Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Coming of the Dutch

As ship after ship passed round the shores of Africa, the captains made rough sketches and maps, and named the bays and rivers, mountains and headlands. And so it comes about that to this day, on South African coasts, there is a mixture of Portuguese, Dutch, and British names.

But although all these nations, especially the Dutch and the British, used South Africa as a resting-place, it was the Dutch who first thought of forming a colony there.

In 1602 the Dutch East India Company had been formed, and through it Holland grew to wealth and power, until the Dutch became the carriers of the world. Fourteen years after the founding of the company a rule was made that all ships going and coming from India must call at Table Bay, and the Cape began to be used as a kind of post-office. When a ship called, the date and name were carved upon a stone, and beneath it letters were buried. When the next ship arrived the letters were dug up and carried homewards or outwards as the case might be, other letters being left for the next ship in its turn.


"Where now the great city of Cape Town Stands, they set up their tents and huts."

It was not, however, until 1652 that the first colony was founded. About two years before that a Dutch ship called the Haarlem  had been wrecked in Table Bay. Fortunately the crew had been able to save, not only themselves, but most of the cargo and food, and to come safely to land. There, on the very spot where now the great city of Cape Town stands, they set up their tents and huts. Knowing that they might have a long time to wait for a ship to arrive, they dug the land round and sowed seed which they had saved from the wreck. Soon they had plenty of fruit and vegetables and lived very comfortably for about six months. Then a ship arrived which carried them safely home to Holland.

Two of the men who had been among the wrecked sailors were very much struck with the beautiful climate. For they had been there in spring and summer. They had been surprised to find how easy it was to make things grow, and when they got home they advised the Dutch to send out colonists and found a settlement at the Cape.

This, after a time, the Dutch East India Company decided to do. For so many of their sailors died of scurvy on the long voyage to India that they thought it would be a good plan to have a garden at the Cape, where the ships could always get fresh vegetables. They also decided to build a hospital there in which the sick men might be left until they were better.

So three little ships were sent out from Holland to carry the first settlers to the Cape. There were about a hundred men and five women. They were grave, stern-faced men and women not unlike our own Pilgrim Fathers. But they did not flee from their country or from tyranny. They went at the command of their country to help it to grow greater in trade and wealth.

The leader of this little band was a small man with a fiery temper named Jan van Riebeck. It is worth while to remember his name as he was the first Governor of the Cape which has grown to be such a great part of our Empire.

It was in April 1652 that the first settlers anchored in Table Bay. April is, as a rule, a beautiful month, for the first rains have come and the great heat of summer is over. But this year no early rain had fallen, the earth was baked hard and dry, all the grass and herbs were withered. This was not the beautiful land, gay with flowers and greenness, that had been described to the colonists. So it was with heavy disappointed hearts that they began to build Fort Good Hope, and try to dig the hard ground.

The work went on slowly. The men were sick and feeble after their long voyage. There was no green thing to eat, and no fresh food of any kind except fish, and now and again a hippopotamus, which was looked upon as a great delicacy. The ground was hard as iron, and needed pick-axes rather than spades to break it up. It was useless to sow any seed, and there was no sign of rain. A fierce, dry, south-east wind blew, blinding the men with dust as they tried to work, and nearly blowing them from the walls which they were building.

Day by day more men fell ill. Day by day fresh graves were dug. Those who could still work grew more and more feeble, till at last the whole settlement seemed like one great hospital, and work of all kinds ceased.

Far from friends and home the little handful of white men dwindled and grew less. They saw few natives even, and these were poor, wretched Hottentots whom they called Beachrangers. They were too poor to help the colonists in any way, having no cattle, or possessions of my kind. Living a miserable life, they kept themselves from starving by eating shell-fish or such refuse as they could pick up on the shores.

At last the rain came. But matters for a time were made worse. For the tents and frail wooden houses could not keep out the rain which fell in torrents, and the misery of life grew greater than before.

But in the long-run the rain brought relief. For in a very short time, almost it seemed as if by magic, the earth was once more covered with green, the ground became soft, the gardeners planted seeds, and soon the sick men had fresh food enough. Then, as the grass grew, the Hottentots who had cattle drove them down to the Cape, and Jan van Riebeck was able to buy them for bits of copper and tobacco. So for a time the sufferings of the colonists were over.

For a little time all went well. But one drizzling wet Sunday, while all the colonists were at church in the hall of the fort, the Beachrangers attacked the herdsman, killed him, and carried off all the cattle. As soon as the theft was known the governor and his men mounted and rode after the thieves. But although they chased them for several days they could not catch them, and were obliged to return to the fort disappointed.

So again the colonists had to suffer from hunger. They had indeed plenty of vegetables now, but they had little else. And the Hottentots who had cattle would not sell them, for Riebeck had no more copper, and they would not take anything else.

But in spite of all difficulties the little colony grew. After a time some of the settlers left the service of the Company and were allowed to become farmers on their own account. They were called Free Burghers, but they had really very little freedom, for they were not allowed to buy or sell with the natives. Anything they had to sell they were obliged to sell to the Company, and the Company fixed the price. If a ship came into harbour they were not allowed to go near it for three days, so that the Company might have a chance of buying or selling all they wanted first. They were not even allowed to hunt or kill any wild animals, except lions, or leopards, or wild cats.

Those were the days of monopolies, and all these rules were made so that the trade of the Company might prosper. The settlement at the Cape had been founded merely as a garden and a hospital for the Company's servants, and they really did not care whether the Free Burghers got on well or not.

With so many rules to hamper them the Burghers found it hard to make a living, and the number of farmers did not increase quickly. Indeed some who began farming for themselves gave it up and came back to the service of the Company.

For some time the natives were quite friendly, and the Dutch had to suffer nothing more than having their cattle stolen every now and again. But when the Hottentots saw that the Dutch did not mean to leave the land again, as other white people who came in ships had done, they began to grow angry. Then when they drove their cattle to pastures which they or their fathers had used for years, and found them fenced in, or ploughed up, they were more angry still. For the Dutch had never asked for the land and had paid nothing for it. They simply took it.

Soon what is called the first Hottentot war began. But it was hardly a war, for the natives, knowing what strange and deadly weapons the Dutch carried, never met them in battle. Now and again there were little skirmishes when four or five men would be killed, but nothing more. Then after about a year of this kind of fighting an old chief, who was called the Fat Captain because he was so big and stout, came to Fort Good Hope. With him came two men who had learned to speak Dutch, and after a great deal of talking peace was agreed upon. A feast of rice and bread was then given to the Hottentots, and a dance followed which lasted two hours.

In the courtyard of the fort a tub filled with a kind of brandy was placed. Of this every man drank as much as he liked. Then the savages formed in two long rows and began to dance, while their women sat on the ground clapping their hands and singing a doleful chant. The men danced and danced until they could dance no longer, and fell to the ground exhausted. Then they were carried out and laid on the grass outside the fort to sleep. This went on until, at the end of two hours, only two men were left, and so the ceremony ended, and the governor could say that he was at peace with all the people of South Africa.

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