Dutch Colonial Education: Dutch East India Company and South Africa’s First School

The Khoisan and Bantu were the only people who inhabited present-day South Africa up until the middle of the 17th century. From 1652, however, when the Dutch East India Company arrived at the Cape of Good Hope and within a short time, established a Dutch colony, existence as it had previously been known, changed. Scores of Europeans settled at the Cape. Among these Europeans were Dutch, French, German, and English settlers who lived as farmers and traders while other Dutch farmers, commonly known as trekboers, travelled beyond the Cape, moving into the interior and establishing farms. Enslaved Africans and East Indians, brought into the Cape to work on farms and in towns, also quickly became an everyday mark of the developing society. This then, a population made up of Khoisan, Bantu, Europeans, and enslaved Africans and East Indians was the society that education developed within at the Cape.

Jan van Riebeeck.
Image Credit: http://www.sahistory.org.za

Founding of South Africa’s First School

The Dutch East India Company did not give a great deal of care and attention to education. Instead, it was the church that played a key role in education. Even if there was no formal education during this period, there are records of home-schooling taking place which mostly included learning the Bible, reading, writing, and arithmetic. The first school, founded in 1658, was established to teach enslaved Africans and East Indians the Christian faith and Dutch language but, because they couldn’t be talked into attending the school, after some time, the school was closed. The second school, founded in 1663, was established for European children. Even so, 1 Khoikhoi, 4 enslaved African and East Indians, and 12 European children attended the school. The church continued to play a key role in education at the Cape throughout these years and the number of European children continued to grow. There were 65 European children by 1672.

Dutch Rule and Education

The Council of Policy placed the responsibility for educational issues in the hands of the Ecclesiastical Council. For example, the Ecclesiastical Council was responsible for the appointment and approval of teachers. Commissioner Verburgh visited the Cape in 1676 and advised the Company to focus on developing formal schooling. The first primary schools were established by the Company at Stellenbosch (1683) and Drakenstein (1691). Furthermore, the earliest education law, the Ordonnantie van de School Ordenning, was accepted and approved in 1714. This law made it unlawful for anyone to work as a teacher without the consent of the Governor and Council of Policy. This law also outlined responsibilities and rules as to school organisations. Although primary schools had been established by this point, the only high school was established in 1714 by a priest. The school, however, only operated for a few years. The school was abandoned in 1725 because it did not receive enough support. Be that as it may, more schools were established at Roodezand (1743) and Swartland (1745).

Even with the establishment of these schools, there were a large number of children, particularly those living in the interior, who had no access to formal schooling. To resolve this problem, farmers would take on itinerant teachers to teach their children as well as the children of their neighbours to ensure that learning occurred. When farmers hired itinerant teachers, the Council of Policy required farmers and itinerant teachers to sketch out a contract between them. The Council of Policy enforced this measure to ensure that only people who supported the Reformed faith, people who were knowledgeable and experienced, worked as itinerant teachers. Thus, only people who received authorization from the Ecclesiastical Council were allowed to work as itinerant teachers. In addition to primary and high schools, over time, private schools were also established. The authorization for the establishment of private schools was given in 1762. Private schools also fell under the power and leadership of the Ecclesiastical Council like all schools.

With the development of education in other areas of the colony, apart from relying on itinerant teachers to teach their children, farmers also requested the Council of Policy to develop education in the interior. The Council of Policy responded to this request by sending Company officials to work as itinerant teachers in the interior. The Company’s attempts to develop education in the interior failed to achieve to anticipated end. Significantly, Scholarchs replaced the Ecclesiastical Council, working under the leadership of the Governor of the Cape and his Council. The Scholarchs were running 8 schools by 1779 with a total of 111 European and 25 enslaved African and East Indian children in these schools. Independent schools like the Military Academy (1786) and one French school (1794) were also established. These schools were established through private initiatives and so, did not fall under the authority of Scholarchs. Even with these attempts, education at the Cape remained in a poor state. It was only under British rule that a formal education system was established. The education offered under the Company’s rule, created a strongly religious way of life, drawing attention to what was most important at the time.


References and Further Readings

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

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

McKenna, A. (2011). The History of Southern Africa. Britannica Educational Publishing

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 – History of Education in South Africa. [Online]. Available: http://www.sahistory.org.za

South African History Online (SAHO). (2019). Amersfoort Legacy Timeline 1658-Present. [Online]. Available: http://www.sahistory.org.za

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

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