It was difficult for enslaved people to build a private life. Slaves did not have the same rights and freedom of movement as other members of the society. Many of them came from foreign countries with different traditions, customs and languages from those at the Cape. Slaves, including young children, were taken away from their families when sold into slavery and had to face up to hardships of slavery on their own. In many cases they were even stripped of their names and given new names at the Cape. Some slaves received a new name every time they were resold.
Because the slaves came from many different parts of the world, they spoke different languages. This made it difficult to communicate with each other. The Cape slaves came from East Africa, Madagascar, India and the East Indies. Slaves from India and the East Indies spoke a mixture of Indian and Indonesian languages, and Portuguese. Madagascan slaves spoke Malagasy and African slaves used their own languages to communicate. Some historians argue that the Afrikaans language developed from slaves trying to communicate with their Dutch speaking owners. Afrikaans contains many Melayu words.
It was difficult to form new families and friendship after arrival at the Cape. Some were the only slave on a farm. Others became part of a slave group with different cultural backgrounds. The slaves themselves had different cultures, languages and religions. Also, because the slaves did mostly hard labour at the Cape, the slave traders preferred male slaves. There were a lot more men than women among the slave population and on some farms there were no female slaves. It was therefore difficult for slave men to find life partners at the Cape.
Yet it was important for slaves to form families. It was one way of regaining their humanity and self-respect. Families could also provide a support structure to help people cope with the violence and hardship they experienced as slaves. On the other hand, slave parents suffered even more as they had to witness their children being abused by their owners.
The case of Reijnier who ran away after his daughter Sabina was abused, may be an extreme example of abuse, but illustrates the helplessness of the parent. Slaves were not allowed to get married. Life partners could therefore be separated at the whim of the owner. The children of slaves could also be sold separately from their parents. Many disputes between slaves and slave owners started when the owner disregarded a slave parent’s authority over their children. Some slave couples belonged to different owners. They were therefore dependent on the goodwill of their owners to see each other.
Some slave men took Khoekhoe partners. That also meant that their children would not be regarded as slaves. The farmers did not like that and in 1752, the government allowed farmers to indenture these children until they were 25 years old. This meant that these children, given the derogatory name Bastaard Hottentots by the colonists, spent the best part of their lives in similar conditions as slaves.
In Cape Town, slaves were sometimes able to mix easily with free people. These relationships included that of life partners. In some cases where a slave woman formed a relationship with a free man, her male partner bought her freedom and married her. Sometimes the man also bought the freedom of his wife’s children. Slave families, that is families where all family members were slaves, were centred on women.
Children usually lived with their mother. The fathers were more likely to be separated from their family than the mothers. In addition, young men were more likely to be sold than young woman. Families therefore often consisted of a mother and her female children. Men, on the other hand, often lost their families.
Leisure activities available to slaves dependended on where the slaves lived. Slaves who lived in the city had many more opportunities to make friends and to engage in leisure activities than slaves on the farms.
All slaves had very little leisure time. They worked very long hours. A proclamation of 1823 stipulated that slaves were not allowed to work more than 10 hours a day in winter and 12 hours a day in summer. Even after the proclamation, slaves were made to work longer hours during ploughing and harvest times. The fact that it was necessary to limit the working hours of slaves make historians think that some slaves used to have to work more than 10 to 12 hours a day.
Some slaves who lived in the countryside made friends with the Khoekhoe and San and learned some of their traditions and beliefs. The Khoekhoe and San also shared their knowledge about herbs and the environment with the slaves. We know from account written by travellers and from diaries like that of Lady Barnarad that the slaves also made music by both singing and playing instruments. However, we do not know what songs they sang.
Slave life was different in Cape Town from that in the rural areas. The slaves and the poorer free people, for example soldiers and sailors, engaged in the same leisure activities and they met outside the properties of the slave owners. Most of these activities took place in pubs, bars and smuggling houses. Activities included gambling, card-playing, cock-fighting, music making and dancing. Some people also drank heavily and street brawls were not uncommon.
Installation view of Ships of Bondage and the Fight for Freedom exhibition held at the Iziko Slave Lodge in 2014. Many aspects of slave lives are described in this exhibition.
Bringing down the washcloths Copyright Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections. Illustrator: Unknown
Knit work made by Melati, a slave
The baby cap and piece of lace was knitted by a slave named Melati in the 1830s. We do not have any other information about him or her. The two items form part of the Jeffcoat Collection and the note accompanying the cap reads: “Knitted by a slave of my grandmother’s and worn by me in 1838”.