Cape Town and Slavery

CAPE TOWN: How slavery has influenced Cape cuisine, Cape architecture, language and Cape Town traditions

by Niki Moore

Slavery and the Western CapeIt would be irresponsible to ignore our most significant events in decades, even in a travel column. So this week’s effort is about the universal franchise – or rather, the lack of it.

One group of South Africans never had a vote, never had any freedom at all, and yet their contribution to our society has been priceless. These are the slaves of the 17th century Cape Colony.

The Western Cape has its unique character because of slavery. There are still reminders of slavery around Cape Town: the Slave Lodge in Adderley Street (now a museum), the Slave Stone where slaves were displayed prior to being sold, the Slave Tree where they waited their turn to go on the block. But their influence goes much deeper than physical relics.

Slavery: A brief history lesson

The very first consignment of slaves arrived at the Cape on the ship Amersfoort on March 28, 1658. They had been captured by the Dutch from a Portuguese slaver that was on its way to Brazil, filled with captives from Angola. This was the first of only three shiploads of slaves from Africa. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) controlled the Cape and had extensive holdings in the East Indies. It therefore made sense for slaves to come from Indonesia and Malaya. And they did – thousands of them. Within 50 years of the establishment of a victualling station at the Cape, slaves outnumbered free men.

VOC ship - Slavery and the Western CapeFor 176 years (until slavery was abolished) the economy of the Cape depended on slaves. They worked in homes, on the farms, in shops and factories, on building sites. Officially, almost 7 000 slaves were brought to the new colony on VOC-sponsored slave ships, but many more arrived with Dutch East India officials returning home from Batavia. Because the Netherlands outlawed slavery, the officials sold their slaves in the Cape before embarking on the last leg of their return voyage home.

Slavery: The life of a Cape slave

A slave’s lot was not a happy one. If they survived the journey (an ‘acceptable’ casualty rate for slaves was 15%), they died of overwork and malnutrion, torture and mistreatment. Many committed suicide. The hardy ones existed entirely at the whim of their masters – punished harshly, executed, married off or sold willy-nilly.

It is hard to think that anything good can come out of such sustained human misery, but amazingly, the Cape has some reminders of slavery that are testaments to the resilience of the human spirit.

Slavery and Cape cuisine

koeksisterSlaves were cooks and kitchen staff, and they had a huge influence on Cape menus. Our national dishes such as bredie, koeksisters, bobotie, sosaties and tameletjie (toffee) all have Malay influence. C. Louis Leipoldt – a writer and keen cook – was the first Afrikaner to recognise and formalise Cape cuisine, a mixture of East and West.

Slavery and Cape architecture

Initially slaves only did menial work, but as slave populations stabilised they were trained in skilled occupations. Slaves were taught to build houses in the Dutch style, but they introduced many little Eastern flourishes in the ornate stone pediments and ornamental gardens. The Castle, Groot Constantia, Vergelegen and Simonsig were all built by slaves.

Slavery and Cape slang

It is believed that Afrikaans developed as a ‘kitchen-language’ – a simplified form of Dutch that slaves learned in order to communicate with their Dutch-speaking masters. Proof of this, perhaps, is the fact that the first Afrikaans was written in Arabic script. The language is also enriched by many Arabic words such as piesang (banana), bredie (stew), baklei (fight), soebat (to plead).

Slavery and slave names

There are a surprising number of people who (whether they are aware of it or not) are descended from slaves. A dead give-away is the name. Slaves were always given names by their owners. Unimaginative people would choose an easy name such as the month in which the slave was bought (Februarie, September). Names of Roman heroes such as Cupido or Hannibal, biblical names such as Moses and Solomon, or whimsical names describing some attribute such as Fortuijn (if the slave was expensive), Witbooi (if they were light-skinned), or from their region of origin such as Basson, Claassen, or Snyman, were also popular choices.

Slaves were Muslim and introduced their religion into the daily life of the Cape. The Cape Peninsula is ringed by 20 kramats, or holy sepulchres, that have fulfilled a 250-year-old prophecy that a ‘circle of Islam’ will be formed around Cape Town.

Slavery and Cape slave traditions

Some current traditions in Cape Town date back to the days of slavery. On the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday women cut up orange leaves in the mosques. This slave tradition, known as ‘rampie-sny’, is unique to Cape Muslims.

The most enduring relic today is the Kaapse Klopse, or Tweede Nuwe Jaar. The slaves got this one day a year off, perhaps because their masters were too busy recovering from hangovers to need their services. Annually, on January 2, the descendants of slaves take to the city streets with bands and dance. The bright street parades and music are a joyous celebration of life over adversity. It’s a custom as unique to Cape Town as the noon gun and the flower-sellers on Adderley Street.

Now wasn’t that Quite Interesting ?

  • Used with kind permission of Niki Moore – a freelance feature writer and reporter currently living in St Lucia. You can read her original article “Throwing off the shackles” here.

** More Quite Interesting Histories **


Galen (name), meaning: "Curious One". A lover of language, human ingenuity and the forces of the universe. Hugely drawn towards the mysterious and unknown. Regular laughter and escapism essential.

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19 Responses

  1. Etienne says:

    Koeksisters, bobotie and sosaties are the BEST!!

  2. Galen Schultz says:

    Well, you have the Cape slaves to thank for those

  3. Dieter says:

    Someone carrying the surname Basson or Claassen (given as examples of “slave names”) does not necessarily have any slave heritage:

    Basson – Derived from the men’s name ‘Sebastiaan’. The progenitor (as the first person who brought the name to South Africa) was German.

    Claassen – Meaning “Son of Claas/Nicolaas” (a common Northern European surname structure, as we well know). Dutch progenitor.

    The Snyman name, on the other hand, did indeed have a slave progenitor… his father was “Anthony of Bengal”, presumably from Bengal. However, the name itself was a reference to clothes-making (“sny” = cut). So if there are regions called Basson, Claassen and Snyman, it’s coincidence.

    (Source: Groot Afrikaanse Familienaamboek, C. Pama)

    Also, I had to find it strange that the author would speak of a “first” Afrikaans text. The divergence between standard Dutch and the Afrikaans dialect was gradual and evolutionary, so how does one choose which piece of Afrikaans writing was the first? Back then, it probably would have been hard to distinguish between written Afrikaans and badly written Dutch anyway.

  4. Galen Schultz says:

    Thank you for your interesting input Dieter.

    My mother’s uncle is a Basson and has a memory like an elephant. He gave us a family history lesson over the holidays and it turns out that my mother’s side of the family are descendants of a Anna Basson. She was the first slave to be freed by Jan van Riebeeck himself!

    She became quite an important woman who married the first superintendant of Robin Island and spawned several offspring. We managed to find her house in Cape Town, which is now a popular Tai restaurant. They have, however, preserved several sections of the house and restored others to their original state (as far as possible).

    It turns out that we are also related by blood to Jan Smuts and found our family name on a family tree displayed outside a history museum that used to be his main office/house. I forget the name of the museum (Jan Smuts Museum perhaps?) as this investigation too place a few years ago.

    My father is currently doing his homework and tracing the family as far back as possible. It’s always interesting to know where you come from :-)

  5. amanda smith says:

    Tell me more about slavery at the Cape darling, tomorrow I’ll be checking again…

  6. Alex Wright says:

    Hey :)

    I am currently doing a research assignment, one of the components is how one can trace ancestors today, with how the slaves at the Cape and Groot Constantia were named.

    Anyone with any idea how to go about this, or has any information it would really help :)


  7. Galen says:

    Hey Alex,

    Your best bet is to look up the museums in Groot Constantia; give them a call or look for their websites. There was a particular one I remember going to as a child. It’s on an estate where Jan Smuts used to conduct his business. There is a very well informed tour guide (if he’s still there). Sorry I forget the name. Happy hunting!

  8. alex wright says:

    Thanks so much for the reply Galen. Should help a lot :D

  9. Alex Wright says:

    Does anyone know a good site where I can find a list of typical cape slave names?
    thanks :)

  10. Wilhelmina Roberts says:

    I would like to know where my ancestors came from,We look like Indonesians but where in Indonesia!!b also people who live in Cape town nd surrounding areas were slave around there” I think” nd people living in Steenberg,Tokai,Retreat” etc” were slave around Constantia nd surrounding ( I think ).My family were from the latter but I can’t find my stamouers with the surname of Salie on the list. Would like to know were can I find it or what surname did the name Salie originate from.

  11. Ashleigh Allies says:


    I would like to know which website to look up on to find the religion on cape town slavery!

    Thank You

  12. Galen says:

    Hey Ashleigh, thanks for commenting.

    I would image that European religion (mainly Christianity) would have spread via the colonists (British, Dutch etc.) However a quick Google search reveals that Islam was a popular religion among Cape slaves themselves.

    Found some info here:

  13. Chris says:

    I need a website with more infomation on Cape cuisine can you help?

  14. Galen says:

    Hey Chris, thanks for getting in touch.

    I can’t think of a particular website off the top of my head, but I see that one can do a Cape Town History Food Tour. Look see here:

  15. Chris says:


  16. Chris says:

    And do you know of any with architecture becuase i need to do this school project on slaves and i need to know the food,architecture,religion and language.

  17. Galen says:

    I’m afraid you’ll have to ask Google there my friend!

    You’re welcome to use any information here for your project so long as it’s properly credited.

  18. Emily says:

    Hey :) I’m also doing a research task on slavery in the Cape and I would like to know of up to 10 great slavery heritage sites in and around Cape Town. Thanks in advance :)

  19. Galen says:

    Hey Emily, please note that I am no expert on this subject. The above is pretty much the extent of my knowledge. If I had to learn more, I would use Google.

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