Remembering the enslaved in Cape Town


University of Hull PhD candidate Samuel North explores Cape Town’s remembering and memorialisation of its slave past.

As a city, Cape Town sits on top of an uncomfortable history of colonialism, slavery, and formal racial segregation. This history has an uneasy relationship with depictions of the city in tourist publications as an inclusive world of adventuring, beaches, dining, and warm weather. Cape Town’s problematic relationship with its slave past runs deeper than this. Slavery is a history which until the fall of apartheid in 1994 remained largely forgotten in public memory. Efforts to confront this history remain fitful and highly contested. My PhD research aims to assess why and how this history is being grappled with in contemporary South African society.

Slavery at the Cape differed in style from most other systems of enslavement involving Europeans and Africans. Rather than serving as a source of human labour, the Cape was the recipient of enslaved people from Dutch Batavia – modern day South East Asia – as well as from elsewhere in Africa, predominantly Madagascar and Mozambique. Roughly sixty thousand enslaved people were either imported to or were born at the Cape between 1658 and 1834, and at various times their number marginally outnumbered that of white colonists. The second British occupation of 1806 coincided with waves of domestic abolitionism, and one year later the country outlawed its slave trade. Slavery remained legal at the Cape until 1 December 1834, and was followed by a four year apprenticeship period.

Memory and recognition of slave roots in South Africa has been marginalised by decades of subsequent subjugation and selective promotion of settler histories. The majority of slave descendants were classified as ‘coloured’ by the state. Alongside those classified as ‘black African’, many had to cope with the trauma of forced removal from their homes to remote and dangerous racially-exclusive townships under apartheid. This trauma has overshadowed interest in ancestral roots and weakened the capacity of the community to remember. Additionally, the apartheid state was only interested in white history, and constructed museums and education programmes around this idea. By the time apartheid fell in 1994, slavery was neglected as a public history.

In a democratic post-apartheid South Africa described as a ‘Rainbow Nation’ by then-president Nelson Mandela, the freedom to associate oneself with a variety of identities has become possible. Slavery, however, has remained somewhat clouded in shame amongst descendants, whilst the African National Congress government has been reluctant to promote what it perceives as a divisive ancestral history which evokes a separatist ‘coloured’ identity. Attempts to memorialise the enslaved were minimal during the first decade of democracy, and characterised by debate and contestation. When a developer discovered a nineteenth century working class cemetery beneath a plot in central Cape Town in 2003, a campaign was mobilised by people who identified as slave descendants to prevent exhumation of the remains which they claimed were those of their ancestors. Following a period of deliberation and appeal, the skeletons were removed from the ground, though they were not subject to DNA testing as a selection of academics had urged. Instead, an uneasy truce was reached, and a selection of the human remains were placed inside a memorial site. This is known as the Prestwich Memorial in reference to the street beneath which the skeletons were found. This site, however, has attracted criticism as, in order to ensure its operational viability, the City of Cape Town has rented out half of the building to an artisanal coffee shop. It offers a reminder of how the enslaved were grouped with other sections of Cape Town’s colonial working class and interred in unstructured plots which now sit beneath the city. The nature of these burials and their subsequent treatment acts as a metaphor for the visibility of the former enslaved in South Africa, and marginalises any potential recognition of tangible ancestral links amongst descendant communities.

Prestwich Memorial
The Prestwich Memorial, Cape Town. Copyright: Sam North

Alternative means have been necessary to remember the ways in which slave labour shaped social and economic relations at the Cape. Following several years of planning, the Slave Lodge Museum opened its first display on slavery in 2006. This museum had opened in 1967 as the South African Cultural History Museum, situated in the same 1679 building as was used by the Dutch as a municipal slave quarters. It was renamed Slave Lodge in 1998, however until 2006 its displays largely remained focussed on South African and international upper middle class culture, highlighting the problems facing museums which are tasked with ‘transforming’ their displays in the post-apartheid nation. Titled ‘Remembering Slavery’, this display provides foundational information on the nature of the slave trade to the Cape, as well as attempting to recreate the dank and dispiriting conditions which must have faced the people confined in this building. A highlight is the ‘Column of Memory’, a backlight tower inscribed with the names of Cape slaves which serves as something of a grave marker for people whose contribution to shaping the modern South Africa has scarcely been recognised.

Column of Memory
The ‘Column of Memory’ at the Slave Lodge museum, Cape Town. The column lists the names of slaves and serves as a form of grave marker. Copyright: Sam North

One of the more creative means of honouring the enslaved at the Cape has been a revival of 1 December emancipation day celebrations from 2006 onwards. In Cape Town, a march beginning late in the evening of 30 November is organised annually by a conglomerate of municipal and private interests, including, prominently, District Six Museum. This event attempts to recreate commemorative marches which took place from the ending of the emancipation period in 1838 until the early twentieth century. Taking in a number of slave heritage sites in the town centre, the march now attracts several hundred attendees, many of whom are drawn from poorer communities whose number includes probable slave descendants. The event aims to directly reconnect people with their ancestral history through recreation and contemplation.

Over the past decade there has been a growing interest in the history of slavery, both amongst descendants and in public history and heritage circles. A number of wine estates now honour the lives of the enslaved workers on whose labour their early prosperity was based. Local museums across the Western Cape now routinely cover slavery as an aspect of their historical narrative. This is suggestive of a nation which is grappling with its colonial past, an aspect of history which has been marginalised whilst the nation comes to terms with more recent racial segregation. As more time passes, it will be interesting to observe the themes which develop, and the extent to which the former enslaved are remembered in a city which watches over centuries of history of exploitation and subjugation.

Samuel North is in the second year of an AHRC-funded PhD in Heritage Studies at the University of Hull following an MA in Historical Research at the University of Sheffield and BA History at Hull. His doctoral research focuses on the ways in which slavery has been represented in public spaces and preserved in memory across South Africa. Between July and December 2015 he worked as an intern for Iziko Museums of South Africa in social history.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Joline Young says:

    Thanks for this excellent article, Sam.

    Liked by 1 person

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