Settlement and expansion - Explorers and settlers
  • At the end of the 15th Century the Portuguese discovered the sea route to the Indies around the Cape. this enabled them to bypass the Turkish blockade of the overland Silk Road between China and Europe.

  • The first contact between Portuguese sailors and Khoekhoen was by Bartholomew Diaz in 1488 at Mossel Bay.

  • The Khoekhoen had sheep, cattle and access to fresh water, which the sailors needed. The Portuguese started landing at the Cape on their way to the East to trade with the Khoekhoen for water and meat.

  • In 1510 trade between the Khoekhoen and the Portuguese ended abruptly. Sailors wanting to force the Khoe to trade with them kidnapped some of their children. The Khoekhoen fought back and killed Captain D’Almeida and a number of the sailors.








  • For the next 100 years, there was only occasional trade between the Khoekhoen and European ships visiting Table Bay. The Khoe traded cattle for metals offered by the Europeans.

  • By the beginning of the 17th Century, there was a large increase in the number of ships passing the Cape. In 1652 the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) decided to establish a more formal refreshment station at Table Bay, under the leadership of Jan van Riebeeck.

  • As the settlement at Table Bay grew, relations between the Dutch and the Khoe degenerated. Van Riebeeck gave freehold farms along the Liesbeeck River to Dutch burghers in an area where the Goringhaiqua had grazed their cattle for generations. He refused to let the Khoe have access to these lands, so they lost their grazing rights. This led to war between the Khoe and the Dutch in 1659. Van Riebeeck then built a line of forts and a fence on the eastern side of the Liesbeeck River to defend the land he had claimed as DEIC property.








People and the land

  • The arrival of the Dutch settlers brought a different concept of land use to the Cape. To the Khoe, land and water were to be used by all equally. This differed markedly from the European system of privately owned land which could be fenced off.

  • It is not surprising that these different livelihoods and attitudes to land ownership led to conflict. Even though the Khoekhoen tried to resist, by about 1740 they had been forced off the land, lost their livestock, and most worked for the colonists, looking after their cattle.

  • The Khoe were herders and not farmers, so the colonists did not see them as good agricultural labourers and never formally enslaved them. However, because the Khoe had few rights, they ended up in an inferior social and economic position like the slaves.

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Slavery at the Cape

  • Slavery is private ownership of people. The slave trade removed people by force from their homes and often shipped them, in cramped and filthy conditions, to new countries. They were sold at auctions and worked for their owners for no wages.

  • Slavery was common at the time when the DEIC first established the refreshment station at the Cape. At first, the Company did not want to spend money buying slaves for this new settlement, but later imported slaves from Mozambique, Madagascar, Indonesia and India.

  • Most slave women were domestic workers and most men were labourers. They literally built early Cape Town, working as builders, cooks, artisans, wood cutters, carpenters, fishers, musicians and farm workers.

  • Their languages, cultures and skills contributed greatly to the developing culture of Cape Town, from religion and trades to festivals and food. Even the language of Afrikaans started as a language of slaves who came from Dutch colonies in the Far East. It was first written in Arabic script.








Over-use and extinction

  • The Khoe way of life was self-sustaining, as they could obtain all they needed locally in the veld and from their animals. But as farms were established on their grazing lands, this had a vast impact on their way of life.

  • In contrast, the Dutch were part of a world mercantile system which required resources from many countries to make it successful. Thus the settlers at the Cape needed to import wood, rice and metals not only to keep the colony going, but to supply the passing DEIC ships.

  • The Cape’s resources, such as wood were heavily exploited and quickly used up. The forests around Cape Town were soon chopped down for fuel. Governor Simon van der Stel introduced the European Oak to supply wood for ship repair. Unfortunately the Cape lacks the really cold weather needed to give the oak its strength, so these local trees were worthless as boat-building materials.

  • Cape plants were exported overseas and in Australia and California today, many gardens have Cape flowering plants.

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Wild animals hunted out at the Cape
  • The wild animals, such as Quagga, Eland, Black Rhino, Hippo, Mountain Zebra, Red Hartebeest, Grey Rhebuck, Cape Lion, Leopard and Elephant, were hunted and disappeared from the Cape by 1700.


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Human casualties

  • The San suffered a terrible fate at the hands of the DEIC. Stock theft was brutally dealt with and during the late 1700s, more than 3 500 San died in organised raids, which almost resulted in genocide. San women and children were taken as labour by the settlers.

  • In 1713, laundry infected with smallpox from a ship docked in Table Bay was brought ashore to be washed. The disease spread rapidly and soon became an epidemic. Smallpox was a new disease in the Cape and it killed 90% of the Khoekhoen who had no natural resistance. 20% of slaves and 15% of Europeans in Cape Town also died.








Early settlements

  • Cape Town started as a refreshment station but soon developed into a Colony, which the DEIC governed until 1795. Many of the employees of the DEIC decided to leave the Company and become freeburghers. A number became farmers, leading to the expansion of farm lands away from Table Bay to the Helderberg Basin (1678), Stellenbosch (1679) and Constantia (1685). Slaves were an integral part of this growth.

  • The Dutch tried to maintain authority over the leaders in their colonies in the East, and even sent the influential Sheikh Yusuf, a holy man and teacher, into exile in Cape Town with his followers in 1694 from Java. A shrine called a Kramat was constructed over his grave and is a Muslim place of worship today.

  • Fish was a very important source of protein for the early colonists and slaves. Fishing villages were established along the coast where natural bays provided shelter for fishing boats, e.g. Gordon’s Bay, Fish Hoek and Kalk Bay. Many of the slaves who came from the East had excellent boating and fishing skills; they formed the core of the Cape fishing industry.








A British Colony

  • The British occupied the Cape for a short time between 1795 and 1803. In 1806 they occupied the Cape for the second time and governed it as a colony until 1910.

  • In 1809 Governor Caledon tried to put an end to the nomadic traditions of the Khoekhoen by declaring that they had to have a fixed residence and could not migrate between regions without written permission from a magistrate.

  • As most of the good agricultural land was being used by settlers, local Khoe had difficulty getting access to grazing land. Mission stations in the Cape (Namaqualand, Genadendal, Mamre) were attempts by missionaries to provide Khoe descendents with a space of their own. This was fiercely objected to by the colonists who wanted labourers for their farms.







Slavery is abolished

Extent of Cape Town in 1800 - Click!
  • In 1834, for both humanitarian and economic reasons, slavery was abolished. About 39 000 slaves were set free in the Cape and many freed slaves settled in the Bo Kaap, District Six and on mission stations.

  • Freed slaves were expected to work for their previous owners for four years. The Masters and Servants Act of 1834 described how the new masters and servants were expected to behave.













Cape Town expands

  • Under British rule, Cape Town developed rapidly as a commercial and financial centre.

  • For nearly 200 years after people from Europe settled in Cape Town, most development took place on the Peninsula because drift-sands and wetlands made it difficult to cross the Cape Flats.

  • In the 1840s, a bridge was built over the Salt River and a hardened road was built between Cape Town and Stellenbosch, more or less where Voortrekker Road is today. Homes and businesses slowly developed along this route.

  • In the 1860s work started on the new Cape Town docks. Public transport also improved as the railway system started to develop. The first railway line in South Africa was built where the Waterfront is today. People started to settle in the Southern Suburbs because they could commute easily to work in the City.








  • With no more slaves to do the heavy work of building the harbour and railways, the British identified the Transkei as a source of cheap labour. The first hostel for migrant labourers in South Africa was built at what is now the Waterfront.

  • By 1846, more than half the area of the Cape Flats was private farmland, e.g. Montagu’s Gift, Duinefontein and Pampoenkraal (later Mitchell’s Plain). The soil was poor and few of the farms were permanently occupied.

  • In 1876 some German settlers were granted smallholdings in an area called Wynberg Flats (now the Philippi agricultural area). They became the first market gardeners in Cape Town. Smallholdings were also established at Claremont Flats (Rylands) and Mowbray Flats (Athlone and Crawford).

  • As Cape Town’s population grew, supplying drinking water became a serious concern. A programme of dam building was started and the Hely Hutchinson Dam on Table Mountain was opened in 1904.






  • The government encouraged farmers to plant Port Jackson and rye grass to control the wind-blown sand. Port Jackson was then an important crop as the bark was used to supply tannin, a substance used by the leather industry.

  • In the 1890s, the export market for tannin collapsed and most farmers on the Cape Flats became market gardeners. In the days before motor cars, lots of horse manure was available to enrich the poor, sandy soils.

  • The discovery of gold and diamonds in the interior of South Africa increased shipping activity in Cape Town. The docks were expanded and became the largest employer in the City. Many of the workers were Mfengu and Xhosa people from the eastern parts of the Cape Colony.








Early forced removals
Extent of Cape Town in 1931 - Click!
Over the years, Cape Town’s migrant labourers were moved many times. From the Waterfront, they were moved to “District One” in Green Point and then to District Six, where other residents blamed them for an outbreak of disease. In 1901 they were moved to Ndabeni, the first black township in South Africa. When Ndabeni fell into disrepair, they were finally removed to Langa in 1927. Langa is the oldest surviving black township in South Africa.










Click the buttons to find out more about the history and development of Cape Town:

Early people of the Cape
Settlement and Expansion
Urbanisation and Apartheid
Post-Apartheid developments and challenges