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The Cape Colony, part of modern South Africa, was established by the Dutch East India Company in 1652, with the founding of Cape Townmarker. It was subsequently occupied by the Britishmarker in 1795 when the Netherlands were occupied by revolutionary France, so that the French revolutionaries could not take possession of the Cape with its important strategic location. An improving situation in the Netherlands allowed the British to hand back the colony to the Netherlands in 1803, but by 1806 resurgent French control in the Netherlands led to another British occupation to prevent Napoleon using the Cape. The Cape Colony subsequently remained in the British Empire until the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, when it was renamed the Cape of Good Hope Province.

The Cape Colony was coextensive with the later Cape Province, stretching from the Atlantic coastmarker inland and eastward along the southern coast, constituting about half of modern South Africa: the final eastern boundary, after several wars against the Xhosa, stood at the Fish Rivermarker. In the north, the Orange Rivermarker, also known as the Gariep River, served for a long time as the boundary, although some land between the river and the southern boundary of Botswanamarker was later added to it.


In South Africa, the Dutch were the first European colonists. The first Cape settlement was built in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company as a re-supply point and way station for Dutch vessels on their way back and forth between the Netherlands and the East Indies. The support station gradually became a settler community, the forebears of the Afrikaners, a European ethnic group in South Africa.

The local black Khoikhoi had neither a strong political organisation nor an economic base beyond their herds. They bartered livestock freely to Dutch ships. As Company employees established farms to supply the Cape station, they began to displace the Khoikhoi. Conflicts led to the consolidation of European landholdings and a breakdown of Khoikhoi society. Military success led to even greater Dutch control of the Khoikhoi by the 1670s. The Khoikhoi became the chief source of colonial wage labour.

The colony also imported slaves. Slavery set the tone for relations between the emergent and white Dutch colonial population and the coloureds of other races. Free or not, the latter were eventually identified with slave peoples.

After the first settlers spread out around the Company station, nomadic European livestock farmers, or Trekboers, moved more widely afield, leaving the richer, but limited, farming lands of the coast for the drier interior tableland. There they contested still wider groups of Khoikhoi cattle herders for the best grazing lands. By 1700, the traditional Khoikhoi lifestyle of pastoralism had disappeared.

The Cape society in this period was thus a diverse one. The Dutch Company officials (including Dutch Reformed ministers), the Afrikaners (both settled colonists and Trekboers), who were growing different from their counterparts in the Company, the Khoikhoi, and the slaves of diverse nationality all played differing roles. Intermarriage and cohabitation of masters and slaves added to the complexity. The emergence of Afrikaans, a new vernacular language of the colonials that is however intelligible with Dutch, shows that the Dutch immigrants themselves were also subject to acculturation processes. By the time of British rule after 1795, the sociopolitical foundations were firmly laid.

The history of Cape Colony started with the founding of Cape Town by Dutch commander Jan van Riebeeck, working for the Dutch East India Company, known in Dutch as the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC).

In 1795, Francemarker occupied the Seven Provinces of the Netherlands, the mother country of the Dutch East India Company. This prompted Great Britainmarker to occupy the territory in 1795 as a way to better control the seas in order stop any potential French attempt to get to Indiamarker. The British assumed control of the territory following the minor Battle of Muizenberg. The VOC transferred its territories and claims to the Batavian Republic (the Revolutionary period Dutch state) in 1798, and ceased to exist in 1799. Improving relations between Britain and Napoleonic France, and its vassal state the Batavian Republic, led the British to hand the Cape Colony over to the Batavian Republic in 1803 (under the terms of the Treaty of Amiens).

Map of the Cape Colony in 1809.
In 1806, the Cape, now nominally controlled by the Batavian Republic, was occupied again by the British after their victory in the Battle of Blaauwberg. The temporary peace between Britain and Napoleonic France had crumbled into open hostilities, whilst Napoleon had been strengthening his influence on the Batavian Republic (which Napoleon would subsequently abolish later the same year). The British hoped to keep Napoleon out of the Cape, and to control the Far East trade routes.

They set up a British colony on 8 January 1806. The British started to settle the eastern border of the colony with the arrival in Port Elizabethmarker of the 1820 Settlers. The discovery of diamonds in Kimberleymarker in 1870 led to a rapid expansion of British influence into the hinterland under colonialists such as Cecil Rhodesmarker. The ill-fated Jameson Raid curbed this expansion somewhat until British victory following the Second Boer War.

Cape Colony remained under British rule until the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, when it became the Cape of Good Hope Province, better known as the Cape Province.

Governors of the Cape Colony (1652-1910)

The title of the founder of the Cape Colony, Jan van Riebeeck, was "Commander of the Cape" (initially called "opperhoof"), a position which he held from 1652 to 1662. He was succeeded by a long line of both Dutchmarker and Britishmarker colonial administrators, depending on who was in power at the time:

Commanders of Dutch East India Company colony (1652-1691)

Governors of Dutch East India Company colony (1691-1795)

British colony (1st time, 1797-1803)

Batavian Republic (Dutch) colony (1803-1806)

British colony (2nd time, 1806-1910)

The post of High Commissioner for Southern Africa was also held from 27 January 1847 to 31 May 1910 by the Governor of the Cape Colony. The post of Governor of the Cape Colony became extinct on 31 May 1910, when it joined the Union of South Africa.

Prime Ministers of the Cape Colony (1872-1910)

The post of prime minister of the Cape Colony also became extinct on 31 May 1910, when it joined the Union of South Africa.


  • Beck, Roger B. (2000). The History of South Africa. Westport, CT: Greenwood. ISBN 031330730X.
  • Davenport, T. R. H., and Christopher Saunders (2000). South Africa: A Modern History, 5th ed. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312233760.
  • Elbourne, Elizabeth (2002). Blood Ground: Colonialism, Missions, and the Contest for Christianity in the Cape Colony and Britain, 1799-1853. McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-2229-8.
  • Le Cordeur, Basil Alexander (1981). The War of the Axe, 1847: Correspondence between the governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Henry Pottinger, and the commander of the British forces at the Cape, Sir George Berkeley, and others. Brenthurst Press. ISBN 0-909079-14-5.
  • Mabin, Alan (1983). Recession and its aftermath: The Cape Colony in the eighteen eighties. University of the Witwatersrand, African Studies Institute.
  • Ross, Robert, and David Anderson (1999). Status and Respectability in the Cape Colony, 1750-1870 : A Tragedy of Manners. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-62122-4.
  • Theal, George McCall (1970). History of the Boers in South Africa; Or, the Wanderings and Wars of the Emigrant Farmers from Their Leaving the Cape Colony to the Acknowledgment of Their Independence by Great Britain. Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-8371-1661-9.
  • Van Der Merwe, P.J., Roger B. Beck (1995). The Migrant Farmer in the History of the Cape Colony. Ohio University Press. ISBN 0-8214-1090-3.
  • Worden, Nigel, Elizabeth van Heyningen, and Vivian Bickford-Smith (1998). Cape Town: The Making of a City. Cape Town: David Philip. ISBN 0864864353.

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