Friday, September 9, 2011

The South African Free Burghers – (Not Free Burgers!)

This is the promised follow-up posting from the previous – The Hilarious Demolition of Language and Heritage.

Readers who are interested in the early history of the Eurasian ethnic group, historically from Sri Lanka and known as “Burgher People”, will find the Wikipedia article a worthwhile read. The article covers the demographics, definition, history, culture, and genealogy of these people. See also List of Burgher People. I found the facts presented in these articles most interesting, particularly if it is read in conjunction with the page dealing with the Dutch East India Company (Dutch: Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) – VOC for short. I will also used this abbreviation in subsequent paragraphs of this posting. 
Note: All external links will open in a new window or tab.

Brief History of the VOC
(Extremely brief)

The origin of Europeans on the southern tip of Africa was largely influenced by the activities of a megacorporation known as the VOC, a chartered company that was established in 1602. That gigantic Company possessed quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, coin money, and establish colonies. By 1669, the VOC was the richest private company the world had ever seen, with over 150 merchant ships, 40 warships, 50,000 employees, a private army of 10,000 soldiers, and a dividend payment of 40% on the original investment.

After the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War the VOC was a financial wreck. It was nationalised on 1 March 1796. Weighed down by corruption in the late 18th century, the Company finally went bankrupt and was formally dissolved in 1800.
- Sourced from Wikipedia

The Year 1657

The year 1657 was the year that the first European farmers officially started with ‘bulk’ agricultural activities on South African soil. It all started when the VOC, gave Jan Van Riebeeck - VOC Commander of the Cape from 1652 to 1662, the go-ahead to select nine distinguished and capable married Dutch Burghers to start cultivating fresh produce for the VOC.

These prominent men were thus released (freed) from their VOC service-contracts to take up their new responsibilities as full-time farmers, hence the term “Free Burgher”

The initial Free Burghers were provided plots of land on the eastern side of Table Mountain, along a river originally called the Amstel or Versse (later Liesbeek river).  The size of each plot was 13,3 morgen (about 11,4 hectares). The first nine individuals received their freedom- and land papers on 21 February 1657.

This decision by the VOC has absolutely nothing to do with colonization of the land, but arose out of necessity, as the availability of fresh produce was forever a source of concern.  Trade with the indigenous Africans was restricted to barter, but only to a very limited extent. In fact, VOC authorities made deliberate attempts to restrict contact with the locals to the bare minimum, as the relationship with the indigenous folk could hardly be called friendly.
Today the term “xenophobic” is widely used.

The first Free Burghers initially split into two group: the so-called Harmans Colony under the leadership of the German Harman Remajenne van Keulen, and the Stevens Colony under the leadership of Steven Jansz (Botma). Later five more farmers were released from their VOC contracts.

By 1658 there were three groups of Free Burghers: Coornhoop Colony (including Hendrick Boom and his wife Anna), Hollantse Thuijn Colonie (including Botma), and Groenevelt Colonie (including Remajenne). The Free Burghers were chiefly from the Netherlands, but there were also Germans, a Norwegian, and apparently a British fellow among them as well –

A commemorative name plaque with the names of the first Free Burghers exists in Coornhoop. Click here to view an image of this plaque.

The Free Burghers were exempt from tax for the first twelve years, but their buying power was not allowed to exceed that of the VOC. Exclusive rights on the selling of vegetables, tobacco and alcohol, was also controlled by legislation. At the outset, essential farming implements, as well as rifles and ammunition were provided at cost price and on credit to the Free Burghers.

Although the new ‘farming’ arrangement proved highly successful, and the farmers soon started producing abundant supplies of fruit, vegetables, wheat, and even wine, most of the farmers were forced to operate in a buyers’ market that was heavily tilted in favour of the VOC. Wheat, for example, had to be offered first to the VOC at prices they fixed. The VOC also had first claim on vegetables and fruit. The VOC also rejected appeals from these farmers to export their own produce.

The right to become a Free Burgher was eventually extended to craftsman and business traders as well. There were 35 Free Burghers in the Cape by the time Van Riebeeck was required to return to the Netherlands in 1662. Hardship and strife, however, forced some of these men to apply for re-employment in the VOC, while others returned to Europe. In 1679 Free Burghers also settled in present-day Stellenbosch.

Arrival of French Huguenots

On 31 December 1687 the first organised group of Huguenots (French refugees) set sail from the Netherlands to the VOC post at the Cape of Good Hope. The largest portion of the Huguenots to settle in the Cape arrived between 1688 and 1689 in seven ships as part of the organised migration.
- Source: The French refugees at the Cape by Colin Graham Botha - Published 1921 by Cape Times Limited in Cape Town.

The Huguenots were members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They felt that the Catholic Church needed radical cleansing of its impurities, and that the Pope ruled the Church as if it was a worldly kingdom, which sat in mocking tyranny over the things of God, and was ultimately doomed. Rhetoric like this became fiercer as events unfolded, and eventually stirred up a reaction in the Catholic establishment. By the end of the 17th century, roughly 200,000 Huguenots had been driven from France during a series of religious persecutions. Many Huguenots relocated primarily to protestant nations including England, Switzerland, the Dutch Republic, the German Electorate of Prussia and the German Palatinate, and also to South Africa and North America – Source. The height of this persecution was the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre when 5,000 to 30,000 were killed. The massacre began two days after the attempted assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the military and political leader of the Huguenots.

The official policy of the VOC governors was to integrate the Huguenot and the Dutch communities. Although this policy partially contributed towards the growth in the population of Free Burghers, feelings of solidarity between the Dutch and French grew from various communal concerns. One concern was the grievances related to the market price of farm produce. Another concern was the unilateral actions of the Governor of the Cape Colony, Willem Adriaan van der Stel, who apparently used his own discretion when determining who could participate in the monopoly of wine and meat. This eventually triggered a revolt amongst the farmers.

Willem Adriaan van der Stel – Revolt and dismissal

Van der Stel owned a private estate, Vergelegen, which is the origin of the present day Somerset West and its wine route. The land was granted to him in 1700, and he spent much of the VOC resources on its development. This allowed him an unfair advantage and led to strained relationships with the local Free Burghers, who were by then independent farmers in their own right. -
Incidentally - it took three days by ox-wagon to reach Willem Adriaan's farm on the slopes of the Hottentots Holland mountain range overlooking the Atlantic Ocean; hence its name 'Vergelegen', meaning 'situated faraway'. – Source

In 1706 Adam Tas, Willem van Zijl and Henning Husing drew up a petition objecting to Van der Stel's activities. Some 63 (out of 550) burghers signed the document and it was sent to the VOC headquarters in Amsterdam.

The petition was at first rejected. Van der Stel had Tas arrested, tried and imprisoned - in the "Black Hole" an infamous dungeon at the Castle of Good Hope. Because 31 of the signatories were Huguenots, and since the Netherlands was at war with France, the failed petition continued to cause concern in Amsterdam. Fearing that the discontent might cause some Burghers to become spies for the French, the VOC dismissed van der Stel, and ordered his return to the Netherlands (April 23, 1707). –

Van der Stel left his Cape Colony in 1708 and returned to the Netherlands where he spent the rest of his life in exile. Subsequently no VOC employees were allowed to own land in the colony. Louis van Assenburgh (1708–1711) became his successor, -
Three years after his dismissal, Vergelegen was sold and divided into four separate farms, and the homestead was ordered to be demolished. Vergelegen passed through a succession of owners until 1798, when the Theunissen family took ownership of the Estate. Under their care, which lasted for about a century, the vineyards flourished. - Source

It is important to note that there are alternate views on van der Stel's legacy. Although most sources agree that his rule at the Cape was authoritarian, beset by favouritism, and characterized by misuse of company assets, others claim that this was in no way unique to van der Stel's reign. Some point to the scale of his plans and activities in agriculture and horticulture as evidence indicating a man of great vision and imagination. I am inclined to believe the latter view, and that van der Stel could not have been the scoundrel he was made out to be,
but that will be a posting for another day.

Within three generations French was replaced by Dutch as the home language of most of the Huguenot descendants. The Dutch language which they spoke later evolved into the Afrikaans language we know today.

The life of a Free Burgher

By 1795 there were already 20 000 Free Burghers at the Cape, bearing in mind that even the Huguenots were referred to as, “die Vryburgers van Frankryk.”  At that point in time not all the Free Burghers, who were released from their VOC contracts, became farmers. Some became bricklayers, tailors, bakers, carpenters or merchants. Approximately 7000 were “Free Burgher” farmers who were permanently settled in the area  between the Berg River and the coast of False Bay, where they produced  mainly wheat , grapes and vegetables. Because so many of them were farmers, they were known by the Dutch term, “Boers”. 

The farms were small, which meant that farmers lived close to one another and visited each other regularly. They built attractive, well-constructed Cape Dutch style homes, with the characteristic high gables and thatched roofs. Besides the carious farming activities, religion also played an important role in their lives. After the evening meal the families regularly came together for Bible reading, prayers and the singing of hymns. Source

Many of the Huguenots settled in an area that was later called Franschhoek, (Dutch for French Corner), in the present-day Western Cape province of South Africa.

A large monument to commemorate the arrival of the Huguenots in South Africa was inaugurated on 7 April 1948 at Franschhoek, where the Huguenot Memorial Museum was erected in 1957.

Sorry, but I’m not going to entangle myself in the debate concerning the difference between “Boer” and “Afrikaner”, but can well comprehend how more than 215 years (counting from 1795) of struggle and strife, VOC price fixing and corruption, peculiar Broederbond activities, treacherous backstabbing, demonic wars, etc… has shaped the attitudes and beliefs of a diverse number of Afrikaans-speaking Europeans, and how all this has caused division among them.

Well that’s it folks, this is a blog posting and not a book!  Please keep the “Free Burghers” in mind the next time you eat a hamburger, or when you watch one of those amusing "burger" TV adverts ;-)


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