Slavery in South Africa


Slave ‘sale’ in Africa in 1829 is advertised on the same poster as the sale of rice, books, muslins. Source:

The Atlantic Slave Trade used different routes to the Cape Slave Trade.

Slavery affected the economy of the Cape, as well as the lives of almost everyone living there. Its influence also lasted long after the abolition of slavery in 1838.

In South Africa under Dutch settlement, there was a shortage of labour, especially on the wheat and wine farms. But the VOC did not want to spend its money on the expensive wages that European labourers demanded. Nor could the VOC use the Khoi people as slaves. The Khoi traded with the Dutch, providing cattle for fresh meat.

The Khoi also resisted any attempts to make them change their pastoralist way of life.

The Dutch were already involved in the Atlantic slave trade and had experience in buying and controlling slaves. They thus imported slaves as the cheapest labour option. Slaves were imported from a variety of places, including the east coast of Africa (Mozambique and Madagascar), but the majority came from East Africa and Asia, especially the Indonesian Islands, which were controlled by the Dutch at the time. This explains, for instance, why there is a relatively large number of people of Malaysian descent in the Cape (the so-called Cape Malays).

Initially, all slaves were owned by the VOC, but later farmers themselves could own slaves too. Slaves were used in every sector of the economy. Some of the functions of the slaves included working in the warehouses, workshops and stores of the VOC, as well as in the hospital, in administration, and on farms or as domestic servants in private homes. Some slaves were craftsmen, bringing skills from their home countries to the Cape, while others  were fishermen, hawkers and even auxiliary police. The economy of the Cape depended heavily on slave labour.

The lives of the slaves were harsh, as they worked very long hours under poor conditions. They were often not given enough healthy food and lived in overcrowded and dirty conditions. Slaves had no freedom at all ”” they were locked up at night, and had to have a pass to leave their place of employment. As they were regarded as possessions, they were unable to marry, and if they had children, the children belonged to the slave’s owner and were also slaves. They also had little chance of education. Women slaves were at risk of being raped by their masters and other slaves.

A traveller, Otto Mentzel, observed that:

"It is not an easy matter to keep the slaves under proper order and control. The condition of slavery has soured their tempers. Most slaves are a sulky, savage and disagreeable crowd
... It would be dangerous to give them the slightest latitude; a tight hold must always be kept on the reins; the taskmaster’s lash is the main stimulus for getting any work out of them." - Source: Mentzel, A Geographical and Topographical Description of the Cape of Good Hope,
Cape Town, 1921

While there were many laws inhibiting the lives and movements of slaves, there were also rules to protect them, for example, female slaves could not be beaten. In theory, slave owners would be punished for treating their slaves badly - for example, if they went so far as to beat them to death - but the laws were often ignored.

The abolition of slavery in South Africa

The Abolition of Slavery Act ended slavery in the Cape officially in 1834. The more than
35 000 slaves that had been imported into South Africa from India, Ceylon, Malaysia and elsewhere were officially freed, although they were still bonded to their old masters for four years through a feudal system of "apprenticeship". For many years wages rose only slightly above the former cost of slave subsistence.

Roster of Arrivals/Indentured Labourers in South Africa who were indentified by their numbers only. Picture source: book titled 'From Cane Fields to Freedom'.

The abolition of slavery and the emancipation of slaves caused a lot of resentment and opposition from the Cape colonials towards the anti-slavery lobby, as embodied in the London Missionary Society that had put pressure on the British government to take this decision. Even before emancipation, the publicised cases of missionary intervention on behalf of mistreated black workers on farms, sometimes even winning convictions against farmers, made them enemies of the largely Afrikaner farming community in the Cape. Reverends John Philip, Johannes van der Kemp and John Read were the most hated missionaries because of their fight for the rights of oppressed black Cape residents.

In fact, one of the reasons for the Great Trek, which would lead to the migration of many white, Dutch-speaking farmers away from the Cape after 1833, was the abolition of slavery by the British government. The farmers complained that they could not replace the labour of their slaves without losing a great deal of money. Importantly, the abolition of slavery did not change the colonial–feudal "slave–master" relations between black and white. Instead, these slave–master relations imprinted themselves on South Africa’s political, social and economic structures for years to come. Black people were "enslaved" by the oppressive laws of industrialisation, pass regulations, and labour ordinances such as the Masters and Servants Act of 1841, which made it a criminal offence for a worker to break a labour contract. It was only after 1994, and the dawning of democracy in South Africa, that all South Africans were truly emancipated from slavery.

Example of slave-master relations that continued after the 'abolition of slavery': Indentured Labourers.
In Natal following the successful introduction of sugar cane farming in 1855, farmers asked the government to introduce indentured Indian labourers to work on plantations. Indian people were identified as suitable for the work because the British and French had success using them in sugar plantations in Mauritius and Madagascar. Natal was still a British Colony at the time and an office called the Protector of Immigrants was set up, it was a transformation of the Slave Protector's office that existed during years of slavery in the Cape. The functions of the Slave Protector were similar those of the office created to protect indentured labourers. The people coming from India, over whom this contract was established, were not consulted and provisions were not made to ensure their full understanding of the laws and conditions of employment. Instead, they were requested to swear an oath of allegiance to their unknown future employer. Once in Natal they were divided among sugar planters like slaves in an auction. E S Reddy, a well-known Indian scholar has compared indentured labour with slavery (see image above of indentured labourers).

Last updated : 14-Nov-2011

This article was produced by South African History Online on 14-Nov-2011

Support South African History Online

Donate and Make African History Matter

South African History Online is a non profit organisation. We depend on public support to build our website into the most comprehensive educational resource and encyclopaedia on African history.

Your support will help us to build and maintain partnerships with educational institutions in order to strengthen teaching, research and free access to our content.