Muster Rolls introduction

The Muster Rolls (monsterrollen), preserved in the form of transcripts in the Cape Archives as VC 39-55 and 103, were apparently yearly lists of the inhabitants at the Cape, drawn up by Dutch East India Company (VOC) officials, and sent to the authorities in the Netherlands where they were preserved.

These are copies done by hand at the end of the 19th Century. to judge from the handwriting, presumably from the records preserved in the VOC archives at The Hague, Netherlands. So far I have been able to find no information on the transcriber or the circumstances.

In VC 39 part 3 of these transcripts there are lists for the years 1660 to 1666/7 for each year, 1670 to 1675 for each year, 1677, 1679, 1682, 1685, 1686, 1688, 1690, 1691, 1692, 1693, 1695, 1696, 1698 and 1700.

These records in the VOC archives are likewise copies, which were preserved in the archives of the Amsterdam Chamber of VOC. The originals must have been compiled at the Cape each year. Several copies were then made and forwarded to Batavia in Indonesia, headquarters of the VOC abroad, and the authority in charge of the Cape branch of the VOC. Other copies were presumably forwarded to the several Chambers of the VOC in the Netherlands. The originals, if they were kept at the Cape, did not survive.

Spelling of names in the 17th and 18th centuries was by no means the fixed thing it is nowadays and may scribes had their own individual spelling coventions. This has been aggravated by the mutiple copyings and some odd spellings are to be encountered in these lists. That of 1695 seems to be particularly poor, but none is perfect.

These rolls, as they appear in these transcripts, are lists of names. Where married people are concerned they are usually listed as a couple, though there are years when no wives are listed. In some years the number of children in the household is also noted, in others not. Some have a date when they were compiled, others merely a year. Not every year is represented.

The rolls are usually divided into the people resident in the three districts then extant, the Cape, Stellenbosch and Drakenstein. Only in one of these rolls (1695) are the names listed in alphabetical order (under district), with the others we have no knowledge if the order of names had any significance or not.

I have not been able to discover how or for what purpose these rolls were compiled and sent to the authorities, presumably in Batavia as well as in the Netherlands. Since some of them sometimes include the heirs of an estate I assume they must have been for taxation purposes?

Where a date of compilation is given, this is often towards the end of the year.

There were separate muster rolls of the VOC officials at the Cape.

My knowledge of the history and purpose of these documents is sketchy and my attempts to obtain information have so far not been very productive. I have not yet been able to examine the documents from which the Cape copies were transcribed.

Richard Ball © 2005

1. Die Vryliede en Vryswartes in die Kaapse Nedersetting 1657-1707, deur G C de Wet, Historiese Publikasie-Vereniging, 1981, pages 13 and 17.