The Zulu child slaves

2010-01-27 00:00

ON May 4, 1843, Sir George Thomas Napier, the governor of the Cape Colony, issued a proclamation placing thousands of emigrant Dutch Boers (Voortrekkers) , who occupied the territory of Natal since 1837, under the protection of Her Majesty the Queen.

The Boers agreed to accept all the conditions for operating their own government under British protection, including: “Slavery in any shape or form or under any modification is absolutely unlawful as in every other portion of Her Majesty’s dominions.”

Slavery also included the system of capturing, buying and “apprenticing” more than 1 000 very young black children who had to work for the Boers without payment until they reached the age of 21 years. The children were sold for cash or exchanged for cattle and horses. They were child slaves.

However, the Boers regarded the children not as slaves but as “orphans apparently without parents”. They were called the euphemisms “apprentices”, “kleingoed”, “schepseltjes”, “black wool” and “black ivory”.

True stories of the many child slaves in Natal live on in Zulu oral history as “amaKoboka” or “ingeboektes”.

Some Dutch Boers sincerely believed that black people were the descendants of Ham of the Holy Bible, cursed by the “Mark of Cain” and destined to serve others as hewers of wood and drawers of water, hated by God himself. They believed that Afrikaners were a chosen people like the people of Israel.

The French and British missionaries reported that the Boers, on their way to the hinterland, captured hundreds of children by force. The French reverend, Samuel Rolland, reported that the Boer­s had massacred an entire tribe of Bushmen and they captured 232 orphan children.

The Wesleyan missionary, the Reverend James Allison, reported that the Boers had captured 60 Ndebele children from near his mission. The children were forced to accompany the emigrants as team leaders (“tou leiers”) for their oxen.

On July 26, 1837, Sir Andries Stockenstrom wrote to Sir Benjamin D’Urban: “Let any man place himself in the position of the parents who saw their children carried away into bondage from under the wing of a Christian missionary — by Christian monsters called British subjects. No slave trade was ever more terrific.”

The Cape Frontier Times reported: “Natives are being shot with reckless cruelty, while children taken into the service of farmers are being transacted from hand to hand. This is slavery, call it by what mitigated terms we may.”

On January 30, 1840, the military might of King Dingane was broken by Prince Mpande, the half-brother of King Dingane, assisted by 335 Boers under Commandant-General Andries Pretorius.

Some 2 000 Zulus were killed by their own people at Qonquo Hills near current-day Magudu.

The Boers did not take part in the actual battle. Not a single Boer was killed. They captured 40 000 cattle plus 1 000 small children and they became known as the “Cattle Commando”.

King Dingane had to flee for his life. He was murdered by the Swazis in March 1840.

Before the start of the “Cattle Commando” campaign, the Volks­raad (Council of the People) gave permission to each “burgher” to catch two small Zulu children. The captured children were destined to become “apprentices” or child slaves.

The Boers on commando were not satisfied to catch only two children each. They wanted to catch more.

On February 13, 1840, on the banks of the Black uMfolozi River, the Commando submitted the following petition to Pretorius, signed by 68 of the 335 men:

“According to one article of the General Instructions, we are not permitted to catch more than two small Zulu children per man, ‘kleine Zoelas te vangen’. The balance of the children must be divided amongst other people despite the fact that the other people themselves do not catch children. They rely on the number of children captured by us. We now demand permission for ourselves to catch five small children per man, ‘vangen tot vyf klyne voor ieder’. We will bind the children in service and keep them as underlings.”

Pretorius gave his 335 men permission to catch four small children per man.

The French naturalist, Adulphe Delegorgue, who accompanied the Cattle Commando as an observer, described in his book how some 1 000 captured children helped to herd 40 000 looted cattle all the way to Pietermaritzburg. Some of the children died from cold and exposure.

The treasury had no money and on April 4, 1840, the Volksraad decided to supplement the income of the landdrost with all the income derived from the registration fee of one rijksdaaler (the price of one- third of a sheep) for each indentured child.

In December 1840, Pretorius and 260 burghers were on commando with 50 ox wagons. They were looking for cattle and horses stolen from them by the Bushmen. They could not find the marauding Bushmen or their cattle and horses.

Instead, during the early morning of December 19, 1840, they attacked the iKhanda of Inkosi Ncaphayi near Lusikisiki close to the border of the Cape Colony some 270 kilometres from Pietermaritzburg. They attacked without warning and killed 26 Baca men, 10 women and four children. They captured 3 000 cattle and 300 sheep and goats. They also captured by force seven women and 17 small children. The captured children were later indentured as apprentices. One child, renamed Izak, was given to the preacher Sarel Cilliers. Izak was still working after the death of Cilliers in Kroonstad 31 years later.

Some of the more respectable Boers were horrified by this unprovoked and brutal attack on Ncaphayi and they refused to accept their share of the booty, and they later tried to censure Pretorius.

J. N. Boshoff, the landdrost and secretary of the Volksraad, and later president of the Orange Free State, wrote a letter to Pretorius warning him that his expedition against Ncaphayi would result in the loss of independence from British rule. Pretorius ignored his warning.

One child slave contract in the name of Pretorius survived in the Pretoria archives:

“That I, Johannes Bodenstein, Secretary of the Volksraad, properly qualified, bind the following seven Zulu orphan children according to the list given by AWJ Pretorius.

“He got the children in the war against Dingaan. They are apparently without parents. One is a Mantatees orphan child with the name Petrus, 13 years of age. The Zulu children, Jonas 11 years old, Magerman, 10 years of age, Job 5 years, Afrika 12 years, Eva 13 years, Katje 12 years and Sarah 11 years, according to my guess.

“They are allocated to Andries Pretorius of this Company under condition that Pretorius will provide them with the necessary food and clothing and that he will train them further and he will not mistreat them until the first five have reached the age of 21 years and the last three until their 18th year. After this period they will earn money for themselves.”

The Archives in Pietermaritzburg preserved the “apprentice” contracts of 28 individuals, including that of the Reverend Erasmus Smit, the preacher Cilliers (the “father of the Vow” prior to the Battle of Blood River), Commandant Karel Landman, and others.

On February 23, 1842, Sir George Napier wrote to the Natal Voksraad: “I can hardly bring myself to believe that men calling themselves Christians and offering prayer to the Almighty, as judge of their conduct and actions, should so profane the holy name of religion as to make a mockery of the word of God, and become the abettors of such cruelty and oppression.”

The British government decided to stop the shedding of innocent blood and child slavery by Her Majesty’s own subjects, the Boers in Natal. They decided to occupy Durban harbour for a second time in order to stop the expulsion of blacks from Natal and to stop any form of slavery under the guise of “apprentices”.

Captain Theodore Charlton Smith, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo, marched from Umngazi to Durban with 248 troops. It was a ridiculously inadequate force. They arrived in Durban on May 5, 1842.

Smith and 137 troops attacked the Boers at Congella near midnight on May 22, 1842. However, 35 Boers with elephant guns were waiting for them. The Boers killed 17 troops and wounded 31 within minutes. Three troops went missing. Smith fled back to his base on horseback.

The British troops were besieged by the Boers in a muddy camp for 26 days. Both sides bombarded each other with cannon balls and several were killed on both sides. Dick King rode 960 kilometres on horseback to get reinforcements in Grahamstown. Some 250 additional British troops arrived on board the schooner Conch and the frigate HMS Southampton. The siege was lifted on June 26, 1842.

The rebels fled and they formally surrendered to Lieutenant-Colonel A. J. Cloete on July 15, 1842.

On November 11, 1843, Napier wrote to Lord Stanley, the secretary of state: “My firm conviction is that there is only one mode by which an effectual check can be given to the system of slavery which, under the name of apprenticeship, prevails over a great part of the country beyond the colonial boundary wherein the emigrant farmers have located themselves. And that is by the colonization of those territories.”

On May 31, 1844, the British government annexed Natal as a province of the Cape Colony. The days of Boer independence and child slavery in Natal were over.

By 1846 most of the Boers, accompanied by their 1 000 child slaves, had already left Natal to seek their independence elsewhere in South Africa.

Sadly, they continued to capture, buy and sell some 5 000 child slaves in the district of Zoutpansberg in the Transvaal.


• From: Zululand True Stories 1780 to 1978, fourth edition, 2009, by Dr J. C. van der Walt.

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