Slavery in South Africa

Primary documents

Peter Thunberg’s description of work done by slaves, written in 1772.

 

Thunberg was a Swedish botanist who lived in Cape Town for while. Source: Worden, N. 1996. The chains that bind us. A history of slavery at the Cape. Cape Town: Juta, p. 49. (From: Thunberg, P. 1795. Travels in Europe, Asia and Africa made between the years 1770 and 1779. London).

 

The houses are all of brick, white-washed, and one, seldom two but very rarely three storeys high, and covered in for the most part with flat roofs of brick-work, or a kind of grass indigenous this country laid upon very low framework. On account of the violence of the winds that prevail here, the roofs cannot be tiled over, nor raised higher.

 

The house of the lieutenant-governor, and the company's warehouse, were the only houses that were three storeys high. The domestics here do not consist of Europeans, but of black or tawny slaves from Malabar, Madagascar, or other parts of India. These, in general, speak either broken Portuguese, or else the Malabar, seldom the Dutch language, and learn various trades, by which they bring their masters considerable profit, especially such as are tailors, carpenters, bricklayers, or cooks.

 

The slaves are let out by the month, week or day, during which term they are to earn for their masters a certain fixed sum per diem. The male slaves wear their own hair, upon which they set a great value, wrapped up in a twisted handkerchief like a turban, and the females wreath up their hair and fix it on their beads with a large pin. Trousers constitute the other part of their dress; and as a token of their servile condition, they always go barefoot, and without a hat. Previous to the company's sitting down to meals, either dinner or supper, a female slave brings a wash-hand basin and towel., to wash their hands, which is also done on the company's rising from the table.

 

In the houses of the wealthy, every one of the company has a slave behind his chair to wait on him. The slave has frequently a large palm leaf in his band, by way of a fan, to drive away the flies, which are as troublesome here as they are in Sweden.

 

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Otto Mentzel’s description of work done by slaves on a farm.

 

Mentzel, a German, lived at the Cape in the 1730s. Source: Worden, N. 1996. The chains that bind us. A history of slavery at the Cape. Cape Town: Juta, pp. 50-51 (From: Otto Mentzel, 1785. Description of the Cape. London.)

 

As soon as the rainy season has started and the land has been soaked, the ploughing starts. The farmer usually divides his work into two shifts per day, namely in the morning from dawn to 10 o'clock, and in the afternoon from 12 o'clock to 4 or 5. His meals are arranged accordingly.

 

Before going to the fields, the slaves received a glass of brandy and a small slice of bread, but the farmer and his men drink coffee; those who like may have a slice of bread and butter with it, or leave that for later if they feel so inclined.

 

About 10 o'clock the slaves return, having already driven the outspanned animals to the herdsman. Now the midday meal is taken both by the men and the household. After the meal, at about 12 o'clock, the herd drives the animals nearer to the house and the slaves inspan fresh oxen to the ploughs. Two o'clock is tea-time and since the day is then not very long, it is customary to drink it out of rinsing basins rather than out of separate tea-cups in a more leisurely way. When the slaves have finished their work in the field, they outspan the oxen and drive them to pasture for another hour or a little longer.

 

At six o'clock, or if it rains hard, a little earlier, the herds return with the cattle, horses, sheep and pigs. Each kind is driven into its own kraal, but the saddle-horses are put in a stable. But unless they are wanted for riding the next morning, they are not on that account given forage at home. When the cattle have been driven in, the evening meal is taken; afterwards anyone who wants to may retire to rest.

 

Only the house-slave must remain on duty until the mistress has gone to bed, for she is accustomed to stay up a little later during the longer nights and keep herself busy. Spinning is not practised in this country; for neither flax nor cotton are to be had, and weaving is unknown. As soon as the weather changes at the end of August, or at the beginning of September, and spring starts, these farmers also change their work and with it their hours for meals.

 

They rise at dawn but most of them take no coffee nor anything to eat until about 8 o'clock. Then the table is properly laid and both master and servants take a breakfast of warm meat courses: except during the vintage time, when the farmer and his family prefer a slice of bread and butter with some of the choicest grapes to warm food. This kind of breakfast tea is served and the men generally smoke a pipe. Then everyone goes to his work.

 

About 12 o'clock the midday meal is taken; after the meal the farmer lies down for a while and rests till about 3 o'clock, when tea is ready again. About 7 pm at the latest, the herds return with the cattle and when these have been taken care of, the evening meal is eaten. Afterwards, all those who do not wish to remain up any longer, go to bed. At these farmers' homes, as soon as definite order has been established, everything goes like clockwork.

 

Generally speaking the servants themselves know what their daily task is, and it may be said that even the slaves are quite happy in their bondage. This may be clearly perceived in fine weather and on moonlit evenings. For although the slave has worked fairly hard and suffered from heat during the day, yet he is happy and sings, and plays on his raveking (ramkie) and even dances.

 

But winter evenings they sit round the fire with a pipe of tobacco and tell each other stories of their fatherland in Portuguese [lingua franca]. Sensible slaves want nothing but food, clothing and tobacco; sensible masters do not deprive them of any of these, but take into consideration the heavy yoke of slavery and do not treat them unreasonably nor have them flogged unduly. If a slave does wrong maliciously, he is punished for it and endures the well-deserved chastisement rather than continuous abuse.

 

A certain tribe among them, called Buchinese or Buckinese, brought from the mainland of Asia near the South-Western islands, will even thank one for a well-deserved hiding; but if they are made to suffer undeservedly, they become very indignant and often vengeful. They stand no rebukes from women, still less blows; but would defend themselves at the risk of their lives.

 

For this reason, it is forbidden to import them into the Cape. But the ship’s officers who bring them along do not disclose their country of origin and who can recognise them? On occasions such as the end of the sowing season, during the harvest, after the vintage, or for work on Sundays and other special days, well-meaning masters would give their slaves some wine which has an immediate refreshing effect on their tired limbs.

 

Sensible farmers also allow them to cultivate a small piece of land whereon they sow peas or beans for sale. For the money received, they buy ornaments and fine coloured kerchiefs to bind round their heads: puffs: i.e. small pieces of taffeta to sew to the edge of their trouser-legs, and articles of like nature.

 

People may say what they please about the wickedness of slaves, but there are those among them who, if they are reasonably treated, behave themselves well and if, in addition, they suffer no want, are so faithful and attached to their masters, that they would lay down their lives for them if the need arose.

 

Of this I could give many instances; and if many historians have a good deal to say about the extraordinary wickedness of slaves, they should also point out the unchristian, often inhuman treatment they receive from their masters.

 

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Trial of Reijnier, a runaway slave.

 

The court is told about the maltreatment of Reijnier’s daughter. Source: Worden, N. 1996. The chains that bind us. A history of slavery at the Cape. Cape Town: Juta, p.69.

 

On this day there was brought to the jail of the Landdrost of Stellenbosch and Drakenstein, the male slave Reijnier, owned by Matthijs Krugel, captured by Pieter Raijnertszoon, after information given to him by a cattle herder on his farm. The slave has been living in the mountains beyond the Berg River for many years, eating fish caught from the river and dassies he has caught.

 

9 January l749: On this day, 9 January l749, there appeared before me, Arnold Schephauden, Secretary to the Landdrost of Stellenbosch and Drakenstein, and in the presence of witnesses, the female slave Manika of Bengal, aged approximately 60 years, presently the slave of Jacob Marais, who under the examination of the Landdrost Adriaan van Schoor, made the following testimony: That about 22 years ago, she was living at Simonsvalleij, the farm of her then owner, Matthijs Krugel in Drakenstein district.

 

And there she had relations with one of her fellow slaves, Reijnier of Madagascar, and amongst other children they had a daughter named Sabina. Sabina had diligently performed much work for her master's wife, but without knowing the reason why, she had been much beaten and abused by the woman; so much so that her man Reiinier had earnestly asked his master to sell the child to someone else, for she could stand it no longer.

 

That on a certain Saturday the aforesaid wife took Sabina into a back room after she had laid the table and stripped her naked and tied her to a post and the whole afternoon beat her with a sjambok and rubbed salt onto her. After she untied her she left her in the room, but the witness understands that the girl climbed out of the window and went and hid herself in the straw in the farmyard.

 

That her man Reijnierupple the sjambok on them the next day, for, said my master, if you punish a slave you must do it that he cannot be known before a magistrate. My master ordered us to smear the treading floor and that the floor must be well laid the next morning when he got up, on that we made the plan to murder all the farmers; we did not smear the floor because it was evening and was dark; we also told my master this, but he notwithstanding would have that the floor should be smeared against the next morning.

 

My master did not say anything more about it that evening, and we then immediately formed the plan, as I have already stated."