Two Colonizers in South Africa: The British vs. The Dutch

Colonialism in South Africa went through more than one period, involving the might of two great European powers.

Oct 4, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

british vs dutch colonizers south africa


Colonialism in South Africa went through several major periods, and it wasn’t limited to a single colonial power. Two European nations vied for control, first the Dutch and then the British.


Their actions left an indelible mark on the land that became South Africa, leaving their legacy in policies, architecture, religion, languages, and the genetic makeup of the people who call South Africa home.


This is the story of what the Dutch and the British did, what they did differently, and when they fought.


The Dutch Arrive

jan van riebeeck
Portrait of Jan van Riebeeck (1619-77). Commander of the Cape of Good Hope and of Malacca and Secretary of the High Government of Batavia, anonymous, c. 1660, via the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


The European foothold in South Africa began with the arrival of the Dutch in 1652. Under the leadership of Jan van Riebeeck of the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), his orders were to build a replenishment station which included the construction of a fort. Thus, Cape Town was founded – South Africa’s oldest city. The reason for its founding is that it occupied a vital halfway point between Europe and the East Indies where traders could call in to port and refresh their supplies.

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In the early days, the settlement’s survival relied on trade with the local Khoikhoi peoples, but relations between the Dutch and the native tribes were often strained. For the settlement to grow, there needed to be some kind of immigration pull. Industry and labor were vital. Many enterprises thus characterized Dutch control of the Cape, but of them all, two stand out as having a huge impact on the future of Cape Town – wine and enslaved people.


Slavery Under the Dutch

indian slave trade
The Indian Ocean Slave Trade routes that led to Cape Town, via PLOS ONE on data based on images provided by Iziko Museums and Frans Huijzenveld


In the immediate years following the founding of Cape Town, the VOC started sending enslaved people to their new colony. They mainly came from the East Indies and included people from Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia. Enslaved people also arrived from Madagascar and Mozambique.


Enslaved people in the Cape had a huge hand in shaping the economy and the society. Enslaved numbers at least equaled those of the colonizers, and they worked throughout the colony, with many of them working on the arable land in the southwest of the continent.


Some Khoisan and other southern African peoples were also enslaved when needed and when demand was high. As such, the enslaved population group had a huge diversity of ethnic backgrounds. Adding to this genetic pool were also the European settlers who interbred with enslaved people. The result of all this was the “Coloured” ethnic group – a cultural and ethnic term to describe the descendants of the enslaved and mixed-race relationships in South Africa. The vast majority of Coloured people live in Cape Town, and they represent approximately half the city’s population.


It must be noted that “Coloured” in South Africa is not an offensive term and does not refer to Black South Africans. Unlike in the United States, there is a clear distinction between “Coloured” and “Black” in South Africa. The term, however, is contested on certain levels as a descriptor and with regard to personal identification.


The Wine Industry

vineyards in stellenbosch
Vineyards in Stelcolony’s lenbosch. The farmhouse in the background is an example of modern Cape Dutch architecture, from Getty, via Lonely Planet


Just three years after the Dutch founded Cape Town, they tried their hand at planting grapes. Wine was the obvious reason, and it was originally meant to provide ships with a source of fruit and Vitamin C to ward off scurvy. The first attempt was not encouraging, but with the arrival of immigrants, including French Huguenots, bringing knowledge of viticulture with them, wine farms became a permanent feature in and around Cape Town. The first bottle of wine was produced in 1659.


huguenot memorial franschhoek
The Huguenot Monument in Franschhoek, via La Motte


Jan van Riebeeck’s successor, Simon van der Stel, took a keen interest in the industry, and in 1685, he purchased a large 750-hectare (1,900-acre) plot of land on which to increase wine production. This area, known as Constantia, still produces wine today. Simon van der Stel’s son, Adriaan, who also became Governor of the Cape, continued his father’s business.


The industry continued to expand under the Dutch, who added new wine-growing areas to their colony. Paarl, Franschhoek, and Stellenbosch are all towns that grew around the wine industry and still produce the bulk of South Africa’s wines today. Stellenbosch was named after Simon van der Stel.


Conflict With the British & Transition of Power

One of the paintings by Estelle Laubscher in the book Battle for the Cape by Barbara and Ian van Oordt, via Table Talk


In 1794, the Netherlands was invaded by France during the Revolutionary Wars. Upon the French victory, a pro-French government was installed in the Netherlands, which became known as the Batavian Republic. With this development, Britain found it necessary to seize the strategically vital Dutch possession of Cape Town, and an expedition was sent forth, which resulted in the Battle of Muizenberg.


Casualties were light, but with Cape Town under threat, the Dutch governor, Abraham Josias Sluysken, surrendered the colony to the British. The French Revolutionary Wars ended in 1802 with the Peace of Amiens, and the Cape Colony was returned to Dutch control. This state of affairs would not, however, last long. The Napoleonic Wars followed soon after, and in 1806, the British and Dutch fought for control of the colony again, this time at the Battle of Blaauwberg.


The British won again, and in the following years in Europe, they put an end to Napoleon’s conquests which had ravaged the continent. The Netherlands and the VOC were in financial ruin and in no shape whatsoever to vie for power against the British at the Cape. They also became allies, so it would have been an uncomfortable situation.


An End to Slavery

slave tree memorial
The memorial to the Slave Tree, where enslaved people were bought and sold, sits on a traffic island in Cape Town, from Jaqueline Lalou Meltzer, via The Heritage Portal


The transition in governance at the Cape brought about changes that transformed the entire nature of the colony. The Slave Trade Act of 1807 made the slave trade illegal across the entire British Empire. The only enslaved people who could be procured now in the Cape Colony were those born to enslaved people. A slave revolt in 1808 in the Cape Colony led to the British progressives pushing for even more reform.


The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 outlawed slavery completely across the Empire, and the Cape Colony was one of the first places where this law was enforced to its full potential. This caused great controversy among the farmers who relied on enslaved people for labor. It was especially harsh on the descendants of Dutch-era colonization, now known as the Boers.


By this time, the British were expanding the Cape Colony far to the north to the border with South West Africa and would later expand farther across the Orange River to the area that would become the territory of Bechuanaland, which became the country of Botswana.


map cape colony 1882
A map showing the extent of the Cape Colony in 1882 (and also the railways), via The Heritage Portal


This territorial expansion was greatly aided by a massive influx of immigrants known as the 1820 Settlers who settled in what is now the Eastern Cape, founding the cities of Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth, and East London. Meanwhile, many Boers, upset with British rule, felt they were treated as second-class citizens and resented British laws. They left the colony in waves and headed northeast, establishing their own independent republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal). This exodus was known as the Great Trek, and it brought the Boers into conflict with many Bantu tribes, also relatively new to South Africa, who had settled in South Africa from the north.


As the Cape Colony grew, so did the emancipation of the formerly enslaved people. All men were declared equal and were allowed the same voting rights. This was in stark contrast to the Dutch era of colonialism. Sadly, this state of affairs would not last forever. In the 1880s, many rights were taken away from people on the basis of their ethnicity. These laws were installed at the behest of Cecil John Rhodes, who served as Governor of the Cape Colony from 1880 to 1886.


The British Take Full Control of South Africa

groot constantia cape dutch
Groot Constantia is a prime example of Cape Dutch architecture that developed in the Cape as the colony grew, via Approach Guides


British expansion brought with it serious conflicts that grew over the decades. Skirmishes with the Xhosa people in the Eastern Cape became commonplace, and a series of conflicts known as the Xhosa Wars continued. They had begun in 1779 with the Dutch and ended in 1879. In total, nine wars were fought between the Xhosa people and the colonizers.


The quest to gain another foothold in South Africa led the British to expand up the eastern coast, eventually coming into conflict with the Zulu Kingdom. The Anglo-Zulu War was a short and bloody affair that resulted in a complete British victory but at the cost of the worst defeat of British troops by native forces in the entire history of the British Empire.


The existence of the Boer Republics – descendants of the Dutch colonial effort – would also cause significant conflict, especially after the discovery of gold in Witwatersrand in the Transvaal. This eventually led to the Second Anglo-Boer War, which resulted in horrendous loss of life, concentration camps, and war crimes committed by the British. Ultimately, the British won, and the Boer Republics were annexed into what became known as South Africa.


This victory finally ended the struggle between the British and the Dutch (and their descendants) in South Africa. Although after South Africa’s Act of Union, which merged all the territories in 1910, and the declaration of full independence as a republic in 1961, there was still a feeling of distrust between English- and Afrikaans- (the language descended from Dutch) speakers in certain places in South Africa.


all that was left of them
All That Was Left of Them by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. (1856–1927) shows the last stand of the British 17th Lancers at Modderfontein during the Second Anglo-Boer War; via the National Army Museum, London


The colonial era in South Africa was long and involved conflict between European powers, native populations, and enslaved people. It is also a story of enterprise, with wine, diamonds, gold, and many other goods.


The Dutch and the British left a huge legacy in South Africa that will never be forgotten, as some of it is in the very DNA of many millions of South Africans today.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.