Cape Malays…

and their Heritage

The Reclamation: Runaway Slaves-Ratiep

Posted by tahirfarrath on January 8, 2010

(History of Muslims in South Africa)

Almost from the start, slaves began to runaway, because of ill treatment, overwork and the natural desire to live as a free person. Runaways sometimes formed their own ‘colonies’ — two, which lasted the longest, were high on Simonsberg above Stellenbosch and at Cape Hangklip on the eastern rim of False Bay.

The ‘colonies’ grew gradually from a group of people who, intent on escaping, equipped themselves with plundered firearms or implements and stole a few cattle or sheep. Secure on the remote mountaintops, they grew crops and grazed their flocks and herds.

Eventually, a commando arrived on the scene, which brought an end to the settlements. Those who survived the onslaught were severely punished for running away.

One attempt at an uprising took place on a farm in Stellenbosch in 1690. Four slaves attacked a farmhouse, killed one burgher, wounded another and fled with stolen firearms. Burghers, soldiers and Khoikhoi auxiliaries were dispatched in pursuit and, in a gun-fight, three of the slaves were killed and the fourth wounded and taken prisoner. Interrogated, the prisoner said it had been their intention to murder a number of farmers and set fire to their fields, hoping this would attract other slaves to their side. Then they planned to seize some white women and make their way to Madagascar. But after their first attack they had panicked and taken to the hills.

The Ratiep Ritual

George Champion came to Africa to save souls. He heard and answered a call to leave his comfortable New England home and preach the good news in “the land of the ill-fated African.” But after a winter’s voyage across the Atlantic and three months ashore at the Cape of Good Hope, he had little to show for his efforts. His patience wearing thin, Champion went for stroll through Cape Town one evening in April 1835 and found himself “in the midst of the heathen!” In fact he had stumbled across a Muslim religious rite, and said:

“I directed my steps to a one-storey house whence it proceeded. It was a ceremony of some Mahometans…At times the noise would wax louder & louder, & the dancer (or priest) would become so furious in his gestures & features that I could easily imagine him a demon incarnate. This religion of the false prophet is increasing in Cape town [sic] the number of its votaries, in the opinion of all.(3)

Like many others, Champion tried to account for Islam’s success. The reasons, he thought, were practical, not spiritual. Most converts, he noted, were slaves.(7) Local whites–who considered “white” and “Christian” to be synonyms and believed that slaves, whose ancestry was Asian and African, were “an inferior class of beings”–adamantly opposed admitting slaves into Christian fellowship and refused them “the rites of a Christian [i.e., proper] burial.” In contrast Muslims–whom whites regarded as “black,” though many were free–welcomed slaves into the fold, treated them with kindness, and offered them the dignity of a proper funeral.(8) Class and colour prejudice, they said, prevented most whites from recruiting or accepting slave converts. The Muslim community embraced those whom Christians scorned. In sum, the motives for conversion were secular rather than sacred. Slavery was a “secular excommunication,”(13) often supported, as at the Cape, by religious exclusion.

Slaves may have been socially dead, but they desperately sought social life.(16) At the Cape, slaves and other oppressed people found life in Islam. Nearly all slaves dreamed of becoming once again “legitimate members of society,” of being “socially born again.”(15) Hence, they became legitimate members of Muslim society.

The very essence of slavery (and of the indentured status of Prize Negroes with no wages, harsh treatment, and minimal provisions) was the slave’s “total loss of control over his person and his personality.”(107) It was the slaves body that the owner bought and sold, the body that the owner put to work, the body that the owner flogged.

At one level the Ratiep ceremonies demonstrated the power of God to protect the believer from physical peril. The performance of the ratiep emerges as an act of resistance. This doubtless drew slaves and Prize Negroes (most often from Madagascar and the East African coast, who had been rescued from slave ships by the British Navy) to the rite (that is likely of Hindu origin).

Conversion and the Search for Meaning

The ceremonies of one of the oldest tariqa, the Rifa’iyyah, often involve dancing, the chanting of the dhikr, and, at the moment of ecstasy, falling “upon objects such as serpents or knives….”(103) These rituals have been associated with the Rifa’iyyah wherever it is found, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.(104) In the Indonesian archipelago, one of the most distinctive Rifa’iyyah rituals is known as the rapa’i; in Malaysia it is called the dubbus, from the Arabic word for an iron awl. During the rapa’i members of the tariqa pierce their bodies with swords, knives, and iron awls. The point of rite is to demonstrate the power of God, which allows “the adept to come out of the ceremony without his body showing any evidence of having been harmed.”(105). There are, of course, clear parallels between Rifa’iyyah rituals and the ratiep. They have been part of Islamic practice on the Indonesian islands from the time Islam first arrived in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They were, that is, part of the religious world in which the exiled shaykhs of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Cape came to maturity. Yusuf da Costa writes that it is “highly probable” that the ratiep has its roots in the practices of sufi tariqa, though he ties it to the Alawiyyah, not the Rifa’iyyah.(106)

Whatever its provenance, in the early nineteenth century the ratiep was an important expression of Muslims’ faith. Slaves and slaveowners also contested the very nature of reality.

On another level of meaning, the ratiep proved the superiority of the sacred realm of Islam over the secular realm of slavery. The ratiep embodied and enacted an alternative worldview, an alternative reality that starkly contradicted the ideologies and practices of slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy. It allowed slave converts to demonstrate that the world of the spirit was a higher order of reality. It reinforced the message of the spiritual leaders; they explicitly taught slave and Prize Negro converts that though their bodies were enslaved, their souls were free.(109). The spirit moved the converts as well. It strengthened them, healed them, and taught them that though their owners can claim their bodies they cannot claim their souls.


3 Responses to “The Reclamation: Runaway Slaves-Ratiep”

  1. I am writing the history of:
    Our History Our People Our Sites Our Achievers

    (as perceived through my eyes)In my search for some information I came across your The Reclamation – Discovery of Key Cape Muslims. Well done. I was a good friend of the Late Achmat Davids and Mogamat T. Ajam.I would very much like to Find out more about your work in the near future.
    My contact No’s are 021-7121308 (Retreat) / 0824657240.

    • tahirfarrath said

      It’s wonderful to learn of your connection with those greats! We’d be pleased to learn a bit more about the Malays of Simon’s Town – a snippet will serve us well. Not much thought has been given of any future plans at this time. Shukran for your contact details, which some of the browsers also would find useful.

  2. Within the following week or two I will be able to send you a snippet of what I am writing.Please let me have your tele-contact numbers for a brief discussion. I am retired principal of Spine Road High School 1984 – 1994. My details are as follows 021-7121308 / 0824657240. Would like to hear from you and you Organisation. Salaams . Adnaan

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