Jan Smiesing

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The VOC Slave Lodge Source: Prof Robert Shell, From Diaspora to Diorama, (Cape Town: Ancestry 24, 2003) p.1968.


Enslaved person, school master and healer at the Slave Lodge in Cape Town.

First name: 
Last name: 
Date of birth: 
Location of birth: 
Cape Town, South africa
Date of death: 
Location of death: 
Cape Town, South africa

This article was written by Joline Young for SAHO

The school

Outside of the Slave Lodge, under a tree in Spin Street, enslaved people were auctioned for sale. [i] Inside the Slave Lodge, the world outside disappeared both socially and physically, in a building from which those inside could not see out and those outside could not see in. In his thesis ‘Drawing Blood: writing architecture at the old Slave Lodge’, Michael Lewis poignantly quotes Bernard Tschumi who said ‘architecture is defined by the actions it witnesses as much as by the enclosure of its walls’. [ii]

With the arrival of the first large group of enslaved persons in ‘late March 1658’[iii] , a Slave Lodge school was established at the Cape by Jan van Riebeeck, commandant at the Cape.[iv] These were 174 Angolan children who were landed at the Cape on the Ameersvoort.[v] They were on a Portuguese slave ship bound for Brazil along with their parents when the Ameersvoort intercepted this ship and took 250 children off the ship. As a result they were separated from their parents who were take to Brazil and by the time the Ameersvoort landed at the Cape only 174 of these no doubt traumatised children had survived the journey.[vi]

While most of them did not survive because of Jan van Riebeeck’s ill-advised decision to give them a glass of brandy every day ‘to animate their lessons’.[vii] However, in 1677 about 77 enslaved Madagascan children were landed at the Cape from the slave ship Voorhout. A further group of Madagascan children landed at the Cape on the Eemlandt, the Voorhout and the Jambij, all of whom were enslaved at the VOC Slave Lodge. Three were described as being ‘babes-in-arms’.[viii]

The Slave Lodge, which constituted the ‘largest single slave holding from 1658 to 1795’[ix] evolved over time. Initially a wood and thatch building that housed a few hundred enslaved people from Angola, the Slave Lodge was rebuilt several times. By 1669 when the building had fallen into disrepair a second Slave Lodge was built, constituting a single-storied brick building with a ‘pitched, tiled roof and ceilinged rooms’.[x] In 1679 this building was destroyed by fire following a case of arson, after which a quadrangular building was erected combining both the old and new buildings. This flat-roofed structure was enlarged in 1716 when a ‘curved portico and classical impediments were added’.[xi] In 1732 the building was expanded again and by 1753 the building was broadened and lengthened.

Into this dark windowless building the Dutch introduced racially-based social stratification, segregating enslaved people at the Slave Lodge in terms of ‘age, racial descent, sex, origin, respectability and health’.[xii] This resulted in racial pairing of enslaved couples at the Slave Lodge, which did not experience the gender imbalance that occurred in private slaveholdings.[xiii]

Although the Lodge housed enslaved people from Madagascar, South East Asia, South Asia and East Africa as well as mixed race people born at the Cape, the least social value was accorded to the East African enslaved people who were housed separately in the damp cellars of the building.[xiv]

Enslaved people of half European parentage were accorded the highest social value within this socially constructed hierarchy. They were more likely to be availed opportunities to become schoolteachers at the Slave Lodge school or to learn trades.

Certainly the VOC Slave Lodge offered opportunities for education that were denied privately-owned enslaved people at the Cape. However, foremost in the minds of their patrons was that this education would further the ends of the VOC. Within this environment the minds of young enslaved children were being trained in the rudiments of literacy and ‘arithmetic’, while at the same time being formed into a mould of subservience and deference for the dominating group who happened to be European. Enslaved schoolchildren at the Lodge were also housed separately and segregated by their gender and age. They slept next to the schoolroom and were overseen by the Matron of the Lodge.[xv] It is within this backdrop that our character Jan Smiesing, teacher at the Lodge, enters our story.

 Jan Smiesing - the schoolmaster

Born at the Lodge in 1697, Jan Smiesing was the son of Manda Gratia, an enslaved woman and House Mother[xvi] at the Lodge and Johannes Smiesing Senior, a senior Dutch employee of the VOC. Smiesing’s father spent exactly six years at the Cape, between 15 October, 1694 and 28 May, 1700. In that time his dual work roles as ‘teacher’ and ‘third surgeon’ would have necessitated occasional visits to the Slave Lodge, where he met Manda Gratia.[xvii] By the time Jan Smiesing was three years old his father had left the Cape for Ceylon, his ‘slave’ progeny from a Lodge slave-woman left behind in the dark windowless building that was the Slave Lodge. Manda Gratia would thus be the only parent Smiesing would know and his formative years were confined to and defined by the Slave Lodge. However, he would not be without siblings. Manda Gratia had four children in total, all by European men. Smiesing was the eldest of his three siblings who were, Frans (van Leeuwen) baptised on 23 March 1701, Pieter Cornelis (van Leeuwen) baptised on 26 September 1706 and Margaretha Gertruy baptised on 18 February 1714.[xviii]

As a child at the Lodge school Smiesing was taught the importance of ‘Christian values and manners’, which included unquestioned respect for authority.[xix] In addition diligence with school work and knowledge of the catechism was instilled early and neglect of either would be ‘punished without hesitation’.[xx]

However, bright students like himself received acknowledgement for their achievements on Christmas Day when enslaved children at the Lodge were rewarded, the younger students receiving koekies and the older children receiving pens.[xxi] During the year there was also the large playground to play in, which would have offered much relief from the oppressive dusky interior of the Lodge. [xxii]

In August 1714, at the age of seventeen Smiesing was listed as a teacher of the Boys School at the Lodge.[xxiii] Through this appointment his lifestyle would have improved considerably, receiving as he did the gift of privacy in the form of his own room. Within the context of slavery and within the confines of the Slave Lodge, this was a huge a perk and one reserved solely for Lodge teachers.[xxiv]  Significantly, as a schoolteacher, Smiessing was entitled to ‘a modest monthly payment, free food, and clothes’. [xxv]

Though he would not know his father Smiesing’s career path, albeit for many years as a slave, would mirror his father’s, as both teacher and healer. Robert Shell and Archie Dick made significant mention of the Tamil (a people and language from Tamil Nadu, in the southern part of India) [xxvi] cures in Smiesing’s notebook, which offered cures for a variety of ailments, including venereal disease. The latter is significant, given that enslaved females were forced into prostitution at the Slave Lodge, which served as a brothel every night between 8.00 and 9.00pm.[xxvii] From the point of view of Smiesing, if he could not stop the inappropriate sexualisation of enslaved women, he certainly sought to be part of the cure for some of the consequences thereof.

Generally, the only contact the Lodge slaves had with Europeans within the Lodge were those who were  lunatics and  criminals as well as the Company hangman, all of whom were housed within the Lodge. In addition to this there were of course the European men who availed themselves to the Lodge Brothel at night.

It was this segregated world that Smiesing recorded in his diary, giving the reader insights into life at the Slave Lodge in 18th century Cape Town.[xxviii] This was the world where he met his future wife, Anna van Dapoer[xxix] who was born at the Slave Lodge.[xxx]

However, his notebook which begins in 1717 and ends in 1732[xxxi] reveals that he himself was not disconnected from the world outside his view, recording as he does the arrival of Pieter Gijsbert Noordt, who took up the position of Governor of the Cape on 13 February 1727. Smiesing also records the birth of his son Frans on 18 April of that same year. [xxxii]

Significantly too, Smiesing’s notebook begins the year that his mother married Guiliam Frisnet, wealthy landowner and the father of her youngest child, Margaretha Geertruy.[xxxiii] This marriage in itself was significant because Frisnet was a member of the upper class in the Netherlands and thus a man of significant standing.[xxxiv] In terms of manumission (the act of being freed from slavery), this marriage benefited only Margaretha Geertruy, who was ‘formally legitimised’, becoming Margaretha Frisnet.[xxxv] The rest of Manda Gratia’s children remained enslaved for some time thereafter, however, as a ‘slave’ Smiesing inherited 25 guilders from the estate of his maternal grandmother, Armosijn Claasz in 1728.[xxxvi]

Historians have expressed with surprise the disjuncture between the Lodge census identification of Smiesing as a ‘slave’ and Smiesing’s self-identification as a ‘VOC reading and writing school master’.[xxxvii] However, this should be viewed against the possibility that history was read from the outside and that the subjects viewed themselves differently from the inside. I argue further that the view from outside was an imposed view and not a true reflection of enslaved people as individual people with distinct personalities, varying intellects and characteristics. In their study of Smiesing, Shell and Dick allude to this, stating:

The evidence of literacy and love of books and hand writing – in different languages and scripts – are profound indications that we have under-estimated the intellectual life within the lodge.[xxxviii]

Certainly Smiesing came from a long line of intellectuals who were enslaved at the Lodge. His great-uncle Class Cornelisz had been a teacher, his grandmother Armozijn a Lodge matron, his mother Manda Gratia a schoolmistress and Lodge matron. Smiesing himself would follow this path as a Lodge teacher at the age of 17. It would be safe to say that this family achieved the highest achievement possible for enslaved people at the Slave Lodge.[xxxix]

However, the notebook also indicates a break with his past in that with the commencement of the notebook he identifies himself as his father’s son, Jan Smiesing, rather than the conventional VOC imposed slave identification of the time, in his case ‘Jan van Manda’.[xl]

Certainly as mentioned previously, social stratification among the enslaved at the Lodge where enslaved children of European fathers were placed at the top of the hierarchy and Mozambican  people placed at the bottom, would have benefited Smiesing. To this end Smiesing seems to have benefited from what historian Susan Newton-King refers to as ‘vertical ties’[xli] where favoured enslaved people connected to high power VOC[xlii] officials received special treatment. In this racialized society, his ‘halfslag’ (half European) status would have entitled him to certain privileges and in terms of visiting VOC Commissioner van Rheede’s policy in 1685, ought to have seen him a free man by the age of 25. However, van Rheede’s policies did not see the light of day[xliii] and it was Smiesings half-brother who would ultimately rescue him from slavery, although sadly from the grave.

Two years after their mother’s death Smiesing’s brother Frans van Leeuwen entered the VOC military as a free man and VOC soldier, only to die on voyage to Batavia in 1721. That he left an estate of ƒ 1,070 to his siblings in equal shares suggests close-knit relationship between themselves, isolated as they were during their formative years at the Lodge. A delay of five years ensued before payment was effected, largely because two of the heirs were enslaved people. By 1726 Smiesing received his inheritance.[xliv]

On 8 November 1731, at the age of 34, Jan Smiesing ‘Company slave’ and ‘schoolmaster’[xlv] was manumitted (freed from slavery). He would marry his wife Anna van Dapoer a month later, on 30 December 1731.[xlvi] Though the couple had four children born prior to their marriage, of whom two died young, the marriage itself was short-lived.[xlvii]

Smiesing was to enjoy few years as a ‘free person’ as he died just three years later in 1734.[xlviii] Though his life was shaped by slavery and largely limited to the confines of the Slave Lodge, his inventory listing of a bookstand of books suggests his intellectual desire to overcome these limits through the knowledge of books. Ironically at the time of his death, Smiesing was also listed as owning two ‘slaves’.

The life of Jan Smiesing, the original groundbreaking research of whom was so eloquently portrayed by the late Robert Shell and Archie Dick[xlix] should not only be viewed from the vantage point of the enslavement of one man. Smiesing’s life also offers an illuminating view into the social, intellectual and psychological shaping of enslaved people within this particular architectural space at the Cape, the multi-layered experiences of slavery and the ramifications thereof for subsequent generations.


[i] Cape Times, 'Our shameful and still fettered past, 4 December 2006.

[ii] Michael Lewis, Drawing Blood : Writing architecture at the Old Slave Lodge, (UCT: MA thesis, undated) p. 31.

[iii] Robert C-H Shell, Children of Bondage, a social history of the slave society at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652 to 1658 (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994)p.78.

[iv] Archie L. Dick, The hidden history of South Africa’s book and reading cultures, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012) p. 18.

[v] Shell, Children of Bondage, p.78.

[vi] Ibid, p.78.

[vii] Ibid, p.79.

[viii] Ibid, p.79.

[ix] Ibid, p. 248.

[x] Ibid, p. 249.

[xi] Ibid, p.249

[xii] Ibid, p. 250.

[xiii] Ibid, p.202.

[xiv] Ibid, p. 250.

[xv] Shell, Children of Bondage, p. 250.

[xvi] Robert Shell and Archie Dick, ‘Jan Smiesing, Slave Lodge schoolmaster and healer, 1697 – 1734, Nigel Worden (Ed), Cape Town Between East and West, social identities in a Dutch colonial town (Auckland Park: Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd, 2012) p.144.

[xvii] Ibid, p. 143.

[xviii] Ibid, p. 143.

[xix] Ibid, p. 132.

[xx] Ibid, p. 132.

[xxi] Ibid, p. 132.

[xxii] Ibid, p. 136.

[xxiii] Ibid, p. 132.

[xxiv] Ibid, p.135-136.

[xxv] Archie L. Dick, The hidden history of South Africa’s book and reading cultures, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012) p. 18.

[xxvi] I am grateful to Jeeva Rajgopaul for this information.

[xxvii] Shell and Dick, ‘Jan Smiesing, Slave Lodge schoolmaster and healer, 1697 – 1734, p. 141.

[xxviii] Robert Shell and Archie Dick, A Keg of quills, Jan Smiesing, writing and reading master in the old slave lodge, 1697 to 1734 (Cape Town: Ancestry 24, 2007).

[xxix] Dick, The hidden history of South Africa’s book and reading cultures) p. 17.

[xxx] Shell and Dick, A Keg of quills, p.145.

[xxxi] Dick, The hidden history of South Africa’s book and reading cultures, p. 20.

[xxxii] Ibid, p. 21.

[xxxiii] Shell and Dick, ‘Jan Smiesing, Slave Lodge schoolmaster and healer, 1697 – 1734’, p.143.

[xxxiv] Ibid, p.143.

[xxxv] Ibid, p.144.

[xxxvi] Ibid, p.144.

[xxxvii] Shell and Dick, A Keg of quills, , p. 1818.

[xxxviii] Shell and Dick, A Keg of quills, , p. 1839.

[xxxix] Dick, The hidden history of South Africa’s book and reading cultures, p. 18.

[xl] Shell and Dick, ‘Jan Smiesing, Slave Lodge schoolmaster and healer, 1697 – 1734’, p. 143.

[xli] Susan Newton-King, ‘Family, friendship and survival among freed slaves’, in Nigel Worden (Ed.), Cape Town from East To West (Auckland Park: Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd, 2012) p. 157.

[xlii] Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in Dutch)

[xliii] Shell, Children of Bondage, p. 201.

[xliv] Shell and Dick, ‘Jan Smiesing, Slave Lodge schoolmaster and healer, 1697 – 1734’, p.145.

[xlv] Dick, The hidden history of South Africa’s book and reading cultures, p. 17.

[xlvi] Shell and Dick, ‘Jan Smiesing, Slave Lodge schoolmaster and healer, 1697 – 1734’, p.146.

[xlvii] Shell and Dick, ‘Jan Smiesing, Slave Lodge schoolmaster and healer, 1697 – 1734’, p.148.

[xlviii] Dick, The hidden history of South Africa’s book and reading cultures, p. 17.

[xlix] See Robert Shell and Archie Dick, ‘Jan Smiesing, Slave Lodge schoolmaster and healer, 1697 – 1734, Nigel Worden (Ed), Cape Town Between East and West, social identities in a Dutch colonial town (Auckland Park: Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd, 2012).

Last updated : 30-Nov-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 25-Nov-2016