New Books | The Lie of 1652

Heritage activist Patric Tariq Mellet tells the story of how Dutch settlers dispossessed people not only of their land, but also of their language and identity.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from The Lie of 1652: A decolonised history of land (Tafelberg, 2020) by Patric Tariq Mellet. 

Expropriation of land and its natural resources on its own would not have accomplished the aims and objectives of colonisation. The land had to be cultivated, and this was a labour-intensive activity for which the Europeans had neither the numbers nor the energies required. The conditions for raising livestock successfully in the harsh African environment also demanded skills the Europeans lacked.

The Cape was not the first place in Africa where the Dutch had sought to conquer, settle the land and establish dominion. Angola, Mozambique Island, Madagascar and Mauritius all experienced failed attempts by the Dutch to establish themselves. The ability to colonise in ever-increasing waves from the earliest settlement at Table Bay to what would become the whole of the Cape Colony was accomplished by means of “divide-and-conquer” tactics against Africans and the use of brute force, followed by the importation of large numbers of European settlers. But this is only one part of what made the Cape a colonial success story compared to elsewhere in Africa.

The introduction of enslaved labourers and development via slavery by the Dutch in the initial phase of the settlement from 1652 to 1659 was due to the huge task the VOC officials faced. The task was to create a provisioning centre for ships halfway along the sea route to the East to benefit European expansion and control in the Indian Ocean arena. In this context, it would have been foolhardy to attempt to control local Africans through immediately imposing the slavery system on them at the same time as focusing on the core mission. It was easier to import enslaved people from elsewhere and to control those enslaved by cutting them off from escape back to their communities.

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The entire slavery system required removing the enslaved from scenarios where there was an easy route back to communities. The VOC spelled it out very clearly to the first commander, Jan van Riebeeck, that indigenous people could not be enslaved. The first mass importation of enslaved people to Table Bay in 1658 was of 402 Africans from Angola, Benin and Guinea. Prior to this there had been only 15 enslaved people at the Cape.

In their attempts to control indigenous Africans, the Europeans found that gradual manipulation and creating divisions among local people was much more productive than enslaving them. Over time, after conquering and subjugating the Khoe, the Europeans did effectively enslave them by means of a forced apprenticeship system in the Cape – another form of expropriated labour without compensation. The Europeans who later trekked into the interior and established the Free State and the Transvaal republics also took their enslaved labourers with them, besides capturing and enslaving many other Africans in those regions while expropriating their land. Since this element of slavery has much to do with the land expropriation story in those parts of South Africa, it is important to mention it here even though the focus of this book is the Cape Colony, enslaved people from the Cape taken along by the Boers on the Great Trek, and those whom the Boers enslaved in the Free State and the Transvaal, were as responsible for successful land and infrastructure development in those regions of South Africa as their counterparts had been in the case of the Cape.

Different value attributes were associated with slaves from diverse backgrounds in terms of physique and skill sets identified with territories from which the enslaved were taken. Besides allowing slave owners greater control through “divide-and rule” strategies, diversity in terms of backgrounds also offered a greater variety of skills. The Dutch further found that it was safer to strip enslaved persons of any sense of patriality. Thousands of people from the same location, with the same language, religion and culture, would always hold the threat of common purpose and potential revolt. It was necessary that the enslaved and their offspring were quickly weaned of any sense of social identity. The enslaved were stripped of belonging to a country, motherland, national group or culture, or of having affinity with land and belonging.

Landlessness was integral to the identity of the enslaved. A culture of being owned and known as “slave” replaced that of any other type of identity. The master-owner became the patriarch father and head of the enslaved person, with various symbols reminding the enslaved of this fact. They were not allowed to wear the same clothes as European or Free Black persons and had to go barefoot, and could not use words such as “you”, “she”, “mister” or “sir”. They could only use “master” or “madam”. The enslaved were also condemned to childhood status under the master-father so that regardless of age they would always be “boys” and “girls”. At its core, this was alienation of the enslaved from the added value they created through their farming and other labour.

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In the early years of European settlement the enslaved at the Cape were drawn from many different locations in Africa, East Asia (India and Sri Lanka), Southeast Asia and China. As time progressed, the enslaved were more frequently indigenous Africans, with the Asian component declining by the mid-18th century. By the early 19th century, with the exception of the “Liberated African” component that will be described later, the diverse or multi-ethnic roots of the enslaved at the Cape had given way to locally born generations of creole slaves with a creole language (Afrikaans/Afrikaaps) and customs. The enslaved were not only used for back-breaking hard labour, but also as a mechanism, together with subjugated Khoe, to create a buffer between resister Africans and European settlers. As was noted in the previous chapter, this process created strong lines of division into collaborator or Colony-aligned Khoe and enslaved, and resister descendants of both the Khoe and enslaved.

Much has been recorded in South African history about the migrations and fortunes of various European waves of settlers from a range of countries, but there is very little amplification about the many thousands of migrants of colour who arrived on ships from across the seas. This chapter aims to contribute towards filling that gap.

Up to the mid-19th century there were more migrants of colour than European migrants. Today that has become the reality once more, as new migrants of colour in search of a better life arrive voluntarily from all the same countries from which the enslaved and indentured labourers were taken in the 17th to the 19th century. Earlier migrants of colour – some brought as captives and others travelling voluntarily – came from a variety of regions across the globe. They were predominantly enslaved people, but also included banished exiles, convicts, seamen, soldiers, adventurers, refugees, indentured labourers, merchants, economic migrants and others. Not only have colonial administrators and historians documented which continents or regions that migrants of colour came from, but some of the towns and provinces from which enslaved and indentured labourers came are also known.

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