A class apart: symbolic capital, consumption and identity among the alcohol entrepreneurs of Cape Town, 1680-1795

  • G Groenewald
Keywords: alcohol traders, Cape Town, consumption, Dutch East India Company (DEIC), elite formation, entrepreneurs, identity formation, material culture, status, symbolic capital


Under the rule of the Dutch East India Company (1652-1795) free trade in Cape Town was severely restricted. During its founding years, the free inhabitants all shared the same socio-economic background, yet three to four generations later a stratified society had developed with a clearly identifiable elite. Partly this was the result of some burghers amassing large capital resources through utilising the possibilities afforded by the lucrative alcohol trade. A large measure of this success was due to the exploitation of an intricate network of connections built up through kinship and social capital. This article concentrates on the cultural aspects of the lives of the most successful alcohol entrepreneurs, taking a multi-generational view. If they were the financial elite of Cape Town, were they also the social and cultural ones? How did they view themselves and how were they viewed by others? In order to answer these questions the article uses Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of ‘symbolic capital’, arguing that it operated in tandem with economic and social capital. Two broad aspects of the cultural lives of wealthy alcohol traders are addressed. Firstly, the article discusses their consumption patterns and the use of material culture in showcasing their wealth such as choice of address, the use of slaves and carriages, and the display of jewellery, paintings and curtains. Secondly, it investigates to what extent these people’s status was acknowledged by others – both in concrete terms by being elected to major civic functions (especially in the burgher militia) and in symbolic terms, notably their role in formal processions through the town.

Keywords: alcohol traders; Cape Town; consumption; Dutch East India Company (DEIC); elite formation; entrepreneurs; identity formation; material culture; status; symbolic capital


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eISSN: 1011-3053