Slave Uprising

Slave societies live in fear:

Slavery - the imposition of enforced servitude by a powerful group on another group — inevitably breeds fear in both groups, and resentment in the oppressed. Van Riebeeck recognized this, and more than once alerted the free burghers to the risk of being murdered by their slaves. Yet during his period as Commander, he abolished the use of chains (except for escaped slaves) and allowed slaves to be armed with clubs and pikes during the war with the Khoi­khoi. Slaves, however, were not allowed to carry firearms and, if they did so with the knowledge of the owner, the owner was severely fined and had his slave confiscated by the Company.

That there was no large-scale slave uprising is not an indication that slaves were content with their lot, but rather it pointed to their fragmented status as a community. The greatest concentration of slaves was in Cape Town, of which the largest group was owned by the Company and housed in the Company’s slave lodge at the foot of the Gardens. Also in Cape Town was the largest concentration of soldiers, so an uprising was out of the question. On farms, the slaves were too few in number and too accustomed to ill treatment to even think about staging a revolt against their masters.

One attempt at an uprising took place on a farm in Stellenbosch in 1690. Four slaves attacked a farmhouse, killed one burgher, wounded another and fled with stolen firearms. Burghers, soldiers and Khoikhoi auxiliaries were dispatched in pursuit and, in a gun-fight, three of the slaves were killed and the fourth wounded and taken prisoner. Interrogated, the prisoner said it had been their intention to murder a number of farmers and set fire to their fields, hoping this would attract other slaves to their side. Then they planned to seize some white women and make their way to Madagascar. But after their first attack they had panicked and taken to the hills.

Among the slave population, men outnumbered women by four to one. The lack of any form of ‘family life’ contributed to the fragmentary nature of the slave society. It also led to homosexuality, which was a capital offence in the Cape but was condoned by many owners as it gave them addition control over slaves who practiced it. Rivalry and jealousy frequently led to fights, and most slaves lived in an atmosphere of continuous tension.

There was also tension among the whites, which constantly feared a mass rebellion and death at the hands of a slave. There was always the fear that slaves who had run away might return to rob or kill, and so large rewards were offered for their recapture. Public warnings of an escaped slave included the tolling of bells and flying a large blue flag at the Castle and other signal-posts.

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