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Slave Laws in South Africa


It is a popular misconception that slavery in South Africa was mild compared to America and the European colonies in the Far East. This is not so, and punishments meted out could be very harsh. From 1680 to 1795 an average of one slave was executed in Cape Town each month. Decaying corpses would be re-hung around town to act as a deterrent to other slaves.

In 1721, a particularly gruesome sentence was handed down – Franciscus Xaverus van Tranqeubar was to be crucified upside down and the coup de grace to be withheld. After death, his corpse was to be dragged "backwards and forwards" though the streets of Cape Town, and then taken to Gallows Hill at Greenpoint to be hanged "until the birds of the heavens and the air itself consume the body".

In 1724 a slave found guilty of murder and arson was sentenced to have his right hand cut off and then "half-strangled and then killed on a slow fire" (the particular punishment for arson).

In 1753 a set of rules to govern the control of slaves was prepared by the governor of the Cape Colony, Rijk Tulbagh. These became known as the Tulbagh Code:

  • A curfew existed for slaves, who had to be indoors by ten o'clock at night. If they were out later they were required to carry a pass and a lantern.
  • Slaves were not allowed passage through the streets of Cape Town on horseback or in a wagon.
  • Slaves were forbidden to sing, whistle, or make any kind of sound at night.
  • Slaves could not enter public houses or bars (taphuis) .
  • Slaves could not congregate in groups on public holidays.
  • Slaves were not allowed to wait near a church entrance during service.
  • Slaves could not stop to converse on the streets of Cape Town, at risk of being publicly caned.
  • Slaves who made false claims or insulted freemen of the Cape were to be punished by public flogging and to be held in chains.
  • Slaves who proffered violence to their masters were to be put to death, no mercy may be shown to such offenders.
  • Slaves were not permitted to carry, or own, firearms.

Curiously, the enforcement of such laws often fell to a group of slaves known as Caffers, who were free of curfews (they were, in face, required to roam around Cape Town at all hours enforcing the curfew on other slaves), wore a special uniform (a special police outfit including a short gray coat with blue lapels, a waistcoat, and trousers), permitted to carry arms ("armed with a sword with iron hilt [and] carry a palang or heavy club") and mandated to inflict punishments on other slaves. The Caffers were collectively hated and feared through out the Cape Colony, and referred to as "the hangman's black assistants" by the people of Cape Town.

Children of Bondage by Robert C-H Shell, Witwatersrand University Press, © 1994.
An Unsung Heritage: Perspectives on Slavery by Alan Mountain, David Philip Publishers, © 2004.

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