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Portuguese & Dutch Exploration of South Africa

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Why does South Africa have such a large ethnically European population? In this lesson we'll look at the roots of European heritage in South Africa and see how, when, and why European kingdoms first began exploring this southern region.

South Africa's European Heritage

If you think of South Africa, what images come to mind? A killer rugby team, that place on all of the shark shows where Great Whites jump out of the water, and perhaps even the legacies of apartheid, South Africa's institutional racial segregation of the 20th century. Now, the nation's come a long way since the end of apartheid, but the fact that this policy even existed begs the question: why are there so many people of European descent in South Africa? Traditionally, South Africa was home to people of, well, African descent. The answer takes us back centuries to the early Age of Exploration as European nations started pushing further and further beyond the world they knew.

18th-century Dutch East India Company ship off the coast of South Africa
18th-century Dutch East India Company ship off the coast of South Africa

Portuguese Exploration

European exploration of South Africa begins with several events starting in the 13th century. Mongol control of Eurasia opened up expansive networks of international trade between Europe and China known as the Silk Roads. Europe flourished from this trade, but then the Mongol Empire fell and the Silk Roads closed. So, they needed a new route to China. The only problem was, almost no one had developed the maritime technology to sail there, and there were no maps to lead the way.

The kingdom to figure it out was Portugal. While the rest of Europe was enjoying the wealth of the Silk Roads, Portugal and Spain were fighting for their very existence in a religious war called the Reconquista. Islamic Moors had invaded the Iberian Peninsula, so Portugal was too busy fighting to do much trading. By 1249 CE, Portugal reclaimed its kingdom and was looking to make up for lost time. Luckily for them, the prolonged contact with the Islamic world actually exposed them to Islamic math and astronomy, giving them the tools they needed to build the most advanced ships and the most accurate navigational charts in Europe. With this, Portugal committed itself to discovering a maritime route to China and all of the wealth therein.

16th century Portuguese map of Africa
Portuguese Map

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, Portuguese explorers pressed steadily down the African coast, creating extremely detailed maps as they went. The early 15th century Portuguese prince called Henry the Navigator really pushed the systematic exploration and mapping of Africa's west coast, discovering trade routes inland to wealthy African kingdoms south of the Sahara. Finally, in 1488, the explorers Bartolomeu Dias and Pêro de Alenquer rounded a cape which they named the Cape of Storms. They noticed that the coastline started moving east and north, not south, and returned to Portugal to share the news that they had reached the southernmost point of Africa. On their way home, they renamed this place Cape of Good Hope. It's been called that ever since.

Now, the Portuguese were very excited to find South Africa, but they didn't stick around. What they wanted was to find a sea route into the Indian Ocean and reopen trade with China. In the last decade of the 15th century, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama finally made it to India. So, this meant that while the Portuguese used South Africa as a stop on a greater voyage and to engage in the local slave trade, they didn't do much else.

Dutch Exploration

But, other nations saw more potential in South Africa. In particular, the Netherlands realized that if they could control this point, then they could essentially control European trade with China as well as the lucrative slave trade coming from Africa. The Netherlands formed a joint-stock company, an officially chartered company controlled by investors, for the purpose of taking over Portuguese control of the Indian Ocean. This was called the Dutch East India Company.

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