The Immediate effect of the 1820 Settlers on the Cape Colony

Whilst the long term effect of the English immigrants to South Africa is well documented, their immediate effect is less well known. This related to the language policy and the currency used. What took slightly longer to be changed was the system of weights and measurements. Even though the arrival of these non-Dutch immigrants ultimately had profound, deep and long-term social and political implications,  all of these effects have been ignored for the purposes of this blog. 

Main picture: The Dutch rix dollar was genuine paper money being made from cardboard which was clearly non-durable

Language policy

Before the arrival of the 1820 Settlers, the official language of the Cape Colony was Dutch. A few British adventurers were traversing the country but they conversed in Dutch with the local population. The British reoccupied the Cape Colony in 1806 with English being declared the official language in 1822 when it replaced Dutch. Furthermore the stated language policy of the government of the time was one of Anglicisation. Practically speaking this policy had little effect as the lingua franca at the time was Dutch with very few colonists understanding English. The arrival of the Settlers was about to change that balance, maybe imperceptibly at first. In order to accommodate the fact that English was de facto the lingua franca in Port Elizabeth, on 28th May 1825 English was declared as the language for all judicial transactions in Port Elizabeth.

Dutch phrases

Dutch phrases

On the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, which united the former Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State with the Cape and Natal colonies, English was made the official language jointly with Dutch, which was replaced by Afrikaans in 1925.

English language

Despite having eleven official languages in South Africa, English is now the lingua franca being the de facto official language.


The currency in use in the Cape Colony before the arrival of the Settlers was the old Cape Dutch money, the Rix-dollar (2/- but later 1/6), the skilling (6d) and the stiver (1d). As there were no coins at all, the paper money, being actually manufactured out of cardboard, was not very durable. Apart from the non-durable material, the the rix-dollar notes were inconveniently large. In everyday use this meant that these notes had to be folded. This resulted in their soon being torn into two and sometimes more pieces. Besides this they rapidly became defaced and very dirty.

Letter of credit

Letter of credit

All of this necessitated frequent reprinting of new paper money and the destruction of the damaged and worn-out notes. When the occasion arose for renewal, the Receiver-General and a member of the High Court of Justice were appointed to examine, conjointly, all the worn-out and defaced paper money which had found its way back to the Treasury. Then a corresponding amount of paper money was printed, stamped, signed and put into circulation.

40 rixdollars

40 Rixdollars

The destruction of the old paper money took place in the courtyard of the Castle in Cape Town. When a sufficient quantity had been accumulated to render the measure necessary, the fiscal, the deputy Commissary-General and two members of the Burgher Senate, met at a date appointed by the Governor at the Revenue Office, situated then within the Castle.

The notes, having been carefully examined, were then burnt in the yard just outside the office. If this examining and burning could not be finished in one day, these officials had to meet agian the next day and continue the work so as to complete the exercise in the shortest possible time.

4 Pence - George IV

4 Pence – George IV

In 1825, an Ordinance was issued by the Governor-in-Council, making British silver money legal tender to discharge all debts due by and to individuals at a rate of one shilling and sixpence for each paper Rixdollar. Furthermore, it was announced that from January 1826, the public accounts would be kept in British money.

Early 4 pence coin

Early 4 pence coin

Silver and copper coins were then issued to the troops. Despite this, the old system of Rixdollars, skillings and stivers continued to be used by the farmers and country people in making calculations, even up the 1840s when the Market Square Buyers would bid “two skillings and four stivers” a pound of wool. As there were no coins for these denominations, the practice of converting the deal amounts into pounds, shillings and pence gradually accustomed the farmers to the use of the English money.

1858 Penny

1858 Penny

Weights and measurements

Before the 19th century, the Dutch used a wide variety of different weights and measures in the various Dutch towns and provinces. Despite the country’s small size, there was a lack of uniformity. During the Dutch Golden Age, these weights and measures accompanied the Dutch to the farthest corners of their colonial empire, including South Africa. Units of weight included the pond, ons and last. There was also an apothecaries’ system of weights. The mijl and roede were  measurements of distance. Smaller distances were measured in units based on parts of the body – the el, the voet, the palm and the duim. Area was measured by the morgenhontroede and voet. Units of volume included the okshoofdaamankerstoop, and mingel.

Map of the Cape Colony

Quantity control is essential for trade, and trade was the driving force behind both the founding and the colonisation of Southern Africa; hence the early establishment of a system of weights and measures at the Cape of Good Hope. In 1681, through the ‘Statuten van India’, the Dutch authorities prescribed standards of measurement and their application in trade. Instruments had to be assized twice yearly and the most common goods had to be marketed in fixed quantities. Fines were imposed for non-compliance.

At the beginning of British rule in 1806 the following standards were in use: 


16 ounces = 32 lood = 1 Dutch pound

92 Dutch pounds = 100 English pounds

Units of weight: 50 lb to 1 lood

Dry measure:

1 schepel = 82/107 Winchester bushel

1 muid = 4 schepels (3 Imperial bushels)

1 load = 10 muids


Liquid measure:

1 leaguer = 152 Dutch gallons = 126 7/11 Imperial gallons

1 pipe = 110 Dutch gallons

1 aum = 38 Dutch gallons

1 anker = 9 ½ Dutch gallons

1 flask = 11/32 Dutch gallons


Cloth measure:

1 ell = 27 Rhineland inches

1 yard = 37 17/20 Rhineland inches

4 Dutch ells = 3 English yards (approx.)

Measure of length:

1 foot = 12 inches (Dutch)

1 rood = 12 feet (Dutch)

1000 Dutch or Cape feet = 1033 English ft


Under the British occupation, the Dutch system remained in force, although the British weights and measures were also used, especially in the towns. (It cannot be established to what extent the black tribes made use of any measures.) As the pioneers migrated inland, they took the Dutch measures with them, so that by 1850 these were also used in the Transvaal, Orange Free State and Natal. During this period traders rarely possessed scales. They had to use measures of contents like the bucket and schepel. The term ‘an hour on horseback’ was used to indicate distance, and often also to measure the area of farms. In South-West Africa the German Colonial Gazette of 26 June 1895 laid down this distance as 10 km exactly. The need for statutory control was evident, and after 1850 the various governments all passed laws to control measurement: the Cape in 1858-59 and 1876, Natal in 1852 and 1872, the Transvaal in 1874 and 1891, while the O.F.S. passed a comprehensive law in 1898. It is not known to what extent control was exercised, as there is no record of the employment of trained assizers until 1902, when the municipality of Johannesburg appointed one.


Legislation on weights and measures passed by the two British colonies in the Cape and Natal, as well as in the two inland republics, retained the Dutch or Cape area measure of 1 morgen = 600 square roods = 2,116 acres; but they all favoured the British standards of weight and measures of length and contents, although the Transvaal scheduled the Dutch and the metric units as alternatives. Natal prescribed Imperial land measure, the acre, subdivided into 43 560 English square feet; and this was the legal unit in that province, except the northern districts of Vryheid and Utrecht, which belonged to the Transvaal until 1902 and therefore retained the morgen. The acre, however, was used outside Natal as a popular unit for land sales, especially for small properties, but not as an official measuring unit.

With the majority of its inhabitants being English speaking, the use of the British Imperial System was favoured in Port Elizabeth and the use of the outdated Dutch system never gained traction.



Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days by JJ Redgrave

Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle up to 1945 by Margaret Harradine



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