The Cape of Good Hope was a small, but not unimportant, part of the whole picture of slavery and colonisation. Firstly, there was no important trade here as in the East. Therefore the refreshment station at the southern tip of Africa was a natural halfway house in a long and exhausting sea journey, there and back.
Only people who were sent in the first ships in 1652 originally attempted it. Apart from a number of experts who were required to lay the foundations of a new community, the majority of the crew consisted of ordinary sailors and soldiers. Some of them were skilled artisans who had been trained in a particular field. The majority were considered suitable to perform the everyday backbreaking work.
Gradually the real problems presented themselves. One of these, as often also in respect of various settlements in the East and the West, was the urgent need for more people, ordinary labourers in particular. Locally there was no labour system with which the newcomers could integrate or of which they could make use.
As the case elsewhere, it also appeared here that the Cape was not a popular place for a large-scale flow of European immigration – especially not on the scale of the English colonies of North America. Earlier ambitious, optimistic attempts to attract Dutch immigrants to the East or the West were for various reasons not very successful. The Cape would therefore not be an exception. Apart from the French Huguenots – originally a mere one hundred and fifty – there was never a large-scale flow of immigrants to the southern tip of Africa during the Company period.
Initially the authorities considered importing Chinese farmers to cultivate the wheat needed. With their experience in Batavia there were soon doubts about the wisdom of such a step. The only step that was really moderately successful elsewhere, was releasing some of the VOC officials, who were willing, from their contracts and thus ‘free’ them to earn their bread and butter by their own labours and skills. In 1657 the first nine officials were granted letters of freedom as well as land.
At the commencement of their service the VOC officials signed a contract for three years or longer. They could usually choose to have their monthly wages paid to their families that stayed behind, with the employee receiving only accommodation, clothing and rations from the Company. If at any stage he chose to become a free burgher, his family had to join him at his own cost or face a life of permanent separation.
Almost everything else that the free burgher needed to start his new career, he had to obtain on credit from the Company (except what the Company kindly provided). The prospects for a free burgher therefore really had to look rosy before such a risk could be taken.
As was the experience from early on in the East, there were never a great number of officials who regarded being free burghers attractive enough. In addition not everyone who became a free burgher went to live on farms. Some of them immediately moved to the booming town at the foot of Table Mountain.
The settlement in the vicinity of Stellenbosch by 1679 is usually used as an example of successful growth and expansion into the interior. It is never mentioned that only a few years after the initial settlement the authorities had to make rules to force the free burghers to stay on their farms. It became necessary because many left their land after a while and returned to the Cape. Without this action by the authorities the gradual permanent settlement of the interior would not have progressed far.
Gradually the distribution of slaves among the farmers did benefit them. The first slaves, who came from Angola and elsewhere in West Africa, were brought to the Cape by the Hasselt in 1658 after they were captured by a Portuguese ship. Only a few were earmarked to remain behind when the ship left en route to the East, where the slaves were required for the mines.
No free burgher obtained slaves from this first small group. They were meant for the Company. A few officials acquired personal serfs. During the early period the free burghers were by far not the biggest owners of slaves at the Cape.
In time the Company built up a considerable labour force of about four hundred slaves, comprising men and women, who worked mainly in the Company garden. In those days the garden was much bigger than the one we know today. The more outposts the Company established elsewhere, the more its slaves were spread throughout the colony.
Then came the group of Company officials with their personal slaves. They were the first ones to own slaves privately because that had been the custom in the East for some time. There was no rule against this. High officials usually had a number of slaves, while the lower ranks often had to do without slaves because they could not afford them.
Other big slave-owners at the Cape were the rich free burghers who usually lived in town or were the owners of the gardens just outside the town on the slopes of the mountain. These lands were much bigger than the small town plots, but considerably smaller than the farms parcelled out to the farmers. In time some of the farm owners on the east side of the mountain also began to share in the wealth. The further a farmer lived from the town centre (Castle), the greater was the probability that he would have no slaves at all.
Apart from the slaves collected from time to time by the Company along the coast of Madagascar or East Africa, there was no regular large-scale flow of slaves to the Cape. During the Company’s hundred and fifty years at the Cape, about thirty trips were undertaken to Madagascar – not all equally successful. Not all the collected slaves were intended for the Cape either. In the East, especially, the need for slaves for the mines was more important.
By 1720 the Cape authorities were allowed to establish a post on the coast of East Africa, called Fort Lydsaamheid (today Maputo), to supply the Cape with a regular consignment of slaves from that region. In the end the undertaking proved to be too expensive to maintain and it also did not provide the results hoped for. After a few years it was abandoned.
Gradually a demand for slaves from East Africa developed. By the last years of the Company’s existence the diminishing of its ship crews due to Eastern diseases and their dissatisfaction with the low wages earned became so severe that the once mighty Dutch fleet had to rely on recruiting black sailors if it wanted to keep its ships at sea. For this large numbers of blacks were collected along the coast of East Africa to serve as sailors. However, in dangerous moments they displayed less loyalty toward the Company and also mutinied more readily.
During the Company period there was no large importation of slaves at the Cape as had happened in the West in particular. Now and again ships of foreign powers- Portuguese, English, French or Danes – ran aground somewhere along the coast, and the slaves on the ships were then seized by the Cape authorities in terms of international law. The Company, company servants and rich town-dwellers were usually the first buyers of these slaves. Then came the turn of some of the farmers who lived near the place where the ship ran aground.
In time some of these slaves made their appearance in the rural areas as the purchasers in turn sold their slaves with the objective of making a profit from the next transaction. In a few cases slave speculators were identified, but apparently it did not become an extensive industry as the Company strictly controlled all trade in the colony.
For this reason there never existed a public slave market, as all trade was in the hands of the Company. With the exception of a few slaves who had a change in ownership as a result of punishment and offences, or in the case of deceased estate sales, there were occasional auctions at the places concerned, but not at a fixed market place.
Because a slave was owned as property in terms of the Statute of Batavia, the purchase had to be registered with the authorities. The same applied to every resale of a slave or transfers by means of wills and legacies, as well as in respect of manumission. It also had to be signed in front of officials and witnesses.
The biggest importers of slaves were the high officers of passing VOC ships as well as high officials returning from the East. These activities took place despite miscellaneous strict legislation. For example, proclamations were issued against the transportation of stowaways on board ship; especially slaves (see previous articles). Every sailor on board was required to report stowaways immediately; otherwise he would forfeit his entire wage.
In the harbours called at en route, like the Cape, the local fiscal and his crew had to examine the recently arrived ships first for any contraband or infectious diseases before they could dock. However, it was common practice among the sailors to take slaves with them. The Cape was a convenient place to get rid of those not required, as there were eager buyers.
The slaves brought with these ship’s officers and returning officials usually came from a wide variety of places in the East. The importers definitely did not capture or enslave them themselves, but were mere intermediaries. The many Malaysian islands – from Coromandel to Malabar (the east and west coasts of India), the bight of Bengal, the island of Ceylon and many others were of the most popular places.
The slaves from every region had their own characteristics and attitude: the gentle, the energetic, the hard-working or the cruel – characteristics that determined their purchase price.
There could have been a well-organised slave trade between an agent in the East and his clients at the Cape. It was as if the client had ordered a slave by mail to be delivered with the next returning fleet. Because of the strict measures controlling the illegal transportation of slaves – the travelling expenses would be recouped from the salary of the captain if discovered – ship’s officers used a number of other channels.
One was by simply signing on the slaves as crew and paying the VOC salaries earned by them to the officers as reward for the courage required. In addition, the slave was sold on arrival at the Cape.
It is calculated that more than sixty percent of returning ships illegally transported slaves who were sold at the Cape. On this particular route there was a particularly large number of returning ships every year. Yet too many slaves were never made available and there never remained unsold slaves.
The extent of this industry leaked out when the Bennebroek ran aground along the Cape coast in 1714. The shipwrecked, including twenty illegal slaves, followed the coast to the Cape. The matter had to be reported in detail to the Netherlands, especially because of the valuable cargo that was lost. This is how the smuggling of slaves came to light.
Immediately stricter measures were imposed. Old proclamations regarding the non-importation of ‘black’ slaves into the Netherlands were reiterated. Gradually, as concessions were again made to high officials, these laws were relaxed. For the convenience of their families, returning officials were again allowed to bring a number of slaves (calculated in accordance with rank and status) with them. The only condition was that the return ticket for every slave had to be paid in advance.
In addition to the company ships, English ships calling at the Cape proved to be the biggest traders. By the end of the seventeenth century there was a period of peace and friendship between England and the Netherlands. William of Orange, the Dutch king, in 1677 married Mary, the English queen, and then also became king of England (William III). The new friendship was a bit forced, as the Cape had to welcome all English ships with open arms while shortly before they had been enemies that attacked each other. While mutual civilian friendship was shown, the opportunity was also used to spy on each other.
In this way much needed information was obtained of Madagascar being a supplier of slaves at the Cape. It also became clear that the English had long enthusiastically taken part in the importation of slaves from Madagascar. The outbreak of the smallpox epidemic at the Cape in 1714 deterred the English and other foreign ships anew, which placed a damper on the trade. After that the English trade in slaves at the Cape dried up for many years. In any case, they then found much more profitable markets in America.
In addition, the few Danish and Portuguese ships that called at the Cape for one reason or another made use of these opportunities to sell slaves here – usually to the burghers. As the Danes had a post on the Bengal coast, their slaves mostly came from those regions.
The Portuguese also sailed regularly around the Cape en route to Brazil with big cargoes of slaves from Portuguese territories in the East and East Africa, but they did not call here – unless there was an emergency or they were shipwrecked somewhere. According to the Catholic custom their slaves were baptised by the chaplain on coming aboard and were therefore Portuguese-speaking Catholics. Those who went ashore at the Cape remained life-long Catholics, despite Protestant pressure.
As a consequence of this fragmented manner in which slaves were brought to the Cape (and not, as elsewhere in other colonies, in large numbers at a time from one place of origin), the Cape slaves show a large variety of origins equalled nowhere else in the world in any former slave community.
Source: By Prof J L Hattingh
Acknowledgements: South African Encyclopaedia
Images (from top to bottom):
This picture, of an old slave of the household of Mr. [Melt J.] Brink’s parents, appeared in the Cape Times supplement on 2nd August 1932. (Courtesy of the South African Library.)
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