Iziko Slave Lodge
Slavery in South Africa

The VOC sent slave ships to Mozambique and Madagascar. The main purpose of these expeditions was to trade for slaves. In those days, travelling by ship was very uncomfortable and unhygienic for ordinary people. It was even worse for slaves, who were had to be kept confined.


It was costly to bring slaves back to Cape Town. Firstly, enough food had to be taken along for all the slaves for the journey. That would have been expensive, even if the slaves were not fed adequately. Many slaves died of illness during the journey. We know for example that 70 slaves out of 250 died on board the Amersfoort.


Secondly, the slaves had to be guarded. Slaves could rebel and try to take control of the ship. This is what happened in the case of the Meermin, a Dutch ship returning with enslaved people from Madagascar in 1766. Some slaves also committed suicide by jumping overboard rather than face a life of slavery. As described in this extract from the journal of the Schuijlenburg (Rijksargief, VOC 10 814), returning from Madagascar.


24 Oct. 1752: It was discovered in the morning that 13 slaves were missing from the hold… some were found who stated that the others jumped into the water during the night in an attempt to swim to land, but it must be assumed with the stormy seas that they have drowned.




16 Nov. 1752: Some of the slaves attacked the sailor who went to give them food, and came up out of the hatch, but they were forced back and hand and leg chains were secured on them all. The leader was then questioned, but he refused to say anything, so some of the younger slaves were interrogated who said that there had been a plot amongst the slaves to massacre all the Europeans and to escape. It was decided to severely punish the leaders as an example to the others.


Death and torture at sea


The VOC used its own ships to transport slaves in large groups from Madagascar to work at the Cape on government fortifications, buildings and outposts.Many of the slaves acquired by the VOC merchants were obtained from local rulers on the island.


The voyages of the VOC ships to Madagascar resulted in a slave death rate of up to 15%. The trips were relatively short compared to the Transatlantic slave trade route between West Africa and the Americas, where mortality rates varied from 20% to 30%. As the early Indian Ocean slave trade to the Cape has recently received attention, we are only beginning to understand what conditions were like on these voyages.


The slave ship was a site of torture and an agent of terror for millions of Africans. The following is an extract from the ship's journal of a Dutch slaving voyage to Madagascar (1753) on the ship, De Drie Heuvelen:


"Some of the slaves below deck broke out of their chains… They were eventually overcome… We decided to make an example… The leader was tied to one of the gratings and his arms and legs broken… thrown into the sea… in the presence of the other slaves. The other leaders were severely lashed."


The Amersfoort slave vessel was one of the first vessels to bring slaves to the Cape. From the Amersfoorst's "Lyste van de doode Negers", we learn that some slaves had fallen and some had been thrown overboard, dead or alive.


The causes of death were described for the sailors and the same would have applied to the slaves – only worse. The ship was 22 days behind schedule. Water and food were severly rationed. Scurvy, caused by a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, had broken out because of the duration of the journey.


'Rode loop' {'bloody flux' or the 'dreaded curse' as it was referred to}, caused by the unhygienic living conditions aboard ship was the most common cause of death. Soldiers, sailors and slaves were driven by this disease to relieve themselves below decks rather than over the side of the ship. To get rid of the foul air and stench on the ship, the crew took to burning juniper berries or gunpowder and using vinegar to wash the deck.


Arrival at the Cape


Many people believe that the slaves who were brought to the Cape were kept in the Slave Lodge on the corner of present-day Adderley and Wale Streets in Cape Town before they were sold under the Slave Tree behind the Slave Lodge. However, we know that the Slave Lodge was not used to keep slaves who were to be sold to private buyers and we are not sure that slaves were sold under the Slave Tree.

A model of the Meermin slave vessel, built by Brian Donnelly (2013). On loan form the VOC Foundation and on display at the Iziko Slave Lodge, scale 1:36.

“The Meermin was a ‘hoeker’ type ship built in Amsterdam in 1759. In the 17th and 18th centuries such vessels served as cargo carriers general-purpose vessel. It embarked on its first slaving voyage in 1762. Its last voyage was in 1766.”

The inside of a replica slave ship, based on the plans of the Meermin, can be seen at the Iziko Slave Lodge.The Meermin was built in 1759 for Cape service. Apart from general duties such as taking despatches to Batavia, she was also used to obtain slaves from Madagascar for the Save Lodge.

Details about the Amersfoort, Meermin, São José—Paquete de Africa and other slave vessels can be found at the Iziko Slave Lodge.  

Image by Johann Moritz Rugendas (c. 1827) interior of a slave ship hold in the Brazilian trade. Source: Voyage pittoresque dans le Bresil (1835)

Slave deaths recorded in 1659 for the Amersfoort, 'Lyste van de doode Negers'.