DATA DAY | Western Cape Settlements: 1650 – 1950

 In Data Day


Most South Africans would probably tell you that Cape Town is the oldest town in South Africa¹, established in 1652 by an expedition of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) led by Jan Van Riebeeck. This is widely considered as the ‘Columbus moment’ of modern history in South Africa.

Most however will not be able to tell you when other ‘old’ towns in the region such as Stellenbosch, Swellendam or Plettenberg Bay, for example, were established, or where these towns lie relative to one another on the historical timeline of new settlement growth in the Cape.

How old are the major towns of the Western Cape? What trends are apparent when highlighting ‘where’ and ‘when’ these towns came to be, and how does this perhaps link to themes in South African history?

To help unpack these questions, we set out to research the establishment dates of 132 major towns across the Western Cape. We then mapped the results in an infographic and visual animation.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Settlements 1650-1950


VIDEO: Growth Pattern

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The data paints an interesting picture of a slow rate of new towns up to the year 1800, picking up substantially thereafter. Of the 132 towns sample used for this study, 79 were established during the period 1800-1900. This represents 60% of the total sample and an average growth rate of almost 1 new town each year of the 19th century!

Geographically speaking, the Cape Fold Belt of mountain ranges would have no doubt posed a formidable barrier for new towns growth towards the interior, with most major mountain passes  having only been constructed from the early 1800s.  This may explain in part why new towns up to 1800 are seen to expand eastwards/northwards along the coastal plain between the ocean and mountain belt.

Politically speaking, the conquest of the Dutch Cape Colony by the British in 1806 may have also marked a break point for new towns growth in the region. It has been suggested that the Dutch Cape administrators attempted to control migration out of the ‘rule of the Company’ (i.e. VOC, where prices could be fixed, immigration controlled and trade monopolised) by establishing a magistracy at Swellendam in 1745 and another at Graaf Reinet in 1786. In this vein the Dutch Cape Colony was more an economic project than one of empire building, with new towns growth intentionally stymied to concentrate control in fewer settlements.

This all changed under the British. In an attempt to keep Napoleon out of the Cape and control the Far East trade routes, the British Empire promoted expansion of British influence into the Cape from the early 1800s. Immigration into the now British Cape Colony was ramped up even further with the arrival of the 1820 Settlers in Port Elizabeth. The objective of ‘empire’ would have better favoured new towns growth more than the economic objectives of the previous Dutch administrators. In reaction, pioneers and pilgrims seeking freedom outside of British control begin trekking into the interior. Advancements in machinery, engineering and weaponry during the 1800s would have provided further support for new towns growth during this time.

The driving forces behind new settlement growth are admittedly too diverse to warrant a comprehensive summary in this post. Ultimately, the story of new towns is the story of mankind’s triumph and tragedy in the conquest of land. South Africa has an entire chapter dedicated to it in that history book!

Where there is data there is hope!

¹ post script. For those wondering why Saldanha is indicated to predate Cape Town by 20 years in this study: we were curious to learn from Axelson’s  ‘History of Human Settlement at Saldanha’ paper that ‘by 1632 a French party was living in Saldanha in the form of a Colony, and with a claim to possession’. Notwithstanding this interesting story (that we would like to know more about if anyone reading this post does), we have kept with the mainstream notion of Cape Town being South Africa’s ‘founding town’ for this purposes of this blog.

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