Archives and Human Rights: The Case of Slavery in the Cape

  • Posted on April 23, 2013

The concept of an archive means very little or nothing to the ‘man’ in the street. The fact is the archive is not in our daily vocabulary. It is a word that we might only use in academia and institutions like museums. Who goes to museums anyway? Ask ordinary people what is an archive. Undoubtedly the answer is, ‘What?’ For me an archive is not just a place or space that holds valuable records and documents. It is where we can reflect upon and shed light on ‘historical facts’ that have been deemed acceptable by some and by others not. Many of these records hold relevance in our contemporary society. But who should and can decide on what is relevant or not?  Some of these records do raise serious concerns in the present and how we relate to each other as citizens.

For example, the Slave Lodge museum on the corner of Wale and Adderley Streets holds Cape Town’s and one of South Africa’s largest archives on human trafficking and slavery during the 16th and 17th centuries. We find on the opposite side of the road the Taj hotel and Absa bank. This site functioned as the Company’s hospital for the sick of the colony and was operated by slaves themselves. A perpetual hierarchical work control system based on descent continued here where slave children who were offspring of Europeans were given preferential treatment. According to R. Shell in Children of Bondage: A Social History of the Slave Society at the Cape of Good Hope 1652-1838, ‘In 1685 Commissioner General, the Lord Hendrik Adriaan van Reede prepared a lengthy set of instructions to the problem of the 58 slave children under the age of 12 years of age who after genealogical investigation, had been found to have Dutch or German fathers. These slaves, van Reede says, should be considered apart from other slaves….’

Only a few of us have knowledge of these records and their historical significance in the shaping of this City. Iziko Museums Social History library on Church Square, the Auction Block over the road in Spin Street, where thousands of slaves from everywhere – including Africa – were sold into bondage, the old Slave Church in Long Street, just to mention a few, remain inconspicuous to the bustling tourists visiting the City, invisible to the workers who travel to Cape Town daily. It’s a natural affinity which is not seen or is unmarked silent/silenced as we bypass one slave site after the next.

Even though Iziko Slave Lodge museum, which is located in the historic heart of the City succeeds in recollecting and interpreting the permanent exhibitions on the ground floor of its left wing facing Adderley and Bureau Streets it does not show the interconnectedness with its old permanent collections upstairs. Fetish collectors’ items of old clocks, silver, antique watches, musical instruments and furniture, weapons, ceramics an old pharmacy, etc. line its upper galleries. The threads or narratives of the old and the new slave museum are left virtually untied.  Many visitors and interest groups could easily walk away with a skewed view of Cape Town and the Western Cape’s past. The old Apartheid’s South African Cultural History Museum (SACHM) and later renamed the Iziko Slave Lodge represented mainly Europe’s heritage and culture. The virtually new section was commissioned in the early 2000s, mainly to transform museums to living heritage sites into spaces that represent the local people. But the story-line fails to take shape.

The fact is that which we choose to hide can be vital in understanding and correcting contemporary social evils like rape, which arguably in part has links to how sex was acquired during the time of slavery. How we should recall the intimacy between women’s bodies and forms of power – or rather, ways in which power operates through our bodies. The Slave Lodge should rightfully reflect this narrative in a more profound way including 16th, 17th century teenage pregnancies in the lodge. In this case we need to find records and names of some of the women and their forced liaisons. This shameful past needs to be reflected in spaces like Keerom and Burg Street. During various times these were areas of brothels for sailors and Dutch East Indian officials. Burg Street was also known as ‘Venus Street’ for a period of time. It is said that Sara Baartman lived near this street.

Who knows that the majority of slave women were imported one by one and were an ‘indirect consequence of the unbalanced sex composition and probably of a high mortality rate’? (Shell, Children of Bondage). Shell explains that ‘overwhelming negative stereotypical ‘racial’ explanations for slave behaviour were the result.  And that this is almost impossible to prove’. He explains that extreme violence, murder, rape, gambling, homosexuality and bestiality that characterised the behaviour of some of the burger slaves described by historian Robert Ross in his survey of the Cape crime records may be principally the result of the unbalanced sex composition. And that in the ‘Cape crime records, all the lower male echelons of the European society – the sailors, knechts, ‘poor whites,’ etc. show similar patterns of social unrest, but these groups have not yet been the subject of systematic historical enquiry as they should be. Their existence compromised the enduring myth of the “herrenvolk” or euro centrism so their existence and behaviour were denied’. 

Pro-active researchers, activists and scholars pride themselves with the idea that archives really matter to them. They believe that the nation’s humanity and hopes are found in these records and live in people, maps and sites. It is true to say that we can find much insight about ourselves and our families. Sometimes we will find clarity on certain unexplained facts that haunt us. Our need to find peace is inevitable should we realise that the archives have the potential in restoring justice. The stories need to be told, warts and all.

Lucy Campbell is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Cape Town

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