European colonial expansion introduced the system of Western slavery to the Cape. In many places slavery went hand in hand with colonialism. The Cape was colonised by the Dutch East India Company, better known as the VOC (short for Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) in the mid-17th century.
The VOC was a Dutch commercial company, with the sole purpose of establishing settlements or “colonies” to increase profit. All the rules and laws at the Cape and all the decisions taken by the government were aimed at increasing profit for the VOC. The welfare of the people who lived at the Cape was less important. Therefore, having a cheap and subservient labour force fitted into the plans of the VOC.
The VOC made use of slave labour from early on. Laurens Real, the Governor-General in the East Indies from 1615-1619, introduced slave labour into the nutmeg plantations on Amboina in the East Indies. His successor, Jan Pieterzoon Coen (1619-1623 and 1627-1629) introduced slave labour in the rest of VOC settlements in the East Indies. Therefore, when Jan van Riebeeck settled in the Cape in 1652, slavery was already an established way of obtaining labour for the VOC.
The VOC was managed by an executive council, the Heren XVII. A governor-general and Council of India looked after the affairs of the VOC in the East Indies. Until 1732 the Cape was governed by both the Heren XVII in the Netherlands and the Council of India in Batavia (present-day Indonesia). After that, the Cape fell directly under the Heren XVII. The burghers at the Cape had some rights.
They could not be enslaved. They were the only group who could own land. But, they had to do military service and they did not have any say in the governing of the colony. They also had to take an oath of loyalty to the States-General (i.e. the Dutch government) and the VOC. The VOC could and did ban troublesome burghers (private citizens) from the colony. The people living in the Cape Colony were very conscious of class differences. The VOC officials looked down on the burghers, the indigenous peoples and slaves.
The rich burghers looked down on the poor burghers and other free people who did not own property such as soldiers, sailors and knechts (servants from Europe). Free white people, rich and poor, looked down on the indigenous peoples and the slaves. Differences were also made according to class and race when it came to justice. People of colour and slaves received heavier sentences than burghers for the same crimes. Slaves and people of colour had little status before the law.
In general, people in Western Europe did not question the idea of slavery during the 17th and 18th centuries. The idea of equal rights took a long time to take root. It was only towards the later part of the 18th century and especially the 19th century that some people started to think that it was wrong to enslave people. Equality and rights for all extended slowly to white middle class men in the 19th century, to white women in the early 20th century and to all people from the mid-20th century onwards.
In South Africa equality for all, from a legislative perspective, was obtained only in the 1990s. The idea of slavery was never questioned at the Cape. It was only with the rise of the abolitionist movement in Western Europe in the 19th century, i.e. people who campaigned against slavery, that people at the Cape started to think about a world without slavery. Most people did not defend slavery on the basis of racism or the inferiority of the enslaved people. They accepted slavery as normal practice. As W.S. van Ryneveld, a senior government official put it: “However injurious slavery of itself may be to the morals and industry of the inhabitants, still keeping of slaves is now become, as it is styled, a necessary evil”.
The Cape burghers did not take responsibility for the existence of slavery. According to them, the VOC took the decision to introduce slavery. They also looked at slavery from their own interests and the slaves’ feelings and interests did not matter at all. According to some burghers, they were given the right to own slaves and rights, whether good or bad, cannot just be taken away. They also argued that it would cost them a lot of money, if slaves were to be freed. In 1795, the Cape Colony became a British colony before it was returned to the Dutch in 1802.
The British occupied the Cape again in 1806 and in 1814 the Cape officially became a British colony. Slave resistance (including the Haitian revolution), the growing influence of the concept of human rights at the beginning of the 19th century and the effect of a changing economic system in Western Europe during the same period all contributed to more and more Western Europeans questioning the practice of slavery. Slavery at the Cape was outlawed by the British government in 1834. The end of slavery at the Cape was not because of internal pressure, but a decision from outside.
After protesting against the abolishment of slavery, the Cape slave owners eventually accepted the decision as inevitable. No pro-slavery revolts took place at the Cape. Registered slave owners at the Cape were compensated by the British government for their ‘losses’. Slavery was outlawed in the French Empire in 1848 and the Dutch Empire in 1863. In some Caribbean and American societies, slavery was abolished as late as 1870 in Cuba, 1873 in Puerto Rico and 1888 in Brazil. After the British had abolished the slave trade in 1808, the British Navy brought over 2100 ‘Prize Slaves’ to the Cape, mainly from slave trading vessels captured off Cape waters, between 1808 and 1890. The majority of these 'Prize Slaves' were 'apprenticed' to wine and wheat farmers for a period of 14 years, in conditions similar to slavery. Some of the "Prize Slaves' were able to avoid that fate by undertaking military service.
Ceramics with the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) branded logo emblazoned on the centre of the plate. From the William Fehr Collection within the Iziko Museums of South Africa permanent collection.
Baines returning to Cape Town on the gunboat Lynx in December 1859 Oil on canvas, 1861 Iziko William Fehr Collection.John Thomas Baines (1820-1875).
Wilhelm Langschmidt's depiction of Long Steet, a well-known street in Cape Town, in 1845 (after slavery has been abolished) - Notice the dress of people on the street.
From the exhibition Words of slaves, Places of Memory held at the Iziko Slave Lodge in 2014. Photographer Philippe Monges expose experiences related to slavery and human injustice.