The Slave Lodge was the largest slave holding at the Cape until 1806. It housed an average of 476 inmates at a time consisting of slaves, convicts and the mentally ill. In the mid-18th century, about a thousand inmates lived in the Lodge.
Previous slave lodges
At the beginning of the VOC period, the Company slaves were housed in the Van Riebeeck Fort. In 1658 a slave lodge, Corenhoop (meaning maize heap/grain store) was completed as part of the Fort’s outbuildings and 98 slaves moved into this lodge on 29 May of that year.
A slave lodge was also built next to the Company’s Garden, but little is known about it other than by 1669 it had become dilapidated and had to be re-built. It was soon too small and some of the slaves had to be housed in the Castle. The Council of Policy under Commander Isbrand Goske (1672-1676) and later under Commander Johan Bax (1676-1678) discussed the construction of a new lodge. On 22 February 1679, the Council approved the construction of the new lodge next to the existing one near the Company Gardens. By 28 July 1679, the slaves housed in the Castle had moved into the new lodge, and when the old lodge burned down on 19 August of that year, the rest of the Company’s slaves also moved into the new lodge.
The Slave Lodge
The original structure of the Lodge was completed in 1679. Records show that the Slave Lodge was altered at least seven times. The three drawings show the stages in the development of the Slave Lodge superimposed on a modern map of Cape Town. The first shows the structure of the Lodge as it was circa 1693, the second in 1721 and 1764 and the third in 1767.
As can be seen from the drawings, the original structure was a rectangular single storey building facing the Groote Kerk. A second storey was added in 1733.
All the rooms opened onto the courtyard, which was the centre of activity. It was the general gathering place where the daily roll was made, and where cooking was done. Leisure and religious activities also took place here. In 1713 a play written by the son of an exile about a ravished slave was performed regularly.
Acording to oral sources, religious meetings were also led by a Muslim supervisor in the 1740s.
The fountain in the courtyard was fed by a natural stream from Table Mountain, that often flooded the cellar in winter.
There were no windows in the building, just barred slits in the walls. Only a few of these slits faced the outside, most of them opening into the courtyard. In 1803, Louis Michel Thibault, the building inspector, reported that the Lodge was so dark inside during the day that he had to use a lantern.
The building was altered many times. In 1716 it was enlarged, and in 1732, repairs were undertaken, including replacement of the roof. But by 1751, the building was still in such a poor condition that its demolition was proposed. It was instead repaired again, and was at the same time enlarged. It was now spacious enough to house one thousand slaves. Repairs were undertaken again in 1803.
In the course of the 19th and 20th centuries the Slave Lodge was used for government offices, to house the Supreme Court, and in the 1960s as a museum. The building in its present state shares very few features with the building of the slave period.
Excavations at the Lodge
During work on the building in the early 1960s, a pit was discovered in the courtyard that was excavated in 1968 by Elizabeth Speed, an archaeologist at the South African Museum. The use of the pit is uncertain. It may have been a well, but it is more probable that it was used as an underground water storage tank. The pit has two sections, one underneath the other, separated by a paved floor. The archaeologist B.D Malan reported to the National Monuments Council on many artefacts, such as fragments of bowls and other ceramic objects, glass and several coins, as well as numerous bone fragments, apparently food remains, that were found in it.
In February and March 2000 Gabeba Abrahams-Willis excavated three areas of the Slave Lodge: two in the courtyard and one inside the building near the Bureau & Parliament Street corner. Preliminary results available in June 2003 show a variety of artefactual and faunal material. Of the 932 faunal specimens found in the courtyard, Graham Avery, archaeo-zoologist at Iziko: South African Museum, has identified 11 species, mainly the bones of domesticates, such as sheep, cattle, fowls and pigs, as well as many fish bones and ostrich egg shell fragments.
Features excavated include the slave cellars, stone and brick walls, cobble floors, a well, old doorways and steps leading into the courtyard and a corner of the latrines. Many disused bricks, nails, window glass and roof tiles were also found in the excavation trenches, as well as charcoal, firebricks and wood.
Artefactual remains excavated are of bone, glass, metal, pottery and porcelain, and include drinking glasses and bottles, pottery cooking and storage vessels, hand-painted porcelain cups, saucers and plates. In addition, a stone pestle, hundreds of clay tobacco pipes, a copper or brass tap, bone and brass buttons, coins, money cowries and glass and ostrich eggshell beads were found.
Plan of the slave lodge at the end of the 18th century by IN Wildt (1798). (c) Iziko William Fehr collection.
The outline of the Slave Lodge of the Dutch East India Company.
Stages of development of the Slave Lodge:
1721 - 1764