Die Eerste Vryswartes Van Stellenbosch - 1679-1720 by Prof. J.L. Hattingh, University of the Western Cape, Bellville, 1981



3. Louis of Bengal

In 1684 Louis of Bengal (another colourful character amongst the free blacks) also went in search of a farm of about 29 acres next to the Eerste (First) River in Jonkershoek. He did this because it seems that others, as well as Manuel and Antonie of Angola, were already living in the area. This farm, as that of Manuel and Antonie, was only given to him on 15 October 1692. Because of this unprecedented decision, many references were made to Louis of Bengal in previous writings. Dr. Boeseken, in her book "Slaves and Free Blacks at the Cape 1658-1700", gives some details of his life, although it tells us nothing of his farming activities in Stellenbosch. The parts she does deal with are often vague and incomplete.

She, however, is not the first to make mistakes or be misinformed about him. Dr. De Wet in his article "Die Vry Bevolking" ("The Free Nation") says that not only was Louis a landowner "but probably a farmer as well". He was not too sure either. Many other articles have been written about him, e.g.  J.L. Hattingh, "Die Blanke Nageslag van Louis van Bengale en Lijsbeth van die Kaap" (The white off-spring of Louis of Bengal and Lijsbeth of the Cape). A concerted effort has been made here  to piece together all the facts, as accurately as possible, with the exception of  facts before 1680. A full and truthful picture of Louis of Bengal has been difficult. 

It is possible that Louis came to the Cape in 1664, along with Commander Zacharias Wagennaar because on his departure from the Cape he sold Louis to his second-in-command - Hendrik Lucas for 80 Rds. However Lucas got involved with a fraud case: that is why, in 1671, the visiting Commissioner at the time, Isbrand Goske, granted Louis the opportunity to purchase his freedom. Louis, however, could not afford the very high price. It was only a year later in 1672 that he was allowed to buy his freedom for 50 reale. His name appeared regularly from 1673 on the monsterrol, in the list of  free blacks listed in the Cape.

According to Dr. De Wet, Louis received a piece of land from the authorities in 1675 in the Table Valley area, apparently to farm with fruit and vegetables. This gift was obviously influenced by one fact. On 5 May 1675 Louis christened himself in the Cape's Church, describing himself  "a sane person and free young man of Bengali origin and approximately 23 years old," - and declaring  himself a Christian out of his own free will. With this action he also gained the admiration of the other freed blacks in the area. Two years later he was witness in town to another christening, that of slave Susanna and her son Pieter (the name of the father is listed in the town's register as "unknown Christian"). Louis was often asked to be witness at christenings and elevated to the status of "Godfather";  often it was of people not even related to him.

If he was 23 years old when he was christened, he must have been 45 years old when he became a member of the Cape's Church on 15 April 1697 -  this was granted after lengthy questioning and confession (declaring of his faith). As far as can be established, it was the first time in the decade that a free black was asked to confess and become a member of the Church. The rest of the blacks were happy to be christened. The step that Louis took was greatly influenced by his wife Rebecca from Macassar as she was already a member of a Church in the East. It was with that as proof, as a Church member, that she was allowed to enter the Cape in 1693. 

In 1680 Louis had to appear in court because he was caught chopping wood in a prohibited area. In his own defence he pleaded innocent as he said he was ignorant and could not read the instructions that prohibited the chopping of wood. That might have been the case. But Louis was one of the few blacks that had a very distinctive handwriting. He could repeatedly sign the same way. He made his L upright, while the V and B were joined together. The court, however, did not accept his excuse and fined him 4 Rixdollars. This was obviously not a very effective form of punishment, because a year later Louis' slave was caught doing the same thing. This time, however, he squarely put the blame on the slave.

The slave's name was Anthony of the Coast of Coromandel. He was found guilty a year earlier of desertion. He was also found guilty of drawing his knife in a fight against a Lieutenant Jan Baptis. His punishment for this was to be tied by the neck while standing upright and be beaten and branded. Each of his middle fingers was also chopped off and had to be kept in chains for the rest of his life. After the sentence was carried out he was allowed to return to his master, who also had to pay for the cost of carrying out the sentence.

This incident slid Louis deeper into debt. He asked Andries Houwer(whom he had asked for money before and will again later) eleven Rixdollars to pay for the court costs. By May 1683 Louis owed Houwer 62 Rds and had promised to pay it back in 1684-85. We are not sure if it was the same debt or more, but by March 1687 Houwer sued/summoned Louis to court to pay him 47 Rds and 5 bags of wheat. A year later he owed Houwer 65 Rds, 6 bags of wheat and 4 kilos(?) of fish. Because of this huge debt he promised that after the harvest of 1689 and 1690 he would be able to pay off half of his debt. On this occasion he used all of his possessions as collateral.

In the same year, on 4 November 1688 Louis signed another letter of debt; this was done in the presence of Sybrand Mankadan, the secretary of Stellenbosch area and surroundings. In the letter he admits that he further owed Houwer f800 for 200 sheep he had bought. He also promises to pay it back in two instalments, during 1689 and 1690. However, if Houwer decides to return to the Netherlands, he promised to pay back the full amount. He was very optimistic because in March of the same year, he had another debt - (that of Aarnout Willemse, whom he owed 8 Rixdollars) - postponed until after the sheep season.

After only three months of purchasing the sheep, Houwer demanded the first payment of f476, although Louis offered to return all the sheep (as per an agreement between the two parties). In April 1689 another case came to court regarding this matter. Louis did not defend this case and as compensation offered "good/healthy" sheep in return. This created the impression that the sheep he had returned 3-4 months earlier, after buying them, were in weaker state when he did receive them; or that he had replaced them with inferior ones.

A few days later, both Louis and Houwer were sued by Jacob van Heur for damages to his vegetable garden which was apparently caused on the day the sheep were delivered, 24 April 1689. Van Heur claimed for all the damages to the freshly sowed seeds as well as 100 heads of cabbage that was destroyed. Houwer, as owner of the sheep at the time, had to pay 12 gulde. 

Before leaving the Cape to settle in Stellenbosch, Louis, on 27 July 1683, freed Lijsbeth from Cape and her two children from slavery. He referred to her as "his woman". His only condition for her freedom was that she remain loyal to him for one more year. He didn't give any reason for granting her freedom, but on 17 March 1687, in the presence of the Stellenbosch magistrate, they declared their marriage vows. From this Dr. Boeseken concluded that they were indeed married. She also suspected that he had earlier been married to a Zara; this she concluded because when the slave Hendrik Locas was sentenced by the Political Council in 1667, reference was made to Louis' Hottentot housewife/wife Zara.

Dr. Boeseken could find no church register to prove that these marriages actually took place. Actually it was the exchange of the promise of a marriage that might occur in the future, although at that time they already had two children.

Lijsbeth of the Cape, his former slave, left him when he fired his hired help - 50-year-old white, Willem Teerling -  suspecting him of having an affair with Lijsbeth. She accused Louis of not living up to the promise he had made in front of the magistrate because he continued to beat her and continually threatened to kill her. That is why she refused to stay with him, keep house for him or marry him. Louis alleged that because she wasn't a Christian he was not obliged to honour his marriage vow to her. Because she refused to marry him, he tried to have her re-registered as a slave, but the court upheld his previous decision and found it binding that she stay free.

As far as his relationship with the Hottentot woman Zara is concerned, we don't have much information. However, if we take into consideration that he was 23 years old when christened and had eight years previously in 1667 already been bound to Zara, it must mean that he was but 15 years old at the time. So it seems that although the papers refer to her as his housewife, it was most likely that she was his housekeeper. It is also possible that Zara's name was linked to that of Louis because of his wild lifestyle.

The feud between Louis and Willem Teerling continued. First Teerling sued him for Rds31  he had loaned to him and he also considered suing because the loan was long overdue. On the first charge he got an order against Louis for payment. When the creditors arrived for the money Louis claimed that he would not pay unless he was first paid for damages. He also said that the law "could do what they like". Because of his self-confidence and attitude, the creditors came to a satisfactory conclusion (were satisfied?) and did not bother him for money again.

After this Louis on his part demanded damages from Willem Teerling. He based his charges on the fact that Willem stole his slave and through this action caused him losses in earnings and financial loss. He charged that he couldn't look after his farm and cattle at the same time. He calculated the damages at f574, but only asked for f450.

According to the "memorandum of loss" because of Willem's action, this was his calculation:

Tiger killed 25 sheep one night
Wolf killed a cow and calf
@ bags of whet/corn (75-100kg. each) destroyed
* hens, then another 8, disappeared
2 blankets and 5 pillows taken
Loss of garden fruit
¼ of a load loss
Loss of 6 weeks of butter, milk etc.

f 574

Teerling was found guilty by the Board of Justice for the stealing of Louis' slave and fined 25 Rds. He also had to serve two months "hard labour" for the Company, and had to pay f 450 in damages to Louis. Whether he was capable of doing this is another story.

In the time that Louis tried farming in Jonkershoek he tried to acquire the services of Claas of Guinea, a fellow free black. They signed a contract on 15 October 1687 (about the time that Teerling left his service). Claas would help with agriculture, especially the planting, ploughing and farming of the fields. Louis in his turn offered to give him enough land to grow vegetables and plant one head of wheat/corn in the first year, but on a loan basis only; the next year to be increased to 2 heads of wheat/corn and so on to 3 the next, then 4, then 5 etc. etc. as long as he stayed. Louis, however, still had to provide for his food.

How long this agreement lasted is not known. Claas was probably related to Lijsbeth because when she left Louis, she would have gone to her mother who was with Abraham from Guinea. Hardly any contact betwen Abraham and Claas existed because it could have caused more friction between Louis and Lijsbeth. In 1689 Louis had another disagreement with Lijsbeth about she and "her people"  slaughtering his sheep. It did not go to court, but it was probably the final straw that made him decide to give up farming altogether and finally leave Stellenbosch. It was the next year in July 1690 that he finally left to settle in the Table Valley area again. This means that he was one of the free blacks that did not stay too long in Stellenbosch.

Louis' attempt at farming never reached great heights. He didn't even declare the few sheep that he had in 1688 as part of his assets for that year.  

Two years after leaving his farm in Jonkershoek, it was finally granted/given to him to on 15 September 1692. Because of this award Dr. Boeseken could not pinpoint his return to the Cape. She alleges that in 1694, while married to Rebecca, he was still living in Stellenbosch. Because another plot was given to him in the Table Valley area in 1699, she concludes that he must have returned before the turn of the century.

But in the next paragraph she talks about his estate and what should happen to it after his death - which she indicates two pages previously should have happened in 1696 - apparently because it was then that his farm was sold to the Chamber of Orphanage. She also indicates that the estate was only finally resolved in 1705. All her conclusions and incorrect findings are obviously the result of an incomplete research and hasty conclusions.

Louis' farm was indeed sold to the Orphan Chamber in 1696 for f400. But this was in favour of the estate of Anthonie of Angola,  in respect of a verbal agreement and sold "out of hand" before the land was granted to Louis in 1692. Which means that the land was granted to Louis in error. The selling of his possessions in 1705 was also not because he had died, but because it was a legal necessity to sell it to cover all his debts.

He could also not have died in 1696 because he and his wife Rebecca drew up the testament together on 30 August 1697, at the time declaring themselves sane and as residents of the Table Valley area. The longest surviving of the two would be the only beneficiary, although he did promise his three illegitimate daughters - Lijsbeth, Ann and Maria Louisz - each f50. This he had to pay to Chamber of Orphans.

The legal selling of Louis' possessions was abandoned on 19 January 1705 because of a case brought against him by Hendrik Ploege in October 1704 for repayment of a loan of f451. Louis asked for a postponement but Hendrik refused. The court ordered him to pay the full amount in cash. Because he didn't have the cash, an auction was held at his house. Only half of the house belonged to him and this brought in Rds 606.5.2. While loose goods brought in Rds 133.4.3. In total his belongings brought in Rds 739.9.5. As was the custom at the time, free citizens could use such an auction to acquire their own possessions. All the proceeds for that day came to Rds 997.3.5. Which means that not all proceeds went to Louis as Dr. Boeseken indicates. His part of the deal was the tidy sum of f 2200 (1Rds = f3) = Rds 733.3.3.

We can gather from the list of items that Louis had great taste - a round table, 2 mirrors, 6 high black chairs, side-boards. He did succeed in gathering some things. In September of the same year he succeeded in acquiring four paintings at the official auction of Gerrit Hendrik Meyer. 

Besides the huge profits from his own auction, it was not the end of his financial troubles. In fact, since he was granted land in 1676, when he promised to pay the purchase price of f760 in four instalments by 1685, he was never without debt again.

On November 22, 1708, Louis was asked by the Church to pay in an outstanding amount of f300 plus interest. It appears that he had signed letters of debt (promissory note?) on April 1694 for f400 and another in January 1699 for f200. Over the years he had managed to pay back only half of the total sum. This time the court rejected all his pleas. By September 1711 the interest had run up to f48. He had also signed another letter of debt in April 1703 with Joan Blesius. After that he signed surety in October 1710 for another freed slave, Joseph of Batavia.

The Board of Justice, on 10 September 1711, declared that Louis' property in Table Valley had to be sold at public auction. This occurred on 9 November. Another burgher Jan Mijnderts Kruijwagen bought it for f1120. Apparently it was just enough to cover all his outstanding debts.

When exactly he died cannot be determined but in November 1715 he was still alive, because it was then that he sued Jan Hars (Herfst) to have Elisabeth of the Cape once again reinstated as his slave. But now she had already lived with Jan for two decades. The court rejected his "frivolous request" with costs and fined him Rds 2 plus the cost of the documents he had submitted to the court with insufficient stamps.      

In 1717 the monsterrol only had the name of his widow listed, which indicates that he had died in the interim. No estate was left.

Because he had spent only a short time in Stellenbosch he did not play an important part as a free black there. He was not a successful farmer, led an unhappy social life and was one of the few who had left the area in the 1790s. Due to his unsuccessful attempt at leading an eccentric/expensive lifestyle in the Table Valley area, he did not make much of an impression as an important personality. It is actually the marriage of his three daughters to white men that brought him fame. He and his slave-woman Lijsbeth had through their daughters left behind a great legacy. Some of their offspring were of great fame as well. It is also important to take note of the fact that he had embraced Christianity. 

It is, however, his neighbour Jan of Ceylon that made much more of an impression as a farmer. 

(The next section of this book is about Jan van Ceylon).