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Under Cover of Darkness: Women in servitude in the Cape colony



‘Under Cover of Darkness’, an exhibition, in partnership with the Centre for Curating the Archive at the University of Cape Town, opened at the Iziko Slave Lodge on 25 September 2018.  Curated by Carine Zaayman and produced by Josie Grindrod,the exhibition brings to light the many untold stories of women forced into slavery and oppressive labour under colonialism. It aims to investigate absent or blurred narratives in history; pose questions relating to invisibility and submergence; the female body and slavery; as well as colonial legacies within the contemporary landscape. 

“These [her]stories of injustice, violence, suffering and abuse, are painful and traumatic.  Even today, we see similar horrors perpetuated in the realities of human trafficking and “enslaved” sex workers.  Through this exhibition, the lives of the enslaved can be recognised and honoured,” said Ms Rooksana Omar, Chief Executive Officer, Iziko Museums of South Africa at the opening event.

Women under servitude were written about only when they intersected with the colonial order most commonly as property – bought or sold; when they broke colonial laws; when they were used for sex; or in the rare instance when a woman freed herself and became a property owner. The lives of these women, and so many others, passed largely unrecorded. The challenge of the exhibition was to find meaningful ways to bring these women’s lives and stories out of darkness and connect them to present day struggles, providing a lens on a colonial legacy that perpetuates to this day.

The lives of three women in particular, ‘Susanna of Bengal’, Krotoa and Zara van der Caab; as well as nine others also incarcerated at the Slave Lodge, are detailed through the exhibition. Uncovering the stories of these twelve women lays bare the distorted patterns of race, gender, land and labour. The Iziko Slave Lodge, a site pregnant with symbolism and historical trauma, was disrupted by contemporary work by performance artist, Gabrielle Goliath. The exhibition and performance brought to the surfacequestions concerning how such histories continue to bear on the present, andgives expression to the continuation of these patterns of inequality.

The colonial archive tells us much about the facts, figures and artefacts of slavery, uncovering the meanings and understanding the affective aspect of its legacies is an ongoing and possibly life-long journey” said guest speaker, Ms Bonita Bennett,Director of the District Six Museum during her address. “In bringing these stories from under the cover of darkness, the Slave Lodge has added another level to it, becoming a place for understanding the people who built our city,” she concluded.

Of the many unknown stories brought to light in this exhibition, these [her]stories intend to show a range of experiences and circumstances of the lives of women under the yoke of colonialism – among them, women who lived and died in servitude, and those who managed to gain their freedom. There are women whose lives were documented; and those whose lives are unrecorded. There are women who were born in the Cape; and those who were stolen from other places. These women’s stories, like so many others’ need to be venerated and honoured. The exhibition remembers:

  • Anna and Mariij van Madagasker – sold at a profit on auction
  • Ansela who became Engela – born a slave, died a slave owner
  • Armosyn Claasz – Slave Lodge matron who founded a dynasty
  • China, renamed Rosa – from childhood sold five times
  • Dina van Rio de la Goa – escaped from slavery and re-captured
  • Krotoa – trapped between two worlds
  • Magdalena van Batavia – bought the freedom of her daughters
  • Marij van Macasser – wrenched from her culture and religion
  • Rosa van Bengalen – sold for refusing to obey
  • Susanna van Bengal – brutally sentenced to drowning
  • Zara van der Caab – tried and dishonoured posthumously after her suicide

Under the Cover of Darknessopened to the public at the Iziko Slave Lodge on 26 September 2018, coinciding with the annual in_herit FESTIVALwhich runs until 30 September 2018.

ELEGY/ Noluvo Swelindawo 2017. Gabrielle Goliath. Performance, installation view, ICA Live Art Festival,
Cape Town. Staged at the opening of Under Cover of Darkness, ISL. Image courtesy of ICA.


Issued by: Simthandile Xameni/Tracey Heeger
Communications Coordinators (Digital & Content): Iziko Museums of South Africa
Telephone: +27 (0) 21 481      Website http:                 
On behalf of: Office of the CEO, Iziko Museums of South Africa


About Iziko Museums of South Africa (Iziko)

Iziko operates 11 national museums, the Planetarium and Digital Dome, the Social History Centre and three collection specific libraries in Cape Town.  The museums that make up Iziko have their own history and character, presenting extensive art, social and natural history collections that reflect our diverse African heritage.  Iziko is a public entity and public benefit organisation that brings together these museums under a single governance and leadership structure.  The organisation allows *free access to all individuals on commemorative days, (*excluding the Castle of Good Hope, Groot Constantia and Planetarium and Digital Dome). Visit our webpage at our online community on Facebook ( or follow us on Twitter (@Iziko_Museums) for regular updates on events, news and new exhibitions.

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Please be advised that the Castle of Good Hope will be closed to the public on Thursday, 8 February 2024.

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