The farm Constantia was granted by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to Simon van der Stel in 1685. Van der Stel was the Commander of the VOC settlement at the Cape and his post was later upgraded to Governor. Slaves were needed to work the land and by 1688, about 22 slaves worked at Constantia. The Constantia slaves were acquired from various sources. Slavery was not allowed in the Netherlands and officials returning there had to either sell their slaves or set them free. Some of the slaves were bought from other estates and from English ship captains.
The slaves had varied origins. Some of them were children, like Mange and Motta who came from Tranquebare (a Danish settlement) in India. George, aged ten, came from Madagascar. Then there was three-year-old Revan of Madagascar, sold in 1693 by Van der Stel to the Prince of Madagascar, Dain Majampa. Slaves were the principal labour source on farms and viticulture especially made intensive use of slave labour.
At Constantia, viticulture was practiced, fruit and vegetables were grown, and wheat was produced. The need for more labour kept growing and in 1695 sixteen slaves from India, Bali and Madagascar were purchased. In the same year three slaves at Constantia were sold. In 1698, 12 slaves who came from Temetard in India were bought from an English ship’s captain and three slaves who came from Cape Verde, from the captain of a Danish ship.
Others slaves purchased came from Brazil, the Canary Islands, Ceylon and Batavia. Some had been born at the Cape. Slaves on wine and grain producing estates like Constantia worked throughout the year. They worked in large gangs and were controlled by slave drivers known as mandoors.
This system was used on the farm well into the 19th century. Usually the farmer or one of his family members acted as supervisor, but on farms like Constantia, that was later subdivided and part became known as Groot Constantia, VOC employees known as knechte were also employed to supervise the slaves. Picking grapes was backbreaking work.
Contrary to Europe, vines at the Cape grew without trellising and were kept low by pruning. Slaves also had to weed, tread grapes and clean and prepare wine casks. Most house slaves were women. They did domestic work and worked in the vegetable gardens. This work was to a great extent unskilled, and not such heavy labour. The output of farms correlated with the number of slaves owned. For example, between 1705 and 1706 a total of between 250 and 350 slaves worked on the farm Vergelegen, by then the foremost farm in the Cape.
After 1699, when Van der Stel retired as Governor of the Cape, he concentrated on cattle breeding, which was not as labour intensive as viticulture and fruit and vegetable production. By 1709 there were 60 slaves living and working at Constantia. It is not clear where the Constantia slaves were housed. A drawing by EV Stade dating from 1710 does not show any building that can be identified as slave-quarters, unlike the special purpose “slave lodge” at Vergelegen.
Slaves who “behaved well” and became liked, were made provision for in the wills of the owners. In many cases, like at Constantia, it was specified that some slaves should be freed.
Van der Stel determined in his last will dated 1 March 1712 that after his death his body-servants had to be set free. On 18 March he named three female slaves who had to be set free. They were Fabia from Brazil, Leonora from Madagascar and Christina from the Canary Islands.
On 19 March 1712 he named a further eleven slaves who had to be set free. They were Job from Madagascar and Adamsol born at the Cape. The other were Adriaantje from Tranquebar, Maria and Mouto from Malabar, and a few Cape born slaves, namely Sophia, Clara, Dorothea, Constantia, Delia and Theodora.
Simon van der Stel and his son Wilhelm Adriaen. The original canvas (destroyed in 1962) is attributed to Jan Weenix. Courtesy of the Stichting Iconographisch Bureau.
A drawing of Groot Constantia by EV Stade dated 1710. The drawing does not show any building that can be identified as slave-quarters, unlike the special purpose "slave lodge" at Vergelegen.