Slavery in South Africa

General living conditions

The slaves who belonged to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) were generally in poorer health and had a higher death rate than slaves in private ownership. Statistics show a very high death rate of up to 20% - 30% in some years in the Lodge. Although this high death rate can partly be ascribed to epidemics such as the smallpox epidemics of 1713, 1755 and 1767, the main cause was the unhygienic living conditions.

 

The Slave Lodge was dark, wet and dirty. A subterranean stream flows under the Slave Lodge and this stream flooded the cellar of the Lodge during winter. The roof also leaked which led to hardship in the wet winter months. The slaves only received blankets after 1685. Before then, they had nothing to cover themselves against the cold. However, Höhne, the Slave Overseer, reported in 1793 that the bedding stayed wet in winter and that the slaves never had time to properly wash and clean their belongings. Statistics show that the death rate was higher during winter than in summer. The building was very dark and without adequate air circulation. There were no windows in the building, only slits in the walls with bars. Only a few of these slits faced the outside of the building. Louis Michel Thibault, the building inspector, reported in 1803 that the building was so dark inside that one needed a lantern even in the day.

 

Furthermore, the Lodge was very dirty. Mentzel wrote in 1785 that the stench was unbearable in the Lodge. The stench was especially bad in the vicinity of the eight toilets next to the quarters of the mentally ill. Pigs were kept in the courtyard and fattened on garden refuge to be sold to the free citizens to earn an income for the slaves.

 

At first, food was inadequate, but improved with time. In 1685 the diet consisted of rice, fish, soup and vegetables twice a week. A shopping list of 1789 includes items such as rice, flour, peas, beans, wine, sugar, whale oil, pepper and vinegar. In addition each slave received 3/4 pound fresh meat a day.

 

The slaves received new clothing twice a year, although Otto Mentzel wrote in 1785 that slaves received new clothing once a year. He described their clothing as follows: “… each male slave wears a doublet and trousers made of coarse white woollen cloth with black streaks and lined with a cotton cloth called ‘sailcloth’. The doublet is adorned with 12 brass buttons. These outfits are made by the garrison tailors. The female slaves wear imported smocks from Batavia. It is made up of six yards of coarse cotton cloth.” Some slaves sold their clothes to earn money.

 

Clothes were used as a method to make a distinction between slaves and free citizens. Slave men were not allowed to wear shoes. This symbolised their position as perpetual minors in society. Slaves were also not allowed to wear hats prior to passing an examination proving that they had mastered Dutch. The rules did change over time. Under British rule, slaves were allowed to wear hats and the men could wear long trousers instead of the short trousers provided under Dutch rule. By wearing kerchiefs and turbans before hats were allowed, the slaves not only undermined the dress code, but also symbolised the establishment of an alternative culture.


Slaves obtained by the Company were mainly destined for the slave lodge. Notice the canal of gracht that ran right up against what was the rear facade of the lodge. Atrist: LM Thibault, c. 1791, ex D. Bax & ex C. Koeman, Argitektonies Skoonheid in Kaapstad se Kompanjiestuin, 1962.

Peter Laponder's model of the slave lodge at the end of the 18th century (1999). Note the small barricaded slits in the walls that were the only form of "windows".  The building was reportedly so dark inside that one needed a lantern even in the day.