Cape’s slave trade scandal

2011-03-19 00:00

IN December 1859 the British warship HMS Lynx captured a cargo of slaves from an Arabic slave ship at Zanzibar and, instead of freeing them, shipped them to Cape Town as “Prize Negroes” to be sold as “indentured apprentices”.

During the first British occupation of the Cape of Good Hope after the Battle of Muizenberg in 1795, Earl George Macartney was sent here as the first civil governor of the new British colony. When his ship sailed into Table Bay in May 1797, his secretary, Andrew Barnard, and Barnard’s wife, Lady Anne — daughter of the Scottish Duke John Lindsay of Balcarres, were also on board.

Andrew was a hardworking official and Anne an ambitious noblewoman who kept a detailed diary of everything that took place in the upper circles of the Cape. She also regularly wrote letters to her former lover, the all-powerful? supreme? Sir Henry Dundas, British minister of colonies and war in London, sending him reports about the scandalous conduct of the officials and their inner circle.

Thanks to her diaries of 1799 and 1800, and letters written between 1793 and 1803 that have been preserved, it is possible to get behind the truth of one of the biggest scandals in the history of South Africa: the largely unknown British slave trade at the Cape.

In 1934 a modest little book, Vrystelling van die Slawe (Emancipation of the slaves), by Erik Stockenstrom, appeared in simple, brown hardcover. It had been commissioned by the executive church council of the Algemene Sendingkommissie (General Missions Commission), and printed by Pro Ecclesia of Stellenbosch. The occasion was the centenary of the emancipation of the slaves in the Cape Colony.

This publication was the first to expose the lucrative British slave trade in South Africa, and has, to date, also been the only book to do so.

Since then, with the odd exception, historians have largely ignored Britain’s extensive involvement with slavery in South Africa. Those who have been prepared to write about the subject have done so by way of cursory references in academic publications, which are not read by the wider public. This is understandable, with career opportunities balancing on the knife-edge of political correctness.

The British slave trade — the largest in the world — was a capitalistic, market-oriented institution that operated according to the economic principle of demand, supply and profit-taking.

Entrepreneurs, using all sorts of dubious means, befriended officials, from the rulers downwards, to obtain officialdom’s blessing on their proposed criminal business — the buying and selling of abducted people as commodities. In this way restrictions and anti-slavery legislation could be effectively neutralised.

The considerable profits from the industry were shared with the officials — there was a hierarchy to keep happy — and the end users, the farmers and ordinary city-dwellers, had to cede their properties to banks for loans to be able to buy slaves.

It was an unethical business that effectively shackled the entire society as ships’ captains, financiers, slave traders and corrupt officials enriched themselves from the slave trade.

At the opposite end of the scale were the abducted Africans from Mozambique, Madagascar and elsewhere, as well as the hundreds of buyers who pawned their properties and in due course had to pay a bitter price when the industry collapsed and they lost literally everything — slaves, properties and status — with some reduced to beggary.

The British slave trade did not spring up overnight. It started as far back as the reign of Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603) when she and the aristocracy made money and ships available to traders to establish an extremely lucrative slave trade with the New World, the Americas. Not only the royal house, members of the aristocracy and traders profited from the industry, but also British banks, including the Bank of England and Barclays.

The west coast of Africa was a major source of cheap labour. British, and also European, marauders attacked the villages, captured the inhabitants, forced them into ships’ holds and sent them away to the Americas to be sold on slave markets.

It wasn’t long before warlike African rulers started enthusiastically participating in the slave trade. They launched large-scale attacks on the villages of traditional enemies and sold the prisoners of war to the ships’ captains.

The slave trade fed the European economy. The iron goods, arms and textile goods exchanged for abducted Africans on the African coast came from England, France and India.

Many thousands of workers were employed by businesses that depended on slavery and the slave trade for their existence. The industrial revolution gathered momentum, fed by millions of abducted Africans who provided the labour, as slaves, thus maximising the profits.

The Dutch rulers at the Cape previously imported slaves on a limited scale to try and make up the shortfall in labourers. With the arrival of the British, however, the industry exploded and the capitalistic enrichment factor became an even greater driving force.

There was big money to be made from the slave trade, and the British fiercely protected their slave trade empire against intrusion from other powers. The Anglo-Boer War, instigated to acquire the rich gold reserves of the Witwatersrand through the barrel of a gun, is another example of enrichment regardless of the consequences for others.

The activities of British slave traders like Donald Trail, Michael Hogan and Alexander Tennant and the corrupt involvement of the British authorities — among them Sir George Yonge — in the slave trade constitute one of the most important chapters in the country’s history of slavery.

So, too, the continuation of the slave trade and slavery after 1808, when slave-trading was banned in the British Empire under the euphemisms “Prize Slaves”, “Prize Negroes” and “indentured apprentices” until the late 19th century, with a brief resumption in the gold-mining industry until shortly before Union in 1910.

In his search for this history, Cape archivist Dr George McCall Theal found, as far back as 1897, that ships’ logbooks and other sources of reference from 1789 and onwards had disappeared from the Cape, London and Dutch archives.

One of the most shocking stories relating to the slave trade was that of the importation of more than 700 British, especially Irish, orphans to be sold for cheap labour to English farmers and urban households at the Cape. Under the cloak of Christian humanitarian outreach the Reverend John Philip, Cape superintendent of the London Missionary Society, founded the Children’s Friend Society (CFS) for this purpose. He received commission on every child sold.

Philip, notorious for his persecution of the Afrikaans farming community with exaggerated allegations of the mistreatment of brown and black people, called the children “ill-educated and rude”, but said they would be better labourers than the “half-reclaimed savages of the country”.

In terms of Ordinance No 3 of 1836, the children had to work for no wages as “indentured” persons and “apprentices” for “masters”. The boys were manual labourers, cattle herders and shepherds, while the girls were domestic servants. They were kept away from the white community and were housed with the black and brown “apprentices” and “indentured” labourers.

In 1839 the scandal was exposed by influential British newspapers. The Times of London renamed the Children’s Friend Society the “Children’s Kidnapping Society”, and trumpeted its activities as “a scandal shouting to high heaven”. The CFS was forced to close its doors in 1840.



• Kaap van slawe (Cape of Slaves), published by Historical Media, will appear on Heritage Day, 24 September.

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