In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slavery in the Cape Colony, South Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Published Source Material
  • Journals
  • Slavery in the Dutch Cape Colony
  • Slavery in the British Cape Colony
  • Cape Slave Trade
  • Slave Biographies
  • Slavery in Cape Town
  • Slavery and Gender
  • Slave Resistance
  • Slave Culture and Religion
  • Slave Emancipation
  • Remembering and Commemorating Cape Slavery

Atlantic History Slavery in the Cape Colony, South Africa
Nigel Worden
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0379


Slavery was a key feature of the Cape Colony in South Africa from the establishment of the colony by the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) in the 1650s, throughout the period of DEIC and Dutch Batavian rule in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and under British rule until the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in the 1830s. Until the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, slaves were imported from a wide range of areas in the Indian Ocean world, including India, Sri Lanka, maritime southeast Asia, Madagascar, and Mozambique. Children born to slave women in the Cape Colony were also slaves and this was the sole source after the abolition of the slave trade. Slaves played a major role in the economy and society of the Cape Colony and during the DEIC period there were as many, or more, slaves than settlers. Most lived in Cape Town or on the arable farms of the southwestern Cape, although slaves were also located in the pastoral northern and eastern districts of the colony. Only a few were manumitted before general emancipation in the 1830s. Slaves worked on settler farms alongside some of the Indigenous Khoesan inhabitants of the Cape. The slaves, Khoesan, and their descendants subsequently became the main laboring class of the colonial Cape region of South Africa and the legacy of their impoverishment remains to this day. Raiding for slaves also took place on the frontiers of the Dutch colony and examples of forced and captive labor existed in the interior regions of South Africa when these were occupied by settlers from the Cape in the 19th century.

General Overviews

Historians of South Africa long neglected the topic of slavery, with the only study being De Kock 1950. The first major works of analysis were Ross 1983 and Worden 1985 which disputed the prevailing idea that Cape slavery was relatively benign and instead emphasized its coercive nature. Armstrong and Worden 1989 is a good introduction for undergraduates to this revisionist scholarship. Shell 1994 challenged some of these arguments and focused on the social role of slavery within Cape households. Mason 2003 examined the world of the Cape from a slave perspective, concentrating on the British period. Dooling and Worden 2017 gives a brief introductory account of the current state of scholarship. Mountain 2004 is a less academic overview. Eldredge and Morton 1994 explores the impact of Cape slave raiding on the South African interior while Ross 2009 sets slavery in the wider context of Cape colonial economy and society. Ross 2009 is also a good introduction for those unfamiliar with early South African history.

  • Armstrong, James C., and Nigel Worden. “The Slaves, 1652–1834.” In The Shaping of South African Society, 1652–1840. 2d ed. Edited by Richard Elphick and Hermann Giliomee, 109–183. Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 1989.

    Overview of Cape slavery which provides a good introduction to the subject. Topics include the slave trade, demography of the slave population, slavery and the economy, the slave experience, and the ending of slavery. Also available in Afrikaans.

  • De Kock, Victor. Those in Bondage: An Account of the Life of the Slave at the Cape in the Days of the Dutch East India Company. Cape Town: Timmins, 1950.

    The first monograph study containing much anecdotal material and arguing that Cape slavery was mild, now dated in its approach.

  • Dooling, Wayne, and Nigel Worden. “Slavery in South Africa.” In Good Hope: South Africa and the Netherlands from 1600. Edited by Martine Gosselink, Maria Holtrop, and Robert Ross, 119–136. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum Uitgeverij Vantilt, 2017.

    Brief overview which formed part of the catalogue of a major exhibition held in Amsterdam. The chapter contains cameo studies of specific slaves.

  • Eldredge, Elizabeth, and Fred Morton, eds. Slavery in South Africa: Captive Labor on the Dutch Frontier. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994.

    Collection of essays on the existence and nature of slavery and slave raiding on and beyond the boundaries of the Cape Colony. Copublished by Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press.

  • Mason, John Edwin. Social Death and Resurrection: Slavery and Emancipation in South Africa. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2003.

    Important study including detailed microstudies to probe the slave experience and the psychological impact of slavery on both owners and slaves, with a focus on the British period.

  • Mountain, Alan. An Unsung Heritage: Perspectives on Slavery. Cape Town: David Philip, 2004.

    Illustrated account of Cape slavery with a guide to slave heritage sites in the Western Cape. Not an academic work but well informed and a good introduction to the topic written in an accessible style.

  • Ross, Robert. Cape of Torments: Slavery and Resistance in South Africa. London: Routledge, 1983.

    The first major study of Cape slavery, focusing on the varied forms of slave resistance and explaining the lack of mass rebellions. The main sources used are judicial records housed in the Netherlands.

  • Ross, Robert. “Khoesan and Immigrants: The Emergence of Colonial Society in the Cape, 1500–1800.” In The Cambridge History of South Africa, Vol. 1, From Early Times to 1885. Edited by Carolyn Hamilton, Bernard Mbenga and Robert Ross, 168–210. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    Overview of the nature of early Cape colonial society by one of its leading historians that sets slavery into a wider context.

  • Shell, Robert. Children of Bondage: A Social History of the Slave Society at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652–1838. Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

    Major work drawing on extensive new research, with a strong quantitative focus. Argues that slave control was primarily through paternalism in the context of owner families. Copublished by Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

  • Worden, Nigel. Slavery in Dutch South Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    One of the first revisionist studies of Cape slavery in the Dutch colonial period covering economic, demographic, and social aspects, including forms of resistance, with comparisons to Atlantic slave societies. Argues that slavery was a key element in the racial divides of preindustrial South Africa.

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