History of Slavery

The first slaves at the Cape

By 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.

Later, 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.

On 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.

A 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.

Rijckloff 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.

Almost 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.

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