by Karen Williams 

Jan van Riebeeck
Jan van Riebeeck

Slavery in South Africa began at the same time as colonisation in 1652, when Jan van Riebeeck, the representative of the Dutch East India Company (the VOC), arrived in Cape Town to set up a refreshment station. Van Riebeeck arrived with two slave girls from “Abyssinia” (Ethiopia). But Van Riebeeck’s arrival did not signal the “coming of the white man” as colonialism is often characterised. South Africa had a presence of white European and Asian people living there long before the first colonists. There were numerous shipwrecks along the coast, and white people and Asians and Africans enslaved on the ships were often stranded in South Africa for long periods of time before being rescued. A number of Asian people and whites joined the local Xhosa communities permanently and along the coastal areas where Xhosa and Khoi people lived, intermarriage with the local population resulted in a number of clans and large family groupings. (This history is almost unknown in South Africa, as is much of its history of slavery.) In a number of cases white Europeans refused to return to the colonial outpost in Cape Town or to Europe when rescue ships were sent for them.

Rounding the Cape Town area was crucial to Europe for the sea route to Asia, but shipwrecks happened often. The seas around South Africa’s southern tip are treacherous and its proximity to Antarctica greatly influences the winter weather, often resulting in severe winter storms. The southern tip of Africa also has numerous false bays, thereby making it a very dangerous sea crossing1.

The country’s south, particularly around Cape Town, also served as an informal postal system where European ships left messages for other carriers who came by and before colonisation some indigenous Khoi people spoke some French as a result of their contact and trade with the European sailors.

Indian Ocean trade routes
Indian Ocean trade routes

In the early years, 80% of slaves to South Africa came from India (this included Sri Lanka). Slaves would continue to be brought from India, but over the years other regions of the world also gained importance. Over the period of slavery, enslaved people came from four main regions:

  • Africa (including Mozambique and East Africa): 26.4%
  • Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands (Mauritius, Réunion and Rodrigues): 25.1%
  • The Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka (Ceylon): 25.9%
  • The Indonesian archipelago: 22.7%

These percentages, however, do not reflect the full range of where enslaved people in South Africa originated from. Records indicate slaves as also originating from West and Central Africa, with places of origin often collectively referred to as the Guinea coast, but specifically including the Cape Verde Islands, Burkina Faso, Benin, Congo, Angola, and also Zanzibar and Ethiopia (Abyssinia). Outside of Africa slaves were from: Siam (Thailand), Persia (Iran), Arabia (north Africa and the Arabian Peninsula), Brazil, Burma, China, Japan, Borneo, Timor and Vietnam, amongst other origins. There are also mentions of Tagal, possibly pointing to Filipinos who spoke Tagalog.

In addition, there were also significant numbers of Asian political exiles and political prisoners, convicts and Free Blacks (ex-slaves, artisans and convicts who had served their sentence) in South Africa, and west African mariners and sailors. Liberian Kru men who worked on British ships eventually made their home in Cape Town and their descendants continue to live in South Africa, although often unaware of their lineage.


In a long stretch of history, immigrants and indentured labour from the Asian, African and European countries involved in the slave trade would continue to come to South Africa post-slavery, including up to present day. This includes Filipino patriots who fled the Philippines during its war of independence and whose descendants are still located at the Cape. Chinese prisoners and slaves arrived during early colonisation, followed by a second wave of Chinese miners in the early 1900s as well as immigrants after that. Indians who came as slaves and who sometimes freed themselves by joining the black groups were followed by large-scale Indian indentured labourers as well as immigrants. South Africa’s economy has for centuries been built by African slaves and Prize Negroes (Africans freed by the British from slaving ships and resettled), migrant labour from across southern Africa and the current wave of African immigrants.

It is not hard to notice that modern South Africa looks very similar in composition to South Africa at the start of colonialism: made up of indigenous groups, supplemented with significant populations of Indian and Chinese people, a strong Muslim presence, and Africans from West, Central and East Africa and also a significant presence of the progeny of these groups mixing. Since the start of slavery until the present day, there is a widely documented history of white revolutionaries who joined the oppressed black masses to overthrow slavery, then colonialism, and after that apartheid.2 During slavery/colonisation there were consistent reports of white men who left the colonial system and went to live with the indigenous people. During slavery, there are also numerous instances of white rebels being part of slave rebellions, or taking to the hills to join maroon or indigenous communities.

Greenmarket Square, Cape Town. By Johannes Rach, 1764
Greenmarket Square, Cape Town. By Johannes Rach, 1764

Slaves were renamed by enslavers at the Cape, with their name reflecting their port of origins — for example, Achmet from Arabia, Louis of Bengalen and David Casta from China3. There was also, for example, Anthony, Moor of Japan, although this does not determine whether the word “moor” refers to him being an African or Arab who was enslaved in Japan, or a Japanese man, or possibly part of the black-skinned aboriginal people found throughout south-east Asia. Some slaves that were “from Japan” were sometimes born in Indonesia, sent to Japan and then imported into South Africa. Aje of Clumpong is mentioned as one of the famous multi-lingual translators in Cape Town, who spoke 11 languages. Klumpong is a modern-day popular surname in Thailand. During Aje’s time there was a class of interpreters whose mothers were from “Siam” (Thailand) and who had Portuguese fathers.

A madrassa run (likely) by an Indonesian or south-east Asian or Arab in the 1800s in Cape Town
A madrassa run (likely) by an Indonesian or south-east Asian or Arab in the 1800s in Cape Town

Reading these annotations has a particular resonance for me, since I have lived in many of the areas where Cape slaves originated from. The records of origin mention largely major ports and not inland areas, which would possibly indicate the port from which they were shipped to South Africa, and not their actual country of origin. Even given the centuries that have passed, I still find gaps: the records (and some historians) assume that Chinese people were almost exclusively confined to China, outside of the distinct Batavian Chinese mentioned, and ignore the long Chinese heritage across south-east Asia, or, for that matter, the minority Shia Hazara people of Afghanistan or Uzbeks who could have been mistaken for Chinese people during slavery4. Similarly, “Persian” is assumed to be Iranian, but in practice it could also refer to an Afghan. Persian speakers, similarly, include people from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The historical Persian port Gamron, which is present-day Bandar Abbas, could also be a port servicing land-locked Afghanistan, central Asia, parts of modern Pakistan, and it is also very close to the Arabian Peninsula. Even today, southern Iran has distinct African-Iranian communities who are descendants of slaves, as well as of African mariners and traders. The question remains whether the Persians at the Cape were Persian slaves, African, Indian or Arab slaves bought in Persia, or slaves from non-Persian communities in the Indian sub-continent.

South African historians discount any significant presence – or even any presence at all — of slaves from Malaysia. At the same time, slaves to the Cape are said to originate from every area of south-east Asia around Malaysia. Are we to assume that miraculously Malaysia was spared? I do question how there could have been a movement of slaves from Thailand and the areas of Ayutthaya and Bangkok, and then across Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and the inland areas of the sub-continent including Burma, which somehow passed over neighbouring former Malaysian regions like Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. Furthermore, it has always struck me just how Kaaps (like the Cape) Malaysia is. There is also no clarity on whether specific groups or minorities in Asia were enslaved such as Tamils, Christians, Hindus, animists or aboriginal people.

Historian Robert Shell notes that the most common languages of imported slaves in South Africa were Buginese, Chinese (there is no indication whether this refers to Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, etc), Dutch, Javanese, Malagasy, Malay and Portuguese. Shell writes that, “No purely African languages were ever translated in the Cape during this (early) period”, but he does say that by 1660, every major language group in the world was represented in South Africa because of slavery. The Archives in Cape Town still have texts written in Buginese and Afrikaans has a significant number of common Malay and Bahasa Indonesian words including klapper (coconut) and piesang (banana). A friend5 who spent time in Aceh noted that the Afrikaans word babelaas – hungover – was also used in Indonesia. Muslims in Cape Town still use Malay words as part of everyday speech, including terima kasih (thank you) and puasa (the Muslim fast/Ramadan).

One The Indian Ocean Slave Routes
Indian Ocean Slave Routes – Credit: Iziko Museums

Shell writes that between 1652 and 1808 about 63,000 slaves were imported into South Africa. This figure does not reflect the number of people born into slavery once their parents were at the Cape (the children of slave mothers were automatically enslaved themselves), nor of the ambiguous matter of indigenous people captured. After the British abolition of the slave trade in 1808 (the mercantile transactions, but not the institution itself), there were decades when “Prize Negroes” came to the Cape. These were slaves from ships that the British intercepted as part of its anti-slavery campaign. The British sent many Prize Negroes to British colonies to provide labour as part of a system of “apprenticeship”.

It is hard to believe that this fertile, extensive history is buried in South Africa; in many ways the country’s people still largely look at themselves through the lens left by colonisation and apartheid. And, just as people across the developing world continue to challenge Europe and north America to acknowledge the long history of African and Asian people on their shores, so too, there is a political challenge for the global south to interrogate just how we came to be. In South Africa, and in many other places, the scrutiny of history has the power to not only redefine the country’s identity in revolutionary ways, but it can also provide facts and truth of how the country was shaped over hundreds of years and how history has been lived with complexity and contradiction and not with the easy lull of slogans.


Up From Slavery – R.E. van der Ross (Ampersand Press)

Children of Bondage – Robert C.-H. Shell, Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg

2 A similar point is made by Tariq Patric Mellet on his blog South Africa: Slavery & Creolisation in Cape Town.

3 All names mentioned are actual names of enslaved people.

4 A famous painting of a Cape madrassa in the 1800s, for example, has the imam wearing a distinctive chapan, a coat worn by Afghan men. The colours of the garment, though, could also make it Turkic, Uzbek or central Asian.

5 Conversation with Fiona Lloyd.

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Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.

Indian Ocean Slavery is a series of articles by Karen Williams on the slave trade across the Indian Ocean and its historical and current effects on global populations. Commissioned for our Academic Space, this series sheds light on a little-known but extremely significant period of international history.

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing edited and curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam.  A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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22 thoughts on “Where were South Africa’s enslaved people from?

  1. I am interested that you say that slavery “began” with arrival of the Dutch in 1652 but it is quite clear from many sources that there was slavery in precolonial times. Certainly the Zulus practised slavery as did the Basutho and others with their system of “bolanka”. The Nguni originated in West Africa and migrated down the continent, almost certainly taking their slaves with them. Since people were born into slavery, it thus seems reasonable to conclude that slavery would have continued as they progressed south. But even if those original slaves were somehow liberated, we know there was already slavery in existence when the first Europeans arrived: perhaps the slaves were people taken in conquest or simply bought.


  2. British Malaya from early 1800’s. Maybe absence of Malayan slaves in S Africa due to demands for rubber tree cultivation and tin miners which resulted in the country being one of the most profitable for the BEIC.
    Re Afrikaans “bastardisation”. It certainly is a “funagalore” Creolisation of many languages with Dutch as the main base. The “new” language in the colony was decried by the Dutch. It would have been started by people of colour in a city that was to become one of the most diverse populations in the world – Cape Town. From its humble origins with runaway slaves and others, miscegenation gave birth to Afrikaans. With time, the language was usurped by academicians and a language which started from the bottom was taken over from the top(that’s the wrong way around!). Fascinating how a language of the people became the lingua franca of oppressors!


  3. We should be very carefull how we write history into present existance’ the isi Xhosa people did not feature in the 1600 nor 1700s…ye reverance of Xhosa then KhoeSan is distorted…?


  4. There were indeed slaves from Malacca and even a few from Penang. Margeret Cairns tabulated at least 16 from Malacca in her tables in ” Early Cape Muslims” .As for Tagal referring to Tagalog or Phillipinos you are wrong Tegal is a city in Java between Chiribon and Semarang on the northern coast.Dont forget there was also a large group from Timor too. Only two from Persian is ever recorded,could be Persians, Arabs or even Pashtun who fled from their tribes ,though highly unlikely.


  5. I’m from Cape Town and identify as Cape Malay Coloured partly because of the classification under the Apartheid government but largely because it is probably the closest I’ll get to an accurate ‘ethnic’ identifier. I’m Muslim and have been researching the origins of my family since we immigrated to New Zealand in 1999 – largely because I’m homesick really. I found your article useful – particularly the references. It will be great once my people start to be the tellers of our stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A subject which as a historian and linguistics fan I have long been following. Bahasa spoken in Malaysia and Indonesia are similar, but it is clear that most so-called EAST INDIAN slaves came from mainly the Spice Islands of the Moluccas(Maluku) – the islands of Ternate and Tidore, while Bugis from the area of Maccassar(Unjung Pangang) in the Celebes (Sulawesi) were prominent too. Jakarta(Batavia) also had slave markets, as did Arakan in Burma. The Dutch . like the Portuguese, made free use of existing locations for slave trading in the East Indies. What needs to be further researched is the role of language -food items in particular- I have long been trying to find the exact originn of the word BORRIE for turmeric. In addition, the names given to fish by Kalk Bay fisherman need to be documented. The east coast of India from Bengal to Tamil Nadu was also a major source of many slaves – the Dutch had trading factories and port outlets established all around India. In fact, many South Afican ‘white’ familes, if that is the correct word, with over 300 years residence in South Africa, where interracial unions and marriages were common, have predominately INDIAN ancestry on the female line. In my case, there are no less than FOUR such ancestresses. Perhaps the fact that slaves from Indonesia itself tended to be MUSLIM, made it less likely for them to marry Christians? Whereas a Hindu woman. say, separated from her community or caste by capture and being sold abroad, might be likely to convert to Christianity and be baptised, which the law required for a marriage to be legally valid under Dutch law.


    1. Thanks for this. I have been saying the language-thing for ages now. Good to find somebody else on the same page.

      In fact, today I put a note on my Twitter feed saying that there needs to be further inquiry on similarities to between S Africa and east/central African languages, too. Too many things are passed off as “oh, they migrated from there, many many years ago”.

      Language and food is how I really started my inquiry re: the Indian Ocean slave trade, and I think that there really is a lot that we still haven’t touched on.

      Re: WHERE in Indonesia people came from – also don’t forget the significant number of political leaders and royalty who were exiled to the Cape. Are you doing research on this? Would love to be in touch. (I’m findable on Twitter.)


    2. Hi again Robin

      Let it not be said I don’t enjoy diving into a rabbit hole in the search for information. Not sure if this is of any help to you, but Dutch Wikipedia has borrie as originating:

      Die Etimologiewoordeboek van Afrikaans (2003) sê dat die woord ontleen is aan die Maleise woord boreh, wat ‘n borrie-gebaseerde geel smeersel vir die liggaam is. Die eerste optekening in vroeë Afrikaans was in 1685, o.a. in die vorme borry borry, boraij en borborry.
      (English summary: etymology of borrie believed to be from the Malay word boreh, a turmeric-based yellow paste for the body. First noted in early-Afrikaans in 1685 as borry borry, boraij en borborry)

      Various Indonesian web pages refer to boreh, specificially a mixture of spices including turmeric (borrie). Seen it listed as used for a number of uses including herbal body rubs to ease flu, rheumatism, etc as well as a general mix of spice. Another Balinese page says it originally came from Java, many many moons ago. You probably know all of this already… but now I’m thinking….


          1. Did you find out your family tree/roots Do you not dare tell me that your family/ancestry is from the continent of Africa


            1. If Grant is an Afrikaner with trekboer ancestry, he likely has an African admixture since there was a lot of intermarriage between the trekboers and the blacks living in the areas through which they migrated. Of course those blacks themselves were migrants, having committed genocide against the indigenous San Bushmen who occupied the area before they arrived.

              I think Grant is objecting to your use of the word “bastardisation” rather than the concept of creolisation. Perhaps less emotive language would be better.


  7. One little problem here – one can’t speak of Malaysia in the time frame you’re using because the state of Malaysia only came into being in 1957. Also, Indonesia… it was known then as the Dutch East Indies. Indonesia only came into being in 1949. One could avert this problem by saying present-day Malaysia, or present-day Indonesia.


      1. It looks that no historical accounts were sourced from Indonesian historians.It seems that our Melayu narrative is completely ignored.
        Was this deliberate??


    1. All spices came from India and nowhere else that why got the Durban curry and wholesalers that wholly owned by Indians namely Bombay Duck,Fargo Wale street spices, Spice Mecca and Durban spice dealers


    2. So do inform what was this whole area called before it was conquered by Portugese,Dutch,British Spanish and Americans??


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