REFLECTION ON EMANCIPATION DAY 2015 – An overview of Cape Slavery


EMANCIPATION DAY – 1 DECEMBER: The majority of the Cape population are descendants of SLAVES and KHOENA INDIGENES whose slave labour and skills built this city, its rural towns and its farmlands. The City of Cape Town and indeed the Western Cape Province owes a great debt to these men and women that are still not properly recognised in the official calendar, nor in public spaces or indeed in the dominant narrative of the making of the city and provinceo.

Today we celebrate Emancipation Day (1 December 1834) and the long tradition of exercising liberty slave descendants once more walked, sang, played musical instruments, laughed, cried and prayed on their way last night from the Old Quarry in Strand Street to the Castle in Cape Town. While it is understood that neither a City nor a Province can declare a National Public Holiday, I do feel that this date should be marked as an official commemorative day on the provincial calendar and an official statement of remembrance and commemoration be issued each year. This is well within the powers of the City and Province which unfortunately continue to overlook the importance of emancipation from slavery as an integral part of the heritage of the majority of citizens in this part of the country.

From the time of the first visitations to the southern tip of Africa by Europeans in the late 1400s, these visits impacted on indigene peoples in many ways. But from the early 1600s it made an indelible impact that caused the local population to adopt new modes of living and new economic activity. From 1653 the importation of slaves caused further impact as slaves sought refuge amongst indigenes and later indigenes themselves began to be enslaved through use of apprenticeship and indenture mechanisms.

The impact most noticeably occurred first amongst the Goringhaiqua and then amongst the Cochoqua. Later maroons deserted these groups and formed a new and relatively settled community who lived along the seashore and on the banks of the Camissa – a fresh water river running from Table Mountain (Hoerikwaggo) into the sea at Table Bay (Hu Gais). Today the river still runs underground, as much as the history, heritage and identity of people labelled ‘Coloured’ was farced underground. This maroon group of indigenes known as the Goringhaicona kept some cattle and also harvested seafood, but a core activity that had emerged over just a few decades was to service the ever more frequent passing European vessels with fresh water and meat supplies. Some Europeans called them the ‘Watermen’ because of this activity. They under two successive leaders – Chief Xhore and Chief Autshumaowere the true founders of proto-city of Cape Town and the free resfreshment station for passing ships. The van Riebeeck settlement established in 1652 effectively took over this enterprise and he was incorrectly ascribed the title of founder of the city. Historical record shows that Autshumao travelled to Jakarta with the English, who then established the first refreshment station under Autshumao and 30 of his followers on Robben Island. He later asked to be removed back to the mainland where he and his followers set themselves up on the banks of the Camissa River to continue serving the passing ships.

It was this settlement that played host to van Riebeeck whilst he built his fort in the winter of 1652. The first attempt by the English to establish such a settlement in 1642 using Chief Xhore and a group of Newgate Convicts was not successful and Chief Xhore lost his life to the Dutch some years later. Thus in 1652 the entrepreneurial Autshumao and his people were ousted from their enterprise with the arrival of the United Dutch East India Company (VOC) under Jan van Riebeeck who then took control. The Khoena fought this Dutch control in two bitterly fought resistance wars. After over 160 years of passing ships, the European interaction with the indigenes had suddenly changed to be replaced by conquest but the foothold of the early group of Dutch, German, Nordic and Ambonese VOC officials was shaky. The environment was wild and hostile and there was urgent need to develop infrastructure and farming which could only be done by bringing in large numbers of SLAVES to do the backbreaking work and to provides artisanal skills.

While a small number of slaves initially arrived from 1653 – 1658 to support senior VOC officials as house servants there was a dramatic increase in numbers of slaves in the years following. A new dynamic emerged at Camissa. Escaped rebel slaves were accepted and assisted by dispossessed Khoena resisters and in the quest for freedom the foundation of a new class of people began to emerge on the embankment of the Camissa in the shadow of the VOC fort and spread into the interior. The last of the rebel Khoena wars under Klaas and David Stuurman took place over the first two decades of the 1800s. This footprint of Camissa people (former slaves, indigenes, amaXhosa allies and a few non-conformist European rebels) spread across South Africa and would later be labelled ‘COLOURED’.

From the late 1500s European shipping to South East Asia dramatically increased with the Cape of Good Hope playing host to the passing ships which needed fresh water and meat for their long voyage.

In 1602 the United Dutch East India Company (VOC) was formed and soon they had set up bases in Myanmar – Thailand – Vietnam – Cambodia – Malaysia – Indonesia – Timor – Philippines – Japan – Formosa and South China. By 1652 they set up at the Cape of Good Hope as a halfway station to their VOC capital at Batavia (Jakarta).

They traded in silk, spices and SLAVES destined to build the infrastructure of the new European colonies.

The first slaves at the Cape came from India / Bengal, but within a short while they were joined by slaves from South East Asia, Africa and Madagascar. Between 1653 and 1808 around 63 000 (researched by Dr Robert Shell) and from 1808 – 1856 at least 8 000 more Prize Slaves were brought to the Cape. Slaves from Africa and Madagascar numbered around 42 150, Slaves from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh numbered around 17 350; and slaves from South East Asia numbered around 13 500 drawn from the Indonesian Archipelago, Arakan Myanmar, Thailand, Hanoi Vietnam, Malaysia, Southern China and Formosa, Philippines and Borneo. Most became slaves due to being war, captured by pirates or through debt bondage systems in the east and in Africa villages were plundered by slave traders captives who captured slaves and sold them to large holding stations.

The very first slave that arrived in the Cape was Abraham van Batavia who had the misfortune of being a stowaway on a ship coming to the Cape.

he first people to brought to the Cape were largely a number of women and mainly from India, Bangladesh and Madagascar. The Dutch VOC officials had become use to having servants to do their cleaning, washing and cooking – this was the start of Domestic Service in South Africa which is still an entrenched culture of the lower middle classes right up to the super rich.

Eva van Madagascar, Jan Bruyn (3 years old) and Anthony van Madagascar arrived in 1654. Maria van Bengal arrived in 1655. Then Kleine Eva van Madagascar, Myndert van Antongil, Catharina van Bengal, Espaniola van Madagascar arrived in 1656. Also in 1656 two young captive Abyssinian princesses were gifted to Maria van Riebeeck as slaves by a passing French Captain. They were Cornelia van Abyssinia (10) and Lysbeth van Abyssinia (12). They joined the young Khoena girl Kratoa in domestic service in the van Riebeeck household. (All 3 are part of my family tree) Catharina van Paliacatte, Angela van Bengal and Domingo van Bengal arrived in 1657. Another Maria van Bengal arrived in 1658.

These 15 people, 8 women, 4 men, 2 girls and 1 boy were the first slaves that joined a number of indigene Khoena women and girls, the most notable being Krotoa Goringhaiqua (Eva van Meerhof) as house slaves doing domestic service.

The first large shiploads of slaves arrived in 1658 with 308 surviving slaves on board. The Amersfort had 180 surviving slaves and the Hasseldt had 228 surviving slaves of the original numbers captured when the Dutch overpowered the Portuguese in a sea battle. The Amersfort originally captured 500 Angolan slaves, seized 230 and left the others adrift on the severely damaged Portuguese ship. Those seized were mainly children and 50 more died or were tossed overboard before reaching the Cape.

The Hasseldt obtain 271 slaves from the Grande Popo in Benin but 43 had died at sea on the journey. Over the next couple of months many of the sickly captives died at the Cape. Some were put back on ships to be sold in Batavia and the rest were to live out their lives as slaves at the Cape.

In official histories slavery is usually given just a cursory mention and then collectively slaves are always incorrectly called MALAY SLAVES. Without the slaves the VOC would never have achieved building Cape Town and its farmlands. Slaves brought to the Cape included people from these locations:

FROM INDIA, BENGAL & SRI LANKA: Surat, Bombay, Goa, Calicat, Cochin, Tuticorin, Malabar, Coromandel, Negapatnum, Tranquebar, Pondicherry, Palacat, Masulpatam, Colombo, Galle, Bengal

FROM SOUTH EAST ASIA: Arakan, Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), Tonkin (Hanoi Vietnam), Malacca (Malaysia), Macao, Deshima (Japan), Formosa, China, Indonesian Archipelago (Borneo, Celebes, Ternate, Ambon, Banda, Roma, Boeton, Moloccas, Rambon, Boegies, Timor, Alor, Solor, Bima, Bali, Soembawa, Java, Madoera, Flores, Sumatra, Djambi, Nias, Padang)

FROM AFRICA & MADAGASCAR: Benin, Guinea, Angola, Mozambique (including southern Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia), Mombasa, Zanzibar, Madagascar (Antogil Bay, Sante Marie, Manajari, Matitana, Augustine Bay, Radama Bay)

When one can see the extent of the diversity of slavery and its bond with indigenes, one can begin to come to an understanding of how over time a new creole people were shaped in the Western Cape. The shorthand in official history books fails to take proper cognisance of this powerful coming together of peoples of colour.

Only a few slaves ever got to keep their own names – most were given names either by slave traders or by those to whom they were sold. These given names became surnames in the future. Other surnames evolved from first names. The months of the year indicating month of birth was one type of slave name; others included topo-nyms (places or slaver stations from where the slaves had been brought), other Geographic names, Classical Greek and Roman names, Facetious names, Biblical names, Names of Masters, names of Moods.

EXAMPLES: September, van Batavia, Canton, Plato, Titus, Snuffelaar, Contant, Moses, Karelse, Geluk etc. First generation creole slaves born in the Cape usually would carry the father’s first or second name plus the name van der Kaap (or van Cabo).

What were the conditions of slavery? Slaves were bought or sold as possessions of Masters & Mistresses (often by auction). Slaves enjoy no marital rights. Slaves had no control over their children or their destiny. Some slaves were subject of breeding practices by Masters. Slaves who practised animist, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Catholic beliefs were not allowed to do so (but these continued secretly). Because of a sunset clause to their enslavement if adherents to the Christian Reformed Church, slave owners discouraged baptism (the authorities were divided on this issue). Slaves were not allowed shoes and had no freedom of movement. Controls were exerted over what clothes slaves could wear. Food was rationed and largely offal and unwanted parts of animals and fowls. Slaves worked for no remuneration and had no choice in what they had to do and work ranged from housework, backbreaking public works such as roadbuilding and bush clearing, farming fieldwork as well as skilled craftsmen’s work. Slaves were subject to harsh and cruel punishments including rape, various tortures, scourging’s, crushing of bones, mutilation of body parts, depravations, and death by fire, drowning, garrotting, dismembering, crucifixion and impalement. In the administration of justice the word of a slave in terms of leading evidence could not carry weight.

There were VOC Company slaves and there were slaves in private hands: – Throughout the slavery period the VOC and its officials was the largest slave owner and the company Slave Lodge bordering the Company Gardens was built to house over 1000 slaves. Company slaves were marshalled and controlled by a regimented and hierarchical system. The Slave Lodge also informally acted as a brothel for company officials. It was a dark, dingy and damp hell hole, with a small school, hospital and quarters for the mentally ill. Slaves in Private Ownership fell into different categories. Urban and Rural, and house slaves and field slaves. Slaves in private ownership were bought either at slave auctions or directly from a ship. There were also slave owner to slave owner deals that were made. Urban conditions were more liberal and often slaves were skilled craftsmen and enjoyed good relationships with the Free Black community. This contrasted harshly with rural slave conditions under cruel and patriarchal masters. Rich owners on large farms replicated to some degree the Company slave regime while smaller farms and less well of farmers and more remote farms held the worst of conditions for slaves. Fieldworker slaves faced the worst conditions.

Punishments were a big part of life for slaves. There were both judicial punishments and private punishments meted out by slave owners. The judicial system was such that in a two-part legal process the second part allowed for “handing over the accused to the torturers so that they may freely make a confession”. In the court a slave’s word could not be used against a master or mistress. Only in the latter years of slavery was a public advocate for slaves established in the form of a ‘Protector’s Office’. Over the period 1652 – 1795 over 1400 crucifixions alone were carried out. Crucifixions, impalements, garrotting, drowning, being hanged drawn & quartered, torture on the rack, public death by burning, amputations and dismemberment, floggings, removal of the tongue and so on are recorded. The crimes ranged from running away, petty pilfering, fornication and disrespect to a master or his property – through to assault and murder. Punishment in private hands included tortures of all sorts, floggings and rubbing salt into the wounds, rape, food and sleep deprivation and much more.

From the earliest years of slavery various types of revolt are recorded. Running away and acts of arson were the most prominent acts of revolt. Additionally there were many cases of individuals or small groups of slaves making common cause who turned on their owners and faced assault and murder charges. Over the first 150 years revolt became more daring and graduated from ‘boiling over as a result of conditions’ to revolt against the institution of slavery. Alongside these developments an abolitionist movement amongst a small minority of the European colonists also emerged.

By far the biggest and most significant Slave Revolt was the armed ‘Jij Rebellion’ of 1808 led by Louis of Mauritius, a first generation slave brought to the Cape as a 4 year old. Over 326 slaves, including a few indentured Khoena labourers and two Irish sailors participated in an organised rebellion which included a plan to attack the seat of government at the Castle and establish a free black government. The leaders were executed and participants punished after Lord Caledon’s Dragoons defeated the rebels at Salt River.

For many years there was a denial about enslavement of indigene Africans or that Indigene South Africans were ever exported in the global slave trade. Much research now shows that this was false projection largely based on the early assertion that indigenes did not want to work and therefore slaves were required in the settlement.

Once the colonists had defeated the Khoena in Table Bay and particular after the devastating smallpox epidemic of 1713 the Khoena were forced to become labourers on settlers farms or were forcibly conscripted into Militias. These Khoena Militias headed by European officers were used to hunt down and exterminate all adult San people and to take the children captive to work on farms. Slavery of this type was commonplace amongst European frontiersmen. The last Khoena resistance war was in the 1820s and conscription of Khoena youth into Militias was a pivotal cause of the resistance. The issue of military conscription divided the Khoena and its impacts last to this day. It also caused a huge rift between the San and the Khoena.

Captured amaXhosa and later baTswana and moSotho later had the same fate. As early as Governor Simon van der Stel’s time at least one Nguni is recorded amongst Groot Constantia’s slave inventory. The later capture and export of slaves to the Americas from Natal is recorded. There is also the very well documented case of a European Mormon family who took an amaGcaleka boy, Gobo Fango, to the USA and made him a slave. Any assessment of Slavery in South Africa cannot only focus on imported slaves. Slavery was most certainly also a condition that indigenes were subjected to.

Slavery in the Cape is almost completely drowned out by the European colonial narrative and sites of memory in Cape Town a source of great grievance by slave descendants who make up the majority of the local population. Many tragic events go completely unrecognised in public life and public spaces. There are too many events to mention, but one of these were the 1713 outbreak of smallpox which decimated the slave, Free Black and Khoena populations reducing these dramatically and altering history. Another of these events was the wreck of the slaver ship San Jose in 1794 with 500 slaves on board just off Clifton beach. It is estimated that 212 slaves drowned with their shackles and the survivors were sold locally. The ship was bound for South America.

And so we come to this event that we celebrate today…. EMANCIPATION. Throughout the period of slavery there was the practice of manumission which under very tight regulation allow for a slave to be freed by their master or for the slave or someone else to pay for their freedom. The numbers of manumissions increased dramatically in the 1820s. Over the entire period a Free Black population emerged from freed slaves and from free persons of colour who had migrated to the Colony to work or trade. Then the beginning of the end came when the Slave Trade and Slavery on the High Seas was brought to an end after the abolitionist struggle had resulted in anti-slavery legislation being passed in the British Parliament in 1808. This led to the passing of the Act of Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies in 1833 in the British Parliament.

The British Crown decreed that Emancipation should enacted the Cape on 1 December 1834 and that a conditional apprenticeship of 4 years be instituted to manage the freedom process. All slaves therefore would be fully free in 1838. But for those ‘Prize Slaves’ undergoing 14 year Apprenticeships their full freedom would take up to 1870, as ‘Prize Slaves’ continued to arrive until 1856. The last ‘Prize Slaves’ arrived in 1890 when the Oromo slaves were brought here by the British Royal Navy and were sent for schooling to the Lovedale Mission.

After the ending of slavery the most primitive of wage-labour systems was quickly introduced with the result of watering down the freedom from slavery – the Indentured Labour system and Apprenticeship system. The legacy of this persisted right through to the imposition of the Apartheid State and beyond as these metamorphosed into the Migrant Labour and Pass Law system and then into the Labour Brokering system. This also created an industry for previous Slave Traders. From 1838 indentured workers were transported into South Africa to work on farms and mines and in service from St Helena, Bechuanaland, the Rhodesian territories, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, India, Bengal, and from rural South African villages. Their labour was cheaply rewarded and those trafficking these people took a large share of what employers paid. Indentured workers often stayed in crude hostel accommodation. It was very little different from slavery. Between 1808 and 1856 ‘Prise Slaves’ brought to South Africa by the Royal Navy after ‘liberating’ them from Slave Trader ships were forced to undergo 14 year Apprenticeships which were also very similar to slave conditions.

Slaves brought to South Africa came from a great variety of locations in Africa and Asia and had a range of religious beliefs, traditions, languages, music, dance, cuisine, clothes, and other cultural attributes. The popular humble Chilli in our cuisine is owed to slaves. Over time through the coming together of Slaves, Indigenes, Europeans and other Migrants from around the world a creolisation of cultures emerged in the language of Afrikaans, the impact on English and Indigenous languages, the use of musical instruments and the making of music, on dance, on the emerge of an Afro-Asian fusion cuisine and in many of our manifestations of faith. South African eating habits and the use of spices and rice in the Cape most especially his highly been influence by India and South East Asia.U


n the Cape the greatest symbol of our tapestry of cultural roots is the Ghoema Drum and Ghoema beat. It derives from African, Asian and Malagasy sources and the word evolved from Ngoma the east and southern African name for Drum. The way of the drum (ngoma) is a description for the ngoma faith of which most people only know the term Sangoma. The Mazbiekers slaves brought the term ngoma to the Cape with their drumming and locally it became GHOEMA…. The creolisation of NGOMA.


Our story on Cape Slavery would not be complete without looking at its modern form which continues into the present – HUMAN TRAFFICKING. Slavery has not disappeared, it has simply changed form. Human Trafficking and People Smuggling, some forms of Labour Brokering, Shipping agency practices, Sweatshops, Brothels, Nightclubs and the sex industry in general, some Farms, Drug Mules, Brides for Sale, Harvesting and sale of body parts, War captives, Use of children as soldiers and terrorists, are all forms of modern slavery.


In a city such as Cape Town it is likely that within every 6 kilometres from where you are located that there is someone being held in bondage and being forced into sex work under various guises or in bonded labour in sweatshop conditions. Brides for sale, drug mules and all of the other practices mentioned continue right under our noses.

This has just been an introduction on Cape Slavery and why we celebrate Emancipation Day, and indeed why this day should be given some official status by the City and Province. There is so much more that could be shared.

Please feel free to come visit the Asirawan Siam Healing House and the SA-Thai Slave Heritage Reflection Centre and Thai Spa at our home in West Beach, Bloubergstrand. More information at

These involve persons brought in from far off places including India and Bangladesh, South East Asia, China, Eastern Europe and from other African countries. It also involves South Africans who are spirited from one part of the country to another. The vast majority of modern slaves are women and children.

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