Slavery in South Africa

This website tells the story of slavery at the Cape. The focus, unlike the Transatlantic slave trade that exported enslaved people from Africa, is on the enslaved society that existed within Africa, specifically within the Cape, South Africa.


Much is known about African people who were taken to the Americas to work in colonial homes and on plantations. It is less known that the Cape Colony was also a slave society from the 17th to 19th centuries.


In 1652, the Dutch East India Company (in Dutch the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie - VOC) established a halfway station and trading base at the Cape. A few years later, the first enslaved people were imported and the Cape remained a slave society for 176 years until slavery was abolished in 1834.


What is slavery?


People give different meanings to the word “slavery”. The term “slave” may be used in different contexts to indicate the lack of free will or hard work. Recent scholarship on the history of slavery has argued for the use of the term ‘enslaved’ rather than ‘slave’ as this gives the enslaved individuals an identity as people. Similarly, it has been argued that the term slaveholders should be used rather than slave-owners or slave masters, to indicate that people were enslaved against their will.


The definition of slavery is not clear-cut. Many forms of slave labour existed in the past and many forms of labour that can be called unfree or bonded labour.


What did it really mean to be a slave?



The form of slavery used in the Cape Colony and the Americas is called chattel slavery. Chattel slaves were obtained in the lands of their birth and taken against their will to different places where they were sold again.


These people were and could be resold, just as we do with property such as homes and cars today. Slaves had no say about to whom they could be sold. Because slaves were regarded as property, it is difficult to speak about slavery without using dehumanizing words such as commodity, cargo and owner to describe the system.


There are many forms of slavery with different rules. When people speak of slavery, they usually refer to chattel slavery. This website will focus on slavery as practised in the Cape Colony between 1658 and 1834. In 1910, the Cape Colony became part of the Union of South Africa. Chattel slaves were captured and enslaved in faraway countries and transported over long distances. They were owned and could be sold or transferred to other owners without their permission and without receiving any compensation.


This website is part of a larger project to acknowledge the contribution slaves made to South Africa.


This serves as a project of Iziko Museumsof South Africa, a national museum group that manages fifteen museum sites in and around Cape Town, including the former VOC Slave Lodge and Groot Constantia Estate, a wine estate that made extensive use of slave labour.


The Iziko Slave Lodge is working to transform the site ‘from a site of human wrongs to one of human rights’ to connect to our slave roots and to raise awareness of the issues of human rights, equality and justice in the present day.

Watch Hidden Heritage - Slavery in South Africa at the Iziko Slave Lodge, by Masala Film Works.

The Iziko Slave Lodge is a site committed to transform from a site of human wrongs to a site of human rights. "Remembering slavery tells of the long history of slavery in South africa and raises awareness of human rights."

Interactive map depicting the origins of Cape slaves and the routes used to transport them (spanning the Indian Ocean) as can be seen at the Iziko Slave Lodge.

The display panel narrating the story of Cape slavery from the Ships of Bondage, a fight for freedom exhibition held at the Iziko Slave Lodge in 2014.