Letter from afar – to a slave from her former Master

Some years ago when I first read the old Cape Slavery classic – “Those in Bondage by Viktor de Kock (1950) an old letter from the 1790s jumped out at me. It was fascinating as much for what the writer did not say as for what he said. The letter was sent by a Jan Valkenburg of Amsterdam, on his return from the Cape Colony, to a young former slave woman by the name of Bintham, left behind in Cape Town.
The letter evidences an unusual manner in which Bintham and her child Primus obtained their freedom and, the relationship between the writer, her former master, and herself. Whatever the story between the lines, it is up to the reader to fathom. Could her benefactor be the father of her child? The opening line also suggests the writer is an abolitionist. Did he ever return? We dont know. I visit this letter in my head time and again as it is quite unique amongst the documented footprints of Cape Slavery. It further also highlights one of the ways that ‘Swart Gevaar’ was introduced into the thinking of ‘Coloured’ people, (and is still endemic today alongside the manipulation of such thinking by white opportunists in the political arena). The letter bears all the contradictions of manumitting masters and abolitionists.

The letter was part of a batch of documents in the Archive (MOOC 14/215, Fragmentariese Boedelpapiere, 1790 – 1799; MOOC 14/90 No:34, Bylae Boedelrekeninge 1798 – 1799)

The Letter reads:

Dear Bintham

Freedom – Equality – Fraternity.

I promised to write to you and now I am fulfilling that promise. I arrived in England hale and hearty and will shortly leave for Holland. As soon as I am home with my wife and children, I shall write to you again. In my pocket book I came across some paper money which I am sending you: purchase with it whatever you will.

I trust you will bear in mind your promise to me, to look after yourself well and to behave yourself as becomes a respectable person, faithfully and honestly serving Mr and Mrs Hohne, neither neglecting yourself nor associating with unprincipled people or ‘Zwarte Jongens’.

You are now Free! I feel that I have done everything in my power for you. Were I to hear that you are behaving yourself, I shall not forget you, nor shall I ever neglect to provide for you; and when I return to the Cape, you must again come to me. With the first opportunity I shall send you something.

Now Bintham, I have no time left to write more. I have written to Mrs Hohne. Ask her to write direct to me and also suggest to Myntjie that she should write a short note for you to me. My brother Gees, to whom I have also written, will come to talk to you.

Adieu Bintham! Farewell! Look after yourself well, care for your little child well and live respectably. Be faithful. Be honest. Never neglect yourself. And always bear in mind your good friend and your master, who will never forget you.

Jan Valkenberg


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