Forced migration to the Cape of Good Hope in the 18th and 19th centuries, a biomolecular and archival study.

Image project Forced migration to the Cape of Good HopeThe aims of the project:

  1. To reconstruct life histories of enslaved people at the Cape.
  2. To elucidate lesser known aspects of the Dutch involvement in the Indian Ocean slave trade.

Between the years 1652-1795, the Cape Colony was governed by the Dutch East India Company (VOC). What was initially a refreshment stop for company ships on their way to the Far East soon became a cosmopolitan settlement with resident Africans, Europeans and Asians.
There were several categories of people recognized by the company. These were Europeans (in the service of the VOC), burghers (Europeans not bound by contract to the Company), free blacks (mostly former slaves), slaves (African, Asian and mixed descent) and Hottentots/Boesjeman (Khoisan).

There were several ways in which enslaved persons found themselves at the Cape. Firstly one could be brought to the Cape from the east having served as a domestic servant for one's master/mistress on a repatriation journey. As slavery was no longer practiced in the Netherlands during this period, any enslaved person arriving there would automatically be freed. The stop at the Cape was the last chance to turn a profit as slaves were in higher demand than in the East. Secondly, the Company would import slaves for labour in public works mostly from Mozambique. Asian convicts could also find themselves transported to the Cape as part of their punishment.

The project addresses a common problem that confronts researchers who use the historical record in both the study of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades. Often toponyms give information about slaves’ points of departure or transshipment as opposed to their places of origin. It is for this reason that researchers have turned to the archaeological record to complement historical findings and to reconstruct the life histories of enslaved people. We utilize scientific techniques to identify migration events and to contextualize the experience of enslavement at the colonial Cape on an individual level. This approach is supplemented by archival research into the extensive VOC record.

A number of interesting findings have arisen from this multidisciplinary approach. We have been able to determine that some enslaved persons at the Cape experienced multiple migrations before arrival at the Cape. These migration events most likely coincided with enslavement or sale of the individual from one slave owner to another. Inter population comparisons have led us to believe that there was possibly a marked change in diet that coincided with the abolition of slavery at the Cape in the first half of the 19th century. The historical record has shed light on the private trade in slaves by high ranking VOC officials who used the Company’s extensive transportation network for their own gain.

Project details

Funded by (2012-2016):

  • National Research Foundation (South Africa) - USD 36,000
  • VU Centre for International Cooperation (Netherlands) - EUR 8200
  • Oppenheimer Memorial Trust (South Africa) - ZAR 160,000
  • VU Institute for Geo- and Bioarchaeology - EUR 4000
  • Van Ewijck Foundation (South Africa) - ZAR 10,000

Drs. Linda Mbeki

Prof. Dr. Jan Kolen

Prof. Dr. Henk Kars