Who built our city? Tracing the roots of slavery through the streets of Cape Town – Part 1
I have a very good friend whose surname is Snyman. Every so often I remind myself to ask him whether he knows much about his ancestry. It’s quite a fascinating story you see…
I had always believed that they were all descendants of a slave by the name of Anthony of Bengal who lived at the Cape in the 17th century, but as we know, nothing in this town is ever as simple as it looks. The plot thickens it seems.
“All Snymans are descendants of Catrijn van Palicatta, the first woman convict to come to the Cape. She had a relationship with a German soldier, Hans Christoffel Snijder, while working at the Fort as a washerwoman. Catrijn had a child with him, named Christoffel Snijman or Snyman (all Snyman’s are descended from him). Snijder was sent to Robben Island for 2 years for being caught in her quarters instead of guarding the Commander’s quarters. Later Antony of Bengal would become the step father of Christoffel (who would come to marry the daughter of one of the wealthiest French Huguenots, Marguerite Therese de Savoye).”
I mean, who needs the Bold and the Beautiful?
The reason I repeat this titbit of skandaal (I’m not that kind of girl really), is because the running of the recent Jive Slave Route Challenge through the streets of our beautiful city, reminded me that many of the landmarks we pass every day, are related to the Dutch and English slave trade in the Cape. I decided a tour of all these interesting places on a wintry Saturday morning would be in order.
But before we depart, a little bit of history:
By the time old Jan (who worked for the Dutch East India Company or VOC) started to build the first foundations of the lovely city of Cape Town, the use of slaves was already an acceptable practice to obtain cheap labour in other Dutch colonies. Only the first two groups of slaves imported to the Cape were from West Africa – they arrived in 1658. Subsequent groups came from India and areas around the Indian Ocean basin including Madagascar, Mozambique and islands such as Sumatra, Java, the Celebes, Ternate and Timor.
The reason for this was that the Dutch WEST Indian Company wasn’t too chuffed with the Dutch EAST India Company trading on their turf. Fair enough I suppose. The whole point of the use of slave labour, and accompanying slave trade, was to increase the Company’s profits. Simple economics (as far as they were concerned anyway.)
Now that you know why slaves were brought here, we’re ready to visit our first stop… The Iziko Slave Lodge at the top of Adderley Street.
The Slave Lodge, close to Bus Stop 5 the St George’s Cathedral, was the home of slaves owned by the VOC (as opposed to privately owned slaves) and what a dismal home it was. It was damp, dirty and dark, with no windows (only narrow slits in the walls) and winters were bitterly cold. Slaves only began to receive blankets to cover themselves with in 1685. On the other hand, all slave children living in the Lodge had to attend the lodge’s school – few private slaves received an education – and the building also housed a slave hospital.
Many of the female residents of the Lodge turned to prostitution, although there seems to be a bit of an argument between historians as to whether this was forced or willing prostitution. It may have been a bit or both as some of relationships led to marriage and freedom for the women because their (Dutch burgher) lovers could buy their release for 150 florins.
The Slave Lodge has had many incarnations (it used to be the South African Cultural History Museum), but today the museum documents slavery at the Cape and temporary exhibitions are usually themed around subjects relating to human rights. The upper levels are slowly being transformed, but currently contain a quaint collection of toys, weapons and ceramics from the periods of English and Dutch rule.
Don’t miss the very moving introductory film screened in the first room of the slavery exhibit. Although not the most entertaining museum for the kids, it’s overflowing with opportunities to illustrate some really important lessons in humanity – ones we could all be reminded of occasionally.
On to our next stop, the site of the Slave Tree, just behind the Lodge on Spin Street. On the island in the center of the street you’ll find a plaque that bears the inscription ON THIS SPOT STOOD THE OLD SLAVE TREE. This is the spot where some people claim that the VOC held their ‘slave market’ or auctions. In fact, it was most likely the tree that slaves waited under while their masters attended the Groote Kerk across the road.
Across the road, on Church Square, is the old building that now houses the Iziko Social History Center which is where you’ll find a massive social history reference library – THE place to start if you are looking into your ancestry. The library is open 5 days a week and there’s no need to make an appointment.
The Whipping Post, on the south west corner of Darling and Buitenkant streets, is a grim reminder of the punishment meted out to “lazy” and “insolent” slaves. Usually, these sins were willful acts of defiance as there were very few ways in which slaves at the time could rebel against the oppressive system.
Wow, we’ve only just begun! So many more places to visit today, but we’ll have to continue this in another blog entry where we hop aboard the City Sightseeing Bus and head for the Castle of Good Hope!
Look out for part 2 of this blog coming soon
I’m undergoing treatment for a travel addiction (if 16 world capitals and innumerable “dorpies” qualifies as a problem), but Cape Town and Johannesburg remain my obsession. Pet hates include book defacers, hot milk in tea and anything granadilla flavoured. I’m an aspiring photographer, museum nerd and die hard optimist. Find me on Twitter at @ShellsWillBe.