Cape Malays…

and their Heritage

The Reclamation: Abolishment of Slavery-Carnivals (1834 – 1838)

Posted by tahirfarrath on January 1, 2010

(History of Muslims in South Africa)

1834 – Emancipation of slaves under the British

The end of this year signaled the end of slavery in the Cape Colony, by which time, Islam was a flourishing religion at Cape Town. It was not only the Whites who were slave owners. Most of de Vryezwarten [the Muslim Free Blacks] themselves owned slaves.

(The first slave to gain freedom, was Catharina Anthonis, who was born in Bengal, and liberated because Jan Woutersz from Middelburg wished to marry her in 1656. Soon after the wedding, Woutersz was promoted to the position of supervisor on Robben Island. This was not due to merit, but was rather a way of putting the couple out of sight, for he was later found ‘unsatisfactory’ and sent to Batavia. A few years later, Jan Stael from Amsterdam married Maria van Bengalen, a union found more acceptable as Maria could speak Dutch and had some knowledge of Christianity.)

The Slavery Abolition Bill 1833 was passed by the British House of Commons and by the House of Lords in August 1833 and came into force on 1 August 1834. On that date slavery was abolished throughout the vast British Empire, with a few exceptions, one being the Cape Colony, where it was delayed for four months until 1 December. The Act apprenticed slaves to their masters for a period of four years.

This enabled them to learn trades and afforded a transition period for the owners. A certain amount was granted as compensation for the owners, but it had to be collected personally in Britain and was in some cases barely enough to pay for the expenses. The abolition of slavery and the way in which it was enacted was one of the contributing factors leading to the Great Trek (starting in 1835) from the Cape Colony. Piet Retief, in his famous manifesto to the Grahamstown Journal, wrote: We complain of the severe losses, which we have been forced to sustain by the emancipation of our slaves, and the vexatious laws, which have been enacted respecting them. Though the abolition of slavery has been historically treated as the main cause of the Great Trek, there were other equally compelling reasons to leave the Cape Colony.

1840 – Cape Muslim population

By 1840 Islam had 6 435 adherents at Cape Town, one-third of the total population of the Colony. This constituted an increase of 4 268 Muslims within a period of twelve years.

About the Coon Carnivals and Malay choirs

It was customary for the slaves to be given a holiday on New Year’s Day, which they in turn transformed into a day of celebration, entertainment, feasting, visiting friends from house to house, wearing of fanciful attires, and revelling in music and dance.

This tradition of New Year celebration continued after the emancipation of the slaves to the accompaniment of street parades and bands.

Slaves celebrating the Abolishment of Slavery

Minstrels from America first visited the Cape in 1848, which was ten years after the British government had abolished slavery (but years before emancipation in America). In early American minstrel songs, “coon” was a reference to a raccoon. The American minstrels were white, but they blackened their faces with burnt cork to look like raccoons. The inverse of this behaviour became popular with the local former slave population who, being dark skinned, whitened their faces instead and wrote songs to mock their former masters.

By the end of the nineteenth century these singing groups and bands began to be associated with particular sports clubs and were usually costumed in special attires distinguished by peculiar emblems. Every year, they competed with one another in songs, in dances, in parades, and in the wearing of colourful outfits, as they marched through the streets and suburbs of Cape Town.

The minstrels are grouped into klopse (“clubs” in Cape Dutch, but more accurately translated as troupes in English). Participants are typically from Afrikaans-speaking working class “coloured” families who have preserved the custom since the mid-19th century.

(The English name for Klopse was the derogatory term “Coons” and many middle strata Coloured people [middle class, white-collar working class and aspirants] believed that Klopse were low-class, gangster types, making an ass of themselves, stereotyping and denigrating people of mixed ancestry. Some of these observations are far from the full story. Under slavery curfews and other forms of curtailment of movement meant, slaves had no freedom of the city. Alongside the Klopse tradition there also emerged the traditions of the Malay Choirs, Nagkore and the Christmas Choir Bands.)

The social and political pressures associated with the formal institutionalisation of apartheid led to the inclusion of songs in Afrikaans in the Coon Carnival repertoires from the 1940s. Other changes followed as dances disappeared and brass bands gradually replaced string bands.

In spite of every effort by the Apartheid government to suppress the carnival through the restrictions and forced removal of the Group Areas Act and other apartheid measures, its survival is indicative of the resilience of the coloured community and the permanence of their claim to “Freedom of the City” of Cape Town, which had always been contested.

Former President Nelson Mandela endorsed the minstrel event in 1986 and is now a patron of the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival Association.


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