Anna Maria Rugarli

This essay focuses on the story of some individuals smuggled into the Cape of Good Hope Colony and illegally sold as slaves. On 1st January 1808 the British Government passed the Slave Trade Act which made the slave trade illegal throughout the Empire. In order to prevent the illegal importation of slaves, the British decided to seize and forfeit ships with slave cargoes that rounded the Cape heading to the Atlantic. Slaves aboard were captured in the name of the abolition of the slave trade and freed by the British Government. They were then to be again deprived of their liberty by being enserfed for fourteen years as apprentices or illegally enslaved. Those apprenticed were known at the Cape as 'Prize Negroes' or 'Prize Slaves', for their condition did not differ from that of slaves 1. They were apprenticed in order to instruct them in a variety of menial or domestic trades and thus offer them the possibility of a dignified life. Their introduction into the colony guaranteed the supply of labour in spite of the abolition of the slave trade. What is argued here is that these individuals illegally smuggled into the colony and detained as slaves rather than being apprenticed and then freed had an active role in the process of creolization.
The discussion of the issue that follows is entirely based on original manuscript documents of the Cape Archives of Cape Town. Such data are used here in the context of the role of Prize Negroes in the process of creolization for the first time.
1. 'Prize Negroes' at the Cape and Their Role in the Process of Creolization
'Prize Negroes', also called 'Prize Apprentices' or 'Prize Boys', were unintentionally main characters in the process of creolization at the Cape of Good Hope Colony 2. This process is the cultural and ethnic process that gradually remoulded the slave population of the colony and led it to reach the stage when the majority of slaves were born into the Cape colony, thus shaping its composition forever.
'Prize Negroes' were "Free Yet Slaves" (Saunders, in Worden and Crais (eds): 1994, 99-115). Theoretically they were free and thus considered as having a higher status than slaves, yet they had in practice lost their freedom when captured on their native soil and many were kept 'enslaved' for long periods of time. Their peculiar role has to be put in the specific context of the Cape Colony, where the concepts of 'creole' and 'creolization' meant both the mixture of races and the percentage of the slave population locally born compared to slaves newly imported into the colony. 'Creole' specifically concerns slaves or individuals of other races besides Europeans who were born at the Cape from two imported parents or from one parent already born at the Cape and the other born in his/her country of origin and later on imported. The Cape Colony's slave population had to be constantly nurtured by new imports for it could not reproduce itself at a reasonable rate, being the percentage of imported male slaves much higher than that of females. Men were physically stronger and more resistant than women were; thus they constituted the majority of slave cargoes. This imbalance in the composition of the slave population led to the constant need of importing new slave force into the colony.
2. The Background of Present's Case: The Ameliorative Legislation
In the Cape Colony the abolition of the slave trade occurred at the crucial moment when the boom in the wine industry made slave labour most needed (Rayner: 1986, 36-37). This problem could be resolved by exploiting even further the slave population and its natural growth, by turning to non-slave labour or by an illegal slave trade. To prevent the latter to happen, the British Government decided to seize and forfeit ships with cargoes that rounded the Cape heading for the Atlantic, as explained above.
The Vice-Admiralty Court (which was independent from the Court of Justice), the Collector of Customs and the Controller of Customs dealt with the seizure and distribution of the 'Prize Slaves'. These individuals were in a strategic and powerful position and thus likely to be influenced by favours and presents (Rayner: 1986, 103-106 and Reidy: 1997, 79-102).
The establishment of the Office of the Registrar and Guardian of Slaves by Ordinance Nineteen made it possible for slaves to complain. This legislation was issued not only to promote the propagation of Christianity and slaves' morality, but also to improve their living conditions. The Registrar and Guardian of Slaves had to listen to slave complaints, examine cases and, if the case required, eventually forward it to the Court of Justice. He was to regulate the master-slave relationship, prevent any injustice or abuse and evaluate any grievances.
The Guardian of Slaves recorded the date, name of the slave, name of his/her owner, the grounds of complaint and the testimonies of complainant and witnesses in the Book of complaint. Here, he also noted cases' references to the Book of Inquiry in which the cross-examination of the complainant was recorded. 3
Ordinance Nineteen was part of wider legislation aimed at improving slaves' conditions. The British Empire passed amelioration laws in order to 'prepare' the slave population for their liberation by enabling them to manage their own lives. It also aimed to create a subjected labour force that would be adaptable to the labour market. Lord Somerset, Governor of the Colony, issued the first ameliorative measure in March 1823. The proclamation established that slaves had the right to marry, to testify in courts under oath, to be sold with their children under ten years, to be punished with no more than twenty-five lashes with the whip, and to work ten hours a day in winter and twelve in summer. The condition was that slave and their children should be baptised.
The Somerset proclamation was superseded by the above mentioned Ordinance Nineteen which stated - besides what has already been said about the possibility to complain - that slaves were no longer compelled to be baptised if they wanted to benefit from it. Slave women were to be whipped only 'to such moderate extent as any Child of Free condition may be'. 4 Moreover slaves were now able, even without their master's consent, to purchase their freedom and that of their relatives.
Generally slaves reacted positively to these new laws yet some expected far too much from the reforms, and the Guardian of Slaves was not always able to deal with their grievances. Slaves wishing to complain against their master's will were forced to run away in order to complain. The ameliorative legislation limited masters' control over their slaves affecting irreparably master-slave relationship. Masters had obligations towards their slaves, such as to feed and clothe them. Masters could still whip their slaves or assign them any kind of work but they could no longer treat their chattels as they wished. They had to respect their slave's rights and accept the interference of the Guardian of Slaves who was responsible for the just enforcement of the ameliorative legislation. Masters could still try to prevent slaves from exercising these new rights: however, their absolute power over their slaves had ended (on the matter see Mason: 1992, 98-110). This innovative body of laws irrevocably undermined the core of slavery (see Dooling: 1989, BA Honour Thesis).
3. The Testimony
The slave Present is an example of this situation. He belonged to Petrus Jacobus Mosterd of Stellenbosch, and he went to complain on the 16th August 1826 to the Guardian of Slaves because he was illegally detained as a slave. 5
In response to the Guardian's question: "On what ground do you suppose yourself to be free?" Present answered: "I came up to Town last New Year where I saw April & July who work at the Groote Port - formerly Prize boys - and who came in the same ship with me; they told me they were free - which made me think I ought likewise to be free". 6 Present was asked how he had come to the colony, how he had been sold and where he had been taken afterwards. He responded that he was "brought on shore at night one other boy was in the boat with me", and that they were locked up with four other 'boys' in a small room at van Blerk's House in the Heeregracht. After spending some time there they were privately sold. Present was taken to the countryside and stayed there as a slave. 7
During his deposition Present discussed the ship's captain with whom he had come to the colony. He described the captain as a tall corpulent man named Johan Kets, who was put into the Tronk (the prison) after landing, he believed "for selling slaves". Present knew about the captain because they both lodged at van Blerk's house, and he also knew that some of the 'boys' who were in the same ship with him would soon be free. At this point Present was asked why he had not mentioned that he too should be free. He replied "I was too ignorant and besides I was soon afterwards sent to the country". 8
Present's testimony is extremely interesting because it helps us understand not only his case but also, more generally, the illegal importation of slaves into the Cape Colony after the abolition of the slave trade, and the conditions in which slaves lived at that time. He should have been a Prize Negro as were both his comrades April and July whom he met in Town. Theoretically their status was different from that of slaves, although in practice they were treated the same as is clear from July's testimony. When asked whether Present was considered as a slave of Van Blerk, he answered "I do not know, we were all treated alike". 9
It has been argued that in early nineteenth century Cape Town, 'Prize Negroes' often lived in more disadvantaged positions than creole slaves. The formers were aliens and therefore unfamiliar with the society, the latter had contributed to build and develop it (on the matter see Iannini: 1995, 131-72). Moreover the proportion of creole slaves had consistently increased after the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, a factor that gave prominence to the diversity of 'outsiders'. Creolization changed slaves' perception of themselves and improved their existences, transforming them into a valuable part of the Colony's population to 'Prize Negroes' detriment.
4. The Commission of Inquiry
Present represented an exception: he was brought on shore at night and locked in a room with four other 'boys' at his first master's place. Many other 'boys' who were in the same ship had been put into the prison (the Tronk), then publicly or privately sold, and afterwards apprenticed for fourteen years. Present came on a Portuguese cargo of slaves from Mozambique clandestinely sold at the Cape after the 1st January 1808. In a proclamation of the 29th April 1827, Earl Caledon appointed a Commission of Inquiry in order to "enquire into every circumstance connected with the above-mentioned transaction". 10 The report referred to the fact that there were
strong grounds for believing that a considerable number of slaves have been clandestinely landed and disposed of in this settlement in defiance of the Laws. Every Person having in his possession any Slave or Slaves recently imported, or having had in his possession within the last Six Months any Slave or Slaves recently imported, is hereby required to appear before the above-mentioned Commission, there to declare at what time, and how he became possessed of such Slave or Slaves. 11
The Commission after investigating, following the procedure established by Earl Caledon in the Proclamation declared that they had "reason to believe the Report has been without foundation". 12 The decision was based on the evidence given by the buyers of those slaves like receipts of the purchase and their examination.
However from the testimony of the witness Henry Buckton Esquire, mentioned by two other witnesses, the situation appears different. 13 During his examination he admitted that he recollected the circumstance of a Portugueze vessel with male and female slaves being detained here for smuggling slaves, and that he went on Board to make the seizure on behalf of the Admiralty Court. And the late Mr van Ryneveld seized the vessel at the same time in his capacity as Fiscal. 14
Buckton gave some more relevant details about the case of the Portuguese vessel. He reported moreover
that it was ultimately decided by Lord Caledon that this case come under the cognizance of the Court of Justice. That he cannot state positively but he believes from circumstances that this must have been the vessel in which Present and his witnesses represent themselves to have come. And he is certain that none of the 'Persons on Board' the vessel he alluded were allowed to be sold as slaves. 15
Neither the Commission of Inquiry nor Henry Buckton Esquire was wrong. The contradiction between the two testimonies may well be explained. If some slaves had been smuggled, hidden and kept separated from the others who were still in the vessel, it would have been improbable that the persons who were in charge of this shady trade were able to exhibit receipts of a purchase that never happened.
In his report of the Proceedings of the Registrar and Guardian of Slaves of the 24th June 1827, Major Rogers mentioned the illegal trade. He specified that some of those ships had the licence to sell slaves, but he also underlined that
whilst the slave ships, of which part of the cargoes were landed and disposed of by authority of Government were laying at anchor, several black persons were, without such authority, clandestinely brought on shore in the night time, and sold, or given away in presents as slaves. 16
And he went on to accurately describe the situation:
some were subsequently recovered and condemned as having been illegally imported and were afterwards apprenticed out as Prize Negroes, but others who fell into more artful hands were sent into the country or otherwise secreted until all inquiry had subsided, several coming under this description are doubtlessly still illegally held in Slavery, and many of them were then, and are even at the present so ignorant, as to be unable to bring forward the proof necessary for their liberation; and others were too young at that time, to be able now, to give any account of their first appropriation or of the manner in which they came to this Colony. 17
Another important witness in this case is July, one of the 'boys' mentioned by one of the witnesses. 18 He told the Guardian of Slaves that some of the 'boys' who had been brought on shore were in the same boat as he. They had been taken to the same house as himself, but then some of them "were sold and some were taken to the Tronk with me". 19 He continued: "I have not seen any of those who were sold since that time. Three of the Boys who were taken to the Tronk with me are Anthony, living in Town, April at Groote Port and April at Wineberg who were all Free". 20 He was implicitly saying that they had been divided and that their lives, from that very moment, followed different paths. As a consequence, their status would have been different. The individuals who had been imprisoned were subsequently declared Prize Negroes while those who had been taken to private houses were sold as slaves and shortly afterwards sent to the countryside.
5. A Crucial Witness
The testimony of the slave Masentie (renamed David) finally confirmed the doubts surrounding Present's case. At that time David belonged to a certain Christian Lodewyk Alexander living in Cape Town. 21 Like Present, he was brought on shore at night by his master and locked up in a house. After a few days his master sent David to a man called Floris in the middle of the night because he had heard that Mr Buckton was making inquiries about smuggled slaves and feared being discovered. These are David's precise words:
"In what manner were you brought on shore?"
"I was brought on shore by my old Master Lodewyk Alexander alone and at night".
"Were you put into Tronk at that time?"
"No Mr Buckton having heard that my Master had smuggled slaves was making inquiries and I was in consequence sent in the middle of the night to a man of the name of Floris (a dark person) living at the Goenekloof". 22
And his deposition revealed even more:
"Do you know whether the captain was put into prison?"
"For what reason?"
"For selling slaves".
"When you heard that the captain was imprisoned on that account did you make any inquiry why you were detained as a slave?"
"I did not hear it till I returned to Town and a short time after I was called before the Fiscal in the case of another Boy named Jose who had come in the same ship and who had claimed his Freedom. I then mentioned all I knew of the case notwithstanding my Master positive orders that I should deny all Knowledge of the Boy and being threatened with a good flogging if I disobey". 23
David was the only other slave who could be linked with Present, for both their cases were based on the same grounds. What is peculiar is that David only went to complain on 30th March 1827, nearly one year after he had testified on behalf of his unfortunate comrade. So, he had the role of witness and complainant at the same time. 24 It seems useful to look into his case closely, in order to understand why he waited for such a long time before complaining.
He had been smuggled into the colony and since there was an inquiry into the matter he was sent to live with Floris outside Cape Town. When David returned to Cape Town, he heard from his comrades that Mr Buckton had inquired after him the day after he had left Alexander's place. David decided not to tell the truth.
One month later David was working at the wharf when his master contacted him. He was to testify in the case of a 'boy' named Jose who came in the same vessel with him. His master encouraged him to lie by denying any knowledge of the complainant, the 'boy' from the wharf. 25 Notwithstanding his master's threat, this time David decided to be honest and told the Guardian the truth. He knew the 'boy' because they came to the Cape Colony in the same ship. Afterwards he was told that the captain of the ship had been in prison for selling slaves illegally and that the 'boys' who came in the ship were free. His honesty helped another enslaved person to regain his freedom.
Both Present and David's cases were sent to the Court of Justice and they were eventually declared free "on the ground of illegal importation". 26 The Guardian of Slaves made remarkable efforts in order to obtain Present's and David's liberation. He indeed wrote three times to the Court of Justice explaining both cases and urging a decision, showing solicitude and care towards the two 'apprentices'.
6. Memories of the Journey
Present and David had been brought to the Cape of Good Hope Colony in 1808. Their cases came before the Guardian of Slaves between 1826 and 1827, eighteen years later, and yet they could still recall the captain's name (or rather, its sound) after such a long time. They were also able to recognise companions whom they had not seen for several years, whereas they could not remember the ship's name. Complainants and witnesses described the captain as a tall, stout man named "Franket" according to Fortuin, "Johan Kette" for Africa, "Jankit" for Masentie; Pedro remembered him as "Johanket", and July remembered the captain's name as "Zwankette". 27
Fortuin, one of the 'boys' mentioned by Present, formerly a 'Prize Boy' and who at that time was working in Cape Town, when asked by the Guardian whether he remembered if Present had come in the same vessel as him, answered: "No. I was at that time too young, but as soon as Present saw me, although I did not know him, he spoke to me and said he had come in the ship with me, and mentioned the names of other Boys, whom he knows who had also come in the same vessel". 28
Africa, formerly a 'Prize Boy' and at that time 'coolie' (a servant) in Cape Town, in response to the same question said that he remembered Present being on board with him but that the had not seen him since.
These slaves and Prize Negroes could remember each other after such a long time because during the journey to the Cape Colony they forged a special kind of relationship. They shared the same traumatic experience of being uprooted from their own families and countries of origin and taken to an unknown place as slaves. It might be that the combinations of these factors made them feel close and kept their memories alive in subsequent years. They found themselves in a situation of insecurity in which they were virtually alone, far from their birthplace and from their relatives. All of a sudden they realised that they had lost everything because they had just started a one way trip.
These individuals were facing a deep and traumatic experience of involution in their lives, that of "natal alienation" (Patterson: 1992, 5-9).They could not relate to the new environment in which they were forced to live nor start a new existence, because everything was unfamiliar. Isolated from their natural environment, captives could only cling to memories and the human beings that were sharing their trauma.
7. Different Experiences: The Issue of Literacy
After arriving at the Cape Colony, Present and his ex-companions had different kinds of experiences depending on whether they lived in a rural or urban context.
When Present discovered that the 'boys' brought in the same ship with him had already been free for a long time, he defined himself as 'too ignorant' to have asserted his own freedom. This comment does not seem to make sense, but in that context it has a precise meaning. Present was referring not only to his illiteracy, but also to his status. Present considered himself of too low a rank to dare ask for his freedom. Being a slave, he automatically assumed that nothing was due to him. At that time and in that context literacy was closely linked to power, as those who were literate (masters and mistresses) were also powerful. Ignorance made people feel inadequate and powerless. A tone of resignation is clearly perceptible from Present's words. He passively accepted his situation as any attempt to learn was perceived as an act of disobedience and insubordination.
Present's statement recalls the issue of literacy that was widely felt amongst slaves. The example of Galant, the leader of a slave rebellion that took place in the Bokkeveld in February 1825, helps us better understand this situation. 29 Galant and his comrades decided to act on rumours they had heard about some slave revolts and their possible emancipation. They could not read and write, but used to listen to their master' conversations or ask for information from slave and servant women. They could read, because they spent their time at home and mistresses taught them. Therefore Betje, Galant's partner, a Khoi woman, was literate and a source of news for them. Their frustration derived from the impossibility of having access to information worsened Galant's view of his condition. Literacy was seen as the key to freedom because it would have reduced the distance between them and masters. Moreover slaves could have known more about the rest of the world and would have felt more integrated in the society. Most masters, who wanted to retain absolute control over their slaves, prevented them from learning to read or write. In the rural context literacy was reserved to women who worked in the household, although they were all conscious of its fundamental importance and power. It could be the means to liberation (See van der Spuy: 1993, 230-33).The lack of precise information led slaves to wrongly interpret reality, misunderstanding the meaning of what they heard.
Present seems not to have had access to any source of information, since it was only by chance that he discovered his position to be illegal. The meeting with his two comrades who had journeyed on the ship with him eighteen years before saved him from his own ignorance. The Guardian of Slaves by supporting him during the case, and even forwarding it to the Court of Justice helped him to regain his freedom. The case of Present is just one of many examples of individuals who were kept in a state of total ignorance by slave owners in order to better manipulate and exploit them. Present finally managed to escape the yoke of slavery, but an unknown number probably never had the chance to liberate themselves.
7.1 Literacy in Rural and Urban Contexts
Being sent to the country by his master worsened Present's position. The urban context gave slaves a chance to establish contacts with other people such as Free Blacks and free people. These contacts were unimaginable in a rural context since the farms where they lived were scattered all over the colony and in many cases far away from Cape Town (see Bank: 1995, 61 and Mason: 1992, 262-63). Thus their social contacts were limited within the boundaries of the farms or maybe extended to those of the neighbouring farms. With no means of transport, except walking, they were often isolated, unable to go into town or find out what was happening.
During his deposition Present admitted that he was "afraid to speak to my master about it [that he should also be freed because the 'boys' who came in the ship with him were at that time free] and did not mention it to anyone, thinking that my Master would soon make me free like the others". 30 Had he had the chance to live in Cape Town, he would have known earlier on that he was being illegally detained (Reidy: 1997, 75-76). 31 Present would have gained eighteen years of life and freedom instead of being a slave.
8. Present as a Victim and a Protagonist
Present's case can be analysed from two diverging perspectives. He was protagonist and victim at the same time. Present was one of those slaves who, familiar with the institutions and authorities, went to complain in order to stop a situation of abuse. None the less he was an outsider living among other slaves who were already creole. The creolization of the majority of the slave population did not ease Present's position as alien. His difficulties probably consisted in the integration in a new context unknown to him. That could be another explanation for his 'ignorance'. He was not only an illiterate; he was a foreign slave in an unknown country where the majority of slaves were creole.
Notwithstanding his position, Present's behaviour was not completely passive. He was forced to integrate and eventually acted as a creole and went to complain. By going to complain and voicing the injustice he suffered, he actively participated in history. Being unable to write or read he could not leave to posterity the testimony of his experience. Luckily documents did that for him and through these it has therefore been possible to recover and discover the events which characterised Present's life. Unfortunately at the Cape of Good Hope Colony narratives did not exist, unlike the United States where numerous slave narratives handed on to us personal stories and history. 32
The discovery of this case is part of a moral and historical process of consciousness that emphasises the relevance of personal stories in history. Personal experiences have relevance in history since history intermingles with stories and recovers a human dimension. In this way history can be seen as the sum of personal stories. Through them it is possible to reconstruct forgotten cultures such as those of slaves, neglected for a long time. Slaves could not express themselves spontaneously, however they retained their traditions and culture. Through slave narratives it is possible to see how and to which extent they kept their stories and their own history, that is where the mixture of every-day life and history occurs. Narratives give the chance to every-day people to identify themselves and therefore acknowledge themselves in history.