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Indigenous Peoples in the Global Revolutionary Era


Between Two Oceans: Slave Resistance at the Cape of Good Hope in the Age of Revolutions

Nigel Worden


     It is now becoming commonplace to analyze historical processes in a wider perspective than that of the nation or local region. Identification of the commonalities and networks of the Atlantic World have brought together scholars of Europe, Africa and the Americas, and more recently similar processes have identified an Indian Ocean world, in which movements of people, goods and ideas connect a vast region across southern and eastern Africa, Madagascar, South and Southeast Asia.

     However such developments have not been unproblematic. Economic historians can readily identify trading links and commodity movements, while studies of migration, voluntarily or not (as in slave or convict labor), have enriched our understanding of the movement of peoples across the globe. These processes have long historical roots in the Indian Ocean world, although both there as in the Atlantic they greatly increased in scale with the intensification of European colonialism between the 16th and 19th centuries. However the movement of ideas and cultural influences is less easy to identify in the available historical sources. Often we need to read between the lines, to make connections between actions and ideas in one region and those of another that are not made specific in the records. Sometimes, indeed, contemporaries in one locality were themselves unaware of the origins of such ideas or the range of their wider influence.

     A further issue is that the development of oceanic-based connections, have tended, like territorial area studies, to set up artificial boundaries. Thus Atlantic and Indian Ocean specialists usually work in different academic networks and fail to see the connections between the two oceanic regions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, work on cultural and ideological global connections tends to focus on social and political elites, men (for women are often absent in such work) of letters, who left behind books, diaries and manuscripts. The thoughts, actions and cultural awareness of underclasses are rarely examined as they are less easy to identify in available historical sources. There are some exceptions: Amitav Ghoshs's In an Antique Land (1992) and Clare Anderson's more recent Subaltern Lives: Biographies of Colonialism in the Indian Ocean World, 1790–1920 (2012) are notable examples in Indian Ocean studies.

     This paper uses cases of slave resistance at the Cape of Good Hope between the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries in an attempt to address some of these problems. Although the Cape is rarely considered in broader studies of the colonial world, since it was primarily a small provisioning station and not a heavily-populated staple crop colony, it is nonetheless a useful case study of the swirling interactions and global connections of the period. Its geographical position, poised between the south Atlantic and south-west Indian Ocean, gave it a strategic significance which made it an object of interest to a variety of powers. It came under the control of the Dutch East India Company from 1652, but was captured by the British in 1795, reverted to Dutch control in 1802 and was again conquered by the British during the Napoleonic upheavals in 1806. Its small-scale economy was focused on provisioning of grain and fresh supplies to shipping but it also maintained a growing northern European settler community who numbered some 15,000 by 1795 and a slightly larger slave population (almost 17,000 in 1795), originating from South and South-East Asia, Madagascar and South-Eastern Africa.1     

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Slave at gardening under supervision, Pieter Kolb, Caput Bonae Spei Hodiernum (Nürnberg, 1719)  

     Many inhabitants of the Cape colony had experienced a variety of places and cultural influences in the course of their lives. This was especially true of the slaves, since throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the majority of Cape slaves were imported and not locally-born. Historians have identified markers of wide-ranging external cultural influences among the Cape slave population, such as the spread of Islam, brought primarily from south-east Asia and the influence of Asian words and linguistic forms on the local creole language Afrikaans.2  

     The sources that give us most indicators of the ways in which the Cape slave population experienced and perceived the world around them are the extensively preserved court records, located in the Cape regional archives and with copies in the Netherlands Archief National. These, like all court records, document incidents when things went awry and crimes (however defined by the judicial authorities) were committed. Therefore, they have been extensively used by historians of Cape slavery to illustrate the ways in which slaves resisted their oppression, such as running away, arson, physical attack on owners or overseers.  These are the overt events recorded in the records. But the court records can also be used to show how ideas about resistance amongst slaves developed and changed in this era of global revolution and can thus illustrate how the underclasses of the Cape were part of a wider global network of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds.3

     One striking example of such a document is a letter contained in the trial records from 1760 of a slave named September of Bougies (September was not his own name, which remains unknown to us, but the one given to him by his owners) 4. He was accused of having aided a group of slave runaways by providing them with food, tobacco and ammunition when they were hiding in the vicinity of the farm on which he worked in the hinterland of Cape Town. Amongst the possessions of September was found a letter, written in the Bugis language, which was translated first into Malay and then Dutch, for the benefit of the authorities. It appeared to indicate that there was an underworld network of Bugis slaves who offered solidarity to each other. September was implicated as a ringleader, which explained why the runaways had sought refuge near his farm. Their ultimate goal was to escape under his leadership beyond the colony's borders "to the Caffers' land." September had relatively recently arrived at the Cape from Batavia, and knew other Cape slaves who had been imported from there. He also possessed medicinal knowledge and greater spiritual powers and was addressed as "father" by other Indonesian slaves. The Bugis were also Muslim. It was doubtless no coincidence that food had been offered to the runaways on Fridays. However they were betrayed to the authorities by a slave from another farm and brought to trial, following which they were executed.

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Letter written to September van Boegies, 1760, CJ 373, 141 (Western Cape Regional Archives, Roeland Street, Cape Town)  

     The Cape court was particularly concerned about this case since the runaways had previously attacked another settler farm and murdered its owners. In this atmosphere of fear and paranoia, they believed that the letter showed that they faced a culturally cohesive and resistant slave sub-community from the Bugis-speaking regions of eastern Indonesia. This was an area only conquered recently by the Dutch, and one in which there existed a vibrant written culture (in a unique and distinctive script) and a recent, but deep-rooted, commitment to Islam. Bugis slaves were particularly renowned for their spirited resistance and this episode and the evidence it threw up seemed to demonstrate why.

     These events typify several features of slave resistance at the Cape during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Attacks on farms took place, usually by runaways in search of food and ammunition, and were usually followed by bids to escape from the colony into the African interior. These forms of slave resistance bear a close parallel to slave responses in the Atlantic world prior to the late eighteenth century, which sought to restore the past, preferably away from the world of the slave owners, as runaways or in maroon communities. In 1760 Asian and Islamic cultural traditions served a similar function for at least some Cape slaves and demonstrate their connection to the wider Indian Ocean world.

     These patterns continued throughout the eighteenth century at the Cape, but at the beginning of the 1790s new forms of slave challenges to the social order also begin to appear in the records that hint at differing cultural and ideological influences. Slaves were reported to be refusing to carry out the ritual signs of subservience to colonists that pervaded personal interactions in such a hierarchical society.

     At 8.30 pm on the evening of 14 June 1793, the burgher farmer Daniel Malan went into the farm kitchen where he found some of his slaves, including one Cesar van Madagascar (another name given by the owner). In the words of the court prosecutor, he asked them why they had not gone to bed, as they would have to get up again early in the morning to help plough the fields. "The prisoner [Cesar], who according to the testimony of his owner has already on several occasions employed outrageous and improper expressions with regard to him, answered him in an impudent way, and indeed, according to the prisoner's own confession, with these words: "I am going to make my bed just now, there is enough time, I will inspan the cattle early tomorrow". The prisoner's owner hereupon ordered the prisoner to be silent; without this order, however, making even the least impression upon the prisoner, since the prisoner, instead of obeying this, continued on the contrary in an insolent fashion: "I was awake early enough, but because the weather was bad, I did not want to get up, and I must have my right to speak."" This was too much for Malan who hit Cesar with his stick.5

     Cesar's words are perhaps one of the most significant statements made by a slave in the vast surviving corpus of eighteenth-century legal documentation in the Cape archives. A slave asserts his "right to speak" in the face of contrary orders by his owner. Resistance to orders by slaves was commonplace, either by passive means such as slow or inefficient work, or more overt forms such as physical violence or desertion. All slaves recognised however that this was to break the codes of slave law and to risk severe punishment. Now however, Cesar claims the ability to argue against his owner's orders as a right. Something new was happening.

     It is tempting to conclude that Cesar was asserting a new defiance against outward signs of subservience at precisely the time when slaveholder authority had been severely challenged in Haiti (1791), in its turn fomented by a concept of human rights that stemmed from the events in Paris. We have no direct evidence for this. However during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Cape, in the words of Keletso Atkins, was "far from being isolated from the broader Atlantic world during this period of immense events ... was strategically positioned at the southernmost end of a great commercial and information highway."6 Rumours and reports of events in the wider world abounded within the port town in particular, many spread by soldiers employed in the mercenary regiments sent to protect the Dutch Cape and by sailors from Asia, Europe and the newly independent United States. We know that sailors from America and Asia were among the many deserters who were recorded as missing in the Cape Town hinterland in 1792.

     There can be little doubt that while precise details might have been muddled, the slaves of Cape Town and its hinterland would have been aware that the old order was being challenged. Cesar van Madagascar spoke a language of popular rights that seems directly connected to that spoken in France and Haiti. Haiti certainly made both slaves and slave-owners aware of what could be done, not only in terms of political overthrow but also as a cultural revolution which overturned the everyday rituals and social norms of a slave-owning society in the ways which Cesar and others had clearly demonstrated.

     It took over a decade for the kinds of awareness of "rights" expressed by Cesar of Madagascar to take a more overtly political form. In 1808 about 340 slaves marched on Cape Town from the Zwartland and Koeberg hinterland. They planned to "first take a battery and then…write a letter to the Governor, to grant our freedom, and if that was refused we should fight ourselves free."7

     The 1808 uprising was, in one sense, a fiasco. It lasted less than 48 hours and was swiftly crushed by two dragoon detachments before it could reach the town. Its leaders were executed and its followers sent back to their owners. Later historians dismissed this as chaotic, disorganised and doomed to failure. Few have seen it as part of a wider Atlantic revolutionary consciousness. Yet, as the numerous slave revolts of this era in the Americas and Caribbean illustrate, success of the kind that happened in Haiti did not take place anywhere else. What is more significant than ultimate success, are the forces that catapulted the Cape slaves into action, and the symbolic and cultural significance of their actions.

     It is clear that the leaders of the 1808 uprising were influenced by wider developments of the era. The Cape Colony had been much affected by the 'first world war' that had been raging since 1792, and had passed backwards and forwards between Dutch and British colonial rule. The latest shift had been in 1806, when British forces defeated the Dutch at the battle of Blouberg and established a military-based administration in the colony. Slaves living in the Zwartland and Koeberg areas would have been acutely aware of such upheavals. The battle of Blouberg had only taken place two years before the revolt of 1808 and was within sight of many of the farms that were targeted.

     Moreover in April 1808 Westminster legislation ending the slave trade was implemented at the Cape, despite the objections of local slave owners. Although this did little to alleviate the position of slaves in the colony – indeed in some respects it made their lot worse – it raised expectations that the new government was more sympathetic to the slaves. Their principal leader, Louis van Mauritius, ran a small wine shop at the Cape Town harbor side, and it was here that two Irishmen, James Hooper and Michael Kelly, told him that "there were no slaves in our country, neither in England, or in Scotland or in America." Louis responded that "it was a bad thing that there should be slaves here." 8 They brought welcome confirmation of the hopes of Cape slaves that freedom was in the air.

     Hooper and Kelly were young men who had left the tumultuous world of their native Ireland (where rebellion against the English erupted in 1798) and drifted around the British Empire in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, coming into contact with the diverse social world of soldiers, sailors, servants and slaves. Their ideas about the ending of slavery may not have been strictly accurate, but they did reflect the broadly radical and revolutionary atmosphere of the ships, ports and harbors of the era. Hooper especially made the Cape Town slaves with whom he came into contact aware of such issues. It was his landlord Louis van Mauritius who led the uprising, demanding liberty and the removal of the slave owners to "another country" since "I had heard that in other countries all persons were free, and there were so many black people here who could also be free, and that we ought to fight for our freedom and then Basta!." Freedom, he came to believe, belonged to the slaves of the British empire by right and it seemed to him not unreasonable that the new Cape authorities would grant it with a little forceful persuasion.9  

     It is clear that wider ideas about abolitionism, rather than the specific example of the Haitian Revolution, were foremost in the minds of the 1808 rebels. Yet there are clues that some of the symbolism of Haiti was reflected in the plans hatched in Louis of Mauritius's wine shop. Most strikingly, the leaders equipped themselves with dress designed to look like regimental uniform. Gold and silver epaulettes and large and small swords presented the wearers as officers. Ostrich feathers were "to be put on the hats of the principal persons."10 These were not worn straight away, but were intended to be placed on Louis's hat when he was declared as "Governor of the blacks at the Cape."11 It is tempting to speculate that this apparel was inspired by visions of the revolutionary ex-slave governor of Haiti. Certainly Hooper and Kelly saw their significance. When they ran away from the rebels in alarm as the uprising was getting underway, they took the epaulettes and feathers with them.

     In 1808 rebels challenged and appropriated the cultural markers of their oppression as slaves. This was evident in the first farm they visited. Louis dressed in his Haitian-style uniform, was presented to Jacomina Laubscher, the farmer's wife (the farmer being away) as a visiting Spanish captain with his own personal servants. She offered them accommodation and supper, serving them wine and food.12 The slave thus became the guest of honour at the table of the master.

     This was a deliberate deception. At the dozen farms that the rebels attacked on the next day there was no such delusion. But the slaves' actions continued the cultural reversals of the night before. For example, they hunted down farmers who tried to escape, in a reversal of the hunt for slave runaways. Not only did slaves capture such farmers and their families, but also they humiliatingly returned them to their own farms as captives, on foot, and driven by slaves on horseback. Sometimes slaves gave commands to them while holding a sjambok, a rhinoceros hide whip used at the Cape as the quintessential symbol of the slave owner or overseer.13

     A frequent pattern was that the rebels assembled all the slaves and their owners in the farmyard, while horses and wagons were commandeered. Orders were given to hand over guns and ammunition, and sometimes cash and food. Some slaves then entered the homestead itself, often (as above) with a standoff on the stoep porchway at its entrance. At one level this was a plundering of the houses for food, ammunition, cash and clothing that were of practical use to the rebels. They also rifled through the contents of desks and chests to take or destroy papers and documents that represented the legal powers of property that landowners and slaveholders held over them. But the very passing over the threshold of the settler homestead without permission of the owner was a violation of the spatial order of the farmstead.

     The rebels also showed no respect for the established hierarchies and conventions of language. Louis rebuked one slave for saying "Good day" to his owner.14 The time for deferential greeting was over. Abraham van de Kaap told the slave Samina "not to cry for a Christian" since "the insurgents the next day would hoist the bloody flag and fight themselves free, and that then the slave girls could in their turn could say jij to their mistresses [a disrespectful form in the Dutch language]."15

     Although brief and swiftly suppressed, the events of October 1808 had turned the social order upside down. When compared to the 1760 episode discussed above, the uprising of 1808 reveals a fundamental shift in the character of slave resistance. Then slaves attacked a settler household and murdered its owners, but subsequently ran away and hid, with the ultimate goal of escaping from the colony. In 1808 nobody was killed (until the authorities executed the slave leaders) and instead of escaping the rebels sought to take over the colony. In 1760 the authorities were concerned at cultural manifestations that stemmed from the world the slaves had made and which were outside settler experience, such as Bugis writing and medicinal practices. In 1808 they were faced with slaves appropriating settler and slave owner markers of authority through clothing, gesture and language. Signs of this were apparent, as we have seen, from the early 1790s. The growing creolisation and Africanisation of the Cape slave population by the early nineteenth century may account for the shift from Asian cultural practices to ones that were more locally derived. But the forms and ideas that underpinned the words and actions of the slave "cultural revolutionaries" of 1808 were also a clear manifestation of newer forces at work within the Atlantic world.

     These examples of slave resistance from the Cape judicial records show much more than overt actions of physical violence. When read through the lens of cultural symbolism, they show how wider global forces from both the Indian Ocean and Atlantic worlds interacted with local circumstances to produce significant shifts in slave awareness in this "era of revolutions."  Cape slaves, no less (and perhaps more) than their owners, were deeply affected by the wider ideological forces then sweeping the globe.

Nigel Worden is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Cape Town. He has written extensively on slavery and its aftermath in the Cape Colony and in the Indian Ocean world. His publications include Slavery in Dutch South Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), Breaking the Chains: Slavery and Emancipation in the Nineteenth Century Cape Colony (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994), Cape Town: The Making of a City [jointly with E. Van Heyningen and V. Bickford-Smith] (Cape Town: David Philip, 1998), Trials of Slavery: Selected Documents Concerning Slaves from the Criminal Records of the Council of Justice at the Cape of Good Hope, 1705–1794, edited jointly with G. Groenewald, (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 2005), Cape Town between East and West: Social Identities in a Dutch Colonial Town (Johannesburg: Jacana and Hilversum: Verloren, 2012), Honourable Intentions? Violence and Virtue in Australian and Cape Colonies, c. 1750 to 1850, edited jointly with P. Russell, (London: Routledge, 2016).


1 James Armstrong and Nigel Worden, "The Slaves, 1652–1834" in The Shaping of South African Society, 1652–1840, eds. Richard Elphick and Herbert Giliomee (Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 1989), 109–83.

2 Achmat Davids, The Afrikaans of the Cape Muslims (Pretoria: Protea, 2011).

3 For a discussion of archival sources on Cape slavery see Nigel Worden, "Cape Slaves in the Paper Empire of the VOC," Kronos 40 (2014), 23–44.

4 The letter is in the Western Cape Regional Archives, Roeland Street, Cape Town (CA), Council of Justice (CJ) 373, 141. For transcriptions of some of the trial evidence see Nigel Worden and Gerald Groenewald, Editors, Trials of Slavery: Selected Documents Concerning Slaves from the Criminal Records of the Council of Justice at the Cape of Good Hope, 1705–1794 (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 2005), 355–84.

5 CA, CJ 796, Sententiön, 1790–1794, 9 Nov. 1793, 279–84.

6 Keletso Atkins, "The 'Black Atlantic communication network': African American sailors and the Cape of Good Hope Connection," Issue: A Journal of Opinion 24 (2), 2006, 23–25.

7 CA, CJ 516, Documents in criminal cases, 1808, examination of Louis van Mauriitus, 31 Oct. 1808, 37.

8 CA, CJ 516, ZZZ, first examination of Michael Kelly, 4 Nov.1808, Article 29, 201–202.

9 CA, CJ 516, WWW, 1st examination of Louis, 31 Oct. 1808, Article 24, 28; HHHH examination of Jacob van Mozambique, 1 Nov.1808, Article 14, 412.

10 CJ 516, ZZZ, 2nd examination of Michael Kelly, 17 Nov. 1808, Article 6, 228.

11 CA, CJ 515, B, notes from Lindor and Coenraad Johannes Gie, 30 Oct. 1808, 11–12; CA, CJ 516, ZZZ, 1st examination of Michael Kelly, 4 Nov. 1808, Article 59, 211.

12 CA, CJ 515, E, testimony of Jacomina Henrina Laubscher, 6 Nov. 1808, 203.

13 CJ 514, A, Eijsch en conclusie, 5 Dec. 1808, Articles 1318 and 1320, 204; CA, CJ 802, Sententie, 803

14 CA, CJ 515, GG, testimony of Hendrick Albertus van Niekerk, 4 Nov. 1808, 202.

15 CA, , CJ 802, Sententie, 759.

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