Lifting history’s ‘veil of shame’
On December 1, 1834, exactly 180 years ago today, slaves of the Cape of Good Hope were “emancipated”, writes Lucelle Campbell.
On the eve of Emancipation Day, and for the last eight years, a collective, comprising organisations and individuals, have taken to the streets and taken back the streets of the Cape Town CBD to celebrate and commemorate the emancipation of slaves. We walk along and stop at various sites that played a significant role in slavery in this city – the Strand Street Quarry, the Slave Church, Greenmarket Square and many more.
Few people in South Africa and, more specifically Cape Town, are aware of this historically significant day. They do not know of Cape Town’s insatiable slave trade to Table Bay Harbour that legitimised the import of thousands of human beings to its shores. After centuries of building this city with their skilled hands they toiled, from sunrise to sunset, at the beck and call of mostly white landowners. For those of us who do not know the history of this day here is the story.
On December 1, 1834 bonfires were lit on Table Mountain and Signal Hill announcing the end of slavery in the Cape. But joy turned to anger as they would remain slaves for another four years as indentured labour deemed their freedom only on paper. To slaves and Khoisan servants of the Cape, British rule brought freedom, but a freedom that remained limited and tasted bittersweet. Freedom for slaves was a non-event, a farce that humiliated them under the pretence that they were free. Even though they were declared free, they had to carry on working for their masters as apprentices. This further promoted and supported the institution.
Apprenticeships was a compromise between the British parliament, abolitionists and slave owners to ensure an uninterrupted labour supply so that the great wheel of fortune did not stop for a single minute. What awaited the “freed” was poverty, and later forced removals to the outskirts of the Cape Flats. How little has changed in stopping that wheel.
By 1838 they were supposedly free to move. While landowners and ex-Dutch East India Company slave-holders benefited in compensation for releasing them, slaves were sent away with almost nothing – some with only the clothes on their backs. Many were worn out after years of slave labour and, unlike European settlers, they were not given the aid packages and support systems afforded to the French Huguenots. The Roman Dutch government of the time did not provide any land or money to help freed slaves to provide for themselves and their families.
“Many slaves were forced to return to their previous owners or to other farmers as wage labourers. Even those who worked on mission stations had to work as casual labourers on surrounding farms. The government passed obligatory laws that favoured the white landowners. For instance, desertion, neglect, “insubordination” and even the ‘use of insulting language’ by workers were criminal offences. These laws were revised and made even stricter throughout the 19th century and survived until the 1970s.
“Most freed slaves couldn’t buy land and property because they didn’t have any money. Some of them moved into Cape Town and wages fell because there were so many freed slaves looking for work, and accommodation was crowded or difficult to find. The mission stations, however gave plots of ground to many freed slaves, but conversion to Christianity was compulsory,” wrote Lydia Williams, emancipated slave and founding member of St Philip’s Church in District Six (Ref: M Weeder).
We know that the abolitionist British entered the scene on the side of the former slave owners, the Dutch East India Company, thus seeing to it that the outcome of apprenticeship would not favour the slaves. Rigid social and political contractions between former master and former slaves gave rise to racist ideologies and classificatory divisions. The former slaves’ economic dependence and insecurity survived the end of slavery in the Master Servants Act Ordinance (1842) that mostly supported the perpetual slave mentality that has lasted up until this century.
It is important to include the importance of the Khoi in our history. They walked alongside slaves and were party to building the economic back bone that allowed the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to integrate into the wider structure of their mercantilist empire and farming market – this time not as owners of this city and the Western Cape, but as servants to toil it.
Cape Town and the Western Cape was built on the backs of slave and forced indigenous labour. But where and who are these people that built this city? And why are they not “really” represented in school curricula, through markings, monuments and inscribed texts in the Mother City, its surrounds and the farmlands? With no visible monument, plaques or statues of those slaves found on our streets, it seems as if the white ruling class slave-holders, Van Riebeeck, Jan Smuts, Onse Jan, Murray, etc, are the only reflections dominating the streets and the alleyways. For those who do not know, will not notice Cape Towns’ architectural showings which serve an inner-urban ruling class control consciousness structured around inner rule.
Remembering the history of the Cape demands that we rethink what the freedom “celebrated” by those in 1834 means for us in the context in which we find ourselves now. We need to strongly take into consideration the people not represented in the many sites we engage with.
As we walk through spaces we choose to highlight their absence by placing their memory first. Through this we endorse the immense cultural, social and economic contributions they have made to the shaping of this city as we encourage the process of personal healing. This will acknowledge the presence of Africa in the Mother City, Cape Town.
By lifting the “veil of shame” we will better understand the origins of deep divisions plighting our Mother City today. We continue to acknowledge the deep scars left by colonialism, and we seek to remember the genocide of the First Peoples and the African-Asian-Indian Slave Trade to the Mother City.
* Lucelle Campbell, based in Cape Town, was sensitised to the damage associated with a one-sided narrative during the time she spent working at Iziko Museums of Cape Town. Drawing on information collected during her 10 years, she began to research her own ancestry. She established Transcending History Tours, which takes visitors to museums and sites of memory, to offer a fresh, contemporary perspective on the lives of slaves and to affirm the contribution that they made to the social, economic, political and cultural life of Cape Town. The Emancipation Day Collective is a group of like-minded Cape organisations and individuals who come together to organise the walk through the city on November 30 every year.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily thsoe of Independent Media.