trategically located between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the southern reaches of Africa offered an ideal way station for European ships heading for the monsoon seas in Asia. The inhabitants of these lands traded food stocks with occasional European ships passing by. But this limited support was not enough to sustain the growing transoceanic trade network. In 1652 the VOC established the first permanent European settlement at the Cape of Good Hope, a small way side station intended to water and provision passing ships. Over time, this outpost grew into a bustling colony, and settlers flocked to the VOC settlement for its fresh water, fertile soil, and temperate climate.

View on Table Mountain and fort and town of Cape of Good Hope, 1778
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From Refreshing Station to Colony

he semi-nomadic Khoikhoi of the western Cape bartered their cattle with European ships passing their lands for over a century before VOC commandant Jan van Riebeeck arrived to establish a more permanent refreshing station for passing VOC ships. The colony at the Cape of Good Hope founded in 1652, initially comprised little more then a small fortress surrounded by fruit gardens. Most of the foodstuffs and materials the VOC settlement needed for itself and the ships that passed by were expected to come from the Khoikhoi and San through barter.

As European settlement and trade expanded, the older system of barter was no longer sufficient to meet European demands. In 1657, the agrarian frontier of the colony extended beyond the original settlement, when free European farmers settled behind Table Mountain. Until about 1700, the VOC 's frontier expanded slowly through the south-western Cape. The growth of VOC settlement also brought its trading enterprises into contact with new African polities in the North. Some of these chiefdoms worked with VOC and others resisted its demands, but the nature of society, statecraft, trade, and warfare changed fundamentally for all.

Around 1700 economic and legal systems were firmly in place. New villages were founded, such as Stellenbosch and Drakenstein. Many western Cape Khoikhoi were now entirely dependent on the colony. In the words of one VOC official, Khoikhoi society had become 'a nation of hunters and robbers.' As the frontier of European pastoralism expanded to the north and west and the trekboers settled down, many Africans were forced to forsake their lands. The Cape settlement itself contained labourers, soldiers, farmers, artisans, exiles, and slaves, many of them from places as diverse as India, China, Indonesia, Madagascar, Zanzibar, and Angola, as well as the Netherlands, the German states, England, Sweden, and France. The political order was a hierarchical one, with clear social distinctions between Company servants, freeburghers, free Africans, free Asians, and slaves. The early formation of Cape civil society is an important yet understudied topic in historical research.

The VOC Cape records

he Cape records of the VOC in The Hague and Cape Town include not only the standard administrative and trade records, but also annual tax rolls, criminal and civil court records, inventories, wills, land grants, church minutes, letter books and daily registers, and much more related to daily life at the Cape. They allow the historical reconstruction of Cape society between 1652 and 1795 with a comprehensiveness virtually unparalleled anywhere in the world.

Document in Cape Town: Attestation subscribed by the whole crew stating that their mutiny to prevent the ship Overnes to anchor at Prinseneiland was in the interest of the VOC , 1753.
(click image to enlarge)

However, VOC sources concerning the Cape go beyond the confines of the European settlement as well. The Company sent expeditions far into the African continent, both to explore the area and to trade for goods and slaves. VOC records therefore include observations on social, economic, and political life in many parts of southern Africa outside of direct Company control, including most of the present Republic of South Africa, Namibia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Mauritius, and the Swahili coast of Africa as far north as Somalia. Although not as detailed as those that exist for the core areas of its settlement, these papers form an essential and underused resource for the history of Africa.

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