Jan van Riebeeck, the first commander of the Dutch settlement at the Cape, realised soon after his arrival in 1652 that he and his officials would need additional labour to be able to fulfil his mission of supplying passing ships with fresh food. The local population, consisting of various Khoisan tribes, was not interested in working for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and Van Riebeeck was not allowed to force them to do so. He therefore requested the VOC to send either slaves or Chinese labour to the Cape. In 1654 he received permission to import slaves.
The first slaves owned by the VOC lived in various places such as the Fort, the Castle and a granary. The Slave Lodge was completed only in 1679.
The first group of slaves arrived at the Cape in 1658 on board the Amersfoort in March and the Hassalt in May. These two groups of slaves came from West Africa, an anomaly as the VOC had an agreement with the Dutch West Indian Company not to trade slaves on the West Coast of Africa. Thereafter VOC-owned slaves came from India and Indonesia, Mozambique and Madagascar.
It is estimated that between 7000 and 9000 slaves lived in the Slave Lodge over a period of 132 years. It was the largest slaveholding at the Cape throughout the slave period. The Lodge also housed petty convicts, the mentally ill and political exiles.
Iziko Museums of South Africa and the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town is working on a research project to find as much detail as possible about the inhabitants of the Slave Lodge. So far 3638 names have been found. In most cases we know the place they originally came from, their sex and when they died.
As in the case of the slave society at the Cape in general, the VOC-owned slaves came from diverse ethnic backgrounds. In contrast to privately owned slaves, there were a more or less equal number of men and women in the Company Lodge.
Table Bay by Aernout Smit (1683) within the William Fehr Collection, Iziko Museums of South Africa Social History Collections.
Illustrator: Godfried Friedrich Riedel (1724 - 1784) Vue du Promontoir de Bonne Esperance, c. 1780, copperplate print. Iziko Museums of South Africa Social History Collections.