Slaves were used at the Cape from the earliest days of the settlement. In 1717 there were 2,523 privately owned slaves in the colony, but the number increased steadily throughout the eighteenth century reaching 16,789 by 1795. The number of slaves consistently outnumbered free burghers during this period.

In the seventeenth century most slaves brought to the Cape came from Madagascar; in the early eighteenth century, almost half came from India and Sri Lanka and another 20 percent from South East Asia in the vicinity of the VOC’s headquarters in Batavia (modern Jakarta). By the end of the century a large proportion was shipped from East Africa, mostly from today’s Mozambique.

A Cape slave hoeing under supervision (Peter Kolb 1719)

Since children born to female slaves at the Cape were also slaves the percentage of Cape-born slaves increased steadily. The slave society in the Cape was unusual compared to that of other European colonies in the Americas as they worked alongside labourers who were indigenous to the region. As a result, emotional and sexual partnerships between male slaves and female Khoi were relatively common on farms.

In the Cape only the wealthiest farmers and households owned more than twenty slaves, while the majority had less than ten, a few had only one or two, and some had none.

The richest sources for tapping the experiences of slaves in the Cape are the extensively preserved records of the Council of Justice, from which the documents in this volume are extracted. They show the many different ways slaves resisted their enslavement and so fell foul of the law. The records are not only about resistance, but they also reveal details about the living and working conditions that prevailed.

Slaves on Greenmarket Square, Cape Town, 1764

It was not only slaves who were accused of crimes against their owners; sometimes, the roles were reversed. There are several cases in the records of owners who were accused, and convicted, of maltreating their slaves. The records also reveal Cape society’s linguistic complexity and are valuable to historians of the development of the Afrikaans language.

The slave Jonas van Manado’s letter to his mistress (1719)

This volume is a first in South African historiography, a collection of 87 verbatim records of trials involving slaves at the Cape during the 18th century. The cases illuminate not only the grim details of crime and punishment at the Cape in that century, but also abundantly details telling features of the lives, labours, languages and outlook of slaves and other inhabitants of the Dutch colony. Reading these case records provides glimpses of these slaves as flesh and blood people instead of as a faceless, silent mass, the object only of outsiders’ observations and enumeration. The transcriptions are printed in the original Dutch, with an English translation.


CJ 387 Criminele Process Stukken, 1766, ff. 132-34 TRANSLATION
Huijden, den 3e Februarij 1766, compareerde voor mij, Lucas Sigismundus Faber, geswooren clerck ter secretarije van justitie deeses gouvernements, praesent de naargemelde getuijgen, de slavin Dela van Bengalen, toebehoorende den burger Nicolaas Godfried Heijns, van competenten ouderdom, dewelke ter requisitie van den heer Independent Fiscaal, Jan Willem Cloppenburg, verklaarde hoe waar is:

Dat der comparante meede slavin Flora van Bengalen, nu wel een maand voorleeden, naar gissing op een seekeren Maandag, sonder egter den datum onthouden te hebben, des morgens om groene amandelen te verkoopen uitgegaan en, de clocque elff uuren, weederom te huijs gekoomen sijnde, deselve in het voorhuijs staande, teegens haar juffrouw, ofte de huijsvrouw van voormelde Heijns, die in de kaamer had geseeten, van den verkoop dier amandelen verslag gedaan het.

Dat der comparante leijffheer, dewelke in die kaamer op de kooij geleegen had en een wijnig beschonken geweest was, daarop aan het vloeken gegaan sijnde, terwijl voormelde Flora naar de combuijs sig begeeven had, denselven van die kooij opgereesen en meede naar de combuijs gegaan was, als wanneer eevengemelde der comparante leijffheer voormelde Flora, soo als den drumpel dier combuijs deur had betreeden, gevraagt had off sij niet wist dat hij in de kaamer op de kooij had geslaapen.

Dat gedagte Flora daarop van neen sijnde koomen te antwoorden, der comparante leijfheer haar Flora een klap of vier in het aangesigt gegeeven had, dog gemelde slavin sig alsdoen naar den, aan het ander eijnd der combuijs staanden, vuurhaard geritireerd hebbende, had geciteerde der comparante leijffheer een, bij de vuurhaard geleegen hebbende, aschschop opgenoomen en gedagte Flora daar mede een slag aan de regter seijde van het hoofd toegebragt, waarop door gemelde der comparante leijffheer dien slag hervat zijnde, was denselven egter door desselfs soon Hendrik Heijns, dewelke zijn hand gevat had, onder het seggen: Och, vader; daarin verhindert.

Dat der comparante meergemelde leijffheer vervolgens naar de camer gegaan, en aan tafel geseeten sijnde, middelerwijl door de comparante het eeten op de tafel was geset geworden, denselven de slavin Flora uijt de combuijs, om de tafel op te passen, geroepen had, dog gemelde Flora – dewelke, door de ontfangene slag op het hoofd sterk bloede, flaauw geworden sijnde – met het hoofd teegens een der posten leunende gaan staan, sulx meergeciteerde der comparante leijffheer haar Flora gevraagt had off sij nog een tweede slag wilde hebben, dog deselven daar op neen g’antwoord hebbende, was sij Flora, naar dat der comparante leijffheer gegeeten en voorts sig ter rust begeeven had, door de soon van gemelde der comparante lijffheer, in naame Hendrik, het haaijr van het hoofd weggesneeden, en haare wond met wijn gesuijvert geworden, dan nademaal egter het bloed niet had kunnen gestelpt worden, had seij Flora uijt vrees sig ten huijse uijt en, ten eijnde weegens dit geval klagten te vallen, naar den heer requirant begeeven.

Niets meer verklaarende, geeft de comparante voor reedenen van weetenschap als in den text, met praesentatie hetselven nader gestand te doen.

Aldus gepasseert ter secretarije van justitie des Casteels de Goede Hoop, ter praesentie der clercquen Pieter Caspar Broedersz en Frederik Wilhelm Allemann, als getuigen, die de minute deeses, beneevens de comparante ende mij, geswoore clercq, meede behoorlijk hebben gesubscribeert.

‘Twelk ik getuige, [get.] L.S. Faber, geswoore clercq.

Today, 3 February 1766, there appears before me, Lucas Sigismundus Faber, sworn clerk in the office of the secretary of justice of this government, in the presence of the witnesses named below, the slave Dela van Bengalen, belonging to the burgher Nicolaas Godfried Heijns, of competent age, who, on the requisition of the honourable independent fiscal, Jan Willem Cloppenburg, declares it to be true.

That fully a month ago now, probably on a certain Monday, without however being able to remember the date, the deponent’s fellow slave, Flora van Bengalen, went out in the morning to sell green almonds, and returned home again at eleven o’clock, when she stood in the voorhuijs and reported about the sale of these almonds to her juffrouw, the wife of the aforementioned Heijns, who was sitting in the room.

That the reporter’s owner, who had been lying in that room on a bed, and who was somewhat drunk, thereupon started swearing and, while the aforementioned Flora went to the kitchen, got up from the bed and also went to the kitchen, which is said owner of the deponent, as soon as he had entered through the kitchen door, asked the aforementioned Flora whether she knew he had been sleeping on the bed in the room.

That when Flora answered: “No” to this, the deponent’s owner gave the said Flora about four slaps in her face. When the aforementioned slave then retreated to the hearth, which was at the other side of the kitchen, the deponent’s owner took up an ash shovel lying by the hearth, and gave the said Flora a blow with it on the right-hand side of her head, whereupon the deponent’s owner wanted to continue with a further blow, but was prevented from it by his son, Hendrik Heijns, who grabbed his hand while saying: “Oh, father”.

That the deponent’s said owner then went to the room, sat down at the table, on which the deponent had meanwhile laid the meal, and called the slave Flora from the kitchen to come and serve at the table. However, the said Flora, who was bleeding heavily from the blow she had received on her head, became faint, and stood leaning with her head against one of the posts [of the door], which is when the aforementioned owner of the deponent asked Flora if she wanted to have a second blow, but that she answered: “No” to this. When the deponent’s owner had eaten and afterwards went to rest, his son, by the name of Hendrik, cut Flora’s hair from her head and cleaned her wound with wine, but since this bleeding could not be staunched, Flora went from the house out of fear and went to the honourable petitioner in order to complain about this incident.

There being nothing more to declare, the deponent asserts to be convinced of the accuracy of her statement as in the text, with presentation to subsequently confirm the same.

Thus recorded at the office of the secretary of justice of the Castle of Good Hope in the presence of the clerks Pieter Caspar Broedersz and Frederik Wilhelm Alleman, as witnesses, who have signed the original of this together with the deponent and me, the sworn clerk.

Which I declare, [signed] L.S. Faber, sworn clerk.


Nigel Worden is Professor in Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town and specialises in the history of Cape slavery. He is author of Slavery in Dutch South Africa (1985) and co-authored Cape Town: The Making of a City (1998). His current research is on the making of social identities in VOC Cape Town.

Gerald Groenewald studied at the University of Cape Town where he trained in both history and linguistics. He has published a number of articles on Cape history and is currently completing his doctoral thesis on changing social formations in VOC Cape Town.