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Article
VOC Hierarchy - A Racial Order?
From the social hierarchy in Cape Town in the 1700s it may at first appear that the VOC exercised an exclusionist racial policy, of the type seen later in South Africa.

However, Europeans could - and did - marry non-Europeans, especially in the early years when women were few. Free blacks lived among European burghers and worked in similar occupations. The children of slaves became slaves - even if their father was European. Simon van der Stel, was half Japanese - this did not stop his appointment as Governor. Slaves, burghers, sailors and free blacks mixed at the taverns, drinking together, dancing and playing games.

What mattered to the VOC was not race, but an economic order. Slaves were vital to the cheap running of the Cape and the VOC left them in no doubt about their servitude, and their powerless position under law, which enforced brutal punishments. But 'senior slaves' who worked in responsible positions, received privileges and their status compared favourably with that of VOC soldiers - who were European, but less important in the economic order.

The VOC did not create a hierarchy based on race but one based on economic considerations. But they nevertheless did create and enforce a hierarchical and discriminatory society, which categorised people into groups, and enshrined in law different privileges and punishments for them. Their approach created a certain mind-set that was to effect all South Africa and established a precedent, that law may be used to structure and control society for economic gain and political power.


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