How Unique was Slavery at the Cape?

A Cape slave working the land, closely supervised by his master. Image source

The first slaves arrived at the Cape in 1658, despite Jan van Riebeeck's several prior attempts at requesting slaves for the settlement from the Heren XVII. On 28 March 1658, the Dutch merchantman, the Amersfoort, arrived in Table Bay with a valuable cargo of 174 slaves. Henceforth, the Cape entered the global stage of slaveholding societies.  Slavery in the early Cape Colony however took on a completely unique form in comparison to existing slave societies elsewhere in the world at the time, most notably those in the West Indies and Caribbean. Studies done on colonial era slave societies across the globe show how communities of slaves “developed a ‘world’ of their own, shaped by common cultural traditions, religious beliefs and relatively stable family units.” [i] This was however not possible in the Dutch-ruled Cape Colony. Some would go so far as to claim that no other slave-holding society in the world had such a culturally diverse slave population, nor one in which the cultures of the slaves so intricately meshed with those of the slave-owners with such profound effects. [ii] Most notably however, it was the unique features of Cape slavery which prevented the slave population from successfully unifying and forming an effective resistance – as was achieved in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Slaves brought to the early Cape originated almost exclusively from five different regions: Bengal, Southern India, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Indonesia and the East African coast. Slaves were bought from the slave markets of Batavia, Chinsura, Cochin, Boina, Delagoa Bay or Mozambique before being sent to the Cape, often semi-illegally as the ‘cargo’ of officials and sailors on the ships of the VOC. Others arrived in a more regularized manner off the large slaving ships of the French and the Portuguese en route to the Americas. While we don’t have an accurate representation of the proportion of slave origins at the Cape, we do know from the records available that the Malagasies were the largest group, while in the last years of the slave trade there was a rise in the number of East Africans brought in as agricultural labourers. In the earlier years of the Colony and in Cape Town itself however the Indonesians, who formed the basis of the Cape Malay community, were the most numerous. Slaves arriving at the Cape thus had very little in common with one another. Not only did they originate from vastly different regions with diverse cultures, but many too had to deal with a language barrier. The three languages in general use at the Cape in the eighteenth Century were Dutch, Portuguese Creole and Malay. Those slaves originating from India and the East Indies spoke a combination of Indian and Indonesian dialects as well as Portuguese. Madagascan slaves spoke Malagasy while slaves originating from East Africa had their own languages to communicate. Furthermore, the way in which slaves were individually acquired through sales from Cape Town meant that it was incredibly unlikely to have a unit of slaves working on a farm with a common origin, language or culture. This is in vast contrast to the situation in the Caribbean and the Americas where the majority of slaves from West Africa possessed a common place of origin, language and shared cultural heritage.

Slaves listed in the estate inventory of Hendrick Willem van der Merwe and his deceased wife, Aletta Keijser, 6 October 1750. WCA, MOOC 8/7.11 Image source

The formation of a uniform slave culture or society was further affected by the inability of the slave population to effectively reproduce itself. This was due in part to the fact that the number of slave men outnumbered the number of slave women by four to one. [iii] Low fertility and high mortality rates of the slaves themselves were also certainly contributing factors. The lack of generational continuity thus made it increasingly difficult to develop a sense of community. In other slave societies religious organisations or institutions played a vital role in creating a sense of shared community amongst slaves. In the Cape however, up until Islam became prominent in the late eighteenth century, there were no signs of religious organisations amongst the slaves. While some slaves had been baptised into the Reformed Church this was never accompanied by any sense of religious community. It was only much later in the early nineteenth Century, with the arrival of missionaries, that slaves were able to contribute to the life of the church and its community.

Another feature which was unique to slavery in the Cape Colony was the relatively small size of slaveholding units.  In 1773 there was a total of 9 902 privately owned slaves in the Colony who belonged to a total of 473 slave-owners. [iv] This amounts to an average of 20.9 slaves per owner. The distribution, as can be expected, was however highly skewed. Only 18.6 percent of slave-owners had more than 20 slaves at one time. In the agricultural districts of Stellenbosch and the Cape, these slave workforces were often further scattered across several farms. While we can see an increase in the size of slave-holdings toward the end of the eighteenth century, it cannot be compared to elsewhere in the world where industry and agriculture brought in soaring numbers of slaves at a time – as was the case with the introduction of sugar in Cuba. Not only were slaveholding units small in size, but they were often completely isolated, especially those working on farms in the hinterlands of the Colony. Slaves working in the Cape were thus unable to form ‘slave villages’ much like the ones which existed on the plantations of the New World.  The organic creation of a slave-community or class culture was thus further impeded as ‘the farms were too scattered, the number of slaves on any one farm too small, the control of the masters too pervasive.’ [v]

There was however a stark contrast between the lived experiences of slaves working in Cape Town itself and those living further out in the countryside. Those slaves living and working on the farms of the hinterlands arguably had a much poorer quality of life. These slaves made up two thirds of the slave population, with only the minority living in Cape Town itself. The rural economy in the Cape Colony revolved around two main crops - grapes and wheat- with the keeping of cattle and sheep on the side. Each year, the slaves were involved in the cutting and pressing of the grapes:

“Every grape cutter at the vintage has a small basket, made of thin split Spanish reed standing next to him which when full, is carried to the pressing house. . . . A 'balie' or barrel . . .which is pierced at the bottom and along the sides with holes made with an half-inch drill, stands on a trestle in a second larger barrel, without holes except for a bung hole, through which the must that is trodden out, passes into a pail or barrel placed beneath it. A slave stands in the perforated barrel, holds on to a short piece of rope stretched above him and treads the grapes with which it is filled with bare feet.” [vi]

The pressing of grapes was just one of many of the heavy labour demands placed on slaves working on the farms of the Cape, more often than not carried out during the hottest times of the year. [vii] As is commonplace in most slave societies in the world, both the living and working conditions of rural slaves in the countryside were much more arduous and constrained than those in the town. Rural slaves were expected to work extremely long hours, often beginning well before dawn and only retiring after sunset. It is also often suggested that due to the isolation of these farms from the Colonial authorities at the Cape, slave-owners were able to more readily get away with the mistreatment of their slaves. [viii]

Slave-holdings in the city itself however were larger in size, less isolated and thus more fertile to the eventual creation of a unique slave culture and identity, albeit only in the waning years of slavery at the Cape. Cape Town was a mercantile community, the centre of the colony’s administration and a bustling hub of activity and trading. Slaves in the Cape thus were able to have a wide variety of occupations outside of their usual household chores. Many were artisans; the likes of butchers, bakers, masons, carpenters and potters. There was however a distinction between unskilled and skilled domestic slaves. Some were even sent to town by their masters to sell produce with the strict order to bring back as much money as possible, failing which they’d often be beaten.

A Dutch sea captain gave the following account of the typical life of household slaves in the Cape:

“I would reckon that a white servant in Europe does twice, or even three times more work than these 'slaves'; but I would also be certain that, in a house where everything is well ordered, four or at most six slaves can easily do work. However, I believe that, except for the least substantial burghers, there are many houses, large and small, where ten or twelve are to be found. As they divide tasks, they are necessary. One or two have to go out each day to fetch wood, which takes all day. If the mistress leaves the house, there must be two for the sedan chair. The slave who is cook has an assistant in the kitchen. One does the dirtiest work every day . . . and two are house slaves. Many Cape women do not gladly sleep without a maid in the room, and thus one is kept for this and, better clothed than the others, also has the job of lady's maid and carries the Psalm Book behind on visits to church. If there are children, each has a maid, although sometimes two daughters share. Small children need one to themselves. This is without one who washes and makes the beds, a seamstress and a knitter, as three or four are always kept busy that way, and I still have none for the stable.” [ix]

The proximity between slave-holdings in Cape Town allowed for closer contact between slaves of differing masters which ultimately assisted in creating the environment necessary for the beginnings of a slave culture and community to emerge. It was however only with the introduction of Islam that this unique culture was solidified. Islam was introduced to the Cape by the Indian, and few Indonesian, slaves who had originated from regions of Moslem control. The arrival of distinguished Islamic teachers in the form of political exiles from Batavia also strengthened the presence and popularity of Islam amongst the urban slaves of Cape Town– this was however most notable only toward the end of the eighteenth century. The most prominent of the political exiles was Sheikh Yusuf who has since been deemed the founder of the Muslim faith in South Africa. Sheikh Yusuf arrived in the Cape in 1693 and was banished to the farm Zandvliet, at the mouth of the Eerste River (approximately 35 kilometres from Cape Town). [x] Despite his isolation, Sheikh Yusuf built up a network of contacts and his farm became ‘a rallying point for fugitive slaves and other orientals’. [xi] His memorial can be found today at Macassar, which states that: ‘He, his family and 49 followers were the first to read the Holy Koran in South Africa.’

A certificate of slavery for an infant, dated 1827. Image source

While the emergence of the unique Cape Malay community amongst the urban slaves of Cape Town is irrefutable, it is the exception rather than the rule. The majority of slaves in the Cape Colony as a whole were rural slaves, scattered amongst the isolated farms of the countryside. The failure of unification amongst the slaves ultimately affected their ability to successfully plan and execute a large scale-rebellion, as can be seen in the New World. Attempts at rebellion and resistance were more often than not fragmented in nature and effectively crushed and punished by the Colonial powers at hand. The slave rebellion led by Louis van Mauritius on the 27 October 1808 is one of several examples of this. The group of over 300 mutinous slaves marched through the rural districts, gathering even more support from willing slaves and Khoikhoi labourers along the way. It wasn’t long however before the Governor of the Cape, the Earl of Caledon, ordered Infantry and Cavalry to meet the group of resisters just outside of present-day Salt River. The troops captured 326 of the marchers, 47 were put on trial, 11 sentenced to death for ‘active participation, while the 9 leaders of the insurrection were publicly hung.

Although widespread slave resistance at the Cape was both uncommon and unsuccessful this does not mean that the Cape slaves acquiesced in their slavery. Instead they expressed their discontent in many other ways, the most popular of which was through desertion. Slaves were left with little other option but to fight as individuals with no possibility of a culture of resistance which could encompass them all. It was thus the very diversity of the slaves’ ethnic origins and the piecemeal nature of the Cape slave trade which caused processes of community-building and acculturation to become stunted. The majority of Cape slaves were thus unable to create any communality to transcend the individualisation of their enslavement and ultimately strengthen their ability to effectively resist.


[i]Worden, Nigel. Slavery in Dutch South Africa. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985)

[ii] Mountain, Alan. An Unsung Heritage: Perspectives on Slavery. (Cape Town: David Philip Publishers, 2004.)

[iii] Ross, Robert. Cape of Torments. (London: Routledge, 1993).

[iv] Ibid, pg. 24.

[v] Ibid, pg 5.

[vi] O.F. Mentzel, A Geographical and Topographical Description of the Cape of Good Hope, edited by H.J.   Mandelbrote, translated by G.V. Marais and J. Hoge, Volume 3 (Cape Town, 1921-1944), pg .183.

[vii] Worden, Nigel. ‘Slavery at the Cape’ in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History, (USA: Oxford University Press, 2016.)

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] C. de Jong, 'Reizen naar de Kaap de Goede Hoop . . . 1791-1797', 3 vols

(Haarlem, 1802-3), pg. 143-4.

[x] Mountain, Alan. An Unsung Heritage: Perspectives on Slavery. (Cape Town: David Philip Publishers, 2004.)

[xi] Shell, Robert. ‘The Establishment and Spread of Islam at the Cape from the Beginning of Company Rule to 1838’. Honours Dissertation. (Cape Town: University of Cape Town, 1974) pg. 195.

Last updated : 29-Nov-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 28-Nov-2017