History of slavery and early colonisation in South Africa


The Heeren XVII sit in council in Amsterdam.

The Early Cape Slave Trade

The year 1658 marks the beginning of the slave trade at the Cape colony.  During the first four years of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) settlement at the Cape only a small number of personal slaves had reached the Cape, mostly by accompanying their owners from Batavia until they were sold at the Cape. For four short years the Cape colony had not played any part in the global slave trade. This all changed when, on 28 March 1685, the Dutch merchantman, the Amersfoort, anchored at the Cape with a cargo of 174 slaves. The Amersfoort’s arrival in Table Bay, with slaves in its hold, firmly brought the Cape colony into the fold of one of the most terrible institutions of the last centuries, the Slave Trade.

Already within seven weeks of landing at the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck, the Commander of the settlement, had begun writing letters to the Heeren XVII, the VOC shareholders who essentially had control over the company, asking them to help him get slaves for his settlement. From the beginning of the settlement there was a chronic shortage of man-power, the hundred and twenty or so employees of the VOC, mainly sailors and soldiers, were insufficient to perform all the manual labour required to build and maintain the settlement. The local Khoi people were unwilling to perform the labour for the meagre reward the Dutch tried to offer them, and so sailors and soldiers from passing ships were often called upon to lend a helping hand while their ships anchored in the bay, but this was not a satisfactory solution for the labour problem.Van Riebeeck felt that slaves were integral for the colony to survive for the Freeburghers were unable to get enough labour from Europeans, either knechts or company servants, to farm to the degree and extent necessary for their labour to become profitable. For Van Riebeeck, the incredibly cheap slaves were seen as the best way to deal with this issue, but the Heeren XVII refused his initial request for slaves.

Two years later, in April 1654, after struggling to get the fledging settlement going Van Riebeeck once again wrote to the Heeren XVII asking for slave labour. He wrote in his letter,

‘if it could be agreed upon, however, it would be very much cheaper to have the agricultural work, seal-catching and all other necessary work done by slaves in return for a plain fare of rice and fish or seal and penguin meat alone and without pay. They could be obtained and brought very cheaply from Madagascar, together with rice, in one voyage.’

Once again, however, the Heeren XVII refused to support Van Riebeeck in his quest for slaves.

During a severe food shortage at the Cape at the end of 1654 Van Riebeeck, in exasperation, took matters into his own hands and sent two small ships, the Tulp and the Rode Vos, to Madagascar to purchase rice and slaves. The Rode Vos never made it to Madagascar, but rather sailed to Mauritius and brought back rice, but no slaves. The Tulp returned in December 1654 from Madagascar, bringing with her a cargo of rice, but only two slaves. Although the Tulp had only managed to bring back two slaves, far from the number Van Riebeeck desired, her arrival in Madagascar and the connections her crew established with the King of Antogil were the first steps in what was to become the Cape Colony’s extensive involvement in the Madagascar Slave Trade, which lasted until well into the 18th century.

In 1655, with the hope of getting more slaves, the Tulp was sent on a second slaving voyage to Madagascar. But this time round the vessel was beset by violent storms in the Madagascar channel and its whole crew, twenty five slaves and a cargo of rice perished on the coast of Madagascar. This tragedy made it clear that the small vessels belonging to the Cape settlement were insufficient for the long sea-voyage required for slaving and trading voyages.

The sinking of the Tulp made it resoundingly clear that the ships Van Riebeeck had were wholly unsuited for the task of fetching slaves. In 1657 the Heeren XVII finally consented to Van Riebeeck’s calls for assistance and commissioned two ships to be built in Amsterdam and then be sent as slavers to the Cape. In a letter to Van Riebeeck in March of 1657, the Heeren XVII told Van Riebeeck that they were sending him two slave ships. As part of the letter they also outlined how Van Riebeeck was to treat the slaves, and what provisions were being sent for them:

‘That you may not be at loss what to do when such a large number of slaves is suddenly brought to you from the West Coast, we have provided you with sufficient provisions shipped in the two yachts (...)As a large number of casks will be required to carry water for the slaves, we did not like to send you any empty, but filled them with flour and barley. (...)You are to order from India some clothing for the slaves; from us you receive some coarse cloth to protect them against the cold.

Eighty or a hundred slaves may be kept by you at the Cape, the rest to be sent to Batavia with the various ships after having been thoroughly refreshed at the Fort. The best and strongest are to be sent, the weak ones, should there be any, you are to keep back for yourself.

You are to treat the slaves well and kindly, to make them the better accustomed to and well disposed towards us; they are to be taught all kinds of trades, that in course of time the advantage of such instruction may be beneficial to yourselves, and a large number of Europeans excused. They are also to be taught agriculture as it would be too expensive to fee such a lot of people from Holland and India. ‘

Armed with barrels of flour and barley, the Hasselt and a second slaver set sail from Amsterdam for the Cape. But, as fate would have, these two vessels, sent by the Heeren XVII specifically to begin the slave trade at the Cape, would not in fact bring the first shipment of slaves to the Cape. It was instead the merchantship the Amersfoort, which was never intended to carry slaves, which brought to the Cape her first fateful shipment of slaves.

On 23 January 1658, the Amersfoort, which had left the Netherlands in October the previous year, came across a Portuguese slaving vessel of the coast of West Africa. The Portuguese ship was old and cumbersome and the Dutch managed to easily board and capture her. Stuck in the hold of this creaky old slaving vessel were 500 male and female Angolan slaves, being taken to be sold in the slave markets of Brazil. The Amersfoort was a smaller vessel than the Portuguese slaver, and so they only took 250 of the best slaves their booty.  The Dutch chose not to bring the ship itself to the Cape as it was ‘old and unserviceable’. What this means for the fate of the 250 slaves that were left on this old ship, is unclear.

With its prize of 250 slaves the Amersfoort set sail for the Cape, arriving in Table Bay on 28 March 1658, the day on which the Cape colony became a slave trading colony. As Van Riebeeck tells us, of the 250 slaves captured the number had ‘been reduced by death to 170, of whom many were very ill. The majority of the slaves are young boys and girls, who will be of little use to the next 4 or 5 years. They were also brought ashore to be refreshed and restored to health.’

A Cape slave hoeing under supervision Source

Later in the year, on 6 May, the Hasselt, one of the slavers sent by the VOC, finally arrived in Table Bay with its own shipment of slaves. On board the Hasselt were 228 slaves, brought from the coast of Guinea, in particular the Kingdom of Dahomey. Within six months the arrival of these two ships, had brought the number of slaves at the Cape from a tiny group of around 20 slaves to a huge contingent of almost 400 hundred slaves. This huge increase in the number of slaves at the Cape meant that, in the year 1658, the Cape colony moved from being a settler colony to a slave colony.

By the end of 1658 there were 402 slaves at the Cape, however, a year later, by the end of 1659, this number had drastically decreased to a mere sixty slaves. A reasonably large number of the slaves from the Cape had been sent on to Batavia, as had been demanded by the Heeren XVII, but nonetheless, this drastic decrease in numbers indicates that the mortality rate of slaves at the Cape was very high. The reason for this is possibly due to the fact that the living conditions in the castle at the time were generally very poor, for settlers and slaves alike. But whereas some measures would have been put in place to protect the health and welfare of the settlers it is not clear whether the same was done for the slaves, and it is likely that many succumbed to illness and disease. Whatever the reason may be for the high mortality rate and drastic decline in numbers of slaves at the Cape, it is clear that the loss of slaves was a perpetual problem at the Cape, one which was addressed in primarily one way, bringing more slaves to the Cape. The constant need for slaves in the ever expanding settlement meant that, until the abolishment of the slave trade in 1807, the Cape colony continuously imported slaves from across the world. 

Where did the slaves come from?

From 1658, with the arrival of the slave shipments aboard the Amersfoort and theHasselt, the Cape colony became a slave trading society. There were two types of slaves at the colony – those that belonged to the Dutch East India Company (VOC), referred to as ‘Company Slaves’, and those that were bought by the Freeburghers, Dutch burghers who lived at the Cape, and owned and worked farms, but were not actually Company employees. Because the Company was an international business organisation, they kept incredibly good records on all their slaves, including how many were bought, how many sold, how long they lived, and often what they worked on. The Freeburhgers however, as a general citizenry, hardly kept any record of their slaves at all, which makes it incredibly difficult to track the lives of Freeburgher slaves, and so we do not know where many of them came from or what happened to them at the Cape. 

Initially, especially in the early years, the Company slaves far outnumbered those of the Freeburhgers, but this was did not last long. In 1679, the Company, with 310 slaves, still had more slaves than the burghers, who only had 191. But after 1679, the number of burgher slaves continued to grow rapidly, whereas the Company never much increased its slave numbers. By 1692, the number of slaves held by Freeburghers began to exceed those held by the company. By 1795, the Burgher slaves exceeded the company slaves 30 to one; the reported slave population at the Cape was 16,839, of which only 3% were company slaves.

The very first two shiploads of slaves to arrive at the Cape aboard the Hasselt and the Amersfoort, both came from the West Coast of Africa, namely Guinea and Angola. But these slave shipments were in fact, with the exception of a few individuals, the only West African slaves to be brought to the Cape during VOC rule. The vast majority of Cape slaves came from Madagascar, the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia.

The earliest slaves at the Cape, other than those brought on the Amersfoort andHasselt, were predominantly from Bengal, but after the area became incorporated into the Mughal Empire in 1666, the supply of slaves from the region was cut off. A fairly constant source of slaves also came from what was called the Coromandel, the east coast of India, where the VOC had, very early on in the sixteenth century, established trading stations to trade in cotton. When there was war or famine in the Coromandel region the slave trade would boom as prisoners of war or excess family members were sold off into slavery. During one famine period in 1659-61, 8000 to 10 000 slaves were exported from the region to Ceylon, Batavia and Malacca by the VOC. After the 1660s however, more and more slaves were being imported from Indonesia and Malaysia, where local slave traders would acquire slaves through warfare and raiding expeditions and sell them on to the Dutch. Macassar, in Sulawesi, became a very prominent place from which slaves were taken to the Cape, making it a region that was strongly represented in Cape slave society.

Many of the Freeburghers personal and household slaves came from these regions on the Indian subcontinent and in South-East Asia. The Company, however, began to look for more lucrative slave markets that would sell them physically strong slaves that could do hard labour, rather than the household slaves from the Indies. In their search for slaves for hard labour the Company turned primarily to Madagascar, whose King’s were willing and eager to trade with the Company. Of the Company sponsored slave voyages, slaving trips specifically organised by Company ships for the explicit purpose of bringing slaves to the Cape, almost 66% of the slaves bought were Malagasy.

The table below shows the exact make up of the all the Company sponsored slave voyages between 1652-1795.







12 (1,064)

9 (779)

12 (977)

33 (2,820)

Mozambique, East African cost, and Zanzibar



5 (974)

5 (974)

Delagoa Bay


Several (c. 280)


Several (c. 280)


1 (226)



1 (226)


13 (1,290)

9+ (c. 1,059)

17 (1,951)

 39+ (c. 4,300)

In the early eighteenth century about half the salves at the Cape came from India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and approximately a fifth came from South-East Asia. The remainder were primarily from Madagascar and the south-eastern corner of Africa. During the last decades of VOC rule however, most slaves came from Mozambique. The historian Robert Shell has estimated that between 1652 and 1808, when the slave trade was abolished, an estimated total 63 000 slaves were imported to the Cape, from the African continent (26.4%), Indian sub-continent (25.9%), Madagascar (25.1%) and Indonesia (22.7%).

A map of the Pacific Ocean Slave Trade, where most of the Cape’s slaves came from.

In such a milieu of slaves the Dutch quickly developed prejudices and stereotypes towards the slaves based on their place of origin. The Malagasy slaves, although originally disliked, were soon seen as being very industrious and hardworking. Many Malagasy slaves were sent to work on the farms in the Hottentot-Hollands. The slaves from Delagoa Bay were held in low esteem and were frequently documented as murderous and thievish.  One diarist describes the ‘villainous slits’ that these slaves have cut into their faces, which made the settlers suspect of them. The dislike of the settlers for the Delagoa Bay slaves had the unfortunate consequence that these people were mostly housed in the basement of the company Slave Lodge and were given the dirtiest and meanest tasks. Even their deaths were recorded separately from those of other slaves. The Angolan slaves who had arrived on the first slave shipment at the Cape were considered suitable for very heavy work and the Mozambican slaves that were imported in the late eighteenth century were regarded highly as farm labourers.


When the slaves arrived in the port of Cape Town, and were either assigned to the VOC, or sold off to slave-owners, they were, more often than not, assigned new names. Giving slaves new names was another terrible act of further stripping them of any connection to their previous 'free' identity and the places where they came from. As in most slave societies, the names of slaves were usually given to them by their masters and were thus often European names, such as Andries, Anna, Catharina, David etc. Other names that slaves were given were however distinctly ‘slave type’ names, names which were given almost exclusively to slaves, such as Augustyn, Fortuyn, Coridon, Cupido, Scipio, Titus, Ocatvia and so forth. In a twist of irony these names hark to the great figures of Roman and Greek history and mythology. The Company, however, tended not to change the names of their slaves, particularly not those purchased in Madagascar, and so the Malagasy names, such as Leidzare, Lambo, Ratzi, Calle Mironde, Ignore and so forth, abound in the company books. All the above names pepper the VOC log books in which the names of the newly arrived slaves were registered. 

How the Slaves Came to the Cape

The slaves that came to the Cape were brought here in three ways: firstly through voyages sponsored by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), which sent slave ships from the Cape, primarily to Madagascar and outlets on the south-eastern coast of Africa; secondly through VOC ‘return’ fleets sailing from Ceylon, present day Sri Lanka, and the East Indies back to the Netherlands and brining a few personal slaves from that region with them; and lastly from foreign slavers en route to the Americas from Madagascar, Mozambique and East Africa who sometimes sold a few slaves in the Cape before heading off to the great slave markets of the Americas.

Because the VOC was an international business organisation, it kept very good track of all its records, including exactly what ships went on slaving voyages, where they went and how many slaves were brought to the Cape colony. Therefore, the VOC slave voyages present us with the most accurate data we have on the Cape slave trade. The Freeburghers, members of the Cape settlement who were not VOC employees, actually purchased and owned far more slaves than the Company ever did, but as burghers they did not keep very good records of their slaves and so it is hard to know exactly how many slaves the burghers bought and where they came from. This has meant that the historically record on slavery at the Cape has been heavily skewed towards the slaves of the VOC.

The VOC Slaving Voyages

For many years Jan van Riebeeck had been begging the Heeren XVII to send him sea-worthy VOC ships so that he could begin building up a direct slave trade between the Cape and neighbouring African states. Eventually in 1658 the Heeren XVII capitulated and sent Van Riebeeck two boats, marking the beginning of a VOC directed slave trade at the Cape.

The VOC slaving voyages were the primary source of Company slaves at the Cape, and also an important source of slaves for the Freeburhgers. These voyages were slaving trips co-ordinated by the VOC officials at the Cape and conducted with VOC ships. The first of these official slaving voyages was undertaken by the Hasselt, a VOC slaver which brought to the Cape their second ever shipment of slaves. During an almost 150 year period of rule and colonisation, the VOC sent out a total of around 40 slaving voyages from the Cape which brought around 4300 slaves to the Cape colony.

Initially the VOC had thought to fetch slaves from the Angolan coast, as the Portuguese were doing in the Atlantic Slave Trade, but it was quickly decided that the Angolan slave trade was too perilous, with too many other Portuguese, French and British ships vying for the same markets. In 1654 Van Riebeeck had sent the ship the Tulp to go see if slaves could be fetched from Madagascar. Although the Tulp returned with only two slaves, her crew were able to establish good relations with the Malagasy King of Antongil Bay. The difficulties of slave-trading on the West African coast, and the promise of many good slaves from the King of Antongil Bay persuaded the VOC officials at the Cape to focus their slave-trading activities on Madagascar, and later Mozambique. Although the Indian Ocean Slave Trade was the primary slave trading route of the Dutch, it was still only 15-30% of the size of the Atlantic Ocean Slave Trade which shipped Africans from the West Coast of Africa to the Americas.

 Until 1672 the Dutch trade with slaves in Madagascar had been only through the ports of Antongil Bay and St. Augustine Bay, the far more lucrative Boina Bay coast was being used by Portuguese and Arab slave traders. In 1673 however, the Dutch captured an English slaver, bringing its cargo of 184 Malagasy slaves to the Cape and revealing to the Dutch the secret of the Boina Bay slave-trade. For the next century the Dutch sent slavers quite regularly from the Cape to Boina Bay, and other Malagasy coasts and port, establishing a proper slave-trade route between Madagascar and the Cape.

The slave trade, although seemingly profitable, carried high risks. An adult slave could be bought in East Africa, primarily Madagascar, for between 20 to 30 rixdollars. They could then be sold for three to four times that price at the Cape. The overheads of these voyages and the danger of them, meant that the profits from the slave trade were far less. Although almost all slaves taken and bought by the Company on Company slaving voyages were intended as company property, the records seem to indicate that a number of Company slavers and Employees engaged in a private trade in slaves in order to bolster their earnings and to reward them for the danger of their slaving expeditions. This private trade was not allowed by Company rules and so was kept off the books. Some historians have argued that this means that the numbers of slaves captured per voyage actually are likely to exceed those documented.

The company not only brought slaves to the Cape for labour, but also convicts from South-East Asia and the Indian region. These convicts were separate from the small number of political prisoners. They were criminals who were serving out their term of punishment at the Cape. They lived in the slave lodge and were generally treated like slaves during their term of imprisonment. After the end of their term the convicts were technically free, but many could not return home and were kept in quasi slave-like labour conditions. The number of convicts at the Cape fluctuated, but they contributed a significant part to the adult labour force at the colony.

The table below, constructed from VOC records, shows the number of VOC slaving voyages conducted between 1652 and 1795, and where the ships went.

How the VOC slavers procured the slaves

In Madagascar the Dutch would trade for slaves primarily with firearms, brandy and Spanish reals of eight, a currency of trade used widely in the Asian trade circles. The method of trade with the Sakalava monarchs of Madagascar, which was noted in detail in ships logs, is a good example of the way in which the Dutch slave-trade with the Malagasy took place. Any slave trade that was to be conducted always had to be done through the representatives of local Kings or chiefs in the region.

On their slaving voyages the Dutch ships would dock in harbours that were well known as slave ports, such as the Bay of Antongil or Boina Bay in Madagascar. They would then await the arrival of emissaries from the local King or Chief, who would inform them whether there were many slaves to be brought in the port or not. If it was established that there were slaves to be bought, the Dutch would take their trades goods and, accompanied by soldiers, land in the bay to begin trade deliberations with the Kings delegates. No slaves were allowed to be sold by the local population until the King had opened trade negotiations. Once the terms of the trade had been established, the Dutch would bring their goods to the King or Chief and would then receive the slaves in return. This process of negotiation, in which the Kings would decide what and how much they wanted in exchange for the slaves, could often take weeks.

By the 1670s the interpreters for these negotiations were often Malagasy slaves themselves who had lived at the Cape and were therefore able to speak both Malagasy and Dutch. However this was not always the case, as with some Sakalava Kings for example, who refused to trade in Malagasy and insisted that the negotiations be conducted in English. In other areas of Madagascar the rulers spoke Arabic as their lingua franca, but often also reverted to negotiating the trade of slaves in English.

Once the price had been settled and the Kings appeased, the slaves would slowly be brought onto the Dutch ships to begin their terrible journey into a life without freedom, dignity or rights.

A picture of slaves being transported to the waiting slave ships. Source

During much of the slave trade period with Madagascar, the Malagasy Kings were at war with each other which meant that the slaves they sold to the Dutch were often captured prisoners of war. The Dutch, English, Portuguese and French slave trade with Madagascar immensely inflated the value of prisoners of war sold as slaves, which only served to escalate the warring between the Kingdoms. Many Kings also demanded weapons, muskets and gun powder in exchange for slaves, which only served to further support their wars with other Kings and therefore increase the number of slaves captured through wars. This inflation of prices for slaves, coupled with a trade of weapons for slaves, created a vicious cycle of war, enslavement and armourment in the region.

On Board the Ships

Once the slaves had been taken as prisoners of war and were designated as 'slaves' they ceased to be people and instead became seen as and were treated as commodities, things to be sold and bought at a profit. For much of the early slave trade the Dutch were not using the harsher methods of 'packing' slaves onto ships that were used in later years in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The VOC ships coming from the Cape would put as many slaves as safe or possible in the hull of their ship. Unlike in the Atlantic slave trade, the Dutch ships in the Pacific Ocean slave trade were mostly not meant purely for slaves, but were rather full of an assortment of cargo, of which slaves would be one type. The slaves in the hull were mostly put in chains, but on the VOC ships it was not unusual for slaves to be freed from their chains and taken above board to either help with the workings of the ship, or simply to walk around and get some exercise. This was not of course done for the good of the slaves, but in order to keep the slaves, as valuable cargo, from decimating or getting too severely ill.

Slaves being brought onto a ship in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Source

It was this strategy, of sometimes allowing slaves to come on deck, which gave the Malagasy slaves aboard the Meermin the chance to revolt against their oppressors, sparking the Meermin Mutiny. The slaves aboard the Meermin were falling drastically ill, and so they were brought above board and unshackled and asked to help with work on the ship. When the slaves were ordered to clean some weapons they immediately seized the opportunity presented to them and attacked the ship’s crew. They managed to take control of the ship and ordered the crew to sail back to Madagascar. The crew however, deceived the slaves and sailed on to the Cape Colony, where the slaves were all seized by the Colony guards. 

The slave voyages themselves were very risky, both for the crew, and particularly for the salves. Death rates of slaves on the ships were often very high, averaging at around a 20% mortality rate, but with some ships experiencing a mortality rate of up to 50%. There was usually very little food and water for the slaves, they were crammed into poor and unhygienic living quarters and were subject to rampant illness and disease, with sometimes more than half of the slaves brought on a slaver dying before ever reaching their final destination. This meant that even less profit could be made off the ships. There was some attempt to create better conditions on the ships, such as bringing the slaves above board everyday and giving them exercise, but these attempts were not an attempt at ameliorating the terrible condition of the poor slaves, but rather to ensure that more of the ‘goods’ arrived at their destination.

Slaves at the Cape were often not treated much better. The slaves had a very low reproduction rate, half of that of the white settlers. It is likely that this is due to their strenuous and difficult living conditions, meaning that many slave women were unable to fall pregnant, could not bring a child to full term, or would lose their child soon after its birth. This meant that there had to be a constant stream of new slaves coming in to the Cape on slave ships in order to replace the ones who had died, furthering encouraging the Cape slave trade.

The Personal Slaves brought on return fleets

The second way in which many slaves arrived at the Cape, in particular the early slaves of the colony, was aboard VOC return fleets. VOC return fleets were essentially fleets returning from Ceylon and Batavia, present day Jakarta, to the Netherlands. These fleets would always stop off at the Cape on their way home. Many company officials on these return voyages would bring their own personal and household slaves with them, which they would then trade at the Cape, or bring a small number of slaves under the pretence that they were personal slaves. These personal slaves came primarily from the East Indies and Ceylon.

This private trade pushed the boundaries of a VOC rule that allowed company employees to bring their personal salves with them as far as the Cape. The Cape was to be the last port of call for these slaves because in the Netherlands, slavery was illegal.  The VOC rules stipulated that any such personal slaves brought to the Cape should be left there with enough money to pay for their return voyage to Batavia or Ceylon. The reason for this was that the Company explicitly did not wish for a slave trade competing with its own trade to take place amongst its employees.

By 1713 this quasi illegal trade had become such a problem for the company that they issued a decree that any slaves brought to the Cape must have their return trip to India, Ceylon or the East Indies paid in full and in advance. When this did not stop people from essentially using Company ships to transport their own private trade goods, the slaves, the Company made the sale and trade of these slaves a punishable crime. This had the effect of reducing this private trade in slaves, but it did not halt it.

Although the actual number of slaves coming from India, Ceylon and the East Indies to the Cape colony was reasonably small in comparison to the number of Malagasy and East African slaves, their impact upon, and importance within, the Cape slave community was large, far greater than their proportion in numbers. Many of these slaves, who had long been personal slaves of company employees, were highly skilled artisans or craftsmen and were educated. They were often used for less menial services and treated better than the East African slaves, which meant that they lived longer and were able to have greater influence in the urban areas of the Cape and on the settlers themselves.

There is a clear record of the slaves brought to the Cape by VOC voyages, but it is difficult to determine the number of slaves that were brought to the Cape on return voyages from Ceylon and the East Indies. There were a few occasions, usually after a war of famine, when the Batavian authorities sent a large number of slaves for use at the Cape. In 1677, 93 Tuticorin slaves were sent from southern India, in 1712, 36 slaves arrived from Ceylon, in 1719 another 80 slaves came from Ceylon, and in 1754 another Ceylon shipment arrived with an indeterminate number of slaves. However, despite these individually large numbers, the overall contribution of slaves to the Cape slave population on these shipments was small.

Foreign Slavers

The last way in which slaves arrived at the Cape was aboard foreign slave ships. From 1664 to the 1720s these were primarily English slavers, transporting slaves from Madagascar to Barbados, and later to Virginia and Buenos Aires as part of the notorious Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

The VOC, which was conducting its own slaving missions, rarely bought slaves from these foreign traders, hence most of the slaves bought off these traders were bought by private individuals for their own use. But the slaves brought on these foreign slavers were expensive and many Freeburghers were unable or unwilling to buy these slaves. This meant that for most of its slave history, the Cape port was not considered a very good trading port for these foreign slavers.

Dutch Burghers supervising slaves at work in the Cape. Source

By the 1780s however, the Cape colony had become wealthy enough for Burghers to able to pay good prices for slaves, and so the foreign slavers, at this point primarily French and Portuguese slavers, sold large shiploads of slaves to the burghers. In 1782, a French ship sold 279 slaves at the Cape and in 1785 two further French ships sold 194 slaves and 75 slaves.

Because the slaves off foreign slavers were sold primarily to Burghers, there is a very poor record of how many slaves were actually sold, with only a few slave shipments, such as those mentioned above, being recorded in any official documents. It is therefore very difficult to estimate how many slaves were brought to the Cape in foreign slavers. It is however possible that the numbers were reasonably large, as by 1786 the Governor of the Cape, Cornelis Jacob van de Graaff, estimated that the Freeburghers required an annual supply of between 200 to 300 slaves.

The end of the VOC slave trade

In the second half of the 18th century, the VOC, a Company which had dominated the seas for almost two centuries, began to go into rapid decline. Within the decline in the VOC hold of the Pacific trading circle and political problems in the Netherlands, the once mighty VOC began to crumble. In the years of the decline of the VOC across the globe, ever fewer slaves were brought to the Cape colony and after 1793 none were brought in by any means, either through VOC ships, foreign slaves or return fleets.. It was only with the advent of British Rule at the Cape in 1795 that slaves were once again brought in to the colony. In the first thirty-three months of British rule 604 slaves were brought into the colony, and in March of 1799 a further 400 arrived.

On 28 February 1786, the Meermin anchored at Table Bay brining 295 slaves from Mozambique. This was to be the very last Company slave voyage from the Cape. After 1786, the company no longer sent any slaving voyages. In 1792 a final Council of Policy resolution decided to abandon the slave trade altogether, bringing to an end almost 150 years of Dutch East India Company slave trade at the Cape.

• Armstrong, James. 1986. ‘The Slaves, 1652-1795’, in Richard Elphick and Hermann Gilliomee, The Shaping of South African Society, 1652-1820. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, pp. 75-115.
• Schoeman, Karel. 2007. Early Cape Slavery at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-1717. Pretoria: Protea Book House.
• Westra, Peter and James Armstrong. (2006). Slave trade with Madagascar: The journals of the Cape slaver Leijdsman, 1715. Africana Publishers: Cape Town. 

Last updated : 07-Nov-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 02-Apr-2015