by Karen Williams


In 1705 a gang of Chinese slaves were caught robbing the burghers at night. When interrogated, it was discovered that they escaped from the (Slave) Lodge by forming a human pyramid in the courtyard to escape over the roof. – The Dutch East Indian Company’s Slave Lodge at the Cape, by Helene Vollgraaff, p12


The Chinese in 18th and 19th century South Africa are recorded as historical and statistical footnotes: mentioned in passing in prison inventories, court cases and notices of enslavement and exile. But everywhere you read closer, their personalities, that individual who lived and loved, as well as their complex social realities, keeps breaking through. Ongkonko, the most prominent Chinese man in Cape Town in the 1700s, exiled to South Africa after being found guilty of high treason in Asia. His love, Thisgingnio, the only Chinese woman convict recorded at the Cape. Lemuko, who insisted on very clear manumission papers for every slave he bought and freed. And then, even the anonymous ones: the gang who formed a human pyramid to escape out of prison; the prosperous bakers with slave runners who incurred the ire of white competitors; and the Chinese men the records disapprovingly say bought women out of slavery and married them because they were polygamists.


The DEIC used the Cape as a dumping place for political and civilian troublemakers in the East Indies from 1658 to 1795. A number of Singhalese and Javanese, but mostly Batavian Chinese convicts were sent to the Cape. By 1706 there was a significant Chinese community at the Cape. The convicts worked in the quarries, built fortifications and collected salt and lime. They worked and were housed together with the slaves. – Helene Vollgraaff, p22


Chinese convicts in Batavia escaping by forming a human pyramid, 1705
Chinese convicts in Batavia escaping by forming a human pyramid in 1705. Credit: From Diaspora to Diorama: Robert Shell (compiler).

The Chinese footprint in South Africa is nearly a millennium old. Carbon-dated shards of Chinese porcelain in the collection of colonist Cecil John Rhodes dating from the 1100s and also later, were found at Mapungubwe, an early site of civilization in South Africa’s north and also at the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, giving credence to historical writings that southern Africa was one of the main gold suppliers to the Ming Dynasty. Stories of pre-colonial shipwrecks mention enslaved Chinese children stranded in South Africa. The contact continued in various waves throughout the past five hundred years, and in the 20th century, South Africa was the only country on the continent’s mainland that had local Chinese citizens, born in the country and representing fourth- and fifth-generations of South African Chinese. (Under apartheid they were classified as “non-whites” like all of the country’s black population, and were more specifically classified as “coloured” under apartheid’s racial classification laws.)

But between the Ming trade links and the twentieth century families, Chinese people were already a significant part of the population three hundred years before the current population of local South African Chinese.

Most of the Chinese in Cape Town in the 1600 and 1700s came from the Dutch “prize colony” of Batavia (present-day Jakarta), and consisted mostly of criminals exiled to South Africa’s coastal Cape region. Some of the convicts were sentenced to wear chains once in South Africa, and groups of Chinese were regularly imprisoned at Robben Island, the penal colony that has housed revolutionaries, political prisoners, lepers and criminals for hundreds of years before Nelson Mandela and anti-apartheid fighters were imprisoned there from the 1960s onwards.

Xin Xiao, a researcher at the Confucius Institute at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, says that Chinese people were already in South Africa in the 17th Century:

A Chinese bride in Batavia (circa 1800s)
A Chinese bride in Batavia (circa 1800s)

“The Chinese who came to South Africa in the eighteenth century were not businessmen, although some people were. Some people committed crimes in China. In the 19th century the Dutch East India Company controlled much of the area and the VOC did not know how to develop agriculture. They needed people to develop the agriculture sector and (cultivate) rice, wheat and corn in the Cape.”

In the 1820s the VOC imported 80 Chinese from Indonesia (Batavia),” said Xiao, and they joined hundreds of others already at the Cape. At the time, China’s Qing dynasty forbade its citizens from travelling abroad. Xiao believes that the Batavian Chinese had immigrated to Indonesia illegally, thereby making them vulnerable to be captured by the Dutch. Historian Robert Shell has noted that hundreds of Chinese were sent to South Africa yearly. The Chinese at the Cape spoke mainly Cantonese and came largely from Guangdong and Fujian provinces in the south.

By the early 1700s South Africa’s Chinese population was so numerous in Cape Town and its surrounding areas, that they made up a specific sub-section of the population, with their own cemetery very close to the most sacred Muslim burial ground in the city.4

The convicts were forced to work the quarries, building fortifications and collecting lime and salt. Chinese men were particularly targeted to do some of the most backbreaking work in Cape Town, including building the breakwaters around the city, a labour in which many died.


A prisoner list, dispatched to Holland 5 September 1686, shows that although the prisoners had been given sentences of a given number of years, the records of their sentences were conveniently mislaid. In a note appended to Jacob van (from) Macassar’s name appeared these words: “the length of his banishment and his crimes are not to be found.” Next to Arie van Bengal’s name was the legend: “not found in the Company books.” These records disclose that sentences of convicts were quite commonly “mislaid”.

To be blended in with the slaves and then forgotten was clearly part of the punishment for convicts sent to the Cape. Jannas of Tagal wrote indignantly to the Council of Policy that he had been “now nineteen years in banishment here, while his sentence was 10 years.” Ripa Nagara wrote that he had arrived in the Company ship the Herstelling in 1723, “having been sent away by his brother from India to remain away as long as the latter lived, his brother is already dead sixteen years, but as yet he has not received back his liberty.” Slavery was also part of the punishment for these prisoners; many, whose records were “lost”, became slaves for life. – Robert Shell1, p197


Front of Slave Lodge, Cape Town, South Africa
Front of Slave Lodge, Cape Town, South Africa

The VOC records list many of the Chinese as Company prisoners, but in effect, they were often enslaved the moment they arrived at the Cape. Some were released after serving their sentence, and some returned to Asia, but many of the men would never be freed until they died. The fact that a lot of them lived in the Slave Lodge in central Cape Town already designated their status as enslaved people and they were blended with the slave population.

“In the Cape archives there are lots of Chinese who are freemen, rather than Company slaves,” Xiao explained. “The VOC had asked the Chinese government for skilled workers and they imported the skilled (Chinese) workers. But after they arrived in South Africa, their contracts were changed: even if they were freemen, they now became slaves.”

The Chinese were part of the country’s Free Black community from the 1600s onward, which encompassed manumitted slaves, Asian political prisoners and royalty, exiled criminals who had served their sentence as well as Asian and African traders and artisans. Along with the other Free Blacks at the Cape, the Chinese mainly engaged in waged labour that included baking, petty trading, shopkeeping and ships’ provisioning.


Some male Chinese “free blacks”… practice polygamy and obtain their wives by the purchase of female slaves, but one must also record that the Chinese were scrupulous in obtaining a formal manumission after such slave purchases. The following astonishingly candid manumission request submitted in 1768 illustrates this perfectly: “Liminionko, Chinaman, banished on Robben Island, and Lemuko, a countryman, holding his power-of-attorney, prays that his (Liminionko’s) slave, Dina, and the two children whom he has procreated by her, might be manumitted (the previous sale transfer from a patrician slave trader attached to the request.)” – Shell, p119


The Free Blacks had a distinct history in freeing enslaved people in South Africa.

Chinese shops at Kali Besar in Batavia’s Chinese district (circa 1910-1920)
Chinese shops at Kali Besar in Batavia’s Chinese district (circa 1910-1920)

Historian Robert Shell notes that Cape Town’s Chinese community had the monopoly over the chandlery concerns. Other free blacks ran fishing syndicates in the port as well as haberdashery shops and restaurants, which Shell says “were profitable enough to generate capital to pay for, and informally free, many slaves”.

Even if one counts only formal manumission requests, one had to conclude that, considered proportionally, free blacks bought and freed many more slaves through the domestic market than any other group of slave owners from 1658 through emancipation,” Shell writes.

Apart from the few chandlery, fishing, and restaurant enterprises owned by free blacks and ex-convicts, it is difficult to say how free blacks generated the capital for so many slave transfers and manumissions. Their sacrifice in using their savings to free others can only be regarded as dazzling. This sacrifice nudged many into an honorable, but binding, poverty,” wrote Shell.2

Cape Town slaves plan to steal flour from one of their owners and to sell it to an exiled Chinese person in the town. They are caught red-handed by the nightwatchmen and apprehended. The case gives a glimpse of the Chinese bandieten (convicts) exiled to the Cape from Batavia, some of whom, such as Limoeijko3, had served their sentences and were “free Chinese”. The authorities suspected the Chinese community in Cape Town of being actively involved in the smuggling and the handling of stolen goods. Certainly these slaves knew where to bring their flour, and Limoeijko’s claims of innocence were not believed and he was punished along with the slaves.

Salaoos [ed: one of the accused] was displayed standing under the gallows with a rope around his neck, and was then, with the other three, whipped and branded. The three slaves were sent back to their owners, while Limoeijko was sentenced to labour in chains on the Company’s public works for life. – Trials of Slavery, Salaoos van Sambouwa, 1749, p270


Chinese man in Batavia (Date unknown)
Chinese man in Batavia (Date unknown)

Liminionko, mentioned above (aka Limoeijko), survives in the convict records after being accused of planning to buy stolen flour from a group of enslaved men. He protested his innocence throughout, particularly as the records are not clear that he ever received the stolen goods. Liminionko freed his wife, Dina, and children as a final act of defiance against the authorities that had exiled him to Cape Town, enslaved his wife and children, and then imprisoned him for life for a crime for which he protested his innocence. It was one thing for his wife and children to live as quasi-free people with Liminionko while the law regarded them as still enslaved. But, by freeing them in law, Dina and Liminionko assured that every one of the children born from that generation would no longer be enslaved.

And from Dina and Liminionko’s children, there would be generation upon generation of Chinese people making their lives in South Africa: as traders and immigrants, as gold miners in the early 1900s, as “coloureds” and “Asiatics” under apartheid, and now, as free South Africans. But looking at the early history of the enslaved Chinese, it was Dina and Liminionko, Lemuko, Ongkonko and Thisgingnio, who directed my hand past the statistics and disapproving court papers, to find the people no longer unnamed, no longer lost, who left traces of themselves on Africa’s southern tip where they joined to become part of the ancestors of this land.

1 Shell, p197.

2 Shell: Children of Bondage, pp119-120.

3 Records also refer to Limoeijko as Liminionko (he is referred by both names in the quotes in this article).

4 Historian Achmat Davids found the earliest written mention of a Chinese burial ground in 1772.


All Under Heaven: The Story of a Chinese Family in South Africa, Darryl Accone, Cape Town: David Philip, 2004.

The History of the Tana Baru, Achmat Davids, Cape Town: Committee for Preservation of Tana Baru, 1985.

A Matter of Honour:Being Chinese in South Africa, Yoon Jung Park, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009.

Children of Bondage, Robert Shell, Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 1994.

The Dutch East India Company’s Slave Lodge at the Cape, Helene Vollgraaff, Cape Town: SA Cultural History Museum, 1997.

Trials of Slavery, ed. by Nigel Worden and Gerald Groenewald, Van Riebeeck Society for the Publication of South African Historical Documents, Cape Town, 2005.

All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.

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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4 thoughts on “Chained and enslaved: Early Chinese prisoners in South Africa

  1. Very fortunate to discover this gem website! Wonderful factual historical writings we never learned anywhere else.
    Thank you.


    1. Thanks Christina! Writing (and researching) this series has revolutionised my understanding of history – but more specifically of my own place in the world. Please also check out the other articles in the series – there are two more “Chinese focussed” pieces – one on Thisgingnio, the only Chinese woman prisoner in South Africa in the 1700s, as well as the voyages of Zheng He.


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