HISTORY OF THE DUTCH EMPIRE

DUTCH EMPIREDutch trade in the east: AD 1595-1651

The first Dutch expedition round the Cape to the far east, in 1595, is captained by Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, a Netherlands merchant whose only knowledge of the orient comes from trading in Lisbon. The survivors of this journey get back to Holland two years later. They bring valuable cargo. And they have established a trading treaty with the sultan of Bantam, in Java.

Their return prompts great excitement. Soon about ten private vessels are setting off each year from the Netherlands to find their fortune in the east. The States General of the newly independent Dutch republic decide that this unlicensed trading activity, in distant and dangerous waters, needs both control and protection.

In 1602 the States General form a Dutch East India Company, with extensive privileges and powers. It is to have a tax-free monopoly of the eastern trade for twenty-one years. It is authorized to build forts, establish colonies, mint coins, and maintain a navy and army as required.

With these powers the company takes only a few decades to deprive Portugal of the spice trade. A capital is established at Batavia, in Java, in 1619. The Portuguese are driven out of Malacca by 1641 and from Sri Lanka by 1658. But the main focus of Dutch attention is the Moluccas – the Indonesian islands of which the alternative name, the Spice Islands, declares their central importance in the eastern trade.

The Moluccas are the source of the most valuable spice of all, the clove, coveted for many different purposes – as a flavour in food, as a preservative, as a mild anaesthetic, as an ingredient in perfume, even to mask stinking breath. In pursuit of Moluccan cloves, and also nutmegs, the Portuguese make local treaties as early as 1512.

In the early decades of the 17th century the Dutch East India Company gradually excludes the Portuguese from trade in the Moluccas. The Dutch also take on, and oust from the islands, another European nation attempting to get a foothold in the region – the English East India Company.

The Dutch control the trade in cloves with ruthless efficiency. During the 17th century clove trees are eradicated on all the Spice Islands except two – Amboina and Ternate – to limit production and keep prices high. Strict measures are taken to ensure that plants are not exported for propagation elsewhere (a restriction successfully maintained until the late 18th century).

The Portuguese never recover their trading strength in the east. But in expelling the English from the Moluccas, the Dutch unwittingly do them a favour. The English East India Company decides to concentrate its efforts on India.

Meanwhile the Dutch company has taken a decision, small in itself, which has momentous results. Dutch sea captains have discovered that it is feasible to sail directly northeast across the Indian Ocean from the southern tip of Africa. This makes the Cape a very important port of call for taking on water and fresh supplies.

In 1651 the company decides to meet this need by establishing a small Dutch settlement on the bay beneath Table Mountain. By now there is also a thriving Dutch colony on the other side of the Atlantic.

Dutch in America: AD 1624-1664

In 1621 the States General in the Netherlands grant a charter to the Dutch West India Company, giving it a monopoly to trade and found colonies along the entire length of the American coast. The area of the Hudson river, explored by Hudson for the Dutch East India Company in 1609, has already been designated New Netherland. Now, in 1624, a party of thirty families is sent out to establish a colony. They make their first permanent settlement at Albany, calling it Fort Orange.

In 1626 Peter Minuit is appointed governor of the small colony. He purchases the island of Manhattan from Indian chiefs, and builds a fort at its lower end. He names the place New Amsterdam.

The Dutch company finds it easier to make money by piracy than by the efforts of colonists (the capture of the Spanish silver fleet off Cuba in 1628 yields vast profits), but the town of New Amsterdam thrives as an exceptionally well placed seaport – even though administered in a harshly authoritarian manner by a succession of Dutch governors.

The only weakness of New Amsterdam is that it is surrounded by English colonies to the north and south of it. This place seems to the English both an anomaly and an extremely desirable possession. Both themes are reflected in the blithe grant by Charles II in 1664 to his brother, the duke of York, of the entire coastline between the Connecticut and Delaware rivers.

New Amsterdam, and behind it New Netherland, lie exactly in the middle of this stretch. When an English fleet arrives in 1664, the Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant accepts the reality of the situation and surrenders the territory without a shot being fired. New Amsterdam is transformed without upheaval into New York.

This reduces the Dutch presence in the new world to the region of Guiana, in south America, where the first settlements are established before 1616. Taken over by the company from 1621, they survive on sugar grown with slave labour. Frequently disputed between Dutch, French and English interests, the Dutch section of the Guiana coast eventually becomes Surinam.

Cape Town: AD 1652

Ships sailing to and from the east make a habit of calling in at the bay below Table mountain – to barter with the Khoikhoi tribes of the region for fresh food, and to engage in an informal postal system. Letters and news sheets are left under marked stones, to await a particular recipient or to be carried in the appropriate direction by the next passing ship.

There has even been a feeble attempt by the English to settle the Cape, in 1615, leaving ten criminals reprieved from the gallows as the founding colonists. But the first serious effort to establish a settlement comes in 1652, with the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck and ninety employees of the Dutch East India Company.

They arrive in three ships, well equipped with seeds and with tools for agriculture and building. Their purpose is to establish a secure fort, to acquire cattle from the Khoikhoi and to develop a vegetable garden to provision passing Dutch ships. During the ten years which van Riebeeck spends in the settlement (and records in detail in his journal), these aims are fulfilled. A fort is built, of earth ramparts and wooden palisades, and eight miles of coast are brought under cultivation.

Van Riebeeck also initiates two developments of great significance for the future.

Free burghers and slaves: AD 1657

By 1657 it is clear that there is more work at the Cape than can be done under central direction by the company’s employees. Van Riebeeck proposes that it will be more effective to release married men from their contracts and to give them farms of their own to cultivate. This development is approved by the company. The independent farmers become known as free burghers.

The second innovation, also put into effect from 1657, is van Riebeeck’s purchase of slaves to do domestic and agricultural work. At the start many of the slaves are brought from the company’s eastern stations, in Indonesia and India; later Mozambique becomes the main source of supply.

By the mid-18th century half the white adult males in the Cape colony own at least one slave. In this society slavery forms, from the start, an integral element.

With adult male slaves outnumbering their free counterparts by two to one, and a high purchase price prevailing in the market, both the penal code for slaves and the level of work demanded from them become brutally harsh in the developing Dutch settlement.

Cape Dutch and Trekboers: 18th century AD

Until 1707 the Dutch East India Company makes some effort to encourage immigration to the Cape. Yet by that time, half a century after the first settlement, the burgher families still number only 1779 men, women and children – consisting of Dutch, German and a minority of Huguenots. Together they own 1107 slaves, mainly adult males.

Thereafter the growth of the settler population is by natural expansion – reaching about 15,000 (with approximately the same number of slaves) by the end of the 18th century. Something approaching a full-scale Dutch colony has developed by accident rather than design, in place of the original depot for the provisioning of ships.

During the 18th century the colony’s territory expands more dramatically than its population, for a reason directly connected with the reliance on slaves. Free burghers come to regard manual labour as slaves’ work. But for many of them there is no other available employment.

The response of the unemployed is to move away from the coast, into vast open expanses sparsely occupied by Khoikhoi and San tribes. In these regions the Dutch live as semi-nomadic herdsmen, fiercely independent, fighting the native tribes for their land and their cattle.

By the 1770s the Dutch nomads have penetrated as far as Graaff-Reinet, some 400 miles northeast of Cape Town. They become known as Trekboers (Dutch for ‘wandering farmers’), a word subsequently often shortened to Boers. When they go on raids, to rustle the cattle of the tribes, the Trekboers form themselves into armed bands of mounted gunmen known as commandos.

At first the commandos make short work of tribal opposition. Between 1785 and 1795 they kill some 2500 San men and women and take another 700, mainly children, into slavery. But by this time the Boers, approaching more fertile territory near the Great Fish River, are meeting stronger opposition from Bantu-speaking Xhosa tribes.

A series of frontier wars between Boers and Xhosa begins in 1779. The Boers appeal to Cape Town but get little help. In their frustration, in 1795, they declare Graaff-Reinet an independent Boer republic.

The Boers are by now, both in their own estimation and in reality, a people different from the Dutch at the Cape. They call themselves Afrikaners, proudly emphasizing their birth in Africa. Their language, Afrikaans, already differs from Dutch. Their fierce independence is accompanied by an equally uncompromising variety of Calvinism. But in the very first year of their new republic a wider conflict intervenes. In 1795 the British seize Cape Town.

The Cape during the French wars: AD 1795-1814

The pretext for Britain’s seizing of the Cape, as the most strategic point on the important sea route to India, is the French conquest of the Netherlands in 1795. This brings the Dutch into the European war on France’s side and makes their attractive African colony a legitimate prey.

The peace of Amiens, in 1802, restores the Cape to its previous owners and brings back a Dutch administration. But war is renewed in 1803. The British capture the Cape again in 1806. And this time the terms of the peace ending the Napoleonic wars, agreed in the congress of Vienna, leave the southern tip of Africa in British hands. It is an arrangement which, for the rest of the century, will lead to friction between the British administration and the original Afrikaner colonists.

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