Dutch East India Company: Slavery and Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean World

Very many descriptions have been recorded as regards slavery and the Atlantic Ocean slave trade but, set against these records, very few descriptions have been recorded about slavery and the Indian Ocean slave trade. Given that, this piece aims to deal with slavery and the Indian Ocean slave trade. In keeping with earlier pieces, however, this piece only focuses on Dutch slavery and slave trading in the Indian Ocean world. While the Dutch East India Company certainly engaged in slavery and slave trading in its settlements in South Asia and Southeast Asia, once more, consistent with earlier pieces, this piece only gives attention to Dutch slavery and slave trading in South Africa, to be precise, at the Cape of Good Hope. The piece looks at the arrival of the Dutch East India Company in the Indian Ocean World, the arrival and settlement of the Dutch at the Cape, and slavery at the Cape. The article also looks at the marks that distinguished slavery and slave trading at the Cape from slavery and slave trading in other parts of the world as well as the means employed by the Dutch to maintain its power and control.

Dutch East India Company ships at sea.
Image Credit: http://www.peterfisk.com

VOC, Slavery, and Slave Trading

The roots of slavery and slave trading go back at least to the earliest phases of historical times. Slaves were traded in the Indian Ocean world long before the arrival of the first Europeans, the Portuguese, in the 16th century. When the Portuguese arrived, however, slavery and slave trading changed. The Portuguese purchased slaves, shipped these slaves to numerous destinations throughout the Indian Ocean world and, as they continued to do this, in so doing, the demand for slave labour in the Indian Ocean world increased. In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company arrived in the Indian Ocean world. Similar to other European trading companies engaged in trade in the Indian Ocean World, the Dutch ended up taking part in the slave-trading system as well, shipping hundreds of thousands of slaves throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Dutch purchased African and Asian slaves from their homelands and shipped them to work in several Dutch settlements in, for instance, the Maluku Islands (Indonesia), Malacca (Malaysia), Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), and later, the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), to name a few. Dutch slave-trading system drew slave labour from Southeast Africa (Mozambique, Madagascar, and the Mascarene Islands (Mauritius and Reunion)), South Asia (Colombo (Ceylon), Coromandel Coast (India), Malabar Coast (India), and Bengal (India)), and Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines). At the Cape, because the Dutch feared that enslaving the local people would negatively affect their relations with local communities, slaves were shipped and brought to the Cape from Dutch settlements in the Indian Ocean world. In just a few years, following 1652 when the Dutch first settled at the Cape, the Cape had gone from simply being a refreshment location for ships journeying to and from the Far East, to developing into a link between the East African coast, South Asia, and Southeast Asia for the Dutch East India Company by the end of the 17th century.

Slavery at the Cape of Good Hope

Four types of slaves emerged at the Cape, that is; slaves owned by the Company, slaves owned by Company officials, slaves owned by Dutch farmers, and slaves owned by free Africans. From the earliest years of the 18th century, distinct features distinguished slavery and slave trading at the Cape from slavery and slave trading in other parts of the world. First, the slaves at the Cape were from diverse linguistic, religious, and social backgrounds. While only a small number of slaves came from East Africa, the majority of them were from South Asia and Southeast Asia. Many of them too, were Muslim. This reality, coming from diverse backgrounds, meant that slaves struggled to form meaningful relationships with one another. Second, the African, South Asian, and Southeast Asian slave population outnumbered Dutch farmers. Because forming meaningful relationships was difficult, the slave population only increased as a result of continual imports, not because they were reproducing themselves.

Third, yet again, unlike in other parts of the world, or even in Dutch settlements in South Asia and Southeast Asia, where slaves were tasked with working on plantations, plantation systems did not exist at the Cape. In comparison to other Dutch settlements as well as slavery and slave trading in other parts of the world, slavery and slave trading at the Cape was different. Be that as it may, all slaves worked. In Dutch settlements in South Asia and Southeast Asia, slaves usually worked as domestic servants, artisans, and manual workers, building and maintaining different structures in organisational centres and industrial units. Slaves also played a central role in the spice trade, managing the distribution of pepper, and working on the clove and nutmeg plantation in the Moluccas (Indonesia). Furthermore, work was usually divided between men and women. While men worked as sailors, soldiers, and farmworkers, women worked as domestic servants. The latter were also left vulnerable to sexual exploitation as concubines and prostitutes. At the Cape, slaves were brought in to work on farms and in towns. Slaves were divided in line with whether they were skilled or unskilled workers. All in all, however, slaves engaged in domestic work, carpentry, pottery, and administrative work, amongst other things. South Asian and Southeast Asian convicts were also shipped to the Cape and tasked with working as assistants in the security forces.

Masters and Servants

Men, women, and children that were brought into the Cape as slaves were enslaved in their homelands over a series of socio-political and socio-economic reasons, for example, violent conflicts, poverty, and debt. The arrival and settlement of these slaves at the Cape completely transformed Cape society. Though relations between slaves and Europeans were often hostile, intimate relationships, even marriages, occurred between Dutchmen and slave women. The most common marriages were between Dutchmen and South Asian and Southeast Asian women. While the least common marriages were between Dutchmen and African women. Although marriages between Dutchmen and slave women were common, simply living together was an even more common practice. The children that came from these relationships, however, adopted their mother’s standing in Cape society and not their father’s. Because of their mother’s race and status, they too were seen as slaves. By the late 18th century, a master-servant way of life had been established at the Cape with Europeans as masters and non-Europeans as servants.

The master-servant way of life was maintained through violence. Even though, over time, slaves spoke the same language (Afrikaans) and practised the same religion (Islam), the absence of a unified culture, their division, their inability to organise themselves effectively, only strengthened the power of their owners. All the same, there were, however, several individual acts of defiance and by the early 19th century, slaves had engaged in 2 acts of civil disobedience. Because they outnumbered Dutch farmers, these acts of civil disobedience were often met with violence. Slaves were often beaten, branded, and disfigured, and from time to time, the punishments were so severe that many lost their lives at the hands of their owners’ violent behaviour.


References and Further Readings

Allen, R. B. (2015). European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500–1850. Ohio University Press

Campbell, G. (2004). Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. Routledge

Campbell, G. (2010). Slavery in the Indian Ocean World, in The Routledge History of Slavery, Gad Heuman & Trevor Burnard. Routledge

Harms, R. W., Freamon, B. K., & Blight, D. W. (2013). Indian Ocean Slavery in the Age of Abolition. Yale University Press

Mbeki, L. (2018). Building Life Histories of Cape Town’s Enslaved, 1700-1850: An Archival and Isotopic Study. VU University Amsterdam

McKenna (2011). The History of Southern Africa. Britannica Educational Publishing

Shell, R. C. (1994). Children of Bondage: A Social History of the Slave Society at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-1838. University Press of New England

Sprangers, E. C. J. (2014). Slavery and Abolitionism: A Dutch History through Intersectionally Explored Stories. Utrecht University

Stanziani, A. (2020). Slavery and Post Slavery in the Indian Ocean World. Oxford University Press

Thompson, L. (2000). A History of South Africa. USA: Yale University

Worden, N. (1985). Slavery in Dutch South Africa. Cambridge University Press

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