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The slaves who built the Cape

The slaves who built the Cape

“You have entered the oldest surviving slave building in South Africa” reads a sign at the entrance of one of Cape Town’s most important museums: The Slave Lodge. This is where the Dutch East India Company kept the slaves that were brought to the Cape Colony from elsewhere.

Slaves are not a phenomenon invented by the white settlers in Africa – but few might know that this part of the continent was built by slaves originating from Indonesia, India, Madagascar and Mozambique. Their descendants still make up a fair share of the population in Cape Town.

The Dutch, who had arrived in 1652, set up a refreshment station for ships doing the lucrative trade route between Europe and Asia. And to establish the colony they needed workers. They were, however, discouraged from enslaving the indigenous people of South Africa, the Khoisan, as the Dutch East East India Company (VOC) thought that the local tribes were of better use to the whites as providers of fresh produce. In lieu, VOC sent slave ships from other colonies to the settlement.

The slaves basically built Cape Town. They did all the hard labour and were skilled craftsmen and artisans. They built the infrastructure, baked the bread and made the clothes. They grew the vegetables and erected the buildings. Between 1658 and 1808 almost 70 000 slaves were transported to the Cape Colony. And for much of this time, slaves outnumbered the whites.

The original lodge was constructed in 1679, making it the second oldest existing colonial structure in the city, after the castle. When the British took over the colony and eventually banned slavery, the building was made into government offices and later the first Supreme Court.

Through the Slavery Abolition Act (1834) the  slaves of the Cape were set free and formed the backbone of what is today known as the coloured population of South Africa.

The exhibition on the ground level of the Slave Lodge gives a good overview of the history of the slaves and how it connects to contemporary South Africa. In one of the rooms twelve black and white portraits tell the story about the “month names” given to slaves on arrival to the Cape. Names that still exist today and are rooted in country’s dark history.

It is details like these, that gives an  edge to the museum. The Slave Lodge is  not only about what happened in the old days, it gives perspective and explanation to the demographic of Cape Town and why this part of the country differs so much from the rest of South Africa.

During the apartheid years, the state classified the citizens in four major groups, Bantu/Black, White, Indians and Coloured – the latter consisting of people with either slave ancestry or coming from Khoisan background or from early mixed relationships. (During the racial politics of apartheid, the Immorality Act or the Sexual Offence Act strictly prohibited any sexual relationship between whites and people of colour.)

So, when people ask: Why are there so few black people in Cape Town, the answer is simple. The population is a mirror of the city’s history and the Slave Lodge is a good starting point to understand this.

Cape Town was a place of the Khoisan, then came the whites and they brought the slaves. The black tribes, the Xhosas, the Zulus and the Vendas, didn’t arrive until much later as migrant workers. They still only make up a third of the population while the coloureds make up 45 per cent and whites the rest.

Another interesting museum which centres around the coloured population of Cape Town is the District Six Museum that tells the story about forced removals and township-settlements during the apartheid era.

To further indulge in today’s culture of the coloureds, walk the cobbles streets of Bo-Kaap, have some smoosas at Biesmiellah’s Restaurant and savour the traces of the past. The typical Cape Malay food with its spices of the East is a legacy of the slaves.




Görrel Espelund

Journalist, author and Africa guide. Read more about Görrel here.