South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Johan Anthoniszoon van Riebeeck

(April 21, 1619 - January 18, 1677)

First commander at the Cape, Johan Anthoniszoon van Riebeeck, was born in Culemborg in the Netherlands on 21 April 1619. He was an administrator for the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) and spent some time in Malaysia as part of his profession. He also served as an assistant surgeon in the East Indies.

In March 1647 the Nieuw-Haerlem, a ship of the Dutch East Company's fleet, ran aground in Table Bay at the Cape. The stranded crew built a temporary fort, grew vegetables in the fertile soil, and made contact with the local Khoikhoi. After the survivors were picked up the following year, the Lords XVII of the DEIC asked two merchants, Leendert Jansz and Mathys Proot, to write a report on their experiences at the Cape. The Remonstrantie that they submitted in 1649 contained recommendations that impressed the Amsterdam Chamber of the DEIC. At the time there was increasing tension between the Netherlands and England, and they saw the far-flung Cape Peninsula on the sea route to the Indies as a practical, healthy and strategic area to take ownership of. The Lords XVII approved their proposal to establish a meeting place and fortress at the Cape.

In June 1651, Jan van Riebeeck was appointed the first commander of the Cape. He was to establish a station at the southern end of Africa to provide passing ships with fresh food and water. A fleet of five ships set out and the flagship Drommedaris, the Reijger, and the Goede Hoope, reached Table Bay on 6 April 1652. The Walvis and the Oliphant arrived late, having had 130 burials at sea.

Other than growing vegetables and fruit known to be effective against scurvy, cereals, and pasturelands for cattle breeding, there was no real incentive to build a permanent settlement. Van Riebeeck's specific instructions were not to colonise the Cape but to build a fort, to erect a flagpole for signalling to passing ships, and to build pilot boats to escort them safely into the bay. Three months after their arrival, England and the Dutch Republic were engaged in a naval war and the speedy completion of the fort at the Cape became imperative.

The first wet winter was hard. The people lived in wooden huts, nineteen died, their gardens washed away, food supplies dwindled and few were fit enough to work. Despite these early difficulties the Cape was producing enough fresh foodstuffs to supply any passing ship during its stay at De Kaap by 1659.

Between 1657 and 1667 they made expeditions into the interior, mainly to barter goods for cattle, and began building a more permanent fort, known as the Castle. Several ships were wrecked along the east coast and rescue parties and survivors reported their experiences. Parties of officials and farmers sometimes rode into the interior to recover fugitives and deserters, thus increasing knowledge about the indigenous peoples of both the east and west coasts.

Company servants were prohibited from starting local industries and freedom of trade was forbidden because free enterprise was tied to the fortunes of the DEIC. Van Riebeeck had been writing reports recommending that 'free burghers' should be allowed to trade, farm and help with defence for some time. In February 1657, the DEIC issued the first permits to free nine company servants to farm along the Liesbeek River. In the same year slaves were imported from Batavia and Madagascar. When Van Riebeeck left the Cape in 1662, the little settlement numbered 134 officials, 35 free burghers, 15 women, 22 children, and 180 slaves. In 1676, DEIC official policy changed and the Lords XVII recommended that a good Dutch colony should be nurtured at the Cape to stimulate agricultural production. The numbers of the free White population increased, most coming from the Netherlands, from German states, and through natural increase.

Van Riebeeck died in Batavia on 18 January 1677.


This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
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