African Slave Trade

Runaway slaves form colonies

Runaways sometimes formed their own ‘colonies’ — two, which lasted the longest, were high on Simonsberg above Stellenbosch and at Cape Hangklip on the eastern rim of False Bay.

The ‘colonies’ grew gradually from a group of people who, intent on escaping, equipped themselves with plundered firearms or implements and stole a few cattle or sheep. Secure on the remote mountaintops, they grew crops and grazed their flocks and herds.

Eventually, a commando arrived on the scene, which brought an end to the settlements. Those who survived the onslaught were severely punished for running away.

The first slaves at the Cape came mainly from West Africa — particularly Guinea and Angola. Later, expeditions were dispatched to bring slaves from Mozambique and Madagascar. The most highly prized, however, were those from the East — such as present-day Java, Bali, Timor, the Malayan Peninsula and China. Slaves were also imported from India, particularly Coromandel, Malabar and Nagapatam.

Most slaves carried names given by slave-dealers or their owners. Slaves owned by the Company often retained versions of their real names, usually with spelling errors made  by the Company’s clerks, such as Sao Balla, Revotes Kehang Orlndebet Chemehaijre. Privately owned slaves were generally called Anthony, Jan, Pieter, Anna or Catrijn. They also received classical and biblical names, such as Titus or Rachel. Others were named after the months of the year, especially April, September and October. Their ‘surname usually referred to their place of origin, as in Paulus van Malabar (Paul of Malabar) or Lisbeth van Bengalen (Lisbeth of Bengal), while those born at the Cape were known as ‘Van de Kaap’ (of the Cape).

It is difficult to assess precisely what the effects of slavery were on slaves themselves. Fear and insecurity, at the very least, were their lot. But of their lives and feelings — and those of successive generations — we know little, just incidental information gleaned from an examination of the records of the Council of Justice.

By 1659 Van Riebeeck possessed a total of 18 slaves, two of whom came from Guinea, one from Madagascar, three from Bengal, and the remainder from Angola, Van Riebeeck’s personal preference. He was particularly prejudiced against slaves from Guinea and Madagascar, believing them to be ‘unreliable’ and likely to desert.

Slave trade with the West African coast did not last long, however: another private Dutch empire, the West India Company, had sole rights to trade — including slave trade — as far south as Angola and did not hesitate to remind its rival, the East India Company, of the fact. (For a brief spell, the West India Company actually laid claim to the Cape settlement.) So Van Riebeeck and his successors were obliged to look to the East, and many slaves were dispatched from the coast of India, from such places as Coromandel, Malabar and Nagapatam.

With extensive interests in the East Indian islands, and a trade centered on Batavia (Java), the Dutch rounded up slaves from Bali, Batavia itself, Macassar, Timor and, on the mainland, from Burma, the Malayan Peninsula and China. Ships’ officers returning from the East often invested in a few slaves which they resold at a profit at the Cape. Slavers bound for North or South America and the West Indies were also induced to part with a portion of their cargo at the Cape.


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