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South Africa - The British Arrive, Episode 57 - 07/03/06


The opening of the first Cape Parliament (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

The opening of the first Cape Parliament, 1 July 1854
(Getty Images)
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The British captured Cape Town from the Dutch in 1795. This was the period of the French Revolutionary War and British held the Cape to protect their trade routes to and from India, China and Australia. It was returned to the Dutch for a short period but in 1814-15 it was ceded to the British as a result of the Congress of Vienna that split the spoils of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

The Dutch had been in the Cape since Jan Van Riebeck's colony in 1652. French Protestants, Huguenots, arrived in the 1680s and many South Africans trace their names to that period - De Villiers, Le Roux and Du Plessis.

In 1819 Parliament gave grants to people willing to settle the Cape - not unlike the 10 passages to Australia after WWII. The British were followed by Germans, Poles and Swedes.

Britain enacted anti-slavery legislation but the Dutch wanted to keep slaves even though they lived under English law. Here was the basis of the confrontation between the British and the Boers, the Dutch farmers.

In the early 1800s, English was rarely spoken or understood in the Cape. Even the Low Dutch spoken in Europe would not have been easily interpreted. The local Dutch spoke a harsh and an abbreviation of the original. It took 30 years before English became established and that was because it was used in the law courts, the stock exchanges and most importantly, in education. The pupils in the Church and the London Missionary Societies' schools were singing their hymns - thus elementary theology - and learning their rotes in English. Schooling became in all colonies, including the Cape, the single most important offering of the British.

Sir John Herschel, the astronomer, introduced a plan to establish a new education system in the colony. There would be 25 schools and help for a further 25 run by missionaries. The British were determined to stay and stamp every aspect of the settlement with their institutions - government, law and education. The Dutch felt beleaguered. For example, when in 1839 Herschel planned to build an observatory the Dutch complained that the English would not even leave their stars alone.

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Historical Figure

Sir John Herschel (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Sir John Herschel
(Getty Images)
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Sir John Herschel 1792-1871

Son of the German-English astronomer Sir Frederick Hershel, John Herschel was educated at Eton and Cambridge where he was the major prize winner of his year. He is credited with discovering more than 500 nebulae and clusters and in 1848 became president of the Royal Astronomical Society and one of the original researchers into celestial photography. In 1850 he was appointed master of the Royal Mint. His remains are in Westminster Abbey.

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Did You Know...

At the Congress of Vienna (October 1814 - June 1815) Britain either gained or retained the following territories: Cape Colony, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Heligoland, Malta, Mauritius, Santa Lucia, Tobago, and the protectorate of the Ionian Islands. The Congress, at Britain's insistence, publicly condemned slaving, much to the annoyance of the Dutch.

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Events of this episode took place in Southern Africa region. We're interested to hear your comments on the influence of Empire on this region:

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Contemporary Sources

A British description of South African tribesmen, and Dutch attitudes towards them

From the diary of an anonymous Englishman, 1845

"Their dealings with the Kaffir Matabele and other powerful native tribes have always been marked by the greatest want of tact, temper and judgment. The Boschmans - or Bushmen - are probably the only aborigines. They are of all known people the nearest to the brute creation - the most debased and unenlightened with a stature scarcely ever of five feet and sometimes not even four. Their powers of vision are most surprising. They will see by the vapour where water is twenty, twenty five or even thirty miles off. They have been known to starve from ten to fourteen days and then, small as they are, to eat half a sheep. Their usual diet however is wild roots and insects."

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