Khoikhoi and Xhosa Under the Shadow of Europe

The pastoralist Khoikhoi were the first people to be encountered by Europeans in what is today called South Africa. The Dutch East India Company colonists who first inhabited the Capetown area adjacent to the people’s land were at first in a vicarious position, unable to yet exert dominion over the indigenous Khoikhoi. Accordingly the Dutch interloped into local politics, pitting the various tribes against one another, forming capricious alliances and offering gestures of friendship in order to acquire goods, namely livestock. Cattle, the most prized possession of the Khoikhoi people, would come to be greatly desired by the Dutch for purposes of resupplying passing ships bound to expand a burgeoning colonial empire[i]. Jan van Riebeeck, governor of the Cape colony in 1658, relates the unstable situation in his official log, detailing a gift exchange between the colony and the Cochoquas, a band of Khoikhoi . The situation was such in 1658 that the Dutch were involved in a complex net of tribal hatreds[ii], attempting to seduce a local chieftain capable of trading cattle while likewise attempting to uphold status quo amiability toward other tribes, ancient enemies of the courted, so as to avoid an uprising.

By the 1800s the colonial companies, first piloted by the Dutch, and then the British, had fully infiltrated indigenous society and reduced the chieftains, once autonomous and profiting from mutually beneficial trade, through subjugation and oppression, battered by small pox and the yoke of war, to groveling clients[iii], bound to produce slaves for purpose of powering the company industries and maintaining labor of the white households. Even after slavery had been officially banned within the Commonwealth, a system of endemic indentured servitude[iv] ensured an obedient status quo, as the American slaves were similarly subjected to under the Jim Crow and Black Codes. If a Khoikhoi man were to violate his 25 year contract with his master he would be hunted down as a “vagabond,[v]” and was required to constantly have on his person papers required to certify movement about the country.  The traditional Khoikhoi pastoral practice was replaced with a life of farm work and servitude, the ancestral pastures stolen by the colonists and converted to ranches.

The Xhosa inhabiting the Eastern Cape of what is now South Africa, unlike their Khoikhoi brethren, seldom willingly collaborated with the Europeans. A fiercely territorial society, the Xhosa were determined upon their first significant contact with Dutch settlers in the late 1700s to maintain their pastoral lands, in defiance of colonial encroachment. This militant resistance eventually exploded into a series of nine wars, commonly referred to as the Cape Frontier Wars, in which the highly mobile Xhosa warriors skirmished and raided against the colonial presence intruding onto their land. While the first wars resulted in stalemate[vi], as the Dutch settlers could not bring their superior firepower to bear, restricted in their advance by necessity of protecting their homesteads, the later wars were joined by British regular forces which were favored by having no such restriction, and were successful in uprooting the Xhosa and pushing them eastward into Zulu territory[vii].

The Xhosa subsequently weakened by famine, disease and further border conflict, resorted to delusion. Following a disease amongst the cattle, the chieftains ordered a mass slaughter of the animals, claiming that the Settlers had meddled into their affairs with dooming witchcraft[viii], resulting in widespread deprivation, disease, starvation, social disintegration and finally cannibalism. Devastated first by war and then by their superstitious folly, the Xhosa, once a proud race of pastoral warriors, finally succumbed to their enemies.

European colonization of South Africa was the inevitable consequence of the rise of the colonial empires. The Europeans, having innovated new vessels capable of long distance travel such as the caravel and galleon, sought to increase their power by maximizing profits from Eastern trade, by bypassing the long and unreliable silk road, now occupied by the Turks, traveling to Asian dominions directly by sea[ix]. The Portuguese were the first to brave a new route, establishing bases of trade and influence on the Indian subcontinent by the early 16th century after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, most notably at Goa, while the Dutch pushed beyond, adventuring into Indonesia and Java. Cape Colony was accordingly established by the Dutch to serve as a base of resupply between the newly founded Asian colonies and Europe.

While resupply had been accomplished in the years before the establishment of the colony by barter with local Khoikhoi (‘Hottentots’) pastoralists, who willingly and skillfully traded cattle, fresh water and vegetables for European craftwork and assorted goods[x], the Dutch colonial empire was rapidly expanding in southeast Asia during a period of unprecedented economic success, and a more reliable base was called for to ensure the regular operation of passing-by ships[xi]. In this fashion the Cape Colony was not initially established as a colony in itself for purposes of exploiting the land of some precious commodity, but rather as a minimal and unobtrusive trade and resupply fort, its greater colonial expansion only made possible by the ambitions of a new class of “free burghers.”

The initial Dutch colonists to the Cape Colony were employees of the Dutch East India Company and as such were charged with performing particular duties in order to ensure the healthy functioning of the fort. In the mid 1650s the Dutch began to release small numbers of these employees from their contracts as free citizens to manage grain ranches, ensuring the yield be sold to the company at fixed prices, the hope being that enfranchised citizens would produce greater bounties than that of servants and company men[xii]. This new system attracted numerous prospects and lead to the stratifying of Cape society, as the settlers soon became dependant on slave labor in order to maintain their farms, resulting in the consequent subjugation of the Khoikhoi tribes as depleted clients, the ready suppliers of indigenous workers. By the late 1700s the situation was such that over fifty percent of the free burghers owned slaves[xiii], and while the nature of the labor was such in the Cape that plantation life was impossible, the subjugated did nonetheless become a critical cog in the apparatus, necessary for the proper functioning of the expanding frontier homesteads.  While in the early years of the colony the Dutch established amiable and conciliatory relationships with the indigenous people, partaking in mutually beneficial trade agreements and barter, the Khoikhoi were by the late 1600s branded, whipped and subjugated, their pastures supplanted by encroaching settlers, who marched inland with superior weapons, tenacious resolve and company backing, their cattle stolen, the spoils of war, including the sons and daughters of the people, divided amongst the white invaders[xiv].

While the Cape Colony fort had expanded into a sizable colonial territory, it was unlike the American colonies in several notable ways. As the land itself contained little natural goods (the precious gold of the region not yet discovered), it became dependant on external trade to exist[xv], and was never a prosperous venture, the people, perpetually encumbered by the endless tedium of ranch life, ill-educated and poorly cultured; the colony seemed as the malnourished bastard child of more limited means, an overextended indulgence of settlers’ ambitions.

Historically the Khoikhoi were referred to as Hottentots, a term first coined by the Dutch settlers of the Cape region. The name derives from “hot and tot[xvi],” two sounds the Dutch interpreted as being common among the indigenous people’s language, just as the ancient Greeks called barbarians as such because they apparently made “bar” noises. The people referred to themselves as Khoikhoi, meaning “people people,” and today we know them as such. The Khoikhoi migrated into southern Africa from modern Botswana around the time of the early Common Era, bringing with them a pastoralist agriculture culture which contrasted sharply[xvii] with the hunter-gatherer society of the San (‘Bushmen’), the original inhabitants of the region. The Khoikhoi were eventually pushed to the south western coastal plain of Africa as the Bantu entered the region from the north, and this is where the Europeans first encountered them. Traditional Khoi culture involves the following of herds of cattle and of hunting, the people taking shelter in disposable, temporary stick and vine huts, inhabited typically by one family each[xviii]. A polygamous society[xix], the wives have notable social freedom, able to share huts on the grounds on social cohesion. In Khoi religion the cow and pastoralist culture are integral elements, as the animals and pastures are the national goods of the people[xx]. For instance, the Khoikhoi epic hero Heitsi, slayer of numerous evil spirits and monsters inhabiting a world of animist mythology, was born of a cow that had eaten magical grass.

Deprived of their ancestral pastures by the Dutch East India Company, enslaved to operate the Boer ranches, and decimated by small pox, to which the people were not resistant as the Europeans, the Khoikhoi traditional way of life had ceased to be by the turn of the 17th century.


Krause, Chris. European Contact with the Khoikhoi and Xhosa Peoples. 2009.

Krause, Chris. Dutch Settlement and the Khoikhoi. 2009.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa, Third Edition. New Haven: Yale

University Press, 2001.

Williams, John. From the South African Past (Sources in Modern History Series). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1996.

[i] Williams 6.

[ii] Jan Van Riebeeck Describes His Khoikhoi Servant, Eva; Williams 7.

[iii] Thompson 50.

[iv] Lord Caledon Regulates Khoikhoi Status in the Cape; Williams 10-11.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Thompson 73.

[vii] Thompson 74-76.

[viii] Xhosa Writer William Gqoba Recounts the Great Cattle Killing of 1857; Williams 64-67.

[ix] Thompson 31-32.

[x] Thomspon 33.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Thompson 35-37.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Thompson 38.

[xv] Thompson 39.

[xvi] Hottentot. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. (accessed: February 17, 2009).

[xvii] Thompson 10.

[xviii] Thompson 21-22.

[xix] Thompson 23.

[xx] Thompson 27.

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