Town Slaves in the 1700s
| Most free burghers
(citizens) had slaves. A distinction was made between VOC slaves and 'private
slaves'. Many private slaves worked on the farms, but lodging houses and most
households also had slaves. They performed domestic work - gathering firewood
Visitors commented upon the sight of many slaves gathering
along the river banks, drawing water and washing clothes. Some slaves performed
at parties as musicians. Some were put in charge of selling their owners'
products, others were put to work as artisans or fishermen. It is clear that
some slaves occupied trusted positions, although all had to carry a pass signed
by their owners.
VOC slaves also held a range of occupations. Most, especially the Africans,
were put to hard manual labour, but others, mostly Asians, performed domestic
work, served in the hospital, worked as artisans and some held clerical
positions in Company offices.
Within the windowless slave lodge - where many hundreds of
Company slaves lived - skilled slaves received privileges and had authority,
whereas manual slaves ended up cramped in the worst of conditions in the
building. The mortality rate among manual slaves was very high.
Slaves and Islam
|A movement of lasting
consequence was the practise of Islam among many slaves. Although slaves and
convicts came from various cultures and religions, there is no evidence that
Hinduism and other faiths were practiced at the Cape. Islam, on the other hand,
became a strong force, although it was not allowed to be practiced publicly.
The tradition of Islam at the Cape - which can be seen in areas
like the Bo-Kaap to this day - is credited to the influence of Muslim political
prisoners sent to the Cape in the seventeenth century.
The best known is Sheik Yusuf of Makassar, a nobleman banished
by the VOC in 1694 after they captured Makassar. He was a noted Sufi scholar
and arrived with a considerable retinue, including 12 Imams.
He encouraged an Islamic revival among the slaves. We also know
of two Imams from Yemen imprisoned on Robben Island in 1744 who, after their
release, remained at the Cape and were influential in encouraging Islam at the
officials of the VOC enjoyed a privileged life at the Cape (not least through
corruption) the same could not be said of more junior employees. In particular,
the soldiers were ill-paid (9 guilders per month), poorly fed and lived in
terrible conditions. They were forced to perform hard manual labour in the
construction of defences and woodcutting. They were not permitted to
Most had joined the company when desperate and penniless,
sometimes drunk, but with vague dreams of a new life of riches in exotic Asia.
The reality of the Cape was drudgery and heavy work, and they were kept in line
by harsh discipline. They formed a rough underclass in Cape Town, and the
taverns were familiar with brawls between soldiers and sailors.
Most soldiers endured their five year contracts, and moved on to Asia or
returned to Europe. Some remained, and settled at the Cape. Others, however,
could not face the full term of their contract and tried to escape.
Two soldiers plotted their freedom in 1729. Governor van Noodt
heard of their plan and sentenced them both to death. As one soldier mounted
the gallows he 'summoned van Noodt before the judgement seat of God'. When
officials returned to report the executions had been fulfilled, they found the
Governor dead. Heavenly justice, however, does not seem to have induced any
greater compassion in his successors.
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