Almost every aspect of a slave’s life was controlled by his or her owner. The owner usually gave a slave a new name, decided how much and what they may eat, where they slept, the clothes they wore and so forth.
Slaves were usually given new names when they were enslaved. Many of these names were demeaning and sometimes insulting.
Some slaves continued to use their own name when they were amongst other slaves and friends. Some names described the slave’s personality or appearance.
These descriptions were not always flattering. Examples of such names are: Fortuijn (English = fortune), Dikbeen (English = Thickleg) and Wellekom (English = welcome). Other slaves received names of the month. Many people today still have surnames such as January, February, September or October.
Names from the classical period (Greek and Roman history) were also common, such as Cupido, Titus, Scipio and Hannibal. Names from the Old Testament were also used, such as Moses and Solomon. Some slaves were allowed to keep their given, indigenous names.
This practice was common among the VOC-owned slaves who lived in the Slave Lodge, but rare amongst slaves in private ownership. Only a small group of slaves received names similar to those of free men and women such as Antony, Maria and Anna.
Food, shelter and clothing
On most farms, slaves slept in kitchens, attics and barns, or out-of-doors when the weather was warm. Only a very few larger farms had special sleeping quarters for slaves. Slaves who did domestic work, especially the women, usually slept within the main house: sometimes in the kitchen, but also sometimes in the same room as their owners. Some children were given a slave as a personal attendant.
For 165 years there were no rules about how slaves should be fed. Only in 1823, did the government declare that: “Every slave is to be daily supplied with sufficient and wholesome food”. Thereafter, slaves were supposed to receive a pound of meat, half a pound of rice and half a pound of bread per day. A pound is just less than half a kilogram.
Slaves in the countryside ate food grown on the farms. Sometimes they also ate fish and rice. Some slave owners took advantage of the lack of legislation and gave their slaves food of a very poor quality. One visitor wrote in 1804 that: “black bread, half sand, and the offal of sheep and oxen are their general fare”. On the other hand, on some farms, slaves had small pieces of land where they grew vegetables for their own use. Domestic or house slaves usually received better food than the slaves who worked in the fields. In Cape Town, the slaves ate fish and vegetables. On wine farms, slaves received tots of wine. This ‘dop system’ or ‘tot system’ as it was known, continued to be practiced on some of the wine farms for hundreds of years. Today the Western Cape has the highest incidence of Alcohol Foetal Syndrome in the world.
A few wealthy Cape Town slave-owners dressed their slaves in uniforms. However, most slaves had very basic clothing. In winter, they wore cloth shirts, jackets, trousers or a dress, and these were sometimes made of animal skins. As a rule, slaves who lived in Cape Town were better dressed than slaves who lived in the countryside. But this was not always the case: V.M. Golovnin who visited the Cape in 1804 wrote: “the slaves in this colony are kept very poorly – they are dressed in rags, even those who serve at the tables of their masters”.
Hendrik Cloete of Groot Constantia made detailed lists of what his slaves ate and how they dressed. For Cloete the cost of keeping slaves was part of his investment in his farm and he had to keep track of how much money he spent in relation to his income from the farm.
Clothing was used to distinguish slaves from free people. This was necessary as there was often no physical difference between slaves and free people. Slave men were not allowed to wear shoes. This placed slave men in the same status category as the under-age children of free people who usually also used to walk bare-foot. Slaves were also not allowed to wear hats until they passed an exam to prove that they could speak Dutch. Some slave men undermined this rule by wearing handkerchiefs and turbans.
Captain Hendrik Storm, head of the Cape Garrison, poses with his daughter, Maria Magdalena, and his son, Henricus Jacobus, on the roof of a Cape Town house, in c.1760.
Two well-off Batavian ladies drink tea with their slave attendants, Java. The artist is Jan Brandes, c. 1780s. (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).
A certificate from the Slave Registry Office (1827) in the Cape of Good Hope. Slaves were registered to slave owners in a similar way that property is registered to property owners today. The above is the documentation describing an infant born into slavery describing the infant's mother and the slave owner. The slave certificate below describes slaves being sold (to and by whom) and where the slaves resided.