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Slaves and Soldiers
Cape Town Slaves Slaves and Islam VOC Soldiers
Cape Town Slaves in the 1700s
Most free burghers (citizens) had slaves. A distinction was made between VOC slaves and 'private slaves'. Many private slaves worked on the farms, but lodging houses and most households also had slaves. They performed domestic work - gathering firewood and water.

Visitors commented upon the sight of many slaves gathering along the river banks, drawing water and washing clothes. Some slaves performed at parties as musicians. Some were put in charge of selling their owners' products, others were put to work as artisans or fishermen. It is clear that some slaves occupied trusted positions, although all had to carry a pass signed by their owners.

VOC slaves also held a range of occupations. Most, especially the Africans, were put to hard manual labour, but others, mostly Asians, performed domestic work, served in the hospital, worked as artisans and some held clerical positions in Company offices.


Within the windowless slave lodge - where many hundreds of Company slaves lived - skilled slaves received privileges and had authority, whereas manual slaves ended up cramped in the worst of conditions in the building. The mortality rate among manual slaves was very high.
Cape Town Slaves and Islam
A movement of lasting consequence was the practise of Islam among many slaves. Although slaves and convicts came from various cultures and religions, there is no evidence that Hinduism and other faiths were practiced at the Cape. Islam, on the other hand, became a strong force, although it was not allowed to be practiced publicly.

The tradition of Islam at the Cape - which can be seen in areas like the Bo-Kaap to this day - is credited to the influence of Muslim political prisoners sent to the Cape in the seventeenth century.

The best known is Sheik Yusuf of Makassar, a nobleman banished by the VOC in 1694 after they captured Makassar. He was a noted Sufi scholar and arrived with a considerable retinue, including 12 Imams.

He encouraged an Islamic revival among the slaves. We also know of two Imams from Yemen imprisoned on Robben Island in 1744 who, after their release, remained at the Cape and were influential in encouraging Islam at the slave lodge.
VOC Soldiers
Although senior officials of the VOC enjoyed a privileged life at the Cape (not least through corruption) the same could not be said of more junior employees. In particular, the soldiers were ill-paid (9 guilders per month), poorly fed and lived in terrible conditions. They were forced to perform hard manual labour in the construction of defences and woodcutting. They were not permitted to marry.

Most had joined the company when desperate and penniless, sometimes drunk, but with vague dreams of a new life of riches in exotic Asia. The reality of the Cape was drudgery and heavy work, and they were kept in line by harsh discipline. They formed a rough underclass in Cape Town, and the taverns were familiar with brawls between soldiers and sailors.

Most soldiers endured their five year contracts, and moved on to Asia or returned to Europe. Some remained, and settled at the Cape. Others, however, could not face the full term of their contract and tried to escape.


Two soldiers plotted their freedom in 1729. Governor van Noodt heard of their plan and sentenced them both to death. As one soldier mounted the gallows he 'summoned van Noodt before the judgement seat of God'. When officials returned to report the executions had been fulfilled, they found the Governor dead. Heavenly justice, however, does not seem to have induced any greater compassion in his successors.


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