Free Burghers


These were of the early European settlers at the Cape of Good Hope, citizens distinct from officials of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), who were granted land at the Cape, allotted there for the first time in freehold on 21 February 1657. The allottees became known as 'Vrye Burghers' [Dutch for free citizens], implying that they were no longer in the service of the VOC. The event proved epoch-making, in that it was the beginning of the permanent settlement of settler men and women who made the Cape their home. The immediate objective of the VOC was to set free capital which could yield a better return when not invested in the form of wages for the production of fresh food. The idea was to ensure the necessary supply of food and refreshments to the garrison and to callers at Table Bay, without having to produce such commodities by employing labourers.

The VOC itself had no intention of embarking upon colonial expansion beyond the necessity for securing the trade between East and West. The Here XVII in the Netherlands saw the advantage of eventually having even a militia that would serve as support to the garrison in time of war without receiving payment, and which would allow a smaller garrison in peace-time. The VOC directors were far too canny to entertain thought of creating a 'new Holland' at the Cape.

The requirements set for the type of settler wanted as free burghers was that they should be prepared to cut intimate connections with the European homeland and make the Cape their home. In May of 1756 the VOC had offered all men with families as much land for gardening as they cared to cultivate, free of rent or tax for the first three years; but women and children were struck off rations, a money payment being made instead to heads of families so as to encourage the production of foodstuffs. It was originally decided that only married men, of good character and of Dutch or German origin, were to have land allotted to them. The Company was willing to bring their wives and children from Europe if they were willing to stay for twenty years. Unmarried men could be released to practise a trade or as assistants to farmers.

On 21 February 1657 nine men presented themselves before the authorities and received grants of land as free burghers. The conditions of allotment, as amended a month later, limited the size of a holding to 15 morgen (11,5 hectares), tax-free for twelve years. To encourage the cultivation of cereals and also, no doubt, to protect the monopoly of the VOC, the burghers were not allowed to plant vegetables nor tobacco for sale. They were at liberty to sell or lease their land in consultation with the authorities. Such provisions as they might require in the initial stages could be procured from Company stores on credit, at the price paid by the Company's servants. The Company was also to furnish the burghers on credit with such implements as they required, at the cost price in the Netherlands; also with guns, powder and lead. For these privileges the Company took mortgage rights over their properties. The burghers were debarred from trading in liquor and were subject to the laws of the Netherlands and the Netherlands Indies. Permission was granted to purchase cattle and sheep from the Khoikhoi on condition that the burghers did not offer more than the Company was willing to pay and provided that the articles employed in barter such as brass and tobacco had been previously bought from the company. Once sufficient breeding cattle were purchased the privilege was withdrawn and trade with the indigenes and visiting foreigners strictly prohibited.

The instituting of 'Free Burghers' set in motion various episodes of expansion, conflict with indigenes, the community of Trek Boers, the 'Great Trek', Frontier Wars, Commando system and many other aspect that characterize the epoch of European settlement of South Africa throughout the following centuries.

[Extracted, edited and transliterated from ‘Free Burghers’ in SESA, Vol. 5, pp.32-33.]