Early Inquests and Post Mortems at the Cape 1652 – 1825

//Early Inquests and Post Mortems at the Cape 1652 – 1825

Early Inquests and Post Mortems at the Cape 1652 – 1825

Before the Inquest Act of 1875 no proper provision appears to have been made in the Cape Colony for the holding of inquests on the bodies of persons who had died suddenly or under suspicious circumstances. In that year, however, this defect was remedied by the passing of Act 22. The preamble to this Act says: “Whereas no adequate provision exists in the law of this Colony for the holding of inquests in cases where persons die suddenly or are found dead or are supposed or suspected to have come by their death by violence, or otherwise than in a natural way…. “It provided that the Resident Magistrate or Field Comets, before whom the enquiry was to be made, was to have the body examined by a medical man, if such could be procured, and, if not, then by the best qualified person that could be obtained. In this article I propose to deal with the enquiry as to the early mode of procedure in this country in holding inquests and obtaining post-mortem examinations by a medical man. The subject will be treated from a medico-legal aspect, and in the first place will deal with the question as to how far the law required an inquest to be held; secondly, the manner of procedure; and lastly, the testimony of the medical practitioner as to his post-mortem examination.

While giving some attention to the early history of inquests from a legal point, I have not overlooked the fact that this is written for a medical journal. But as will be seen later, inquests on dead bodies and post-mortem examinations go hand in hand, as it were. I have given extracts of medical post-mortems from the early days of the Cape Settlement to the first quarter of last century. Did the early law require an inquest to be held upon the body of one who had died suddenly or under suspicious circumstances? There was no written law of the Cape which demanded this, but by custom it became necessary. Let us see what two legal gentlemen of some standing have said concerning this. Sir John Truter, Chief Justice of the Cape, writing to the Governor in 1817, said; ” … It has always been a constant custom in this Colony … to take inquests on the bodies of all persons, of whatever age or description, who have died a violent death, and on which occasion all circumstances are minutely investigated and inserted in the Act of Inquest, together with the opinion of the professional person so assisting as to the cause of death, as also on the bodies of all adults and infants who have died suddenly, or who have been found dead, or with respect to the manner of whose death the most trivially unfavourable supposition may have arisen. This practice is so invariably and strictly observed here that there are several examples of bodies having been dug up which had been buried in consequence of no suspicion having previously existed, in order to ascertain beyond all doubt that no violence had been committed, and similar inquests are even taken on all wounded persons of whatever rank and situation, whatever may be the nature of the wound, and although it may be sufficiently known beforehand that such wound was entirely accidental. … “(1)

The Fiscal, (2) in a letter in 1822 to the Registrar of the Court of Appeals here, gives us a more definite statement as to the custom. He wrote: ” This inquest, an inspection, though not by law introduced in the Netherlands nor in this Colony, still by custom, which is equal in its operation to a written law, has been adopted; and is analogous to the practice in the Courts of Germany, where the same was made lawful in the Criminal Constitution of the Emperor Charles the Fifth.” (3) Customs, according to the Roman-Dutch Law, if not abrogated by subsequent laws, have the force of law, although they may not have been registered amongst the Acts of Courts. (4) From the above statements, then, inquests were necessary by an unwritten law of the Colony. That this was observed will be illustrated by one or two of the medical certificates written in the early days of the country’s history.

Before passing on to the next point, I would like to quote from one of the Roman-Dutch law books, which shows that in Holland there must have been some mode of procedure for holding an inquest. “Persons found drowned, or who otherwise meet with an accident and are found dead, may not be removed from the place where the body is discovered before a proper examination by the local authorities has taken place. (5)

Now as regards the mode of procedure. When a person had died suddenly, if in Cape Town or district, the Fiscal was notified, and if in the country, then the Landdrost. The Fiscal, together with two commissioned members of the Court of Justice, the Secretary of the Court, and one or two government surgeons, made an ocular inspection of the corpse. The surgeon made his examination, and noted the state and appearance of the wounds, if any, and formed his opinion as to the cause of death. If necessary, he made a dissection of the body. “The surgeons entrusted with the examination and dissection are, with the greatest care and attention, to examine the external and internal marks of violent discoverable on the body deceased, and to make a statement thereof on oath for the information of the judicial committee thereon attending, which is to be concluded with their opinion as perite in arte respecting the lethality or not of the wounds or other injuries received. No oath, however, is to be required from medical officers publicly appointed to assist the courts on such occasions, to whom, in the discharge of their respective duties, full credit is to be given on the oath administered to them at the entrance into their official situations.”(6)

In the country districts two commissioned Heemraden and the surgeon inspect the body. At the request of the Fiscal or Landdrost these Heemraden were authorized to take inquests and pass Acts thereof in forma, which Acts had the same force as if the inquest had been taken before a commission of the Court of Justice. Therefore, when anyone died suddenly, a judicial enquiry was held before commissioned members of the Court of Justice in Cape Town, or the Court of Landdrost and Heemraden in the country. An inspection of the body was made, and the medical man in attendance gave his testimony as to the cause of death. We now turn to the reports sent in by the surgeons to the court holding the inquests. Up to the close of the eighteenth century these are brief, those of the earlier days being very much so. Now and again one comes across a report of an examination in which more care and time seems to have been spent. It was not in every case that a dissection of the body took place; that is, if one is guided by the surgeon’s statement as to the means he adopted to ascertain the cause of death. In a case of stabbing in 1660, given below, nothing more than an external examination seems to have been made. But in another stabbing case in 1684, four medicos, Wilhelm ten Damme, (7) Jacob Budewitz, Claude Moreaux, and H. Claudius’s opened the deceased, and describe very minutely the condition of the damage done by the rapier which had caused the injury.

Certificate of Examination Made in April 1660, On the Dead Body of a Boatswain’s Mate Who Had Been Stabbed to Death.

Having been requested by Mr. Van Riebeeck (9) to report my examination on the body of the boatswain’s mate, made in the presence of the Fiscal and the surgeon, Pieter van Clinckenbergh, I beg to state that the jugular vein and carotid artery (vena jugeloere en aortery carotides) were severed, and the asperia arteria also injured; death ensured from loss of blood. The junior surgeon, Pieter van Meerhoff, is of the same opinion.

CHEVALIER, Senior Surgeon of the ship “Vlissingen.”



In October 1788, a man was found dead on his bed; he was lying on his stomach with his face buried in the pillow. The commissioners of the Court proceeded to the house to hold the inquest, and from the evidence of a witness ascertained that the deceased suffered from epilepsy (vallende ziekte). The surgeon, who was called upon to give his visum repertum, stated: ” . . . According to the evidence, the said Colin (deceased) suffered from epilepsy, and it is presumed had a seizure during the night. Being unable to cry out for assistance, he was thus smothered. There could have been no other cause of death that I am aware o£”

After the beginning of last century, the medical certificates became lengthier, and show a greater amount of detail of the results of the examinations. There was one doctor, Dr. F. L. Liesching, whose reports occupy as much as three closely written foolscap leaves and show a careful and conscientious examination of the body. In 1820 Edward Roberts, surgeon, sent in to the Court the following report of his post-mortem examination of a slave who had died suddenly. After giving the general build of the man, he says: ” There was not the slightest external mark of violence. My attention was drawn to the internal state of the head by a drop of blood which had oozed down the right nostril. On removing the scalp and upper part of the skull, both which were entirely sound, the vessels of the brain poured out their blood, as in cases of apoplexy. The ventricles, or cavities of the brain, were also found so much distended with a watery fluid as to confirm my opinion, which is, that ‘Patientie’ died apoplectic”.

In 1822 a sensational trial of a young man for the murder of a slave took place at Cape Town. The crime had been committed in the Paarl district. This young man had ordered other slaves to thrash the deceased. So violently had this been carried out that death ensured shortly after. Most of the evidence was that given by slaves, and although the defendant’s advocate had tried his utmost to get his client off, he was unsuccessful. The prisoner was sentenced to death, which sentence was duly carried out. The district surgeon’s certificate of his post-mortem on the slave is set out in full. “I certify that on this day, together with a committee, I went to the farm of the Rev. Gebhardt in order to examine the body of the slave Joris, and I find as follows:- “Internal Examination.-Having opened the head and examined the brains and membranes, I found, with the exception of a small quantity of water in the stomach, no signs of disease or derangement. “On examining the thorax, or chest, I found it to be in a healthy condition, and nothing whatever characteristic of any disease was noticeable. The viscera or intestines of the abdomen or stomach were equally healthy, with this one exception, that there was a slight redness about three inches in length on one of the convolutions of one of the small intestines, the ileum, but this could not have had any fatal consequences. The stomach was perfectly sound, slightly swollen, and contained a quantity of liquid, clear and colourless, mixed with slime, and having a sour smell.

External Examination

On examining the external parts of the body, a totally different scene presented itself: the loins showed a large mass of extravasated blood, congealed liquid, and bruised, sinewy substances; the loins and sinews of the back were bruised to such an extent that their fibres in several places could not be traced. This outpour of blood and liquid, the clearest consequence of a severe bruising, extended from the hips up to the square sinews of the neck, while on either side, as far down as the external oblique sinews of the stomach, there were broad blotches of coagulated blood under the different bands. The whole fleshy and hollow substance of the loins, indeed, appeared to be a misformed heap of coagulated blood, liquid, and sinewy substance. “After the last minute and careful examination of the internal parts of the body, I found no signs of disease or disorder which could have caused death, and hence the inevitable conclusion is that the slave in question owes his death to the destruction of the tissues about the loins and adjoining parts, causing such a weakening of the constitution, exhaustion of strength, and agony as gradually tended to lessen the working or pulsation of the heart to such an extent that death resulted there from.

“ROBERT SHAND, M.D., ‘District Surgeon’.”

One more example before closing this article. In his report of an examination of the body of a man who had died suddenly, Surgeon C. A. Wentworth said: “The only appearances of disease found were within the cranium. On opening the dura mater about three ounces of fluid escaped. The arachnoid membrane was separated from the pia mater by a serious effusion, which extended over the whole surface of the encephalon, of gelatinous appearance. The ventricles were filled by an effusion of serum into their cavities. Several vesicular bodies adhered to the plexus choroides, about the size of small peas. The pined gland contained an earthy matter. The substance of the brain was unusually firm. Death evidently proceeded from a sudden determination of blood to the brain.”


      1. Letter dated 27th Match, 1817.
      2. I.e., the Attorney-General of the day or Public Prosecutor.
      3. Letter dated 11th November 1822.
      4. V. d. Keessel’s “Select Theses”, Thesis 21.
      5. Van Leeuwen’s “Roman-Dutch Law”, Kotze’s translation, “101. ii, p. 28r.
      6. Letter, November 11, 1822, Fiscal to Registrar Court of Appeals.
      7. A well-known surgeon at the Cape at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
      8. Hendrick Claudius, of Breslau, an apothecary, accompanied Governor Simon van der Stel on his expedition to Namaqualand in 1685.
    1.       First commander at the Cape, 1652-1662. Van Riebeeck was himself a surgeon in the Company’s service before being appointed out here.
      1. He was quite an interesting personage in the early days of the Cape settlement. Van Meerhoff came from Copenhagen and arrived here as soldier in 1659. In 1661 he was made a surgeon of the Fort of Good Hope. Between 1660-1667 he accompanied inland many expeditions of the Company. In 1664 he married Eva the first Hottentot to profess Christianity, and who had been taken into Mr Van Riebeeck’s household.