Iziko Slave Lodge
Slavery in South Africa

Report by Dr Gabeba Abrahams-Willis, Historical Archaeologist, Iziko Museums of South Africa


From 21 February to 31 March 2000, the South African Cultural History Museum, a component of Iziko Museums of South Africa (former Southern Flagship Institution), embarked on a new project. This involved excavating at one of our museums in Cape Town, the Slave Lodge. It was the beginning of a feasibility study aimed at uncovering the significance of this site, to our knowledge being the only surviving VOC (Dutch East India Company) Slave Lodge of its kind in the world. This structure housed an average of 500 slaves and a total of approximately 1000 people banished from society. We were hoping to find material culture evidence of the slaves and parts of the underground cellars in which the slaves also lived. Our aims were manifold, to commemorate and promote the history of slavery, to integrate the history of slavery into the cultural tourism industry and to utilise the site and excavated results for research, publication, education and exhibition, involving the public as much as possible.


Why is this important?

This site is unique in the history of South Africa (Shell 1999). It was the largest single slave holding in the country. This affords us a rare opportunity to present something to the world, which can only be visited and experienced locally. The Slave Lodge has been recommended to become the focal point of cultural tourism around the Slave Route. It has the potential of becoming one of our leading tourist attractions and should be placed on the list of World Heritage Sites.


The Cape Business News reports:

To repeat the sentiment expressed by Prof Robert Shell, “The Lodge is, in the author’s view, the jewel in the crown of all the slave sites in the region” (Shell 2000 :18). It has been compared with the site at Elmina in West Africa, “the place of no return”, which has been declared a World Heritage site.



The Slave Lodge in Adderley Street, Cape Town, was built in 1679. It was sometimes referred to as "Loots" or "Logie". It backed onto the Company Gardens where many of the slaves laboured. It was constructed in the manner of a fortress, to imprison the slaves, to prevent them from escaping. It has been described as 'A shameless fortress…of human misery' (Shell 1994) at the head of Adderley Street or the old Heerengracht, a symbol of isolation, a building without windows to the outside world. The building was subject to numerous phases of renovation (Geyser 1982). By 1716 the Slave Lodge was dilapidated and overcrowded. The slaves were 'herded together like animals'. Proposals for renovations and extensions were put forward and finally, around 1752, a second storey was added.


Conditions in the Slave Lodge throughout most of the 17th and 18th centuries are described as dark and damp. The roof leaked, the cellars often flooded and the bedding of the slaves was almost permanently damp. Shell refers to the Slave Lodge as a "demographic sinkhole" in which deaths were excessive. With the smallpox epidemic of 1755, 180 slaves died in one day.


A ground plan of the Slave Lodge dated to 1798 shows detailed occupation areas and structures inside the Lodge (Fig.1). The lack of general maintenance and requirements of decent human living conditions, led to several reports around this time condemning the state of the building. Louis Michel Thibault, inspector of Public Buildings in 1803, describes the unsanitary, disease-ridden state of the Lodge, without appropriate ventilation for fresh air, nor windows for light. Even during the day he was forced to use a lantern to find his way inside the building.


In 1807, one year after the Second British Occupation of the Cape, it was decided to sell all the slaves in the Lodge and to convert the building to government offices. These included the Master's Office, offices of the Attorney General, the Government Secretary, the Receiver of Revenue, the Fiscal, the Bank, the Post Office and the Public Library. By 1815 the Supreme Court was completed and the Legislative Council chamber for parliamentary meetings took up office in the building from 1827 to 1887.


In 1926 the front facade of the building was set back from approximately the island in the middle of Adderley Street to its present position. This was as a result of traffic congestion on the corner of Adderley and Wale Streets. In the 1930s the Old Supreme Court Building, as the Slave Lodge became later known, was once again threatened with demolition. However, thanks to public pressure and campaigning, the building was preserved to become the South African Cultural History Museum in 1966, which became a proclaimed National Monument in 1967.

For many years there have been lengthy discussions around the replanning of displays in this building of note. There are many burning issues around the question of slavery and how this has impacted on the lives of modern South Africans. During parts of the 18th century, there were more slaves than free persons at the Cape. Slavery had an enormous effect on the economic development of the country, besides its impact on so many cultural aspects of our lives, on our customs cuisine, language, labour laws, religion, architecture and a myriad other spheres. How could we learn more about these aspects of our past, its impact on our present lives and our plans for the future?



The excavations proceeded in three main areas (Fig.1). First was the area around a structure inside the courtyard. The second area was in front of two main doorways along the edge of the "latrines". The third area was inside the present building where we anticipated finding parts of the slave cellars. These were considered to be areas of potential for excavation in this feasibility study.


The crew was drawn from volunteers who offered to assist us in our endeavours. Among us were a variety of people ranging in age between 22 and 78, as well as two primary school learners of 6 and 11. Those participating were students in archaeology, criminology, history, psychology, museum and heritage studies, social sciences, electrical engineering, geography, communications, public administration and public relations. Volunteers were also drawn in from community projects such as Ikhaya Labantu, Community Builders Project, Black Sash, Reach Out Project and Siyakhula Pottery Project. Others working on the site were a lecturer, a hospital theatre nurse, an American slave descendant, an office clerk, a senior citizen, a retired banking clerk, a potter, a musician, ceramic restorers, a fundraiser, a photographer, a registrar of museum collections, a student of slave history, a gynaecologist, a museum curator, a teacher, a technician, an artist, a librarian, a museum education officer, a publisher and a journalist. (New volunteers may be added to the list by forwarding their names, credentials / work experience, study details, address, telephone number / contact details and / or CV to the author).


The finds

Based on a preliminary analysis of faunal material from one section of the deposit excavated in area “1” of the courtyard, the following were found. The food debris contains mostly bones of domesticates including, in order of numerical frequency, sheep, cattle, fowl and pig. Various fish and shellfish remains were found. The aforementioned results are based on a relatively small sample thus far analysed, 932 specimens identified by Dr Graham Avery. This is a preliminary examination of only part of the entire sample. The results cannot therefore be used at this stage, to make any conclusive deductions. However, it has been noted that, as to be expected, many fish bones occur in the sample. Among the hunted animals, Steenbok/Grysbok and Cape Cormorant appear in the sample. A small tortoise and ostrich eggshell is also present. The occurrence of rats and mice are possibly associated with the household refuse.


Features excavated include the slave cellars, stone and brick walls, cobble flooring, a well, old doorways and steps leading into the courtyard and the edge of one corner of the latrines (Fig 2). Much disused building bricks, nails, windowpane glass and roof tiles were also left behind in the trenches as well as charcoal, firebricks and wood.


The objects excavated are bone, glass, metal, pottery and porcelain. The artefacts include drinking glasses and bottles, pottery cooking and storage vessels, hand-painted porcelain cups, saucers and plates (Fig 3).


Among the numerous artefacts was a stone pestle, hundreds of clay tobacco pipe specimens, a fine little copper/brass tap, a beautifully carved horn handle, a painting of a woman carrying a yoke on her shoulders on a small fragment of glass, stoneware marbles, a gunflint, metal scissors, pins, bone and brass buttons, coins, money cowries and glass and ostrich eggshell beads. The artefacts and faunal material is presently being processed, identified and analysed. The site contained a very rich assemblage of artefacts which will provide a significant contribution of new knowledge.


Public interaction

We welcome, encourage and promote the involvement of the public, the media and scholars in our activities. With this in mind, we posted flyers inviting volunteers and participation, along with short articles in the internal and external newsletters of the Museum (Abrahams-Willis 2000 b,c). Posters were circulated at all our Museum venues. A pamphlet outlining the historical background of the site, our aims and contact details were produced and thousands have been disseminated to the public (Abrahams-Willis 2000 a). Bold banners advertising free entrance to the museum and excavations were attached to the front of the building facing Adderley Street. A temporary display was mounted to allow the public access to the most recent finds and we offered guided tours on the site in English, Xhosa and Afrikaans. The excavations and findings were well covered by the media including International TV, SATV News, Cape at Six and South Africa Today, one of which was an in-depth four-minute exposure which reached millions of viewers. The footage has been repeated several times subsequently on TV and continues to create public awareness and interest in the topic of slavery.


The newspaper coverage was relatively extensive and varied (Abrahams-Willis 2000 e; 2001b; 2003; Coetzee 2000; Coetzer 2000; Jensen 2000; Maughan 2003; Mbana 2000; West 2000; Yutar 2000 a,b). These included interviews with and articles in the Cape Argus, the Star, Die Burger, the Cape Times, Sunday Argus, Cape Business News, The Dutch Business Times, the Big Issue, Sarie Magazine, PWD House Journal, Provincial Administration Communications, Zanazo, an article in a book on Community Research on slavery, a UNESCO feasibility study Report (Shell 2000), in the Quarterly Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa (Abrahams-Willis 2000 d) and in the Archives News (Abrahams-Willis 2001a). Most of the interviews were done on the site during the excavations and consequently assisted tremendously in communicating the history and significance of the site to the public at large. At the same time the opportunity was created for site visits, while the Public Works Department, with permission from the South African Heritage Resources Agency, provided a temporary protective cover, allowing us to leave the site open for visitors to view into the present.


There were numerous radio interviews in English, Xhosa, and Afrikaans. The number of people reached through the News Bulletins and Community Radio interviews enhanced our public interaction, which has contributed fundamentally to our goals on this site. We communicated personally with hundreds of children, forty students arrived on day-one from the Semester at Sea, University of Pittsburgh, visiting the site as their Official Offshore Contact, a number of schools ran classes in on relay, clubs and societies requested special tours, on-site training and thesis supervision were requested, numerous projects in partnership have been proposed and other slave sites have been reported. In a nutshell, we have been dealing with public feedback most intensely during the excavations but also on a regular basis since the excavations ended.


The invitation for volunteers has resulted in a growing list for future work. Documentary producers have requested the use of footage from the excavations, offers have been put forward to make a documentary of the excavations and publication of a book on the Slave Lodge is in preparation. Preliminary findings of the dig have appeared in print, utilized in four schoolbook publications which are presently in use as part of the South African school syllabus (Fig 4).


Important contacts have been made resulting in tourism initiatives to prioritise the Slave Lodge and requests for presentations to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee and the UNESCO Slave Route Project: South African Chapter, have been delivered.


Future Plans

The excavations and findings were overwhelmingly received and the museum's free visitor numbers increased by over 1000 % for the month of March. Furthermore, the visitor profile, which is in desperate need of change, was noticeably transformed. The museum was flooded with visitors of all ages, sex, creed and colours. They were inspired by a history which was previously denied, hidden, stigmatised, a history which has had an enormous impact on the lives of modern South Africans. As a means of launching the excavations, our slogan for our brochures and posters emerged, "BREAKING THE CHAINS OF SILENCE".


We believe in breaking the chains of silence, in commemorating the history of slavery in a manner befitting its dignity and importance in our history, in promoting cultural tourism, job creation and awareness in this pivotal aspect of our past. To this end, we will draw up new proposals for funding to continue with excavations at the Slave Lodge and means of promoting this site. Moreover, a much more extensive programme of events will actively include community participation, accessibility and public awareness (Fig 5). A range of initiatives is under discussion with members of the public, researchers, tourism promoters, Non-Government Organisations and Statutory bodies. By harnessing collaborative plans for the Slave Lodge, this site will take its pride of place.



The Slave Lodge is a site of exceptional national and international importance and the excavations have drawn tremendous public and academic interest. The subject of slavery permeates many important issues which are of major significance to us today such as the question of our identity as South Africans, the various ways in which we interpret emancipation, slavery and freedom and the very nature of our human rights.


This project is of great relevance in its historical, scholarly and public contexts. It speaks to a diversity of people with a unique voice. A diverse range of future plans is unquestionable for a site of this eminence.



This "feasibility study" has resulted in a major work, and none of it would have been possible without the help of a number of people. I am extremely grateful to all those in this acknowledgement, and to those I have inadvertently omitted to mention, for the success of the project. The major funds came from Iziko Museums of Cape Town, assisted by UNESCO. The UNESCO funds were raised by Prof. Robert Shell who is an international authority on the subject of slavery in South Africa. The Public Works Department have been extremely co-operative in this new undertaking and in all our direct dealings with Lewis Collyer and Petrus McDonald have been most supportive. Thank you.


I will always reflect on the most generous spirit of our volunteers, their determination and commitment to the project. Thank you to Esther Zwarenstein, Linda Mqambeli, Hillary Benjamin, Bukelwa Pitsha, Celia Baylis, Terence Sipika, Germaine Krog, Bonke Tyhulu, Amanda de Beer, Nekile Sigidi, Alet Smit, Vuyani Ginya, Karen de Vries, Charles Hallom, Linda Duvenage, Wonderful Tonisi, Elizabeth Cloete, Archie Ginya, Ingrid Askew, Sheina Josias, Christine Qaba, Shawn Hattingh, Nolonwabo Luluvantyu, Mildred Mona, Morris Ngoqo, Rheina Epstein and Monica Kahn.


Among our volunteers was some of our own staff who joined the team, Cecil Kortjie who photographed the entire excavation, Neil Riffel, Cameron Vuyiya, Carol Kaufmann and my assistant Nombuyiselo Vinana. The curators of collections assisted by packing up the display in the room to be excavated, the front-line staff received hundreds of extra phone calls and visitors, assistance came from our Public Relations staff, Administration staff made up allowances and collected and delivered items, and the Studio and Workshop staff mounted a temporary display. My thanks to Dr Graham Avery who has done a preliminary report on some of the faunal material from the excavations.


I am indebted to Sally Stewart who contributed much of her personal time in assisting us with publication of the pamphlets. Bill Pace, a former colleague has always supported our endeavours, making up little miniature trowels as thank you gifts to our volunteers, and confirming areas of excavation for finding the cellars, which he last saw in 1948. Thank you Bill for sharing this valuable information with us!


To my sons, Meekael and Kaamil, thank you for joining us, for your wonderful spirit, great sense of humour, hard work and delightful company on the site.




  • Abrahams-Willis,G. 2000 a. Breaking the chains of silence: Excavations at the Slave Lodge. Pamphlet. Southern Flagship Institution.
  • Abrahams-Willis,G. 2000 b (Jan/Feb). ‘Rare opportunity on site of importance’. Southern Flagship Institution Newsletter.
  • Abrahams-Willis,G. 2000 c (April/May/June). ‘Archaeological Excavations at the Slave Lodge’. Zanazo.
  • Abrahams-Willis,G. 2000 d (June). ‘Slave Lodge to become a major tourism magnet: Preliminary Report on year 2000 excavations. Quarterly Bulletin of the National Library of South Africa 54(4):134-143.
  • Abrahams-Willis,G. 2000 e (1 December). ‘City dig ‘breaking chains of silence’: Slave Lodge excavation key to the past. Cape Argus.
  • Abrahams-Willis,G. 2001 a (September). 'The Burden of Bondage: Excavations at the Slave Lodge'. Archives News, Vol 44(1):25-34.
  • Abrahams-Willis,G. 2001 b (30 November). ‘Free at Last or still in Bondage?: Tomorrow, December 1, is celebrated in South Africa as Slavery Emancipation Day, marking the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Cape Colony on December1, 1834. Gabeba Abrahams-Willis ponders some of the implications of South Africa’s slave past. Cape Argus.
  • Abrahams-Willis,G. 2003 (28 April). ‘Exhibitions a gateway to deal with scars of the past’. Cape Argus.
  • Coetzee,H. 2000 (18March). ‘Slawe se lewe gewys met opgravings’. Die Burger.
  • Coetzer,O. 2000 (25/26 March). ‘Slave painting find is unique in SA history’. Sunday Argus.
  • Geyser,O. 1982. The history of the Old Supreme Court building. Johannesburg: The Africana Press.
  • Jensen,R. 2000 (May). ‘Cape Town’s ignored past’. Cape Business News. • Maughan,K. 2003 (28 April). ‘Digging up the roots of slavery’. The excavation of the Slave Lodge in Adderley Street is uncovering voices that have not been heard before in the history of South Africa. Cape Argus.
  • Mbana,P. 2000 (May). ‘Slaves to history’. The Big Issue.
  • Shell, R. 1994. Children of bondage: a social history of the slave society at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652 – 1838. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.
  • Shell,R. 1999. From diaspora to diarama: the UNESCO feasibility study for the cultural amplification of the memory of slavery and the slave trade in Southern Africa, part one: The Lodge’. Quarterly bulletin of the National Library of South Africa, 54(2):44-56.
  • Shell,R (Compiler) 2000. From diaspora to diorama: African Slave Trade Routes and Southern Africa. The UNESCO Slave Trade Route Project (South African Chapter) Feasiblity Study. Unpublished Report on behalf of the UNESCO slave trade route project.
  • West,B. 2000 (10 March). ‘Steps leading to VOC slave cellar uncovered’. Cape Times.
  • Yutar,D. 2000 a (1 March). ‘Unearthing the history of slavery at the Cape’. The Star. • Yutar,D. 2000 b (2 March). ‘Testimony of the spade reveals our slave history’. The Cape Argus.

Above and below: Ceramics, clay tobacco pip stems and faunal materials excavated on the site.

The excavated area in the central courtyard.