Negotiating freedom: the free black farmers of Jonkershoek, 1697-1710

Master Thesis


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During the late seventeenth century, a section of Cape Town's ‘free black' (vrijzwart) population, a group comprised primarily of formerly enslaved people, took up farming in the Jonkershoek Valley of Stellenbosch. Despite initial prosperity, these free black farmers ceased to exist as an independent socio-political entity by the 1720s. Scholars of the Dutch Cape Colony, such as Hermann Giliomee and Karel Schoeman, have attributed this decline to a lack of capital, high labour costs, the distance from the market and the specialised nature of wheat farming at the Cape. Yet white farmers, confronted by similar obstacles, managed to transcend them and coalesce into a permanent agrarian class. This thesis attempts to account for this disparity by examining hitherto unexplored socio-economic factors that contributed to the rise and fall of free black farmers in Jonkershoek, particularly the patronage network between the free blacks and the Van der Stel dynasty. An extensive perusal of archival sources and secondary literature has facilitated two key observations. Firstly, the influx of free black farmers into Jonkershoek was contingent on the direct intervention of Governor Simon van der Stel, who hoped to supplant the recalcitrant white farmers with a more compliant group of agriculturalists. Imperatively, Van der Stel's policy of encouraging free black settlement in Jonkershoek via land grants was maintained by his son and successor, Willem Adriaan van der Stel. Secondly, the association between the Van der Stels and the free black farmers left the latter vulnerable to economic exclusion when Willem Adriaan van der Stel became embroiled in a dispute with the white settler faction and was subsequently dismissed on corruption charges in 1707. These findings demonstrate that, despite their status as free individuals, free black farmers occupied a precarious position within Cape society and were constantly compelled to negotiate their freedom.