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Slavery at the Cape 1658-1834

The Slaves played an integral part in the evolution of the Cape's people. 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%),
  • 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.

Cape Slave Transactions Based upon research by Prof R Shell - Sale Deeds 1658-1731

Comprehensive list giving chronological list of transactions - Information where available includes Date; Slave name; sex; Origin; age; Seller; Buyer; Price. 

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

Company Slaves

The Company Slaves were mostly housed together in the Slave Lodge. They were mostly urban slaves and not used in the agricultural industry. The slaves worked as labourers in Company gardens and the Docks where they provided both labour and skilled work in constructing public buildings and roads etc. Their roll was also often of a domestic, clerical or caring (hospital) nature. They would need to carry water from nearby streams and wells to service Cape Town as there was no reticulated water.

The Company was the main supplier of slaves - they had special customised slave ships which regularly visited Madagascar where the company had established a source for slaves. Sometimes the supply included "undesirables" that the Malgasy Princes wanted rid of. These included unwanted wives and the women of conquered enemy factions. Consequently there were often more women than men imported and the Slave lodge was frequented by men who used it as a brothel. For a period the lodge was apparently open for an hour in the even and freely used as a brothel. This and the fact that the imported women were often accompanied by their children meant that there was a high percentage of children resident at the lodge.

Slaves owned by Company Officials

Company officials were banned from farming by the VOC, although many farmed surreptitiously using agents. For this reason the records don't always show the true slave ownership by officials.

The privileged position held by the officials at the Cape meant that they were in a position to be slave traders, primarily obtaining their slaves from the officers and crew of VOC ships returning to the Netherlands where slaves were banned. The slaves bought in this way were often older, having already been owned as slaves in Batavia. Many officials bought female slaves for companionship and some married the slaves they bought.

Slaves owned by Burghers

This is the largest group of slaves at the Cape. The Burghers were a quickly expanding group of people who were wealthy farmers steadily acquiring more land. They relied on slave trading to boost their labour force. Most of their slaves came from Company Officials returning from the East where the proportion of males to females was as high as 7:1. A consequence of this was that there was often violence amongst the slaves.

Slaves owned by free blacks

This was the smallest group of slaves. Unlike the custom in America there wasn't a rigid racial division between black slaves and white owners. At the Cape it was possible for a free blacks* (see below for definition), Indonesian and Indian political prisoners to own slaves.

Slaves owned by free blacks were usually purchased at local sales. Some were purchased for slavery and were no different from slaves owned by the other groups, but many were relatives of the free blacks and were bought in order to free them.

'Free Blacks'* (vrijzwarten) were a small group of people separately registered on the census. They were mainly manumitted slaves or convicted prisoners or their descendants from the East (mainly Indonesia) who had served their sentences and elected to stay on at the Cape. There were also "prize negroes" who were Africans taken by the British from Slave ships after the slave trade was banned in 1808. This group of people were either government employees or serving apprentices to burghers. About 2000 prize negroes were taken to Cape Town and Simon's Town between 1808 and 1816.

The only people who did not own slaves at the Cape were the Indigenous people, although Pieter van Meerhoff was killed whilst on a slaving expedition to Madagascar in 1668.

The grandson of the exiled Albubasi Sultan who was exiled to the Cape for rebelling against the Dutch and plotting against the King of Dompo and arranging the queens murder.

27 slaves are listed in Abraham de Haan Inventory MOOC8/22.40 (available from his profile page) on 16 Jul 1798.

29 slaves on MOOC8/2.117.

35 slaves on MOOC8/20.51

References and Sources


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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