The relationship between owners and slaves was always unequal. Not all owners were cruel, but even the kindest owner demanded absolute respect and obedience from their slaves. There are also examples of excessively cruel slave owners. If we read court cases and descriptions from visitors, it is clear that slaves yearned for freedom. Although there are examples of overt resistance, only two slave uprisings took place at the Cape: one in 1808, led by Louis of Mauritius and the other in 1825, led by Galant.
Relationship between slaves and their owners
Slaveholders had complete control over slaves. Slaves were regarded as material possessions and could be bought and sold. They were listed and evaluated alongside cattle and sheep in inventories and bequeathed in wills. The law protected the rights of the owners regarding their slaves.
The relationship between slaves and slaveowners was therefore unequal at the best of times. Slaves were also very vulnerable to the excesses of cruel and callous slaveholders. For example, when the nephew of Johannes Kuuhn asked whether he could hit one of Kuuhn’s slaves with a spade, Kuuhn answered: “Go right ahead, since I bought him with my money. If he dies from the blow all I need to do is buy another one”. Kuuhn was brought to court for his brutality.
The relationship between slaves and owners depended a great deal on how the owner treated the slaves. There are examples of slaves who became attached to their owners and helped to protect their owners and their families when they were attacked by other slaves and Khoekhoe. Sometimes, slaves were left money or possessions in their owner’s wills. Sometimes, they were even freed.
Many slavehodlers, who would have regarded themselves to be “good” owners who treated their slaves well, acted as though their slaves were under-aged children. This must have been very trying to an adult person to be treated like a child all the time and such treatment could be experienced as demeaning.
Farmers and other free burghers always lived in fear of a slave uprising or of being attacked by their own slaves. Globally there was a fear of uprising amongst ruling classes. One of the most significant revolutions, which showed there was a strong basis for this fear, was the Saint-Domingue (Haiti) slave uprising, which began in 1791. In 1794 slavery was abolished in the colony of St, Domingue when the revolutionary army of slaves forced the French Revolutionary Convention to end slavery. Ex-slave Toussaint L'Ouverture proclaimed the 1801 Constitution of St. Domingue finally abolishing slavery. In 1804 the Declaration of Independence by Dessalines announced the Black republic of Haiti. The British, who had controlled 30% of the slave trade in the 1800s, abolished the trade in 1807 and ended slavery in 1834. It would still be another 4 years before slavery is formally abolished in South Africa.
There were much more slaves than burghers in the Cape colony during most of the slave period.
Slaves were often punished. The law stipulated that slaves should not be punished excessively by slaveholders. The problem was that the owners lived far away from each other and from the nearest court. It was therefore difficult to enforce the law, because there were no witnesses. For example, Batavian law, which also applied to the Cape, forbade slaveholders to keep their slaves in leg-irons or to torture them. Slaves were also allowed to report abuse by their owners to the authorities. However, the slave had to prove the abuse. That was difficult in a society where a free man’s evidence counted more than that of a slave. If a slave could not prove his or her case, they were returned to their owner and could be punished. Only in the 1820s did courts start to accept slaves’ evidence without corroboration by a burgher.
However, slaves were sometimes able to obtain justice in court. In 1729, for example, the Landdrost of Stellenbosch (the judge in the local court of Stellenbosch) successfully prosecuted two farmers who had ordered their slaves to be whipped so severely that they both died. They received a fine. Owners who were found guilty were usually fined, although sometimes the court ruled that the complainant should be sold to another owner. In 1822 a burgher, Johann Gebhart, was sentenced to death for killing one of his father’s slaves. It was the first time that an abusive owner was dealt with in such a way.
Slaves were expected to be respectful and polite to their owners. They were also expected to work hard. Disobedient or disrespectful slaves were usually whipped. Sometimes, other slaves were told to watch or hold down the disobedient slave.
The VOC had all kinds of rules that slaves had to obey. Slaves on errands always had to carry a signed letter from their owners. This was to ensure that they were not runaway slaves. Slaves who worked as shepherds had to have a lead medal with their owner’s name on it. They were also not allowed to carry firearms and weapons. Some commentators argue that the hated pass system implemented under apartheid had its roots in slavery at the Cape.
The Tulbagh Code of 1754 gives some indication of all the rules slaves had to abide by. Ryk Tulbagh was the governor of the Cape Colony at the time. The Tulbagh Code included the following rules:
The VOC also punished slaves. Slaves who tried to escape were whipped, mutilated or branded. Those slaves who attacked their owners or their property (such as setting fire to the crops or house) were executed, often by barbarous methods: breaking on the wheel, impaling, burning alive or slow strangulation. Some slaves were also tortured to get information from them. We know from reading books and diaries that some visitors to the Cape were shocked by the violent punishment of slaves.
Even though only two overt slave uprisings took place at the Cape, it does not mean that slaves just accepted their status. There were many ways to show resistance. Slaves did all kinds of things that hurt the slave owner. The slaves worked slowly, broke tools, killed sheep and cattle, set fire to thatch and put poison in food. Some just despaired. Between 15% and 20% of slaves committed suicide to escape slavery while at the same time creating a loss for their owner.
Some slaves ran away. The first group of slaves arrived at the Cape on board the Amersfoort on 28 March 1658. Five men and two women ran away five days later. It is not known what happened to them. Most of the runaways tried to reach Khoekhoe groups in the north of the Colony. The VOC authorities put a lot of pressure on the Khoekhoe to send runaways back. Van Riebeeck, the first VOC commander at the Cape, kept hostage the three sons of Gogosoa, leader of the Kaapmans, until a group of runaways was returned. A member of the Gorignhaicona, Jan Cout, was also kept hostage by Van Riebeeck. This aggressive method was later replaced with a reward system. Copper and tobacco equal to the amount of an ox was paid for each slave returned by the Khoekhoe.
From the beginning of the 18th century, runaways preferred to go east to the Xhosa-controlled territories. This was no easy task. The runaways had to find food and avoid wild animals and hostile Khoekhoe groups. Because slaves sometimes attacked the Khoekhoe for food, the Khoekhoe sometimes killed slaves or helped the colonists to capture them. The free burghers also sent out commandos after an escape to find the runaways. Later on, some slaves went north of the Colony where they were taken in by the Griekwas, !Kora and the Tswana near the Orange River and the Oorlams in present-day Namibia.
Some runaways left the Cape by ship and went to Europe. Those with a light complexion, who could speak Dutch and had a trade, could easily be assimilated within the Dutch society if they managed to reach the Netherlands. Some escapees even wrote letters to slaves in the Cape urging them to the Netherlands. Unfortunately, none of these letters survived. There were many opportunities to escape by ship. Up to 189 ships from a dozen countries came by Table Bay Harbour each year. Unfortunately, we only know what happened to slaves who were caught again. We know, for example, about Jan van der Caab. He ran away and reached the Netherlands by ship. There he settled in Middleburg and married a local widow. Jan worked as a sailor on a VOC ship and was arrested after being recognised when his ship docked in Table Bay Harbour.
Not all the runaways tried to leave the colony. Small groups of runaway slaves lived at present-day Faure, Hangklip near Betty’s Bay and in and around Table Mountain. Others ran away to the Cederberg and Worcester. Hangklip is the best known destination for runaways. Runaway slaves lived there for more than a hundred years, that is, from the 1720s until the 1830s when slaves were freed. They ate seafood and veldkos; they also obtained food from slaves on neighbouring farms. Hangklip was a good hiding place, because they could see the commandos that were looking for them from a far distance. That gave them a chance to hide in the caves in the vicinity.
Many escaped slaves were caught by regular patrols. There was also an alarm system that was set off when slaves in Cape Town escaped. Bells were rung and blue flags were flown at the Castle and on the hilltops. A slave who had been missing for more than three days could be shot on sight. Anyone who helped an escaped slave was punished. Burghers and company officials were fined and slaves and free blacks whipped. Captured slaves were punished brutally.
The story of the Amistad, the Meermin and the Sally, slave vessels that experienced uprisings, at the Ships of Bondage and the Fight for Freedom exhibition (2014) at the Iziko Slave Lodge.
The Ships of Bondage and the Fight for Freedom exhibition (2014) at the Iziko Slave Lodge. Held in conjunction with the Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice.
The Ships of Bondage and the Fight for Freedom exhibition (2014) at the Iziko Slave Lodge.
Taussiant L'Ouverture, leader of the Haiti slave uprising. Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography, v.6, 1889, p. 144 Jacques Reich.
Following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 there was great fear among the European ruling classes regarding the spread of revolution.
April 1739, List of slaves from the estate of Johannes Heufke, Cloovenburg farm, Riebeecks Casteel (Cape Archives). It seems that in this transaction Domingo and Antonij of Bengal were both bequeathed to Free Black Women. Slaves were regarded as material possessions and could be bought and sold. They were listed and evaluated alongside cattle and sheep in inventories and bequeathed in wills.
Extracts from the Cape Town Gazette Supplement (4 November 1809):
"Weggelopen (Run away): Francisco, born in Angola, on the coast of Guinea, speaks little or no Portuguese."
"Run away: Louis, of the Isle de France (Mauritius) speaks English, Dutch, French and Malay."