Slavery in South Africa

The life of Katie Jacobs, a freed slave

Katie Jacobs is one of the few remaining ex-slaves. She is in her ninety sixth year, and despite this great age, her faculties are surprisingly clear, and she enjoys excellent health. Our representative found Katie sitting on a low stool in the yard at 63 Hanover St., Cape Town, nursing one of her great-grandchildren.

 

The hovel in which she is spending the closing days of her long life is utterly unfit for human habitation, and would have been condemned if our City Council fulfilled its proper functions, instead of squandering ratepayers' money to satisfy the vanity of the City fathers.

 

When Katie was informed of the nature of the visit she rose, took up her stool, carried both child and stool into a room, and began to relate her interesting life-history. "I was born on Mr M[ostert]'s farm, near Kalabas Kraal. I don't know the exact day, but I was between nineteen and twenty years when we were freed. My father was a Malagasy, and my mother a Cape woman. I began to work when still very young.

 

“When my baas, through old age, was unable to continue farming, be distributed most of his chattels among his sons, whom he had set up as farmers in the neighbourbood.

 

I and some cattle and horses were given to baas Kootje; my mother and some more cattle were presented to another son in Frenchhoek. From that day I never saw my mother, nor do I know what became of her.

 

Though I did not know how long it would take to perform the journey to Frenchhoek, I often desired to see my mother. The baas, however, always refused my request. I think he was afraid that I would not return." "How did your new baas treat you?" "He thrashed me only once, when I allowed the young horses to run away.

 

The work was more arduous than on the old farm, for the land had never been cultivated, and was overgrown with innumerable big bushes. For the first year, I had to take my pick and shovel and fall in regularly with the men at sunrise to clear the land. In the evening I assisted in the kitchen. At other times of the year I herded cattle. This job I hated most of all, not only because it was monotonous and I dreaded somewhat to be alone so far from home, but because I had to don men's clothes.

 

I always tried to avoid meeting strangers for fear of being discovered as a girl in men's clothing. By lighting a stumpy clay pipe, which I purposely kept when accosted by strangers, and by pulling my slough hat well over my eyes, I managed for a number of years to pass as a boy.

 

"One day I was identified. A Mr Van Niekerk, a frequent visitor to the farm, happened to pass the grazing grounds on his way to Cape Town. He approached me and warned me not to let the cattle stray into his fields, unless I wanted a good sjamboking. As usual I had taken the precaution to light my pipe and to draw my hat somewhat carelessly over my eyes.

 

"Mr Van Niekerk had acquired a reputation far and wide among the slaves for the ease and naturalness with which he cursed and swore at anything or anybody on the slightest provocation. That morning, he was apparently in a bad temper, for he swore at me as I had never heard him swear before. While at the height of his paroxysm he suddenly stopped, stared hard at me for a few seconds, burst in a load laugh and exclaimed, "My G--[od], it's Grietje of Mr M[ostert]".

 

I felt ashamed to think that I had been discovered, and from that day I hated herding cattle more and more. 'What time did you have for recreation?" "Well, I was often allowed to go to dance parties; but we had to be home before 2 am. "I had a husband though we were not legally married. My first child died in infancy. I was a healthy woman, and as my missus was in rather delicate health, I became foster mother to her firstborn son and heir.

 

During this time I was well looked after, and became one of the family; that is, I was made to sleep on the floor of the dining-room near the bedroom door to be at hand when the young baas wanted another drink (of milk). "One evening we were ordered to appear next morning in our best clothes and await further instructions. During the day we marched into the dining-room, and without any previous warning we were told by a magistrate that in four years we would be free.

 

My father replied that four years was a long time, and he did not think he would live so long. The magistrate said he would communicate with Ou Nooi - Queen Victoria - with a view to obtaining a reduction in the terms of the apprenticeship. At a later date he again visited the farm, and told us that a reduction of one year had been granted.

 

Nevertheless, my old father died in slavery, and so did not live to enjoy the God-given freedom which is the right of every human being.” "During our apprenticeship my husband - who visited me twice or thrice weekly of an evening - and I began to build castles in the air. He would work for me, and get a little hut of our own, where we could dwell together and be happy. My baas and missus, though somewhat irritated at the news of our prospective liberation, were on the whole kind, and I was not overjoyed at the idea of leaving them.” "So, on the Ist December 1838, while performing my usual duties, I was startled by an angry voice demanding whether I was going with the speaker.

 

On turning round I recognised my husband in a violent passion. His baas was cruel, and sjamboked his slaves as often as he fed them. He (the owner) was mad with rage on the day of our emancipation. Early in the morning he armed himself with a gun, mounted a horse, and drove every ex-slave off his farm. At the boundary he warned them that the first one that was found trespassing on his land would be shot down.” "A soaking rain had fallen from daybreak, so that when Jacob reached me he was drenched to the skin. No wonder he addressed me in an unusually harsh tone on the day of joy and humiliation and prayer.

 

My master offered to take Jacob and me into his service at ƒ1 10s and 10s a month respectively, and food and house. Jacob at first appeared determined to leave the district where he had suffered so much. My missus wept at the idea of my leaving her. "No; you must stay!" she cried. "Think of my son, whom you have suckled and nursed, and who has now grown so fond of you. What will become of him? No; you must stay; you cannot go!" "Finally, my husband gave way, and we remained at the farm for three or four years. Shortly after our liberation, my husband and I went to Durban[ville] to be bapti'sed and married.

 

The Rev. Beck, who performed the ceremonies, was kept busy from morning to night, as there were hundreds of ex-slaves gathered together for the same purpose.

 

I had often asked my master to allow me to be baptised, but he would never consent - why, I cannot tell.” . . . After several masters, Katie and her husband eventually arrived in Cape Town, and settled in District Six. "There was more love in the old slave days," continued Katie. "It was more peaceful. Now the electric trams pass my door from early morning till late at night, and the whole day long people shout at one another."

 

Katie has a good appetite, and objects to being fed on milk or soups or custards, which - as she says - are only food for babies. She has had thirteen children, and between fifty and sixty grandchildren. When our representative called on her on Tuesday evening, between eight and nine o'clock, Katie was not at home. She and two of her great-grandchildren had gone for a walk.

 

Her health is such that she may reasonably expect to live to see her hundredth year.

 

Source: Worden, N. 1996. The chains that bind us. A history of slavery at the Cape. Cape Town: Juta, pp. 89-91. The original interview was conducted by a journalist for the African People’s Organisation (APO) newspaper, 1910.

 

Copyright © 2002 Iziko Museums of Cape Town

Katie Jacobs and family