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Slavery at the Cape 1658-1834

The Slaves played an integral part in the evolution of the Cape's people. Slaves outnumbered burghers in the Cape Colony for most of the eighteenth century. Their Genes contributed to the physical evolvement of the population, and also brought diverse cultures, cuisine and traditions from their widespread countries of origin. They contributed enormously to all descendants of South Africa and deserve to have special recognition and homage paid to them.

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In 1654 the VOC gave permission for van Riebeeck to import slaves to the Cape. The slave ship Roode Vos was sent to Mauritius and Antongil Bay in Madagascar to get slaves but returned empty. Four years later in 1658 the first slaves arrived at the Cape, brought by the Amersfoort after being captured from a Portuguese slaver. 170 of an original 250 slaves survived the journey. Later in the same year another 228 slaves from West Africa arrived aboard the Hassalt - these two 'shipments' were the only slaves from West Africa as subsequently the Dutch East and the Dutch West India Companies agreed not to encroach on one another's slaving grounds.

Between 1658 and 1808 an estimated 63 000 slaves were imported into the Cape. Many slaves were born into slavery and further "stock" was only brought in to maintain levels. The slave population was apparently 40 000 at its height - far outnumbering the burgher population at the time.

The slaves were mainly brought in from

  • India - mostly from Bengal, Malabar and Coromandel (36.4%),

Ansu Datta (From Bengal to the Cape - Bengali Slaves in South Africa 2013) p 19 - "...studies of transoceanic trade suggest that slaves hardly played a part in the export trade from Bengal at that time [1665-1721]. As far as Africa is concerned, it seems that Bengali slaves who were brought to the Cape came mostly by way of Batavia."

  • the East Indies (31.47%),
  • Ceylon/Sri Lanka (3.1%),
  • Mozambique, Madagascar and the East African coast (26.65%)
  • Malaya (0.49%)
  • Mauritius (0.18%)
  • The rest were from unidentified places

Although Slave Trading was abolished in 1808, it wasn't until 1834 that slave ownership and slavery in all its forms was abolished in the British Empire. All slaves had to be officially registered by the end of September 1817. If they were not registered they were considered to be manumitted. On 1 December 1834 the Slavery Abolition Act became law throughout the British colonies, but the slaves did not become free on that day. They were 'apprenticed' to their owners for four year to prepare them to be wage labourers in the future, giving them time to adapt. This meant that freedom was delayed until 1 December 1838.

Emancipation wasn't always kind to the freed slaves - many continued to be employed by their previous owners; others were evicted from the farms where they worked. Some of the farmers could not afford the cost of employing the ex slaves as labour. The ex-slaves had very little access to land, (most of the land was owned by the burghers). On the whole very few had accumulated savings and so many were poverty stricken, left destitute.

Influences on Cape Culture

Because the slaves at the Cape came from such diverse backgrounds there was no common language or custom. This influenced -

  • Religion - Hunduism, Islam and Catholcism (brought in by salves of the Portuguese colonial possessions) were introduced.
  • Language - the languages spoken by the Cape slaves influenced the development of a lingua franca, firstly called Kaaps and later Afrikaans, to make communication possible between all the people not sharing a mother tongue.
  • Food - The Cape has a diverse cuisine influenced by the widespread origins of the people who lived there - in particular the Indonesian slaves who were favoured as cooks by the Dutch.
  • Architecture - [Needs developing]
  • Furniture - Early furniture at the Cape was heavily influenced by the Dutch, but became more ornate and ostentatious as the ornate Islamic and Hindu decorative motifs were incorporated.

Manusmṛti (Manu smṛti, Manusamhita)

is the ancient book of Hindu laws (third century B.C.E. The institution of slavery had an acknowledged position in their society of birth. It spoke of seven types of slavery -

  1. Prisoners of War
  2. those who are enslaved for their sustenance
  3. those born in their master's house
  4. those who were purchased
  5. those inherited as part of patrimony
  6. those who are given away by their parents
  7. those who fail to repay a fine or in execution of a judicial decree

In his book From Bengal to the Cape - Bengali Slaves in South Africa 2013 Xlibris Corporation, Ansu Datta says -

"As far as Bengal is concerned, slavery was an accepted institution so much so that the ancient treatise that governs the inheritance system of Bengali Hindus (Dayabhaga) recommends how a slave should be inherited. This was largely true of other ethnic groups as well"

The Slave Lodge, Cape Town can be seen using Google Earth and Google Maps.

South African Slave Owners (1658-1834)

The Inventories of the Orphan Chamber, Cape Town Archives Repository, South Africa are a fascinating collection of documents. Many of the residents at the Cape prior to 1808 (when slave-trading was abolished in South Africa) owned slaves. Slaves are often listed amongst the possessions. Many are named and make interesting reading. Some examples of those that have larger numbers of slaves (at present over 25) are/will be added at the end of this section.

There were four kinds of slave ownership at the Cape;

  • The Dutch East India Company - VOC - itself.
  • VOC Company Officer in their private capacity
  • Burghers
  • Free Blacks

See South African Slave Owners for more details.


  • Bastaard - child of a white father & Hottentot / Bushman mother.
  • Bastaard Hottentot - child of a Hottentot / Bushman mother & (African / Negro / Bantu or Asian) slave father.
  • Chattel slaves - slaves who were forcibly acquired in their native land and forcibly taken to to different places where they could be sold and made to work for others.
  • gedrost - absconded, run-away
  • Halfslagh = half-caste.
  • Heelslagh - full caste or full-blood - usually refering to non-white slaves and were sometimes further distinguished as neger, caffer, indisch, chinees etc.
  • Kastiço or Kasties - child of a mesties or mulatto slave mother and white father.
  • Lijfeijgen or Slaaf - slave.
  • Mestiço or Mesties - Eurasian half-caste (usually a child of a white father and an Asian slave mother).
  • Mulatto - Eurafrican half-caste (usually a child of a white father and an African / Negro / Bantu slave mother).
  • Vrij geboren - free-born, never enslaved (generally refers to swartes - indigenes, east Asian political exiles & to offspring of liberated slaves).; not the same as a free-black, alsometimes mis-identified as being vrij zwart.
  • Vrij zwart - manumitted or liberated from slavery - also further defined as vrij chinees & vrij caffer etc.

References and Sources

  • From Bengal to the Cape - Bengali Slaves in South Africa 2013 Xlibris Corporation, Ansu Datta


  • This paper is extremely interesting - well worth a read.


  • Böesrken A.J. slaves and Free Blacks at the Cape 1658-1700
  • Mountain, Alan - An Unsung Heritage A perspective on Slavery ISBN 0-86486-622-4 2004

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