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A Brief History

150 Years after the discovery of the sea route to the East and despite being a poor country with no resources of it's own and constantly embattled by greater powers around it, the Dutch managed to wedge themselves into the established trans-oceanic trade and maintain the upper hand for two centuries. In the process they dispersed peoples from the East to the West and from the North to the South.

Instead of being the first to start an East Indian Company they were amongst the last. Except for the Spanish and Portuguese, the Danes, French and British also had similar companies, but none was so well prepared as the Dutch to make it work. They had spent a 150 years gathering expertise, wielding influence in the economies of Europe and making their own region prosperous despite the fact that they had no resources of their own.

From the 1400's onwards the Dutch had developed financial and trading interests in almost every country and every venture in Europe and Scandinavia from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. In the beginning they extended the herring trade, essential for long voyages. Harvesting salt and having salt harvested by peasants all over the coastal regions they could reach was the first mainstay. They enlarged their herring boats to handle larger catches with fewer men, and salted the herring on board their capacious ships before supplying the product to the trans-oceanic traders. After the discovery of the sea-route to India in 1497, but being under the yoke of Spain, their trading ventures were restricted to the oceans of the Northern hemisphere. Here they fetched and carried, traded and collected, refined and resold at the lowest cost, including the riches from the East via Spain.

In 1595 the continued resistance of the seven Northern Provinces of the Low Lands against Spanish rule finally wore Spain out financially and they were emancipated as the Union of the Netherlands. This meant that they were free to trade where they wished, but also that Spanish ports were now closed to them. They had to find their own way to the East unaided if they wanted their source of income to continue.

The Portuguese were better traders than the Spanish, but their secrets were well-kept and secure. In 1592 some Dutch merchants sent Cornelis de Houtman to Lisbon to ferret out the trade secrets. He returned to Amsterdam at about the same time as another Dutchman, Jan Huygen van Linschoten, who had experienced a trip to the East with the Portuguese and kept meticulous journals of his experiences. These journals were to be published in 1596 as his Itinerario, but no doubt the contents were made available to Cornelis de Houtman and the merchant traders long beforehand.

In 1594 the merchants founded the company 'compagnie van Verre', and on April 2 1595 four ships left Amsterdam: Amsterdam, Hollandia, Mauritius and Duyfken. Their first attempts at trade were unsuccessful and bitter disputes and misunderstandings ensued. De Houtman was dismissed by the scheepsraad before the end of this expedition. On February 26 1597 the traders finally managed to obtain some spice. The Portuguese refused to revictualise them at st Helena and only 87 crew members out of the 249 that started the journey returned, too weak to moor their own ships. Yet this voyage can be seen as the beginning of the Golden Age and Dutch supremacy on the seas.

Over the next 5 years 15 fleets made successful return journeys to and from the East. In 1602 the Dutch merchants decided to pull all their separate fleets and fleet-owners into one large Company, named the Vereenigde Oost-Indische g'octrooieerde Compagnie, generally shortened to the VOC (or DEIC - Dutch East Indian Company) in 1602, with a mandate to wage wars, trade, colonise and, in fact, do anything as was deemed necessary to control the Eastern Trade routes. In 1621 a sister company was started to handle trans-atlantic trade to the America's, This was named the West Indian Company and was almost a bounty fleet, with expertise in trading in illicit goods including slaves. See map of the Netherlands from 1600 (71k).

The Cape of Good Hope had been known to trans-oceanic voyagers since the discovery of the sea-route by the Portuguese in the 1490's. Here they waited for laggards, sent men ashore to recuperate, left notes for other ships, took on fresh water and traded for fresh supplies with the locals before continuing their journeys to the East or back to Europe. Leendert Jansz and his crew, who were shipwrecked at the Cape remained ashore for a year, living of the land, trading with the indigenous people and getting rice from passing ships. An indication that they could have gone home much earlier, but were content to wait until a VOC ship passed along. In his report he mentions that many of the indigenous people from the coastal regions already spoke some Dutch, Portuguese and English. Whether there were descendants resulting from one-and-a-half centuries of regular contact with the Europeans is not chronicled, but the assumption must be that there probably were.

By placing a garrison on the southernmost tip of Africa in 1652, half a century after the beginning of the VOC and well into the second century of trans-oceanic trade, the Dutch jumped ahead of their competitors. The Spanish/Portuguese contingent used the coast of Mozambique as their route was considerably shorter, but the Danish, French and British East India Companies could be deprived of this valuable halfway station, and forced to travel further for replenishment, thereby losing time. In the world of commerce time is money and the Dutch tended to cut their costs to the bone.

A Sailor joining the VOC with his luggage packed,
with an important Burgher. 

Dutch trading settlements in the East, before the Cape was appropriated, included Jakarta, Atjeh in Western Sumatra, Malakka, Formosa of the coast of China and Nagasaki in Japan, Tonkin and Quinam (today known as North and South Vietnam) as well as many stations along the coast of India, especially Bengal. During his travels Jan van Riebeeck was most impressed with the thriftiness and conscientiousness of the Chinese, and if he had had his wish, he would have brought only Chinese labourers to the Cape when the time came to man a halfway station there. South African history could have been much different ………

Other holdings of the Dutch, controlled by the WIC, included Hudson Bay and New Netherland (now New York) in the Northern part of North America, Southern States such as Virginia, and the Northern parts of South America, Curacau, Dutch Guiana (now Surinam), most of Brazil for a short period and some of the West Indian Islands and the Western Coastal regions of Africa, where slaves were obtained. The trade in these areas was mostly illicit, but they were ideally set up to supply English and French holdings in these regions with slaves and other essentials. They too had regular contact with Batavia and the holdings in the East. The North American holdings were lost to the English in 1664 but by this time numerous Dutch communities had already made it their home, many in almost exclusively Dutch settlements.

It is mentioned that in 1640 Jakarta in Batavia, as the East Indian island of Java was known, resembled any town in the Netherlands, swamps and marshes laid dry with typically Dutch canals, and quaint Dutch houses lining narrow streets. Official's wives and families were always allowed to join them on voyages, but the wives of lower ranking married employees had to sign a contract for ten years, even as did their husbands. This caused families to be split up, although many wives followed after receiving word from their menfolk that they would find the new place welcoming - almost like home itself

The Cape was not designed to be a home away from home. It's purpose was a Comptoir, (service settlement) protected by a garrison, and building always had to make way for produce. This was the difference between the intended Colonies and the Cape. To the Colonies the Dutch sent homogenous groups and tried to recreate little pieces of Holland on foreign shores. To the Comptoirs it sent adventurers and men who would be able to do the job and endure the hardships even if the place didn't resemble home.

In order to enable Jan van Riebeeck achieve success he had with him sailors, soldiers, gardeners, sharpshooters and other tradesmen required for the task ahead. Most of them unmarried. A few of the officers' and officials' wives had accompanied them, and Jan van Riebeeck himself had brought a wife, a child and two orphaned nieces. They had also taken in a little Khoisan girl, named Krotoa, and had renamed her Eva. She was to become the "First Mother" of many South African and, incidentally, also European families through her marriage to Pieter Meerhoff , a Danish explorer who arrived at the Cape shortly after 1652. Eight slaves were also included in the contingent that had to make the Cape habitable. Except for the official's families, only one complete family was initially brought to work at the Cape: Hendrick Hendricks Boom, his wife and six children. Van Riebeeck had found them on board de Dromedaris at departure, and since Hendrick was a gardener and his wife an able farmer, allowed them to come along. The crew had to build a little house for them on the top deck for the journey.

A Merry departure for VOC sailors with music and drinking.
Prior to their long voyage across the sea

Although the higher ranks were filled mostly by citizens of the Province of Holland, a quick survey of the places the enlisted men came from is an indication of the geographical variety which made up the initial core of the population at the Cape. Many came from the United Provinces of the Netherlands, mainly Gelderland, Zeeland, Drenthe, Friesland and Groningen, but as many were from other countries in Europe - Lower Germany, Prussia, Belgium, France and as far afield as the Baltic lands and Scandinavia. In fact anywhere that Dutch ships frequented men signed up for service in the VOC. They were rough and ready folk. And in the first months at the Cape there were many altercations, amongst themselves and between themselves and the indigenous coastal population when the latter became rebellious against the newcomers.

Between 1652 and 1657 Commissary Rijkloff van Ghoens, overseer of the Cape settlement, envisaged cutting the 600 ha the garrison occupied on the Cape peninsula off from the mainland by means of a canal. This plan never materialised and Jan van Riebeeck planted an almond hedge that marked the post's outer limits instead. Part of this hedge is still extant in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.

It was soon found that the Company employees alone would never produce the quantities of supplies required by the visiting fleets, and that more land, outside the boundaries of the supply post, would be needed to supply adequate produce and provide motivation for this costly venture. In 1657 the first Free-Burghers were installed on parcels of land outside the fort. Steven Jansz Botma and his group of four settled the area which was known as the "Hollantse Thuyn", but was better known as "Steven's Colony" close to a little fort named Coornhoop (Hope for wheat). A second group of three settled under the leadership of Harmen Remajenne, close to the Liesbeeck river. This settlement was to be known as Harman's Colony.

The Free-Burgher system developed gradually from this point onward. From governor to sharpshooter, carpenter to clerk, when the contract expired employees of the VOC had to decide whether they would return to their homeland, move on to other VOC holdings, or stay and farm the land. Where the other colonies had settlers who were living in luxury with their families and overseeing the plantations and other VOC assets, the Cape's became a colony of farmers or "boeren" as the Dutch would term it, who were under contract to sell their produce to the Company itself. As employees' posts were vacated they were filled by new contractees. By 1707 a total of 528 ex-VOC employees were already Free-Burghers, farming the land and raising families. The colonising of the Cape had begun, unplanned and unintended. Although Free-burghers were under contract to the Company for ten years, their children would remain so for twenty, and due to this few parents returned to the homeland once their time was up. Married men like Steven Janz Botma, sent for their families that had remained behind, but others looked elsewhere.

Since he wasn't allowed to employ more men, and realising that the Free-Burghers alone could never supply in the demand for produce without extra labour, Jan van Riebeeck decided to import large numbers of slaves. Costs had to be kept low and slaves warranted a single payment, after which they remained without wages for as long as the owners cared to keep them enslaved. Slaves could also be captured from passing Portuguese ships for free or passing ships of the West Indian Company could be enticed to let go of their cargo at the Cape at a price. Some VOC ships were commissioned to fetch slaves from the West African coast, mainly Angola, but after a few such ventures the West Indian Company put a stop to that, as it was encroaching on their own lucrative trade with the America's. Madagascar, off the East Coast of Africa was a free-for-all, and numerous slaves were bought there. As with the "Dutchification" of foreign European names at the time of employ, the slaves were also arbitrarily named. The months of the year, Greek gods and goddesses and biblical names were very popular. The only clue we have regarding their place of departure are their "surnames", such as from Bengal, from the Coast, from Madagascar, from Arabia, etc.

Slaves from all the trading areas where the Dutch fleets wielded influence were dispersed to the Southern tip of Africa, the East Indies and the America's. From Batavia and the coast of India slaves were regularly sent off to the Cape. From their own tribes and settlements they were sold into slavery by a victorious rival, or as the losers in tribal conflict, sometimes family members were sold off because the family had run into debt, or run out of finery to trade, some were political dissidents and others were found guilty of petty crimes or seen as potential troublemakers in the eyes of Dutch officialdom. From Africa the acquisition of slaves was no less insidious. They were not captured by the Dutch themselves, but bought from the slave markets dotting the coastal regions. Here too potential slaves were often rounded up by the victors in tribal conflicts or the enemies of a tribe, to be sold to the traders at fixed trading points where the slavers would pick them up in vast numbers, selling them off at the Cape, or taking them to the East or to the America's. In this manner families were dispersed wherever the trade winds reached with no hope of ever returning to their countries of origin.

In 1685 van Reede found amongst the slave children at the Cape 57 children of obviously "mixed" parentage, the fathers unnamed, and a decree followed whereby male "halfslagh" children were to be set free at age 25, and female "halfslagh" children at age 22 in recognition of the European part of their genetic heritage. There are instances in which these children carried the father's surname, and others where they are referred to as "van de Kaap" (of the Cape). Children of full-blooded slaves were mostly doomed to remain in bondage throughout their lives, unless they were manumitted on the whim of their owners. There are no fixed rules and clues must be closely followed up for every individual case. It must be remembered that marriages between manumitted slaves and freemen were perfectly legal and their traces soon disappeared into the melting-pot of the early community at large.

In the year 1688 the first Huguenots arrived at the Cape - 179 souls in all, they were the first cohesive group to do so - bringing with them their own preacher and knowledge of specialist farming. With their expertise the vineyards that the VOC longed to establish so eagerly finally materialised. In order to expediate rapid integration within the Cape-Dutch community they were scattered between existing farms in an area now known as Franshoek. Their language died out within two generations, but their customs and culture had a lasting effect on South Africa as a whole.

These widely divergent peoples formed the main core of the founder families of South Africa. Adventurers and clerks, sailors and farmers, soldiers and slaves, gardeners and freemen from most continents became part and parcel of the population. Some settled permanently in rapidly evolving cosmopolitan surroundings and developed the typical Cape-Dutch styles - a mixture of East and West that nestles comfortably in the scenic surroundings of the Western Cape, and also a language which was a mixture of Lowlandic dialects related to the languages of the Lowlands, but with strong Eastern, Portuguese and indigenous overtones. Seaman's jargon also remained very much extant in the new language.

Some of the descendants of the Cape families rapidly spread further from the jurisdiction of Cape Town and further from civilisation as we would term it today. They survived in a different reality and soon became a group unto their own. They learned the art of coping with the harsh conditions of the hinterland from the indigenous peoples, whom they hunted and were hunted by. The emphasis in their existence was based on fieldcraft and survival in the uncompromising African wilderness. Their social sphere became exclusive, marrying amongst themselves and accepting only those who they deemed to share their heritage into their community. Education was not rated highly amongst this group, although it is surprising to find that most were functionally literate, in contrast to most farmers and peasants of eighteenth century Europe. Itinerant teachers and merchants were in great demand in the regions where the Trekboers, or Itinerant Farmers dwelled. In order to keep control over it's rebellious offspring, the VOC had to adjust its colonial boundaries continuously outwards, but the wheels of bureaucracy never turned fast enough to catch up with the free spirited Trekboers.

The indigenous people of the various Khoikhoi tribes, though not enslaved, were soon all but eliminated by the newcomers. They had no resistance against the foreign diseases brought in by the newcomers, smallpox took it's toll almost immediately, and trading cattle for alcohol did no less to decimate their social structures. Their cattle stocks, the reason for the settlement in the Cape, were soon eroded by the overwhelming demand from the itinerant farmers, who would sometimes buy, but more often just take, what they wanted. A reciprocal process followed - each group would appropriate cattle from the other whenever the opportunity arose and this was the cause of many skirmishes, normally lost by the ever dwindling Khoikhoi.

When the VOC finally lost control of it's holdings to the British a population of 26,000 'white settlers' (descendants of the founding families and immigrants that had poured in over the years), 30,000 slaves, and 20,000 Khoikhoi called the Cape Colony their fatherland.

To all who venture into the mysteries of genealogical research in South Africa it becomes quite clear that researching the founding families at the Cape cannot be done without paying careful attention to the peculiarities of research in the international arena at large. There are numerous websites, publications and e-mail mailinglists dedicated to research in any of the European locations. Much of the VOC information is also still available, but difficult to access. A dedicated ring researching the ancestors from regions other than Europe is much overdue.

Scandinavians, Frisians and people from some of the other Netherlandic Provinces often made use of patronymics, or forms of identification other than a family name, within their own area. On documentation from outside their own locality their town or parish would be added. So one would find reference to Douwe Klazes (Douwe, son of Klaas) in local registers (birth, marriage and even taxes), but if he moved to Amsterdam, he would be referred to as Douwe Klazes van Schoterland in documents there. Within his own town, if another Klaas named his son Douwe, the vocations of these people would come into play: Douwe Klazes Veenman (the peat worker) or Douwe Klazes de Boer ( the farmer) would be sufficient information to identify the people locally. If Douwe Klazes was still alive when his son Klaas Douwes named a child Douwe Klazes (as required by naming protocol), the grandfather would be referred to as Douwe Klazes de Oude and the grandson would be Douwe Klazes de Jong. This system lasted (mostly in rural and small communities) until 1811, when Napoleon decreed that each and every person should have a fixed surname, as was customary in France itself. In many areas one still finds the patronymic stuck between first name and surname up to the end of the 19th century. In Russia and parts of Scandinavia the custom of a child having the father's name as "surname" is still in use.

Within a single country in districts no further apart than 20 km, an entirely different naming protocol may have been used. One area may favour patronymics, the next may favour the name of the estate where a man worked or was born. Important Dutch merchant families, especially from the provinces of Holland, as well as most Germans and Frenchmen generally had family names even as early as the 17th century, but the peasants of the Low Lands, who made up the bulk of the emigrants, seldom did.

In 1652, when the trade winds blew the Europeans far and wide, the need for a fixed name arose much sooner. The name the ancestors arrived with, whether in the Cape, Batavia or the America's, was phonetically translated into Hollands and entered on the VOC registers as a future reference to this particular person and his family. Accent, dialect and pronunciation often mask the true origins of the original name supplied.

Research about the origins of a particular ancestor from India, Angola, Mozambique, Arabia, China, Japan, Madagascar or Indonesia is nearly impossible, except in general terms such as location and local economic or political conditions of the time. Unfortunately the oral histories of these people were hardly ever told to the ensuing generations, having been enslaved was not a fact that people passed on with pride. One hopes that in time to come interaction via the international media will make it easier to access the oral history of these communities and paint a clearer picture of who they really were and how they came to be enslaved.

22/5/2000 Gerda Pieterse


Jan van Riebeeck en Sy Gesin A J Boeseken Publisher: Tafelberg, 1974

Economic History of Europe Herbert Heaton Publisher: Harper and Row 1948, Revised Edition

Ensiklopedie van Suidelike Afrika Eric Rosenthal Publisher: Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd 1970

With special thanks to - Eileen Russell, Chris Barker and The Genforum List Basie Haasbroek Johan Erasmus, A J Kok, J Olivier, The SA Rootsweb List M Upham, A van Rensburg (Australia), E-Mail contacts M Wilcox USA F Roberts USA


De VOC site
Koninklijke Bibliotheek Nationale bibliotheek van Nederland

TANAP VOC/VOC maps and drawings
History of the VOC (English)
Extended Information on the archives of the VOC (Dutch)
VOC information (Dutch)
Detailed history of the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch)
Museum site (English)
Decay of VOC sites in India and measures to prevent it (English)
Manumission registers of Surinam - wonderful graphics (Dutch)
Digitale Bronbewerking Links to all sites required for historical and genealogical research in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg and beyond (mainly Dutch)
Indisch Informatiepunt
Official document stating the homecountry of the ship, the name of the skipper and the capacity (Dutch)
Decree of Napoleon, names that were assumed in 1811, etc. (Dutch and partially English)

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