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History, Arrival of Europeans and the Mfecane

mfecane, Cape Coloureds, cattle raiding, Khoikhoi, independent farmers

In 1652 Dutch East India Company official Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape of Good Hope with orders to establish a fort and provision station for company ships on long journeys around Africa to Asia. Below Table Mountain, Cape Town eventually grew out of the first settlements around the Dutch fort. The original inhabitants Riebeeck encountered were the San and the Khoikhoi. At first, company officials bartered with them for cattle and set up gardens to grow fresh produce. By 1657 it became evident that the company’s farming efforts were inadequate, so a small number of company employees were released from their contracts and given land to work as independent farmers supplying the company’s needs. Khoikhoi livestock also proved insufficient for the needs of ships that stopped at the Cape, so the independent farmers, called free burghers, began raising livestock as well.

By the 1660s pressure on the Khoikhoi and the San increased as more of their land was taken by European farmers. The Dutch East India Company encouraged Dutch, German, and French Huguenot immigration between 1680 and 1707 to what later became known as the Cape Colony. The colonists, mostly farmers and cattle herders, became known as Boers (Dutch for “farmers”) or Afrikaners. They developed their own distinctive culture and language (Afrikaans) and practiced their own form of Calvinism, a Protestant religion. During the second half of the 17th century slaves were imported from Asia and other parts of Africa. By the early decades of the 18th century, after two short wars, the Khoikhoi had lost most of their lands to the European settlers; large numbers of them had died as a result of newly introduced diseases such as smallpox, and many of those who remained were placed in positions of servitude. In the same period the San were forced north by the colonists and many were eliminated for cattle raiding. Sexual relations between members of these ethnic groups resulted in the emergence of a distinct group that became known as the Cape Coloureds.

In the 1770s the European settlers encountered Bantu-speaking peoples, who were ending several thousand years of migration. Nguni Bantu groups settled along the eastern coast of what is now South Africa while Sotho groups occupied the interior north of Cape Colony. In the early 19th century competition for land led to a period of conflict and forced migration among Bantu-speaking peoples known as the mfecane (Nguni for "the crushing"). It is estimated that hundreds of thousands died during the wars, entire groups disappeared, and centralization resulted in the creation or strengthening of several Bantu states, including the Zulu, Swazi, and Sotho kingdoms.

The mfecane fundamentally altered the political and social configuration of the entire region. It was set in motion by one of the great military geniuses of the 19th century, Shaka, who ruled the Zulu kingdom. He introduced a type of spear with a long blade called an assegai, organized a regimental system based on age groups, and introduced new strategies of warfare. The kingdoms, or states, that emerged from the mfecane came into direct conflict with white expansion in the 19th century.

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