Slavery in South Africa

Historical sources on slavery

There are a lot of books about Cape slavery. But where did the writers get their information from?

 

It is not easy to find first-hand information on slavery at the Cape. Some people who were enslaved in the United States of America left behind oral histories, letters and even books telling people about life as a slave.

 

In South Africa, very few sources describing history from a slave’s point of view have survived. No books, diaries or letters have survived. In the time after the emancipation of slaves, nobody took the trouble to write down the memories of slaves. However, there is one exception - the story of Katie Jacobs. Katie Jacobs was interviewed in 1910, seventy-six years after slaves were emancipated. She was 96 years old when interviewed.

 

Information on Cape slave history can be obtained from:

  • Official records such as court records and inventories
  • Church records especially churches that ministered to slaves and later to emancipated slaves and missionary societies. Many slaves settled on mission stations after emancipation.
  • Diaries and books written by slave owners and visitors to the Cape.
  • Paintings and drawings of the time.
  • Archaeological excavations.

The shortcoming of all these sources are that they tell the story of slavery either from the point of view of the authorities, slaveholders and free people or give only indirect glimpses of slave life. One can therefore easily overlook the experiences of slaves.

Fragile histories Fugitive lives by Professor Keith Dietrich narrates the tensions and textures of early colonial encounters at the Cape - including indigenous Khoi and San people, slaves from Africa, political exiles, convicts from Indonesia to name a few. The exhibition incorporates  documentation and narration that is often hard to come by. Fragile Histories is informed by trials that took place during the 1700s, and in particular by the atrocious sentences that were meted out for transgressions against a social order in which these people found themselves.