Cape Colony: British Rule and South Africa’s First Formal Education System

Different from the Dutch who gave a small amount of attention to education, establishing only a small number of schools, the British, however, realising the importance of education, focused on furthering education at the Cape Colony. During the earliest years of their second occupation, no direct changes were made, observing, however, only the truth of the poor state that education was in, producing not only poor teachers but too, poor attendance. What’s more, they discovered that in the inner regions of the colony, almost no children received any schooling of any kind. These, among others, were the flaws in education that the British were met with during the earliest years of the 19th century. Given that, this article aims to look at how the British went from this state of affairs to establishing South Africa’s first formal education system, in addition to making the 19th century a time of state-building, setting up great formal systems at the Cape, totally transforming Cape society as it had been known.

The flag of the Govenor of the Cape Colony. The flag represents the traditional Union Flag with the colonial arms seen at the centre of the flag.
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State-funded Schools

While the British passed over the poor state of education for several years, after a while, however, they knew that they had to begin the work of furthering education at the Cape. The setting up of state-funded primary schools, similar to the ones that were employed in England, was recommended to Sir John Cradock, the Governor of the Cape, with the hope that they would be just as effective at the Cape, as they had been in England. These schools employed the Bell-Lancaster method, a method of education that had developed into a success story in England during the 19th century. Once more, the British hoped that this method would be just as effective at the Cape as it had been in England. On account of the origins of this method, travelling educators were trained and employed to teach using this method. The Bell-Lancaster method proved to be a great success in Cape Town but, it failed to achieve the same success in the countryside. Though recommendations continued to be made to the Governor regarding various ways that education could be advanced, many of these recommendations were simply ignored.

Formalisation of Education

From the 1820s, with the appointment of a firmer Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, more serious steps were taken. In 1839, the first government document, charting the direction that the British wanted to take as to education, was released. The Cape’s first Department of Education was established within the same year and a British educator, Dr James Rose-Innes, was appointed as the Superintendent General of Education. The government document not only specified the government’s intentions but, also presented a classification of schools, separating schools into first and second class schools. While first-class schools offered primary and secondary programmes and required a small fee, second-class schools only offered primary programmes and were free. Importantly, different from the schools that were established by the Dutch which held strong religious qualities, these schools, established by the British, carried both religious and secular qualities. Although in time, school attendance did increase, it still, however, remained fairly low. To give more children access to first-class schools, the government also gave children the opportunity to earn a scholarship to study at a first-class school. For students who couldn’t earn a scholarship, state, state-funded, and missionary schools were available, offering secondary programmes but, at a fee.

Anglicisation and British Schools

Developing alongside the formalisation of education, was also the need to anglicise schools. Because of the earliest settlers of the Cape, Dutch had developed into the language used in nearly all schools but, under British rule, this had to change. Thus, in 1822, Lord Charles Somerset declared English as the Cape’s official language. From then on, efforts were made to regularise English in schools by, for instance, only appointing educators that could speak and teach in English. Furthermore, also developing alongside these measures to anglicise schools, were the missionary societies who played an important role in this process. During Britain’s first occupation of the Cape, for example, in 1799, the first mission school was established in King Williams Town. In time, further mission schools were also established, included among them were Lovedale, St Matthews, and Clarkebury. As schools developed in line with British aims and system of education, in 1820, more educators were brought to the Cape from Britain. Quite a few of these settlers not only taught but, established schools at the Cape. Institutions of higher education like the South African College (1829) – which led to the creation of SA College Schools and the University of Cape Town – and the University of the Cape of Good Hope (1873), and a few others, were also established.

Anglicisation did not end by simply declaring the English language as the official language of the Cape and establishing schools, however. The British also expected to anglicise the people of the Cape. Schools, viewed as important instruments in maintaining British power, were not only used to extend the English language but, they were also used to extend British culture, lessening and devaluing that of the indigenous people, while increasing that of the British. Sir George Grey, the Governor of the Cape during the 1850s, for example, believed that education was an important tool to the subjugation of Africans. He believed that African education had to be in line with the roles that Africans were expected to play in the countryside, among their people, where the greater part of Africans were found. The roles that Africans were to play included being preachers, teachers, and interpreters, roles that were in agreement with extending British culture. During the 1860s, the Superintendent of Education, Sir Langham Dale, also expressed that education was not only important to extending British culture among Africans but that it would play an important role in ensuring peace and stability in the frontier regions. As follows, with an end to slavery and the benefits that came from it, education quickly developed into an instrument that could be used not only to spread British culture but, to keep the indigenous people in an inferior position, both physically and psychologically.

Afrikaner Resistance

While the British were set on anglicising the people of the Cape, schools, and other institutions, the Afrikaners, however, were set on resisting British rule and culture, in whatever ways they could. Concerning schooling, as the British established several state, state-funded, and mission schools, the Afrikaners resisted these measures by refusing to send their children to these schools. The Afrikaners also fought against these measures by establishing Dutch schools. Thus, as the British established more and more schools, so did the Dutch. For example, in 1822, there was a rise in the number of Dutch private schools at the Cape. Between 1822 and 1839, the number of Dutch private schools increased two-fold in relation to what they had been before. British schools developed together with Dutch schools. The Afrikaners resisted British rule and culture because they too were once rulers of the Cape, they too were once respected as a powerful nation. The Dutch also resisted British rule because they resented the British. They resented them because the British were once their greatest opponent and now, here they were, ruling over them. Submitting to British rule would be to acknowledge British power and to admit defeat. Giving in to British rule would also mean putting themselves, the Dutch, in a position of inferiority which they weren’t prepared to do. Moreover, although they also valued their culture, resisting British rule had less to do with their culture, however, and more do with the struggle for power. Still, even in the face of Afrikaner resistance, however, the British turned the 19th century into a period of state-building, transforming Cape society as it had been known, and extending British culture.

References and Further Readings

Booyse, J. J., le Roux, C. S., Seroto, J., & Wolhuter, C. C. (2011). A History of Schooling. Van Schaik Publishers

Campbell, C. T. (1897). British South Africa: A History of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope from Its Conquest 1795 to the Settlement of Albany by the British Emigration of 1819. Creative Media Partners, LLC

Christie, P. (1991). The Right to Learn: The Struggle for Education in South Africa. Sached Trust/Ravan Press Publication

Msila, V. (2007). “From Apartheid Education to the Revised National Curriculum Statement: Pedagogy for Identity Formation and Nation Building in South Africa”, in Nordic Journal of African Studies, 16(2), pp. 146-160. Pretoria: University of South Africa

Ndlovu, N. B. E. (2002). A Historical-Educational Investigation into Missionary Education in South Africa with special Reference to Mission Schools in Bushbuckridge. Pretoria: University of South Africa. Unpublished Dissertation

Seroto, J. (1999). A Historical Perspective of Formal Education for Black People in the Rural Areas of South Africa with Special Reference to Schools in the Northern Province. Pretoria: University of South Africa. Unpublished Dissertation

South African History Online (SAHO). (2019). Amersfoort Legacy Timeline 1658-Present. [Online]. Available:

Thompson, L. (2000). A history of South Africa. Yale University Press

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