Slavery in South Africa

End of enslavement

There were many discussions about how slaves should be set free. Owners were reluctant to set slaves free as it could mean a financial loss to them. They would also have less control over free labourers. In addition, many owners felt that the government could not infringe on their rights and owning slaves was considered to be a right. One idea to end slavery gradually was that newborn babies should be born free. In that way slavery would eventually cease even though people already enslaved would not obtain their freedom. In the end, all slaves in the British Empire were freed on 1 December 1834. Emancipation did not mean immediate freedom for slaves. There was the belief that slaves could not take care of themselves and had to get used to freedom gradually.

 

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. Many people regard 1 December 1838 as the real emancipation day. The slave owners in the Cape Colony protested against the emancipation of slavery, but had to accept the decision as inevitable.

 

They were very concerned about the compensation they received for their slaves and were unhappy about the amount of money they received. They received less than expected, because the money had to be collected in London. That meant that the Cape slave owners had to pay agents to act as middle-men. Historians disagree about the reasons why slaves were set free. Most free burghers (private citizens) at the Cape accepted slavery as the natural order of things. In other words, they found it difficult to think of a world without slave labour. Commissioner De Mist, a liberal with many progressive ideas, recommended during the Batavian period (1802-1806) that slavery should be abolished. But the Cape was taken over by the British in 1806 before the recommendations could be implemented. Some people say that slavery was abolished because people realised that it was wrong.

 

The idea of equal rights took a long time to take root. It was only towards the later part of the 18th century and especially the 19th century that people started to think that it was wrong to enslave people. During this period many still did not think of all people as equal. Many scholars point to slavery as having played a critical role in the development of racist attitudes in many parts of the world. Equality and rights for all extended solely to white middle class men in the 19th century, to white women in the early 20th century and to blacks from the mid-20th century onwards. There were people, known as the abolitionists, who campaigned for the end of slavery. These abolitionists, for example William Wilberforce, were influenced by evangelical Christianity. They told people in Britain how cruel slavery was. A number of former slaves also played an active role in the abolitionist movement. They included people like Olaudah Equiano, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano and Ignatius Sancho. Some historians point out that growing slave resistance, ranging from individual acts of disobedience to masive slave rebellions, such as the Haitian Revolution from 1791 to 1803, also had an impact on changing views about slavery.

 

Other historians believe that economic factors played the most important role in the decision to end slavery. By the end of the 18th century, Britain was becoming industrialised. An industrialised economy needed a mobile and flexible workforce that can move to where the work is. Ideas about the need for mobile and flexible labour were also applied to slave labour in British colonies. Also, the industrialisation process was accompanied by the development of a market economy. A market economy needed people who earned wages so that they would buy the commodities that were produced. Slaves did not earn wages and therefore did not form a market for the products. So it made economic sense to free slaves to become wage earners. Many people also believed that people would work harder if they worked for themselves. It is significant that the decision to end slavery at the Cape was taken by Britain, an industrialised country, and not taken at the Cape. It is not only the general economic changes due to industrialisation in Britain that played a role in the ending of slavery.

 

The Cape Colony also experienced economic problems that may have contributed to the willingness of the slave owners to accept the emancipation of slaves. After 1814 Cape wine was sold in Britain very cheaply. As a result, Cape wine farmers began to produce more wine. They borrowed money to plant more vines and to buy more slaves to do the work. The prices of slaves increased greatly because of the huge demand for slave labour. But in 1826, the British started to buy cheaper French wine. Many Cape wine makers were not able to sell all their wine and found themselves in financial trouble. They had debts to repay and many slaves to take care of while not being able to sell their produce. Emancipation of slaves together with the compensation from the British government was one way to make up for losses and to get rid of an expensive, and unnecessary workforce.

 

On the other hand, 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.

Permanent displays of silver form part of the museum's holdings and can be seen at each of the house museums and the Maritime Museum. The largest and most varied collection is on view at the Silver Gallery in the Iziko Slave Lodge. English silver is displayed at the Iziko Bertram House, a Georgian house museum situated at the top of Government Avenue. Dutch as well as Cape silver from the late 18th and 19th century is exhibited at the Iziko Koopmans-de Wet House, a museum furnished to depict local life in a wealthy Dutch residence.

A panel in the Iziko Slave Lodge reads :

"In the later 1800s the demand for cheap labour... entrenched segregation and promoted a low-wage economy which greatly benefited 'white' South Africans."