EUROPEAN IMPERIALISM IN SOUTH AFRICA
European imperialism in South Africa was an important aspect of the Age of Imperialism. More specifically, Dutch and British settlers colonized South Africa over a period of centuries and within the timeframe of the Scramble for Africa. As such, historians consider European imperialism in South Africa to be a significant event in the histories of both Africa and Europe.
EARLY EUROPEAN INTEREST IN SOUTH AFRICA
Europeans expressed an economic interest in Africa for a long period of time before the start of the Age of Imperialism. More specifically, the Age of Exploration saw European explorers travel along the shores of Africa in search of new trading posts and a route to Asia. The Age of Exploration, or Age of Discovery, is one of the most important events in the history of the western world. It began in the early 15th century and continued until the end of the 17th century, and involved European explorers using their navigational skills to travel the world. In general, the European nations that participated the most in the Age of Exploration included Portugal, Spain, France and England. In fact, Portugal was the European nation that made the first and most expansive explorations, including along the coastline of Africa.
Early Portuguese explorers sailed their ships along the western shores of Africa and established trading posts that they used to gain access to the economic resources of the continent. For instance, Portugese explorer, Bartolomeu Dias, was the first European to sail around the southern tip of Africa. He achieved the feat in 1488 CE. His journey set the stage of later European explorations along Africa, which eventually led Europeans using the route as a way to reach Asia by sea. For example, Vasco da Gama was the first European to sail to India around Africa. Also a Portuguese explorer, da Gama made his voyage in 1498 and opened the way for other Europeans to reach the Far East. This led to a flood of ships sailing around Africa as they sailed for India, China and the surrounding areas.
Due to its location, South Africa proved to be an ideal spot for Europeans to establish forts and later settlements to allow ships to carry out repairs and restock their supplies. As such, this eventually led to Dutch settlement and colonization in the 17th century.
DUTCH COLONIZATION IN SOUTH AFRICA
The first to establish a permanent settlement in South Africa was the Dutch East India Company, which hoped to create a base from which they could support European trading ships that were travelling to Far East of Asia. The Dutch East India Company (also known as ‘VOC’ for ‘Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie’ in Dutch) established the settlement in South Africa in 1652 at the Cape of Good Hope, which is a rocky outcropping on the Southern tip of Africa that is on the side of the Atlantic Ocean. The modern city of Cape Town, South Africa is located at the Cape of Good Hope.
Over time, the Dutch Cape Colony expanded to include most of modern South Africa and was populated by many Dutch settlers, as well as other groups. For instance, the local indigenous people of the Cape of Good Hope were called the Khoikhoi, and they were a nomadic group that hunted in the area. At first, the Khoikhoi fought against the Dutch settlement due to it restricting their access to traditional lands. However, as time passed, the Khoikhoi came to live alongside the settlers of the Dutch Cape Colony. Others at the colony included the ‘Free Burghers’ who were former members of the Dutch East India Company. The burghers argued in favor of living freely and were granted access to sections of land where they farmed. Over time, the burghers, which were of Dutch and German heritage, established farms across much of the region and came to control large sections of South Africa.
The Dutch Cape Colony continued to expand throughout the 1700s and became incredibly diverse, but was primarily based on the culture and practices of the early Dutch settlers. For instance, ‘Afrikaans’ is a language that emerged at the time in South Africa. It is based heavily on Dutch but includes other words and sounds from local dialect. As such, this shows the strong Dutch presence in South Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Dutch Cape Colony carried on until the late 1700s when British colonization in the region began. In fact, Britain was the most dominant European empire in all of Africa.
BRITISH IMPERIALISM IN SOUTH AFRICA
The next significant period of European imperialism in South Africa was carried out by Britain, which colonized South Africa between 1815 and 1910. Similar to the Dutch before them, Britain did not necessarily have a large amount of interest in colonizing South Africa. Rather, they hoped to use the Cape as a settlement from which they service and restock ships that were on their way to India and the Far East.
The British gained control over the Cape Colony in the early 1800s, following the bankruptcy of the Dutch East India Company and several significant battles, such as the Battle of Blaauwberg in 1806. Regardless, Britain’s control over the Cape Colony in South Africa was first recognized as part of the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
In the 1820s, South Africa experienced a series of increased tensions due to clashes between the different groups of people in the regions. First was the military expansion of the Zulu Kingdom, which was located roughly in the eastern sections of South Africa. The Zulu Kingdom was a large centralized kingdom under the control of the Zulu King Shaka. Previous to the Zulu Kingdom, the native African people in the region were organized into smaller tribes or bands. However, Shaka oversaw a large military expansion from about 1815 until the 1830s. During that time, Zulu warriors captured large sections of territory and forced many groups of African people from areas of South Africa. Historians don’t know the exact number of people that died in the military clashes, but estimates range from about 1 to 2 million people. For example, this event is referred to as ‘Mfecane’ in Zulu, which translates to ‘crushing’ or ‘scattering’. As such, Zulu expansionism resulted in the displacement of many groups of people and created chaos in South Africa throughout the early and mid-1800s.
The second clash in South Africa was between the British Colonists and Dutch settlers of the Cape Colony. Almost immediately after gaining control over the Cape Colony in 1815, Britain began promoting their own settlers to move into the colony. This resulted in a wave of British immigrants moving to South Africa and led to British colonization of the region. The British government also created new policies for the colony, including the use of English over Dutch and the abolition of slavery in the Cape Colony. This caused frustration among the original Dutch settlers, who resented the new wave of immigrants. In fact, it eventually led to the migration of Dutch settlers to the northeastern interior of South Africa, in an event referred to as the ‘Great Trek’.
The Great Trek first began in 1835 and continued until 1840. During this time, approximately 12,000 Dutch settlers, who were mostly farmers, migrated and created the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The term ‘Boer’ is used in reference to these Dutch farmers, since the word means ‘farmer’ in Dutch and Afrikaans. As stated previously, ‘Afrikaans’ is a language that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries in the Dutch-controlled Cape Colony of South Africa. It is based heavily on Dutch but includes other words and sounds from local dialect. The Dutch farmers were also referred to as ‘Voortrekkers’ which has roughly the same meaning as ‘pioneer’.
As they moved northeast into new territory, the Boers took over large sections of pastureland, which seemed to be under no one’s claim. In reality, the Boers had moved into territory following the destruction of the ‘Mfecane’ from the earlier Zulu expansion. As such, any African people and societies left in the region were weakened and could not create a suitable defense against the newly arrived Boers. As well, the Boers would not have been concerned with displacing the native African people, as they would have viewed it as ‘bringing civilization to an uncivilized land’. This was a common view of the time for people of European descent and extended from beliefs surrounding ethnocentrism and Social Darwinism.
Regardless, the Boers’ migration northeast from the Cape Colony led to more conflicts between the Boers, Zulus and British. As stated earlier, the Boers established two new independent republics in the northeastern territory: Transvaal (South African Republic) and the Orange Free State. The Transvaal Republic was established in 1852 and the Orange Free State was established in 1854. However, in the years before their creation, the Boers came into conflict with the Zulus over control for the land. For their part, the British continued to support the immigration of British citizens into the territory and made the Cape Colony an official colony of the British Empire. As well, British interests in South Africa expanded as they took control over regions north of the Cape Colony, including the Colony of Natal, which had previously been a Boer colony referred to as Natalia. Politically, the Cape Colony elected its first parliament in 1854, but remained under the control of the British through its vast network of colonies. Furthermore, the concept of responsible government was introduced into the Cape of Good Hope in 1872. This was significant as it gave the colony some form of self-government since it allowed them elect their first Prime Minister and local representatives. With that said, South Africa remained firmly under the control of the British Empire.
The conflicts in South Africa reached a high point in 1879 with the Anglo-Zulu War. The war saw the British faceoff against the Zulu Kingdom, who were led at that point by king Cetshwayo. The British initially struggled against the Zulu forces, and suffered a terrible defeat in early battles. Regardless, the British overcame their early struggles and overwhelmed the Zulu with their superior force and weaponry. The Anglo-Zulu War resulted in the end of the Zulu Empire, and strengthened British control in South Africa.
The increased rule of the British in South Africa was worrying for the Boers, who felt threatened. Furthermore, the British became more interested in the two Boer states in the second half of the 19th century following the discovery of gold and diamonds. For instance, diamonds were discovered in territory near the Orange Free State in the 1860s, which attracted mining companies throughout the 1870s and 1880s. This put more pressure on the Boers, as British miners and businesses flooded into the region. For example, Cecil Rhodes, a British mining entrepreneur founded the De Beers Diamond Mine in the town of Kimberley, in the northern area of South Africa. Cecil Rhodes became a central figure in British imperialism in South Africa. For example, he served as the 6th Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896 and promoted the idea a link for the British Empire from Cape Town in South Africa to Cairo in Egypt. In fact, Cecil Rhodes was the central figure of a famous political cartoon from 1892 called ‘The Rhodes Colossus Striding from Cape Town to Cairo’. Today, the cartoon is symbolic of British imperialism in Africa during the timeframe of the Age of Imperialism.
Another important discovery was made in the 19th century, which led to increased tensions between the British and the Boers. Gold was discovered in Transvaal in 1886. This discovery sparked a gold rush and caused miners from all over the world to travel to the area in search of fortune. In fact, Cecil Rhodes also helped co-found a gold mining operation in Transvaal called the Gold Fields of South Africa company. The discovery of diamonds and gold in South Africa in the late 19th century heightened the existing tensions between the Boers and the British and ultimately resulted in a major military clash between the two.
In fact, by the end of the 19th century, the two sides faced off against each other in the Boer War. This was a major conflict that took place from 1899 until 1902. The conflict, which is also known as the Anglo-Boer War or South African War, saw the British and Boers fight over control of the two Boer states: Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The Boers were successful in the early battles of the Boer War, however the British quickly responded with more forces and improved leadership. The British Army numbered over 400,000 in the Boer War and easily outnumbered and overpowered the Boer forces. As a result, the British were able to take control of both Transvaal and the Orange Free State by the end of 1900 and the major military operations of the war was over. With that said, the Boer leaders went into hiding and carried out ongoing surprise attacks for the next two years. The British responded with attacks across the Boer regions, until the Boer leadership surrendered in 1902. In fact, the Boer War ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging in May of 1902. A few years later, in 1910, the different regions of South Africa (Cape Colony, Natal, Transvaal and Orange Free State) were combined to form the Union of South Africa, which remained part of the British Empire.
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