Cape Malays…

and their Heritage

The Assimilation: Human Capital or Chattel!!!

Posted by tahirfarrath on December 1, 2009

Being a Slave

The economy of the Cape Colony depended to a large extent on slave labour. The position of the Dutch Reform Church on slavery was deliberately kept vague to prevent alienating influential slave owners. Therefore, having a cheap and subservient labour force fitted into the plans of the VOC. The Cape burghers did not take responsibility for the existence of slavery. For them, the VOC took the decision to introduce slavery.

However, slaves were given new names at the Cape. Some slaves received a new name every time they were resold. Some names described the slave’s personality or appearance and many of these names were demeaning and sometimes insulting. Other slaves received names of the month. Many people today still have surnames such as January, February, September or October. Names from the classical period (Greek and Roman history) were also common and such as Cupido, Titus, Scipio and Hannibal. Names from the Old Testament were also used, such as Moses and Solomon. Other people’s slave ancestry cannot be seen in their names. For example, the Bassons are descendents of Angela of Bengal, the Snymans are descendents of Antony of Bengale and the Claasens are descendents of Claas of Malabar. Some slaves were allowed to keep their given, indigenous names. This practice was common among the VOC-owned slaves who lived in the Slave Lodge, but rare amongst slaves in private ownership. Only a small group of slaves received names similar to those of free men and women such as Antony, Maria and Anna.

Slave owners decided how much and what they may eat, where they slept, the clothes they wore. On most farms, slaves slept in kitchens, attics and barns, or out-of-doors when the weather was warm. Only a very few larger farms had special sleeping quarters for slaves. Clothing was used to distinguish slaves from free people and slave men were not allowed to wear shoes. Slaves were also not allowed to wear hats until they passed an exam to prove that they could speak Dutch. Some slave men undermined this rule by wearing handkerchiefs and turbans as an expression of an alternate culture. Helpless slave parents suffered even more as they had to witness their children being abused by their owners. Slaves were not allowed to get married. Life partners could therefore be separated at the whim of the owner. The children of slaves could also be sold separately from their parents.

The Slave Lodge

The Slave Lodge (at Adderley Street), “a shameless fortress…of human misery”, housed the slaves who belonged to the Dutch East India Company (VOC). These slaves worked for the VOC and were never sold. The Slave Lodge was wet, dark and dirty as a subterranean stream flowed under it. The bedding stayed wet in winter and that the slaves never had time to properly wash and clean their belongings. Food was inadequate. Statistics show that the death rate was higher during winter than in summer. The stench was unbearable in the Lodge and was especially bad in the vicinity of the eight toilets next to the quarters of the mentally ill.

VOC allowed the Lodge to be used as a brothel and some of these relationships led to marriage. The hospital in the eastern wing of the Slave Lodge treated slaves and Khoi women who suffered from venereal diseases. Since 1671, several placaaten (regulations), were issued that forbid sexual relationships between slave women and men of European descent. The growing number of mulatto children (slaves of partial European descent) indicates that these placaaten were not adhered to. Women were also even forced by their male partners to sleep with the visitors for the going rate of a 3-inch piece of tobacco. However, the VOC never took steps to prevent the visits from free men to slave women in the Lodge.

This Lodge also housed petty convicts, the mentally ill and political exiles. The lowest rank slaves in the Slave Lodge, were the Fiscal’s and executioner’s assistants or kaffers and only the convicts had a lower status. Mulatto slaves were treated differently. It is estimated that between 7000 and 9000 slaves lived in the Slave Lodge over a period of 132 years. They received instruction in the Christian religion and all children were baptised whether the parents of the child were Christian or not. At school, they were taught how to be good slaves, and in 1666, all the slaves in the Slave Lodge were baptised.

Otto Mentzel wrote in 1785 that slaves received new clothing once a year. He described their clothing as follows: “… each male slave wears a doublet and trousers made of coarse white woollen cloth with black streaks and lined with a cotton cloth called ‘sailcloth’. The doublet is adorned with 12 brass buttons. These outfits were made by the garrison tailors. The female slaves wear imported smocks from Batavia. It is made up of six yards of coarse cotton cloth.” Some slaves sold their clothes to earn money. However, the British later turned the lodge into offices.

The slave lodge today

Life of a slave

Some slave men took Khoekhoe partners. That also meant that their children would not be regarded as slaves. In 1752, the government allowed farmers to indenture these children until they were 25 years old. This meant that these children, called Bastaard Hottentots, spend the best part of their lives in similar conditions as slaves. Thus, many South Africans of all races are descendents of slaves.

The people living in the Cape Colony were very conscious of class differences. The VOC officials looked down on the burghers, the indigenous peoples and slaves. The rich burghers looked down on the poor burghers and other free people who did not own property such as soldiers, sailors and knechts. Free white people, rich and poor, looked down on the indigenous peoples and the slaves. Differences were also made according to class and race when it came to justice. People of colour and slaves received heavier sentences for the same crimes burghers. In many societies slaves had no status before the law. That meant, amongst other things, that if an owner murdered his/her slave, it was not regarded as a crime.

Most people did not defend slavery on the basis of racism or the inferiority of the enslaved people. They accepted slavery as normal practice. It was only towards the later part of the 18th century and especially the 19th century that some people started to think that it was wrong to enslave people. According to some burghers, they were given the right to own slaves and such rights, whether good or bad, cannot just be taken away. They also argued that it would cost them a lot of money, if slaves were to be freed. In 1834, slavery was outlawed by the British government at the Cape. However, people who were already enslaved and their newborn children still remained slaves and could still be sold. In addition, the government also wanted to give slave owners time to adapt. Slaves therefore had to work for another four years as apprentices for their former owners. This meant that they had to continue to work for their former owners without pay.

The emancipation of slaves worsened the farmers financial problems. They used slaves as collatoral to obtain finance and were facing bankruptcy when slaves were set free. The owners received some compensation for their slaves, but the slaves received nothing to help them to start a new life. Being freed did not mean having the same opportunities as the former owners. The Masters and Servants Ordinance in 1842 favoured the employer rather than the workers. Desertion, neglect, insubordination and the use of insulting language by workers were criminal offences. Slavery was outlawed in the French Empire in 1848 and the Dutch Empire in 1863. In some Caribbean and American societies, slavery was abolished as late as 1870 in Cuba, 1873 in Puerto Rico and 1888 in Brazil. Learning about slavery past helps us to become aware of people who are still suffering in similar circumstances today.

Eventually, there were more slaves than settlers and the Malays constituted around 10% of the slave population.

Javanese was likely to have been used extensively in the early days of Dutch rule in Southern Africa when large numbers of “Malay” slaves were transported to the Cape of Good Hope. However, the “Cape Malay” descendents have over time lost their ancestral languages to Afrikaans and English.


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