First enslaved people arrive in Cape Town

Thursday, 28 March 1658

On 28 March 1658 the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship the Amersfoort, dropped anchor in Table Bay. In her hold she had a human cargo: 174 slaves. This was the first shipment of slaves to arrive in South Africa, and marked the beginning of almost 200 years of slave trade at the Cape.

The Amersfoort was not a slaver but a merchant vessel. She was on a journey from the Netherlands to the Cape when she came across a Portuguese slaver, heading to Brazil. The Portuguese slaver was coming from the Angolan coast, where they had picked up 500 slaves. The Amersfoort intercepted the slaver and captured half her cargo, taking 250 slaves as a bounty prize.

The journal entry from Van Riebeeck's journal for 28 March reads:

In 12 deg. S. Latitude [the Amersfoort] had captured a Portuguese slaver coming from Angola and proceeding to the Bay Tote la Sanctos [present day San Salvador, Brazil] with 500 male and female slaves on board. The Amersfoort had taken off 250 slaves and left the rest in the Portuguese ship, which was old and unserviceable. Some were falling ill and dying owing to the long duration of the voyage...

...The weakest [sailors] were brought ashore to be refreshed, and also the slaves who had been taken off the Portuguese ship on the coast of Brazil in 12 deg. S. Latitude and 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.

Van Riebeeck had long been clamouring for the need for slaves at the Cape, as he was convinced that the only way to make the settlement truly successful was through the use of cheap slave labour. A small number of slaves had already reached the Cape through various means, but Van Riebeeck wanted to establish a fully fledged slave-trade network with Madagascar. He had sent many letters to the Heeren XVII, the board of directors of the VOC, begging them to supply him with ships to start a slave-trade, but the Heeren XVII consistently refused his requests. By 1657, the Heeren XVII finally conceded to Van Riebeeck’s calls and sent him two ships to use as slavers. But before either of these two ships could arrive at the Cape, the Amersfoort had, by chance, intercepted the Portuguese slaver and brought her bounty to the settlement. The first shipment of slaves at the Cape was brought there not by design, but by a chance encounter on the open seas.

Most of the slaves brought on the Amersfoort were children. In order to occupy these children, and give them some basic Christian education, it was decided to open up a school for them. This meant that the first school ever to be opened in South Africa was, in fact, a school for slave children.

The entry from Van Riebeeck’s journal on the school, 17 April 1658, reads:

Arrangements were started for establishing a school for the Company’s male and female slaves brought here from Angola by the Amersfoort which had taken them off a prize Portuguese slaver. The sick-comforter Peter van der Stael [Jan van Riebeeck’s brother-in-law] of Rotterdam has been entrusted with the task of giving them instructions in the morning and afternoon, besides his duties of visiting the sick, particularly because he reads Dutch well and correctly. To encourage the slaves to attend and to learn the Christian prayers, it is ordered that after school everyone is to receive a small glass of brandy and two inches of tobacco. All their names are to be written down and those who have none are to be given names, paired or unpaired, young or old [...] all slaves are also being properly clothed to protect them against the daily increasing cold. The strongest have also been put to work so that they may as soon as possible be of service to the settlement.

Later in the year, on 6 May 1658, one of the slavers sent by the Heeren XVII, the Hasselt, arrived at the Cape from Guinea, bringing with it 228 slaves from Dahomey. These two first shiploads of slaves, from Angola and Dahomey, were, with the exception of a few individuals, the only West African slaves to be brought to the Cape during VOC rule, with almost all of the rest of the VOC slaves coming from Madagascar, the Indian sub-continent, or south-east Asia.

• 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.
• Van Riebeeck, Jan. (1954). H.B. Thom (ed). Journal of Jan van Riebeeck, Volume II, 1656-1658. Cape Town: A.A. Balkema.

Last updated : 24-Mar-2017

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