Slavery in South Africa

Emancipation

The 19th century saw the end of slavery in the British Empire. The Cape Colony became a permanent part of this empire in 1806 and was therefore influenced by decisions in London.

 

Freedom within the practice of slavery

Some slaves were set free or manumitted while the practice of slavery continued. Some slaves were set free as a reward for hard work. Some slaves, who were allowed to earn money, could save enough to buy their own freedom. In a few cases, a free lover of a slave woman bought her freedom in order to marry her. In other instances, the slaves purchase price was paid by family member who already obtained his/her freedom. However, manumission was rare at the Cape. Only about 14 slaves were freed each year during the 18th century. There were restrictions on the freeing of slaves.

Usually, the slaves had to be able to speak Dutch and able to show that they were either able to earn their living or have money to take care of themselves for the rest their lives. This was to prevent slave owners from freeing slaves just to get rid of the responsibility of caring for old slaves who could not work anymore.

 

There were few job opportunities for freed slaves outside Cape Town. Most freed slaves did not gain full citizenship rights. These freed slaves were called Free Blacks. As time went on, they were treated less like the Dutch colonists and more like the Khoekhoe. For instance, they had to carry passes when they moved about. There were even rules on how the women should dress. That was to prevent them from looking better than the burgher women. One of the official regulations stated that:

 

Whereas it is found … that the freed slave women, from the point of view of clothing, not only stand equal with other respectable burgher women but … thrust themselves above the same; thus it is that … in order to control this very irritating behaviour, we propose henceforth that: Freed slave women to be prohibited the wearing of coloured silk clothing, including hoop skirts, fine lace and any decorations on their hats as well as frizzed hair including earrings which are made of gems or imitation gems… Kaapse Plakkaatboek, III, p. 62, 12 November 1765

 

Some free blacks owned slaves. In some cases, these free blacks and slaves lived together in the same household and were part of the same family. In other cases the free blacks were part of the wealthy elite and were socially and economically removed from slavery. For example, Jan van Bougies, the imam of the Palm Tree Mosque owned 16 slaves between 1816 and 1834. Slaves were therefore never really ‘free’ or able to obtain equality, even in freedom.

 

Beginning of the end

In 1807, laws were passed in England that stopped the slave trade by the beginning of 1808. This meant slaves were no longer allowed to be imported. However, people who were already enslaved and their newborn children still remained slaves and could still be sold.

 

These new laws meant that slaves became more expensive, because there were fewer slaves available. The sale of slaves within the Cape Colony was also more carefully controlled. For, example, all slaves had to be registered. During the next few years, laws were passed to improve the lives of slaves. These laws are called the Amelioration laws.

  • Slaves were allowed to make legal marriages after 1824.
  • Families were allowed to live together: wives and husbands could not be separated and their children not be sold before a certain age.
  • Slaves were now taught Christianity and the baptism of slaves was encouraged. Sunday became a day of rest.
  • Slaves had to receive a reasonable amount of food, shelter and clothing.
  • The number of hours the slaves could be made to work was limited.
  • The punishment of slaves was more strictly controlled.
  • Slaves were granted property rights. Slaves who worked in their free time could save what they earned, and buy freedom for themselves and their families - even against the wishes of the owner.
  • Some slaves in Cape Town were given a basic education.
  • The government appointed slave guardians to ensure that these laws were obeyed. There is evidence that the slaves knew about their rights and made use of them. Some brought complaints against their owners in the courts or to the Guardian of Slaves. Both slave uprisings happened during this period. In both cases the slaves demanded immediate freedom.

Slave owners were compensated for the loss of their slaves by the British Government when slaves were emancipated in the British Empire in 1834.

The wealthy Van Breda family purchased various silver items with their emancipation money, as for example this candelabrum made by an unknown English craftsman in c. 1790.

The candelabrum can be seen on display in the Iziko  Koopmans-De-Wet House in Cape Town.

The Van Breda family, who occupied the Oranjezicht estate for 7 generations (1731 – 1901), had 2 slave bells, sounded daily at set hours or in case of emergency. On sale days the bell sounded and a flag was hoisted, the signal for ships’ officers, burghers, and their wives and children to visit the estate to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables. The bell was displayed at Iziko Koopman de Wet’s House in Strand Street and as well as the Castle of Good Hope recently.

Freed slave women were prohibited from wearing clothes similar to burgher women in an effort to prevent them from looking better than the burgher women. “….Freed slave women to be prohibited the wearing of coloured silk clothing, including hoop skirts, fine lace and any decorations on their hats as well as frizzed hair including earrings which are made of gems or imitation gems.”