A Brief History of Cape Town, South Africa

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Cape Town, located in South Africa, is the provincial capital and primate city of the Western Cape. The city is situated on the shore of Table Bay and was first developed by the Dutch East India Company as a supply station for Dutch ships sailing to East Africa, India and the Far East.

Life in Cape Town dates back much farther than the development of the city as a trading post. The earliest known remnants in the region were found at Peers cave in Fish Hoek and date back to between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago. However, little is known about the history of these first residents since there is no written history of the area before Bartolomeu Dias, a Portuguese explorer, first mentioned the area in 1486.

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In the late 16th century, Portuguese, French, Danish, Dutch and English ships regularly stopped in Table Bay while on their way to the Indies. They traded tobacco, copper and iron with the Khoikhoi in exchange for fresh meat; the Khoikhoi are the native pastoralist people of southwestern Africa.

Jan van Riebeeck first arrived in Cape Town on April 6, 1652 and quickly established the first permanent European settlement. The city eventually outgrew its original purpose as the first European outpost at the Castle of Good Hope: Cape Town became the economic and cultural hub of the Cape Colony. It remained the largest city in South Africa for years until the Witwatersrand Gold Rush and the development of Johannesburg.

Van Riebeeck and his successors as VOC commanders as well as later governors at the Cape introduced an impressive range of useful plants. In the process, they changed the natural environment of the area forever. Grapes, cereals, groundnuts, potatoes, apples and citrus have all had an important and lasting influence on both the societies and the economies of the region.

During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the Netherlands was repeatedly occupied by France. Great Britain moved to take control of Dutch colonies, leading the capture of Cape Town in 1795. The Cape was later returned to the Netherlands by treaty in 1803. However, this did not last long, as British forces occupied the Cape again in 1806 following the battle of Bloubergstrand. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 permanently ceded the area to Britain.

The territory expanded greatly during the 1800s. This expansion was accompanied by a call for greater independence from Britain. Cape eventually attained its own parliament in 1954 and later a locally accountable Prime Minister in 1872. Suffrage was established according to the non-racist, but sexist Cape Qualified Franchise.

The discovery of diamonds in Griqualand West in 1867 as well as the Witwatersrand Gold Rush in 1886 led to a large influx of immigrants to South Africa. Conflicts soon erupted between the Boer republics in the interior and the British colonial government, leading to the Second Boer War (1899-1902) which Britain won. Britain later established the Union of South Africa (1910), which unified the Cape Colony with the two defeated Boer Republics  and the British colony of Natal. This established Cape Town as the legislative capital of the Union, and later of the Republic of South Africa.


During the 1948 national elections, the political dynamics within the country and city began to shift. The National Party won on the platform of apartheid (racial segregation) under the slogan “swart gevaar,” referring to the perceived security threat of the majority black African population to the white South African government. This victory led to the erosion and eventual abolition of the Cape’s multiracial franchise. The Group Areas Act, which classified all areas according to race, was also repealed. Under apartheid, the Cape was considered a “coloured labour preference area,” meaning basically that in the absence of white job candidates, Coloureds would be considered to the exclusion of Africans.

Cape Town was home to a number of leaders of the anti-apartheid movement. On Robben Island, a former penitentiary island off the coast, held many famous political prisoners for years. One of the most famous moments in the areas history, marking the end of the apartheid, was Nelson Mandela’s first public speech following his imprisonment. The speech heralded the beginning of a new area for the country; the first democratic election was held four years later on April 27, 1994.