Johan Anthoniszoon ‘Jan’ van Riebeeck was born on Sunday 21 April 1619 in Culemborg, Netherland. If he was alive today would have been 394 years old.
He joined the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) or Dutch East India Company in 1639 when only 20 years old and served in a number of posts, including that of assistant surgeon in the Batavian in the East Indies. In 1643 he travelled with Jan van Elseracq to Deijima in Japan and seven years later he proposed selling hides of South African wild animals to Japan.
Then in 1651 he ‘put up his hand’ to undertake the command of the initial Dutch settlement in what would become South Africa. And on Saturday 6 April 1652 they (about 90 of them) arrived in Cape Town with three ships named Dromedaris, Reijger and Goede Hoop. The whole idea behind the establishment of this way-station was to provide fresh provisions for the VOC fleet sailing between Dutch Republic and Batavia. At the time they were experiencing a large number of deaths en route. For example when the Walvisch and Oliphant arrived they recorded as many as 130 burials at sea. Thus many who left their country never actually lived to see their dreams come true.
Van Riebeeck was Commander of the Cape for 10 years (1652-1662) and oversaw a sustained, systematic effort to establish an impressive range of useful plants in the Cape Peninsula and in so doing changing the natural environment forever. These include: grapes, cereals, ground nuts, potatoes, apples and citrus. His diaries indicate that some of his knowledge was learned from the indigenous people inhabiting the region. Jan is regarded by many as the ‘founder’ of Cape Town. There is no doubt that he played an overseeing role in setting up the structures of the VOC which over time developed to what is now known as Cape Town. But he certainly did not find it. What he found there, was people who although primitive in their existence, had been there for a very long time. Jan did not ask permission to plant gardens, orchards and to allocate farms.
The indigenous people did not have a written culture and consequently would not have been able to produce title deeds. And because there was no written record, Van Riebeeck denied them the rights and title to the land. I suppose gunpowder did the rest. In 1658 Van Riebeeck started an interesting tradition when he banished Autshumato (Harry the beachcomber) a Khoikhoi interpreter to an island in Table Bay for his crimes against the Dutch authorities. The Dutch called the island Robben Island after the seals living there. Many people are unaware of the fact that the well-known face on the previous South African note, was not Van Riebeeck’s but a certain Vermuydens. It is interesting that in our time Nelson Mandela completes an unintended triangle of sorts: Van Riebeeck –Autshumato –Mandela: like Van Riebeeck Mandela has his face printed on money (although it was not actually his face); like Autshumato Mandela spent time on Robben Island.
Not far from the fort was the Company Gardens and further south at Rondebosch was the Company’s own farm and orchard. A big barn called Groote Schuur was built here. The first free burghers received their farms on either side of the Liesbeek River. Work only started on The Castle in 1666 to replace the Fort Good Hope. This needed to be done as the mud walls started to collapse. The fort was situated at the Parade. For the first three decades most of the immigrants were single Dutch males. Apart from the French women, the other female European immigrants were Dutch. Some of them were girls sent from orphanages in the Netherlands.
Europeans who entered service on the lower VOC rungs faced an unpromising career. Few people in Netherland would actually sign up as sailors or soldiers except out of necessity. Those who did had to endure bad food, ferocious discipline and disease. As indicated earlier many set sail but perished on the way to a better life. A career in the Company was truly for those who could think of no other solution to their problems. Some of the Germans who came to the Cape were tradesmen whose lives were disrupted by the Thirty Years’ War which ended in 1648. They were the ones who fared best in the new homeland. Most of the single males who came to the Cape were illiterate or semi-literate peasants or labourers employed by the Company as soldiers or sailors.
The first slave ship arrived in 1658. The Amersfoort had captured a Portuguese slaver en route to Brazil. The Hasselt landed 228 slaves from Angola described as attractive, sturdily built and cheerful. Cheerful? In total 65,000 slaves were imported during the Company period. By 1690 there was a free burgher population of 788 and a slave population of 381. A century later (1790) the burgher total stood at roughly 20,000 and the slave population at 26,000. The numbers of the burghers swelled as a result of an astounding birth rate, but the slave population did not reproduce itself, mostly because of hardship. More slaves were brought in to grow the numbers.
From the start the Cape was a slave society and not one in which slave labour was simply one of the several forms of labour. A slave society is one in which all institutions – the labour market, the economy, the legal system, the family and the church – are permeated by slavery. The master-slave model served as a model for all other relationships.’
Sources: Wikipedia, New History of SA (Giliomee & Mbenga) & other history websites
Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.