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A brief history of South Africa

Slavery at the
Early Cape

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The establishment of a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 naturally resulted in a need for labour. Although cattle-less Khoikhoi theoretically provided a viable indigenous labouring class, it was quickly discovered that they had little desire to work other than in odd jobs and as herders, and Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) regulations forbade their enslavement.

It would take several decades before economic circumstances brought about the necessary change to the Khoikhoi way of life which would make them more amenable to heavy labour. Slavery was therefore seen as the only viable option.


The slaves at the Cape came mostly from Madagascar, East Africa and Malaya. Indeed, all European slaves were members of the darker races, not necessarily because there was a sense of racism but simply because it was illegal to enslave Christians.

If one considers how the British butchered the Irish in the 16th century, it is easy to believe that they might also have enslaved them had it not been illegal to do so. It was also the accepted practice that one could not enslave a free people which thereby prevented Governor van Riebeeck from pursuing his plan to enslave the Khoikhoi.

There were also some practical deterrents against turning the indigenous population into slaves. The authoritarian system of slavery, and its consequent brutality, meant that many slaves would seek to escape whenever possible.

If they were enslaved in their own country, they would know the terrain, would easily be able to disappear into the bush and, more importantly, would be able to seek protection amongst fellow tribesmen. Furthermore, enslavement would cause widespread anger amongst the indigenous population, and would lead to warfare.

It was important therefore to import slaves so that they would serve in a foreign country, among foreign peoples and not knowing many of the other slaves. This principle caused insecurity and gave the slaves nowhere to run.


No Christian could be made a slave but what of those slaves who were converted to Christianity? At the Cape the question of converted slaves was theoretically clear because the Dutch Reformed Church pronounced that converts could not be held in bondage.

Indeed, in 1681 the Church Council of Batavia advised the Cape government that slave-masters who baptised their slaves were then responsible for setting them free. Nevertheless, that did not happen despite a reasonably high number of conversions in the early years of the Colony.

Because of the chronic shortage of women at the Cape, many of the Dutch men resorted to having sex with slave women, and many slaves were hired as prostitutes, especially from the Company. The result was a high incidence of children who had slave mothers but Dutch fathers.

The government tried to regulate the treatment of these half-castes but the instructions were only applied to the Company slaves and even then rather loosely.

On the other hand, the Company feared that freed slaves could become a liability on the government and therefore made it a condition that they could only be liberated if the burghers were prepared to provide them with financial support for a period of ten years.

There is nevertheless considerable evidence to show that emancipation of Christian slaves was expected at the Cape, with the result that the slave-masters encouraged conversion to Islam rather than Christianity, hence the extremely high frequency of Moslems in the Western Cape today.


There is no doubt that slavery was horrendous. Not only was the slave forcibly removed from his/her family/clan but the forced hardship and labour did immense physical and psychological harm to the person.

It does seem that the position was far worse in America where there were practically no laws to hinder the slave-master who could, and often did, beat his slaves to death and where the slave was never allowed to testify against a White in court.

The Cape had a more gentle regime because slaves did have access to the courts and their word could count against a brutal slave-master, especially if the latter had an established reputation of brutality. Nevertheless, punishment for offenses was often cruel.

The physical hardship of slavery was probably greater in the earlier days than the later. While slaves were easy to come by, it mattered little whether they were brutally treated, or whether they died. Later, as more strict laws were enforced to control slavery, slaves became more expensive and were therefore regarded as an economic investment.

This evolution was to the advantage of the slaves because, by the 19th century, they tended to be relieved of the more burdensome work. This was then left to hired labour which could be replaced if damaged.

Some slaves were given easy household work and some ended as the mistress or even wife of the slave-master. In the towns, such as Cape Town, the slaves were often trusted to run errands or act as merchants.

For the most part, however, the slave was condemned to a life of heavy labour with great punishment from vindictive owners. The slave was, after all, not regarded as a person but as the property of the slave-master.

Yet there were few slave revolts in the Cape, possibly because the ratio of slave to slave-master was relatively low which meant a much closer relationship between the two and also greater supervision.

It was nevertheless noticeable that Cape farmers always seemed to be afraid that they would be murdered by their slaves.

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