Slavery at the Cape

Continued - Runaway slave

Casual trade by Company officials became so rampant that, in 1713. return tickets for slaves were booked and paid for in advance. A few years later, however, this was stopped altogether, when it was discovered that private people were making enormous profits at the cost of the Company’s cargo revenue.

For a few years from 1724 a slave station was maintained at Delagoa Bay, but the high mortality rate among Company servants led to its closure. The Company turned its attention again to Mozambique and later to Zanzibar.

Coming from different continents and cultures, the slaves had little in common except their bondage. They rarely formed a strongly united group with common aims. The mortality rate was extremely high, and their numbers increased not through procreation hut due to the continued importation of slaves. Groups, and even families, were broken up and scattered at auction sales — there being no obligation on a buyer, for instance, to purchase a mother as well as her children. Although slaves formed a large part of the population of the Cape, they were never accepted as being true members of the community.

Slaves from Madagascar and the African coast were the least valuable, although when Guinea slaves were first introduced they fetched 100 rix-dollars apiece, as opposed to the 50 paid for a Malagasy. Generally they were set to the hardest work, such as collecting firewood, for which they might have to search all day in order to collect just enough for a household’s needs for the next day.

At the other extreme was the Malay, described as the ‘king of slaves’. More quickly than any other group, the Malays learnt the skills of almost all the trades practiced at the Cape. When freed, many prospered commercially. Against this, however, they were regarded as temperamental and dangerous. ‘Running amok’ was something to be feared. On one occasion an Eastern slave, in utter desperation and beyond caring, rushed through the streets, dagger in hand, slashing at everyone in sight and eventually stabbing himself to death. By Law Muslim slaves were not allowed to practice there faith.

Most valued of all slaves was a Cape-born child of a slave mother and white father. In the early years of the colony, several marriages took place between white men and slave women, due to the shortage of white women at the colony. Later, sexual intercourse between whites and slaves took place without a formal union. During most of its existence, the Company’s slave lodge was renowned as the town’s leading brothel. Although forbidden, action was seldom taken against transgressors — except in the early years.

In one incident, Van Riebeeck noticed that Maria van Bengalen, one of his slaves, was often seen with Constable Willem Cornelis. His suspicions led him, with three others as witnesses, to burst into Cornelis’ bedroom one Sunday at around midnight. The two were found ‘in one another’s arms’. The next day, Cornelis was sentenced to pay a fine of 100 reals of eight (a Portuguese currency) and ‘labour for 50 years on public works’. The second part of the sentence was commuted to a fine of a further 50 reals. There is no record of a punishment imposed on Maria.

When Commissioner Hendrik van Reede visited the Cape in 1685 he noted that among the Company’s slaves there were no fewer than 57 children who obviously had white fathers. Van Reede decided that males could buy their freedom for 100 guilders on reaching the age of 25 years, provided that they had been confirmed in the Dutch Reformed Church and could speak Dutch. The same applied to women, but their age of freedom was 22 years.


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