1658 there were 11 slaves, eight women and three men at the Cape. One of
these, Abraham, was a stowaway who, in 1653, arrived from the East
aboard the ship Malacca, claiming to have run away from his master,
Cornelis Lichthart of Batavia. Abraham was set to work at the Cape.
a man named Jan Van Riebeeck (a leader assigned to build a refreshment
station, by the Dutch East India Company) was to brutally change
the course of history in South Africa. He frequently repeated his
request for more slaves, suggesting that slaves could work the nearby
saltpans so that salt could be profitably exported,
they could also hunt seals, or assist with agricultural tasks. He argued
that slave labor would be cheaper than Company servants, as they did not
have to be paid a salary. However, although the Company was reluctant to
agree, fate was more obliging.
28 March 1658, the ship Amersfoort, which two months earlier had
intercepted a Portuguese slaver bound from Angola to Brazil, arrived in
Table Bay with a shipment of slaves. The Portuguese ship had surrendered
250 of a cargo of 500 slaves to the Amersfoort. Many slaves died before
reaching the Cape, and a few were sent to Batavia. Of the 38 men and 37
women who remained, 21 men and 22 women were set to work in the fields
and gardens. The rest were assigned to various Company officials.
second group of slaves was purchased at Popo on the West African coast,
and arrived at the Cape in May 1658 aboard the ship Hasselt. Van
Riebeeck described the 228 newly enslaved people as ‘exceptionally
handsome, sturdy and cheery’. About 80 were shipped to Batavia, the
remainder being sold to free burghers and Company officials. As with
the Angolans, many of these slaves from Guinea were soon to die of
disease, and their numbers diminished rapidly.
van Goens, a Company commissioner, instructed Van Riebeeck to treat
slaves well. They were to be taught the basic principles of agriculture
and a trade. As the company had hoped there would be no need to send
more free men to the Cape, a considerable financial saving. The slaves were not to speak or be
spoken to in Portuguese — Dutch was the official language spoken
between owner and slave. According to some observers, the patois that
ensued eventually evolved into the Afrikaans language. (Language was
indeed a barrier even among the slaves, as they came from many different
parts of the world).
Slaves were the
forced labor, which not only transformed a small refreshment station
into a significant agricultural colony - but also in many ways,
transformed agriculture in the Western Cape.
They were a class
who could not enter into any legal contract, or property. In civil law
they simply did not exist - but criminal law was a savage reality.
from the start, slaves began to runaway, because of ill treatment,
overwork and the natural desire to live as a free person. The perils of
the unknown were preferable to the humiliation and degradation of
slavery — something that the settlers could not acknowledge. ‘These
ignorant people,’ wrote a disgruntled owner, ‘still
believe that they will be able to reach some country where they will be
relieved of their bondage,’ and he ended with the
prediction that ‘they may expect nothing
else than to be destroyed in a most miserable manner by hunger, the
beasts of prey, or brutal natives’. Indeed, many of the
runaways did come to a miserable end. But few returned voluntarily to
the misery of enslavement. Soldiers and burghers were sent in pursuit,
and Khoikhoi were offered tobacco or brandy to track down runaways,
though without much success. It was only when Khoikhoi hostages were
taken and kept at the fort against there will that the Khoikhoi showed
any interest in co-operating.