Living conditions of slaves in the Boland (Western Cape), 1816 to 1834: a reassessment of currently held perspectives based on a new Boland slave database

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For nearly a century the phenomenon of slavery in early South Africa has been a topic of interest for local historians as well as for students of the social sciences. J.L.M. Franken, professor in French at Stellenbosch University, published a series of articles dealing with slaves and their social conditions in a local weekly magazine, Die Huisgenoot, in 1928. A pioneer study in the field was the MA thesis (written in Afrikaans) by A. Janse van Rensburg at the University of Cape Town in 1935. In his thesis, “Die toestand van die slawe aan die Kaap, 1806–1834”, he discussed various aspects of slavery: the slave trade and the sale of slaves; the colonial British view on dealing with slaves and the institution of slavery; the education of slaves and how the Cape legal system dealt with slaves until emancipation in 1834.

In 1950 the Cape archivist Victor de Kock published Those in bondage, a book in which he frequently quoted ad verbum from archival documents dealing with the treatment and living conditions of slaves. Unfortunately he did not include the various sources he had consulted; neither did he make use of footnotes or endnotes for clarification. The most influential and widely read South African history books in the 1960s which touched briefly on slavery as a topic of interest were Geskiedenis van Suid-Afrika edited by D.W. Kruger (1965) and 500 Jaar Suid-Afrikaanse geskiedenis (1968) with C.F.J. Muller as editor. The chapters relevant to the topic, in both publications, had been written by prominent historians. In both works the authors mentioned that the treatment of slaves at the Cape had been more humane than in the West Indies, where plantation owners often lived in England (the so-called absentee landlords) and their estates were supervised by white managers and (often cruel) slave drivers who sought to gain the maximum profit for their landlords.

In 1979 the American historian Richard Elphick and his South African colleague Herman Giliomee, published The shaping of South Africa, 1652–1820. In the latter, American historian James Armstrong contributed a chapter dedicated to the treatment of slaves. A further chapter by Elphick and Robert Shell discussed inter-group relations in which slaves, free blacks, Khoikhoi and settlers featured. In the later Afrikaans edition of the above work (1990), in the revised chapter on slavery by James Armstrong and Nigel Worden, these two historians concluded that slavery in Cape Town was indeed “tempered”, but that this was not the case in rural farming districts in the Cape Colony. They suggested that these arguments should be thoroughly investigated.

What follows is an attempt to examine closely the living conditions of slaves in the rural Boland district, taking as a point of departure the well-documented period of 1816 to 1834, and presenting a reassessment of traditionally held perspectives, based on a recently constructed Boland slave database by this author.

In 1974 the American scholars Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman published a quantitative-historical study, Time on the Cross, based on statistics from a wide range of databases available to them. One of their aims was to establish the truth of the general belief that “slave breeding” had existed in the USA – young slave girls had been encouraged to give birth at a very young age to increase the profits of the owners. Fogel and Engerman concluded that the existence of breeding farms as a typical phenomenon of USA slavery, had not occurred.

In 2016 the present author published Amsterdam tot Zeeland. Slawestand tot middestand? ’n Stellenbosse slawegeskiedenis, 1679–1834 in which he listed 8 450 slaves emancipated in the Boland. The list was published as an Excel spreadsheet on an accompanying CD ROM.

This dataset was utilised by the Departments of History and Economics at Stellenbosch University where a new study and the building of a new database was undertaken which included data on all the slaves in all the districts in the Cape Colony, including Cape Town. The project listing all the emancipated slaves in 1834 was led by Kate Ekama and was published in 2021 with the title When Cape slavery ended: Introducing a new slave emancipation dataset.

In the meantime the present author continued research on the Boland slaves. After 1816 slave owners were required to keep a precise record of all their slaves, which included details about the acquisition and transfer of slaves, as well as the deaths and births of all children. The entries in this new dataset number 19 500, thus containing sufficient data for a comparison with the findings of Fogel and Engerman as well as later similar studies by Steckel, Vinovskis, Koplan and Sheridan.

Thus the author’s new dataset, Boland-slawedatabasis (Boland slave database), is introduced and utilised in this article.

The method followed in compiling the Boland slave database comprised creating a number of categories/columns which included the following: slaves emancipated in 1834, name of slave, date of registration, age, gender, date of birth, names of mothers of infants, place of birth (e.g. Cape, Mozambique, Batavia), type of work performed, surname and name of owner, date of death, date manumitted, date of transfer and name of new owner, monetary value of slave in 1834 in pounds, and place of residence. Having this information available, it was possible to compare the living conditions of Boland slaves with those of slaves elsewhere as recorded by other, chiefly American, researchers of slavery.

The first comparison was based on the findings of Fogel and Engerman, analysing the age of slave women at the births of their firstborn children. The result was a very high correlation between the two sample groups.

This was followed by a comparison of the infant mortality rates expressed as percentages, and it was found that by far the highest number of deaths occurred during the child’s first year, followed by a slightly smaller number during the second and third years of age, before the percentage tapered off steeply and continued at a low rate until the age of 13.

Other findings dealt with the periods between the births of children of a single mother, the frequency of deaths during calendar months and seasons, the age at death according to place of origin or birth, the monetary value of individual slaves or by age group, the naming of slaves, the manumission of slaves and the various conditions attached to manumission, as well as ages at manumission.

In conclusion it may be stated that Armstrong and Worden were correct in their statement that “slavery in Cape Town was indeed ‘tempered’”, but wrong in their assumption that “it was not the case in rural, farming districts in the colony”. Their suggestion that “these arguments should be thoroughly investigated” was taken up by the present author. He suggests that their assumptions are proved to be wrong by offering a detailed analysis of the living conditions of 19 500 slaves in the Boland rural district; unless, he posits, this district is atypical and not reflective of other districts up country.

Keywords: births; Boland; Boland slave database; Cape Colony; emancipation of slaves; naming of slaves; slavery; slave databases; slave mortalities; treatment of slaves



Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans:

Lewensomstandighede van slawe in die Boland (Wes-Kaap), 1816 tot 1834: ’n herevaluering van bestaande beskouings aan die hand van die Boland-slawedatabasis

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