The story of what became South Africa starts at its geographic end. The Cape of Good Hope is the southwestern tip of the continent, the point where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet along a notorious stretch of open water prone to high winds and violent waves. For thousands of years the region was home to the Khoi San people, a group of hunter gatherers. They painted on the cave walls, hunted the adorably tiny local species of zebra (the now sadly extinct Quagga), and wandered through the unique Fynbos floral kingdom of the Cape region. Eventually though, times changed and the European age of naval exploration began. The first to arrive were the Portuguese in the 15th Century, eager to find a new route to the goods of eastern Asia; preferably one that involved fighting fewer Turks. Vasco de Gama passed through, glanced around, and then carried on his way after a few days. It was another century and a half before anyone took serious interest in the Cape.
What brought the Dutch to the Cape was a complete accident. After a trading vessel wrecked itself in the region, the survivors took the hint and told their superiors that it would be a great idea to set up a way station at the Cape. As imperial colonials were wont to do, the Dutch decided to enslave the locals, and quickly discovered that generations of living as hunter gatherers had left the Khoi San poorly adapted to life as construction laborers or farm hands. As with the United States, the Dutch turned to other sources to fill the labor gap, in this case bringing in slaves from their holdings in Indonesia and other parts of the world. Other European settlers with few options at home would move to Cape Town as well, including some of the Calvinists French Huguenots. Until 1795 Cape Town continued much as it had started, with a little farming, some shipping from the passing maritime trade, and a lot of conflict with the neighboring South African kingdoms.
As with so many places, what upended this little corner of the earth was the British. Embroiled in a war with still revolutionary French, Great Britain had decided to open a new front. Unfortunately for the hapless United Provinces, the Dutch had quickly lost their own war with the French, and were roped into the larger conflict by a shotgun treaty they had signed. This placed Dutch run Cape Town smack in the middle between Britain and their new crown jewel colony of India, and that couldn’t be allowed to stand. After a short battle in 1795, a confusing treaty that handed the colony back, and then another short battle in 1806, the British decided to settle down and truly claim the place for themselves.
Unfortunately for the British, they quickly learned conquering Cape Town was a little like inheriting a house infested with hornets. Everywhere they looked there were problems. The local Dutch, now known as Afrikaners, despised the British for the military black eye they had just taken, and made trouble for their new colonial masters where they could. Over the next twenty years the Afrikaners rose up three times, each time the British quickly slapped them down again, but it paid to be wary of how they treated their coerced colonymates. Ringing Cape Town were people like the Xhosa, who had never been keen on the intruding Europeans for very understandable reasons. If the white settlers ever weakened themselves too much with infighting, there was always the chance that they would both be wiped out entirely.
The result was an awkward and uneven dance with three partners. Sometimes the British governors would try to be conciliatory, at other points they would change their minds and veer towards kicking the Afrikaners in the shins. All of this was complicated by Britain’s own Parliament back in London. The problem with elected governments is that they have a habit of changing, and the British parties in the 19th Century had all the consistency of a four year old after an ice cream sundae.
(Part One in a series on the Boer Wars, stay tuned for part two).