The women in the slave lodge were in a vastly different situation from the settlers’ women slaves. Lodge women, for instance, were not under the direct domestic supervision of any settler or European official. There were almost as many slave women in the lodge as there were men. There were thus possibilities of finding a slave spouse among the Lodge inmates. Slave women in the Lodge, in contrast to their counterparts owned by settlers, could “be effectively married” to slave men from as early as 1671, although this did not entail a wedding solemnized by the Dutch Reformed Church across the way (actually a graveyard physically and symbolically separated the two buildings until the 1750s).

According to Lord Adriaan Van Rheede’s more carefully worded instructions issued in 1685, “[Company slave] man and wife were to be left together” and to be “married in their manner.” If a slave couple wished to be wed, they had to ask permission to be placed on the “marriage list.” It is important to establish that the official church of the colony never sanctioned or even recorded such marriages, moreover the mandated “lists” of such Company slave couples have never been found in the voluminous Company books or censuses of company slaves. Significantly, one year after Van Rheede had left the colony, the local authorities used the Dutch word “ wijven ” to describe these Company slave spouses and not the expected word “ vrouwen ” which was used for the settlers’ wives. Several scholars of the period have suggested that local officials regarded Van Rheede as an aristocratic busybody and all but ignored his heavily touted reforms.

Getting on to one of these married lists also meant moving to new quarters, since the architecture of the Lodge was based on sex: young bachelors on the east wing, spinsters on the west wing, married couples in their own quarters. According to the 1717 report on the new slave lodge, the entire second story of the lodge was to be given over “to the best and most respectable paired slaves.” This “pairing” spilled over into the work-place; even the heaviest labour contingent on the “general works” in 1693, where one would expect to find a high proportion of males who were physically more capable of the heavy labour, suggested this pairing. Whether this racial pairing was organized by the Company or the slaves themselves is obscure: the Company though, recorded the following:

                                    Male     Female
“Half-breed”                   6         7
“Full-breed”                    60         61

For each “half-breed” [ halfslag ] male slave there was one half-breed female slave; for each full-breed [ heelslag ] female slave there was one full-breed male. Only two extra “overlapping” women spoilt the otherwise perfect symmetry of what one might term descent pairing.

All half-breed females in the lodge were actually encouraged to marry “a man from the Netherlands,” who would be expected to pay back the cost of upkeep and education of the slave women and to free her. The process of settlers formally marrying Company “half breeds” was common enough for the Company to resolve to exact compensation from the bridegroom, who was, after all, acquiring property from the company. Not all bachelor settlers could afford this expense. Consequently, there are several examples of ante nuptial contracts, whereby the settler or soldier promised that should his slave bride die before him and not have any heirs, he would leave half of the estate of the marriage to the Company as compensation for the education and upbringing of the slave bride. As can be seen from the following extract from just such a contract, the process of metamorphosis from slavery to freedom and incorporation into the settler family-so dramatic and strange to us-was carefully monitored just as any other humdrum corporate accounting transaction: [Andries Oelszen, free settler at Stellenbosch presently intending to marry Sara van de Caap, the Company’s half-breed slave, declares that in the event of his bride’s predeceasing him and in the event of her leaving no legal heirs, that a half of the estate, including land and movables, should be given over to the company, at the death-house [ sterfhuijsje ], before the debts of the estate are settled, to acknowledge and pay off the Company’s role in bringing up and feeding the above mentioned bride…]

According to Van Rheede’s calculations in 1685, at 22 years of age, this amounted to 150 Guilders. European males were often willing to pay. Full-breed women slaves, on the other hand, had to wait much longer for their manumission. Officials obviously presumed that no European would want to marry a full-breed, since no provisions were made for such an eventuality, one secondary source even claiming these unions were illegal.

Because of the long-term shortage of women at the Cape, half-breed company slave women had a good chance of being married to a European- and this was encouraged officially at the same time as regulations were promulgated against concubinage with full-breed slaves. This seeming contradiction represents a head-on clash between racial attitudes of the time and the demographic reality of the shortage of European women at the Cape. Basing arguments about miscegenation (and indirectly race relations) at the Cape on the marital trajectories of the Company’s few half breed slave women should not be regarded as evidence of racial fluidity. In those regions of the colony where European women were more plentiful, the incidence of miscegenation declined.

The Lodge slave censuses disclose that the women were under the overall supervision of a male mandoor at the work-place outside the lodge. In the lodge itself, the women had an equivalent authority figure in the matres, literally a schoolmistress. Her separate lodging, strategically located next to the chamber set aside for the schoolgirls, discloses that her duties exceeded those of the traditional “schoolmarm.” Therefore, the translation “matron” seems more appropriate.

The two references where matrons were mentioned by name confirm that they enjoyed the same, or greater, privileges of manumission as did the male half-breed mandoors, but then as mothers they had their own children to free. Significantly both matrons mentioned were half-breeds; both were allowed to manumit their children. For example, Armozijn van de Caab, the matron before 1711, who had been manumitted because of good service by the previous Governor, Willem Adriaan van der Stel, made a special request to free her daughter, Marie van de Caap, who still languished in the Lodge. The Company granted the request, but the resolution stipulated that the slave-girl would still have to work for the Company for three years after which she would be sold to her mother at the price which Lord van Rheede had laid down in 1685 for all such miscegenated children. In August, 1728 Christijn van de Caab, another matron, freed her 13 year old child, Johanna Barbara van de Caab, before she thought of her own freedom.

Below the matron was the under-mistress. Again the documents confirm the half-breed descent status. Women slaves in these supervisory positions somehow managed to obtain cash as well as their normal perquisites. For example, the Company instantly freed Anna van Dapoer van de Caap, who had worked for “ten unbroken years” as an under-mistress in the lodge, when on the 23rd September, 1727 she presented a male slave, Julij van de Kust, whom the Company surgeon, Jan van Schoor, had examined and pronounced “upstanding and healthy.” She had bought Julij out of her own pocket to exchange him for her freedom.

This exchange system was the Cape equivalent of the Cuban coartición, which entitled any slave to purchase freedom at a stipulated price. But unlike the Cuban custom, the Cape practice usually involved an exchange of persons, rather than money, and a slave’s chances of freedom were statutably greater if the slave could prove European descent. The purchase price of an exchange slave was large by contemporary standards, where such a slave might be worth (say) several horses. Illustrating Anna van Dapoer’s ordeal, a further twelve years’ work as a free woman was needed before she was able to free her children, Jan and Frans, in 1739.

Women slave officers

Each of the two women slave officers, the last and lowest rung in the Lodge’s female hierarchy, had an average of seventy-nine “work-maidens” under her supervision, i.e. many more underlings than her male fellow officer which suggests greater compliance among the Lodge women. Like her male counterpart she received more clothing than her fellows. The women slave officers however also received bolts of linen. Each officer, male and female, received a length of cotton cloth, presumably as part of the overall incentive scheme of the lodge.

Elements of the family mode of slave management were fused into the control of the Lodge slave women, but noticeably never among the men, who lived according to strict army style regulations. The interpolation of the family trope was accomplished through the offices of the “internal” and “external” mothers. External mothers were surrogate slave mothers outside the lodge, usually European official’s wives, who must have served as ombuds persons. In 1687, the political Council appointed and charged four external mothers with seeing that the maidens and younger girls of the Lodge were well brought up, were familiar with the handicrafts of the “fatherland,” specifically the sewing of linen and making of woollen clothes.

Internal mothers looked after their own children and other mothers and their children in the lodge creche and hospital. If the slave-child became sick, the biological mother would be called in, and placed in the Company hospital with her child. However, the child would have to be seriously sick. According to the complete hospital records of the year 1710, nineteen slave children were bed-patients, yet only one mother, Margriedt, was recalled from her work to look after her children. The company also consulted the internal mothers about conditions in the lodge, which suggests that they had some control over the other female slaves. They did not, however, receive any extra rations. Their continuance through the remainder of the eighteenth century is dubious. Perhaps they did their job too efficiently and became a nuisance, but this is arguing from silence. We do know that the internal mothers all but disappear from the sources.

Gender deference within the Lodge

The most important aspect of female slave labour in the lodge was that apart from child-bearing, the Company made little distinction in the type of labour which men and women could do. The Company throughout this period had no hesitation in assigning slave women to the most gruelling tasks. For example, at the Company mine at Silvermine (on the road to present-day Kommetjie), a mine which was worked around the clock, a small undivided hut was set aside for the men and women slaves.

It should be remembered that woman in contemporary England had proved efficient miners as they could crawl through the narrow coal tunnels dragging carts with ropes between their legs without encumbrance. The legend in the Dutch illustration of a mine shows that the Dutch made a distinction between the maximum number of Europeans (50) and slaves (150) who could safely be in the mine at one time, but no mention was made of women, a further hint that no gender deference was shown to Company slave women with regard to heavy manual labour.

European women, on the other hand, never appear on the Company payrolls, except as midwives or “external mothers.” When adventurous individual Dutch women did disguise themselves as men, joined the Dutch East India Company to come to the Cape, and were caught, they were tried and sent home, even though several male settlers “instantly asked for their hand in marriage.” Settler women at the Cape, like their Virginian counterparts, were supposed to work at home; it was left to settler and slave men and Lodge slave women to work in the field and the ditch.

The only evidence of gender differentiation for the slave women of the lodge was that the Company did not allow them to work in the Company hospital as nurses because of the “rough soldiers and sailors” who were often afflicted with the “Venus sickness [venereal disease].” Such nursing “work was wholly incompatible for a woman” the internal mothers complained on the 10th February, 1710. The Political Council agreed to use fewer women in the hospital, but did so on epidemiological grounds rather than from notions of gender deference. However, according to Kolbe, the slave women in the Lodge were excused from work if they fell pregnant:

The Negro-Women at the Cape are very lascivious Creatures. As they are excused there from working, and indulged in an idle Life, for about Six Weeks before and Six Weeks after Travail, they are the most intemperate Wretches upon Earth in the Article, and greedily swallow, and enflame themselves with, all the Provocatives they can come at, till they are got with Child. The Provocative they mostly take, and are the fondest of, is one of their own preparing, consisting of milk, wine, eggs, sugar, saffron and cinnamon. The Slaves Lodge at the Cape swarms with Children.

Self perception and identity

How the slave women perceived themselves in the hierarchy in the lodge is a difficult question. The detailed crime records rarely provide a glimpse. Attitudes have perforce to be inferred from behaviour, reconstructed from the baptismal records, and also deduced from European commentary originating outside the walls of the lodge. If the women slaves of the settlers had to be coerced to make love to European visitors, this did not apply to the lodge slave women. Their reputed slave “husbands” forced them to sleep with visitors, both settlers and the famous “Lords of six weeks,” those soldiers and sailors who had money and only a short time to spend it.

Ambrose Cowley, an English visitor to the Cape in 1686, claimed the lodge “husbands” were easily persuaded to pimp their wives: “If a slave of the Company’s should have a mind to have carnal knowledge of one of their women, let him but give her husband a bit of Tobacco-Roll of about three inches long, he will fetch her forthwith to the slave and cause her to lie with him.” Mentzel, who actually delivered salt to the Lodge and was thus one of the few settlers to pass through the Lodge’s portals, confirms Cowley’s accounts, namely that male slaves actually forced their partners to take a European lover. Elsewhere he suggests that not all lodge women were “loose,” those that were however, scrupulously insisted on advance payment from their patrons.

There was another side to these accounts of the lodge women. Many travellers and other sources emphasized that Lodge slave women willingly courted European sexual attention. For instance, according to the genuinely pained Political Council members in 1681, the slave women in the lodge flaunted their European lovers in public: “dancing, stark naked even on Sundays, in full aspect.” Charles Lockyer, who visited the Cape in 1711, claimed that: “There is little notice taken of the sailors who lodge in their rooms, and as for the women themselves, they are so fond of white children, that they would willingly have no other, whence the breed is highly improved, many of them being as white as Europeans.” Johan Daniel Buttner, a doctor who stayed at the Cape in the 1720s also remarked on the mixed race children in the Lodge, the result of willing miscegenation from “men of many nations.”

The most compelling evidence comes from the church records: the independent church archives reveal that Company slave women took great pains to drive a genealogical stake into the baptismal records of the colony, always naming their invariably absent European lover as the “father” by providing an exact patronym. Whether the slave women were coerced by their slave spouses, or were willing partners, the result was the same, what Mentzel termed an entire “ mestiço class ” in the lodge.52 Were the slave women of the lodge being defiant of the growing racial order by flaunting their European partners, or simply establishing for their offspring the best possible chance in a colony where the advantages depended so clearly on a light skin color? If slavery became increasingly racially based in the colony, than the genius of the lodge women lay in their success in making that association as difficult and troublesome as possible for the ruling order and by flaunting European fatherhood, they also put their pimping slave spouses in their places.


Emerging racial descent criteria came to override long-established patterns of European gender deference in the lodge. No European women worked at heavy manual labour, while all lodge women were used in the heaviest work. Further, it was more important in the lodge to be mestiço than female, at least as far as the allocation of easier tasks and the granting of freedom were concerned. But lodge women used the system to acquire the best life chances for their offspring and then themselves.

Kind permission from Prof Robert Shell – from his book Diaspora to Diorama