Cape Town is one of the world’s iconic cities because of its astonishing natural beauty. Just as compelling, however, is this city’s amazing multicultural flavor. This genetic diversity which makes up Multicultural Cape Town’s identity begins early on in the history of modern man. It evolves as a result of key historical events which shaped our modern world. Cape Town is home to some of the oldest indigenous populations in Africa. Its inhabitants are also descendants of slaves, settlers, sailors and exiles from many different parts of the world. Zanzibar, Holland, Dahomey, St Helena, Scandinavia, Mauritius, Philippines, Holland, India, Eastern Europe, Malaysia, England, to name a few!
Khoe-San: The First Modern Humans
San-Bushmen or Khoe-San people are the original human inhabitants of the Cape and much of Southern and Eastern Africa. Research suggests that the Khoe-San are the first modern humans, displacing other, archaic forms of humans, thus becoming the sole representatives of Homo Sapiens. The San-Bushmen show the greatest genetic diversity of all human groups, indicating that they are genetically closest to this ancient ‘rootstock’ of humanity.
More recent history of Cape Town reveals the important place the Cape holds in the history of exploration.
When Bartholomeu Dias embarked on his ‘Voyage of Discovery’ in 1487, rounding the southern tip of Africa – the Cape of Good Hope, he established the sea route from Europe to India and the East. Cape Town, like New York, was settled by the Dutch East India Company. New York, or New Amsterdam as it was named, was settled first in 1609.
The Dutch East India Company established the first settlement at the Cape in 1652 to provide its sailors on the long journey between Asia and Europe with fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and water. In the Cape Settlement we start to begin to see an amalgamation of original San, Khoe, Xhosa settlers and the European newcomers – Dutch, Swiss, Portuguese, Scandinavian, German, French – mainly male and mostly transient sailors and soldiers who intermarried with local indigenous black women.
A mixed race community develops
Cape Town in the 18th and 19th Century hummed with extraordinary cultural diversity. Dutch East India company employees from across Europe and Asia came to settle. Slaves and former slaves came from Asia and Africa.
Slavery creates ‘Colored’ or ‘Cape Creole’ communities
Slavery explains much about the peculiar demographic make-up of the Cape. The populations inhabiting Cape Town today, including the so-called ‘Coloreds’ – Cape Creole communities – share ancestry with Malaysian, Khoe and San, Xhosa and European groups. Increasingly, in post-Apartheid South Africa, many members of this self-identified group, reject the label and prefer to be instead called Khoe and to claim their rights and status as First Persons. At the very outset of the Cape Settlement, slaves were shipped in for the purposes of hard labor. First, they came from the rest of Africa – Guinea, Dahomey, Mozambique, then Zanzibar, Madagascar and Mauritius. Later slaves were brought from the Dutch controlled islands in Asia – Indonesia – as well as from India.
Added to the mixing of these communities, the complex genetic identity was added to further when the British colonized the Cape in 1806. English, Scots and Irish whose bloodlines can also be found in local indigenes and Colored communities. Later settlers such as Portuguese, Madeirans, Eastern European Jews, and sailors from a host of countries also integrated across color lines.
The Rest is History
This creolization of cultures that characterizes the city was infused further by Chinese exiles from Dutch Batavia, Phillipine refugees from the Phillipine Revolution, indentured servants from St Helena and displaced African communities from West and East Africa. Migrants and other arrivals to Cape Town continue to this day. Being a port, sailors arrive from every corner of the world, and the offspring from liaisons with local Cape women add to the mind-boggling diversity of its inhabitants.
Bo-Kaap – A Cape Malay, Muslim Neighborhood
Bo-Kaap neighborhood was first developed in the 1760s by Dutch governor Jan de Waal. He built a series of small rental houses to provide accommodation for the city’s Cape Malay slaves. The Cape Malay people who settled here and remain its primary residents originated from the Dutch East Indies (including Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. They were exiled by the Dutch to the Cape as slaves towards the end of the 17th century. Some of them were convicts or slaves in their home countries but others were political prisoners from wealthy, influential backgrounds.
Today, this colorful settlement above the city attracts tourists from all over the world but is much more than its picturesque scenery. It’s one of the oldest residential areas in Cape Town and is synonymous with Islamic Cape Malay culture – evidence of which can be found throughout the area, from its halal restaurants to the haunting sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer.
And so it goes on … multicultural Cape Town
Today, and since Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, migrants from economically and politically unstable African countries arrive daily. They take their place among us, altering the cultural landscape yet again, adding to rich and diverse Cape African heritage that we celebrate today.