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I speak of Africa

The importance of the Cape to Britain

Table Bay, with Cape Town and Table Mountain in the background, from Richard Barnard Fisher'sThe importance of the Cape of Good Hope, as a colony to Great Britain. Third edition. London: printed for T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1818 [FCO Historical Collection DT2020 FIS]Table Bay, with Cape Town and Table Mountain in the background, from Richard Barnard Fisher'sThe importance of the Cape of Good Hope, as a colony to Great Britain. Third edition. London: printed for T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1818 [FCO Historical Collection DT2020 FIS]Although the Cape was handed back to the Batavian Republic in 1803 as one of the conditions of the Treaty of Amiens, which ushered in a short period of peace, its days as a Dutch possession were numbered. In 1806, with Britain and France once more at war, Britain again sent troops to seize control of the Cape from the Dutch, and this time the British had come to stay.

The early years of British rule saw a number of legislative changes, notably the abolition of judicial torture and of the international slave trade (the Dutch East India Company had imported large numbers of slaves). But it was perhaps Britain’s encouragement of missionary and other humane societies that had the most widespread and profound influence on the African peoples in the colony.

The London Missionary Society first sent missionaries to the Cape in 1799 and, by the time that Richard Fisher’s book, displayed here, was published in 1818, its author could speak of ‘the astonishing progress the missionaries are reported to have made’ among the African people. Missionaries also campaigned against the inhumane treatment by Afrikaners (as they were now known) of their Khoi labourers and challenged the assumptions of racial superiority that underpinned much of Cape Dutch society.

The frontispiece shows Table Bay, with Cape Town and Table Mountain in the background. As the title page makes clear, Fisher viewed the Cape not only, by virtue of its position, as ‘the key to … India’ but also as a place of immense economic potential, waiting to be unlocked by the entrepreneurial spirit of British emigrants.

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