Précis of the archives of the Cape of Good Hope 1715-1806

(précis a concise summary of essential points, statements, or facts)

These volumes form a section of the Annexures to the Minutes of the Council of Policy, and will be found to contain much of permanent historical interest. The series commences with the year 1715, and ends with that of 1806. It is to be regretted that some of the years are missing, but in a few cases I have substituted a ‘Precis’ of the Minutes of the Council of Policy of that particular year.
When I commenced this work some years ago, my principal object was to comply with the expressed wish of many, to frame as complete a list as possible of the earlier Colonists, and their birthplaces, but the reader will also find, besides, most important portions of our Colonial History imbedded in many of these memorials, which now see the light of day for the first time.

But in going through the list, one often recurring word will, no doubt, cause some surprise. It is that of ‘soldier’, the rank which many memorialists held when they entered the Service; and the impression may thus easily be caused that most of the earlier, as well as of the later Colonists, were of humble origin, and not of the best class of Europeans. No greater fallacy is possible, and an explanation is therefore necessary.

As the Dutch East India Company always required large numbers of men and boys to fill the ranks in the different branches of its Service, volunteers from all parts of the Continent naturally flocked to Amsterdam with the intention of going to the East Indies to try their fortunes there. Men of every profession and trade offered themselves, and, before their acceptance, were carefully examined and classified. But whether they were Doctors, Lawyers, Surveyors, etc., every one was entered on the books of the Civil Service as a ‘soldier’, with the pay of nine guilders per month. This was the lowest rank with which all had to commence their careers, and therefore it was very natural, and no anomaly, when, e.g., a surgeon died, that he was succeeded nominally by a ‘soldier’, but really by another qualified surgeon, still holding the rank of ‘soldier.’ Tulbagh, Helot, and so many others, whose names are familiar, almost as household words, rose from the rank of ‘soldier’ to the high positions which they reached in later life; and if we con the lists further, we shall find the name of Jacobus Johannes Le Sueur, ‘Juris Utriusque Doctor’ (1764–No. 131), who, on his return from his studies in Europe had also to enter the Service as a ‘soldier.’

For reasons, however, there were now and then a few exceptions, when outsiders were appointed for their very exceptional abilities, especially in the military section of the Service, such as Governor Louis van Assenburg, and afterwards Governor Cornelis Jacob van de Graaff. Both were placed at the head of affairs here, but the main object of their appointment was to place the Cape in a proper state of defence against an enemy, and thus save it for the Company and the Fatherland. Another outsider may also be mentioned, who though in his younger days he had served the Company here, in various ways, during the administration of his father, until his return to his native land, where he became a Magistrate of the City of Amsterdam, finally decided, after his father had asked for his discharge, to accept the offer of the Directors, and become his successor. But Willem Adriaan van der Stel, in spite of the good he did, and endeavoured to do for the Colony, found bitter enemies to contend with here, until his recall, when, his term of contract with the Company having expired, he once more retired into private life.

In the Civil Service the ranks appear to have been as follows:–(1) Soldier; (2) Assistant; (3) Bookkeeper; (4) Junior Merchant; and (5) Senior Merchant, with perhaps the additional title of Extraordinary or Ordinary Councillor of India. And hence it becomes perfectly clear that a person described as a ‘Soldier’ was, as a rule, no more a ‘Soldier than a ‘Junior’ or ‘Senior Merchant’ was a ‘Merchant.’ After a short probation the ‘Soldier’ became ‘Assistant’, or clerk, and received the salary attached to that grade; after that he might obtain the rank of bookkeeper, and later on be promoted to the coveted position of junior or senior merchant; and should he possess the necessary ability, rise still higher.

In the Naval branch a similar system of promotion was followed. Every one had to start from the bottom rung of the ladder, with the rank of sailor, and thus gradually earn promotion. In the Military service also every one had to rise from the ranks. The lads or boys who were accepted were also examined, classified, and enrolled under the title of ‘young sailor’, with a salary of eight guilders per month.

Ministers of Religion and Sick Comforters or Sick Visitors were provided for the Company’s Possessions in India by the various ‘classes’ or presbyteries under which the different towns of the Company’s Chambers, by which they were required, resorted. For their instructions see my ‘Precis’, ‘Letters Received’, 1695-1708, pp. 52-55.

The above explanation I have deemed necessary in order to remove a wrong impression, and now leave my work in the hands of the indulgent reader.

Archive Department,
Cape of Good Hope,
July, 1903.

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