Iziko Slave Lodge
Slavery in South Africa

It is easy to judge people who lived long ago according to the values that we believe in today. One must remember that the world looked very different in the days of chattel slavery at the Cape.

For example, the concepts of human rights and democracy as we know them today did not exist then. The people of those days also had different ideas of justice. For example, it was accepted that a person accused of committing a crime could be tortured to obtain a confession.

Today, confessions made under torture are not allowed to be used as evidence. The Cape was colonised by the Dutch East India Company, better known as the VOC (short for Verenigde Oostindische Compangnie). The VOC was not a country, but a Dutch commercial company.

The sole reason for the establishment of settlements or colonies by the VOC was to increase the profit of the company. All the rules and laws at the Cape and all the decisions taken by the government were aimed at increasing the profit of 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 used 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 established a settlement in the Cape in 1652, slavery was already regarded as an accepted way of obtaining labour.

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. 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 for the same crimes burghers. Slaves and people of colour at least had some status before the law. In many societies slaves had no status before the law. That meant, amongst other things, that if an owner murdered his/her slave, it was not regarded as a crime.

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. 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 all people from the mid-20th century onwards.

In South Africa, that includes the Cape Colony, only obtained equality for all 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 the 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. The growing influence of the concept of human rights at the beginning of the 19th century and effect of a changing economic system in Western Europe during the same period both 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. 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.