six days, but when, on 4 November 1497, da Gama made his landfall in St Helena Bay, seventy miles north of the future Cape Town, it was after ninety-three days and a distance of 3,770 miles out of sight of land. There he found more Khoikhoi, `swarthy' men who `eat only sea-wolves and whales', whose `arms are staff of wild olives tipped with fire-hardened horns', and whose dogs barked exactly as did those in Portugal. Eight days were spent there, tolerably pleasantly, with tentative efforts made to establish contact with the inhabitants, before da Gama and his men rounded the Cape to Mossel Bay, where they, unlike Dias' company, and the first Europeans to do so, fraternized with the natives of South Africa. First impressions were favourable, and led to the Portuguese being supplied with sheep and cattle, and to an impromptu concert, the Africans performing on flutes, `harmonizing together very well for blacks from whom music is not to be expected', the Portuguese on trumpets. Even da Gama himself joined in the dancing. A fat ox was bought and all appeared tranquil, but before the Europeans left there were disagreements. A cannon was discharged and in retaliation the padrone that had been erected was knocked down.

    Da Gama's ships continued their voyage, having doubled the Cape and noting a `very large bay' – False Bay – just to the east. Six months later they arrived off Calicut, on the western coast of India; they had succeeded where Colombo had failed, in proving that a veritable sea route from Europe to the Indies existed.

    Such unprecedented voyages were made possible by a combination of new and revived technologies. By the beginning of the fifteenth century two distinct European ship types had emerged – the Atlantic coast cog, or round ship, and the Mediterranean galley. Neither of these was well suited to ocean voyages. The Mediterranean carrying trade, which had flourished for two thousand years, together with its more recent overspill into the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea, had remained an affair of short coastal stages. The shallow-draught galleys, lightly built and sparred, rendered highly manoeuvrable by powerful oar systems, could rapidly make port when the weather demanded, but could never cope with foul weather far from any safe haven.

    Foul weather was a continuous hazard for North Sea, English Channel and Biscay mariners, who carried wines from Bordeaux, wool from East Anglia, building materials from Normandy, herrings from the Netherlands, and pilgrims from everywhere in their sturdy ships. Cogs were simply rigged with single square sails on one or more masts, deep-hulled and solidly built, well able to withstand rough seas, but unhandy and restricted in their ability to sail against contrary winds. This was a weighty disadvantage to those setting off into unknown waters; the fine favourable breezes that wafted the sailor on his outward voyage would, unless he could make some headway against them, effectively prevent him from reaching home again.

    Some time about the end of the fourteenth century a ship type emerged that enabled this to be done. The caravel, which served all the early Iberian explorers, was a small vessel, with the deep hull, short masts and transom stern of the North Sea ships, but with a modified Mediterranean lateen rig. This combination, as well as being eminently seaworthy, allowed some modest progression into the direction from which the wind blew, and gave mariners the comfort of knowing that a safe passage home might be achieved.

    Added to this, for the first time navigators were able to be tolerably sure of where they were at any given time, and to produce reliable maps of their journeys. Medieval Arab and Jewish scientists had already produced navigational instruments, the astrolabe and cross-staff being the most important. With these, adapted for use at sea, together with the magnetic compass, in use since the beginning of the fourteenth century, long ocean voyages, and the accurate delineation of newly discovered territories, became feasible.

    These techniques were little different from those which had been employed by Chinese mariners for many centuries. The Chinese who visited East Africa at the same time that the Portuguese were feeling their way down the west coast did so in ships at least as well equipped and much larger than those of the Europeans; and the Arab dhows that made the passages to India and even as far as the South China Sea were able, seaworthy vessels. But the caravels and their successors, the carracks, had one decisive advantage, which goes far to explain how Europeans were able to establish extensive empires. The strong and deep hulls of their ships were able to accommodate powerful batteries of cannon: the Regent, built for Henry VII of England in 1495, mounted 225 guns. Against the forces of the great Ottoman, Moghul and Chinese empires European nations could deploy only handfuls of soldiers, but with the naval power at their disposal they could defend any trading posts they might be able to establish in the Indies, and control all maritime trade routes.

    It was to secure such bases, and to develop the trade that might flow through them, that was the object of da Gama's voyage, and all subsequent expeditions for a century and a half. There seemed nothing on the coast of southern Africa, beyond the most basic of supplies, to warrant much interest, whereas within twenty years of da Gama's first voyage a Portuguese commercial empire, governed from Goa by a succession of viceroys, the first of whom was da Gama himself, had established trading stations from Mozambique to Macao, whence the caravels freighted pepper, spices, silks, gold and precious stones home to Lisbon. The stream of wealth coming across the Atlantic to Spain was matched, for the time being, by a similar flow around the Cape of Good Hope to Portugal.

    Lines of communication were secured by new fortified posts on the Angolan coast, centred on São Paolo de Luanda; on the eastern coast of Mozambique the existing Arab settlements were taken over by the Portuguese. In this way more than two thousand miles of African coast, together with a vast expanse of hinterland, was claimed for Portuguese colonies, and so remained for nearly five centuries, although Portugal was never in a position to control more than a few trading stations and some routes to the interior. Only the possibility of picking up a few slaves attracted the venturers to southern Africa. The development of the sugar industry in Madeira, and later the need for labour in Iberian America, where the natives were proving unsatisfactory workers and dying off in embarrassing quantities – fifteen million of them in the first twenty years, the missionary Father las Casas estimated – had given a new stimulus to the trade. Slaves in quantity were available through the well-established markets on the West Coast, where Arab traders had for centuries cooperated with local rulers to supply North African demand, but prices were high. If it were possible to capture enough of the southern Africans undamaged, the middlemen could be cut out and profit margins multiplied.

    But the southern coast of Africa proved both a disappointing source of slaves and a highly dangerous region, a fact emphasized when, in 1510, a strong raiding party under the leadership of Bernardo d'Almeida, on his way to assume the viceroyship of the Indies at Goa, landed at the Cape. Trouble had been experienced there seven years previously, when one Antonio de Saldanha having landed – by mistake – in the bay, for many years after known as Saldanha Bay, found a good supply of fresh water, only to be ambushed by some two hundred men. His party escaped with only minor injuries, but d'Almeida was less fortunate, encountering fierce resistance in an unexpected form. One of the crew described their reception. The natives,

having called their cattle, which are accustomed to this form of warfare, began to whistle to them and to make signs by which to guide them, so that forming into a squadron, and sheltered by the cattle, they attacked our men with wooden darts hardened by fire. Some fell wounded and were trodden down by the cattle, and as most were without shields, their only weapons being lances and swords, in this kind of warfare they could not do much damage to the negroes, who from among their cattle hurled their weapons against our men, which had immediate effect.

    Viceroy d'Almeida and no fewer than fifty of his men were killed in this battle, which was enough to discourage others from exploiting the inhabitants of the Cape. The English abstained, being more attracted by the possibility of a north-west passage around the coasts of Newfoundland and Canada, as had first been suggested by one Robert Thorne, a merchant living in Seville, where he had been in a position to receive first-hand accounts of d'Almeida's fate. Francis Drake passed the Cape in 1580, during his circumnavigation, describing it as `a most stately thing, and the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth'. But it was not until 1591, nearly a century after the first Portuguese landings, that the British arrived at Table Bay. They were more successful, and perhaps more diplomatic, than their Portuguese predecessors. Under the command of George Raymond and James Lancaster, Penelope, Merchant Royal and Edward Bonaventure first called at Saldanha, where they found `certaine Blacke Savages very brutish, whiche would not stay'. They managed to lay hands on one such, `a Negro, whom we compelled to march into the country with us' in search of cattle. Finding none, the sailors 'let the Negro go with some trifles. Within eight dayes after, he, with some thirty or forty other Negros, brought us downe some forty bullocks and oxen ... very large and well-fleshed, but not fat,' which were duly paid for.

    Four years later the first Dutch squadron appeared, under Cornelis de Houtman, doubling the Cape and landing a couple of days' sail further along the coast. There they found no difficulty in persuading the natives to sell `fine oxen like those of Spain; large, fine and tasty sheep such as I have never eaten elsewhere' in exchange for iron and copper; `each wanted to be the first to trade, giving two fine oxen and three sheep for a 75 pound iron rod broken into five parts' – but the Khoikhoi spurned such trinkets as mirrors and bells in favour of metal and strong drink.

    Thereafter the Cape became a favourite calling place for northern European ships, mainly British and Dutch, but also French and Danish, intent on breaking into the Portuguese monopoly of trade with the Far East. In 1601, on a second voyage to the Indies, but this time with the authority of the newly formed Honorable East India Company (HEIC) behind him, James Lancaster called once more at Table Bay. Again he was able to buy fresh meat, conversing with the `Countrey people' in the `Cartels Language (which was never changed at the confusion of Babell), which was Moath for Oxen and Kine, and Baa for Sheepe'. Sir Thomas Roe, a great explorer, stopped at the Cape in 1615 on his way to the court of the Emperor Jehangir; he was also conveying several `Japanzas' back to their native land. In 1619 another East India Company commander, Andrew Shilling, formally took possession of the Table Bay, building `King James His Mount' and leaving a small flag with `the natives, which they carefully kept'. Shilling was killed later in the voyage and the title, such as it was, allowed to lapse.

    At that time the English and Dutch were officially allies, and the Admiral of the Dutch fleet then lying in the bay, `Nicolas van Baccum a gentleman by report that lived 7 yeares in Oxford', was able to agree Shilling's annexation. It would have been a meaningless acquisition, since Britain was at that time unable to assert much power in the Indies, where in 1623 the Dutch had underlined their hegemony there by executing a number of English merchants who had set up a competitive enterprise at Amboina; the English government agreed a truce, but popular feeling ran high and was waiting for the moment of revenge. This was many years coming – only in the 1650s did Cromwell's navy begin to make English sea-power felt – and in the meantime the newly established United Provinces of the Netherlands was unchallenged as the principal heir to the Portuguese trading empire in the East.

    This collection of fiercely independent and particularist towns and provinces had been subjected to twenty years of oppression by their nominal overlord, the King of Spain. Philip II, who would have made a competent office manager had it not been for his shiftiness, but was a miserable failure as a monarch, had attempted to force his northern possessions back into the fold of Roman Catholicism. Although it was to be another sixty years before the attempt was finally abandoned, by 1585 Spanish persecution had forged an unruly and precarious alliance of seven of the fifteen provinces into a nation. The remaining southern states, approximating to the present-day Belgium, Luxembourg and French Flanders, remained Catholic and subjected, but the northern provinces – those now forming the Kingdom of the Netherlands, popularly known, then as now, by the name of its largest constituent, Holland – developed into an enthusiastically Protestant and mercantile nation.

    The war of independence on land was protracted and costly, but from the outset the Dutch seized the initiative at sea. That dubious collection of patriots and pirates the 'Sea Beggars' defied the mighty Spanish forces, and after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 the Dutch were able to build a battle fleet. While the land war against Spain continued its damaging course the new Dutch squadrons, with astonishing rapidity, became capable of carrying the war into Spain itself; the battle of Gibraltar in 1607 left the Spanish fleet annihilated in its own harbour by the Dutch Admiral Heemskerk.

    Behind such a shield Dutch commerce expanded even under the constraints imposed by war. The previous centre of trade, Antwerp, had been left impoverished in the rump of the Spanish Netherlands. From the new commercial capital, Amsterdam, the largest carrying trade in the world developed. Initially this was to the Baltic – as early as 1601 over eight hundred vessels left Amsterdam within the space of three days – with Russian corn and Scandinavian timber, hemp and tar being carried south, but it was soon extended to the Mediterranean, previously dominated by the Genoese and Venetians; a Dutch consulate was established in Constantinople, and a Directorate of Mediterranean Trade regulated the merchants. Commercial organization on an unprecedented scale was initiated; Amsterdam merchants not only made a market in all these commodities, but perfected banking and exchange services that served not only Dutch trade, and soon replaced the Hanseatic and Lombard cities as bankers to Europe.

The other Honorable Company

Merging the existing provincial companies which had pioneered the first voyages to the East Indies into an effective single unit was a complicated financial exercise. Amsterdam, Zeeland and Delft had formed locally financed corporations in the 1590s, and it was only after many months of patient negotiation under the auspices of the most influential architect of Dutch independence, the great Jan van Oldebarnveldt, that these were persuaded to unite, and offer shares to the other provinces. When the Dutch East India Company, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) was formed in 1601 the lion's share naturally fell to Amsterdam – 3,675,00 guilders of the starting capital of 6,440,200 guilders; Zeeland, always the second most important province, subscribed just under half as much. Seats on the board of directors were allotted proportionately; the `Heeren majores in patria,' commonly known as the Heeren XVII, divided themselves as to eight from Amsterdam and four from Zeeland, the remaining five members being shared by the smaller provinces. As a sweetener these retained their original company structure by the creation of provincial chambers within the VOC, each with some independent powers, which were able to mount their own ventures to the East.

    Day-to-day control was entrusted to a staff headed by a senior official, the First Advocate, but final power remained firmly in the hands of the Heeren XVII, a self-perpetuating oligarchy, nominated from the richest merchants of the community, who were inevitably also influential in the direction of national politics. Since the objects of directors and shareholders were identical – to maximize profitability and to secure dividends – there was rarely any conflict between them. The shareholders were drawn, for the most part, from the prosperous burghers, and displayed a keen interest in the dividends and capital growth of their holdings, which were dealt on the new Amsterdam bourse.

    Within three years of its foundation the VOC had despatched fleets to the Indian Ocean, turfing out the Portuguese – much enfeebled since the annexation of Portugal by Spain in 1580 – where this was feasible, negotiating where necessary, and establishing the infrastructure of a trade that more than matched the Iberian commerce with the Americas. European appetites were stimulated by new products: coffee, from the Dutch factory at Mocha, on the tip of the Arabian peninsula; tea, from Formosa, where a fort was built in 1624. An inter-Indies trade between the Dutch stations in Arabia, India, Ceylon, the Indonesian archipelago, China and even Japan developed to rival that between the East and Europe, quickly superseding the previous Portuguese monopoly.

    The direction of such an enterprise, whose activities were separated from the head office by thousands of miles and many months of difficult voyaging, inevitably had to be delegated. From 1609 a capital, appropriately named Batavia (the Batavi being the inhabitants of Holland in Roman times), was established on the site of the present Djakarta, and a Governor General of the VOC appointed there. This official, nominated for five years by the Heeren XVII, was accorded the widest powers: to make alliances and treaties, erect forts and establish trading posts, and to appoint subordinate governors.

    Competition from the English East India company, established a few months before the VOC, was restricted to the mainland of India after the 1623 `massacre' of the English at Amboina, but for the moment British and Dutch companies managed an ungracious cohabitation in the Indian Ocean, sharing at least some of the facilities. Of these one, of minor importance, was access to Table Bay.

    Many ships chose not to stop there, finding St Helena or Mauritius, both Dutch since the second decade of the century, more convenient. There were considerable disadvantages to the Cape. Outward-bound fleets preferred to steer clear of Africa, keeping well out in the Atlantic and avoiding the adverse offshore currents. For several months of the year the harbour at Table Bay was exposed to dangerous storms, and losses of ships at anchor were not infrequent. Nevertheless the bay had its uses, for the English in particular, as a watering place and a post office, where mail was left to be picked up by ships sailing in the opposite direction.

    Patching up relations after Amboina, the Dutch agreed that access to Table Bay should be shared between ships of both nations. This arrangement was not without dissension: the English claimed that the Dutch abused the natives, making them reluctant to supply visitors; the Dutch retorted by flying English colours, ensuring that any recriminations were transferred. As the trade developed the terse logs of sea captains were supplemented by descriptions of more erudite travellers. Young Thomas Herbert was only twenty-one when he visited the Cape in 1627, but had already attended both Oxford and Cambridge universities, and left an account copiously annotated and with many quotations from the classics; Peter Mundy, one of the best-travelled men of his time – he reckoned that he had covered more than a hundred thousand miles by sea and land, and had become the first Englishman to sight what was to be the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong – made sketches of the bay, and calculated with tolerable accuracy the height of Table Mountain.

    Travellers such as these began to take a more informed interest in the people they encountered, and to the offhand descriptions afforded by the seafarers added their own observations. It was agreed that the Cape men were short, agile, well-formed and active; civil enough when treated fairly, although expert at picking and stealing. All newcomers admired their ability as cattlemen, in breeding fine animals, maintaining them in condition, and controlling their movements by whistling – a skill that had helped in the defeat of d'Almeida's men. Their personal habits were, however, deplored; a fashion of covering themselves so thickly in animal fat that it was possible to engrave patterns in the grease, and garlanding their limbs with entrails, rendered them unpleasant close companions.

    Sir Thomas Smythe (or Smith), first Governor of the Honorable East India Company, was responsible for the appearance of the first indigenous South African in historical records. In the year 1613 one `Coree' was kidnapped from the Cape by a homeward-bound Indiaman (Hector, Captain Towerson) and carried back to London. There, although lodged in Sir Thomas's own house, cherished and adorned with a suit of brazen armour, he was unhappy: `for when he had learned a little of our language he would daily lie upon the ground and cry very often thus in broken English, "Coree go home, Souldania go, home go.'"

    Coree was duly returned, laden with `tinkerlie treasure'; `he had no sooner set footing on his own shore, but presently he threw away his cloathes, his linen, with all other covering, and got his sheepskins upon his back.' Once home Coree took some pride in his adventure, and taught his people to chant `Sir Thomas Smithe English Shippes,' which they did `with great glorye'. Later visitors found Coree usually helpful, willing to provide cattle and sheep, but his residence in England had taught him something of European values, and he insisted on proper prices for his beasts, which particularly annoyed the Dutch. Misunderstandings sometimes occurred, usually because the seamen, knowing nothing of African society, assumed that Coree had greater powers than he in fact possessed.

    With Coree's help communications were established, in a sort of English, Europeans finding it impossible to master the native language, a complex affair of grunts and palatal clicks often likened to turkeys gobbling or, according to one French observer, as though `they fart with their tongues in their mouths'. In an attempt to describe it the traders lit on the onomatopoeic `Hottentot', which thereafter served as a name for the native herds-people. Watching each other with wary reserve, the visitors and inhabitants contrived, on the whole, to profit from their intercourse; as long, that is, as the visitors remained only transient.

Coree's people

The London to which Coree was taken was the city of Rebecca Rolfe, better known as the Princess Pocahontas, and Shakespeare's Caliban. Savages, especially well-mannered ones, were fashionable objects of friendly curiosity. Seafarers visiting the Cape, being dependent upon the goodwill of the inhabitants, continued friendly relations, but without showing much curiosity as to how the people there lived. No one strayed far from the beach, and it was not until the first settlers arrived that much discord arose. Even then relations remained superficial, as were the travellers' descriptions of the natives. Not until the end of the eighteenth century, when methodical anthropological studies began, did the Cape people begin to be understood; and by then their society had been damaged beyond repair.

    Coree's people were one of the many small Khoikhoi communities. They possessed little more than stone-age technology, but were most skilful cattle-breeders, cherishing the beasts which formed the centre of their social activities. Their command over cattle was extraordinary: riding them was commonplace, the beasts could be trained for warfare, and at night they would lay themselves down in the centre of the camp. Probably originating further north, the Khoikhoi had over the centuries drifted south-west to what is now Namibia and the Western Cape in search of pasture, moving in regular patterns within specific territories. Like most nomadic peoples the Khoikhoi were self-limiting in numbers: in Coree's time probably fewer than 100,000 spread over a territory the size of France or Texas. Of this region they were the undisputed masters, the nearest similar communities being the Bantu-speaking blacks five hundred miles east of Table Bay.

    On the fringes of Khoikhoi territory, by the coast and in the arid semi- desert the Bushmen – 'San' to the Khoikhoi, and to many later writers – led an even more scattered existence. The distinction between the two peoples is possibly artificial, relating more to their modes of life than to any more fundamental difference. Khoikhoi were essentially pastoralists, cultivating nothing except the narcotic dagga, while Bushmen were hunter- gatherers, possessing an intimate knowledge of the land, the location of water and the edible plants – veldkos – found even in the desert. Using carefully constructed poisoned arrows, the heads of which detached themselves in the animals' flesh, Bushmen were expert in the pursuit of game, even the largest. Since under the head of game the Bushmen sometimes classed Khoikhoi cattle, relations between the two groups were cool. Both used similar languages, and individuals could pass reasonably easily between groups: Khoikhoi who had lost their cattle might revert to the life of hunter-gatherers.

    Neither Khoikhoi nor San were adept at the arts of metal working, pottery or weaving, relying wherever possible on trading with more technically advanced black communities, but they contrived an existence much less unpleasant than that imagined by Thomas Hobbes as being the life of primitive man – 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'. Both frequently appeared to attain a healthy old age, in comparison to European contemporaries; game, fruit, edible plants and roots were plentiful, and Khoikhoi had a good supply of milk and occasional meat. Strife, usually arising from disputes over cattle, was in the nature of an angry confrontation rather than a battle, and was rarely dangerous. Khoikhoi shelters were simple - those of the Bushmen being nothing more than windbreaks - but adequate for the climate, as was their simple clothing. Bushman rock paintings, forming a chronicle of that people's life from the Stone Age to the coming of the white man with his ships and guns, are magnificent artistic achievements by any standards. Internal strife was rare, and external enemies unknown. All who came across Khoikhoi were impressed by their good nature and high spirits, and by their social life. Olfert Dapper, who never visited Africa but whose sources were reliable, commented: 'Dull-witted, dirty and coarse as these people are, they yet seem to preserve the law of nations as inviolate... as it is among the most polished nations of Europe ... in generosity and loyalty to those nearest them, they appear to shame the Dutch.' Above all, both groups had a vital and rich spiritual existence, with regular ceremonies and festivals. But it was a fragile existence, in that each band had to be able to range freely over a territory extensive enough to provide grazing, game and foodstuffs, and to have access to the vital supplies of water. Conditions near the Cape were good, and the Cape Khoikhoi were numerous and cohesive, but in less favoured areas natural catastrophes or raids could have more serious consequences.

    Early travellers were struck by the dissimilarities between Khoi-San and the Negroes they had met further up the coast. Khoi-San were 'yellowish in colour, like mulattos or yellowish Javanese', or 'not darker than an ordinarily white Mestiso'. Laurens van der Post, who in the early years of the twentieth century had a San nurse, described her as 'apricot' complexioned. Bushmen-San were generally slighter than Khoikhoi, well under five feet tall on average, with very small hands and feet. But their most interesting peculiarities, which all travellers noted with excited curiosity, were that not only were Khoikhoi and San possessed of remarkably protruding buttocks, but the female genitalia were particularly interesting. The first Englishman to record his impressions of South Africa was the Revd. Patrick Copland, in 1611. He found the people 'loving, afraid at first by reason of the unkindnesse of the Dutch' (who plundered their cattle), but later 'more kind'. The women 'were shame-faced at first; but at our returne homewards they would lift up their Rat-skinnes and shew their privities'. Hottentot anatomy continued to captivate travellers; examining the extraordinary elongated labia of Khoi-San women - a small fee payable in tobacco was exacted – became a recognized diversion, but the modest Francis Galton, two and a half centuries after Copland, had resort to measuring Khoikhoi ladies with a sextant.

    As in other primitive pastoral communities – the highlands of Scotland, for example – units were those of the extended family. Patrilineal clans were grouped into tribes, the chief of which held a real but uncertain authority, dependent upon his own abilities and character. Within a group justice was administered by communal decisions, under the presidency of the accepted headman, but with the permanent possibility of a disgruntled individual being able to pick up his weapons and walk off elsewhere, into the unlimited spaces of Africa, where he would somewhere find a welcome. On the eastern borders this might well be among the black communities, who accepted individual Khoikhoi on equal terms, intermarrying freely. This liberty of movement, unequalled in the more crowded conditions of Europe, has continued to influence African history. The voortrekkers who later moved off hundreds of miles into the veld to escape the annoying effects of a methodical British liberalism were following an ancient African tradition, and in fact were guided and protected on their journey by many of the descendants of the Khoikhoi and San.

    This loosely organized, sparse and open Khoi-San society was open to assimilation much more readily than would have been the black communities found elsewhere in Africa. Had the first European settlers in the south been faced with powerful tribes, with a sense of specific identity amounting to something like nationalism, and under strong leadership, the most likely outcome would have been conquest, as in Ashante, or a system of treaties backed by the threat of coercion, as in Nigeria. As it was, the Dutch at the Cape were able to settle into a form of symbiosis with the Khoikhoi and even, for a century or so, with the annoyingly independent Bushmen.

    Early European settlers, finding themselves in a strange and sometimes terrifying country, and often possessing few essential survival skills, learned much from the San hunters, and the Khoikhoi skills in managing oxen were transmitted to the Trekboers, those nineteenth-century heroes of Afrikanerdom. This Khoi-San heritage was not much acknowledged, nor was their intermarriage with the Europeans, contributing to the energetic people variously called Bastaards, Griquas or Oorlams, who later fought alongside their Boer cousins in wresting the land from the black nations, and got little credit for so doing.

    European attitudes to African and other non-European societies have undergone a number of changes in the last five centuries. The first, Portuguese, explorers of Africa viewed the natives they discovered either as potential merchandise or – often indeed as well as – benighted souls to be saved. They displayed little of the anthropological curiosity that was manifested by the second wave, those Dutch and Germans who settled in the Cape after 1652. Protestant enthusiasm for soul-saving was at the time not great, and more skilled slaves were available from the Dutch possessions in the East Indies; but a new interest in scientific matters, the 'Great Instauration' of new learning, brought with it more methodical observers, whose accounts form the first reliable historical evidence. A century later another shift in European perceptions of other cultures emerged, inspired by Rousseau and popularized by such romantic writers as Chateaubriand, with his idealized portrait of American Indians; the idea of the 'noble savage', unspoilt by corrupt civilizations, was widespread. Such illusions were not shared by the first British-based missionaries, who arrived in South Africa at the end of the eighteenth century; these tough-minded and realistic apostles accepted their black brothers with all their weaknesses, real and apparent, and set about improving their material as well as their spiritual lives. And in the latest shift, a combination of general distaste at twentieth-century South African policies and a more informed appreciation of different cultures has led to the present atmosphere of embarrassed diffidence or angry recrimination in which any discussion of race is difficult.

    Parallel to these changes in sensibility were alterations in the balance of power between colonists and natives. For many years different communities contrived to co-exist a good deal more comfortably than did their contemporaries in North America or Europe. Only after the absorption of the Cape into the British Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century did the deployment of power decisively shift the advantage to the white man. A century of increasingly violent struggles ended with white supremacy being accepted, with greater or lesser – generally much lesser – enthusiasm. Another century of exploitation and increasing repression, tempered by some efforts towards black political advancement and education, was accompanied by the conflict between British and Boer traditions and the emergence of an effective opposition to white domination.

    It was some time after the first use of Table Bay as a watering place and post office before Europeans thought of actually living in South Africa. For more than half a century the pattern of seasonal visits by a few ships, resting the crews, watering, bartering for livestock, and then continuing their voyage, continued. No European attempted a settlement there; at least not voluntarily. A Portuguese crew was wrecked in 1630, and contrived to pass some months in Table Bay without undue suffering, maintaining friendly relations with the natives, but left no detailed account of their experiences. 'Imprudent bumptiousness' by the skipper was blamed for the wreck of the VOC ship Mauritius Eiland in 1644, but the crew were speedily relieved by the rest of the outward-bound Dutch fleet. It was therefore not until 1647, after the wreck of the East Indiaman Haarlem, whose crew were obliged to spend a year on shore, that Europeans became aware of the potentialities of the Cape.

    Thomas Aldworth, the HEIC factor at Surat, made the first suggestion of establishing a European settlement in South Africa. Writing to Sir Thomas Smythe in 1611, Aldworth described the Cape with enthusiasm; he had never in his life seen a better country, with 'very courteous and tractable folk'. Just the place, he considered, to receive a hundred convicts each year, to be allowed to prosper or perish. After due consideration Smythe agreed, but only ten convicts were placed at the Cape, provided with 'half a pecke of turnopp seedes with others & a spade to digg the grounde' under the leadership of one James Crosse, an unsuccessful highwayman. The venture was a complete failure. The terrified convicts sought shelter from the alarming natives on the stony and waterless Robben Island, where they eked out a miserable existence until visiting ships took pity on them. Three made their way back to England, where, directly on landing, they stole a purse. Incompetents that they were, their crime was immediately discovered, and within hours they found themselves on the gallows.

    Smythe tried once more, but the second batch of prisoners, once arrived in Table Bay, begged the captain of their ship to hang them then and there, rather than abandoning them to the same fate as their predecessors. Unable to oblige, the captain left them on shore, whence, however, they were rescued only a few days later by another English ship.

    It fell rather to the Dutch to establish the first European settlement, although as a victualling station and trading post rather than a colony, and so to begin the methodical recording of South African history.

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