Iziko Slave Lodge
Slavery in South Africa

The 19th century saw the end of slavery in the British Empire. The Cape Colony became a permanent part of this empire in 1806 and was therefore influenced by decisions in London.

Freedom within the practice of slavery

Some slaves were set free or manumitted while the practice of slavery continued. Some slaves were set free as a reward for hard work. Some slaves, who were allowed to earn money, could save enough to buy their own freedom. In a few cases, a free lover of a slave women bought her freedom in order to marry her. In other instances, the slaves purchase price was paid by family member who already obtained his/her freedom. However, manumission was rare at the Cape. Only about 14 slaves were freed each year during the 18th century. There were restrictions on the freeing of slaves.

Usually, the slaves had to be able to speak Dutch and able to show that they were either able to earn their living or have money to take care of themselves for the rest their lives. This was to prevent slave owners from freeing slaves just to get rid of the responsibility of caring for old slaves who could not work anymore.

Unlike in some other slave societies, there were few job opportunities for freed slaves outside Cape Town. Most freed slaves did not gain full citizenship rights. These freed slaves were called Free Blacks. As time went on, they were treated less like the Dutch colonists and more like the Khoekhoe. For instance, they had to carry passes when they moved about. There were even rules on how the women should dress. That was to prevent them from looking better than the burgher woman. One of the official regulations stated that:

Whereas it is found … that the freed slave women, from the point of view of clothing, not only stand equal with other respectable burgher women but … thrust themselves above the same; thus it is that … in order to control this very irritating behaviour, we propose henceforth that: Freed slave women to be prohibited the wearing of coloured silk clothing, including hoop skirts, fine lace and any decorations on their hats as well as frizzed hair including earrings which are made of gems or imitation gems… Kaapse Plakkaatboek, III, p. 62, 12 November 1765

Some free blacks owned slaves. In some cases, these free blacks and slaves lived together in the same household and were part of the same family. In other cases the free blacks were part of the wealthy elite and were socially and economically removed from slavery. For example, Jan van Bougies, the imam of the Palm Tree Mosque owned 16 slaves between 1816 and 1834. Slaves were therefore never really ‘free’ or able to obtain equality, even in freedom. Beginning of the end In 1807, laws were passed in England that stopped the slave trade by the beginning of 1808. This meant slaves were no longer allowed to be imported. However, people who were already enslaved and their newborn children still remained slaves and could still be sold.

These new laws meant that slaves became more expensive, because there were fewer slaves available. The sale of slaves within the Cape Colony was also more carefully controlled. For, example, all slaves had to be registered. During the next few years, laws were passed to improve the life of slaves. These laws are called the Amelioration laws.


There were many discussions about how slaves should be set free. Owners were reluctant to set slaves free as it could mean a financial lost to them. They would also have less control over free labourers. In addition, many owners felt that the government could not infringe on their rights and owning slaves was considered to be a right. One idea to end slavery gradually was that newborn babies should be born free. In that way slavery would eventually cease even though already enslaved people would not obtain their freedom. In the end, all slaves in the British Empire were freed on 1 December 1834. Emancipation did not mean immediate freedom for slaves. There was the belief that slaves could not take care of themselves and had to get used to freedom gradually.

In addition, the government also wanted to give slave owners time to adapt. Slaves therefore had to work for another four years as apprentices for their former owners. This meant that they had to continue to work for their former owners without pay. Many people regard 1 December 1838 as the real emancipation day. The slave owners in the Cape Colony protested against the emancipation of slavery, but had to accept that the decision as inevitable.

They were very concerned about the compensation they received for their slaves and were unhappy about the amount of money they received. They received less than expected, because the money had to be collected in London. That meant that the Cape slave owners had to pay agents to act as middle-men. Historians disagree about the reasons shy slaves were set free. Most free burghers (private citizens) at the Cape accepted slavery as the natural order of things. In other words, they found it difficult to think of a world without slave labour. Commissioner De Mist, a liberal with many progressive ideas, recommended during the Batavian period (1802-1806) that slavery should be abolished. But the Cape was taken over by the British in 1806 before the recommendations could be implemented. Some people say that slavery was abolished because people realised that it was wrong .

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 people started to think that it was wrong to enslave people. During this period still did not think of all people as equal. 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 blacks from the mid-20th century onwards. There were people, known as the abolitionists, who campaigned for the end of slavery. These abolitionists, for example William Wilberforce, were influenced by evangelical Christianity. They told people in Britain how cruel slavery was.

Other historians believe that economic factors played the most important role in the decision to end slavery. By the end of the 18th century, Britain was becoming industrialised. An industrialised economy needed a mobile and flexible workforce that can move to where the work is. Ideas aboout the need for mobile and flexible labour was also applied to slave labour in British colonies. Also, the industrialisation process was accompanied by the development of a market economy. A market economy needed people who earned wages so that they would buy the commodities that were produced. Slaves did not earn wages and therefore did not form a market for the products. So it made economic sense to free slaves to become wage earners. Many people also believed that people would work harder if they worked for themselves. It is significant that the decision to end slavery at the Cape was taken by Britain, an industrialised country, and not at the Cape. It is not only the general economic changes due to industrialisation in Britain that played a role in the ending of slavery.

The Cape Colony also experienced economic problems that may have contributed to the willingness of the slave owners to accept the emancipation of slaves. After 1814 Cape wine was sold in Britain very cheaply. As a result, Cape wine farmers began to produce more wine. They borrowed money to plant more vines and to buy more slaves to do the work. The prices of slaves increased greatly because of the huge demand for slave labour. But in 1826, the British started to buy cheaper French wine. Many Cape wine makers were not able to sell all their wine and found themselves in financial trouble. They had debts to repay and many slaves to take care of while not being able to sell their produce. Emancipation of slaves together with the compensation from the British government was one way to make up for losses and to get rid of an expensive, and unnecessary workforce.

On the other hand, the emancipation of slaves worsened the farmers financial problems. They used slaves as collatoral to obtain finance and were facing bankruptcy when slaves were set free.