Personal histories of the Groot Constantia slaves as reflected in the slave register (1816 - 1834)

Slavery today is outlawed in most countries and in 1948 the United Nations issued a Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 4): "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms". Despite this it is believed that 27 million adults and children are still enslaved to oppression, and it is also estimated that there are at present more slaves than ever before. Modern slavery, like past slavery, includes human trafficking between countries, bonded and mandatory labour, slavery by descent, forced marriage, and child labour (Web Ref). Most of these factors were part of Cape slavery and in particular, slavery at Groot Constantia.

In 1680 Commander (later Governor) Simon van der Stel bought his first slave, Jan van Oldenburg from Bengal. In 1685 the farmConstantia was granted to him. By 1686 he had 22 slaves who mainly worked on the farm. Thus, slavery was part of the farm since its establishment. In 1716 Constantia was divided into three and sold. Two parts were called Bergvliet and Klein Constantia,while the part on which the Van der Stel farm buildings stood, were called Constantia (later Groot Constantia) (Van der Merwe 1987: 38, Van der Merwe 1997: 14).

Various persons then owned the farm. The history of the Groot Constantia slaves is fragmentary and little is known about them or their occupations. Anna de Koningh, wife of Oloff Bergh and a descendent of slaves became the first female owner of Groot Constantia. During her tenure (1724-34), a total of 27 male slaves, one of them from Natal, attended to the farm. Most of the others came from India and Madagascar. One came from Bengal, the birthplace of Anna’s mother Angela (CA: MOOC 8/5 Inventory 118, Van der Merwe 1997: 17-20). During and prior to 1734 there was little or no wine produced at Groot Constantia, while there was production at Klein Constantia (Schutte 2003: 268). This may explain the lack of information, especially with regards to the duties of the slaves. Interestingly, from 1759-1778, a slave acted as cellar master, but nothing is known about his identity. It is also known that Jacobus van der Spuij, who then owned Groot Constantia, did not really involve himself with the winemaking (Swellengrebel 1982:112).

In 1778 the farm became the property of Hendrik Cloete of the farm Nooitgedacht near Stellenbosch, with his son Hendrik being the next owner. After his death in 1818, his wife Anna Catharina Scheller became the second woman to own Groot Constantia. During her ownership, in 1823, the farm officially became Groot Constantia. In 1824 she sold the farm to her son Jacob Pieter Cloete, and it was to remain his property till 1885 when it was sold to the Cape Government. During Cloete tenure extensive use was made of slaves on the farm. One reads about the restoration work of Groot Constantia roundabout 1778 requiring many hands, and sometimes 120 to 150 men were required to do the work (Schutte 2003:271). Who they were, where they came from or to whom they belonged, is not known.

In spite of this, the history of the slaves during the Cloete tenure became better documented, but still fragmentary. A big improvement however, came in 1816 with the inception of theSlave Office and Slave Register.

More to follow...