Slavery in South Africa

At work

The slaves that belonged to Dutch East India Company (VOC) made an important contribution to the establishment, management and protection of the Dutch settlement at the Cape.

 

They were the largest group of slaves and were used for a variety of duties, from manual labour to skilled artisan work. In contrast to slaves in private ownership at the Cape, no strong division of labour based on sex existed for the Lodge slaves. In the first few years of the Dutch settlement’s existence, the slaves worked as assistants to the VOC officials such as artisans, the gardener and the wood-cutters.

Seventy-five slaves were listed in a letter dated 11 April 1658 - a third worked in the Company’s Garden while 19 were employed on the Company’s farms.

 

Twelve worked in the fisheries, while eleven assisted the Company’s artisans. Governor Simon van der Stel described the work done by the slaves in a letter dated 12 April 1688. According to him, 36 slaves worked in the Company’s Gardens and 13 in the gardens at Rustenburg.

 

Fifty-one of the slaves worked on the VOC outposts at Klapmuts, Kuils River and Hottentots-Holland. Some worked as bakers or as artisans such as masons, smiths, coopers, brick-makers and carpenters. Others worked in the hospital and at the quarries and waterworks. Otto Mentzel noted that six to ten slaves worked in the hospital caring for the patients and serving food while others dug graves. Francois Valentijn who visited the Cape four times between 1685 and 1714, mentioned that a large group worked in the Company’s Garden, both as gardeners and as spies to catch thieves stealing plants.

 

These spies, however, were apparently willing to look the other way at the right price. Some of the women worked as house servants in the VOC’s buildings and the houses of VOC officials. Others served in the Castle garrison, warehouses and administrative departments of the VOC. There were also artisans such as carpenters, coopers and potters. The kaffers worked as the Fiscal’s and executioner’s assistants.

 

The only comprehensive statistical breakdown of slave occupations was compiled by the Dutch officials after the Cape surrendered to the British in 1795. This list forms part of an inventory of the VOC’s property. There were 534 slaves who worked as follows:

Not working/Too old 45
Still in school 40
Infants 18
Government, presumably in administrative offices 17
Office of the bookbinder 2
Main warehouse for merchandise 2
Other warehouses 50
Look after VOC’s weapons arsenal 1
Hospital 27
Midwife 1
Fiscal’s assistants 9
Assist forger 5
Assist cooper 2
Assist miller 2
Assist pump-maker 2
Assist VOC cutler with keeping knives and axes sharp 1
Bakery 3
Pottery 2
Candle-maker 1
Collect wood 59
Garbage removal 6
Maintain fortifications 23
Painters 2
Assist the sexton 1
Work in Company’s Garden 4
Care for VOC’s chickens 2
Work at Kirstenbosch 2
Serve at VOC outposts 8

 

Besides the slaves mentioned in the list, many did menial irregular jobs assigned to them. Many of them probably worked in the docks loading and unloading ships. After 1795, work such as that of porters and other work in the docks was increasingly done by privately owned slaves, free blacks and poor whites