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European Footstep in South Africa

The written history of South Africa begins with the arrival of the Portuguese.


The first Portuguese ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, their occupants intent on gaining a share of the lucrative Arab trade with the East.

Over the following century, numerous vessels made their way around the South African coast, but the only direct African contacts came with the bands of shipwreck survivors who either set up camp in the hope of rescue or tried to make their way northward to Portuguese settlements in present-day Mozambique. Both the British and the Dutch challenged the Portuguese control of the Cape sea route from the early 17th century.

The British founded a short-lived settlement at Table Bay in 1620, and in 1652 the Dutch East India Company set up a small garrison under the slopes of Table Mountain for provisioning their fleets.

The Dutch East India Company, always mindful of unnecessary expense, did not intend to establish more than a minimal presence at the southernmost part of Africa. The company made it clear that the Khoekhoe were not to be enslaved, so, beginning in that same year, slaves arrived in the Cape from West and East Africa, India, and the Malay Peninsula. By the end of the century, the imprint of Dutch colonialism in South Africa was clear, with settlers, aided by increasing numbers of slaves, growing wheat, tending vineyards, and grazing their sheep and cattle from the Cape peninsula to the Hottentots Holland Mountains some 30 miles (50 km) away. A 1707 census of the Dutch at the Cape listed 1,779 settlers owning 1,107 slaves.

Thus, by the closing decades of the 18th century, South Africa had fallen into two broad regions: west and east. Colonial settlement dominated the west, including the winter rainfall region around the Cape of Good Hope, the coastal hinterland northward toward the present-day border with Namibia, and the dry lands of the interior.

Cape Town was developing into South Africa's major urban centre, although it took many years for it to equal the size that Mapungubwe had attained some five centuries earlier. The initial grid of streets had been expanded and linked the company's garden to the new fortress that overlooked Table Bay.

The Union of South Africa was born on May 31, 1910, created by a constitutional convention (in Durban in 1908) and an act of the British Parliament (1909). The infant state owed its conception to centralizing and modernizing forces generated by mineral discoveries, and its character was shaped by eight years of “reconstruction” between 1902 and 1910. During that period, efficient administrative structures were created, and a relationship developed between Afrikaner politicians and mining capitalists that consolidated the economic dominance of gold.

Last Updated on Monday 17th January 2011