The Cape Colony (Dutch: Kaapkolonie) was between 1652 and 1691 a Commandment, and between 1691 and 1795 a Governorate of the Dutch East India Company. Jan van Riebeeck established the colony as a re-supply and layover port for vessels of the Dutch East India Company trading with Asia. Much to the dismay of the shareholders of the Dutch East India Company, who focused primarily interested on making profits from the Asian trade, the colony rapidly expanded into a settler colony in the years after its founding.
As the only permanent settlement of the Dutch East India Company not serving as a trading post, it proved an ideal retirement place for employees of the company. After several years of service in the company, an employee could lease a piece of land in the colony as a Vryburgher ("free citizen"), on which he had to cultivate crops that he had to sell to the Dutch East India Company for a fixed price. As these farms were labour-intensive, Vryburghers imported slaves from Madagascar, Mozambique and Asia, which rapidly increased the number of inhabitants. After Louis XIV of France revoked the Edict of Nantes (October 1685), which had protected the right of Huguenots in France to practise Protestant worship without persecution from the state, the colony attracted many Huguenot settlers, who eventually mixed with the general Vryburgher population.
Due to the authoritarian rule of the Company (telling farmers what to grow for what price, controlling immigration, and monopolising trade) some farmers tried to escape the rule of the company by moving further inland. The Company, in an effort to control these migrants, established a magistracy at Swellendam in 1745 and another at Graaff Reinet in 1786, and declared the Gamtoos River as the eastern frontier of the colony, only to see the Trekboere cross it soon afterwards. In order to avoid collision with the Bantu peoples advancing south and west from east central Africa, the Dutch agreed in 1780 to make the Great Fish River the boundary of the colony.
In 1795, after the Battle of Muizenberg in present-day Cape Town, the British occupied the colony. Under the terms of the Peace of Amiens of 1802, Britain returned the colony to the Dutch on 1 March 1803, but as the Batavian Republic had since nationalized the Dutch East India Company (1796), the colony came under the direct rule of The Hague. Renewed Dutch control did not last long, however, as the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars (18 May 1803) invalidated the Peace of Amiens. In January 1806 the British occupied the colony for a second time after the Battle of Blaauwberg at present-day Bloubergstrand. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 confirmed the transfer of sovereignty to Great Britain.
Traders of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), under the command of Jan van Riebeeck, were the first people to establish a European colony in South Africa. The Cape settlement was built by them in 1652 as a re-supply point and way-station for Dutch East India Company vessels on their way back and forth between the Netherlands and Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies. The support station gradually became a settler community, the forebears of the Afrikaners, a European ethnic group in South Africa.
At the time of first European settlement in the Cape, the southwest of Africa was inhabited by San people and Khoikhoi who were pastoral people with a population estimated between 13,000 and 15,000. Conflicts with the settlers and the effects of smallpox decimated their numbers in 1713 and 1755, until gradually the breakdown of their tribal society led them to work for the colonists, mostly as shepherds and herdsmen.
The local Khoikhoi had neither a strong political organisation nor an economic base beyond their herds. They bartered livestock freely to Dutch ships. As Company employees established farms to supply the Cape station, they began to displace the Khoikhoi. Conflicts led to the consolidation of European landholdings and a breakdown of Khoikhoi society. Military success led to even greater Dutch East India Company control of the Khoikhoi by the 1670s. The Khoikhoi became the chief source of colonial wage labour.
After the first settlers spread out around the Company station, nomadic European livestock farmers, or Trekboeren, moved more widely afield, leaving the richer, but limited, farming lands of the coast for the drier interior tableland. There they contested still wider groups of Khoikhoi cattle herders for the best grazing lands. By 1700, the traditional Khoikhoi lifestyle of pastoralism had disappeared.
The Cape society in this period was thus a diverse one. The emergence of Afrikaans, a new vernacular language of the colonials that is however intelligible with Dutch, shows that the Dutch East India Company immigrants themselves were also subject to acculturation processes. By the time of British rule after 1795, the sociopolitical foundations were firmly laid.
In 1795, France occupied the Seven Provinces of the Netherlands, the mother country of the Dutch East India Company. This prompted Great Britain to occupy the territory in 1795 as a way to better control the seas in order stop any potential French attempt to get to India. The British sent a fleet of nine warships which anchored at Simon's Town and, following the defeat of the Dutch militia at the Battle of Muizenberg, took control of the territory. The Dutch East India Company transferred its territories and claims to the Batavian Republic (the Revolutionary period Dutch state) in 1798, and ceased to exist in 1799. Improving relations between Britain and Napoleonic France, and its vassal state the Batavian Republic, led the British to hand the Cape Colony over to the Batavian Republic in 1803 (under the terms of the Treaty of Amiens).
In 1806, the Cape, now nominally controlled by the Batavian Republic, was occupied again by the British after their victory in the Battle of Blaauwberg. The temporary peace between Britain and Napoleonic France had crumbled into open hostilities, whilst Napoleon had been strengthening his influence on the Batavian Republic (which Napoleon would subsequently abolish later the same year). The British, who set up a colony on 8 January 1806, hoped to keep Napoleon out of the Cape, and to control the Far East trade routes. In 1814 the Dutch government formally ceded sovereignty over the Cape to the British, under the terms of the Convention of London.
The Dutch Cape Colony was divided into four districts:
The title of the founder of the Cape Colony, Jan van Riebeeck, was installed as "Commander of the Cape", a position he held from 1652 to 1662. During the tenure of Simon van der Stel, the colony was elevated to the rank of a governorate, hence he was promoted to the position of "Governor of the Cape".