History of slavery and early colonisation in South Africa

The First Slaves at the Cape

On March 28 1658 the Dutch merchant ship the Amersfoort anchored at Table Bay with 174 Angolan slaves in her hold. These slaves constituted the first shipment of slaves to arrive at the Cape, yet although the Amersfoort  was the first ship to bring a whole cargo of slaves to the Cape, beginning the history of the slave trade at the Cape, these ill-fated Angolans were not the first slaves to set foot in the colony. Between 1652, the year of Jan van Riebeeck’s landing at the Cape, and 1658, when the first slave shipment arrived, between 11 and 20 slaves had already been brought to the Cape colony.

In 1657, half a year before the arrival of the Amersfoort,  the Dutch East India Company (VOC) Commissioner Rijckloff van Goens visited the Cape, and noted that Company officials at the Cape were in possession of 11 slaves, of which four slave women and one male belonged to Commander Van Riebeeck, one slave to the sergeant, one female slave at the sick visitor’s, where people who were ill went, one female slave at the junior merchants, on female slave at the gardeners, one Madagascar female slave to sweep the fort, and one slave at the surgeons. It is from this account that most historical works make the claim that there were 11 slaves at the Cape before the arrival of the first large shipment of slaves on the Amersfoort. However, there seems to be sufficient indication in the scattered and unclear records that there were more than 11 slaves at the Cape by the time the Amersfoort arrived, with historians guessing the number could be anywhere up to 20.

These few souls, who arrived at the Cape in dribs and drabs, as stowaways or the personal slaves of Company officials, were the very first slaves in the Cape settlement. For four years this tiny group of enslaved peoples lived amongst the colonists, the only slaves amongst a few hundred Europeans. Almost all of these early slaves arrived at the Cape with VOC officials returning to the Netherlands from Batavia, although some where stowaways, some prisoners, and some gifts from across the seas. According to VOC rules, Company officials returning home from Batavia were allowed to take their personal slaves with them, but, as slavery was technically outlawed in the Netherlands, the officials could take their slaves no further than the Cape. Many officials made use of this rule to bring their personal slaves to the Cape and sell them there, where, as a rare commodity, the slaves would fetch a higher price than in Batavia. It was through this informal trade that most of South Africa’s very first slaves reached her shores.

Most of the personal slaves who arrived at the Cape with VOC officials were women. In the early years of the colony these slave women were numbered amongst the very few women at the Cape. Of the roughly 360 people residing at the Cape in 1658, only 20 of them were categorised as ‘Dutch women and children’, with probably only half that number being women, rather than children. This meant that the male to female ratio in the colony was highly skewed. The result of this was that of the very earliest slave women who arrived at the Cape, three, Angela, Catharina and Anna, were manumitted in order to marry Dutchmen at the Cape. These slave women are the ‘stammoeders’ (matriarchs) of thousands of South Africans, of all colours and creeds.

As the numbers of the first slaves were so small, and their presence so visible in the settlement at the Cape, a few of them, particularly those who married Dutchmen, are amongst the most well documented slaves of the early Cape. A few of the others, particularly the male slaves, are so poorly documented that the only clue to their existence is a line or two in a letter or Van Riebeeck’s journal.

Abraham van Batavia

Abraham van Batavia was the first slave at the Cape, but he was not brought there by anyone but himself, for Abraham arrived at the Cape as a stowaway. On 2 March 1653 Abraham arrived at the Cape aboard the Malacca, a ship in a VOC fleet returning to the Netherlands from Batavia. On the journey from Batavia to the Cape Abraham had been discovered by the crew of the ship. It is possible that Abraham had stowed away on the ship in the hopes of making it all the way to the Netherlands, where it was rumoured that slaves were set free. Whatever Abraham’s reasons for trying to stowaway on a ship and travel thousands of kilometres from his home, his discovery by the crew before their arrival at the Cape foiled his plans. Abraham was taken off the Malacca and left behind at the Cape in order to be returned to his owner in Batavia, an arrack (a liquor from south-east Asia) distiller called Cornelius Lichthart. Van Riebeeck attempted to buy Abraham off of his owner in order to keep him on as a slave-worker in the Cape colony, but Lichthart absolutely refused. And so, after two years of negotiations, Abraham was sent back to Batavia, although by this point Van Riebeeck noted in his journal that his health was so bad that he was unable to even earn half of his food.

Eva and Jan Bruyn

In December of 1654 Frederick Verburgh brought the slave woman Eva, aged about 30, and her son Jan Bruyn, aged about 3, back with him from his first expedition to Madagascar. Eva was put in the service of Sergeant Jan van Herwerden, a senior member of the small community at the Cape.

In May of 1657 Eva was sent to Robben Island to quarry stone as she was considered strong enough to carry the quarried stones. Jan Woutersz, the superintendent on Robben Island, soon wrote of Eva:

‘She does nothing but run about the island, chasing the sheep and driving them from the lands. She needs somebody to look after her and does not heed and cannot understand signs, gestures or thrashings, so that no credit can be gained at this work with such people.’

In March of 1658 Eva was brought back to the mainland. There is no further documentation relating to either Eva or her son.

Anthony

Anthony was a slave who probably arrived with Eva and her son in December of 1654, although there is no record of his arrival at the Cape. The first mention of Anthony is made by Van Riebeeck on 12 March 1655, when he notes that Anthony has ‘quite suddenly’ disappeared, and feels that he was in all likelihood killed by the KhoiKhoi.

The journal entry from March 12 1655 reads:

It is now several days since we first missed a certain Madagascar slave, and we do not know where he has gone. He disappeared quite suddenly in the morning, the day before yesterday. On a few precious occasions when any of our men had absconded, we had them brought back by the Hottentots for a small piece of tobacco, but they have not been willing to go and look for this slave although we promised them not only a large amount of tobacco but some copper to boot. This makes us suspect that they killed him, the more so as this slave was always fighting with them.

Where Anthony went and what happened to him is unknown. This journal entry on the ‘disappeared’ slave is the only marker of his existence. 

Catharina van Bengale

Catharina Anthonis van Bengale is one of the most well known and important slaves of those first few years of the settlement.  Catharina was the first slave at the Cape colony to be freed. She was freed in April of 1656, only four years after the founding of the settlement, by her owner Dirck Sarcerius of Batavia. Catharina was freed so that she could marry the Dutchman, Jan Woutersz. On 26 April Catharina received official permission to marry Woutersz and on Sunday 21 May 1656 the two were married in a ceremony in the castle. The wedding between this ex-slave and the Dutchman marked the first documented mixed marriage in South Africa.  Their marriage was also the earliest marriage to take place at the Cape. The entry from Van Riebeeck’s journal on the day of their marriage reads:

To-day the banns having been published on three Sundays, the assistant Jan Wouterssen was married before the law or the Council of this fort to the honourable young maiden, Catarina Anthonis, from Salagon in Bengal, formerly a slave girl in the service of the Hon. Boogeard, in the open Council chamber after the reading of the Sunday service, in accordance with the relative resolution.

Jan Woutersz had joined the company in 1644. In 1653 he was sent from Batavia to the Cape where he acted as Assistant and bookkeeper. There is some indication that Woutersz may have been disabled in some way as he twice refers to himself in documents as ‘cripple Jan’. At the Cape, Woutersz had enough standing in the company to be allowed to eat at Van Riebeeck’s table, and when he was not at the fort his wife, Catharina, would sit in his place, socialising with what was essentially the elite of Cape society at the time. The logs seem to imply that although there were only six white wives of VOC officials at the time, Catharina, described as a ‘black woman’, was offered the same respect and treatment as the other wives and was part of their social company.  Catharina was baptised as a Christian, which at the time was the most crucial barrier to entry into settler society, thereby formalising her full acceptance into Dutch society. Once she was a Christian and the wife of a Dutchman, the records seem to indicate that Catharina’s skin colour did not make much difference to the way in which she was seen and treated by the settlers.

Portrait of Dutch ships in Table Bay South Africa in the 17th century Source

A year after her marriage to Woutersz, Catharina’s fate was to take a turn for the worse. By March 1657, some of the settlers had been complaining that Woutersz consumed too much arrack and that he had slandered against Van Riebeeck and his wife, Maria. Dissent of any sort was not tolerated in the VOC and so Woutersz had to make a public retraction of his claims, beg forgiveness on his bare knees, have his tongue pierced by an awl and lose his rank as Assisstant, as well as his possessions, and be banished to Robben Island. Catharina, however, was heavily pregnant at the time, and so, in sympathy for her condition, parties in the Cape society bandied together to alleviate her husband’s punishment. As a result, Woutersz’s tongue was not pierced and his banishment revoked. Two months later however, stone suitable for quarrying was discovered on Robben Island and Woutersz was sent to the island as superintendent, to supervise the work of four servants, slaves and exiles in the quarry.

Robben Island at the time was windswept and desolate, a place for the company to raise sheep without the threat of predators, but it had also taken the first steps in its long history as a quarry and penal colony. At the time there were only five people living on the island, in empty isolation. It was in these lonely and harsh conditions, far from her home or any people she knew, that Catharina had to raise her first son. By March of 1658, after Woutersz had been in charge of Robben Island for 10 months, Van Riebeeck felt that he had returned to his previous bad behaviour and neglected his duties. Disgusted by his behaviour Van Riebeeck ordered that Woutersz and his wife and child be sent to India. In 1658, Catharina, the first slave to have a married a colonists, left the Cape and is lost the records of Cape history.  

Cornelia and Lijsbeth and Klein Eva

In March 1657, three little slave girls arrived at the Cape, Cornelia, Lijsbeth and Kleine Eva. Cornelia, aged 10, and Lijsbeth, aged 12, were two so called ‘Arabian’ slave girls from Abyssinia, present day Ethiopia. They had been brought to the Cape by the French Admiral De la Roche Saint-Andre, and were presented as a gift to Van Riebeeck’s wife.

With these two girls came a further little slave girl, only five years of age. This girl was called ‘Kleine Eva’. She had been sent to the Cape as gift by the King of Antongil in Madagascar, in order to show the Dutch at the Cape that the King was interested establishing a slave-trade network with them. All three girls were very young when they arrived, and it is likely they were all put into the household of Van Riebeeck. How their lives unfolded after their arrival at the Cape is unknown.

Angela van Bengale

Angela van Bengale, affectionately known as Maai Ansiela, is one of the most famous and prominent early slaves at the Cape. Angela had been brought to the Cape, via Batavia, with her companion Domingo and her three children by the commander of the return ship the Amersfoort, Pieter Kemp. It seems that Angela and her family were taken by slave raiders somewhere in the Ganges delta area of Bengal. The VOC Commander Pieter Kemp bought Angela and her family with him to the Cape as personal servants of his. They arrived on 24 February 1657.

There is much controversy over the character of Domingo. Very little is said about Domingo in any of the Cape documents. Some historians have argued that Domingo was Angela’s husband and that the children who came with them were in part Angela and Domingo’s children. Other historians have argued that Domingo was not Angela’s husband at all, but in fact a woman.

At the Cape, Pieter Kemp sold Angela and her whole family to Van Riebeeck and his wife as personal household slaves. Five years later, when Van Riebeeck left the Cape for Batavia in 1662, he sold Angela to Abraham Gabemma. In 1666 Gabbemma left the Cape to return to the Netherlands. Before he left he manumitted his favourite slave, Angela. Two years after being freed, in April 1668, Angela made the full transition to Cape burgher society by becoming baptised as a Christian.

 A year later, in December 1669, she married the Dutchman Arnoldus Basson, a reasonably wealthy free-burgher. Basson and Angela were married for 20 years, having six children together and building up their lives in the Cape colony. In 1689 Basson, who had been considerably older than Angela, died. He left his widow with a large inheritance of 6 495 guilders and a lot of land on Heerengracht, present day Adderly Street. Angela became the owner of this land, making Angela van Bengale, an ex-slave and widow, in fact the first woman to be granted land in the Cape in her own name.

As a widow with a small fortune and a plot of land Angela was a wealthy and independent woman, a rare and coveted state for a woman to be in. Her wealth and her independence, as well as her character which was described as wonderful, placed Angela in a high standing in Cape society. She was also clearly an astute business woman and housekeeper, for when she died she had managed not only to maintain her inherited wealth but to more than double it to 14 808 guilders, and she owned a small farm.

Angela, who lived well into her seventies, had to suffer a number of hardships in her life. Her son-in-law, Oloff Bergh, was put in detention; her son that had come with her from Batavia, Jan van As, was executed in 1688 for kidnapping, stock theft and murder; her son Jan Basson had indiscreet sexual relations with a widow resulting in a bastard grandson, Arnoldus Johannes Basson, who was later banished from the Cape in 1739; and her grandson, also a Jan van As, was banished to Robben Island in 1716.

Angela died in 1720, at over seventy years of age, an ex-slave who had become a wealthy and respected member of Cape society. Angela and Arnoldus had six children who all lived and procreated at the Cape, making Angela the forefather of thousands of South Africans and the mother of the Basson family in South Africa.

Anne De Koning

Anna De Koning was the daughter of Angela van Bengale. She arrived with Angela from Batavia, but who her father was is unknown. Like her mother, Anna de Koning was to make quite a name for herself at the Cape, moving from being a slave to becoming the mistress of that great Cape property, Groot Constantia.

It is believed that Anna was born in bondage somewhere around 1656 in Batavia, meaning she was very young when she arrived at the Cape. Anna, the only slave from the time of whom there is a portrait, was considered a true beauty in Cape society. On 10 September 1678, Anna married Oloff Bergh, a very well to-do gentleman who was one of Governor Simon van der Stel’s favourites at the Cape.

The Portrait of Anna De Koning, the only known portrait of a slave from the early years of the Cape. Source

Oloff Bergh was of Swedish descent. He was born in 1643 and arrived at the Cape in 1676 when he was only 24 years old.  He became a trusted employee of Governor Van der Stel and in 1686, as a reward for his hard work in retrieving treasure from a nearby shipwreck, Bergh was appointed to the High Court of Justice. In 1687, Anna’s husband was put on trial under the suspicion of having taken valuable goods from a shipwreck and hiding them from the Company.  In May of that year Bergh was banished to Robben Island taking his poor wife Anna with him. In September 1690, after three years imprisonment, first on Robben Island, and then in the castle, Bergh was finally set free and given the option of returning to his former VOC rank and serving the company elsewhere, or remaining in the Cape as a rank-less free burgher. Bergh took the former choice and left with his whole family for Ceylon, taking Anna with him. Although there is no record of Anna’s feelings or situation during this tumultuous time in her husband’s life, it was undoubtedly a difficult period for her. How Anna felt about returning to Ceylon, so near to the place where her mother was taken by slavers, is unknown.

The portrait of Oloff Bergh, Anna’s husband, which was the accompaniment to Anna’s portrait. Source

In 1695, five years after leaving, Bergh and Anna returned to the Cape from Ceylon. In Ceylon, Bergh built a record of service that was so fine that he was appointed Captain of the Garrison. Upon their return Bergh and Anna, with their children, moved into a comfortable residence on the Heerengracht, near the Dutch Reformed Church.

In 1712 Simon van der Stel died. With his death came the division of his great and beautiful farm, Constantia, which was divided into Groot and Klein Constantia. Bergh, who was by this time a very wealthy man, bought Groot Constantia as a home for him and Anna. This meant that Anna, a child of a slave and an ex-slave herself, became the mistress of one of Cape Town's greatest residences.

Bergh and Anna had 12 children. The names of their children were Christina, Maria, Petrus, Apolonia Africana, Carolusi Erlandt, Johanna Magdalen, Dorothea Francina, Martinus, Simon Petrus, Engela and Albertus.

Bergh died in 1724 at the age of 81. Anna, however, outlived her husband by many years. Bedecked in the most extravagant jewels and as one of the wealthiest widows at the Cape, this former slave girl spurned any further advances for her hand, living out the last of years alone as the mistress of Groot Constantia.

Anna de Koning, who had been born a slave, died in 1734, a wealthy widow of a prestigious Cape gentleman and the mistress of one of the greatest properties of the Cape. At the time of her death Anna owned 27 slaves, one of which was from Bengal and one even a Zulu from Natal. As the mother of 12 children Anna, like her mother, is one of the stammoeders of South African society and many South Africans, of all colours and creeds, and in particular all of the Bergh family, can trace their lineage back to her.

The Two Marias

There were two Maria van Bangle at the Cape settlement in its earliest years. One was in all likelihood a slave of Van Riebeeck’s. The other arrived at the Cape as punishment. In December of 1657 the Council of India sent a Maria of Bengal to the Cape who was being punished for her thieving ways and exiled to spend the rest of her life on Robben Island. The fact that many of the slaves were all given similar names means that to keep track of the slaves at the Cape through the scanty records can prove difficult, as is shown by the confusion of two Marias who are often conflated into one person in history books.


References:
• 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.
• Diemont, Mariues. (2012). Rogues to Riches: The Fortunes of Olof Bergh and the Van der Stels. Hermanus: Penstock Publishing. Reader’s Digest. (1988). The Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story. Cape Town, SA: Reader’s Digest Association, p. 53.
• Schoeman, Karl. (2007). Early slavery at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-1717. Pretoria: Protea Book House.
• Van Riebeeck, Jan. (1954). H.B. Thom (ed). Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, Volume II, 1656-1658. Cape Town: A.A. Balkema.
• Van Riebeeck, Jan. (1954). H.B. Thom (ed). Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, Volume 1, 1651-1655. Cape Town: A.A. Balkema.

Last updated : 29-Nov-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 27-Mar-2015