When the American visitor Harriet Low, 24, was rowed ashore in Table Bay on January 13, 1834, she hoped that the fine Cape climate and good medical treatment would bring relief to her ailing uncle, William Henry Low.
Harriet and her uncle’s childless wife Abigail had spent the previous four years in the Portuguese enclave of Macao on the South China coast because they were unable to join him further north in Canton, a Chinese city which refused to admit western women.
Low, a businessman and trader, was only 39 when his lungs became diseased, forcing him to retire to the US. His condition deteriorated during the journey, obliging him to disembark at Cape Town and live among strangers while he tried to recuperate.
The Lows were not the first family to find themselves in this predicament – British officers and administrators stationed in India and their families visited the Cape regularly to regain their health.
Their Indian servants and nurse-maids were familiar sights in Cape Town and Wynberg, where they sometimes settled for more than a year, boosting the local economy in the process. Visitors and servants from China were less common but equally welcome.
Ill though he was, Low took all the decisions, as befitted the man of the family. He engaged rooms at one of the many boarding houses catering for foreign visitors and ordered a couch to be placed in the rowing boat which took him to the jetty.
Once ashore, the Lows boarded a waiting coach which transported them to the house of the widow of Adriaan Cruywagen opposite the Groote Kerk in the Heerengracht (now Adderley Street). Their Dutch-speaking landlady was assisted by her genteel daughters, who spoke English.
It was mid-morning by then, but the breakfast table was spread with the sort of food that all ships’ passengers craved: delicious bread and butter, apricots, figs and grapes. Harriet, who had found the climate and conventions in Macao tiresome, was full of praise for the food, the flowers, the Company’s gardens, the shops, the lively population and the “lovely little cottages with grape-vines growing over them”.
A new British governor, Sir Benjamin D’Urban (the man destined to preside over the first phase of the emancipation of the Cape’s 36 000-odd slaves in December 1834), arrived three days later. The Lows were devout Unitarians and regular churchgoers in the US, but Harriet had no particular sympathy for the aspirations of the underclasses.
She wrote: “There has been such a running to and fro by the slaves to get a peep at him; they all fancy they are to be liberated at once.
“Poor creatures, they will never be so comfortable and well off as they are now, in my opinion! In this family (the Cruywagen household) they are treated more like children than servants, I never saw anything to exceed the kindness.”
Needless to say, this view was extremely common among Cape slave owners.