Britain Acquires the Cape Colony Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Great Britain’s acquisition of the Cape Colony was part of the peace agreements that followed the Napoleonic Wars and was motivated primarily by Britain’s fear of the Cape’s falling into French hands. However, the introduction of a permanent British presence in South Africa also set in motion social and political changes that would ultimately lead to the South African War.

Summary of Event

Great Britain acquired the Cape Colony by the London Convention London Convention (1814) of August 13, 1814, between Britain and the Netherlands that became part of the general settlement of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. The Congress of Vienna Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) of 1815 took cognizance of that convention and many earlier territorial arrangements of the victors in those wars. Cape Colony;British acquisition of British Empire;and Cape Colony[Cape Colony] Great Britain;and Netherlands[Netherlands] Netherlands;and Great Britain[Great Britain] British Empire;and South Africa[South Africa] Netherlands;and South Africa[South Africa] [kw]Britain Acquires the Cape Colony (Aug. 13, 1814) [kw]Acquires the Cape Colony, Britain (Aug. 13, 1814) [kw]Cape Colony, Britain Acquires the (Aug. 13, 1814) Cape Colony;British acquisition of British Empire;and Cape Colony[Cape Colony] Great Britain;and Netherlands[Netherlands] Netherlands;and Great Britain[Great Britain] British Empire;and South Africa[South Africa] Netherlands;and South Africa[South Africa] [g]South Africa;Aug. 13, 1814: Britain Acquires the Cape Colony[0720] [g]British Empire;Aug. 13, 1814: Britain Acquires the Cape Colony[0720] [g]Netherlands;Aug. 13, 1814: Britain Acquires the Cape Colony[0720] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Aug. 13, 1814: Britain Acquires the Cape Colony[0720] [c]Colonization;Aug. 13, 1814: Britain Acquires the Cape Colony[0720] Fagel, Hendrick Castlereagh, Viscount [p]Castlereagh, Viscount;and South Africa[South Africa] William I (king of Netherlands)

The Cape Colony and Ceylon Ceylon (present Sri Lanka) were the only colonies captured from the Netherlands by the British that were not returned. For example, the far more valuable Dutch East Indies Dutch East Indies became Dutch again once the Napoleonic Wars were over. The reason for this was that the Netherlands, formerly a French ally by revolutionary coercion, became an enlarged entity designed to serve as a buffer against the prospect of future French aggression. For a time, the region that was later to become Belgium Belgium;and Netherlands[Netherlands] Netherlands;and Belgium[Belgium] was incorporated into the restored kingdom of the Netherlands. The British did not want to weaken the Netherlands by depriving the reconstituted nation of the heart of its colonial empire.

Britain had been in control of the Cape of Good Hope several years before the London Convention London Convention (1814) sanctioned the arrangement. Britain first gained control in September, 1795, when an assault by sea and land under Admiral George Keith Elphinstone Elphinstone, George Keith , General James Craig, and General Clarke captured the Cape of Good Hope. Those British officers claimed to take the terrritory on behalf of the prince of Orange, William I (king of Netherlands) who had been driven from the Netherlands by Dutch republican allies of revolutionary France. Actually, they took it as a strategic move in the worldwide struggle between Britain and France. The Cape of Good Cape of Good Hope Hope was a vital stage on the route to India, and Britain was determined that it should not fall into enemy hands. At the Peace of Amiens Amiens, Treaty of (1802) of 1802, Britain returned the Cape of Good Hope to the Dutch government, which was then known as the Batavian Republic.

After war between Britain and France resumed, the British sent another expedition, under Admiral Popham Popham, Admiral and General Baird, that retook the Cape in 1806. From that date onward, the Cape Colony, known after 1910 as the Cape Province, was colonized by many British settlers and became a stronghold of British influence in Africa.

Hendrick Fagel Fagel, Hendrick negotiated in London in 1814 for the Dutch government, and Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, Castlereagh, Viscount [p]Castlereagh, Viscount;and South Africa[South Africa] represented Britain. The Dutch envoy concentrated on retaining Dutch territory in South America and did not vigorously resist the British claim to hold the Cape of Good Hope. For his part, Castlereagh had to yield to the widespread popular British insistence calling for the retention of the Cape Colony on behalf of the security of British India, as the Cape was a vital revictualing stop on the sea route to India.

A complicated financial arrangement expedited the transfer of the Cape of Good Hope from the Netherlands to Britain. The prince of Orange, who later became King William I William I (king of Netherlands) of the Netherlands, accepted the arrangement. In sum, Britain paid six million pounds, but only two million pounds went to the Dutch government directly; that sum was to be used to fortify the southern frontier of the enlarged Dutch state against France. Three million pounds was paid to settle a Dutch debt with Russia and one million pounds went to Sweden to settle another obligation.

While the 1814 negotiations between Fagel Fagel, Hendrick and Castlereagh Castlereagh, Viscount [p]Castlereagh, Viscount;and South Africa[South Africa] progressed, relatively little public discussion about the Cape territory took place. Some commentators regarded the territory as advantageous for trade, others wanted the Cape territory to serve as a base in the struggle to abolish the slave trade, and still others thought it might have potential as a colony. In 1814, nobody knew about the great treasures of diamonds, gold, and rare metals that would later be discovered in the interior of South Africa.

The strategic value of the Cape of Good Hope was well known when Britain captured it, but it was not seen as a great prize for any other reason. The Africans living in the region were regarded as backward, the soil appeared to be poor for agriculture, and the location itself was too remote and too dry to attract many European settlers. The Dutch East India Company Dutch East India Company had administered the colony since an expedition had arrived at the Cape in 1652 to establish a refreshment station for Dutch ships traveling to the Dutch East Indies Dutch East Indies;and Cape Colony[Cape Colony] , the fabled Spice Islands that were later known as Indonesia. The purpose of Dutch settlement, which was originally concentrated in a compact region within about sixty miles (about one hundred kilometers) of Cape Town, was to replenish long-distance shipping with wine and food. A varied population of Dutch people, detribalized Africans, and slaves developed in the colony. An important component of the population was added when numerous French Protestants, called Huguenots, fled prosecution in their home country and blended with the Dutch population.

Great Britain’s acquisition of the Cape Colony was the first step in what became Britain’s quest to colonize as much of Africa as possible. During the late nineteenth century, Cecil Rhodes dominated South African politics and helped extend British control into Central Africa. His dream was to build a British “Cape-to-Cairo” railroad. He did not realize that dream but saw the completion of a telegraphic connection between Cape Town and Cairo in 1892, as depicted in this cartoon by Linley Sambourne (1844-1910).

Eventually, some Dutch-speaking farmers who felt constrained by company rule broke away and established cattle-raising Cattle;in South Africa[South Africa] operations deeper in the interior. They were known as Boers or Trekboers, after the Dutch term for farmers, but eventually preferred to be known as Afrikaners. Afrikaners;in Cape Colony[Cape Colony] Their ranches were huge, often around six thousand acres of generally dry grazing land. Their culture was rough and ready and based upon narrow fundamentalist Calvinistic Calvinism;and Afrikaners[Afrikaners] interpretations of the Bible. Bible;and Calvinism[Calvinism] The Afrikaners saw themselves as a new Chosen People and the black Africans who sought to resist their incursions as heathens who had to make way for God’s people. These movements and attitudes marked the beginning of the problem of racial strife in South Africa that the British acquired along with the Cape Colony.

Some Afrikaners who had settled far in the interior had established their own republics before the British took over. One of the British governor’s first responsibilities was to realign those distant settlers with the Cape government. Another problem of wars with African states on the eastern frontier was not so easily solved. By 1820, the government was sending British settlers along the frontier to act as a buffer between Africans and Afrikaners, Afrikaners;in Cape Colony[Cape Colony] but strife continued.

The Afrikaners at the Cape had lost their attachments to the Netherlands and did not resist the British takeover initially. Substantial immigration from the Netherlands had ceased long before the British arrived, and the frontier created a new way of life for the whites at the Cape. Even the Dutch language had evolved away from the mother tongue at the Cape, becoming Afrikaans. Moreover, the ruling Dutch East India Company Dutch East India Company had long been known as bankrupt, corrupt, restrictive, and exploitative, so its demise was welcomed by the settlers. Attractive British reforms were instituted quickly. Many of the company’s economic restrictions were swept away, and government officeholders had to accept salaries instead of taking fees and bribes.


The Dutch capitulations to the British in 1795 and 1806 contained no guarantees that Dutch forms of government would be preserved, but the British retained familiar Roman Dutch law and many local institutions and customs as well as the Afrikaans-speaking officials who ran them. The previous experience of the British Empire with preserving French culture in Canada undoubtedly guided British efforts. There was no clamor for British laws and institutions because few British subjects wanted to emigrate to the Cape during the early period of British control.

Nevertheless, at the highest level a very new and distinctly British form of government was imposed. The Cape Colony became one of the first British Crown Colonies—a form of government that the British would later establish throughout their worldwide empire in colonies whose people the British deemed incapable of self-government or, at best, not ready for it. The prerogative of the British crown was not impaired in this form of government, and the Crown Colonies were ruled directly by governors appointed by Britain’s prime minister or by the British colonial secretary acting with the prime minister’s approval.

Despite these improvements, conflicts between the British administration and the Afrikaners Afrikaners;in Cape Colony[Cape Colony] began early. The Afrikaners regarded the British as too lenient toward African societies, too restrictive about frontier expansion, and too supportive of missionary activities. Differences between the British and the Afrikaners would escalate during the 1830’s, when large numbers of Afrikaner voortrekkers (migrants) began moving deeper into the interior, where they created new republics. At the end of the nineteenth century, conflicts between the British and the Afrikaner republics would precipitate the South African (Boer) War.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Etherington, Norman. The Great Treks: The Transformation of Southern Africa, 1815-1854. Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 2001. Study of the great changes in Afrikaner society after the British acquisition of the Cape, as Afrikaners moved ever farther into the interior.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giliomee, Hermann. The Afrikaners: Biography of a People. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2003. An evenhanded appraisal of the construction of Afrikaner identity, which took many of its most distinctive forms during the nineteenth century, after the British occupied the Cape.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nelson, Harold D. South Africa: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: American University, Foreign Area Studies, 1981. Nelson’s work has a clear and precise historical chapter on Britain’s acquisition of the Cape Colony.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Monica, and Leonard Thompson, eds. South Africa to 1870. Vol. 1 in The Oxford History of South Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Reprinted as A History of South Africa to 1870. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1982. This study stresses social history rather than political history and pays special attention to the interrelationships among ethnic groups in South Africa.

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Viscount Castlereagh. Cape Colony;British acquisition of British Empire;and Cape Colony[Cape Colony] Great Britain;and Netherlands[Netherlands] Netherlands;and Great Britain[Great Britain] British Empire;and South Africa[South Africa] Netherlands;and South Africa[South Africa]

Categories: History