Germans, the Dutch East India Company, and Early Colonial South Africa

Germans were the largest foreign European group in the Dutch empire during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They worked for the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) in its territories along the Indian Ocean, stretching from present-day South Africa to Sri Lanka, Japan, Taiwan, and Indonesia. Initially serving on temporary labour contracts as officials, sailors, and soldiers, soon Germans began to stay in the Dutch overseas territories for good. Some continued to work for the Company for the rest of their lives, while others applied for citizenship and became farm holders, teachers, ministers, or tradesmen.

Despite their large presence in the Dutch sphere, Germans did not form communities with a distinct linguistic or religious heritage over the long term, in contrast to their compatriots in North America and in nineteenth-century and twentieth-century southern Africa. Due to the gender imbalance common to many early colonial societies, German men in the Dutch overseas territories usually formed unions (marital and extramarital) with women from a different cultural and linguistic background. Germans learned to speak Dutch with their partners and passed this language on to their children. Moving to the Dutch colonies also meant that many Europeans could no longer practise their own religion—at least, not publicly. Most Catholic and Lutheran Germans attended services in the Reformed Church, since that was the official denomination of the Dutch East India Company.

Map of the Cape Colony in 1795, printed in George McCall Theal, History of Africa South of the Zambesi (London, 1916), 374. Artwork in the public domain, provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Within a generation, Germans assimilated into Dutch colonial society to such an extent that foreign visitors regarded the German population as Dutchmen, rather than Germans. A German visitor to the Cape Colony, writing at the end of the eighteenth century, observed that the majority of its inhabitants were ‘former Germans who, over time, have adopted local customs so that they should really be deemed Dutchmen’.1 Besides their cultural integration, Germans were also involved in the day-to-day running of the colonies as they served in their administration and defence, and many bought and sold slaves to work on their farms or in their households. Like their counterparts in the British Empire, Germans became accidental but willing colonists in the Dutch overseas domain.

The Cape Colony in southern Africa, now the Republic of South Africa, was home to the largest long-term German presence of the Dutch colonies. Nearly 15,000 men and women from the German-speaking parts of Europe made their way to the Cape before 1800. By the late eighteenth century, they dominated migration to the colony, and the garrison consisted nearly entirely of German soldiers. As in other Dutch territories, Germans at the Cape stood apart only in their petitions for a Lutheran church—an institution which ultimately failed to keep the dispersed German community together. As a result, public knowledge of the German presence in South Africa rests on the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when their communities became more visible and numerous. Consider, for instance, the activity of nineteenth-century missions in the region, such as the Hermannsburg and Rhenish Missionary Societies, or the arrival of German colonists and soldiers in the 1850s. Why did Germans not form similarly noticeable communities in the two centuries prior? To answer this question, I am researching the German presence in the Cape Colony during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and examining why Germans assimilated into Cape colonial society within a generation.

Studying the histories of Germans abroad ideally involves archival research both in Germany and overseas. A research grant from the German Historical Institute London enabled me to visit archives and libraries in Germany and to present my research at the GHIL upon my return. I also had the opportunity to discuss my findings with other specialists at the institute. The scholarship was therefore not only a financial aid, but also a great platform for developing my research.

My visit to Germany followed extensive archival research in South Africa and the Netherlands. The archives of the Dutch East India Company in The Hague and Cape Town are known for their depth and breadth. The documents shed light on the Company’s activity in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and are remarkable sources for the cultural, economic, and ecclesiastical history of these areas. For this reason, the Company archives were included on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2003. The extensiveness of these archives may suggest comprehensiveness. When it comes to Germans in the Dutch territories, German records add a clearer picture of the early lives of those who left—especially their recruitment, education, and family circumstances. Wills and letters shed light on the contacts that migrants maintained or broke off with their ancestral homelands. Return migration was a recurring topic in family correspondence, both for relatives who wished for their loved one to come home, and for colonists who promised their imminent return. The records tell us that these written pledges rarely materialised, and that emigrants typically stayed abroad for the rest of their lives. Others reconsidered their emigration as they made the journey back and forth several times, sometimes with entire families. Together, they form stories of connection and disconnection between family members, of miscommunication and unreliable postal systems.

The archival records in Germany also illuminate how Germans established ecclesiastical ties with churches and missionary societies abroad that were closer to their own religious beliefs. In the case of the Cape Colony, German Lutherans sought contact with ministers of the Moravian Church (a branch of Protestant Christianity) and the Danish-Halle Mission in India to avoid having to rely on services in the Reformed (Calvinist) Church, as I have shown in a recent article published in Historical Research.2 Yet the ties that Cape Germans formed with their regions of origin only temporarily challenged the forces of assimilation in Dutch colonial society. Germans in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century South Africa were therefore not willing or able to form separate communities, in contrast to their counterparts elsewhere.

Research in archives across continents broadens our understanding of European diversity within early modern empires and the variety of networks—religious, cultural and educational—that their inhabitants established. Through their diverse populations, these territories harboured a wealth of religions and cultures, but these are not all represented to the same degree in the surviving archival material. By looking beyond the archives of the colonial administrators, we can gain insight into the activities of other Europeans that existed alongside those of the colonial authorities, and at times challenged them. Germans abroad often formed alternative networks to those of the colonial elites, and their extent and impact only fully emerge when we broaden our horizon to include other archives besides the official government repositories. German archives help us to further reveal the international ties of German-speaking Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These ties brought people, new beliefs, and experiences to other continents, but also sustained colonialism and slavery. To investigate these dynamics between Germans and early modern empires requires multilingual, multi-archival work in and outside Europe. Undertaking such research across continents is a laborious and expensive task, so the support of institutions such as the GHIL is enormously helpful when it comes to research based on extensive primary source analysis.

About the Author

Olga Witmer is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge, researching Germans in the Dutch Cape Colony, 1652-1806. She is interested in early modern German migration, the Dutch empire, and Protestantism beyond Europe. She has published on the interaction between the Reformed and Lutheran communities, the Danish-Halle Mission, and the Moravian Church in the Dutch empire. She previously held a doctoral fellowship at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz and a Richard Plaschka Fellowship for research in Austria. In 2019, she was runner-up in the Institute of Historical Research’s annual Pollard Prize, which highlights outstanding work by early-career scholars.

Cite this article as: Olga Witmer, "Germans, the Dutch East India Company, and Early Colonial South Africa," in German Historical Institute London Blog, 15/09/2020, https://ghil.hypotheses.org/23.

  1. ‘[U]nd wirklich besteht ein Teil desselben aus ehemaligen Deutschen, die aber freilich nach und nach die hiesigen Sitten so angenommen haben, daß man sie für Nationalholländer halten sollte.’ Christoph Carl Friedrich von Wurmb and Karl von Wolzogen, Briefe des Herrn von Wurmb und des Herrn Baron von Wollzogen auf ihren Reisen nach Afrika und Ostindien in den Jahren 1774 bis 1792 (Gotha, 1794), 302. []
  2. Olga Witmer, ‘Clandestine Lutheranism in the Eighteenth-Century Dutch Cape Colony’, Historical Research, 93/260 (2020), 309–332, https://doi.org/10.1093/hisres/htaa007. []

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