Colonial history of Cape Town

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Slavery and Emancipation of Slaves

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After the establishment of a refreshment station at the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck was to ensure a constant supply of fresh fruits, vegetables and meat for VOC ships. When the company allocated land to company employees in 1652 and 1657 with various incentives, they were not provided with labour. 

The Transatlantic slave trade, an artist's depiction of life on board a slave ship. Source: Unknown.

The Dutch initially did not have a sufficient labour force to grow enough fresh food supplies to meet the needs of their ships. It soon became apparent that if the free burghers were to be successful agricultural producers, they would need access to substantial labour. There were three possible sources of labour, the local Khoikhoi pastoralists, Dutch immigrants or people from passing ships, and the importation of slave labour.

Van Riebeeck was instructed by the VOC not to set up a colony or imprison the local population for use as labour. Furthermore the Khoikhoi were not willing to become labourers for free burgers.

The VOC was already familiar with the practice of using slave labour in the East Indies. In 1653, Abraham van Batavia, the first slave at the Cape arrived aboard a ship named the Malacca. The following year a slave voyage was undertaken from the Cape via Mauritius to Madagascar to purchase slaves. In 1658 two major shiploads of slaves arrived at the Cape, the first shipload arrived in March on board the Amersfort, marking the beginning of the Cape slave trade.

A total of 170 slaves survived the treacherous sea journey from an initial number of 250. These slaves were captured by the Portuguese from the area around Angola and destined for Brazil before the Dutch captured the ship and brought it to the Cape. The second shipload of slaves arrived in May with 228 from the Coast of Guinea aboard the Hassalt. Thus, by 1658 over half of the population at the settlement was slaves. Slavery formed the backbone of labour force at the Table Bay settlement. For instance, Van Riebeeck had eight female and three male slaves.

The Dutch began to use the Cape as place for banishing people that they considered ‘troublesome’ from East Indies. Others were imprisoned and shipped to the Cape as slaves. Several leaders such as Sheik Madura, who opposed Dutch colonialism and expansionism in the East Indies was banished to Robben Island at the Cape. Tuan Guru, a prince from Tidore in the Ternate Islands, was also sent to the imprisoned on Robben Island from where he wrote a book on Islamic jurisprudence. (Deacon, 1996, p.30-32). It was both slaves and royalty from East Indies that introduced Islam at the Cape.

The importation of slaves continued in the Cape until a temporary ban of the importation of male slaves from Asia was introduced in 1767 and 1787. Slave trade was then opened to free enterprise in 1791. This reopening of the slave trade by the Dutch was disrupted by the first British occupation of the Cape in 1795. The first occupation ended in March 1803 when the colony was handed back to Dutch under the Treaty of Amiens and British forces left the Cape. That same year war between Britain and France broke again in Europe, Napoleon tried to stop British trade with Europe. Fearing loss of trade with East, Britain occupied the Cape for the second time permanently in 1806.

In 1807 the British government passed the Abolition of Slave Act abolishing slave trade in the British Empire. In the Cape, Amelioration laws that were aimed at improving the welfare of slaves in the Cape were introduced. A slave guardian appointed by the British government was appointed to enforce these laws.

As a result, the lives of some slaves improved somewhat after 1807. Slavery continued to exist within the Cape until 1834 when the Slavery Abolition Bill passed in 1833 was enforced. The emancipated slaves became ‘apprentices’ to their previous masters for four years until 1838 when the British administration ended slave apprenticeship.

Last updated : 13-Apr-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Jun-2011