A Colony Of Settlement Life On The Platteland

Captain Hendrik Storm with son and daughter

Captain Hendrik Storm with his son and daughter, each attended by a personal slave waiting in the background. The location is a house in central Cape Town.

On the coastal plain, production expanded steadily. Between 1720 and 1790 the number of vines increased more than fourfold, the wheat crop trebled, and the average net value of cultivators’ estates grew by nearly three times.

By the 1730s a landed ‘gentry’ had emerged. Measured by land holdings, vines planted, by wheat crops and livestock, the gentry made up 10–20% of the rural burgher population. They tended to pass their wealth down from one generation to the next. The names of these families are still common Afrikaner names today: Cloete, De Villiers, De Vos, Du Plessis, Du Preez, Du Toit, Joubert, Le Roux, Malan, Marais, Minnaar, Morkel, Myburgh, Retief, Roux, Theron, Van Brackel and Van der Byl. It is striking that more than half were descendants of Huguenots. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the Western Cape gentry had amassed sufficient wealth to engage in some conspicuous consumption. Mansions built in the Cape Dutch style were a splendid example. A visitor wrote in 1783 that on several farms he had observed ‘nothing except signs of affl uence and prosperity, to the extent that, in addition to splendours and magnificence in clothes and carriages, the houses are filled with elegant furniture and the tables decked with silverware and served by tidily clothed slaves’.

Slaveholding was widespread in Cape Town and the rural Western Cape. Baron Van Imhoff remarked in

Cultural borrowing of the Khoikhoi

The burghers’ interaction with the Khoisan led to a large-scale cultural borrowing. Like the Khoikhoi they stored milk in skin sacks, dried strips of game, and wore shoes made from animal skins. This picture by R.H. Dingley shows the ‘Interior of my room at the Van der Marvels,’ Great Fish River, 1816.

1743 that having ‘imported slaves every common or ordinary European becomes a gentleman and prefers to be served rather than to serve’. In Cape Town, two-thirds of the burghers held slaves by the end of the century and 70% of the farmers in Stellenbosch and Drakenstein owned at least one slave. A visitor to Cape Town observed that there seemed to be twenty blacks for every white on the street.

In the stock-farming interior there was little building (the town of Swellendam had only four houses 40 years after it was founded), no mining, no industry, no shops, and no professional military establishment. Almost all the burghers in the interior farmed or lived on farms. By 1770 stock farmers formed two-thirds of all farmers in the colony. The burghers’ interaction with the Khoisan led to large-scale cultural borrowing. In some aspects the trekboers resembled Africans rather than their kinsmen in the west. Like the Khoikhoi, they stored milk in skin sacks, dried strips of game (later called biltong), wore veldschoenen (sandals made from cowhide) and sometimes animal skins. Both Afrikaners and Basters (see Bastaards) were forced to develop a pragmatic lifestyle that made survival possible in the African interior.

The Muller family at Graaff-Retnet

The Muller family at Graaff-Reinet. C.T. Muller arrived at the Cape from Germany in 1790. He married R.C. Boshoff and they settled in Swellendam before moving to Graaff-Reinet in 1812, where he set up a trading business. He is surrounded by his wife and four daughters, engaged in needlework, reading, writing and playing musical instruments.

Subsistence farming predominated, but all the farmers remained tied to the market. They needed, at a minimum, to purchase a gun, ammunition and a wagon, and most required axes, spades, hammers, crowbars, bolts, lanterns, clothes and essential groceries. To buy such goods stock farmers sold stock to the market, and tried to supplement their income by marketing soap, tallow, butter, wax, dried fruit, hides, skins, horns and seed. Farmers kept large herds, often too large for their farms. It was the only way they could accumulate wealth since land was not bought and sold for profit, and the Company, at certain times, prohibited the selling of loan farms. Farmers with an acceptable farm tended to stay there and, once the frontier had closed, several generations would live on the same farm.

The more affluent gradually improved their condition of rough comfort. They built better houses and bought cloth to turn into European-style clothes. By the end of the eighteenth century the wealthier Graaff-Reinet burghers were acquiring mirrors, curtains, table linen, porcelain, copper candlesticks, even four-poster beds. An increasing division of wealth steadily became evident in the frontier districts. The area of European occupation grew almost tenfold between 1703 and 1780. In 1798 the government fixed the boundaries of an area covering 286 000 square kilometres, running from the Buffels (or Koussie) River in the west to the Nuweveld mountains in the northeast, and from there down to the sea along the Tarka, Baviaans and Fish rivers.

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