South Africa is a nation awash in both British and Dutch influence. Two of the top official languages are English and Afrikaans, which tells of the two colonial powers that once vied for control of this strategic region. Before South Africa became a part of the British Empire, it was a Dutch colony known as Cape Colony. (Afrikaans is occasionally referred to as Cape Dutch or Cape Colony Dutch.) However, most people will remember South Africa as primarily being a British colony. That is because, during the chaos of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain decided to seize control of Cape Colony and keep it for itself.While control of South Africa became crucial for protecting Britain’s ever-growing supply lines, the seizure of the colony from the Dutch sowed seeds of conflict that would bear fruit for generations. The Boers, an agrarian people descended from the original Dutch settlers and Huguenots, would go on to clash with the British for years. In the countryside, there are still tensions stemming from whites of Dutch descent, whites of British descent, and the native black population.
So how did Britain come to control this important colony and why was there so much tension between the Dutch and English in this region?
Cape Colony was established in 1652 by the Dutch United East India Company (VOC), which was a foil and rival to the British East India Company (EIC). The colony was established as a stopover for ships sailing from Europe to Asia. The Dutch had lucrative colonies and interests in both the Caribbean and Asia. These islands still refer to their original Dutch masters, the Dutch West Indies (Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten) and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). South Africa sits neatly between these two regions, allowing Dutch ships to stop, refuel, and refit before plunging back into the open ocean.
For many years, the colony was a full subsidiary of the VOC and was directly ruled by VOC governors. The flag of the colony bore the symbol of the VOC. Before the rise of the British in Asia, the Dutch were the ones who held the keys to the kingdom. They had trading posts throughout the Caribbean, African coast, South Africa, Ceylon, India, and Indonesia. This string of ports, warehouses, and resupply depots allowed Dutch ships to sail from the Netherlands to Java and back with very little fuss.
The Dutch handily controlled Cape Colony for 150 years until the nation, like almost every European nation, got entangled in the Napoleonic Wars, which changed the trajectory of the colony permanently.
Back and Forth
In 1795, the Netherlands was occupied by Revolutionary France, which promptly put the nation at war with the British, who were also at war with Revolutionary France. The British quickly dispatched a force to Cape Colony with the intention of taking the colony to deprive it of use by the French and to strengthen their own routes to India. Everything was about securing safe access to the sea to keep British ships afloat to counter French (and Spanish) designs. However, 1795 does not mark the official takeover by the British but rather the start of a confusing period of Napoleonic politics.
The first invasion of Cape Colony was known as the Battle of Muizenberg and was rather bloodless. With only four dead and fifty wounded, the British easily secured Cape Colony for themselves. Panicked, the Dutch United East India Company (VOC), former rulers of the colony, transferred all of its deeds and ownership to a new nation known as the Batavian Republic.
Progression of Cape Colony Ownership (1795–1806)
The Dutch United East India Company (VOC)
The British Empire
The Batavian Republic
The British Empire
The Batavian Republic was a new nation that succeeded the old Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, which dissolved under French pressure. The new Dutch state was a puppet of France, so the British held on to Cape Colony for the moment. But the tides of power were shifting once again in Europe with the rise of Napoleon.
In 1803, eight years after taking Cape Colony, the British did an about-face and returned the colony to the Batavian Republic. This was seen as a gesture of goodwill toward the Dutch to help better relations and, in turn, helped better relations between Britain and the upstart Napoleon, who had designs on the Batavian Republic himself.
At first, it seemed as though the move would signal a beginning to a new status quo which resembled the old status quo. But the peace would not last. It was not long before the British were once again at war with the French, and British warships were once again dispatched to Cape Colony.
The Second Invasion of Cape Colony, or the Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806, was more intense, but the result was the same. The British once again seized control of the distant colony and held it as her own. This time, Britain would not make the same mistake of relinquishing control of the region back to the Dutch. This time, the transfer was permanent.
Making It Official
This time, the British held onto Cape Colony for another eight years (1806–1814) before the colony officially became a part of the British Empire. In 1814, the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 was signed, which ceded all claims and control of Cape Colony from the Dutch to the British. The theft was complete. As a concession, the British agreed to return the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) back to the new (new) Netherlands state as another gesture of goodwill. (This iteration of the Netherlands was now pro-British and anti-French, so returning the Dutch East Indies to the Dutch was seen as a favorable strategic move.)
The move was one of a long list of similar such seizures that saw many Dutch colonies fall into British hands. The British had also seized New Amsterdam (New York) in the 17th century. This treaty also gave the British claim to Dutch possessions in South America and India.
With the signing of the Convention of London official, Cape Colony became an official part of the British Crown and it would remain so until 1910.
Thriving In Chaos
The British managed to steal Cape Colony from Dutch interests in the same way they managed to exponentially grow their empire during the 19th century — by thriving in chaos. The British were masters of the sea and were able to project power like no other nation at the time. In both cases, the British easily secured Cape Colony from the Dutch in brief and decisive battles. They used the Great Power politics at the time to their advantage and wheeled and dealt their way into new lands and colonies all over the world. In most cases, the British came out on top.
The Netherlands was in a state of constant flux and chaos during this period, and the British managed to play the Dutch off the French and used French aggression to add lucrative new lands to their empire. Once the British captured Cape Colony in 1795, the fate of the colony was sealed. Once the British got a taste for the territory, there was no going back.
Cape Colony had been a Dutch possession for over 150 years, but they used their conflict with France to peel away Dutch territories under the guise of warring with Napoleon. In the end, the Dutch lost most of their imperial territories, and many of them found their way into the British Empire.
Today, British and Dutch influences are two pillars of South African culture. The Dutch were forcibly pushed out by the British (joining a long list of grieved people during this era.) The remaining Dutch settlers would be in a state of tension and open acrimony against the British for generations to come. In the aftermath, the British used South Africa to extend their influence into Asia, something that was nearly impossible for them before. At first, it seemed as though the British didn’t really want Cape Colony but they ended up taking it after two short battles and a whole mess of European politics. From 1806 until the present, South Africa has been seen as a former British possession, and the memory of the Dutch ownership has faded into the background.