Slaves formed the backbone of the Cape economy, especially in Cape Town itself and on the grain and wine farms around Cape Town. However, the pastoralist farmers who lived further inland preferred Khoekhoe labourers. The Khoekhoe were indigenous pastoralists who were eventually displaced by settlers in the Cape Colony.
Work in Cape Town In the 18th century
Cape Town was the only port used by Europeans in South Africa. Ships on the long voyage between Europe and the East, docked at the Cape for a few weeks to give their crew a rest and to take on fresh food and other provisions. The Cape Town economy consisted mainly of services to the crews of these ships. About a quarter of the population of the Colony lived in Cape Town.
The city’s economy depended heavily on the work of slaves. There were many slaves in the city who did all kinds of work. By 1760, about a quarter of all slaves in the colony worked in Cape Town. This figure grew to almost a third by 1806. Most of the slaves owned by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), lived in the Slave Lodge. The site of the Lodge still exists on the corner of Adderley and Wale Streets and now serves as a museum.
These slaves worked in the Company warehouses, Company Gardens and helped with the construction of public buildings and fortifications. The main function of the slaves that belonged to burghers was domestic labour.
The slaves cooked, did needle work, cleaned homes, collected firewood and fetched water from the water pumps. Remember that there was no tap water and electricity available those days. Domestic work took up a lot of time. The houses had to be cleaned, a big task in an era of dirt roads and coal ovens. Washing had to be done by hand.
Food such as fruit, vegetables and meat had to be preserved as there were neither deep freezers nor refrigerators. All meals had to be prepared from scratch. Other privately owned slaves were hired out to do unskilled work such as working in the docks. Others acquired skills and were used as drivers, bricklayers, masons, painters, carpenters, cobblers, tailors and boat builders.
Almost all skilled work in the city was done by slaves. In addition, slaves sold and bartered goods on their masters’ behalf in the town. Many were fishermen. The wages were paid to the owner, but occasionally owners allowed their slaves to keep some of the money earned. In 1772 Peter Thunberg gave a good description of the kind of work slaves did in Cape Town.
Working on wine and grain farms
Wheat farming, viticulture and stock-raising were the main economical activities at the Cape. Barley, rye (primarily for animal fodder) and wheat were cultivated and were often combined with viticulture for example at Groot Constantia. The largest farmers producing grain or wine rarely owned more than fifty slaves and slave holdings in excess of a hundred were exceptional.
The grain and wine farmers of the Tijgerberg and the Hottentots-Holland areas near Cape Town had the largest slave holdings. From the early 18th century the grain and wine farmers in Stellenbosch, the Paarl and Drakenstein Valley owned large groups of slaves.
By the British period, some of the wine and grain farmers had amassed large estates in these areas and were the wealthiest members and principal slaveowners of the colony. On the big wealthy farms slaves lived in slave quarters. On smaller farms, the farmer owned a few slaves and was dependent on their own families for labour. They also hired Khoekhoe labourers. On farms like these the slaves slept where they could find a place. The slaves ploughed and harvested the wheat using sickles. The wheat was winnowed with sieves. The slave children gathered the wheat into piles, ready to be tied into sheaves.
Slaves took the sheaves to the threshing floors and laid it out so that the next day it was ready for trampling by horses and for winnowing, Trampling and winnowing needed skilled slaves. It was common for farmers to send their slaves to work on other farms where slaves then worked as hired labour. Otherwise they worked for family members of their owners. This usually happened during the harvesting season. Otto Mentzel, a German resident at the Cape in the 1730s gave a description of a typical day on a farm.
Working for pastoralists
Few stock farmers or pastoralists, for example trekboers, were slave owners. However, between 1830 and 1850 trekboers in the Transvaal were involved in kidnapping thousands of African children who were then used as ‘inboekselings’ or ‘unfree servants’.
Between 1688 and 1783 less than half of the stock farmers owned slaves and many of these only one slave. Slaves in these areas did domestic work and some of them looked after cattle and sheep. Workers who looked after that cattle and sheep had to carry guns to protect the animals and worked far from the farmhouse. Slaves were not allowed to carry guns and it was easy to run away if you worked without close supervision, especially if you worked in the frontier areas.
Therefore, the stock-farmers preferred to use the Khoekhoe and San, two indigenous groups, to look after their animals. The Khoekhoe, traditionally being pastoralists themselves, also had more experience working with animals. Domestic work included cooking, cleaning the house and taking care of the farmer’s children. Some slave women also helped to make things like soap and butter that could be sold on the market to supplement the farmer’s earnings.
Slaves were purchased by private colonists to work on farms. Artist: RJ Gordon, c. 1778, Rijksprentenkabinet.
Slaves were purchased by colonists for domestic and artisanal work in town. A house on the corner of Strand and Burg street in Cape Town. Artist: Samual Davis, c. 1779, Iziko William Fehr Collection
Different kinds of farming in the Cape Colony, 1820. Wine and grain farms were concentrated in the south-western part of the Colony while pastoral farming characterised the interior.
Source: Worden, N. 1996. The chains that bind us. A history of slavery at the Cape. Cape Town: Juta, p. 45.
Mrs Horak's sedan chair
Some ladies were transported through the streets of Cape Town in a sedan chair like this one, carried by slaves. There were still dirt roads in those days and ladies particularly did not wish to dirty their fancy clothing.The chair belonged to Mrs Horak, a daughter of Martin Melck, one of the richest men at the Cape. Mrs Horak was also the grandmother of Marie Koopmans-De Wet (1834-1906). The house in Strand Street that belonged to Marie Koopmans-De Wet has been furnished in the style of the later 18th century and is the oldest house museum in Cape Town.