Travel and Leisure 2007-2013


The Slave Lodge: "Reminders of the ties that bind"

First appeared
Saturday, 03 March 2007

The Slave Lodge is located at an historic intersection in the Cape Town city center, where the bustle and traffic of Adderley Street ends and the perpetual holiday mood of tree-lined Government Avenue begins. The building itself is impressive, with an attractive façade; when it was constructed in 1679 to house the slaves of the VOC (Dutch East India Company), the lodge was a crude, single-storey rectangular structure with no exterior windows, but it subsequently served as a post office, library and, for a hundred years, the Cape Supreme Court – gaining appropriate architectural embellishments along the way. 

I must admit, I formed a prefabricated response en route to the museum. The train journey into town offered bleak views of industria, of shacks, of litter. Gloomy faces of commuters surrounded me. My house had been burgled the previous weekend. We are all slaves now, I thought: slaves to greed and poverty, to consumerism and crime. Walking along the streets, between opulent buildings and hungover bergies, between luxury cars and urine-stained pavements, my cynicism took a different tone. We are still divided, I thought: divided between slaves and masters, between haves and have-nots.

Once through the doors of the Slave Lodge, however, I was forced to revise these assertions. The museum’s subject matter condemns any glib use of the word “slavery” and, indeed, its opposite – a word that has, through over-use, become devalued in post-apartheid South Africa – “freedom”. Nowadays, we tend to approach South African history purely in terms of the last hundred years or so, with significant dates in, say, 1913, 1948 or 1976. But we do ourselves and, moreover, our forebears a great disservice if we ignore the complexities of this country’s history before the advent of twentieth century segregation and struggle.

The great achievement of the Slave Lodge is that it reminds the visitor of the extent to which all South Africans are, for better and worse, defined by slavery and by what happened in the early Cape Colony. For worse, because we must acknowledge that this country’s early agricultural, industrial and merchant infrastructure was forged through the blood, sweat and suffering of the slaves; and because the deep rifts that persist in our society have an economic basis preceding the ideology of separate development. But these divisions are not as neat as we often assume – and this is where the Slave Lodge has good news to offer: we are defined by the context of slavery “for better” because, if we pay attention to the historical evidence of the seventeenth and eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we discover just how ridiculous it is to try and delineate racial categories. For one thing, circa 1720, there were more slaves than free people in the Cape Colony, and of the citizens themselves, few were women; many of the burghers fathered children with slave mothers, and a substantial proportion of these children were raised as “Europeans”. Then there were the Free Blacks, an awkward description indicating a section of the “non-European” population that owned land, had limited political influence (some historians conjecture that Simon van der Stel was of Free Black descent) and occasionally intermarried with settlers.

“Settler” is a problematic term, given that almost the entire slave population consisted of those who had been removed from homes elsewhere – the East African coast, the Indian subcontinent, South-East Asia – and forcibly “settled” in the Cape. The Slave Lodge is a healthy reminder of this aspect of the slave trade, with exhibits demonstrating the ways in which the Cape Colony was part of an international slave trade of truly global reach (the museum has links to the UNESCO Slave Route Project). The records of surnames given to slaves upon arrival in the Cape confirm the multiple ethnicities that have been forming the South African gene pool for centuries: van Bengalen, van Zanzibar, van Bali, van Goa, van Java, van Madagascar (although subsequent generations, locally born, were dubbed “van der Cabo” or “van der Kaap”). The first slaves came from present-day Angola and Benin. There were even slaves from Japan and China. Escaped or freed slaves often fled north and east into the interior, where they joined polyglot and multiracial communities of San, Khoi and Xhosa indigenes, so-called Hottentot or Griqua farmers, absconding European soldiers and other fugitives. Among these self-proclaimed “mulatto” and “bastard” groups were the people who first described themselves as Africans. All this encourages a healthy skepticism about current claims to race-based degrees of “Africanness”.

Obviously, we cannot and should not ignore the Eurocentric racism that justified and perpetuated slavery. Nor should we portray master-slave relations in soft focus; no visitor to the museum can ignore the misery inflicted on the slaves, or fail to be abhorred by their inhumane living and working conditions. We must grieve over this. Equally, however, we should not forget “The Ties that Bind Us” – the name given to a temporary display in one of the rooms.

It must be said that most of the exhibits in the Slave Lodge building seem temporary, or at least provisional. This is a museum under constant (re)construction, a fact made obvious not only by the occasional appearance of men in hard hats and overalls but by the limited space actually dedicated to the subject of slavery. Visitors who remain on the ground floor can enjoy the learning experience of a modern museum: video screens, audio loops and (mostly) user-friendly text. The layout of the lodge around a central courtyard lends itself to a circular route, through five or so “slavery” rooms on the north side, and then the same number on the south side containing a temporary exhibition – “Separate is not Equal” – on segregation in education and the civil rights movement in the United States.

Those who venture upstairs, however, are in for a time-warping treat. From 1966 to 1998, the building housed the South African Cultural History Museum; this was a rather staid establishment, one guesses from the less glamorous displays, which despite the apartheid-era trappings clearly possessed a valuable collection: ancient Egyptian pottery and Chinese porcelain, Russian silverware and American muskets, with an assortment of Victorian miscellania (grandfather clocks, grand pianos and glassware, and even a reconstruction of a pharmacy). All of this has a disturbing but invigorating effect – I found myself looking at a wall panel showing the iconography of the Freemasons while Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech drifted up the stairwell. The thrill generated by this sense of the depth and breadth of human experience quickly dissipated, however, when I walked into a room decorated in the posters and slogans of the “A Luta Continua – the Struggle Continues” project, and peopled by the Khulumani support group for those brutalised under the apartheid regime.

Such chronological disjunctions are oddly appropriate. Life in South Africa, past and present, may be infinitely varied; but it is, ultimately, very sobering.

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