The transformation of the Cape from a refreshment station to a colony is significant historically in that it undeniably altered the course of South Africa forever. From the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) initial plan of a small confined refreshment station, particular circumstances coupled with policy decisions would transform the cape to a fully fledged colony. This essay will discuss how despite the VOC’s original intentions their decision making and polices were ambiguous and contrary to their original vision of a small refreshment station. The transformation will be divided into two broad periods. The first period is between 1652 and 1699 where the first major change from a refreshment station to a crop farming colony occurred. I will argue that firstly the VOC through their policies encouraged expansion and crop farming despite their original goal of a small refreshment station. Secondly they defeated the resistance for expansion from the Khoe people during the Khoe-Dutch wars. Thirdly, they introduced the freeburgher system which would go on to expand beyond their control.  The second period is between 1699 and 1795 and it is this period which saw unprecedented rapid expansion caused mainly by two factors. Firstly, VOC land policies directly increased expansion. Secondly the shift from intensive farming to extensive and stock farming. Thirdly poor VOC administration of the cape colony encouraged trekboer expansion into the interior and further away from the Cape.

The precolonial life of the Khoekhoe


Figure 1: Khoekhoe locations at the cape. Source: The Cambridge History of South Africa. Edited by Carolyn Hamilton, Bernard K. Mbenga, Robert Ross. 4 – Khoesan and Immigrants: The Emergence of Colonial Society in the Cape, 1500–1800 pp. 168-210. p172

 The majority of historians think that the Khoe arrived in the cape atleast 2000 years ago. There is archaeological evidence that sheep and pottery existed at the cape at that time and the natural explanation has always been they arrived at the Cape with the Khoe. The alternative explanation is that the livestock diffused southward eventually reaching the cape; the Khoe arrived later with their pottery about 1000 years ago. Either way the Khoe had been firmly established in the cape before the arrival of European settlers as evidenced by the map. The two most powerful Khoe groups were the Hassequa and the Inqua. The Hassequa people controlled the region between what is now Mossel Bay and Swellendam. The Inqua were based in the southern Kloofs of the Great Escarpment. The Inqua were the richest of the Khoe people because they had large pastures and controlled trading networks of the interior. The traded copper from the Orange River and Namaqualand. In the region which runs from the eastern cape in a wide curve to the Namibian highlands lived the Gonaaqua who were bilingual in isiXhosa and Khoekhoe. There was also the San or Soaqua who lived primarily as hunter gatherers in the mountains.
First contact between the cape inhabitants (Khoe) and Europeans was in 1488 when the Portuguese sailor Bartholomew Dias trying to discover a sea route to the Southern Coast of Asia, landed in what is now Mossel Bay. He also named the Cape, the Cape of Good Hope. A confrontation ensued during this encounter which resulted in the death of one Khoe member. Vasco Da Gama eventually succeeded in finding this trade route and from then on European ships would regularly stop at the southwestern coast bays for fresh water and cattle trading with the Khoe people. The early encounters were often hostile such as in the case when Francesco d’Almeida in 1510 died along with 50 other men during a clash with the Khoe. From then on the Portuguese avoided the cape. Furthermore they saw no trading potential for the Cape because they had other ports like Angola and Congo which were closer to their main Asian trading city, Goa, located in the west coast of India[1]. Only from 1610 when the Dutch found that the cape could provide advantages for their sailing did contact and trading between the Dutch and Khoe resume and increase.

The establishment of a refreshment station

The Dutch, more specifically the VOC set up a refreshment station in 1652 because the location was well suited; it was half way between the Netherlands and the East. A major factor was the report obtained from the Nieuwe Haerlem, a ship that crashed in Table Bay in 1647.[2] The report gave a positive description of the Cape: fresh water and fertile soil were available; there were abundant vegetables and fruits; livestock could be obtained easily; and the Khoekhoe were hospitable.[3] On the basis of this report the VOC decided to set-up the refreshment post. Its primary aim was to provide passing Dutch ships with fresh supplies of food and water. Setting up a trading post or colony was never part of the VOC’s plan. Setting up a post was an extra cost and the VOC had a strict policy of high profits and low costs.  If the VOC had received a negative report from the Nieuwe Haerlem, they probably would not have taken the chance of setting up a refreshment post. The positive report enabled them to take the chance and establish a refreshment station.

The VOC was formed in 1602 by the amalgamation of six smaller companies in an effort to reduce competitiveness amongst them which caused them to sell spices at a lower price[4]. It also had significant autonomy in that it had authority to claim lands and start wars. The two main policies that the VOC adhered to were monopoly and maximum profit.[5] The VOC had a monopoly because it was the only Dutch company legally allowed to trade in selling Asian goods. Its second policy was maximising profit -which meant keeping expenses as low as possible and selling high as possible.

VOC policy was informed by mercantilism which was the dominant economic theory in Europe during that time, as Rothbard explains: “Mercantilism, which reached its height in the Europe of the seven­teenth and eighteenth centuries, was a system of statism which employed economic fallacy to build up a structure of imperial state power, as well as special subsidy and monopolistic privilege to individuals or groups favored by the state. Thus, mercantilism held that exports should be encouraged by the government and imports discouraged[6]. Mercantilism was aimed at increasing the wealth of nations by: accumulating precious metal and monetary instruments; importing primary products and exporting manufacturing goods[7]. This drove imperial expansion and colonization and formed the basis of the colonial pact. The VOC had a history of acquiring territories by force or conquest and establishing a monopoly for profit: spices in the Banda archipelago, cloves in the Moluccas, cinnamon in Sri Lanka. The basic features of the colonial pact were: extracting raw materials from colony and selling cheaply to mother country. Secondly, the colony could not develop industries to compete with the mother country but had to provide a market for manufactured goods from mother country. Thirdly, shipping was exclusively controlled by the mother country. Fourthly, unpopular persons were sent to the colony[8]. Thus the VOC would try to operate the refreshment station at a low cost as possible and keep it small and confined.

From refreshment station to crop farming: 1652-1699

The first stage in the gradual transformation of the Cape to a colony began with the setting up of an intensive farming community. The initial needs for the station was to supply fresh meat, fruits, vegetable and wine to ships with a small vegetable garden[9]. However after a a few years of trying the station was still not successful and could not supply ships with produce. Jan Van Riebeek then suggested the first policy change which was implemented. They system of freeburgher (free citizens) who would independently farm and make a living of their own. The approval was on the idea that firstly the VOC would purchase produce at low fixed prices. Secondly the freeburghers could pay taxes and do military service. In 1657 land was given to 9 men along the Liesbeek river and by the time Jan Van Riebeek left in 1662 there were 60 freeburgher farms[10].

The introduction of the freeburgher system was a critical point on the road to the Cape transforming into a colony. It created a community whose livelihood was now independent of the VOC as opposed to being employed by the VOC. It also led to a community with a separate identity from the VOC officials because of different interests and desires. The freeburghers wanted independence and the VOC wanted to maximise profits. This system paved the way for the emergence of the “Afrikaners” who now identified themselves differently to European and saw themselves as permanent dwellers of the colony.

The settling of land across Liesbeek river led to clashes with the Khoe people who rightly felt land that historically belonged to them was being encroached and colonised. This began the Khoe-Dutch wars, the first in 1659 and the second in 1673[11]. The Dutch with their superior weaponry overpowered the Khoe. This defeat for the Khoe was a critical point in the history of the Cape. Without Khoe resistance expansion by the white settlers could continue more easily and rapidly. This revealed an inconsistency in VOC policy –they wanted a confined station however instead of conceding to Khoe demands for their land back, the VOC and trekboers defeated the Khoe and gained access to more land. Jan Van Riebeek stated in response to the Khoe’s people claim for their land back:

“that they [have] now lost the land…[which has] thus fallen to us…and we [intend] to keep it”[12].

This reveals that the VOC policy of small and confined was not set in stone. The VOC also had a low and racially prejudiced opinion of Khoe people and would not be willing to be restricted by them if they chose to expand. The expansion of land did not begin and end with van Riebeek but continued with Simon van de Stel. He was governer of the Cape from 1679. He gave land to freeburghers on a freehold basis – a person received as much land as they thought they could cultivate.

Another VOC decision showing their perhaps unconscious intention to colonise was that they provided free passage for people to emmigrate to the Cape from 1685 to 1707. The population of settlers went from 100 in 1675 to 700 by 1695[13]. It contradicted their policy of small and confined by promoting emigration. They must have foreseen that the more people there were the more land that would be required and therefore expansion would be inevitable. A third reason contradicting the claim that the VOC had no intention not to colonise during the initial period is the fact that between 1659 and 1699 they had received 20000 cattle and 40000 sheep from trading with the Khoe[14]. This should have been sufficient to meet their needs if all they desired was a small garden with fresh meat – but clearly they did not. Colonisation in the eyes of the VOC was not necessarily a negative idea – it would have suited the prevailing ideas of the time of attaining sovereign power and wealth through territorial sovereignty.

Transitioning from intensive farming to extensive and stock farming: 1699-1795

Figure 1_expansion of white settlement during the VOC period at the Cape

Figure 2: Expansion of white settlement during the VOC period at the Cape[15] (Hamilton, et al., Cambridge History of South Africa, Khoesan and Immigrants: The emergence of Colonial Society in the Cape, 1500 – 1800, p. 204)

The shift from intensive to extensive farming

One of the reasons that led to expansion of the colony was the shift from intensive farming to extensive and stock farming by freeburghers. Intensive farming required high amounts of labour, capital investment and skills. It failed for a number of reasons. Freeburghers were not necessarily skilled farmers, they were formerly VOC employees and seldom had skills in farming. The VOC policy of profits meant that they were unwilling to supply capital at low interests to allow investment into intensive farming. There was a shortage of labour initially which led to the VOC Council of Policy deciding in 1717 to import slaves to meet labour demand[16]. Their thinking was that slaves could be better controlled as opposed to Europeans. This contributed to establishing the Cape as colony. By supplying labour it was trying to ensure that the colony could produce and supply the needs of the VOC.

The obstacles to intensive farming led to extensive farming – which required little labour, skills and capital. Extensive farming led to more expansion because it required large amounts of land. Extensive farming became successful particularly wheat so much so that there was a surplus being produced. The excess wheat would then rot and the price of wheat fell to levels that were not profitable for farmers. Stock farming also became an important economic driver for expansion and abandoning intensive farming. Crop farming often meant having to bring your produce to the market via ox wagons which were easily susceptible to damage in the rocky mountains of the Cape. Stock could be easily transported to the market because they simply walked themselves. Wine and wheat had to be farmed within a certain distance from the market (125km at most)[17]. Fertile land was not abundant and stock farming solved that constraint. W.A van der Stell encouraged the growth of stock farming as well by issuing free grazing permits – one could simply claim a 2000 hectare farm and pay an annual fee to keep it[18]. Figure 2 illustrates how rapid the expansion was during the 18th century. Stock farming was more profitable than any other type of farming and allowed the decision to expand to be easier for both freeburghers and the VOC. The VOC would benefit from more meat and related products supply.

Emergence of trekboers who went further into the interior

Another contributing factor to the transformation of the cape to a colony was expansion of Trekboers into the interior. They were driven by a number of factors to expand into interior. Firstly they wanted less VOC control in their affairs. The VOC was a monopoly and sought to control all aspects of the freeburghers farming. They bought at low prices and controlled markets. Administration of the cape by the VOC was also incompetent and corrupt. Judges set-up to make ruling and judgements often did not know the laws and regulations and ruled arbitrarily. Freeburghers had written a few petitions and grievances to the Council of Policy (which determined VOC policy) during the 18th century[19]. These grievances united the freeburghers and contributed to the creation of an identity for themselves separate from the VOC. They saw themselves not as Europeans primarily but settlers and Afrikaners intent on permanently dwelling and making a living in the colony.

Importation of slaves

The importation of slaves to the cape was a deliberate VOC policy which led further to the cape becoming a permanent colony. Slaves were imported for a number of reasons. Khoe people were unwilling to work on Dutch farms. The VOC had difficulty in attracting white laborers to the cape because it was so remote. They also though didn’t want wage labour  because it would be expensive compared to slave labour. The slave population increased from 337 in 1692 to 14747 by 1793. Most of the slaves worked on the agricultural farms and therefore the economy was dependent on slaves. The introduction and the growth in the number of slaves imported to the Cape over a 100 years since the VOC’s arrival demonstrates that ideas of a small refreshment station were abandoned in favor of a large colony able to provide large supplies of meat and food at low prices. The idea of a small refreshment station was expendable.

VOC land policies

VOC land policies during the 18th century initially encouraged expansion but then later were an attempt to curtail it. In 1714 the loan lease system gave stock farmers rights to land in return for an annual rent. This policy resulted in rapid expansion as illustrated in the figures. In 1732 the Quitrent tenure was introduced which guaranteed farmers they could occupy land for 15 years and would be reimbursed for any improvements made on them- this was in an effort to stimulate extensive farming and prevent expansion[20]. In 1743 the loan freehold tenure was made by whereby farmers could own land, sell, lease and bequeath it provided they paid back certain portion of the loan[21]. The policies in trying to restrain expansion do indicate an acceptance of colonisation. By allowing property rights and ownership of land, the cape was to be a permanent colony there was no turning back and reversing the expansion. Hamilton summarises the picture of the Cape at the close of the 18th century:

“By the last years of the eighteenth century, then, a colonial economy had been definitively established in the Cape Colony. The relationship between the creole elite and the colonial masters was strained, but their interdependence was unquestioned by either side. Together they had built the foundations of a commercial colonial economy and thereby established class rule over the slaves and laborers of the Western Cape, which was steadily being extended into the interior, away from Cape Town.”[22]


The establishment of the Cape colony was not the result of a carefully planned and systematic approach. Rather it was the combination and accumulation of local circumstances, reactions and decision in dealing with immediate realities. The VOC was ambiguous and contradictory to their original goal of a small station by allowing the freeburgher system and promoting the free passage of migrants. They defeated the Khoe thereby eliminating obstacles to expansion. The circumstances and environment were not suitable for intensive farming and led to the vastly more profitable extensive farming and stock farming. VOC policy did not necessarily prevent this but through free grazing permits actually encouraged it as both parties benefited by the increased meat supply. The freeburgher system created a group with a new identity who called themselves Afrikaners and saw themselves as separate from the VOC and importantly as permanent settlers. Some freeburghers would become trekboers who would move further into the interior due to poor VOC administration and monopolistic polices.  Land policies that tried to curtail expansion and promote intensive farming were too late and only sought to reflect the permanence of the colony. And so by the end of the 18th century the cape had been transformed into a fully-fledged permanent colony. 


Hamilton, C., Mbenga, B. K. & Ross, R., 2015. 4 – Khoesan and Immigrants: The Emergence of Colonial Society in the Cape, 1500-1800. In: R. Ross, ed. The Cambridge History of South Africa. Cambridge: Cambride University Press, pp. 168-210.

Karim Sadr. 1998. The First Herders at the Cape of Good Hope . The African Archaeological Review,  Springer. Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 101-132

Rich, E. E. & Wilson, C. H., 2016. Chapter IV – European Economic Institutions and the New World; the Chartered Companies. In: The Cambridge Economic History of Europe from the Decline of the Roman. s.l.:Cambridge University Press, pp. 220-274.

Rothbard, M., 1963. Foundation for Economic Education. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 15 August 2016].

University of South Africa, 2011. Economic History of South Africa. Pretoria: University of South Africa.

University of South Africa, 2010. The Making of Early Colonial South Africa. Pretoria: University of South Africa.

End Notes

[1] Hamilton, et al., Cambridge History of South Africa, Khoesan and Immigrants: The emergence of Colonial Society in the Cape, 1500 – 1800, p. 170

[2] University of South Africa, 2010. The Making of Early Colonial South Africa. p.16.

[3] University of South Africa, 2010. The Making of Early Colonial South Africa, p.17

[4] University of South Africa, 2011. Eonomic History, p.28

[5] University of South Africa, 2010. The Making of Early Colonial South Africa, p.13

[6] M. Rothbard. Mercantilism: A Lesson for Our Times?,

[7] Rich & Wilson, The Cambridge Economic History of Europe from the Decline of the Roman Empire, p249

[8] University of South Africa, 2011. Eonomic History. p.30

[9] University of South Africa, 2010. The Making of Early Colonial South Africa. p.20

[10] Loc. Cit.

[11] University of South Africa, 2010. The Making of Early Colonial South Africa, p.62

[12] Loc. cit.

[13] Hamilton, et al., Cambridge History of South Africa, Khoesan and Immigrants: The emergence of Colonial Society in the Cape, 1500 – 1800, p. 175

[14] Loc. Cit.

[15] Ibid, p.204

[16] Ibid, p.185

[17] University of South Africa, 2011. Economic History of South Africa, p.43

[18] Loc. Cit.

[19] University of South Africa, 2010. The Making of Early Colonial South Africa

[20] University of South Africa, 2011. Economic History of South Africa. p.50

[21] Loc. Cit.

[22] Hamilton, et al., Cambridge History of South Africa, Khoesan and Immigrants: The emergence of Colonial Society in the Cape, 1500 – 1800, p. 209